The world’s highest desert is a visual drama known to bring the most jaded traveller to tears. A bizarre geological collage, it layers Sahara-style sand dunes, majestic volcanoes, jetting geysers, crusty salt lakes and azure lagoons. Three of the world’s 5 flamingo species nest here, and it's also home to herds of shy guanacos and vicuñas (kin to the llama). Even the light is a force of nature - especially at sunset, when waning rays repaint the landscape second by second. Afterwards, the night sky unfurls a jewelled cloak of stars that you won’t see again in this life. Take it all in. Or take it on via extreme adventures, ranging from volcano-climbing to sand-boarding. In laid-back San Pedro de Atacama, you’ll find guides, good eats and WiFi. Plan on spending at least 4 days here so you can adjust to the altitude (2,450m above sea level) and give this captivating spot its due.
Desolate Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) lies 13km west of San Pedro de Atacama. Its lunar-like landscape encompasses wind-sculpted dunes, jagged outcrops and rock formations carved by water - spectacular at any time but particularly so at sunset, when it changes from pink to red to purple to black. It’s one of the driest places on the planet (some sections haven’t received a drop of rain in hundreds of years) and was used to test the prototype of the Mars rover.
A short drive from San Pedro is the vast Salar de Atacama salt flat; spend a while here and you might see Andean, Chilean and James’s flamingos in mid-flight. There are more flamingos, as well as plovers and geese, at the highland lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques. Most of our featured hotels run excursions which include a picnic lunch on one of the lakeshores, along with the chance to bob around in a natural pool whose salt-rich water makes swimming almost impossible.
There are plenty of galleries and shops on Caracoles and Tocopilla streets. Look for hand-woven alpaca blankets, aguayos (traditional Andean textiles used to carry things), handcrafted Atacama pottery, cactus-wood boxes and picture frames, and jewellery made from silver or seeds from native chinar, algarrobao and pimiento trees. Avoid the more touristy Mercado Artesenal, a covered passage off the main square, whose wares are mostly imported from Peru and Argentina.
Take a trip to the 80 geysers around El Tatio volcano, where you can watch gusts of hissing steam rising from the centre of the Earth and columns of boiling water jetting hundreds of feet into the air. If you can get up early enough, visit at daybreak to see the first morning light glinting through the spray.
Horse-riding tours are a great way to see the scenery, and gringo-loving San Pedro also has plenty shops that rent mountain bikes (Devil’s Gorge is a favourite destination). If you’re fit and accustomed to the altitude - generally after 24 hours and plenty of (non-alcoholic) fluids - you can take on a volcano. The most popular trek is the 4-hour, 5,400m ascent up Lascar. If you’ve got a taste for something a little more offbeat, jump on a surfboard and “hang ten” down a 150m-high sand dune.
San Pedro has a huge array of restaurants, bars and cafés serving up everything from cheap street food to gourmet cuisine. Some of the best include:
The Padre Le Paige Archaeological Museum in San Pedro de Atacama is a treasure - a wheel of small galleries displaying the finds of the eponymous Belgian Jesuit priest and documenting the evolution of the Atacamenean culture. We also recommend taking a peek inside the Church of San Pedro, a national monument since 1952; it’s constructed with leather straps instead of nails, with a ceiling of cactus wood, mud and straw.
The Atacama’s altitude and bone-dry atmosphere make it one of the world’s top stargazing sites, and it’s home to the $1 billion ALMA project, which trains 64 gigantic telescopes on the heavens. But the blanket of stars is just as breathtaking seen with the naked eye. Spend an evening with astronomer Alain Maury and you’ll get a fascinating 2-hour tour of the night sky, delivered with a delightful dry wit and a cup of hot chocolate.
You'll find similarly stunning skies in the Elqui Valley, south of the Atacama. Here, you can stay at Elqui Domos in a domed tent with a removable roof or a stilted cabin with a glass ceiling, watching the stars from your bed.