International Adventure Guide 2013: La Paz And Southwest Bolivia

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Bolivia is the least expensive destination in South America, yet it has an increasingly efficient tourism infrastructure. Going now, especially to the remote southwestern part of the country, means faster, easier, more comfortable travel than in the past (although you’ll still have to be prepared for your share of bus rides on rutted out, unpaved roads, depending upon where you’re headed). In general, you won’t find yourself tripping over tourists except for a handful of streets in La Paz.

In the remote Southwest (where the renown Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, is located), you’ll feel like you’re in a vastly different cultural and geographic universe. Regardless of where you venture, Bolivia is a country of diverse and often harsh- yet starkly beautiful- environments; wimps and whiners need not apply.

You’ll be rewarded for your efforts. Bolivia offers incomparable scenery ranging from towering Andean peaks and Amazonian jungle to crystalline lagoons, and high desert reminiscent of the American Southwest on steroids. Plus, there’s world-class trekking, climbing, and mountain biking, gracious people, a thriving indigenous culture, and the kind of crazy adventure activities rarely found in industrialized nations. Bolivia is also politically stable, relatively speaking (there are frequent protests, but they’re internal, and mostly in the form of roadblocks). Go now, before it becomes the next Peru and prices for guided trips hit the roof.bolivia

Adventure Activities

Trekking/climbing
Novice or pro, Bolivia has it all when it comes to bagging peaks (some extinct or dormant volcanoes) or trekking, mostly within a few hours of La Paz. The Cordillera Real range offers verdant river valleys teeming with llamas and alpacas, and the occasional Aymara farmstead; calderas, and glaciers, all in a day’s hike. Best of all, you’re not likely to see another soul, other than your guide, cook, and the mule or llama carrying your gear.

If you’re into mountaineering, Huayna Potosi (19,974) and Illimani (21,122 feet) are both visible from La Paz. The former can be done by beginners in good physical condition (acclimatization time is crucial, however, before you attempt a summit with a reliable guide; click here for tips on choosing a solid company), while the latter is a technical climb. Seattle-based Mountain Madness offers a Bolivia climbing school using local guides, and is an exceptional outfitter. June through August are best, weather-wise.

Private trips, however, are the norm in Bolivia, and can be planned around just one person. Another great company is UK-based Bolivian Mountains, which specializes in the Cordillera Real region. Owner Jon Cassidy is a guide himself, and relies upon local, experienced guides to keep operations running smoothly from across the Atlantic. Expect first-class attention, service, and food, for super-affordable prices; IFMGA-certified. From $400 for one person (including aforementioned pack animals, cook, guide, and tent, for 3-day trek).

Mountain Biking
These days, you can’t walk a block in La Paz’s backpacker ghetto (Calle Sarganaga, between Plaza San Francisco and Calle Illampu) without seeing a mountain biking agency, thanks to Alistair Matthew, who essentially introduced the sport commercially to Bolivia about 14 years ago. The Kiwi founder of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking started out with four bikes, and today runs an internationally-renowned company frequented by industry pros.

Many outfitters offer the “World’s Most Dangerous Road,” (aka Death Road/Camino de la Muerte, about 35 miles east of La Paz, in the jungly Yungas region) bike trips, and it’s by far the most popular trip offered by Gravity (with over 10,500 feet of descent, from glaciers and cloud forest to Amazon Basin, small wonder). Yet, there are better, less-crowded options that will appeal more to hardcore riders.

Gravity’s “Size Matters” ride in the Chacaltaya-Zongo region (about two hours from La Paz) starts at what was once the world’s highest ski resort, on the slopes of Huayna Potosi, providing views of all of the region’s 6,000 peaks. You can kill it on the winding road down into steaming jungle, on one of the world’s largest descents achievable in a single day. Gravity also offers advanced trips to two Incan foot trails, Takesi and Chorro. Terrain ranges from smooth, flowing dirt at 15,000 feet, to technical rock and step as you make your way into the jungle. The best months for riding are May through late October.

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Horseback riding
If the Old West is your passion, then you’ll love Tupiza, approximately 11 hours southwest of La Paz. Bolivia’s frontera town is famed for being near the (alleged) final heist and resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Looking like the love-child of Sedona and Bryce Canyon, this is a region of ravines, red dirt, cacti, and ranching. Indulge your inner cowboy — or girl — by taking a three-day horseback ride into the high desert, exploring scenic spots such as Quebrada Seca, Valle de los Machos, Cañon del Duende, Palquiza, Pampa Grande, and Entre Rios.

You’ll spend nights in small villages, accommodated by local families (the lodging is basic, refugio-style). Besides the scenery, it’s an amazing opportunity to delve into Quechua and vaquero culture. Previous riding experience isn’t required, and Tupiza’s climate is temperate year-round. That said, during the January-March rainy season, certain areas may be inaccessible due to flooding.

Tupiza Tours is one of the region’s most well-established and reputable outfitters for both Salar de Uyuni and horseback tours. From $106 pp/meals and accommodation included.
Av. Chichas 187, Tupiza, tupizatours.com

Hotspots

Condoriri Massif, Cordillera Real
Bolivia’s most famous spot for trekking and climbing is about two hours east of La Paz, and remarkable for its towering volcanic peaks, calderas, and lush river valleys. If you’re pressed for time and can’t spare the 13 or so days needed to do the Transcordillera trek, opt for a three-day adventure along the famous Codoriri Massif (this series of 13 snowy peaks is so named for 16, 944-foot Cabeza del Condor, which resembles a condor, head turned, wings folded).

The scenery is stunning, with turquoise alpine lakes, herds of llamas, alpacas, and sheep, Aymara farmsteads, and narrow mule trails on the interior of ancient calderas. As long as you don’t have previous problems with altitude, are in good physical condition, and have sufficient time to acclimate prior, you’ll have no problem. Be forewarned, however, that you’ll be trekking and sleeping at 14,000 to 15,000 feet, completely isolated from civilization; in the event of altitude sickness, you’ll have no choice but to hike out. Be sure to bring plenty of layers as well as a down sleeping bag. The best times to visit are post-rainy season, from April-December.

Sorata
Imagine an alpine colonial village, built onto a hillside in an Andean Valley. That’s Sorata. At just under 8,000 feet, Sorata is a haven for climbers, trekkers, and mountain bikers, who use the town as a base to acclimate and condition or kick back, pre- and post-trip. It’s equally popular amongst vacationers from La Paz, 93 miles away, who come for the views of towering, snowcapped Illampu, and Ancohuma. Mountain biking in the hills above Sorata, often above the clouds on mule trails and scree slopes, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Tupiza
Located in the southwest of Bolivia about six hours from the grim, dusty town of Uyuni (which lies at the edge of the salt flat), and roughly an 11-hour bus ride from La Paz, Tupiza is a pleasant, relaxing place to hang out for a few days. Local outfitters offer a variety of activities, including horseback riding, hiking (you can also opt to do this on your own), volcano climbing across the border in Chile’s Atacama Desert, and four-day Jeep trips to the salt flats (a more scenic, albeit slightly longer, trip than the standard, round-trip Uyuni route that’s growing in popularity).

If your idea of heaven is exploring quebradas (ravines) and bizarre rock formations, or staying on a rustic estancia, Tupiza is your place. While there’s not a lot to do in town proper, there are full amenities, and the Mercado Campesino (Mondays, Thursday, and Saturdays, on the edge of town) is fascinating for a food and culture fix. Tip: If you’re coming from La Paz, an overnighter bus is ideal if you’re pressed for time; just be sure to bring a sleeping bag or blanket with you.

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Hotels

Hotel Fuentes:This popular, comfortable, colonial-style cheapie is located right in the heart of La Paz’s tourist ghetto, aka the Mercado de Hecheria (Witch’s Market). It’s no frills, but is walking distance to just about everything you’ll require, the owners are accommodating (for example, rising at dawn to call you a cab to the airport, and waiting with you to ensure it arrives), and if you score a room on the third or fourth floors, you just may have views of majestic Illimani. Breakfast and free wifi included. From about $13/double with shared bath. Calle Linares 888, tripadvisor.com

Hotel Anexo Mitru:The newer sibling to Tupiza’s upscale (for Tupiza) Hotel Mitru, this is a friendly, airy, seriously affordable option right across the street from the train station. Rooms are large and well-lit, with comfy beds, desks, and cubbies, and the staff are cheerful and helpful. Breakfast and free wifi are included. From $15/triple with shared bath (note, these rooms are rented to solo travelers when available). Calle Avaroa s/n, hotelmitru.com

Altai Oasis Eco-lodge-Organic Farm:This lovely, family-owned adobe lodge in Sorata is a favorite amongst the outdoorsy crowd, in part because it offers both cabins and camping. The other reason it attracts nature lovers? Its location deep within a valley surrounded by the Andes, in the shadow of Illampu. Many ingredients for the on-site restaurant are sourced from the property’s own garden, and you’ll drift off to sleep with the sounds of the Challazuyo River in your ears (not like you won’t already be exhausted from all the hiking, biking, and climbing). Amenities include hot showers (a big deal in Bolivia), fireplaces, and hammocks for lazing on muscle-repair days. From $18/pp cabins$12 pp dorms/$4 camping. Go to website for coordinates/directions, altaioasis.com/home

Getting Around

La Paz’s El Alto Airport, despite its elevation (13,323 feet), is clean and modern, and serviced by a number of carriers, including TACA, LAN, Avianca, and American Airlines. It’s about 15 minutes by taxi to downtown, and fares will vary depending upon your driver (and his ethics; don’t take unmarked cabs); prices average around eight to 10 dollars.

Buses run nationwide, but their quality varies wildly. While the train route that goes from Orouro to Tupiza is famous, the bus is actually faster and more comfortable, as long as you spring for a semi-cama or cama variety (these have seats that recline part-way and a footrest, or fold down into a bed). Avoid the janky old beaters at all costs, unless you enjoy hours of Shaken Baby Syndrome on your body. The best carriers will depend upon where you’re headed, and it pays to do some asking around or online research; El Dorado is a solid pick if you’re headed to the Southwest.

If you’re on a tight schedule, book or purchase bus tickets a day ahead. If you’ve got the cash to spare, you can fly from far-flung outposts like Uyuni to La Paz or Santa Cruz (Bolivia’s Amazon region), but taking the bus also affords an opportunity to see spectacular scenery. Budget travelers can opt for overnight bus hauls to offset lodging costs, and save time.

Tip: The new Lonely Planet Bolivia guidebook comes out July 1. Pre-order yours now.
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Safety

Given Bolivia’s current political stability, the biggest problems are potential road blocks due to flooding or demonstrations. Before leaving town, register with the U.S. Department of State for updates on everything from road conditions to disease outbreaks (this isn’t specific to Bolivia, fyi; it’s a good idea for anywhere you happen to be traveling in the developing world). And while Bolivia is fairly safe, it’s still a developing nation in Latin America. Solo female travelers should use the normal precautions, and for the love of god, no one should even think about buying drugs, especially cocaine.

Use only marked taxis, rather than freelance drivers. At worst, you’ll get ripped off. Be aware that even the legit taxis usually don’t have meters, so if you have concerns over cost, ask your driver the approximate price before departing.

With regard to buses, it pays to do your research. Check out sites like TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum for bus and outfitter recommendations, and remember that you usually get what you pay for. It’s not worth saving a handful of bolivianos if it means dealing with a drunk driver or guide, or a crappy Jeep for that Salar de Uyuni tour. If you’re planning a trek or, especially a climb, make sure that the company has legitimate certification from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association ( IFMGA), and also do online research or ask personal contacts if they have referrals for where you’re headed. Trekking and mountaineering in the Andes is no joke, and again, it’s not worth risking your life to save some money. You need time to acclimatize, regardless of your physical condition, so don’t plan on scaling any mountains within a few days of arriving.

Another tip with regard to finding a reputable outfitter: always try and contact them via email before you depart on your trip. If they don’t respond right away, move on. Just as you would at home, go with companies that respond promptly, and answer all of your questions thoroughly. Good tour operators have bilingual staff answering emails, so that shouldn’t be a barrier, although some trips will charge extra for a bilingual guide. Although some companies will require payment in cash, they’ll at least make a reservation for you, so don’t let a “no credit cards” rule necessarily deter you.

Seasonality

Bolivia’s high season is December through early March (remember the seasons are reversed, since it’s in the Southern Hemisphere), which also coincides with the rainy season. January through mid-March are generally not very pleasant; since most of Bolivia’s charms lie in outdoor recreation, plan accordingly. The ideal time to visit may depend upon what you’re interested in doing.

Also note that different seasons may mean different types of tourism. The Salar de Uyuni, for example, is a vast, blinding white sea of salt crystals in the dry season, while in the wet, it shimmers with mirror-like reflections. Both are stunning, but when it’s wet, the flooding often prohibits driving across the Salar, or visiting its main attraction, Isla Incahuasi.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

How to choose a reputable adventure travel company or guide

adventure travel companiesAdventure travel” is a nebulous term these days. But whether your idea of a thrill is a Class-III rapid or climbing Everest, there’s one thing that’s ubiquitous when choosing an outfitter: safety. There are hundreds of adventure travel companies worldwide; not all are created equal. There are key things you should look for when choosing a company or independent guide, whether you’re booking a three-week luxury trip, or a one-day backpacker’s special.

I’m not implying adventure travel in general is risky, or that most operators and guides don’t know what they’re doing. There are numerous certifications in place (they vary according to country) to ensure companies adhere to national and industry safety standards.

The following are tips on what to look for or avoid when choosing a company or guide, based on personal experience and what I’ve gleaned from the owners of several highly regarded adventure companies. I’ve done trips with each company, but I have no personal gain in endorsing them: I’ve just found them to be, among the dozens of outfitters I’ve used, the best of the best.

My sources include Mark Gunlogson, president/guide of Seattle’s Mountain Madness, a mountain adventure guide service and mountaineering school; Marc Goddard, co-owner/guide of Bio Bio Expeditions, a whitewater/adventure travel company in Truckee, California, and Britt Lewis, co-owner/guide of Austral Adventures, a custom travel company on the island of Chiloe, in Chile.

I’m also including a few horror stories based on guide negligence. That’s why, the first thing you should do when planning any kind of adventure activity or trip is…

Do your research
Even a brief online search will bring to light any serious breaches in safety or conduct. Safety doesn’t just apply to those who plan to scale the Andes or kayak the Zambezi. Even the tamest “adventures” require guides who are knowledgeable about the area and activity, and are currently certified in emergency first aid and rescue procedures.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Luis Fabres]

adventure travel companiesLest you think I exaggerate the importance of guide knowledge and research, the idea for this article germinated in 2003, when I was visiting Australia’s Kakadu National Park during the “Wet,” or monsoon, season. That time of year brings potential problems such as floods, but it was a widely publicized trial that made an indelible impression.

A negligent guide was charged in the accidental death of a 24-year-old German tourist who’d been killed by a croc, after the guide assured her group a swimming hole was safe. My own guide informed me that just weeks earlier, another company had tried to gun their small tour bus over a flooded waterway, only to have it overtaken and swept downstream. The passengers were eventually airlifted to safety (don’t let these things scare you off of Kakadu in the Wet; it’s absolutely spectacular, and free of crowds).

Australia of course, isn’t the problem. It’s just that crocs and corpses make compelling headlines. Sometimes accidents aren’t publicized, lest they impact tourism (In New Zealand, an operator confessed to me a rival company’s fatal bungee-jumping miscalculation a month prior, which put them out of business), and of course there have been dozens of mountaineering and whitewater-related tragedies on commercial trips on various continents over the years. Again, participating in these activities doesn’t make you likely to suffer a mishap. Are they inherently dangerous? Yes, but so is crossing the street, driving a car, or hiking solo.
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What certifications to look for
This depends upon type of activity and country. Says Lewis, “If there aren’t national qualifications or certs, a combination of information is required for form an opinion about an outfitter. How clear and accurate is their literature or website, their answers to your questions, etc.?” I would also add, how long does it take them to respond to your emails or phone calls? A few days is standard, but if you find yourself having to follow-up repeatedly, move on.

Marc Goddard: Ask about the qualifications of each guide. If you’re doing a river trip, find out how many years the guides have been guiding rafts, and on which rivers. Don’t be shy about asking some serious questions: you will, after all, be entrusting them with your life!

Mark Gunlogson: The adventure travel industry has matured, and most activities now have some sort of industry standard. In the case of mountain guiding, there’s the American Mountain Guides Association certification for guide services. Level of first-aid training for guides is also essential to look for, and industry standards apply here, as well.

Signs you’re dealing with a good company or guide
Whether you’re planning a high-end holiday or making a walk-in query in a backpacker ghetto, there are questions to ask and things to look for that signify a solid company. Be aware that hostels and other backpacker-oriented locales are magnets for sketchy outfits. If it sounds too cheap or good to be true, it probably is. If the activity involves something potentially dangerous, don’t bite.

Gunlogson suggests asking the company what’s included and what’s not, so all services are clearly spelled out, including guide qualifications. But, he says, “In the end, sometimes it just comes down to how comfortable a person feels with the company and their interactions with them.”
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Adds Lewis, “Ask a few simple questions about first-aid and emergency procedures. Do they appear to have a plan for unforeseen events? If you’re a walk-in, does their office have a fire extinguisher? Are their vehicles legal for tourist transport? Are the guides certified for the activities for which they’re assigned?”

I learned just how deadly budget guides can be while climbing Cotopaxi in Ecuador with a Mountain Madness guide. We were forced to turn back at 17,000 feet due to extreme avalanche danger. My guide was fully accredited, and his experience includes some of the toughest technical climbs in the world (For my part, I’d been conditioning for this trip for months, at high altitude, upon the advice of Mountain Madness).

We had returned to the refugio, an overnight acclimatization hut located at 15,000 feet. We saw a young, rowdy group of backpackers being shepherded out the door by their equally youthful guides; it was obvious from their attire they were attempting a summit. My guide, concerned, went and had a word with the other guides: They totally blew him off. I didn’t hear about a group of backpackers getting creamed in an avalanche that day, but that experience really clarified for me the potential for disaster posed by cheapie trips targeted at inexperienced backpackers. It’s not worth it.

On a related note:
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Look for red flags
“If they’re farming you out to a local outfitter, it could be a red flag,” says Goddard. “But the big warning is if they don’t know who their guides are, or what their qualifications are.” Some companies do “outsource” to local guides or outfitters, It’s not always a bad thing, and in fact can be positive, because you get someone with insider knowledge and you support the local economy. It comes down to their qualifications and relationship with the parent company.

Gunlogson adds, “Ask about guide qualifications, number of years in business, and hidden costs regarding services.” A reputable company willingly discloses information.

Ask for referrals
Lewis suggests asking for past client’s emails, and contacting them about their experience. You can also look at reviews on sites like TripAdvisor.com, or search travel blogs.

Listen to your gut
If you have a bad feeling about a guide, it’s best to pay heed. On my same Australia trip, a certain American guide led us on an overnight bushwalk in Litchfield National Park. Amongst his many other transgressions, he endangered our lives by having us pitch camp on a narrow sandbar at the base of a waterfall-fed swimming hole (I actually voiced my concern, only to receive a withering look from him). Sure enough, a monsoonal downpour made the water level swiftly rise, leaving us backed into a rock wall. Fortunately, we were able to rescue our tents and gear, and the water receded before we had to swim for it. That’s when I learned to listen to my instincts regarding guides. My sensor went off immediately after meeting this guy due to his arrogance, but I felt obligated to do the trip.

Whether it’s a negative reaction to a guide, concern over the poor/worn quality of the gear, or the activity itself, always listen to your gut.

What to do if you have a bad experience
You have several courses of action. You can go to sites like TripAdvisor.com and travel blogs and write the company up (letting them know about it before taking any action). Says Lewis, “It depends on the country in terms of informing authorities. However, the power of the Internet is a huge reward to a good company and an effective way to punish an unsafe one.”

Adds Gunlogson, “Unless there’s injury and an obvious case of negligence, there’s not too much you can do unless you really want to spend the time and money to pursue it. In the end, word-of-mouth has a cathartic effect for clients if their complaints are ignored. Those companies that understand the power of a former client taking to the Internet do their best to mitigate any potential bad-mouthing, whether justified or not. It lets the client know that their dissatisfaction was acknowledged.”

I say: Playing devil’s advocate, I’ve found there’s usually one client on every trip who seems determined to have a bad time and find fault, even where none exists. DON’T BE THAT PERSON. No one likes a whiner or a complainer, and guides work long hours, under considerable stress. Don’t just sit on your butt: ask what you can do to help, be it chopping vegetables, loading gear, or finding firewood. If you have a legitimate complaint, by all means follow the advice provided above, but don’t go trolling for a refund or discount just to be an a-hole.

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What are the refund policies?
Because shit happens.

Consider climate and seasonal factors
If you want to avoid a monsoon, snow, or inhumanly hot, humid weather, be sure to voice those concerns and do some research on your destination. It also pays to ask about or check on things like growing, spawning, or breeding season of pesky or harmful flora or fauna. Someone I know (her name is Laurel) paid through the nose for a snorkeling trip off a remote island in Southern Thailand. Imagine her surprise when she hit the water and discovered it was peak jellyfish spawn. She spent the remainder of the trip covered in painful, head-to-toe welts that made her the object of much mockery. Far more painful was the knowledge that the scam artists/snorkeling guides knew full well swimming was inadvisable.

Are they a green company?
It matters, and this philosophy also includes hiring locals whenever possible. Don’t let yourself get “greenwashed.”

Honestly assess your own capabilities
You don’t just put yourself at risk (of a bad trip, potential injury, illness, or worse); you jepordize the safety and well-being of other clients. If nothing else, you make your guide’s life hell. Please don’t if you can help it.

Do you trust your guide’s capabilities and judgement?
When you literally trust a guide with your life (and I can only say this about three of them), it’s a sign that that company is doing something right. Never have I been more impressed with guides than the two trips I’ve taken with Bio Bio; Mountain Madness follows a close second.


Consider travel insuranceadventure travel companies
If you’re doing some really hard-core stuff, will be in very remote areas, or have some existing health or physical conditions, it may be worth the extra expense.

Don’t forget to tip
Says Goddard, “I don’t feel tipping is mandatory; it’s done if you feel the guides did a good job. An average tip is 10% of the trip price, a great tip is 20%.” Adds Lewis, “The amount may also depend upon what country you’re in, but it’s always appreciated. Few, if any, guides do their job solely for the money [FYI, it’s not a high-paying job]–there’s a love of people, nature, or the activity that comes with it. But tips are welcome, as they’re a tangible “thank you,” and acknowledge a job well done.”

If you made it this far, consider yourself schooled. Here’s to safe adventures!

[Photo credits: crocodile, Flickr user jean-louis zimmerman; first aid kit, Flickr user 8lettersuk; warning, Flickr user psd; cash, Flickr user Todd Kravos; caving, Laurel Miller]

The Atacama Desert: Chile’s Other Adventure Destination

The Atacama Desert is a fantastic adventure travel destination

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.Find adventure in Chile's Atacama DesertThe 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.

The Atacama Desert is a great destination for adventue travelers