If you have ever fantasized about traveling in space and visiting the other planets, taking a trip to the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile is so far the closest you can get to realize your dream. Wedged between two mountain ranges, the Andes in the east and the Cordillera de la Costa in the west, this desert plateau is the driest non-polar place on Earth. For millions of years, the extreme aridity and strong winds have shaped its surface into the stunning otherworldly landscapes that draw comparisons to Mars and offer scientists an opportunity for interplanetary research.
Atacama Desert Geography Facts
The Atacama Desert occupies nearly one-third of Chile, stretching for about 1000 km from Arica, a town sitting on the border with Peru, to La Serena located near the central region. It is not only the driest but also the oldest desert on earth. Scientists estimate that the area has been hyperarid for at least 15 million years.
In addition to being the driest and oldest, the Atacama is the highest desert in the world, with an average elevation of 2400 m above sea level. Shielded from rain by high mountains on both sides, the desert itself features awe-inspiring hilly landscapes, with some peaks reaching well above 5000 m.
All this turns the phantasmagoric barren land into a perfect setting for sci-fi movies or extraterrestrial studies. Since the local soil is very similar to the samples taken from Mars, the Atacama is a testing site for NASA-funded missions to the red planet. It has also become a favorite spot for filmmakers to shoot science fiction. For example, all the Mars-related scenes in the television series “Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets” were filmed here.
The high altitude, dry air, clear skies, and lack of light pollution also make the Atacama a haven for astronomers to conduct their observations. There are at least dozens of observatories in the region, of which Paranal, La Silla, Las Campanas, and El Tololo are the most-known. The 5000 m high plateau of Llano de Chajnantor in the eastern part of the desert is home to ALMA, the largest ground telescope in the world. That is why the Atacama has also become a popular spot for astronomical tourism and stargazing excursions.
Most tourists who are interested in exploring the Atacama Desert head to San Pedro de Atacama, a town located in the northeast of Chile, close to the Bolivian border. The whole life of this small oasis community revolves around tourism. So it is an ideal starting point for tours around the desert, and not only in Chile. You can also visit the amazing Bolivian Altiplano that is right across the border. It hides a few rare jewels of its own, namely, the Salar de Uyuni and the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve.
How to get to San Pedro de Atacama
The easiest and fastest way to get to San Pedro de Atacama is to take a two-hour flight from Santiago to El Loa Airport in Calama. It is the closest airport located within a one-hour ride from San Pedro.
Nowadays, a lot of local budget airlines depart from Santiago to San Pedro several times per day. So booking a suitable flight at a reasonable price should not be a problem at all. A two-way ticket can cost from USD 30 to USD 100.
You can also take a bus to San Pedro from Santiago or Antofagasta. But I would not recommend you doing it as, even though Chilean buses are quite modern and comfortable, the distances are huge. For example, it will take you 24 hours to reach San Pedro from Santiago by bus. So taking a plane will save you a lot of time.
There are very few regular buses departing from El Loa Airport, and their departure times may not coincide with your flight. Your best bet to get to San Pedro as fast as possible is to take a shared shuttle. It costs 10 000 Chilean Pesos (or about USD 14) one way, and you can buy a ticket at the exit from the arrival section of the airport. There are always several shuttle bus companies wooing for your attention. Alternatively, you can ask your hotel to organize an individual transfer. However, I think it will be more expensive.
Already on the way from the airport, you begin to catch glimpses of the overpowering desert on both sides of the road. The views that open to your eyes tempt you to grab your camera and start taking photos straight away. But wait! What you will discover farther in the desert will be even more impressive than what you see from the windows of your shuttle.
Accommodation in San Pedro de Atacama
Since San Pedro focuses on tourism, the whole town literally consists of hotels that cater to tourists with different budgets. Finding a nice room for several nights should not be a problem even though the accommodation is quite expensive. Overall, hotel prices seem to be higher here than in Santiago. We paid USD 80 per night for a tiny room that was separated from the general area by a thin glass wall. So we had an impression of sleeping right in the corridor. However, the hotel staff was lovely, and, after all, you do not arrive in San Pedro to spend your time at the hotel. You come here for an exciting adventure in the desert.
San Pedro de Atacama Town
Located at 2407 m above sea level, San Pedro de Atacama has little merit all by itself. The small town of about 5000 people sprung up in the oasis in place of an ancient Atacameno settlement mainly to serve tourists that have flocked to the area in the past few decades.
The streets are filled with one-story adobe houses, which are mainly occupied by hotels, shops, or travel agencies. There is a cute little church built in the 17th century in the main square, and that’s about it. Although it is recommended to spend a day in the town to get acclimatized to the altitude, the main attractions await you outside of the oasis in the vast Atacama Desert. You can easily get the feel of what it is really like by going to the Moon and Mars (also called Death) Valleys.
How to visit the Moon and Mars Valleys
The Moon and Mars Valleys are located close to one another, just a 10-minute ride from San Pedro. You can visit both of them as part of an organized tour that takes you to the most impressive sites around the surrounding Atacama Desert. Or, you can simply rent a bike and go there on your own.
Since we had very little time in San Pedro, we decided to get a tour of the Atacama with one of the travel agencies we came across in the center of the town. This is a typical 4-5 tour offered by most local agencies. It takes you to the most beautiful spots in the Moon and Mars Valleys. The advantage of the tour is that the guide provides you with fun facts that you will be probably too lazy to look for by yourself. The guides are usually both English and Spanish-speaking and switch from one language to the other during the excursion if the groups are mixed. The price of the tour is around 20 000 Chilean Pesos (around 25 USD) per person. But you can easily negotiate a discount if you buy several tours.
The Moon Valley (El Valle de La Luna)
The Moon Valley, or El Valle de La Luna in Spanish, owes its name to the outlandish terrain that looks very much like the lunar surface. It is part of the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Range) just 13 km away from San Pedro de Atacama. It also belongs to the Los Flamencos National Reserve.
The out-of-this-world salt-studded landscape was formed as the result of a sequence of geological transformations caused by the uplift of the ground underneath a salt lake and water evaporation. The drying sun and wind erosion have sculpted the calcium-rich soil into unusual shapes and created rugged mountain chains topped with a salty crust.
Sometimes, the brown mountain cliffs resemble sugar-coated cupcakes pasted together to produce fanciful outlines.
The soil in the Cordillera de la Sal is so rich in sodium chloride that the locals have extracted salt here for centuries. You can even see some of the abandoned salt mines while walking through the valley during the tour.
The tour guide takes you through the most spectacular spots in the valley. For example, the red-tinted amphitheater looks very dramatic against the blue sky.
Three Marias, a weird stone formation that was sculpted by nature, is another popular spot, which the tour guides like to show you. It is hard for me to see the explanation for the name. Some people say these stones look like three female profiles. Or, at least, they looked that way until one of the stones was broken.
You can also visit the Great Dune, a huge sand mountain in the middle of the Moon Valley.
Despite its surreal beauty, the Moon Valley is considered to be one of the most inhospitable places on our planet. Even the tiniest microorganisms cannot live here due to the lack of water.
The Mars/Death Valley (El Valle de la Marte/Muerte)
The Mars Valley, or el Valle de la Marte, is located very close to the Moon Valley in Cordillera de la Sal. Some people also call it the Death Valley, or el Valle de la Muerte in Spanish.
Two different names can be explained by the confusion that occurred when the first Europeans started to arrive in the Atacama. The legend has it, on seeing the valley for the first time, some French astronomer called it Valle de la Marte for its resemblance to the red planet. However, the locals misheard him and thought he had said Valle de La Muerte, which related to the history of the place. A lot of people are believed to have perished here while trying to cross the desert. So the second name stuck with the Spanish. I, for one, side with the French on this because I prefer the original name - the Mars Valley.
Just like its neighbor, the Mars Valley is known for its extraterrestrial appearance. The scenery composed of bizarre rock formations and massive sand dunes is similar to the Moon Valley.
The Mars Valley is also popular with adventure seekers as they can go sandboarding or mountain biking here.
Sunset in the Moon Valley
To wrap up the tour, the guides take you to a special viewpoint, or what the Spanish call el Mirador, to watch the sunset over the Moon Valley in the evening. It is said to be one of the most beautiful in the Atacama Desert.
In the warm-colored rays of the disappearing sun, the craggy outlines of the mystical valley below live up to their reputation 100%. At this moment, you are, indeed, feeling as if you were on a different planet or, perhaps, in the middle of the Space Odyssey. So surreal is the panoramic view of the desert in the dusk!
I believe experiences like these are the main reason why we should travel. For a few precious moments, they transport us from our ordinary lives into the realm of magic. They do show us that other worlds exist.
If you are in Chile, do not miss the opportunity to visit the extraordinary Atacama Desert. Great impressions and stunning photos of the trip are guaranteed!