Picture the word “desert”. Like most people, the first images to pop into your mind are of endless, repetitive sand dunes or even icy frozen wastelands in every direction. Wonderful images that, of course, warrant a visit. A visit that might span a day, maybe two. You come, you see, you leave. Not really stay for the views kinda places...as the ‘views’ are the same no matter which way you look.
At least all of that is definitely what I thought. I once visited Death Valley in Nevada. Death Valley = a dry and sandy dust bowl. It was fascinating and a must-see, but I certainly wasn’t inspired to stay and wander or rave about it to everyone I encountered afterward. I walked away thinking, “Cool, so I’ve seen a desert. Guess I’ve seen ‘em all.”
Boy, was I wrong.
Follow along with me as I do my best to put into words why you don’t visit the Atacama Desert, you experience it. Come with me to a place that is not just different from any desert in the world, but any place in the world.
The beauty of the Atacama started with the time warp I experienced while there. Four days in the heart of the beautiful desert felt simultaneously like a lifetime and over in a blink. While I could go on for pages and hours about all of the wonders, I’ll stick to the top 5 brightest of my highlights.
Highlight #1: Our arrival at the airport was met with floor-to-ceiling window views of a stunning display of the Andes mountain range. The rocky taupe terrain angled sharply at the horizon to a never-ending mountain range, each individual peak snow-capped so perfectly they looked like they were painted by Bob Ross. As we exited the airport to begin the 2-hour trip through the desert into San Pedro, the Oasis of the Atacama, I quickly realized how endless the views were.
From every angle, these perfectly snow-capped mountains were contrasted by the reddish-brown rockiness all around. At one point, we pulled over and climbed up to an overlook to take some photos. As we crested the overlook, my breath literally caught in my throat. It was like I was looking at the surface of Mars; reddish-brown rock dunes coated with white salt under a cloudless sky as far as my eyes allowed. It was spectacular, and that was just the transfer IN!
Side note: Every hotel and lodge in or around San Pedro de Atacama take advantage of the 360-degree views, offering only outward facing rooms with massive windows. No matter where your room is, you will always have the best view.
Highlight #2: While vacations aren’t normally considered a time you’d set your alarm to wake up at 4:30 a.m., the prospect of hot air ballooning over these same impressive views really changes one’s perspective. As odd as it sounds, floating thousands of feet above the earth with 15 other people in a large basket hooked to a gas balloon propelled by a ball of fire was 100% worth the lack of sleep. We arrived at the take-off spot right before the sun hit the horizon. The sky was a beautiful blend of navy and violet with golden beams peaking over the Andes’ black silhouette. The inflation of our balloons synchronized with the sun, as if they had the same purpose, preparing to rise above the vast landscape. They finished inflating right as the sun crested the mountains’ rugged horizon! We piled in and slowly ascended. I’m not exaggerating when I say I am struggling to find the right words to adequately express my amazement at what I experienced that morning. For one, there was such a sense of stillness I expected to feel the basket jerk or rock back and forth in the breeze, but it felt like sailing ever so slowly across still waters. At one point, however, we floated directly above the other balloon that had ascended with us and noticed that it was so far above the ground, you could no longer see its shadow. And that balloon seemed to be hundreds of miles beneath us.
But it just wasn’t.
Maybe it was the altitude or the adrenaline, but the higher we went, the calmer I felt. An incredibly blissful feeling. The serenity up there was complimented by the stunning panoramic views of the desert, river, mountains, valleys and small towns below. The brown earth below was endless. On one side, the Andes range shaped a natural wall, giving way only to tiny San Pedro, a pinpoint of green space in a sea of reds and browns.
Directly behind San Pedro, sat the Valley of the Moon, interrupting the earthy tones with heavy dustings of what looked--impossibly--like pure white snow spreading across the dunes (more on that in a minute).
Snow-capped mountains on one side, a valley dusted white on the other, and the sun at eye level floating in a completely cloudless sky. It was unbelievable.
Highlight #3: After touchdown, a short drive dropped us up-close and personal to the Valley of the Moon. The Valley of the Moon is yet another phenomenon that is difficult to put into words.
Because of its colors and terrain, it is described as looking similar to the surface of the moon, as its name implies. I’ve never been to the moon, but it must be breathtaking because that’s what it’s like to look at its namesake. My brain’s only directive was to take pictures, as it was having a hard time processing what I was seeing in that moment and we both knew recounting it later would be a challenge.
I hiked up a dune to take said pictures from the top and there went the breath right out of me, for the umpteenth--but not the last--time during my journey. To the left were dunes that looked as smooth and brown as peanut butter. All the way to the right were redder and much rougher, uneven rock formations that looked like they belonged in a different place. Then, in the very middle of where I was looking, were heavy layers of bright, bright white particles spreading across the dunes.
What I’d seen from high in the sky hadn’t been snow, but natural deposits of salt. Salt was coating the ground so thickly in parts that they actually made delightfully crunchy sounds as you walked over them. The vast expanse of my surroundings and the strange contrasting geography certainly gave the feeling of being somewhere otherworldly.
Highlight #4: Another early morning, that led to another awe-inspiring experience: the geysers of El Tatio, at a hefty 4,320 meters above sea level.. Word of caution: when travelling from a place near sea level to one that is way above sea level, be sure to hydrate much more than you think you need. The altitude plays no games and gives no mercy. Fortunately, it only affected me during the beginning of the tour, but some of my travel companions were sick the whole day. No bueno.
When we arrived at the geysers, it was as if the landscape was posing for postcards. It wasn’t like what Google shows you with the water shooting 10 feet into the air, but it was amazing nonetheless. Every color and scene were so very vivid.
The sky: a brilliant pastel blue. The mountains: icy gray with ivory peaks, the powder white steam slowing rising up. The sun: glinting off the scalding water bubbling up out of the ground, creating miniature creeks slithering into the dusty brown terrain. The grass: green and yellow patches creating a soft barrier between the mountain bases and geyser plains. If picturesque is what you’re looking for, these geysers are it.
As we sat and snacked after meandering around for a while, a fox came out of nowhere and wandered over to check if we had any extras. While we were unable to share our treats with the wildlife, I was so tickled to have come within 15 feet of a wild fox. A wild fox! It was awesome. He was quite the little cutie. I was still freaking out about the fox when we turned around only to see a herd of wild vicuñas walks through the park, peacefully grazing on the grass and enjoying the day. Never heard of a vicuña? Me neither until that moment. They are almost like a camel-deer-llama hybrid which only live at certain very high altitudes. It was incredible to encounter such rare, unique (and adorable) creatures.
Highlight #5: Next up, the hot springs. We arrived from the geysers after a short drive around a valley and into a canyon. We changed into our swimsuits and slipped into perfectly warm and crystal clear waters as our amazing tour guides set up a buffet lunch of chicken, salad, steak, and quinoa paired with the famous Chilean Carmenere wine. Sitting in the middle of this red-rock canyon, each hot spring pool was surrounded by tall green grasses and lush fauna, being connected only by a small stream that flowed between them creating tiny waterfalls and an all-around perfect oasis valley. It was such a peaceful little paradise, a hidden gem in the massive desert.
Highlight #6: I planned on limiting this to only 5 highlights and have not been able to stop! That’s because the adventure there never slowed down or stopped either. Right after our wonderful lunch at the hot springs, it was time to leave. Most of our travel group went directly back to the lodge, but a few of us, myself included, took on the challenge of hiking through the canyon and meeting our driver at the end. Challenging? Yes. But also very, very worth it. We followed a boardwalk pathway through numerous other springs until the canyon walls started getting closer together and the hot springs water changed from large pools to a small, bubbling creek.
We trekked the rocky sand trail, going up and over boulders (tripping down a couple every now and then) and across a small creek that decided to get wider and deeper right when we decided to cross it. After swatting our way through walls of 8-foot tall grass that, when rubbed the wrong direction, will leave nasty little cuts all over your arms, we finally ended with one last uphill trek of the canyon wall.
Every moment was unforgettable. Despite the fact that we were simply following a well-tracked trail, the land was so undisturbed and raw I felt like an explorer charting undiscovered lands. And our guide was amazing. He was a Brazilian who moved to Chile when he was 18 and fell in love with the nature and adventure options in the Atacama. He answered every question we could think up and taught us so much about the land. He knew every rock and plant and was more than happy to share his knowledge with us. It was so much fun!
Bonus Highlight: Ok, I had too many amazing experiences to just limit them, so we’ll count this as a bonus one. Some of our travel companions were staying at Explora Atacama, an amazing all-inclusive lodge that happens to have its own observatory and massive telescope, so we got to join their tour. Have you ever been out to the country or a less populated beach on a clear night and looked up? You know how you can see more stars than you would be able to normally? Well, no offense, but you really haven’t seen anything. When you’re standing in the middle of a desert with zero light pollution for hundreds of miles in every direction, at a higher altitude, on a clear night and looked up, you’ll know what I mean. It was not a sky full of stars. It honestly looked like someone took a navy felt blanket and spilled a bottle of fine glitter all over it then stuck to the ceiling. I saw constellations I'd never heard of; there were constellations in the dark spaces between constellations, which blew my mind. We saw the Milky Way stretch across the sky like a glowing sash. And this was all with the naked eye. Once we got into the observatory and fired up the telescope, we were able to see what we thought was 1 star to the naked eye was in fact 2 separate stars that were just really close together. But the coolest part was seeing Jupiter and 4 of its moons. Like I’m talking the orange and white layers of the planet’s atmosphere and everything. It was a small dot on the lens, but it was unmistakable and unbelievable.
The Atacama is so much more than a desert. From the food to the landscape, it’s brilliantly diverse in every aspect. From the unique wildlife and hot springs to salt covered valleys and snow-peaked mountains among rocky sand dunes. It’s been almost 2 months since my trip and I still can’t believe it was real. It was the most enlightening and enriching experience I’ve ever had.
Go on your own Atacama adventure and let me know your top highlights!