Between the Pacific coast and the Andes Mountains in South America exists a more than 15 million years old place. The driest non-polar place in the world. It rains less than 20 millimeters per year, some weather stations have never even recorded rain.
The Atacama Desert is a so-called coastal desert and covers 105,000 square kilometers in northern Chile. Most of it consists of rock formations, sand, and barren landscapes. A place where you’d rather not get lost.
And while the main landscape seems like being from another planet, the Atacama Desert surprises with a great variety of natural treasures. From being able to see the clearest sky in the world, hiking volcanos, watching alpacas and flamingos in their natural habitat, floating in salt lagoons, admiring hot springs, and hiking in cactus landscapes – you can really enjoy it all.
Day 1 – Floating in the Lagunas Escondidas
While flying into the mining town Calama, I was able to take a first glimpse of the place, where I was about to spend the next few days at. To be honest, seeing all these rocks and endless expanse, was frightening and exciting at the same time. What kind of place was that?
From Calama the bus took me to San Pedro de Atacama (2.500m above sea level), a little laid-back town located 100km away. Unpaved roads lead to the center of the town, driving past brown mud houses, small mini-markets, and dusty alleys. On the last stretch, I finally encountered a herd of goats in the middle of the dusty road.
I hadn’t booked any tours or visits yet, so once I’ve arrived at the hostel, I got all the advice from the hosts, chose, and booked the trips for the next four days with the agency “Turismo Mitampi”.
The first tour was planned for the same afternoon and lead me to the Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache – a complex of seven salt lagoons in the middle of the desert. They are filled with turquoise salty water whose salt content is so high that the experience of bathing in it is comparable with bathing in the Dead Sea.
Even though floating in refreshing 20-degree water while the hot desert sun is burning down might make you never want to leave, the bath in a salt lagoon is rather short. More than 30 minutes are not recommended due to the high amount of salt that could possibly dry out your skin. Even after a short bath, I already looked like I had bathed in white powder because my skin was covered in salt.
To end the tour, we went to another place in the desert to enjoy some Chilean Pisco – a distillate made from grape must.
Day 2 – Salar de Atacama
On day two we took the tour bus in the other direction, driving past changing landscapes from rocky flats to tiny bushes and dusty terrain. Our plan was to visit the Salar the Atacama, the biggest salt flat in Chile, which covers over 3000 square kilometers.
After a bumpy ride we arrived at Laguna Tebinquinche, the first of three salt lagoons we were about to see this day. Unlike the day before, it looked more like a big almost dried-out lake and the remaining water was in perfect contrast to the surrounding white salt and red terrain with the mountain range and volcanos building the horizon.
Next up were two deep freshwater holes called Ojos de Salar and then we continued to our final highlight. Surrounded by green and yellow grass, a path was leading along Laguna Piedra to Laguna Cejar where the salinity was high enough for another floating bath. As the sun was starting to set, we took the van back to San Pedro de Atacama.
Day 3 – Ruta de Las Salares
It was 8am when our black jeep took the international road CH 27 in the direction of the Paso de Jama, a mountain pass through the Andes between Chile and Argentina on over 4200 meters. As one of the highest highways in South America it connects San Pedro the Atacama with Jujuy in Argentina (a place I was about to discover a couple months later).
Before hitting the 4000m mark, we stopped in front of the volcanos Lincancabur (5916m) and Juriques (5704m) to nourish ourselves with breakfast for the upcoming road trip in the Chilean altiplano.
Our route took us through a landscape dominated by yellow desert grass, slowly driving higher and higher into the altiplano. Once we’ve passed the highest point of our trip at 4700m, the road lead into a barren basin with remains of volcanic sediment – Monjes de La Pacana.
Following the road further, we found ourselves in the Salar de Loyoques/Salar de Quisquiro, a salt pan close to the border of Argentina, in which flamingos and Vicuñas (similar to alpacas) were grassing. This was the closest stop to Argentina.
Now we slowly returned to San Pedro, stopping at different lagoons such as Salar de Tara, Salar de Aguas calientes, Laguna Diamante and finally the wetlands of the river Quepiaco, my personal favorite.
Around 15:30 we reached San Pedro again and unfortunately the altitude sickness kicked in. The rest of the day I couldn’t leave the bed anymore and had to cancel the tour for the next morning, which was visiting the Géiser del Tatio.
Day 4 – A trip to Mars / Moon
Instead of visiting the geysers on the volcano El Tatio, I slept all morning and finally regained some energy to visit different valleys for sunset.
The Valle de la Luna (moon valley) lies in the Cordillera de la Sal, only a short drive from San Pedro. If you’ve ever wondered how it looks like on the moon, that’s where you have to go. Brown rock formations pile up from the dusty underground, where there is no vegetation at all. Some cliffs are covered in white salt and when you look at the valley, you can’t believe we’re still in Chile.
Further you can see sand dunes and after another bumpy ride, we reached Valle de La Micro, another salt valley, where salt has formed beautiful crystals in the rock formations. Right in front of them, a turquoise abandoned bus is embedded in the ground, which now has become a famous photo motive.