It’s dry here. Really, really dry. You can feel it too. Your skin becomes dry. Your hair is dry just minutes after getting out of the shower. And your laundry dries so fast that by the time you’ve finished hanging it up you can start pulling it down. Average rainfall in San Pedro de Atacama is 40mm a year, but many places in the surrounding desert receive just 1 to 3mm a year.
Why is it so dry?
Because it’s sandwiched between two mountain ranges – the Andes to the east, and la Cordillera de la Costa (the Chilean Coast Range) to the west. The Atacama Desert sits in the rain shadow of both mountain ranges.
It’s double rain shadowed.
The Atacama Desert is the driest (non-polar) desert in the world, and it has been hyper-arid for at least the last three million years. Such extreme weather has produced some truly dramatic landscapes.
Valle de la Luna
Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) is case in point. I couldn’t say for sure that this is what the surface of the moon looks like, but NASA does test their Mars rovers here, and that has to count for something.
Most tour groups come to Valle de la Luna at sunset, a time when the striking ochre tones of the sand dunes and eroded ridge lines are contrasted by the oranges, pinks, and purples in the sky.
Salar de Atacama
This is Chile’s largest salt flat, and the 3rd largest salt flat in the world (the largest are those of Salar de Uyuni in neighbouring Bolivia).
Salar de Atacama may not appear as alien and hostile as Valle de la Luna, but it has many things going for it. There are flocks of pink-feathered flamingos, there are volcanos on the horizon, and there are lakes with a salt concentration matching that of the Dead Sea. Jump in for an unnatural, hyper-buoyant swim.
San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama is a little desert town – just 4,000 inhabitants – filled with quaint adobe huts. At the time of my visit (2006), the town had a relaxed, sleepy, tranquil atmosphere.
In the intervening years San Pedro de Atacama has grown into a tourist hub, and I’ve been told that it is no longer so sleepy and tranquil. I guess that’s a shame if it’s sleepy, tranquil desert towns that you’re after, but there are probably plenty of these elsewhere; you’ll just have to look a little further afield. Anyway it is the desert that is the real attraction here, and that, I believe, remains unchanged.
Pukará de Quitor
Just three kilometres from San Pedro de Atacama – easily reachable by bike – lay the remains of Pukará de Quitor. The city, which dates back to the 12th Century CE, contains 160 houses and other structures of the Quitor people.
El Tatio Geyser Field
El Tatio Geyser Field sits at 4,320m above sea level, making it one of the highest geyser fields in the world. It is also the 3rd largest geyser field on the planet, containing 80 geysers in total.
Come at sunrise to see the entire geyser field become active at once, each spraying out steam and boiling water, with some geysers reaching heights of six metres.
El Tatio was the site of a minor industrial disaster in 2009, when a geothermal well malfunctioned. The disaster, and the threat it posed to the tourism industry, is a source of local controversy.
A visit to the El Tatio Geyser Field is likely to yield glimpses of viscachas (a relative of the chinchilla – it looks like a rabbit with a tail), llamas, guanaco (a large, non-domesticated relative of the alpaca), and vicuñas (a smaller, non-domesticated relative of the alpaca).
You’ll probably also get to see Llareta, or Yareta, a slow-growing, ground hugging, flowering plant that lives for 3,000 to 5,000 years. It exists at altitudes of 3,200m to 4,500m. Ask your driver to pull over for a closer look.
San Pedro de Atacama may no longer be a sleepy, tranquil town, but apart from a few tourist hot spots, it’s still predominately an empty, hostile, alien desert; plenty of places to get lost in if that’s what you’re after.
Practical information and how to reach San Pedro de Atacama:
You can reach San Pedro de Atacama via bus from various cities within Chile including Santiago, Arica, Iquique, and Antofagasta. More transport info here.
It’s also possible to arrive by bus via Salta, Argentina, or via a 3-4 day 4WD adventure tour that shuttles you across the bleak, hostile, but exceedingly beautiful Bolivian altiplano (a great way to see Salar de Uyuni) departing from Uyuni, Bolivia.
San Pedro de Atacama is on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage status.