This unearthly plateau is the driest place on earth. A landscape unlike any we've ever seen (though we’ve yet to visit Mars), Chile's Atacama Desert is flanked by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the towering Andes to the east. Salt flats and blue lagoons, rumbling volcanoes and skyscraping summits—the Atacama croons a siren song to the adventurous.
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No visit to the Atacama Desert is complete without a stop in San Pedro. What would be considered a small village in any other setting is a bustling hub in the arid Atacama. Pre-Columbian sagas intertwine with a contemporary Chilean narrative as local artisans spin ceramics and weave baskets. But that’s just scratching the surface. Dig deeper and the archaeology of the region reveals detailed petroglyphs and ruins dissolved by time. For many travelers, San Pedro is a basecamp from which to explore the surrounding desert and high mountain ranges. For others, it's the cultural heart of the Atacama that puts the storied setting in perspective.
Ahh... Desert tranquility at it's finest. But don't get too relaxed! The Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa – in addition to offering luxurious spa treatments and massages – is a five-star basecamp for all things adventure. Take off with an expert guide and hike to hot springs or mountain bike through red rock canyons. Don't be daunted by the 30+ different excursions; the obliging staff will gladly help you customize your itinerary. A standout hotel that magically blends into the surrounding Andes, the Alto Atacama should not be overlooked. Did we mention the gastronomically inspired chefs and an extensive wine list focused on Chilean varietals?
Salt deposits – the remnants of dried up lagoons – veil the Valley of the Moon in interstellar white. Home to caverns, canyons and sprawling flats, the Valley is smooth as a tapestry one minute and jagged as broken pottery the next. Geologically gorgeous, the Valley of the Moon is a photogenic destination for off-trail scrambling. At dusk, the colors of earth and salt and stone play against the sun for a truly spectacular panorama. Go for a trail run, a hike or simply a sightseeing mission at this must-visit lunarscape.
Chile’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Atacama, is an eerily picturesque place. Though salt flats are often thought of as smooth, almost glassy deposits, evaporating water has clawed at the desert and left fascinating, expansive and craggy formations. The highlight of visiting the Salar de Atacama? That’d be sunset. Floating in a Dead Sea-like salty lagoon (don’t open your eyes underwater), as the flamingos arch elegant necks to scoop up shrimp, Andes towering in the background. If there’s one place you want to bring your camera on your trip to the Atacama, this might be it.
The pictures don’t do Tatio justice. Not only is the Chilean geyser field one of the world’s biggest, but it’s also one of the highest, too. At 13,000 ft., over 80 geysers bubble, spew and steam. A popular tourist destination, and for good reason, Tatio makes for a great day trip. These geysers don't blast to astronomical heights, but the sheer number of them, all steaming simultaneously, is a shocking sight to behold. And yes, you're going to want to bring your swimsuit.
While many destinations don’t require a guide to enjoy them, it's a solid idea to tour Yerbas Buenas with a historically knowledgeable expert. Hundreds of carvings, ranging from simple to elaborate, grace the walls of rock. Llamas and warriors and jaguars, the petroglyphs give us a glimpse of what was important to a mesmerizing ancient civilization. On the way to Yerbas Buenas, many tours stop at the Valle Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley), so named because of the spectrum of color exhibited by the mottled rock formations.
The biggest bang to hit space since, well, The Big Bang. ALMA (which means “soul” in Spanish if you’re dusting off that dictionary in preparation for your trip) is the single biggest astronomical project ever conceived. This telescope is made up of 66 colossal antennas and is supported by a smattering of nations including: Canada, the United States, Chile, Taiwan, Republic of Korea, and Japan as well as the EOS (Eurpean Southern Observatory). Now open to visits, ALMA is a must for science-lovers. Even if you don’t stop at ALMA, make sure to look skyward at night in the Atacama—it has some of the most out-of-this-world stargazing on the planet.