The driest location on Earth, the landscape of Chile’s Atacama Desert would not look out of place on Mars. If you had previously assumed that all deserts were featureless expanses of sand dunes going on forever, the Atacama is sure to come as a great surprise during your South America tour. Spectacular red canyons, salt flats, thermal lakes and lagoons are just a few of the geological features you can look forward to exploring when visiting the Atacama Desert.
The mountains of the Andes to the East, and the Pacific Ocean to the West, conspire to ensure that this particular spot on Earth receives an annual average of less than 1mm of rainfall. For this reason, you will find no towns or cities in the desert, virtually no flora or fauna, and no pollution. This last fact makes the Atacama a popular destination with amateur and professional astronomers alike: this most arid part of the world is home to a number of state-of-the-art observatories, a few of which can be visited by members of the public on guided tours.
During the daytime, there is also plenty to see in the Atacama Desert. The El Tatio geysers, Moon Valley and Tara Lagoon are just a few examples of the spectacular sights that can be reached from San Pedro de Atacama, the nearest town and the only practical place to base yourself when exploring the area. The barren volcanoes that punctuate the landscape are another popular attraction and help to give the desert an otherworldly appearance, making it like no other place on Earth.
Although mammals are in short supply in this part of the world, there is an abundance of birds to be seen, including exotic species such as the Andean flamingo on the eastern side and the Humboldt penguin on the Pacific coast. Lucky ornithologists might spot rarer specimens such as the Chilean woodstar or the slender-billed finch during their time here. Of the mammals that can be found in the desert, the South American grey fox and the viscacha, a chinchilla-like rodent, are among the most commonly seen. Darwin’s leaf-eared mouse can also be found in the Atacama.
If you would like to explore the Atacama on one of our South America tours, we recommend packing a variety of clothing for your trip. In addition to shorts and lightweight shirts, which you might expect to need in the desert climate, you should also bring thermal underwear and other warm clothing, so you can explore the mountainous areas of the Atacama without freezing to death in the process.
Although relatively few people live in this part of Chile, there are some architectural attractions that are worth checking out while you are here. These include Toconao, a small village built from the locally available white volcanic stone, as well as a number of 16thcentury Spanish churches that can be found in the vicinity.
Please do not hesitate to call for further information on this spectacular South American destination.