Life in the Atacama Desert
Audley's Chile experts break down the attractions and share a few of their own personal highlights from their travels to the region.
Located in the north of Chile, the Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth and stretches for 1,200 kilometres to the northern border with Peru.
The largest town in this region is San Pedro de Atacama, full of colonial Spanish charm and also a perfect base from which to explore the surrounding volcanoes, geysers, salt flats, moon-like valleys and remote villages.
This array of attractions has made it one of our clients’ favourite destinations and we always receive incredible feedback in terms of its beauty, diversity, hotels, guides and excursions.
San Pedro has always featured highly on the backpacking circuit, but over the past few years new hotel options have been emerging and visitors are now incredibly spoilt for choice; your stay in the Atacama can be as basic or as luxurious as you want it to be.
All of Audley’s Chile specialists have stayed in or inspected all of the accommodation options and believe that this small town is at the forefront in the development of unique and boutique properties – places where every small detail in terms of comfort has been considered, the food is excellent and the spa facilities are superb.
We are all happy to talk at length about our personal favourites (mine is the wonderfully friendly and comfortable Tierra Atacama) and which one would suit your own preferences.
During a visit to the Atacama Desert, you can’t help but notice the brilliance of the night sky. Most of the hotels in San Pedro have attractive outdoor seating where, after a day exploring the desert, you can admire the vivid canopy of stars and planets whilst enjoying a drink – just make sure you bring something warm to wear as it can be cold at night.
To take your star-gazing one step further, we can also arrange a visit to an observatory where the powerful telescopes guarantee an unforgettable view of the sky and guides ensure that you know what you are looking at.
If you’re staying at the Explora or the Alto Atacama hotels, you won’t even need to move off the premises as they have their own observatories.
As a post-graduate in archaeology, my interest in the cultural history of regions is boundless.
It will no doubt startle most people that, in this desert, the harshest of environments, there is a rich culture dating back some 11,000 years with people highly skilled in metallurgy, basketry and pottery.
There are countless sites surrounding the town where you can see evidence of these people.
In San Pedro there is a little museum which is home to their artefacts and represents the life work of Father le Paige, a Jesuit priest who was devoted to preserving the history of the local people. Without his work the region would be sadly lacking the knowledge of the past that makes it unique and so much more exciting.
Salar de Tara, San Pedro de Atacama
El Tatio Geysers
Tocanao Graveyard, Atacama Desert
The Atacama, Chile
The Church in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Tierra Atacama, San Pedro de Atacama
The Atacama Desert’s spectacular landscape is vast and provides unlimited opportunities for exploring on foot, horseback, by bike or car, whatever your level of physical ability.
Comfortable 4WD vehicles can transport you to some of the most scenic spots but if you would like to expend a bit more energy, treks can be undertaken ranging from a simple one of two hour walks to demanding multi-day hikes up some of the towering volcanoes.
My favourite way of getting out and about is on a bicycle which, along with horse riding, is a great way of really experiencing the landscape.
Food and drink
Being one of the driest places on earth, one would imagine that the food in the Atacama Desert wouldn’t be anything to write home about. Think again.
Thanks to the arrival of some excellent new hotels and fusion restaurants, staple ingredients of the region such as Andean potatoes, quinoa and herbs have been given a new lease of life.
The dishes wouldn’t be out of place in Santiago’s top restaurants; gnocci flavoured with the rica rica herb, or desserts made from chañar and lúcuma fruits.
While fish, seafood and meat are brought in, local farmers supply the town’s restaurants with organic fruit and vegetables such as purple potatoes, beans, pumpkins and chirimoya. The chachacoma tea is great for the altitude!
There are over 50 volcanoes in northern Chile and when travelling in the Atacama you cannot help but admire the soaring peaks around you. In particular, it is impossible to miss the symmetrical presence of Licancabur.
I was lucky enough to climb the peak right next to Licancabur, Cerro Toco. The ascent to 5,600 metres was technically straightforward but was literally breathtaking, the views from the top were incredible.
Many of the hotels in San Pedro de Atacama now offer the chance to climb some of the peaks, and they will ensure you are fully acclimatised beforehand.