Exploring the Atacama, Chile’s Stunning Desert

Adventure Travel, Central and South America, Chile, Destinations, Extras, Ideas — By on March 24, 2011 at 6:00 am

Lost Girl Julie Falconer recently took a trip to Chile and spent three days exploring the Atacama Desert in the north of the country. Read on for a selection of her personal essays of her trip experiences. See Julie’s London travel blog and Chile travel website for more stories.

There are few parts of the Earth that have moon-like craters, vast white salt flats, flocks of pink flamingos, orange desert sand dunes, pools of natural hot springs, active volcanoes, and snow capped mountain peaks all in one place. The Atacama Desert in Chile—one of the highest and driest deserts in the world—is one of them.

Most visitors to Chile skip the northern desert and instead head south to Patagonia. But they are missing out on one of the country’s most stunning regions, and one that is easily reachable by a short flight from Santiago.

The Atacama Desert is the perfect place to spend a few days in Chile, and when I arrived a few weeks ago, I was excited to explore the region. I was picked up at the Calama airport by a van from my accommodation, explora Hotel de Larache, in the town, San Pedro de Atacama.

Driving through the desert toward the town, I was struck by the beauty of the dry landscape and the snow-covered Andes mountain range in the distance. The sky was blue, the weather was warm, and the day was perfect for seeing the best of the region.

I arrived at explora Atacama in the late morning, and was given an orientation by one of the hotel’s guides. explora offered guests 1 full-day excursion or 2 half-day excursions per day, and, in addition to information about the region, the guide explained about the 50 hiking, trekking, biking, horseback riding, and sightseeing excursions that the hotel had on offer.

Throughout my three days and nights in the Atacama Desert, I was able to participate in a wide range of excursions. Many of them were hikes, although no two were alike. From the Death Valley, with its orange sand dunes and deep canyon; to the Valley of the Moon, with its lunar-like crater, sparkling gypsum, and snow white salt deposits; to the Hot Springs, which went along a river and ended at a cascade of thermal pools; to the salt flats, which were dotted throughout by pink and white flamingos; every hike was both beautiful and entirely unique.

I didn’t just hike, though. I also had the opportunity to go horseback riding. The horses at the hotel weren’t the average trail horses, and the ride wasn’t the usual slow-paced walk. No, these were excellent horses and we spent time trotting and cantering as we made our way through San Pedro de Atacama and into the desert.

When I wasn’t on an excursion, sipping a Pisco Sour cocktail in the lodge, or reading by one of the four swimming pools at the hotel, I had time to explore the town. It was small, but its narrow dirt roads were lined with souvenir shops, cafés, and restaurants. In the center was a square with a church and an adjacent artisan market, and nearby was the town’s museum. Along the roads, many tour operators were offering trekking excursions, day hikes, and other trips around the area. It amazed me how much there was to see and do in the desert.

Three days in the Atacama was enough to get a great introduction to the region, but when I left on the morning of my last day, I felt like I could have used another three. There were still excursions to be done, mountains to climb, and bikes to ride. But I had more of Chile to see, and my next stop was an equally exciting destination: Easter Island.

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