The Atacama Desert occupies a corner of the incredibly high altiplano that stretches from the foot of the Andes in the east and west and north into Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. The Atacama Desert is the driest desert on earth and is the perfect location for those who want to get off the beaten track and explore some of the most surreal landscapes on earth. The Atacama Desert and its incredible landscape is best experienced by a multi-day 4WD trip from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Its extreme terrain and environment lends to jagged ravines, vibrantly coloured lagoons, volcano topped horizons, the best stargazing in the world and out of this world geysers, thermal pools and valleys. Our 4WD tour was without a doubt a highlight of our travels in South America and an experience we will never forget. Here are just a few highlights of a 4WD tour of the Atacama Desert from San Pedro de Atacama to the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.
The Surreal Landscapes of the Atacama Desert
Deserts are usually defined as environments that receive less than an average of 250 millimetres of rain each year and the Atacama Desert receives less than 1 millimetre of rain each year making it the driest desert of earth and one of the driest places on Earth! The extreme lack of rain makes it a harsh environment without vegetation & greenery (with the exception of cactuses and some grasses), shade, cities, people and without any pollution. The desert is filled with some of the most surreal, arid landscapes you could possibly imagine ranging from active volcanoes to vibrant, coloured lagoons, sandy deserts, salt flats, wind sculpted rocky canyons and bubbling, steaming geysers. The scenery is so surreal and extreme that at times you may feel as if you are living on another planet, so much so that even the Mars Rovers are tested in the Atacama Desert before they head into space! It is incredible the huge diversity of scenery which you will drive through in just a few hours, let alone a few days!
The lack of pollution, clean air and night skies have made the Atacama Desert the home of three major international observatories! The absence of light pollution and clear skies make the Atacama Desert one of the best locations in the world for stargazing! Whether you choose to visit an observatory on your trip or simply step outside in the evening you will be rewarded with hundreds of thousand of bright, sparkling stars and even be able to make out the Milky Way with your naked eye. It is a very humbling experience to see what a small place we occupy in the universe.
Active Volcanoes, Geysers & Thermal Pools
Large active volcanoes dominate the Atacama Desert landscape including the Licancabur and Lascar which is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile! A trip to the Atacama Desert would not be complete without visiting the El Tatio geyser field located 4,300 metres above sea level, making it one of the highest geyser fields in the world. El Tatio has over 80 active geysers which makes it the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third largest geyser field in the world! It is an incredible experience to witness the spurting, steaming geysers and many people make the journey to witness an incredible sunrise over the geysers and watch the rays of sunshine pierce the steam of the geysers. Nearby there is also a thermal pool which you can swim in which is toasty warm but freezing once you finally convince yourself to get out and brave the cold Andean air!
One of the major highlights of our Atacama Desert tour was visiting the beautiful vibrantly coloured lagoons that are dotted throughout the landscape. During the first two days of the tour we stopped at countless lagoons ranging from the turquoise coloured Laguna Verde with the Licancabur volcano towering over it, the stunning Laguna Blanca which provided a mirrored reflection of the Andes mountains and Laguna Colorada with its deep, red colouring. Laguna Colorada is also the nesting area for more than 30,000 flamingoes of 3 different species of flamingoes who live and flourish in the harsh landscape of the Atacama Desert. Every lagoon we visited had its own beautiful, unique colouring and they were all breathtakingly beautiful.
The Salar De Uyuni
Whilst not officially in the Atacama Desert, most tours from San Pedro de Atacama will visit the Salt Flats on the final day of the tour which will end in Uyuni. The Salar de Uyuni are the world’s largest salt flats at 10,582 square kilometres and are at an elevation of 3,565m above sea level! In the dry season, the salt flat is a completely flat, dry expanse of salt, but in the wet season it is covered with a thin sheet of water which provides you a perfect reflection of the sky above you! During the rainy season when the Salar becomes covered with a layer of water it also becomes a breeding ground for pink flamingoes. The salt flats are incredible and like nothing you will have ever seen in your life! Just like the rest of the Atacama Desert, they provide ample opportunities for incredible photographs!
The landscapes of the Atacama Desert are out of this world, and would be ideally visited as part of a Jules Verne holiday to South America! If you’re travelling with your partner, you may even find that perfect, unforgettable place to propose!