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Chile – Natural Phenomena in the Atacama Desert

Atacama Desert

Vale de la Luna, the Tatio Hot Geysers and Salt Lakes with Flamingos

Atacama Desert
Flamingo Lakes. Atacama Desert Tour Calama, Chile on December 21, 2015. (Photo by E Bryan Crenshaw III).

The two thousand square kilometres’ Atacama Desert in northern Chile is one of the most arid in the world. Nevertheless, each year thousands of tourists flock here, finding their base in the colonial town of San Pedro de Atacama, from where they set out to discover some of Chile’s surreal landscapes with natural phenomena and ancient settlements like Pukará de Quitor.

Atacama Desert’s Cordillera de la Sal or Valle de la Muerte [Death Valley]

Atacama Desert

Two kilometres west of San Pedro de Atacama is the turn-off into the Cordillera de la Sal. At one time this was a salt lake but it was pushed up and folded into bizarre rock and sand formations with the formation of the Andes. A beautiful track meanders through the rocks and sand dunes, and curves back to the main road. It is passable by car, but the sandy stretches require four-wheel drive.

Valle de la Luna – Sunset at the Moon Valley of the Atacama Desert

Valle de la Luna

The main road towards Calama, leading along the Cordillera de la Sal, climbs quickly and at its highest point offers amazing views of the uninhabitable, polychrome Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley. Fifteen kilometres from San Pedro is the turn-off to Valle de la Luna [entrance fee CLP 2000 / US $4].

Most visitors come on an organized tour from San Pedro de Atacama, but it is possible to hike or bike here as well. The most popular times of day to visit are the end of the afternoon when the sun brings out the best colours, and sunset, which is taken in from the top of a sand dune.

Salt Lakes and Flamingos Around San Pedro de Atacama

Salt Lakes and Flamingos Around San Pedro de Atacama

Several salt lakes around San Pedro de Atacama can be visited either by car [organized or private] or by bicycle. The lakes fall under the “Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos”, which gives them a protected status – many of the lakes are nesting places for flamingos. At most of the lakes an entrance free is charged of CLP 2000 [US $4].

South of San Pedro de Atacama lies Laguna Ceja, which can be visited on a day trip by bicycle. Swimming is allowed and thanks to the high concentration of salt the body will float. Bring sweet water to rinse. The other lakes such as Laguna Chaxa, Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques and Laguna Tara are further away and require a car to be reached. Rent a car in Calama or book a tour in San Pedro de Atacama.

Atacama Desert’s Hot Geysers and Hot Pools of El Tatio

hot geysers of El Tatio,

The hot geysers of El Tatio, at 4320 metres, are a much-visited site and lie one hundred kilometres north of San Pedro de Atacama. At six o’clock in the morning starts a spectacular show of steaming fumaroles, reaching temperatures of 85 degrees Celsius. Near the geysers are thermal pools to enjoy a warm bath. Entrance Fee is CLP 3500 [US $7].

Pukará de Quitor – Historical Ruins in the Atacama Desert

Pukará de Quitor

At walking distance from San Pedro de Atacama lies Pukará de Quitor. This fort dates back to the 12th century and consists of two hundred structures. Entrance fee is CLP 1500 [US $3]. Aldea Tulor is another pre-Columbian village, dating back 3000 years and remarkable for its circular clay buildings. It is located ten kilometres from San Pedro de Atacama, on the route to the Moon Valley. Entrance fee is also CLP 1500.

Organizing a Tour in San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama’s streets are lined with travel agencies, all offering [half] day trips by jeep to the incredible landscapes of the Atacama Desert as well as to other surrounding areas, for example to the world’s largest open-pit copper mine of Chuquicamata and south Bolivia. Prices and quality differ enormously, so check out several of them before deciding. The Tourist Information at the Plaza de Armas has a complaint book which gives an impression of travellers’ experiences with these agencies. In San Pedro de Atacama it is also possible to rent cars, bicycles or horses.