Atacama, Chile: This Is What It's Like to Visit the World's Driest Desert
In a rush to travel to Atacama, Chile with no time to read this post?
Enjoy this very short Atacama Highlights video from my visit.
A Trip to Atacama, Chile
My throat scratched as I rustled through a pile of clothing on my hostel room floor, searching for my water pack and fighting the hacking cough that developed somewhere between my fourth flight, airport sleeping, and arrival in Atacama, Chile.
Despite scolding myself for overexerting my body before the first official stop of my latest backpacking adventure (and not properly planning how to remain healthy while visiting the Atacama Desert), I was overjoyed with the idea of crossing another "-est" on my imaginary travel bucket list.
This time, the driest desert in the world. Moon-like, even.
I'd heard with Atacama's unpolluted night sky I would be able to see more stars than ever before - even as far as the Milky Way. Unfortunately, my luck brought me to Atacama during the Supermoon.
"No stargazing tours for me," I anticipated, "Just a huge moon."
No complaints, though.
The Atacama Desert: An Outdoor Adventure Bucket List
Located in between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains in northern Chile (and a small part of southern Peru), the Atacama Desert is one of Chile and South America's most popular destinations.
Don't let your first impression of the desert terrain fool you: the Atacama Desert is more than just sand and dehydration. In Atacama you can find a plethora of trekking trails and tours leading you to salt flats, Andean flamingos strolling lagoons, dunes, valleys, bright orange sunsets, and more.
With an average rainfall of just over half an inch per year, Atacama is quite literally the world's driest non-polar desert. Sounds almost dangerous, right?
Naturally, tourists flock to it.
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Flights and buses transport eager visitors from Santiago and neighboring hubs to Calama: a town less than 90 minutes from San Pedro de Atacama, more known among tourists (and locals) for baggage swipes, "broken" ATM machines, and dead end police reports. One's usual dose of caution is on overdrive in Calama.
For travelers without a car though, the town's location is essential to accessing San Pedro de Atacama - the desert's base for adventurers to settle in and join daily tours.
With a gastronomic scene that leaves nothing to write home about, strict bar rules (if you're going to have more than two beers stay on your best behavior), and prices that will surprise overland travelers from Peru or Bolivia, San Pedro de Atacama's dusty charm still grasps hold of curious adventurists.
From the classic adobe architecture, adorable artesanal shops, gorgeous "stray" dogs, and walking distance perimeter, some travelers find it easy to call San Pedro de Atacama "home" for more than a few days.
Three Days in the Atacama Desert
With only three days to explore and a major hospitality issue on my first night with my initial accommodation (read: bed bugs at Backpackers San Pedro Hostel) I didn't plan for enough time in the Atacama Desert - regrettably so.
So I made the most of it: I moved to a better hostel (Hostal Lalcketi - so amazing), overloaded on water and Halls cough drops, joined a day tour to the popular (and most affordable) Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) and hiked to Pukara de Quitor nearby.
Painful dry throat and a thinner wallet aside, I fell in love with Atacama's features and wished I stayed for longer (and was rich). I would've loved to see the flamingos and salt flats, and was intrigued by the option to even explore small geysers. My suggestion: book a five day minimum stay at least 1-2 months in advance to nail down affordable housing in order to spend that saved money on more tours.
Wondering what it's like to visit the world's driest desert?
Watch this two minute video of my Atacama trip on YouTube to get a better visual!
It was dry, hot, cold, dark, scratchy, frustrating, and extremely fun. The base town is clearly dependent on this tourism (think Cusco for Machu Picchu) so you'll spend a lot of money but if you stay focused on what's important (the nature) you'll have a surreal adventure.
The desert will surprise you with its colorful sunsets and entice you with its salt crystals. You'll find solace exploring caves and even enjoy a bit of climbing. And as long as you stick to the trails with enough time to get back before sunset, you'll have a safe, enjoyable experience.
Don't forget lots of water, sunscreen, and full coverage - maybe even consider a daily salt / water gargle too.
Would you visit the Atacama Desert?
What do you think? Would you ever make a trip to the driest place on Earth during your South America vacation?
Share this article and video with your friends and see if you all want to make a group trip out of it!
If they don't want to - oh well, there are PLENTY of solo travelers visiting the Atacama Desert.