Atacama Desert 101

The landscape of Chile’s Atacama Desert is almost otherworldly, comprised of miles-long salt flats, lagoons, hot springs and a valley resembling something from Mars. For guests coming from a metropolis, the sheer openness and amount of space is often difficult to fathom. The quaint town of San Pedro de Atacama, while having a laid-back and traditional feel, hosts several luxury lodges, any of which can be called home while enjoying the region’s local excursions.

Know Who Should Go This destination is an ideal getaway for adventurers who enjoy activities and opportunities that force them to break free from their comfort zone. While there are a few luxury hotels in the area, the real focus of the Atacama is experiencing Chilean culture and the outdoors. Lodges typically offer a variety of excursions in the morning, followed by lunch back at the hotel, and a second opportunity in the afternoon to do more exploring. Some adventures take a full day, in which case the hotels will pack a picnic lunch for guests to bring along. Even though some of the hotels, such as Alto, have a spa, the focus should still be on excursions rather than passing the time on the property. Families with children at least 10 years old will enjoy Atacama, however, any younger will likely not be able to fully appreciate the experience.

Determine When to Go Chile’s seasons are opposite from the Northern Hemisphere's, so the best time to go is from November through March. This is also the busiest time of the year, so it is important to plan ahead since hotels are relatively small. The cutoff for visiting Atacama is early June, as temperatures begin to drop making some of the excursions difficult to enjoy.

Pack Appropriately Multiple layers and plenty of sunscreen are key items to pack for a trip to the Atacama. Most days are spent out in the elements and due to the elevation, the sun can be extremely strong. At the same time, however, temperatures can easily drop 20 degrees when moving into the shade and even more at night. Layering clothing will make it easy add or shed as needed. Hotels provide individual canteens, and it is essential to keep them filled.

Professional and amateur photographers will delight in the location, as it lends a perfect backdrop. With stunning landscapes and lighting, it is almost impossible not to capture beautiful images. If using a DSLR camera, consider packing a tripod to bring along to capture images of the sky at night.

Rise Early Some excursions are best experienced in the early morning light, which means rising before the sun. The drive out to the Tatio Geysers, for example, takes almost two hours, but visitors should arrive right after sunrise when the geysers are at their peak. Guides will typically pack light bites for guests to snack on before returning to the hotel for lunch.

Stay up Late Due to the high elevation and low humidity, the Atacama Desert is considered one of the best places in the world for stargazing (so much so that an international observatory, ALMA, is dedicated to this location for further study of the galaxy). The night sky is extremely dramatic and offers clear visions of the Milky Way. Nighttime astronomy excursions with an expert guide are available and hotels have telescopes for guests to use to witness the wonders of the night sky.

Schedule some time in Santiago Getting to Atacama requires a stop in Santiago, and it is worth spending a few days exploring Chile’s capital and the surrounding areas. The centrally located Singular Hotel in the upscale Lastarria neighborhood offers a haven in the bustling city. There are a variety of tours for experiencing the local culture, such as exploring the food and fish markets or biking to and around the wine region of the Casablanca Valley. The port town and UNESCO World Heritage site of Valparaiso is well worth the day trip from Santiago. Indagare can arrange a one-and-a-half-hour walking graffiti tour around the city to introduce visitors to the history and importance of this illegal yet celebrated form of art.

For those traveling further afield and on to Patagonia, Santiago makes a nice stop in between the two destinations. Otherwise, a visit to the city can be tacked on to the beginning or end of a trip to Chile.

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