san pedro de atacama

40 Things You Should Know Before Touring San Pedro De Atacama & The Atacama Desert

san pedro de atacama

While other desserts, such as Death Valley in California and the Sahara in Egypt, may have much higher profiles among international travelers, the climate and landscape of Chile’s Atacama Desert are more extreme than any other non-polar desert on the planet.

Referred to by many scientists as one of the driest places on Earth, the Atacama Desert occupies the northern third of Chile, pushing just into the southern boundary with Peru. It’s bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes Mountains to the east, with its sprawl moving into southwestern Bolivia.

For nature-loving travelers to South America, the entire San Pedro de Atacama area is a definite highlight to add to your bucket list. Where the Amazon Rainforest is a celebration of biodiversity and lushness, the Atacama Desert is the stark opposite.

Nevertheless, it has a lengthy history, intriguing flora and fauna, colorful lagoons and rock formations, and renowned night skies.
The Atacama region’s staggering aridity, fluctuating temperatures, and unique biology make it a fascinating ecosystem worthy of exploration. Due to its elevation, cloudlessness, and sparse population, it’s also a premiere place for astronomical observation.

Still not convinced you should visit? Here are 40 things you should know before you book your tour to San Pedro de Atacama and the Atacama Desert.

BASIC FACTS ABOUT THE ATACAMA DESERT

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1. The Atacama Desert spans about 41,000 square miles. That’s somewhere between the size of Tennessee (41,220) and Ohio (40, 953). It’s over 600 miles long, but only about 60 miles wide. Some experts also include the lower slopes of the Andes (which are also a barren landscape) as part of the desert, which would expand its total size to around 49,000 square miles.

2. The Atacama is the driest non-polar place on the planet (the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica are the driest). The average rainfall in Atacama is less than an inch a year, even in the wettest spots. But it’s important to remember that this minuscule amount of rain doesn’t even happen every year. Instead, a major rain event happens every so often that enables the region to maintain its annual average. Some areas of the desert have gone without rain for hundreds of years, and others have no recorded rain events at all.

3. The reason that the Atacama Desert (Chile in particular) is so dry is that it’s lodged between two towering mountain ranges—the Andes and the Chilean Coastal Range—that cause a massive rain shadow. Adding to the aridity is the Humboldt Current, which cools the marine air coming in from the Pacific and prevents rain in yet another way.

4. The Atacama is so arid that scientists are studying it for clues to possible life on other planets. The dryness of certain parts of the desert is such that it can be compared with places on Mars. So the existence of micro-organisms in Atacama suggests something similar might be possible on another planet. The region has actually been used as a filming location for Mars-based TV shows and films.

5. Aside from its aridity, the Atacama Desert is also deceptively cool due to its elevation and the aforementioned Humboldt Current. The Atacama’s altitude averages about 8000 feet above sea level. Some parts hold steady at about 13,000 feet, and the extreme high reaches—the mountains—push to over 19,000 feet. This obviously keeps the desert’s temperature relatively mild, with averages between the mid-50s and mid-70s. That said, freezing temperatures do occur occasionally during extreme events.

6. The Atacama Desert is considered the oldest desert on earth. On the whole, it has experienced semi-arid conditions for over 150 million years, and the inner core—the driest spot—has been hyper-arid for over 15 million years.

LIFE IN THE ATACAMA DESERT

how to travel to the Atacama Desert

7. The Atacama’s population is few and far-flung, both in terms of humans and biodiversity. There are a few hundred species of plants that mainly occupy the outskirts of the desert. But there is hardly anything here in terms of animals, particularly terrestrial animals, anywhere. Less than a million people live in the desert, most of which are in the coastal cities.

8. Humans are believed to have inhabited the Atacama Desert since the Paleolithic (Stone) Age, which ended some 8,000 years ago. San Pedro de Atacama was likely the center of an ancient civilization then. However, the Atacameños are now an extinct civilization.

9. On the Pacific Coast, the Chinchorro culture developed between 7,000 BCE and 1500 BCE. They lived a sedentary lifestyle that relied on fishing, hunting, and gathering. Although mummification is more commonly linked with ancient Egyptians, the Chinchorro are renowned for their mummies, many of which have remained intact for thousands of years.

10. The southern part of the Atacama is home to the indigenous Diaguita culture, as it was their cultural precursors, the Las Ánimas and El Molle peoples. Additionally, the Aymara people populate the Altiplano regions of the Andes, most of which is in Bolivia, but some of which spreads into the Atacama Desert.

11. Despite the harsh conditions, there are over 500 species of vascular plants that grow in the Atacama Desert. (Smaller, non-vascular plants are more commonly the types of species found in harsh growing conditions.) Amongst these plants are three types of cacti that are endemic to the area. Most of this flora is found along the borders of the desert, and some rely on marine fog for moisture.

12. Because life in the Atacama has adapted to such aridity, the result— when rainfalls do occur—is both awe-inspiringly beautiful and disturbingly destructive. While the sudden gush of water causes magnificent seas of wildflowers to bloom, scientists studying microbes in the desert (the life-on-Mars folks) have noted that the sudden hydration kills off three-quarters of the microbial life.

13. Animals aren’t nearly as numerous or diverse here. Some parts of the desert are completely devoid of them. But in the areas where animals do settle, birds are the biggest group. These include Humboldt penguins, flamingos, hummingbirds, and sparrows. There are also a few species of insects and lizards. Species of fox and mouse settle in the area, as well as the vizcacha, a relative of the chinchilla.

COMMERCE IN THE ATACAMA DESERT

Atacama desert travel

14. The Atacama Desert was once an economic powerhouse due to its mining industry. Prior to the invention of synthetic nitrate in the early 1900s, the Atacama had the planet’s largest supply of naturally-occurring sodium nitrate and was a premier site for mining nitrate (saltpeter) deposits.

15. The technological advancement has left the desert strewn with deserted saltpeter mines, many of which have since become popular sites for tourism. In fact, two of these old saltpeter mines, Humboldt and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works, were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. They’re located in a remote part of the Atacama known as the Pampa. The people that worked the mines, who came from Bolivia, Peru, and Chile, forged their own unique pampinos culture.

16. Since the nitrate business collapsed, other minerals have been (and continue to be) mined in the desert. The Atacama supplies about one-third of the world’s copper and is a source of other metals, including gold, silver, and iron. Non-metals such as boron, lithium, and salts are also mined from the desert. As with much of the mining industry today, the practice is considered controversial and has been called exploitive by many critics.

17. Aside from mineral deposits, the Atacama is renowned for its stunning views of the cosmos. Astronomical observatories are popular in the desert, including the La Silla Observatory, Paranal Observatory, and Llano de Chajnantor Observatory. Lots of countries (including ones from Europe, the United States, Japan, and Canada) have invested in developing these observatories and other astronomy projects in the area.

18. The observatories are home to some special telescopes, including the Very Large Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. The Very Large Telescope consists of four separate units that can work together to provide extremely high-resolution shots of space. The Atacama Large Millimeter Array uses a compilation of 66 radio telescopes to observe electromagnetic radiation at sub-millimeter wavelengths.

19. Much like the Salt Flats of Utah, the Atacama Desert has become a special place for racing sports, particularly cycling, and it is a primo spot for solar car racing.

20. Ecotourism has become big business in the Atacama region, particularly the area around San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Those who visit the Andean town (which has a population of around 4,000) will find lots of intriguing attractions nearby.

NATURAL WONDERS NEAR SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA

Atacama desert travel

21. The Atacama Desert is widely ranked among the top travel destinations in all of South America, and San Pedro de Atacama is the number one jumping-off point for exploring the Atacama. San Pedro de Atacama tours range from alien-looking landscapes, geysers, hot springs, and unique lagoons to salt flats, architectural wonders, and a collection of national parks. In a word, there is plenty to do with the comfort of the town as a starting point.

22. Moon Valley and Mars Valley (which is also known as Death Valley) are exciting places for those interested in exploring otherworldly landscapes. Moon Valley, which is just a few miles from San Pedro, has mesmerizing stone and sand formations molded by years of water and wind erosion. The formations have layers of color, including a white surface of salt left by dry lakes. Mars Valley is within walking or cycling distance of San Pedro, and is most famous for its striking sunsets.

23. Las Flamencos National Reserve is another must-see San Pedro de Atacama attraction. Home to Moon Valley, it also boasts hot springs, lagoons, and the largest salt flat in all of Chile. Amongst the lagoons, you’ll find Chilean and Andean flamencos feeding, as well as many other aquatic birds. You may also be able to spot Andean condors and eagles here. The 290-square-mile reserve is also home to Tambillo, a Tamarugo (uniquely native trees) forest with lots of local wildlife.

24. The El Tatio Geyser Field sits at around 14,000 feet above sea level, with the Andes Mountains as a backdrop. Fumaroles (smoke columns from geysers) steam up the 12 square miles of bubbling mud pools and hot springs. The field is surrounded by stratovolcanoes, just in case, it needed to be a little more visually spectacular.

25. Slightly further afield, in Bolivia, the Eduardo Abaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve acts as a huge wildlife conservatory and an IUCN category IV habitat and species management area. The area is primarily protected as a unique bird habitat, which is home to three endemic species of flamingos (out of six found worldwide). Aside from the animals, Abaroa Reserve is also famous for its hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, volcanoes, and amazing rock formations, especial Árbol de Piedra (“Stone Tree”).

26. Located near the southern reaches of the desert, along the Huasco River, the Huasco Valley is considered “the garden of the Atacama.” The river runs between the towns of Copiapó and La Serana, and the valley is renowned for its wine, olive oil, and regional spirits, as well as being home to the Diaguita people. Unfortunately, the region has also become known for mining—gold, in particular—and the fight for indigenous land rights.

EXPLORING SALAR DE UYUNI

how to travel to the Atacama Desert

27. Ranking among the most popular Atacama attractions is the Uyuni Salt Flats. Locally known as Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat spans some 4,000 square miles. It has a layer of salt a few meters thick that covers the entire space and contains over half of the world’s known lithium reserves. There is very little vegetation (giant cacti dominate the flora) or animals (more flamingos feeding on pink algae) here. Unsurprisingly, salt mining is big business in the Uyuni Salt Flats.

28. The White Lagoon, Green Lagoon, and Red Lagoon are all part of the Salar de Uyuni. But all are worthy of consideration on their own merits, as each lake starkly represents the color after which it is named. The White Lagoon (Laguna Blanca) is white due to minerals suspended in the water. The nearby Green Lagoon (Laguna Verde) gets its color from magnesium and arsenic sediment, the latter of which is poisonous and leaves the lake lifeless. The color of the Red Lagoon (a.k.a. Laguna Colorado) shifts between blue and dark red as a result of alga, the consumption of which colors flamingos pink. They’re actually born white and grey!

29. Yet another lake in the Uyuni Salt Flats, Laguna Hedionda, translated as “Stinking Lake,” is considered to be the most picturesque of them all. Its name derives from the unpleasant smell of sulfur emanating from the lake, but its backdrop of snow-covered mountains is second to none. Additionally, pink and white flamingos feed here, as do Andean ducks and geese. Llamas and alpacas graze the area, too. The edge of the lake is dotted with black volcanic rock. It’s difficult not to be blown away.

30. Hiking up the Tunupa Volcano, a dormant giant in Bolivia, is another one of the more sought-after experiences in the desert. The volcano stretches to over 17,000 feet, though it is known to be a relatively easy climb for the altitude. The mountain’s name honors the God of Thunder, and it is considered a sacred site to the indigenous communities around it. Rising to over a mile above the surrounding terrain, the volcano offers a magnificent view of the Uyuni Salt Flats to the south.

MAJOR CITIES & VILLAGES OF THE ATACAMA DESERT

how to travel to the Atacama Desert

31. It’s not a bad idea to tour the town of San Pedro de Atacama, which is on the tentative list to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town’s streets are dirt, and its houses adobe. It has been inhabited for 10,000 or more years, but the modern version bears the undeniable influence of Spanish colonialism. So the architectural style seems familiar, but with a touch of desert to make it unique. Despite being small and humble, the village bustles with tourism and the accommodations and other conveniences that it brings.

32. Arica is a port town in Chile, located on the northern side of the Atacama Desert. It’s known to have an eternal spring. It has some national parks nearby, a nice shopping center, and an old battlefield (El Morro). However, it’s most beloved as a surfing hotspot, with numerous breaks that are renowned to be wonderful.

33. Iquique, which is just down the coast from Arica, is also recognized for good surfing, as well as paragliding. It is widely considered a top-notch beach resort town and has a high-rolling casino to go along with it. There’s also a nice beach boardwalk and the beautiful beaches to warrant it.

34. Antofagasta is Chile’s second largest city and feels like a true Latin American metropolis. It’s a jumble of busy streets, with an overworked population that seems more interested in modern malls than touristy markets. It’s a spot most people tend to skip when exploring the Atacama Desert, but it may appeal to those who are into urban sprawl and commerce.

35. The towns of Copiapó (which lies inland) and coastal Caldera are connected by a railway line that was constructed in the 1850s, and the original wood railway station now stands as a national monument. Prior to the War of the Pacific, Copiapó was Chile’s northernmost town. It was once inhabited by the Diaguita people, who were ruled by the Incas. After the arrival of Spanish colonialism, the area was noted for being rich in silver and copper, and mining is still the largest industry today.

GETTING TO ATACAMA DESERT

how to travel to the Atacama Desert

36. It is possible to fly directly into the Atacama Desert. The closest airport to San Pedro de Atacama is in Calama, which is roughly an hour’s drive away. In order to get to Calama, international flights will go through Santiago and then puddle-jump to the desert.

37. The more adventurous method for reaching San Pedro de Atacama is traveling across the desert in a 4WD vehicle from Sucre, in Bolivia. By using this approach, travelers will get to see miles of the expansive desert, as well as passing through most of the highlights listed in this article.

38. After Patagonia and Easter Island, the Atacama Desert is the third most frequented destination for travel to Chile. It is also not too far from many of the other South America tourism hotspots.

39. Guided tours are the most popular way to reach the sites in the Atacama Desert. This rugged, remote region isn’t a place that’s appropriate for easy-access public transportation. So embarking upon a thorough visit requires either purchasing tours upon arrival or choosing a tour before traveling to San Pedro de Atacama.

40. International Expeditions offers a top-notch tour that combines a full exploration of the Atacama Desert with an exciting journey through Bolivia, including La Paz and cruising Lake Titicaca. The 13-day excursion also involves visits to Potosi and Sucre, which are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as well as nearly a week in the Atacama Desert. The desert portion of the trip starts with visiting the Uyuni Salt Flat, Tunupa Volcano, and Laguna Hedionda. Travelers will then explore the Los Flamencos National Reserve, Abaroa National Reserve, and El Tatio Geyser. The tour ends with a two-night stay at a family farm near San Pedro de Atacama.

While many travelers dream of lush tropical beaches as their ideal destination, those are a dime a dozen when compared to exploring a completely unique, inspiring spot like the Atacama Desert. It’s a place with a deep history and indigenous culture; a place with a finger on the pulse of our future in outer space; and a place with natural wonders that stretch beyond your imagination. In short, it’s a place you don’t want to leave off your bucket list of dream travel destinations. –Jonathon Engels

how to travel to the Atacama Desert

BIO: Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan permaculture gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About and Green Global Travel.