This is the Atacama of red-rock salt mountains, silvery geysers, saline lagoons and the world's best stargazing. The scenery is incredible, but with the visitor numbers to match...
The Atacama is a place of natural phenomena. The geysers billow huge plumes of silvery steam into the air at daybreak, the salt mountains glow a warm red at sunset and the stars shine bright in vast night skies.
This presents us with a conundrum. How to do them justice when everyone wants to see the same thing at the same time? Take the famous Moon Valley for example, which hums with vehicles in the late afternoon. Even for something so vast, it can feel quite busy and they even have to shut the place when too many vehicles pass through it.
So how do we do it justice? We put on our boots and just walk away from everyone else. It's a 4km hike in total, nothing too strenuous, but just a little thought on our part and a bit of effort on yours can transform the experience, without sacrificing the views.
And the Tatio Geysers?
At the Tatio Geysers, you'll be there at sunrise to see them at their best. But rather than go back to San Pedro with everyone else, you can do a challenging hike across the high plains or a more gentle walk along the banks of the lovely Vilma River, through high grass and giant cacti, birdlife all around.
But the headline sights are half the story...
We think walking is the best way to slow down and appreciate the true variety and beauty of the landscapes up here. That holds true at the most iconic sights, but even more so when you start to head off the beaten path. This is a side of the Atacama precious few will see - old Inca pathways, remnants of original settler communities and the view into Bolivia and Argentina from atop a volcano.
One easy walk starts at 4,000m up in the Andes, alongside meadows full of grazing vicuna before descending through a series of valleys and remote communities, often along old Inca trails. The scenery is spectacular and changes from the rarified atmosphere of the high Andes to the greenery of the oasis town of Rio Grande.
There's also a dry river bed to follow - a treasure trove of ancient remnants of early inhabitants of the Atacama. Your destination is the adobe remnants of the ancient village of Tulor. It was there that the first settled community chose to stay, over 3,000 years ago.
And how about walking from an old sulphur mine up the side of a volcano? Sounds like hard work, but at three hours and at the slow pace the altitude demands, it is eminently manageable for most. Your reward? Expansive and rarely-seen views across the mountains into Bolivia and Argentina.
How to visit San Pedro de Atacama with Pura Aventura We recommend you stay for four or five nights to really enjoy everything this part of the Atacama Desert has to offer, without ever feeling rushed and with time aplenty to see both the well-known sights and the bits few others get to visit. Throughout your time you will share the company of our local guide, and your days are carefully structured to gradually take you higher as you acclimatise to the altitude.
As a year-round destination, when to visit the Atacama Desert is a question better extended to encompass the places which will likely dovetail your Chile holiday. Patagonia is best between October to April, bookended by the spring blooms and the autumnal foliage of the far south. Heading north into the Bolivian altiplano and on to Peru can be comfortably done any time between March and December.
Of course, the easiest way to plan your trip is to take a look at our itineraries below, or share your ideas with us to speak to someone who has been there, when you are ready.
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