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Guide to the Atacama Desert

Written by Thomas Power | 9th January 2014 |

Category:

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The stunning Atacama Desert, with the town of San Pedro de Atacama at its heart, is an absolute 'must' to visit during a holiday to Chile as it offers a synthesis of the north in one small area.

That is to say that it has towering volcanoes, the high dry Andes, salt flats, oases, improbably coloured lakes teeming with birdlife all within a context of vibrant and rich cultures and history.

San Pedro is also famed for the clarity of its skies. The world's greatest concentration of observatories is in northern Chile.

Click on the satellite view of the map on this page and then zoom right in - there are few places in the world you will get such clear close ups.

At night you will be treated to the most fantastic star-filled southern hemisphere skies so be sure to get away from the lights of town to enjoy a pollution free star-gaze.

With a stay of around five days you can get a taste of all of these things although of course you could stay much longer.

Our most popular trip to the Atacama is our Atacama and Patagonia walking holiday.

We also offer a wide range of other options for you to visit the Atacama, including small groups and tailor made holidays. You can see our full range of Chile holidays on the right hand side of this page.

Overview of San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro is a small, dusty oasis town in an extraordinary location. You will find that the pace of life up here is somewhat slow.

There are lots of backpackers and hippies, both Chilean and international, drawn to San Pedro. There are an almost unfeasible number of dogs, hence the nickname 'San Perro de Atacama'.

Getting around is easy enough as everything is within walking distance. Alternatively, many hotels have bikes which are available for guests' use.

San Pedro's setting

Coming into San Pedro from the airport in Calama you cross over the Salt mountains and see a little dash of green against the arid landscape, this is San Pedro.

An oasis on the northern edge of the world's second largest salt flats, San Pedro is an unlikely looking place to find quite so many nice places to sleep and eat.

It also looks a little unlikely that there will be much variety to be had in what looks like a fairly arid corner of northern Chile.

In fact though, there is startling variety, just look at these Atacama photos for a sense of what the area has to offer.

Within the Atacama salt flats are lagoons which harbour rich birdlife, most famously flamingoes.

The salt mountains and sand dunes offer a beautiful and ever changing spectrum of colours.

The high Andes tower over San Pedro and provide an amazing array of climactic zones as the road climbs steadily up from the 2,000m of San Pedro to the 5,000m or so of the mountain passes.

Culturally, this part of Chile is distinctly 'Andean' i.e. Aymara, feeling. The indigenous people here are distinctly recongnisable as being from the high Andes linking Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

What to do in San Pedro

The Atacama desert really is not somewhere you can explore independently with your own car.

The road network is limited to one or two roads which means that only on an organised tour are you going to be able to get out and about properly to the places you would want to see.

In terms of safety, the altitudes are such that engines behave strangely so you need to know what you are doing when driving in this area.

Finally, you really do not want to get stranded out here as it's a potent combination of desert and very high altitude.

Our advice therefore is to have a guide with you to show you round the Atacama.

For a more independent experience, there are lots of small tour operators on the high street of San Pedro so you can wander along, compare prices and sign up for a day trip.

The sorts of excursions you can expect to join are detailed on in our guide to popular excursions in the Atacama.

If you prefer something slightly off the beaten track, such as those features in our Atacama Patagonia holiday then you should read our Off the Beaten Track guide to the Atacama.

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