Extreme Destinations: Atacama Desert, Chile

Published: 03/06/2015

Very few people had heard of the Atacama Desert in Chile prior to the 2010 mining accident that put the lives of 33 imperilled miners in the news headlines for 69 days. That is no more, though. The desert is currently one of hottest tourist spots on earth – no pun intended – drawing people from across the globe.

What makes the Atacama Desert such an extreme destination? It is the driest place on Earth. The area is so dry that there are some parts of the region that have never received a drop of rain – at least since records have been kept. The desert's incredible yet foreboding landscape covers approximately 41,000 mi² of land on Chile's Pacific coast.

The Scenery

As you might expect, the Atacama Desert is a largely barren place made up of sand, rocks, salt lakes, gorges and seemingly out of place lagoons. At dusk, when the sun and sky are at their finest, looking out over the landscape is eerily reminiscent of the Mars photos we have recently seen in the news. The red, purple, and burnt orange hues are a veritable feast for the eyes. That is what draws so many people to this part of the world.

Although Atacama has not been a major tourist destination until recently, it has been a favourite spot of backpackers for decades. Those who prefer holidays in the rugged outdoors love to explore the region's volcanoes and geysers in an area where it is entirely possible to go for days without running into any local residents.

Things to See and Do

It is all about ecotourism in the Atacama, especially since it is an isolated environment. Most travellers choose the tiny town of San Pedro de Atacama as their base of operations. The town of just 2,500 has plenty of hotel space and dining options to satisfy your needs. There are even a few luxury hotels that include wellness spas and a long list of amenities for discriminating travellers.

Here are just a few things to do in Atacama:

  • All-Terrain Sports – The desert is a popular destination for all-terrain sports involving motorcycles, ATVs, and the like. If you are into off-road racing, the desert is home to multiple professional events all year round.
  • Astronomy – The region's brilliantly clear skies and lack of rain make it one of the best places on earth to enjoy astronomy. There are multiple opportunities for astronomical adventure right within the city of San Pedro de Atacama.
  • Geysers and Rock Pools – Just 40 minutes or so from the city is a valley that offers approximately 80 geysers that put on spectacular daily shows. Some 37 miles away is another valley, known as the Baños de Puritama, where you can see a collection of stunningly beautiful rock pools.

The Atacama Desert may be the driest place on earth, but it is very inviting as a tourist destination. If you plan to go, do some research to prepare for the extreme conditions.

 
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