|Photo by European Southern Observatory via Flickr|
Chris Moss, The Daily Telegraph, March 10, 2015
Other than the poles, Chile’s Atacama Desert is the driest place on Earth. Deserts are sometimes defined as environments that receive less than an average of 250mm of rain in a year – the Atacama receives less than 1mm each year. As a result it is almost entirely without greenery, shade, cities or pollution. For landscape photographers – and idle dreamers – the setting is inspiring, with wind-sculpted canyons and salt lakes providing a backdrop that not only looks Martian but is actually used to test Mars rovers in simulations. Atacama is also one of the world’s foremost stargazing centres, with three major international observatories taking advantage of its clean air and huge night skies.
Bounded by the Pacific Ocean – where the cold Humboldt Current prevents rain clouds from forming – and the Andes mountains, the 41,000-square-mile desert is part of a series of contiguous arid landscapes that includes salt flats, sandy deserts, rocky peaks and active volcanoes. Though temperatures are moderate, ranging from 71F (22C) by day to 28F (-2C) after dark, the Atacama remains an extreme environment. Only cactuses and tough grasses can survive in the desert, though bromeliads flourish in zones prone to fogs. Only a few hardy mammals live here, including the chinchilla-like viscacha, the South American grey fox and Darwin’s leaf-eared mouse. Birds are in abundance, from Humboldt penguins along the coast to Andean flamingos, which feed on algae and vascular plants in the salt lakes. Keen twitchers might spot rarities such as the tamarugo conebill, Chilean woodstar and slender-billed finch.
What to see and how
If planning a three to four-day trip, stay in San Pedro, the main town, and make excursions to the nearby salt lake, geysers and observatories. If you have a week, hire a driver or car and cross into Bolivia or explore the northern mines and churches. Peak summer holiday season in Chile is Christmas to late February.
San Pedro and the salt flat
San Pedro de Atacama, which lies beside its namesake salt flat at 7,900ft above sea level, morphed, during the Nineties, from a quartz and copper mining town into a backpacker hang-out. It is now a picturesque, if overbuilt, resort town with tree-lined plazas, a pretty, 17th-century church and more cybercafes than you’d ever need. When the luxury Explora hotel opened in 1998, it kicked off a gentrification process that shows no sign of abating. This means posh hotels, wine bars and great food are everywhere, but the narrow streets can get very busy.
No one goes all this way for chichi shops and ceviche suppers. From San Pedro, it’s only an 11-mile drive south to the Salar de Atacama, Chile’s largest salt flat. Taxis and private tours can ferry visitors on the paved road that cuts a direct line across the barren valley of salt which has hardened into a sort of ice rink of hexagons or been coaxed by wind and subterranean pressures into wavelike crests. Flamingos forage in the few pools of salty water that remain, bright pink against the creamy white saltscape. Ensure your tour allows plenty of walking time to shoot pictures; keen cyclists might want to hire a bike in town and ride through the salt flat.
The most popular excursion from San Pedro is to the El Tatio geysers, at 14,173ft above sea level. As these are 55 miles from town, a 4am start is required. The drama begins when the rising sun slants across the field of some 80 geysers – which spurt highest when the cold morning atmosphere prevents the steam from evaporating.
The desert was first settled by indigenous atacameños, who herded llamas and grew maize. Archaeological sites such as the Tulor village complex are close to San Pedro.
Since 2004, northern Chile has been used by Nasa and the European Space Agency (ESA) for testing Martian rovers. To see lunar and Martian landscapes, take the afternoon tour to see sunset on the sculpted rock formations of the Valle de la Luna, Valle de la Muerte and Tres Marías. As well as these easy walks, there are several good day-hikes in the area, including the Kari Gorge, Puritama Thermal Springs and, for the intrepid, the nearby 19,590ft Sairecabur volcano. The 18,346ft Volcán Láscar, the most active volcano in northern Chile, is probably best enjoyed from a distance.
Off-road adventure to Bolivia
The Atacama Desert is a small corner of the immense high plateau (altiplano in Spanish) that stretches east to the foot of the Andes and west and north into Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. A wonderful way to explore the corner closest to the Atacama is to take a 4WD road trip to/from the town of Uyuni in Bolivia, crossing the Uyuni salt flat. It’s an ideal adventure for those who find rainforests hot and claustrophobic – though the altiplano can be literally as well as visually breathtaking – and there’s a good chance of seeing herds of vicuña and alpacas as well as viscachas, flamingos and condors. Local agencies and British specialist tour operators can arrange this trip; see lata.org for a full list of firms.
Across the Andes to Argentina
Chile’s RN51 road crosses the gravel-surfaced 12,716ft Paso de Socompa to Salta; the RN52 crosses the even higher (14,100ft), but paved, Paso de Jama to San Salvador de Jujuy. Both routes are used, though winter snowfalls can disrupt the border passes. The hotel firm Explora organises luxury nine-day “travesías”, or crossings, by 4WD from Salta in Argentina to San Pedro, via the pretty town of Cachi in the Calchaquí valley, the arid, dusty Abra del Acay – the highest point on Argentina’s Ruta 40 – and the Paso Sico (15,030ft). The trips use specially built camps, cabins and a ranch, with food provided and opportunities to go cycling, riding and trekking. From £3,761 per person ( explora.com ).
Clear, clean air and an absence of light pollution outside conurbations means the stars and planets of the southern sky are there for all to see. A startlingly bright and busy Milky Way, Saturn and Jupiter are routinely visible, and on a good night you will see the Magellanic clouds: distant dwarf galaxies visible in the southern hemisphere.
The four mirror telescopes that make up the Very Large Telescope (VLT) array at Cerro Paranal are considered to be the world’s most advanced optical instrument, with sufficient resolution and light-gathering power to “distinguish the two headlights of a car at the distance of the Moon”. The site, long off-limits to tourists, can now be visited on Saturdays at 10am and 4pm, free of charge, by booking in advance: eso.org/public/about-eso/visitors/paranal/ .
The ALMA – or Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array – was inaugurated in March 2014 and is studying clouds of dust and gas to detect faint radio signals. Tours are scheduled to begin later this year: almaobservatory.org .
On a less cosmic scale, the Explora hotel has a 16mm Meade telescope, which guests can use. Specialist tour firms in San Pedro include Alarkapin ( alarkapin.cl ), Astronomy Adventures ( astronomyadventures.cl ) and Space ( spaceobs.com ).
Cities and coast
The main regional airport is at Calama, a drab city that boomed with the influx of miners to nearby Chuquicamata, the biggest open-pit copper mine in the world; free guided tours (in Spanish) take place Mon-Fri at 1pm – email [email protected] to book a place.
The coastal cities of northern Chile are Arica, Iquique and Antofagasta. Arica, with its Gothic-style metal San Marcos church designed by Gustave Eiffel, is worth a visit if you are travelling up the Panamerican Highway to Peru. During the Twenties and Thirties, British workers settled in and around Iquique for the saltpetre mines. The abandoned Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpetre Works are a Unesco World Heritage site.
When to go
The forecast is very dry and sunny for the next century, but the best time to go is probably early autumn (October and November) and late summer (March-April) when there are fewer tourists. For stargazers, these are good times for clear skies; avoid full moons.
How to book independently
From Chile’s capital, Santiago, Calama airport is a 2hr 10min flight (or 20-plus hours by bus), from where it takes 90 minutes to transfer to San Pedro. Many independent travellers arrive without bookings or book online and there are plenty of hotels and hostels – see listings such as sanpedroatacama.com .
Alternatively, it’s easy to book a hotel and package via an agency in Santiago. San Pedro tour firms operate a range of excursions every day if you prefer to discuss your plans locally. Many people combine the Atacama with Uyuni in Bolivia, the Nazca lines in Peru or a visit to the Pacific Coast. Hiring a car is increasingly popular, and generally safe – ask for a 4WD if you really want to explore.
Andean highlights: Journey Latin America (020 8622 8444; journeylatinamerica.co.uk ) has a 21-day Pato Andino tour that visits Salta, San Pedro de Atacama, the Uyuni salt flats, La Paz in Bolivia, Cusco, Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu in Peru. From £3,858 per person including flights, transfers, b&b accommodation, meals and excursions.
Luxury adventure: Miraviva (020 7186 1111; miravivatravel.com ) offers a seven-day itinerary including three nights at Tierra Atacama with daily excursions, one night in a salt hotel in Uyuni and one night in an Airstream camper van on the salt lake. From £4,590 per person, including flights.
Starry skies: Audley Travel (01993 838650; audley.co.uk ) has an 11-day trip to Chile – including two nights at Le Reve hotel in Santiago, three nights in the Elqui Valley and three nights at the Explora hotel in San Pedro de Atacama – costing from £4,295 per person. This includes flights, transfers, full board in the Elqui Valley and San Pedro, and guided tours of the OAA and El Pangue observatories.
On a budget
Last Frontiers (01296 653000; lastfrontiers.com ) has a seven-night trip to the Atacama Desert, including two nights in Santiago and four nights at the Alto Atacama, from £2,595 per person including flights and transfers.
What to pack
A fleece for early mornings
Binoculars or telescope
A camera with a B (open shutter) setting to capture star trails
A stargazing guide
Take lots of water on all your trips.
Keep an eye on the astronomical calendar for major events in the southern hemisphere, such as the total lunar eclipses of April 4 and September 28: basicastro.com/astronomical-calendar-2015-astronomy-events.html .
Don’t forget Atacama’s human stories – see the pre-Columbian exhibits at San Pedro’s Gustavo Le Paige museum ( sanpedroatacama.com/ingles/museo.htm ).
Chilean author Ariel Dorfman’s Desert Memories is a lyrical account of the natural wonders of northern Chile. Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries contains a moving section on Atacama’s mining communities. Lonely Planet’s Chile contains information on bus timetables and accommodation for independent backpackers.
The inside track
When El Niño’s warm air makes it rain in Atacama, the desert blooms with some 200 flower species, many of them endemic.
This article was written by Chris Moss from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.