The Atacama Desert, Earth version of the Planet March

Atacama Desert: The north of Chile is occupied by this extraordinary salty desert located between 2,000 and 3,000 m above sea level, with an exceptionally pure sky that allows you to observe the infinitely large. The exploration is organized from the cities of Antofagasta, Calama and San Pedro de Atacama.

mountains in the background with the moon and desert in the foreground
Desierto De Atacama, Atacama Desert, Chile. Picture from @anotherwriter

The Atacama is the driest desert in the world, spread over 100,000 km². In places, it hasn’t rained for 80 years … A rocky steppe as far as the eye can see, a land cracked by the intense heat and, when approaching the Andes, volcanoes with snow-capped peaks tidied up like in battle, unreal lagoons and salares (salt deserts) inhabited by clouds of flamingos. Depending on the altitude where we are, we discover, amazed, mysterious geysers, ocher sand dunes, or small oases in lunar landscapes. The soil exudes salt in all its forms: crystallized puddles, padded sheets, concretions … Proof that a long time ago, the sea covered everything.

two flamingos getting food on water photo
Two flamingos in Salar de Atacama, Chile. Picture from Thomas Griggs

A history of mining

On the road, ruins of ghost towns arise from nowhere, solitary witnesses of the epic of the saltpeter which turned Chilean history upside down. Essentially a mining region, Atacama supplies Chile with one of its main current resources: copper.

Old factory buildings in the abandoned city of Humberstone, Chile
Old factory buildings in the abandoned city of Humberstone, Chile. Picture from Wikipedia

San Pedro de Atacama, starting point for the Atacama desert

This large village with adobe houses, perched at 2,440 m above sea level, nestles in the heart of a sparse oasis lost in the middle of the desert. Its charm is due to its narrow pedestrian alleys, its pretty shaded square, from where you can see the majestic Licancabur volcano and its picturesque little church from the 16th century. The Padre Le Paige archaeological museum evokes the history of the Atacama populations, from the first hunters to the influences of the Tiahuanaco (Bolivia), Inca and Spanish cultures. The objects come mainly from the discoveries of the missionary father Gustave Le Paige, a Belgian Jesuit whom a story of friendship led him to be named in Chile. He brought to light The town is the ideal starting point for unforgettable excursions – on foot, by bike, on horseback, in 4×4 – in the vastness of the desert and on the altiplano.

low-angle photography of a church bell under a calm blue sky
San Pedro de Atacama’s church built in adobe. Picture from Paal Ultra

Valle de la Luna, The Valley of the Moon

Thrill-seekers will indulge in the joys of quad biking, buggy, and sandboarding (snowboarding in the dunes). In the valley of the Moon, we follow a small canyon covered with salt, then we reach a large dune that separates two small valleys, bleached by salt after the rains … A path bypasses the dune, then circulates along a vertiginous ridge, offering an exceptional point of view on the valley. Lunar, really, even unreal. Streaked with ocher and white, the tortured rocks multiply endlessly. What a geology lesson!

landscape photography of rock mountain
Valle de la Luna, Valley of the Moon in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Picture from Vinícius Henrique Photography

The name of the Death Valley (Muerte valley) comes from a strange shift. Originally, Le Paige, the Belgian parish priest, had baptized it “Valle de Marte” (valley of Mars), for its relief evoking the red planet. Over time, “Marte” turned into “Muerte” … It’s not the same as Death Valley from California. Thanks to the time, we now have two valleys with the same name.

a blue geyser surrounded by white rocks
Geysers are part of the Atacama Desert landscapes. Learn more about them later in the article. Picture from Benjamín Gremler

A small canyon leads to rocks cut by the wind, a real open geological book. The lines of white oceanic limestone remind us that the region was only an ocean, a long time ago. Atacamite objects dating from the 11th century, including beautiful gold ornaments.

Head in the stars

The Atacama Desert is home to the largest radio astronomy observatory in the world, the ALMA. Perched at an altitude of 5,000 m on the Chajnantor plateau, the installation consists of 66 antennas. It is equivalent to a 16 km diameter telescope, capable of reaching the oldest part of the universe.

tents near mountain during night time
The Atacama Desert is a priviledeged place to watch the sky. Picture from Alec baker

The natural treasures of the Atacama desert

Dominated by the round of volcanoes, the immense saline depression of the Atacama Salar extends over 320,000 ha. Located at an altitude of 2,300 m, it is the largest salar in Chile. It was formed by the condensation of the salt contained in the groundwater. Lagoons punctuate the valley, but space is mainly occupied by a tormented salt crust. That crust forms a hostile relief, or drawing rough ripples as petrified. The estimated salt thickness can reach 1,450 m!

At sunrise and sunset, the place takes on magnificent ocher, pink and beige hues. The lagoon Cejar and the lagoon of Piardas constitute the only place where you can swim in a salt lake. We float there as well as in the Dead Sea! The Tebenquiche laguna, for its part, is covered with a thick crust of salt. It looks like an ice sheet rather incongruous in such latitudes. Sky, clouds, and volcanoes reflect in the water. You can also visit the village of Toconao, where alpaca and llama wool are worked on traditional looms, as well as “Toconao stone”, a fine grain granite.

Further South of San Pedro

Not far away is the Quebrada de Jere. Downstream from the cordillera, the waters of the lean Rio Jere have given birth to an orchard nestled in the bottom of a small canyon in the middle of the desert. A peaceful, shaded, and cool place! Not far from Toconao, here is the Laguna de Chaxa, where you can admire up close, in a dizzying silence, three species of flamingos: James flamingo with very clear liberty and red legs, flamingo from Chile with ” pink knees and predominantly black bill, and the extraordinary Andean flamingo with scarlet wings (and yellow legs). Feeding on the water during the day, they return to their nesting place in the evening, at the edge of three other lakes entirely preserved from human traffic. Their flight in small groups is spectacular.

pink and white flamingo with black tail and yellow legs
An Andean Flamingo. Picture from ebird.org

All around, a landscape of saline concretions with dazzling whiteness. On the Paso Sico road, rolling endlessly grandiose landscapes of yellowed steppe climbing up to the volcanoes, the small oasis village of Socaire is surrounded by small rectangular plots planted with corn. From there, a track climbs through the wild steppes up to over 4,000 m above sea level, at the foot of volcanoes. Suddenly, one, then two sublime lagoon-blue lakes arise, the Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons, around which vicuñas graze. We feel here a feeling of space to make you dizzy.

Further East of San Pedro

Planted on the Chilo-Bolivian border and dominating the whole region, the Licancabur volcano is a perfect and majestic cone, surrounded by snow in winter. From the top, the view of the crater, its frozen lake, and the nearby Juriques volcano is spectacular. By taking the international road which leads to Paso Jama, you can see the rocks chiseled by the wind forming the Monjes de la Pacana. Then we head towards the Salar de Tara, its lagoon extended over 3 to 25 km² depending on the season, and the Catedrales de Tara, evoking a castle in ruins. Here is the altiplano in all its splendor!

red SUV facing mountain in atacama desert
The Licancabur. Picture from Loïc Mermilliod

Further North of San Pedro

Valle del Arcoiris (The Rainbow Valley) reveals an incredible palette of colors: the stone is green, blue, red, orange … We also admire the shape of rocky concretions, eroded by the wind. Magnificent. You can also join the geysers dedicated to Tatio Mallku, “the crying ancestor” in the Atacamian language: around forty geysers and 60 hot springs. Do not miss the splendid spectacle of dawn which bathes in a pink light the volcanoes and the mountains with snowy summits, with the fumaroles of the geysers in the foreground …

rocky mountain in atacama desert
Valle del Arcoiris (The Rainbow Valley), San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Picture from Agnieszka M

To the west of the geysers awaits you Caspana, village-oasis with terraced crops on the edge of the canyon. You can also visit Chiu-Chiu, a small village founded in 1611, an old stage on the Inca Trail. Its San Francisco Church, one of the oldest in Chile, has magnificent colonial architecture, with thick whitewashed adobe walls, buttresses, a ceiling, and cactus wood doors, now kept by lama leather straps studded with tiny little holes of light.

traditional village with terracota houses
Caspana is a traditional village close to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Picture from Wikipedia

The Atacama desert seems to be a junction between the terrestrial world and the spatial world, between our finite space and the infinity of the universe. A fabulous experience. Beauties that are desired Geysers wake up because of the thermal amplitude between the water temperature, very high, and the outside temperature, still very cold early in the morning. It is therefore at dawn that geysers are most visible, and in particular in winter when the thermal amplitude operates at full capacity. The ideal outdoor temperature is indeed around -17 ° C! They then reach up to 7 m high.

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