Highlights & main attractions of the Atacama Desert & northern Chile

Chile’s northern reaches are now famous worldwide due to the rescue of the 33 miners from the San Jose mine in Copiapo in August 2010. It is home to the highest and driest desert in the world, the Atacama Desert, and stretches roughly 500 miles from Copiapo to the northern tip of Chile. Flanked by the Andes, it plays host to hot springs, geysers, salt flats and dramatic scenery that has been compared to that of the Moon and Mars and there are parts of the desert where rainfall has never been recorded. 

A number of National Parks protect the beautiful landscapes of this area, home to a variety of unusual wildlife. Wild vicunas and guanacos roam the Puna de Atacama whilst herds of domesticated alpaca and lama graze on the desert vegetation. Small rabbit like creatures scurry around on rocky outcrops, flamingos frequent mineral lakes, and Andean condors soar above the snow-capped volcanos.

The area also boasts fertile ravines and the remnants of past Incan and Spanish cultures are apparent in villages and local festivals, attracting visitors throughout the year.

Where is the Atacama Desert?

Exploring Atacama and the North

San Pedro de Atacama, found close to the Bolivian border at an altitude of 2,440 metres, is the cultural and tourist capital of the north and is easily connected through the airport in Calama. The town itself grew around an oasis on the altiplano, and has been significant settlement since before the Spanish colonisation of Chile. Narrow streets, adobe buildings, and a transient population of travellers give the town a distinctly bohemian feel. Artisanal crafts stands line the streets, musicians play their instruments around open fires making it the perfect base for the exploration of the desert and there are plenty of stunning boutique hotels in which to stay.

Close to San Pedro, there are countless natural wonders to explore, like the El Tatio Geysers, where a visit at sunrise gives you the opportunity to see these impressive steam towers in full force. A visit to Puritama hot springs is the more relaxing option, whereas scaling a local volcano is also possible for those feeling a little more energetic. Heading south, you find Laguna Cejar, deep turquoise in colour with a crystallised salt border; it is beautiful place to take a swim held to the surface by the high salt content. The largest salt flat in Chile, Salar de Atacama, is stunning, as is Laguna Chaxa, a haven for flamingos, and a great spot to photo these stunning creatures. As the evening progresses, attractions such as Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) and Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death) come into their element, and are easily reachable by bike. At night there is no better place to see the stars.

Towards Copiapo, the desert becomes fertile due to the camancha, a mist that flows from over the sea feeding the arid vegetation and allowing it to blossom in the National Parks of Pan de Azucar and Fray Jorge. Scattered along the coast are cities such as Arica, Iquique, Antofagasta and La Serena with stunning beaches and a warm temperate climate. 

This truly is region of natural beauty that will not disappoint.

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