Chile is known as the land of contrasts for a reason: The thin country stretches for 2,700 miles and encompasses some of the Earth’s most breathtaking mountain peaks and deserts. In the south, Patagonia stands as an iconic adventure traveler’s dream. The region is well known for the Torres del Paine National Park, and trekkers flock to the area in the December and January months for Chile’s summer. On a recent trip to the country, however, I found unmatched beauty in Chile’s northern desert of San Pedro de Atacama. The lunar landscape is an ideal backdrop for outdoor (and Instagram!) enthusiasts. Here are 7 things you must do when you visit.
During my first two days in San Pedro de Atacama, I stayed at Awasi Atacama, a property known for its private guided excursions. My guide, Cristobal, and I went to Valle de la Luna (moon valley) for my first adventure in the desert. The valley is known as one of the best places to watch the surreal sunset of San Pedro de Atacama. The clay-and-salt mountains turn multiple shades of color in a mere twenty minutes, ending in a burnt amber hue that makes any photographer’s dreams come true.
I began the next day with an adrenaline-charged morning of mountain biking through Quebrada del Diablo (devil’s canyon). The narrow corridors make for an exciting adventure through the quartz-flecked canyon.
3. Hike through the Quebrada de Guatín
The Quebrada de Guatín (also known as cactus valley) is the perfect place for an afternoon hike. A river flows through the valley, and vegetation can be seen all along the trail. Massive cardon (cacti) can be seen at every turn, and tiny waterfalls are sprinkled throughout. The end of the trail leads to a level plain that can be perfectly timed to view the sunset.
4. View the Wildlife of the Salar de Tara
No trip to San Pedro de Atacama is complete without a visit to the High Plateau of Salar de Tara. The drive is almost as beautiful as the destination, with massive rock structures that could easily be mistaken for Rapa Nui’s moai. Flamingos, foxes, and other wildlife are abundant in the area, and the view is best enjoyed over a picnic lunch.
Ignacio, Awasi Atacama’s resident astronomer, is the perfect guide through San Pedro de Atacama’s night sky. The desert has almost no light pollution and is the world's highest desert elevation-wise, so the location offers stargazers the most unobstructed view of the stars. The sky is filled with myths and legends from the Mapuche natives, as visions of scorpions, llamas, and butterflies twinkle to life.
Though temperatures drop below zero at the El Tatio geysers, the chill is well worth the view. I departed around 5 A.M. from Alto Atacama to see steam erupt from the geysers at its most active time of day. As sunrise broke through the clouds, the steam created a beautiful contrast against the sandy landscape.
Try to say this volcano’s name three times in a row. It took almost the entire week for me to get it right, but Volcán Licancabur is hard to forget. The stratovolcano inhabits both Bolivia and Chile, and dominates almost every picture of the San Pedro de Atacama landscape.