The long and skinny country of Chile has two major playgrounds for adventure travelers: the far south and the far north. The latter would be the Atacama Desert, where all kinds of adventures and excursions are available that could easily fill up a week’s vacation on their own.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first though: Don’t believe the guides and hack travel writers who tell you this Chilean desert is the “driest place on Earth” or the “driest desert in the world.” Neither is true. The observatory mentioned below often gets a snow dumping in January or February and there are streams running down from snowy peaks. The area has experienced bad floods twice in the past decade. Hopefully the Puritana Hot Springs will be open by the time you get there because it’s a great excursion. But as I write this they’re closed because of flood damage.
Atacama Desert Star Gazing
There is one superlative here that we won’t dispute: the Atacama region is one of the best places on the planet for star gazing. Because of altitude, dryness, and a lack of pollution, this section of northern Chile is a favorite of astronomers because it has the clearest night skies on Earth. The explora hotel here has its own observatory in San Pedro, but you’ll see even more if you head away from the lights and get into areas with no houses around.
Several companies offer trips out to see the constellations and to get an up-close look at distant worlds with an “astro tourism” excursion. If you want a view that few others will ever experience, head to ALMA Observatory. The acronym is for “Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array” and it’s an international collaboration between Europe, Japan, North America, and Chile. Set up with a group of 66 antennae that work together as a super-powerful telescope, this observatory can see planets millions of light years away with 10X the resolution of the Hubble space telescope.
Atacama Chile Hikes From San Pedro
There are a variety of hikes that are a short drive from San Pedro de Atacama hotels, including the one pictured at the top of this post. The Chile trip planners at Lost World Adventures call it “
The also like the Cornisas of the Cordillera de la Sal, which they call “the perfect introduction to Atacama’s bewitching, moon-like landscapes. Travel through the Catarpe tunnel to the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley), with a backdrop of the area’s most imposing volcanoes and sweeping, fiery red rock formations. The hike follows the desert plateau at around 8,350 feet above sea level.”
Most of the Atacama desert tours that involve hiking are not all that far or that strenuous, but if you want a serious workout, there are several volcano hikes in the region that climb steep slopes.
Steam and Mud at the Tatio Geysers
I left when it was still very dark out to get to the Tatio Geysers as the sun was coming up. It was worth the early rise though as the sun started poking through the plumes of steam in the chilly morning air. This unique landscape is full of mud pits, geysers, and steaming cracks in the earth, giving you the kind of eerie experience you find in areas with strong volcanic activity near the surface, like Iceland or Yellowstone. This is the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere though and the highest in the world at more than 14,000 feet in altitude.
You may also see these listed as El Tatio or Copacoya Geysers. The Tatio Geysers trip is offered as an included excursion from some area hotels like Tierra Atacama and on tours that come through the Atacama region.
Atacama Horseback Riding
Several companies offer horseback ride excursions in the Atacama Desert region and explora has their own stables on the edge of their resort property.
Most rides are in the morning or afternoon for two to six hours, but experienced riders can set up multi-day trips if they plan ahead. Some of the most popular destinations include:
Ayllus, home to Atacameño farming communities.
Catarpe Valley, with the Cornisas and Garganta del Diablo (Devils’ Throat), the Salt Ridge and the Salado River vegetation.
Death Valley, with strange formations and colors to view, plus huge sand dunes that rise around you.
Pukara and Quitor ruins, with remains of stone and mud structures that date back to the 12th century. They are near the San Pedro river and the Catarpe Valley.
Atacama Biking Tours
With a limited population and plenty of near-empty roads, the Atacama Desert region is a great place for bike adventures. One of the easiest excursions is just to ride out of San Pedro to the Cajar Lagoon. This is a super-salty lake that gives you extra buoyancy after you jump in to cool off. Just don’t try this if you have a cut or just shaved! Bring plenty of water, but the route is flat and is only around 15 miles one-way, 30 miles round trip.
You can also ride from San Pedro about an hour or two to get to the Quebrada de Diablo – the Devil’s Canyon. This is best done on a hybrid bike or mountain bike because you’ll be on dirt or gravel paths in the actual canyon area. The views are spectacular and since it’s sunny almost every day in this region, you’ll get plenty of great photos.
If this isn’t enough of an adrenaline rush for you, there are also mountain bike trips with serious elevation ups and downs on single-track courses in the desert landscapes. Or if you’ve dreamed of sandboarding down a sand dune, you can do that here as well.
Interested in setting up some of these Atacama Desert adventures in Chile on your next trip to South America? The best way to do it is to let experts at a specialist tour company like Lost World Adventures take care of the details. See more info on their site about tours Into the Blooming Desert or Chilean Islands and Deserts.