When adventure travelers reveal a list of their top destinations, Chile is often amongst the favorites. The South American country is well known for its majestic landscapes, remote, wild places, and adrenaline inducing activities. In the south, Patagonia is widely considered one of the best backpacking and climbing destinations on the planet and Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in the world, is the jumping off point for travelers heading to Antarctica. But what many don’t realize is that the northern part of Chile may be the country’s best kept travel secret.
Far to the north, nestled along the borders of Bolivia and Argentina, lies the Atacama Desert, a destination that offers an amazing a mix of natural beauty and cultural emersion. The Atacama has the unique distinction of being the driest place on the planet, thanks to a rain shadow created by the Andes Mountains and Chile’s Domeyko range, which stretches along its Pacific coast. Those two mountain ranges conspire to block storm clouds from moving over the Atacama, and as a result, there are places in the desert that have not seen rain in recorded history.
But that doesn’t mean the Atacama is a desolate wasteland. Far from it in fact! Rainfall in the surrounding mountains does run off into the valleys below, creating an oasis and bringing a surprising amount of life to certain areas. Centuries ago, those oasis’s attracted human settlements, some of which still exist to this day, including San Pedro de Atacama, the unofficial capital of the region.
In many ways, San Pedro is a typical tourist town. Its streets are lined with small shops, packed with all manner of goods, including a dizzying array of handcrafted jewelry, scarves, pottery, and other local items. Industrious shopkeepers compete with one another to find ways to separate you from your pesos, while packs of stray dogs wander the narrow alleyways. A small museum offers insights into the evolution of the Atacama region and an unofficial North Face gear store provides overpriced adventure apparel for those who forgot to pack the proper gear. Still, there is a certain charm about the place, and you’ll soon find yourself settling into one of the sidewalk cantinas, enjoying a cold cerveza or pisco sour, and watching the world go by.The town of 4000 residents also serves as base camp for your adventures in the Atacama Desert. In addition to the small shops, you’ll also find plenty of tour operators, each promising to show you the local sights. For example, you’ll be able to book excursions to visit the nearby salt flats or geyser basin, as well as rent mountain bikes or go sandboarding on one of the towering dunes. The more adventurous may want to explore the desert on horseback or take a trek though one of the gorges that are so prolific throughout the area. If you’re really up for a challenge, try bagging the summit of one of the many volcanoes that ring the Atacama. Most tower over 18,000 feet in height, with routes that range from a simple walk-up to a full-fledged, technical mountaineering experience.
While the array of activities available in the Atacama is quite impressive, it is the landscapes themselves that will likely leave you with the most lasting impressions. There simply aren’t enough superlatives to express the degree of diversity and beauty that can be found there. You’ll continually be amazed at how the terrain can vary from dry and desolate to lush and fertile, and yet still remain so incredibly breathtaking, and just when you think you’ve seen everything it has to offer, the desert will surprise you with something new once again.
A spectacular natural light show, provided by the rising and setting sun, paints the desert in incandescent reds, yellows, and browns, that simply have to be seen to be believed. In that light, the natural landscaped glowed like no other place I’ve seen in my travels, adding yet another dimension to an already amazing place.
And when the sun goes down, and those lovely landscapes are blanketed in complete darkness, one only has to glance upwards towards the heavens for your next breathtaking view. The skies above the Atacama are clear and open, offering a view of the night sky that is quite possibly unrivaled by any other place on Earth. The stars are countless in number and appear in layers like some kind of epic 3D projection that can normally be seen only at your local planetarium. The Milky Way makes an appearance as well, painting a bright white streak overhead, while constellations only visible in the Southern Hemisphere twinkle back at viewers below. It is an awe inspiring and humbling sight to say the least.
If my description of the Atacama Desert has you intrigued, then there are a few things you should know before you go. For starters, even the desert floor is located at altitude, which can be an issue for some travelers. San Pedro, for instance, is situated at just above 8000 feet, which can have a significant impact on your visit if you’re unprepared. It is not uncommon for visitors to experience slight altitude sickness upon arrival, so spend the first few days acclimatizing before trying any overly active pursuits. A shortness of breath or mild headaches are typical symptoms, both of which tend to go away after a day or two. (On the plus side, alcohol tends to have more of an effect at altitude as well, making San Pedro a great place to tie one on!)
Getting to the Atacama is a fairly simple affair. You’ll want to book your flights through Chile’s capital, Santiago and then continue on to Calama, a small mining town on the edge of the desert. From there, it is an easy one-hour drive to San Pedro, where your adventure will truly begin. The drive in will give you an excellent glimpse of what the desert has in store for you as well.
In a testament to just how off the beaten path the Atacama is for most travelers, while checking in for my overnight flight from Miami to Santiago recently, the ticket agent noticed the second leg of my journey on to Calama, and actually asked me where it was I was going. He didn’t recognize the airport code and said that he had never booked a passenger through to that destination. I had to explain to him exactly where I was flying, which was a bit surprising considering I was about to board a Chilean based airline, with Chilean’s working the counter.
My experience wasn’t much different after my arrival in San Pedro either. Once there, I met plenty of visitors from within Chile itself, as well as Brazil. There were also travelers from as far away as Japan, the U.K. and Fiji, but very few Americans. In fact, the only other person from the States that I ran into was another travel writer working on a story of her own. It seems for now, the Atacama Desert is virtually unknown to American travelers.
But for anyone looking for a fantastic destination with a lot to offer, minus the large crowds, Chile’s northern region is an exceptional choice. Just be fair warned, with its spectacular landscapes and boundless opportunities for adventure, the Atacama may spoil you for similar destinations in the future.