Adventure Through Chile’s Unreal Atacama Desert

Plan a trip to the moon (or one of the closest things to it)

By Felicity, World Traveler

Felicity—a 20-something travel lover—has teamed up with her friends from around the world to provide readers with local, insider knowledge of today’s most awe-inspiring destinations. Through writing, photography, and video, they’ll share the best tricks and tips for experiencing a place authentically and getting off the beaten path.

When someone mentions Chile, Patagonia is usually the first thing to pop into my mind; it’s one of the most stunning landscapes in existence, after all. But Chile is an adventure-lover’s dream in more ways than one.

Pile of red rocks in desert
Photo: Shutterstock

For example, did you know it’s home to the driest non-polar desert on earth? Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert is more than 40,000 square miles of pure wonder, and here’s why I’ve added it to my Bucket List:

It’s A Chance To Travel To the Moon

Sunrise over Moon Valley in the Atacama desert

Well, not quite, but probably the closest you’ll get! El Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) is a truly otherworldly landscape. Clamber through salt caves; drive past impressive sand dunes (centered around the impressive “Great Dune”); hike up ridges to enjoy the contrast of blue sky and colorful stratified rock; and stay up late enough to watch the valley’s famous sunsets.

The Unparalleled Night Sky

Starry night sky with volcano

Photo: Shutterstock

Hands-down, Atacama is one of the best places on earth to go stargazing, which is one of my favorite things to do while traveling. Apparently the lack of light and air pollution, high altitude, and sheer amount of uninterrupted space make for ethereal skies at night. Many operators run tours based out of San Pedro de Atacama—a Protravel agent will advise you on the best operator for you.

The Photography

Once in Atacama, I know I’ll pick up my camera and never put it down. Just look at these salt flats (the second largest in the world):

Mountains reflecting in blue and purple salt flats

The flamingos of Chaxa Lagoon:

Flamingos in lagoon with snow-covered mountains behind

Photo: Shutterstock

The El Tatio Geysers, the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere:

Steaming geysers in desert

And finally, if luck is on my side, this flower-filled desert after the (intensely) rare occasion of rain:

Desert floor filled with purple wildflowers

Photo: Shutterstock

To Indulge Your Inner Science Nerd

White salt flats in desert

Photo: Shutterstock

Researchers have theorized that the microbes living on Atacama’s super-arid core could survive on the Red Planet. In other words, they’re (potentially) the tiniest of aliens. Much of the desert’s core is also covered by thick salt deposits, which can be miles long, and up to one and a half feet deep. In addition to its unique conditions, Atacama is the oldest desert on earth, having been semiarid for the past 150 million years. Mainly, I can’t stop thinking about that tiny alien theory...

It’s Not Too Hot!

Shadows of people standing in bright desert

Just because it’s a desert, doesn’t mean that Atacama is scorching hot; it’s nestled within the snow-capped mountains of the Andes, and temperatures remain relatively mild throughout the year. On average, it’s about 63 degrees fahrenheit, and the air is pleasantly dry. Great times to visit are the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, when temperatures sit around 74 fahrenheit during the day, and around 36 fahrenheit during the night. That’s right, I might even need to bundle up for stargazing!


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