Information about the natural wonders of the Atacama Desert in Chile, location, tourism and the largest astronomical observatory in the world.
It is located in the regions of: Arica, Parinacota, Tarapacá, Antofagasta, Atacama and Coquimbo. The Atacama Desert is considered one of the most arid places in the world. It has an approximate area of 105,000 square kilometers. It is the best place on the planet to observe the sky, being ideal for astronomy because of the lack of cloudiness. In addition, the Atacama desert has the largest astronomical observatory in the world, called ALMA. There is the largest radio telescope that exists on the Earth.
Due to the dryness of the soils of the Atacama desert, they are compared with those of the planet Mars. NASA has tested in the area several instruments and robots used in expeditions to this planet. In 2003, a team of researchers published in the journal Science, a report entitled: Mars-like soils in the Atacama Desert, Chile, and the dry limit of microbial life.
This desert is one of the most visited and most visited tourist sites in Chile in South America. This desert was one of the places to compete in the Dakar Rally from 2009 to 2015. This was forbidden due to damage caused to the soil by the vehicles. Leaving irreversible damage to the natural and archaeological heritage of the desert, with deterioration of the soil and the geoglyphs.
Atacama desert location
Before starting to tell about my great experience in Atacama desert in Chile. I must say, that this place has an incalculable beauty and that what is said about it is really true. Definitely, it is from another world and not only because of its similarity with the moon and the planet Mars. But also, for the great beauty of its landscapes that are indescribable and unimaginable.
The best departure point to the desert is in San Pedro de Atacama. I traveled together with my cousin Gloria. So, we took a 2 hour flight from Santiago de Chile to Calama. This city has an airport and is the closest one to San Pedro de Atacama. Arriving in Calama we took a small bus of the Transfer Pampa Company to San Pedro. If you prefer to go by bus to enjoy the view, you can take one directly from Santiago de Chile. Although, some buses stop in Calama.
San Pedro de Atacama
When we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, we settled in the hotel Then we started to explore this small town of adobe homes. f course we took a lot of pictures of the mall and the church. Also, we bought many stuffs, including some handcrafts. Likewise, we visited the Gustavo Le Paige museum; where beautiful archeological pieces are exhibited – I loved it. I confess that I am a lover of archeology. So much so, that even Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones movies are my favorite because of their subject matter.
Finally, we find out with many people the best way to visit the desert. According to the information they gave us, we decided to take a guided tour with an agency. They told us to go to the street of snails. At that street, there are many tourism agencies who organize excursions to the Atacama desert. We got the excursion package to start the next day. Although, there are people who do not hire these services, they prefer to rent a vehicle and visit the desert on their own. It seems to me excellent to visit it in this way, because you are not restrain to the agencies time. However, we got the agency package to be not worried about driving.
Atacama desert tourism
Before doing any tourism activity in the Atacama Desert, you should know that solar radiation is very strong. Even in those days where the weather is not so hot. For instance, in spring season, between the months of October and December. Therefore, you need to wear a good sunscreen, a cap and hot-weather outfits. Furthermore, you need to drink a lot of water to be enough hydrated. So, drink a lot of water.
In contrast, there are some places at high altitude where it is quite cold, so you need to be wrapped up. Its temperature is so variable, you must prepare clothes for heat and cold weather.
Altiplano lagoons, red rocks and Atacama salt flat
We started the tour of these beautiful places so early in the morning. Before arriving at the lagoons and during the whole tour we made many stops. The guide explained us that stops were necessary for adapting gradually the body to the height. Since we were going to be in very high altitudes, approximately 4,200 meters above sea level. The first stop we made was in the town of Socaire. There, we walked through the streets, contemplating the small houses of the place. Also, we were at the church and small local markets buying some woolen fabrics, which are typical of this town.
Miscanti and Miñaqui lagoons
These two highland lagoons of magnificent beauty have crystalline turquoise waters. They reflect the whole landscape around them, surrounded by mountains. They are next to huge volcanoes, approximately 4,200 meters high. They are the shelter of several animals, among them the flamingos. Pink color contrasts perfectly with the turquoise of the water, with the yellow of the vegetation and with the brown of the volcanoes.
It is a quiet place where peace is breathed. Personally, when I contemplate the landscape gazing at the immensity of creation, I remembered some moments of my life. Really, it is a place that makes you reflect and where you would like to stay forever.
A natural environment of great beauty with red volcanic stones. Their color is due to the oxidation of the iron present. They are found in the Aguas calientes salt flat.
It is an incredible site with a variety of colors, looking like a watercolor. Apart from the red of the stones, there are turquoise tones in its waters, the white of the salt and the brown color of its huge mountains. In this place, only the whistling of the wind is heard, which is very strong. On many occasions, my eyes filled with dust due to so much wind and my skin and lips got very dry. According to my experience, I consider essential to wear sunglasses to avoid eye pain. Despite this, I really enjoyed the enormous beauty of the place and took extraordinary photos.
Atacama salt flat
It is the largest salt flat in Chile and the third largest salt flat in the world (Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia is the biggest in the world). There is the Chaxa lagoon, where you can see a variety of bird species. Among the most outstanding are the flamingos, who come and go all over the place, becoming a visual attraction for all the spectators.
In addition, at this lagoon there is a mirror effect. Property to reflect the entire landscape on the clarity of the water. Therefore, this lagoon is one of the most visited. In addition, you can observe an extraordinary sunset. Due to the sunset, people can see the reflection of reddish tones on the volcanoes. This effect makes seeing an impressive multicolored landscape.
Because of the high altitude of the Atacama desert, your body can be affected. For me it was not the exception. I began to feel some effects due to the height. I felt that I was a little dizzy having shortness of breath and headache. The guide who accompanied us told me that it was normal, so I was nothing to worry about. Then, the guide gave me a headache pill and a chocolate, helping me to calm the dizziness. Also, I had to sit a little and hydrate with enough water to be able to breathe. Fortunately, little by little I got well being able to continue enjoying the beautiful salt flat and the Chaxa lagoon.
It is a small town located about 38 km south of San Pedro de Atacama. It highlights, the church, the bell tower San Lucas (Built apart from the church) and the mall. Its architecture is based on constructions made of volcanic origin rocks. With this last ones, people sell typical handcrafts. In addition, they sell wool and alpaca fabrics. In the visit to this town we went through its streets, entered the church and bought some souvenirs. Also, we visited a corral where you can see llamas. This plan was very funny because we were able to touch them and interact with them.
Puritama hot springs
They are formed by 8 natural wells, which increase their temperature from 25 ° C to approximately 40 ° C. The place is ideal to relieve stress, since the heat of the water allows physical as well as mental relaxation. This place is one of my favorites, because it helped me a lot to relax from the stress of work.Also, it served me to rest from the exhausting journeys during the trip. Also, I felt a lot of relief for my constant back and waist pains. Also, I felt a lot of relief for my constant back and waist pains. Waters are medicinal because of their temperatures and the minerals. These properties help to relieve pain, in some cases of rheumatism and arthritis.
Their landscape is definitely very nice and beautiful. Since they are located in a mountainous canyon and are surrounded by a large amount of cactus of different sizes. In addition, they have a wide vegetation that hangs on its edges.
The valley of the moon
This one is my favorite destination in the whole tour, because of its magnificent lanscapes. Their desert soils are so arid and with a huge number of colors and tones. Which definitely seem unreal – from the other world. I never imagined that a landscape like this could exist on earth. You just have to visit it to be enchanted with the greatness of nature. In addition, it has some sunsets with orange tones that make the place look more beautiful. The sunsets can be observed from the coyote viewpoint next to the Great Dune.
Another of the great attractions of the place is a cave, which is opened to the public. The guide provided us with flashlights, since it is quite dark. Sincerely,I was a little afraid of its tiny size and the darkness – I suffer from claustrophobia. Despite this, it was a great experience.
Also, you can visit eroded stone formations, called Las Tres Marías. These are vertical sculptures in stone and clay, formed thousands of years ago by changes in the earth’s crust. Our guide told us that one of the sculptures was broken by a tourist when taking a photo on top of her.
The Valley of the Moon is a place close to San Pedro de Atacama. Therefore, you can go by bicycle from the town, no need to hire any bus to arrive to this place. However, as I mentioned, I hire a bus of an agency that took me to the Valley of the Moon.
Valley of Death or valley of Mars
It is 2 km from San Pedro de Atacama, you can go by bicycle from the town. When arriving at this place, you can reach the viewpoint climbing some rocks to glimpse the whole valley and its volcanoes. This trekking is quite hard, you must rest several times and take a lot of water.
This area has large sand dunes and rock formations creating natural sculptures. It is a rather arid place, in which no type of vegetation is observed. I really liked colors and shadows that are formed during the day.
Another activity that can be done in the Valley of Death is to practice sandboarding. This is an extreme sport that consists on descending dunes or sand hills with special boards. Of course, this sport is for adrenaline lovers. Personally, it does not catch my attention, because it makes me feel in a high risk.
Geysers of the Tatio
Geysers of the Tatio are more than 4,000 meters above sea level – probably one of the highest geysers in the world. They are a stratovolcano formation with water and steam eruptions from the depths of the earth. In addition, you can find here some hot springs. The best time to appreciate natural phenomenon in this place is during the morning, from 5 am – 7 am approximately.
The departure for this site began at 4 am. Here you can see small eruptions of volcanoes on the ground. It is a wonderful to see how steam and water erupts from the earth. However, the temperature was a quite cold, about -8 ° C. Therefore, you must wear very warm clothes. Also, we were bathing in the thermal pools, a great idea to deal with the cold weather. Then, we went to Machuca town, a village close to the geysers.
It is a very small town, it only has 20 houses and a church. There, we toured its streets and visited the church. Its great tourism attraction is the gastronomy because of the food variety. You can enjoy delicious pies of goat cheese and exquisite skewers of llama meat. Those dishes are very healthy because of the high protein value and being low in fat.
It is a blue lagoon where you can swim enjoying the experience of floating without sinking. It was very fun to swim in this lagoon, you just have to lie on the water and get carried away by it. It serves a lot to relax, because of the effect of floating and not sinking. This effect is produced by the amount of mineral salts of the water (9 times more than the sea), since the salt load is greater than the weight of a person. You enjoy it a lot and also take great photos and videos floating.
As a recommendation: A biodegradable blocker (to avoid contamination) must be applied one hour before entering the lagoon.
Astronomical tour in the Atacama desert
The Atacama Desert is ideal for astronomical observation because of the low cloudiness, the location and the height with respect to sea level. The sky is impressive to naked eye and is the cleanest on the planet. Therefore, several astronomical observatories are located in the Atacama desert, including ALMA. It is the largest astronomical observatory in the world.
In San Pedro, tourism agencies have a guided astronomical tour, or you can also rent a telescope in the center if you want to observe the stars. Astronomical observation is not recommended on full moon nights, as it cannot be clearly observed. The Atacama Desert in Chile has an average of 300 clear nights per year.
Our tour started at 8:30 p.m., lasted approximately 3 hours. We went to a plain, outside of San Pedro de Atacama. Upon arriving at the place we had an introduction talk about the sky and its constellations.
Then we begin to observe the sky with the naked eye. The most exciting thing was when we started observing with telescopes and binoculars. We could observe many stars, galaxies and the craters of the moon. Definitely, it is wonderful to see the magnificence of the universe in all its dimension. Personally I felt a strange sensation, because I rarely contemplated the sky and it was a new experience to me. I recommend wear warm clothes because the temperatures are very low at night.
ALMA astronomical observatory
It is the largest astronomical observatory in the world. It is located 50 km southeast of San Pedro de Atacama and 5,000 meters above sea level. It has 66 antennas or high precision radio telescopes, located in the plain of Chajnantor.
You can visit the facilities of ALMA for free, on Saturdays and Sundays in the morning. You can only visit the place with a prior registration on this website: welcu.com/alma. Remember to have your identity document.
We visited the astronomical observatory on Saturday. A bus directly from ALMA picked us up in San Pedro at 9:00 AM. At the astronomical observatory we visited: the leaning and operations offices, the staff camp, the control room, laboratories, an antenna in maintenance and an antenna transporter. I highly recommend this place, because you learn about the process to obtain information in astronomical observation.
At Chajnantor plain, there are many antennas, but the entrance is not allowed neither at night nor on the day. People cannot visit this place for security reasons and the high altitude. For the return at home the same bus took us to San Pedro at 01:00 PM.
The Hand of the desert
It is a sculpture of 11 meters high of a hand that emerges from the ground. It was constructed with iron and cement materials by the chilean Mario Irarrázabal. It is located in the middle of the Atacama desert in the Antofagasta region. This sculpture has become a popular tourist site in the region.
We visit it on the last day of our visit to the desert, we left from San Pedro on a bus to Antofagasta. The duration of the trip was approximately 5 hours. In Antofagasta, we took a taxi that would take us to the Hand of the desert, it took approximately 50 minutes.
We liked the sculpture a lot, all the details of the hand are very well elaborated. I think it is a great work of art and great value for the Atacama Desert. What bothered me was that one of the corners of the sculpture had a graffiti. Apparently, some people loves drawing on its surface; it is a pity. In any case, the guide told us that many times during the year the authorities clean the sculpture.
Other sites in the Atacama desert recommended for tourism
- The dry lagoon
- The Lascar volcano
- The Tebinquinche lagoon
- Tulor village
- Valley of the Rainbode
Wildlife of the Atacama desert Chile
- On the day you must wear long clothes, but suitable for hot weather. Since the sun’s rays are very strong and burn a lot. At night you should wear clothes suitable for the cold, since the temperature is very low.
- You must wear, hats or caps, sunglasses, a good sunscreen and drinking plenty of water.
- The terrain in the Atacama desert is very unstable and sandy. For this reason, you must wear shoes that do not slip during the tourism activities.
- Bring a swimsuit to swim in the allowed places.
- Due to the location of the Atacama desert, altitude sickness can happen. Therefore, it is necessary to have some medicine for headache and dizziness.
- Bring a digital or cellular camera with good memory and recharge.
- The identity document is indispensable in the Atacama desert when you visit the astronomical observatory ALMA.
Plan your trip
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