The Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth, offering amazing scenery, numerous activities, and year round good weather. The best base for exploring the Atacama region is the town of San Pedro, made almost entirely of adobe brick – a mix of local mud and straw. The archaeological museum holds an extraordinary collection of artefacts, whilst its streets are lined with indigenous handicraft markets and its outskirts contain ancient ruins and thermal springs.
There are many wonderful places to see; one of the best is the Valley of the Moon whose unique lunar landscape is an amazing geological spectacle, transformed at sunset into a kaleidoscope of reds, yellows and orange. The El Tatio Geysers, at an altitude of 4,321m, are the highest in the world and are best viewed at dawn when the changing atmospheric pressure causes the geysers to erupt, spewing steam up to 10 metres high.
The Atacama salt flat, stretching 50 miles across is a blinding white mass. Interesting fauna includes 3 types of flamingo, and nearby major archaeological sites, geyser fields and quaint Andean hamlets.
San Pedro de Atacama is also the starting point for trekking in the area. Due to volcanic eruptions, strange geological formations protrude from the Altiplano and are surrounded by emerald green lakes. Treks include the climbable Licancabur 5,916m with its ceremonial alter at the summit.
The town of San Pedro in the centre has a first class hotel infrastructure, thus making it a centre for luxury adventure travel.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Due to the nature of this destination, most activities are half days, returning to your hotel/town for lunch in between; however they can be combined to make full day itineraries.
El Tatio Geysers. An early start is required in order to reach the geysers before dawn. Considered the highest in the world at 4,125m (13,600ft), they provide a spectacular site as the daybreaks, and huge plumes of steam spout from the ground into the air. The geysers are surrounded by thermal springs, giving you the opportunity for an invigorating dip before returning to San Pedro.
Valley of the Moon. This unearthly wind sculpted scenery is most spectacular at sunset, and accessible on foot, horseback, mountain bike or vehicle. From your viewpoint, which overlooks the entire valley, you can enjoy an evening drink, as the sun sets, transforming the valley into an array of colours.
Atacama salt flats. An hour’s drive from San Pedro are the salt flats, amazing in themselves, they also offer the opportunity to see the Andean flamingos. En-route you visit the town of Toconao, a small local village with a quaint church (made of cactus wood), and an artisan market, giving you the chance to buy locally made products.
Volcano climbs. There are various volcano climbs possible in the surrounding area, including, El Toco 5,600m, Lascar 5,400m and Licancabur 5,900m. Although they sound daunting, much of the journey to the summit can be achieved by vehicle, and the hike is only the latter section. Climbs themselves vary from 3-4 hours to 2-3 nights and include camping. Please note that climbs are dependent on experience and fitness, and for all climbs a period of acclimatisation is required.
Horseback riding, mountain biking or hiking. With year round good weather, and spectacular surroundings the region is a paradise for outdoor excursions. Trips can last from a couple of hours to a full day. One of the nicest walks is following the Puritama canyon for 3 hours to the Puritama hot springs and driving back.
·Volcanoes, lakes and salt flats. This is a full day trip driving across the altiplano. Stopping in local towns, visiting salt flats teaming with wildlife, hot springs, volcanic lakes and some of the best scenery the altiplano has to offer.
Salar de Tara. A full day trip by 4x4 vehicle driving across this arid region at the base of the volcanoes. Superb scenery, where volcanoes have dumped strange formations of rocks in the middle of the desert, and the opportunity to swim in secluded hot springs with towering volcanoes above.
Recommended lodges in this area:
This is the smallest and most intimate luxury lodge in San Pedro, Awasi meaning home in Quechua has eight cabanas (5 circular and three rectangular) with pointed thatched roofs which mimic the neighbouring historic village
Casa Atacama is a new hotel in San Pedro. Casa Atacama has 25 simple rooms where they have used the natural light, local textures and wooden floors to bring the place to life. Each room has an interior garden