The Atacama Desert and surroundings have a diverse landscapes and a offer various activities to travelers who do enjoy arid places.
The dessert in Atacama covers an area of 181,300 square kilometers, and is flanked by a main chain of the Andes Mountain, while to the west lies another set of mountain range called Cordillera de la Costa. There is a natural wall between the central part of the continent and the Pacific Ocean and you will encounter with a large Volcanoes being prominent on the landscape some of them are active and other not which add a trill to your journey.
San Pedro de Atacama is the most well-known village from this dessert region and is considered as the archaeological capital of Chile, due to the large number of nearby ruins. Located at 2.438 km above the sea level,San Pedro de Atacama rests in one of the many oases in the Atacama Desert. The population is only about 2.500 inhabitants.
San Pedro is also an important destination for reaching Salar de Atacama in Bolivia.
Why visit Atacama?
The Atacama dessert has two hemispheres the northern side and southern side of it, each with their own unique beauty. It can easily be explored with expert guides and Atacama tours from San Pedro de Atacama or La Serena.
Far up north you can visit the Lauca National Park, located near the Andes. It has a dry climate with day and night thermal variations. This park is well-known for being home to a great wealth of flora and fauna, making it an excellent place for birdwatching, with 130 different bird species living in this area.
Another place to visit is Chungará Lake, which is one of the world’s highest lakes and is home to unique fauna, such as flamingos, parinas with a shinning rose colored feathers, and wild ducks. Chungara’s green waters reflects the top of the nearby Parinacota volcano and it’s glacier which tower over the region at 5200 meters.
The Parinacota volcano crater is 300 meters wide and you can go trekking on this dormant volcano
To the south you can discover Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon, not to be confused with Moon Valley in Bolivia) which, due to centuries of winds and floods on the sand and stone of the region, has shaped this stunning desert landscape. The large sand dunes and stone formations mimic the surface of the moon, giving the region its name. The valley was declared a Nature Sanctuary in 1982 for its great natural beauty and strange lunar landscape. This area is perfect for hikes and there are any comfortable Valley of the Moon tours from San Pedro.
From San Pedro de Atacama you can also discover the Tatio Geyser field, who’s name stems fro the Quechua word for “oven.” One of the highest elevated geysers in the world, Tatio Geyser is filled with thermal tubes and erupting geysers. You can even find remains of geothermal plants that attempted to harness the regions raw power.
Along the southern border of Atacama you’ll discover the Small Desert or Norte Chico in Spanish. Here you’ll discover the “flowering desert” between the month of September and November. This phenomena occurs when an unusual level of rainfall reaches the seeds and bulbs that have been in a latent or dormant state and causes them to germinate and flower in early spring.
Once the flowers start to rise, there comes a proliferation of insects, birds and small species of lizard. The flowering desert is a popular tourist attraction with visitors from all over the world who travel to Chile to experience the transformation of the driest desert into a multi-colored garden. This phenomenon is linked to weather conditions thus, making it unpredictable.
However, if you do wish to see the unique event, you’ll want to travel to La Serena, Huasco, Vallenar, Coiapo, or Caldera.
The Small North is also home of the Elqui Valley, known worldwide for its clear skies and comfortable weather. It is located to the east of La Serena and is the perfect destination for those looking to connect with nature and enjoy a different kind of vacation experience.
How to reach Atacama?
For exploration of the north, San Pedro is your best bet. It is located 1.670 kms north from Santiago de Chile. To get there, you will first have to reach Calama, which is served by El Loa Airport, the only major airport in the region. San Pedro is about an hour and a half away from Calama and is connected by an excellent highway and a surprising landscape. LAN Airlines offer five daily flights from Santiago during the weekdays. Also Sky Airlines often boards from Santiago to Calama.
If you’re looking to travel to the south, then you’ll want to fly into La Serana. LAN Airlines offers their services five times on Sunday to Friday and four times on Saturday from Santiago de Chile to La Serena through La FLorida Airport (LSC). The flight is roughly 1 hour.
Another service is provided by Sky Airlines three times daily from Santiago. Buses leave several times every hour from Santiago to La Serena. The trip takes 7 – 8 hours.