Chile is one of the most diverse countries on the planet. It is a thin country with the world’s third-largest freshwater reserve in the South (Patagonia) and the world’s driest desert in the North (Atacama). You get it: it is a country of contrasts where the magic of the landscapes defies the imagination. Driving from South to North is a great way to understand how incredibly vast the Atacama desert is. And while it may difficult to decide what to do in this spectral region, you can focus on a few places that will help you save some time in this 105.000 km2 desert.
1. The Moon Valley
You may witness the most spectacular sunset you have ever seen in this place of outstanding beauty. The Moon Valley is located near San Pedro de Atacama so you can reach it on a mountain bike. Its jagged cliffs, drifting sands and impressive volcanoes as a background make it easy to understand the origin of its name. If you thought all deserts were flat, the Moon Valley would prove you wrong.
2. San Pedro de Atacama
This is a starting point more than a highlight, but it would be a shame not to visit this lively little town lost in the desert. San Pedro may be hot and over-crowded during high season (December to February), but you will find some refreshment in its colonial-style adobe church and archeological museum. People have been inhabiting the area of San Pedro for thousands of year, so if you like history, this is a must-do.
3. Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoon
These beautiful lagoons sit at more than 4000 meters above sea level, attract lots of beautiful native birds, including flamingos, crested ducks, and coots. Wildlife photographers will love using the deep blue color of the lakes as a background. And if you want to climb a volcano, you’ve found your spot.
4. Tatio Geysers
The Tatio Geysers are the traditional postcards of the Atacama Desert. Located in the “Altiplano,” it is a region known for its high plains and active volcanoes. The drive from San Pedro de Atacama to the Tatio Geysers is spectacular, but my advice is to start early so that you can reach the geysers by sunrise (around 6 am in high season), which is by far the best time to walk along the 80 active geysers and spot the dramatic clouds of stream. Be careful: this place is unusually cold so that you will need a warm jacket.
5. The Atacama Salt Flat
An area of 3000 km2, the Atacama Salt Flat is the largest salt flat in the country. Unlike other salt flats with a smooth surface, the top layer of this one is churned up and pitted. The reason is that it never is covered in water (some places have not received rain in over 20 years!). However, there is a portion in the very heart of the Salt flat where the water is so salty you can float just like the Dead Sea.
You can easily spend a week in the Atacama Desert and explore these highlights. To reach the region the best way is to fly to Calama and then drive or take a shuttle to San Pedro de Atacama. Do not miss the Milky Way at night and a sunrise on the many volcanoes of the region, the most famous ones being Licancabur and the Lascar. You can climb them on a day hike, which is, of course, another level of adventure!