The Atacama Desert….expansive, dry, otherworldly, and breathtaking! San Pedro de Atacama is the small hub from which to explore this desert, situated in the north of Chile. It is a dusty town of low lying adobe buildings with almost all dirt roads. It’s rather bizarre looking, resembling a western movie set from years gone by. Despite its humble looks, it is by far the most touristy place we have seen in almost 4 months of traveling in South America. The desert is huge though, and once you get out of town and touring the sights, there was hardly anyone to be seen. The town is obviously reliant on the tourist dollar as there are loads of restaurants, cafes and tour agencies. And while we think Chile is expensive in general, the Atacama is even more so. Understandably so, as just like the Galapagos, most goods are imported.
The Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth! It has experienced hyperaridity for the past 3 million years, and certain areas of the desert have been this dry for significantly longer! Although devoid of much greenery, this vast land is full of beauty and pictures do not do it justice. It is a photographer’s dream where at every turn, there is something more stunning. There are mountains of every colour and texture, snow covered volcanoes, bubbling geysers, sink holes (you can’t actually sink), salt flats, giant sand dunes, canyons, turquoise lagoons, thermal hot springs, and the best stargazing ever! And we did it all! There was no shortage of “wows” and “it’s so beautiful” exclamations from me…..constantly! We even spotted animals in the wild, including vicuñas (a cousin of the alpaca), flamingos, ostriches, and donkeys - yes there are actually wild donkeys!
While much of the available information on the internet recommended having a 4x4 vehicle to see some of the sights, we managed fine with a regular sedan. We even went up to see the Tatio geysers which most people do on a tour. A 4:30am departure to see them was on the early side but it was worth it. On arrival it was still pitch black outside so we were able to see the magnificent stars without any distracting lights. It was neat to experience the coming of dawn. At -5 degrees and 4300 metres above sea level, it was damn cold that early in the morning! Thankfully it was short lived as it heated up pretty quickly when the sun came up. The area had over 80 active geysers and is the third largest geyser field in the world. The bubbling holes in the ground all spewing steam made for a pretty surreal sight. Apparently some of the tours will cook up eggs in the geysers to serve for breakfast. Yummm…doubly sulfurous! On the way back to San Pedro, we stopped at a small village of a handful of homes where we enjoyed llama skewers which were actually very delicious, and llama empanadas which were the best I’ve had in Chile!
All in all, we loved the Atacama!