Atacama Desert

Overview

Introduction

Chile's Atacama Desert has many superlatives: It's the world's highest-altitude desert and the world's driest. And its elevation also makes it a relatively cold desert.

Although those characteristics can make it a challenging place to visit, the Atacama boasts attractions and accommodations for a wide range of travel interests and styles.

Everything about the scenery here is on a grand scale: snowcapped Andean peaks (some that are active volcanoes), geysers and hot springs, sand dunes, and salt flats that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Visitors can watch flamingoes pulling their lunch from salty lagoons, eye petroglyphs carved into rocks up to 3,000 years ago or, given the thin, generally clear skies, study the stars with or without a telescope.

For active travelers, choices lean heavily toward cycling and trekking but also include horseback riding or a scantily clad sprint to hot springs in brisk morning air.

Outings can include visits to one or more oasis towns, some strikingly small, but the community that appears on most Atacama itineraries is San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro is home to about 3,000 people in the town and another 3,000 in the surrounding area. Its altitude is a bigger number: 8,100 ft/2,510 m.

Atacama tours require special preparations. Because of the altitude, the air is thin, so sunblock, hats and good sunglasses are recommended. Some parts of the Atacama have never recorded rain.

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