If you want to visit space without leaving Planet Earth, you only have to visit the Atacama Desert in Chile. This desert is the driest in the world outside of the polar ones. So much so that NASA uses it as a research site to prepare trips to Mars. Geological evidence and minerals on earth prove that this desert is extremely arid since 10 to 15 million years ago.
To visit the Atacama Desert you must fly to the town of Calama. The flight takes two hours from Santiago, the capital of Chile. The bus takes 21 and a half hours, therefore it is not recommended. Calama is a mining town that has nothing to offer tourists. Therefore, those who visit stay in a hotel in San Pedro de Atacama. There are shuttles that take tourists or you can choose to rent a car as we did. The journey takes 1 hour and 20 minutes on straight roads that never seem to finish.
Many tourists combine their visit to Atacama with Uyuni in Bolivia. It does not matter if you start in Atacama or Uyuni, it is easy to find tour operators that offer the other destination at very low prices. Uyuni is not recommended to go on your own due to the lack of roads, road signs and cell phone signal.
While in Atacama it is easy to visit the sites by car. Just try to have enough gasoline since the drives are long. We only saw gas stations in San Pedro de Atacama and Calama in all our route.
San Pedro de Atacama
I found the food in the village expensive and reluctant with few exceptions. The only thing I would recommend is the ice cream. Make sure to try unique flavors of the area such as pisco sour, carob or coca leaf.
San Pedro de Atacama is a good place to buy souvenirs. There is a market with artisan stands that sell ponchos, llama dolls, even medicinal plants and stones. There are also many stores that sell handmade jewelry.
What to do in Atacama?
In 1983 a meteorite was found near Atacama next to the crater of a volcano. Today, the museum has more than 3,000 meteorites that have been certified by NASA, UCLA and CEREGE. Through photographs it tells visitors how they looked for the meteorites. Also you can see images of impact craters. If you are curious, you can touch some samples, even buy meteorites on site.
In the town you will see many agencies offering astronomical tours. The best option is San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations (SPACE) that was recommended by a Panamanian friend. This agency is only dedicated to doing these tours and it was the only tour we took in Atacama. They own the largest telescope park of any public observatory in South America (between 20 and 72cm in diameter). If the night is clear you can take the tour that takes more than two hours. On average, they provide the tour 300 nights a year. The telescopes look at different planets or constellations. You must take warm clothes because it is cold despite the hot drinks they give you.
Route of Lagoons
On a long day it is possible to visit several lagoons including Laguna Chaxa or Los Flamencos National Reserve. This site is useful for flamingos to mate. It is home to three of the five species of flamingos including James, Chilean and Andean. Lakes are linked by dirt roads covered in salt.
We also visited the Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons. Miscanti is a hill and Miñiques is a volcano that rise above the lake in the shape of a heart. The contrast between the blue water with the yellow vegetation is impressive.
Geyser del Tatio
To visit Geyser del Tatio you must set your alarm at 4 a.m. to arrive before the sun rises. Be prepared with warm clothing, hat and gloves because it’s cold at 4320 meters high. The road before was bad but it was fixed so it is easy to drive. When you arrive you will see fumaroles in the dark as well as jets of water coming out of the ground. The geysers occur when cold underground water hits hot rocks shooting it to the surface.
Geyser del Tatio together with Geyser Sol de Mañana in Bolivia make up the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere with approximately 8% of all geysers in the world. Only Yellowstone in the United States and Dolina Geizerov in Russia are bigger.
Puritama Hot Springs
There are hot springs in Geyser del Tatio but we prefer to go to Puritama Hot Springs which are about 35 minutes away from Geyser del Tatio. We arrived very early so we had to wait outside. The site is located in a beautiful canyon. It has reddish walkways surrounded by tall grass that takes you between the eight wells with temperatures ranging from 28 ° to 31 ° celsius.
Valley of the moon
This tourist site is the closest to the town of San Pedro de Atacama, so it is undoubtedly the most visited. The best time to go is at sunset where you can enjoy beautiful views over landscapes that look lunar. You can explore the Valley of the Moon on your own by climbing mountains and stones. Enter through caves that are a bit narrow to reach the top. It also has sand dunes and we found it funny to replicate the famous saying “the last Coca Cola in the desert”.
The Atacama area has so many things to offer travelers but due to lack of time we could not do more. There will always be a next time to visit this fascinating Chilean destination.