The Atacama desert, which occupies 181,300 square kilometers (70,000 mi²) in northern Chile, is one of the driest places on Earth. A high plateau covering a 966 km (600 mi) strip of land on the Pacific coast of South America, it is blocked from moisture on both sides, by the Andes mountains on the East and by the Chilean Coast Range on the West and is composed mostly of salt flats, sand, and volcanic peaks and lava flows.

It is sparsely populated. In an oasis, in the middle of the desert, at about 2000 meters elevation, lies the village of San Pedro de Atacama. Its church was built by the Spanish in 1577. In pre-Hispanic times, before the Inca empire, the extremely arid interior was inhabited mainly by the Atacameño tribe. The tribe is noted for the construction of fortified towns called pucara(s), some of them continue to exist today just a few kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama.

The volcanoes that crown the Atacama Desert are among the tallest on earth and their summits used to be sacred sanctuaries for the ancient Incas. Symmetrical Licancabur, at 5916m, is one of the most conspicuous and is a constant presence on the horizon.

The desert is so dramatic that, at first sight, it appears never to have sustained any life. However, pink Flamingos together with Llamas, Vicunas and Guanacos and many other species of fauna and flora live in the many oases and lakes of the area.

The desert has rich deposits of copper and other minerals, and the world's largest natural supply of sodium nitrate, which was mined on a large scale until the early 1940s. The Atacama border dispute over these resources between Chile and Bolivia began in the 1800s. Now the desert is littered with approximately 170 abandoned nitrate (or "saltpeter") mining towns, almost all of which were shut down decades after the invention of synthetic nitrate.

A number of Chilean national parks are contained within the Atacama desert and the Pan American Highway (from Prudhoe Bay, United States, to Ushuaia, Argentina) runs through it.

Atacama Itinerary

Nov. 10 Saturday Arrive Calama Airport, Taxi to San Pedro de Atacama
Nov. 11 Sunday San Pedro de Atacama, Valle de la Muerte, Valle de la Luna
Nov. 12 Monday Salar de Atacama, Altiplano Lakes
Nov. 13 Tuesday El Tatio, Pueblos Andinos


 LanChile A320 flight from Santiago at Calama's El Loa Airport

Calama is the gateway to San Pedro de Atacama and the desert beyond. Not an especially interesting city itself, it is the closest airport and that is where we headed hours after we landed at Santiago after the long flight from the US.

San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro is a 100km. from Calama and can be reached from Calama airport via shared taxi.

San Pedro de Atacama is located in the II Region of Chile. It is considered the archeological capital of Chile. It is located at the basin of the San Pedro river, the biggest to reach the Atacama salt lake. This basin borders to the west with the Domeyko Mountain range and to the East with the Andes Mountain Range. It is named after its patron (Saint Peter) and the word Atacama which, according to the ancestors, comes from "Accatchca" in the Cunza language which means "Head of the Country". It was conquered by the Incas in 1450 and the Spaniards in 1540, becoming a cabildo (Chilean Government seat) in 1555.

 San Pedro de Atacama with Volcan Licancabur

San Pedro de Atacama (San Pedro, for short) is a small compact village located in one of the many oases in the altiplano (high plateau), and it was to be our base to explore the Atacama desert. With its small adobe houses, pleasant tree-lined plaza and postcard-perfect church, it seems to be from a different world and different time. But it relies heavily on tourism and has been popular with the backpacker crowd for some years now. San Pedro de Atacama is located at 2,900 meters (9,500 feet) above sea level.

San Pedro de Atacama - Caracoles street

San Pedro de Atacama is also a triple international border checkpost as it is within a few kilometres of Chile's borders with Bolivia and Argentina.

Another interesting highlight is the ALMA - Atacama Large Millimeter Array project (undertaken by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory).

Our explorations of the area included the commonly visited sites Valle de la Muerte, Valle del Luna, Salar de Atacama, Altiplano Lakes, El Tatio Geysers and Pueblos Andinos. This is your standard 3 day itinerary. A brief visit to the Padre le Paige Archaelogical Museum on Sunday morning in  the village itself completed the essentials. We booked these tours with the same company (Sunday afternoon at Valle de la Muerte, Sunday twilight at Valle del Luna, Monday full day tour of Salar de Atacama, Altiplano Lakes, Socaire and Toconao, Tuesday early morning at El Tatio Geysers and a full day tour of Pueblos Andinos before returning to Calama on Tuesday night and catching our return flight to Santiago on Wednesday morning.

We did not choose to explore the other options: Puritama Hot Springs, Tara Salt Lake Tour, Pukara de Quitor.

Valle de la Muerte

Valle de la Muerte (“Death Valley”) is a deformation of the name Valle de Marte (“Mars Valley”), which comes from the “martian” (reddish) color of the earth and the outlandish topography. This valley is part of a flamingo natural reservation and lies inside the Salt Mountain range.

It is a somewhat hidden valley and system of dunes and small caves a few kilometres from San Pedro, on the North East side of the road to Calama. To get to it you cross the Salt Mountain range, and it made for an interesting hike afternoon through an outlandish landscape.

Valle de La Luna

Valley of the Moon is a fantastic moon landscape that is a part of the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Range) belonging to the Los Flamencos National Reserve. It is a large depression in the ground, 1,650 feet (500 m) in diameter, that exhibits odd sculptural shapes. These are the result of a sequence of transformations on the earth's crust caused by the folding of the watery ground underneath the salt lake.

Because of its lack of humidity, there is little life here, and it is one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.

We reached Valle de la Luna (16 km. from San Pedro) at sunset and climbed a large sand dune to watch odd shapes cast long shadows. The waning sunlight intensifies the impression of a moonscape. This was also a great place to watch Licancabur again.

Salar de Atacama

Salar de Atacama is the largest salt flat in Chile. It is located 55 km south of San Pedro de Atacama, is surrounded by mountains and has no drainage outlets.

At an average elevation of about 2,300 m, the salt flat encompasses 3,000 km², is about 100 km long and 80 km wide, which makes it the Americas' second largest and is also the second in the world, after Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia .

Since for the most part it is permanently free of water, it is mostly a vast plain of rough octagonal-shaped crystals of salt.

To its east, it is bordered by the main chain of the Andes, dominated by large volcanos including the Licancabur, Acamarachi, Aguas Calientes and the Láscar. To the west lies a secondary mountain range of the Andes called Cordillera de Domeyko .

Some areas of the salt flat form part of Los Flamencos National Reserve. The reserve covers a total area of 740 km² and consists of seven geographically distinct sectors, mostly to the south and east of San Pedro.

In the midst of Salar de Atacama, is the reserve's most easily accessible flamingo breeding site, Laguna Chaxa, which we visited. There are five known species of flamingoes that can be seen here including the Chilean flamingo and the Andean Flamingos. Other birds include Andean Avocet, Speckled Teal, Crested Duck, Puna Plover, and Baird's Sandpiper.

  Flamingoes at the Salar de Atacama

Flamingoes at the Salar de Atacama

After viewing the birds at Laguna Chaxa in the morning and breakfast at the viewing site (our guide had brought packed sandwiches, cheese and beverages), we headed further south and up the altiplano towards the Lagunas Miniques and Miscanti. They are located 117 km. from San Pedro.

Altiplano Lakes

The Altiplano (Spanish for high plain), where the Andes are at their widest, is the most extensive area of high plateau on earth outside of Tibet.

In the case of the Andes, it is an area of inland drainage lying in the central Andes, occupying parts of Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. Its height averages about 3,300 meters (11,000 feet), somewhat less than that of Tibet. Unlike the Tibetan Plateau, however, the Altiplano is dominated by the massive peaks of active volcanoes to the west. The Atacama Desert, the second-driest area on the whole planet, lies to the southwest of the Altiplano.

Laguna Miscanti is a brackish water lake located in the altiplano. Miñiques volcano and Cerro Miscanti tower over this lake. This heart-shaped lake has a deep blue color. The western shoreline of the lake is separated by less than 1 km from the drainage divide between the lake and the Salar de Atacama basins.

A lava flow from an eruption of Miñiques separated Laguna Miscanti from Laguna Miñiques and surrounded them with white banks.

 Laguna Miscanti

The lakes are part of one of the seven sectors of Los Flamencos National Reserve and are flamingo breeding sites.

On our return to San Pedro, we stopped for a quiet afternoon exploration of the village of Toconao (38 km. from San Pedro) which is at 2475m above sea level. It is an oasis, whose sweet waters, free of arsenic, allow for the cultivation of a variety of fruit trees such as pears, plums, quince and grapes as well as a large amount of vegetables. This pre-Hispanic settlement has an interesting architecture in local liparita stone, which is volcanic soft and white stone, extracted from a quarry 2 km. up the local street.

El Tatio Geysers

Geyser El Tatio lies within the Tatio geothermic basin and is located around 90 km north of San Pedro, very close to the border with Bolivia (within 5 km.). At over 4300 meters elevation (14173 ft.) it is one of the worlds highest geyser fields and consists of a vast field of fumeroles. The fumeroles are formed when frozen underground rivers make contact with hot rocks and steam escapes to the surface through fissures in the earth crust, some reaching up to a height of 10 meters.

 Geothermal activity at El Tatio Geyser field

While it is less dramatic than Yellowstone, the visual impact of its steaming fumeroles at sunrise is quite dramatic. We took a tour that left San Pedro at 4:00 a.m. to get there at the break of dawn . There are also some hot water springs that have been made into thermal baths. To our surprise, there were no restrictions on wandering around on the geyser field, something that would never be allowed in a US national park.

 El Tatio Geysers

Pueblos Andinos

Pueblos Andinos - Andean Villages. This route stretches the El Tatio expedition into a full day exercise. It is also a convenient way of returning to Calama as part of a tour. The tour bus returns to San Pedro for those wishing for a return to San Pedro.

The scenery on the route from El Tatio through the villages is breathtaking.

 High desert landscape enroute from El Tatio through the villages

Apart from views of Salar de Atacama, there are several high mountain peaks that keep the route interesting. Caspana is a quiet picture-perfect village the way. A brief stop at Lake Chiu Chiu, a look at some pre-historic petroglyphs and then the last leg to Calama going right past the mining town of Chuquicamata , rounds off the long day.


Atacama Photo Album