San Pedro de Atacama – The World’s Highest Desert

Endless mountain ranges, dessert flats and surfaces so surreal they more closely resemble Mars than Earth are just a few of the things you can expect when visiting San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Located a long way up the coast from Santiago, 24 hours by bus to be exact, it’s worth the journey for some out of this world tours and also an easy jumping off point for tours into the Bolivian Salt Flats. (More on that in the next post).

Posing for photos in San Pedro
The first of many “Amazing Race” Photos

When you get off the bus, slightly disoriented and tired from the overnight journey, it may appear you have arrived at an abandoned, dessert, ghost town. Tumbleweeds may literally be blowing down the street. The town consists of one story brick buildings with dirt streets that wind towards the main plaza. The closer you get the main plaza the more lively the place gets as it quickly becomes apparent the town exists solely for tourism with shop after shop offering tours and packages into the surrounding dessert. There isn’t really a do-it-yourself option here as the roads are simply dirt tracks in the dessert and with no CAA/AAA to bail you out, going with a group is the safest bet.

Sneak peak of your tour options
Who knew flamingos were native to Chile?

There are about a dozen or so tours you can choose from. Your best bet is to go with an operator who will bundle the ones you want for the lowest price as there isn’t much difference in service levels.  We choose the top four tours over two days for an incredible, albeit tiring experience. Below are the details and photos for our two favourites:

Geyser El Tatio:

The alarm goes off 3:30 am as you pack and get dressed in the subzero temperatures for eight hours of freezing cold adventures and you will have to remind yourself that you actually voluntarily signed up for this excursion. You hop aboard the shuttle and catch some shut eye for about an hour until you arrive at the thermal hot spot with geysers blowing in every direction. It’s a sharp contrast in temperature with the boiling hot water spewing out of the vents and the frigid air – but don’t get too close to try and warm up as the gas coming out is sulphuric.

Gesyers in Chile
Yup it’s really that cold here before dawn!

After a breakfast whipped up by your tour guide it’s off to visit the thermal hot springs where you can go in for a soak – just remember you have to come back out to the cold! There are a few more notable stops on the tour including a few lagoons, some giant cacti and finally a small local village before heading back to San Pedro. The views along the way are beautiful and you’ll get great shots of sunrise and clear blue skies – being as it’s the dessert and all you’re pretty much guaranteed sunny weather. You’ll get back to town around noon which gives you enough time to grab a bite to eat and take a nap before jumping on a sunset tour.

Hot Springs, San Pedro, Chile
Warming up at the thermal hotsprings

Valle de la Muerte and Valle de la Luna:

Perhaps the most bang for your buck of all the tours, it starts by visiting those Mars type landscapes mentioned earlier in the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley).  After you gaze out into the foreboding land below, you’ll have the opportunity to duck and crawl through a canyon mostly in the dark, just be sure your flashlight phone app works.

San Pedro De Atacama, Chile
Just don’t get too close to the edge!

Back in the car you’ll go to be transported to the giant sand dune – literally a giant wall of sand that you can sand board down if included with your tour, before hiking up the ridge to watch the sunset. Don’t be too hard on yourself if the 20 minute hike up leaves you breathless as you are 4000 meters above sea level. From here you can sit back and enjoy the view as the sun dips below the horizon and the sky turns from blue to orange and shades of pink. It’s a sunset you won’t soon forget.

Sunsets in the Chilean Desert
Desert sunset over Valle de la Luna

Jen’s Overall Recommendation: Amazing scenery like no where else in Chile. It’s a bit out of the way but worth the effort. Prices here aren’t cheap so be sure you’ve left money enough in your travel budget.

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