The little oasis village of San Pedro de Atacama, with its narrow dirt streets and attractive adobe houses, has transformed itself, since the 1990s, into the tourism centre of Chile. Sitting at an altitude of 2400m between the desert and the altiplano, or puna (the high basin connecting the two branches of the cordillera), this has been an important settlement since pre-Hispanic times, originally as a major stop on the trading route connecting the llama herders of these highlands with the fishing communities of the Pacific. Later, during the nitrate era, it was the main rest stop on the cattle trail from Salta in Argentina to the nitrate oficinas, where the cattle were driven to supply the workers with fresh meat.
The large numbers of Chilean tourists and hordes of gringos here can come as quite a shock if you have just arrived from more remote parts of northern Chile. San Pedro has recently begun to lose some of its charm and is lined with overpriced, trendy-looking hotels with poor service. Luckily, you will find exceptions.
San Pedro has a high concentration of tour operators offering excursions into the surrounding altiplano, all broadly similar and all at pretty much the same price. This can, of course, be a curse as well as a blessing, for it increases tourist traffic in the region to the point where it can be difficult to visit the awe-inspiring landscape of the puna in the kind of silence and isolation in which it really ought to be experienced. Some of the tours are responsibly managed but many are not; the astounding environmental damage of late has finally, if belatedly, forced local communities (but not the national authorities) to take action; they now charge entrance fees to each site and do their best to clean up after visits. The tourist office keeps volumes of complaints registered by tourists (usually concerning reliability of vehicles or lack of professionalism) and they are worth consulting to find out which operators to avoid.
Tours usually take place in minibuses, though smaller groups may travel in jeeps. Don’t necessarily choose the cheapest tour, as some companies cram passengers in and offer below-par services, so it may be worth paying a couple of thousand pesos more. Do visit several companies – or their websites, where available – to get a feel for how they operate and to work out which one you prefer. If you don’t speak Spanish, check that they can offer guides who speak your language (French, German and English are most common languages on offer).
The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), a joint North American, East Asian, European and Chilean venture, started scientific observations in 2011 and is the largest, most powerful astronomical project in existence. Positioned at a staggering 5000m above sea level at a site east of San Pedro de Atacama called the Chajnantor plateau, this is the highest astronomical observatory of its kind on the planet. The ALMA uses state of the art technology, initially comprising 66 giant high-precision antennae working together at millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths. These can be moved up to 16km across the desert, but act as a single giant telescope. ALMA’s slogan – “in search of our cosmic origins” – gives an exciting sense of what this project is really about.
For the first time in history, astrologers will be able to study new stars being born, watch planetary systems and galaxies with unprecedented clarity, and, with time, be able to answer big questions about the origins of life itself.
The spectacular landscape around San Pedro includes vast, desolate plains cradling numerous volcanoes of the most delicate colours imaginable, and beautiful lakes speckled pink with flamingoes. You’ll also find the largest salt flat in Chile, the Salar de Atacama, a whole field full of fuming geysers at El Tatio, a scattering of fertile oasis villages, and several fascinating pre-Columbian ruins.
The otherworldliness of this region is reflected in the poetic names of its geographical features – Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), Llano de la Paciencia (Plain of Patience), Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) and Valle de la Muerte (Valley of the Dead), to mention but a few. You might prefer to explore these marvels by yourself (there’s no public transport, so you’d have to rent a 4WD), but several companies in San Pedro trip over themselves to take you on guided tours, often a more convenient option (see Casa Incaica). There is a fee to pay at each of the park entrances, ranging from CH$2000 to CH$11,000. With the exception of the Puritama thermal baths that are controversially owned by the luxury Hotel Explora, the entrance fees go straight back to the local community and help maintain the parks.
The Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon, really lives up to its name, presenting a dramatic lunar landscape of wind-eroded hills surrounding a crust-like valley floor, once the bottom of a lake. An immense sand dune sweeps across the valley, easy enough to climb and a great place to sit and survey the scenery.
The valley is at its best at sunset, when it’s transformed into a spellbinding palette of golds and reds, but you’ll have to share this view with a multitude of fellow visitors, as all San Pedro tour operators offer daily sunset trips here. A more memorable (but more demanding) experience would be to get up before day breaks and cycle to the valley, arriving at sunrise. Note that the valley is part of the Conaf-run Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos, and camping is not permitted.
The northern edge of this 3000-square-kilometre basin covered by a vast crust of saline minerals lies some 10km south of San Pedro. The largest salt flat in Chile, Salar de Atacama is formed by waters flowing down from the Andes which, unable to escape from the basin, are forced to evaporate, leaving salt deposits on the earth. It’s not a dazzling white like the Salar de Surire, or Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, but it’s fascinating all the same – especially when you get out and take a close look at the crust, which looks like coffee-coloured coral reef, or ice shards, and clanks when you walk on it. The salar contains several small lakes, including Laguna Chaxa, home to dozens of flamingoes, and the beautiful Laguna Salada, whose waters are covered with floating plates of salt.
Many tour companies also take you for a float in the saline waters of Laguna Cejar, 19km from San Pedro. This emerald green lagoon contains even more salt than the Dead Sea. Your guide will warn you to wear shoes when walking on the banks, as very sharp salt crests can cut your feet. Remember to bring bottles of water to wash the salt off afterwards.
A trip to the Tatio geysers is quite an ordeal: first, you drag yourself out of bed in the dead of night with no electric lights to see by; then you stand shivering in the street while you wait for your tour company to come and pick you up at around 4am; and finally, you embark on a three-hour journey on a rough, bumpy road. Added to this is the somewhat surreal experience of finding yourself in a pre-dawn rush hour, part of a caravan of minibuses following each other’s lights across the desert.
But hardly anyone who makes the trip regrets it. At 4300m above sea level, these geysers form the highest geothermal field in the world. It’s essentially a large, flat field containing countless blowholes full of bubbling water that, between around 6am and 8am, send billowing clouds of steam high into the air (strictly speaking, though, geysers spurt water, not steam). At the same time, the spray forms pools of water on the ground, streaked with silver reflections as they catch the first rays of the sun. It’s a magnificent spectacle. Take great care, however, when walking around the field; the crust of earth is very thin in some parts, and serious accidents can happen.
You should also remember that it will be freezing cold when you arrive, though once the sun’s out the place warms up quite quickly. There’s also a swimming pool near the geysers, visited by most tour companies, so remember to take your swimming gear. It’s worth noting, however, that tour guides will refuse to take you if you’re visibly hungover when they come to pick you up at 4am, so it’s best to have a quiet one the evening before.
Top image: Church of San Pedro de Atacama, Atacama Desert, Chile © Jose L. Stephens/Shutterstock