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Atacama Desert in Chile: The Ultimate Travel Guide

Atacama Desert in Chile

The Atacama Desert in Chile is the world’s driest desert. Some can say that the Atacama is the driest place on the earth. Yes, it is. But, it offers you hikes, great viewpoints, observes the desert animals, the best place in the world for astronomy, and many more. You will also feel like you are on the planet Mars since the soil and other Atacama Desert factors are quite similar to Mars.

Atacama Desert

Atacama Desert Facts

People and Rainfall

As mentioned earlier, the Atacama is the driest desert and the place on the earth, which gets less than 1mm annual rainfall. And some parts of the desert do not get any raindrop at all. The reason behind that is the desert’s geographical location. The desert is located between the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range at such a lower height, which prevents the raindrops from reaching this ground. (Atacama Desert)

Atacama Desert in Chile

Unexpectedly, in some years, heavy rains can get and cause heavy floods as well. Ex: in 2015 recorded a flood and claimed 100 deaths of people live around.

Yeah, I know you are surprised by hearing the number of people who died in the Atacama Desert. Believe me, around one million people consider this desert as their home. Most of them are living in the coastal fishing villages, oasis areas, and mining villages.

Actually, the Atacama Desert is more famous for copper mines. On the other hand, the people who live there grow crops tolerant to the arid climate like cucumber, tomato, and olive. And also herd alpacas for living.

Mineral Content in the Atacama desert

Due to having heavy mineral content in the desert, both Bolivia and Chile fought to own the land in the 1800s. And the War of the Pacific was caused from 1879 to 1884, and in the end, Chile won the war and got control of the region.

Atacama Desert Facts

In 2010, the Atacama Desert got the World’s attention due to the well known Chilean mining accident (Copiapo Mining Accident). In that case, 33 miners were locked for 69 days in an ancient gold-copper mine and safely rescued by the authority. (Atacama Desert)

Animals in the Atacama Desert

Animals in Atacama

As mentioned earlier, many animal species cannot be survived in this harsh climate condition. Some species like red scorpions, butterflies, grey foxes, and desert wasps can survive in this desert climate. But on the Pacific side of the desert, you can even see sea lions, penguins, and pelicans.

Unique Features of the Atacama

As mentioned earlier, the Atacama has a unique environment. It is dry and has different altitude levels (16,570 feet in elevation). Thanks to those features, this desert is one of the best places in the world for astronomy.

Since that, the Atacama is one of the top observation points operated by the European Southern Observatory. Its’ clear sky with cloud-free nights and the dry climate make a barrier-free approach for astronomy. Actually, there are 330 cloud-free optimum nights per year to see the sky easily.

Where is the Atacama Desert located in Chile?

The desert Atacama is called Desierto de Atacama in Spanish. It exists for 1000 to 1100 km from North to South Chile near San Pedro de Atacama town. This desert’s exact location is between the mountains, which separate the Salado Capiapo drainage basins and the south end of the Loa River. And the north side of the desert continues to the border of Peru.

The west side of the desert borders with low coastal mountains of the Cordillera de la Costa. And the eastern side shows the border with foothills of Andes, Cordillera Domeyko. There are salt pans on the alluvial fans at the coastal mountain foot and the west coastal mountains.

The Atacama Desert or the driest nonpolar desert on the earth also considers the world’s oldest desert. The total land area of the desert is 130 000 square km. 

This desert is not like Sahara. Normally in deserts like Sahara, mercury expands above 50 degrees Celcius. But, surprisingly, the Atacama desert does not have that kind of high temperature throughout the year. The average temperature is around 18 degrees Celcius. (Atacama Desert)

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Atacama Desert Map

Atacama Desert Borders

Atacama Desert Weather

The weather in the Atacama Desert is magnificent throughout the year. Situating 8,015 feet above sea level, this desert owns a radiant sky many days of the year.

Atacama Desert Weather

The winter season is in June, July, and August. The temperature in the wintertime is around 22 Celcius in the daytime, and by the night time, the temperature varies from 4 Celcius to -2 Celcius. That means the day times are pleasant to lay even under the sun.

The summertime is in January, February, and March. And the temperature fluctuates around 27 Celcius to 16 Celcius. Sometimes, reaching a maximum temperature of 32 Celcius creating a chance to have a “Siesta.”

In January, February, and March (summer months), the desert gets a climate called “Altiplanic Winter.” It provides moist air from the east or Bolivia and occasional snow/showers. This season is different and has unique features with snow.

For example, you may see the snow-capped Licancabur volcano in the middle of the summer instead of the normal sky of the Atacama. That’s why people call this the Altiplanic winter. During this season, especially, San Pedro de Atacama’s streets are muggy and difficult to walk.

And on the other hand, 10 to 12 days per month, the sky offers you a spectacular moon. That environment is ideal for horseback riding with your loved ones. (Atacama Desert)

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Why is the Atacama Desert so dry?

Why is the Atacama Desert so dry

As mentioned earlier, some parts of the Atacama Desert do not get any rain, while some parts get less than 1mm of average rainfall annually. Normally the deserts are considering places where get 250mm rainfall per year. However, the USA and northern Mexico’s southwest deserts are positively wet compared with the Atacama Desert.

Due to lack of rain or no rain, yes, the Atacama is so dry or the earth’s direst place. Now, I’m going to show you the major and highlighted the reasons behind that. Basically, there are three reasons. The above figure clearly shows the story.

The first reason is that the Atacama Desert lies on the Andes’ wrong side with wind concern. Actually, Atacama lies in a rainshadow. That means the wind which comes from the eastern side (from the Atlantic ocean), is blocked due to the Andes Mountains range. When the southeast wind mixed with moisture is forced to climb across the Andes and then condensed, after that, then it turns into rain. But, it happens on the wrong side. Not to the Atacama Desert.

The second reason is related to air pressure. Normally, the air around the equator rises due to the high heat. When that air goes up, mix with the upper atmosphere wind and carry this wind towards the northern and southern poles.

That air gradually cools down and falls back to the earth. But, as I mentioned earlier, the Atacama is exactly located between 20 and 25 degrees south. That high pressured air is also falling through that 20 and 25 degrees south. And then, cool air is again turning into warm and evaporating into vapor (water vapor, a gas form) and does not get rain.

The third reason is related to the Pacific ocean, situated on the other hand, the Atacama. Although the Pacific ocean is situated very close to the Atacama, it is colder (having more colder current) than it might be expected at this latitude. And in the case of onshore winds, they are very chill and do not warm enough to catch the ocean surface’s moisture. So, there’s no help from the Pacific side as well. (Atacama Desert)

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Things to do in the Atacama Desert in Chile

The Atacama desert is definitely more than dehydration and sand. So, do not let your first impression of the desert makes you feel bad. Visiting the varied landscapes, cone-shaped volcanoes touch the horizon, sandstones created by eroding rugged valleys, salt lakes, hikes, adventure activities with wildlife,  and many more things are there to do.

So, do not miss the following on your tour to the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Atacama Desert: Valle De La Luna (Moon Valley)

Valle De La Luna (Moon Valley)

Moon Valley is the most popular destination in the Atacama Desert. The reason behind that is, you can freely riding bikes, tour, and walk around this valley, and the landscapes are almost like the moon. So, you will feel like walking on the moon. Therefore, plenty of travelers attract this destination. The entrance is around $5 per person. I suggest you travel early in the morning to avoid the hot climate. (Atacama Desert)

Atacama Desert: Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks)

This one is also one of the most popular destinations in the Atacama. But in the wintertime, mostly access is prohibited due to snow. In Red Rocks, the water of the bluest color laps against large sandstones shines in red in the afternoon time.

What is the Atacama Desert famous for? Stargazing in the Atacama

Actually, most of the travelers have googled this question asking what the Atacama Desert famous for is. Now you get the answer. It is famous for astrology or stargazing.

Stargazing in the Atacama

For me, this is the best stargazing opportunity in the world. Due to not having light pollution, having a clear sky with the optimum altitude, it has the best climate. I suggest you plan a night camp there and watch all the stars in the sky without any barrier. This was one of the unforgettable camps in my entire camp life. (Atacama Desert)

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Atacama Desert: Visit El Tatio Geysers

Locating a few hours north side from San Pedro de Atacama at an altitude of 4400m  El Tatio Geysers has a unique view of the entire Atacama Desert. I suggest you visit the sunrise to see the golden glowing sunlight shines the constantly shooting jets of water and steam clouds into the air in the desert climate. Trust me; it is a spectacular visual display which you should not miss on your tour there.

In heavy snow, no one can visit there. Keep in mind that as well.

Fly in a hot air balloon over the Atacama Desert sky

Fly in a hot air balloon over the Atacama Desert sky

Just like flying over the sky in a hot air balloon in Cappadocia, the Atacama Desert is also offering you such a chance. The total cost is around $300 for a good Atacama Ballooning package, and you can get a whole view of the desert and the valley while in the sky. I suggest you start the journey just before the sunrise to catch the spectacular sun rising view. (Atacama Desert)

Atacama Desert: Enjoy the mountain views

Kick back and feel the amazing views of spectacular mountain views by staying in a desert were my favorite. Since not like other deserts, the Atacama is not flat sandy land, and you can even see the snow-capped mountains and cone-shaped volcanoes. So, it is unique.

Float in Baltinache

There are many huge salt plains in the Atacama Desert. And these ponds and lagoons have high salt concentration with a cooling effect. Due to the high salt concentration, you can easily float in them. 

Laguna Cejar and the newly discovered Laguna Baltinache are great to get a Dead Sea experience without any crowd problem. The entrance fee is around $10. It is totally worth it to see this beauty while floating on the lagoon.

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Atacama Desert: Visit Salar de Talar

Salar De Talar is a huge salt-encrusted field spread through kilometers with a thin layer of water. Since the water always stays still, you can get a perfect reflection of the sky. But you cannot reach this place in the heavy snow falling winter time. (Atacama Desert)

Visit Chacabuco Nitrate Village

Chacabuco village is located between Calama and Antofagasta. When the nitrate mine was identified and established in 1924, this village got the attention. And grew with the number of houses, workers, and families. But, when synthetic nitrate was introduced to the world, this mine was closed in 1930.

But still, you can see those old memories of this village. It is almost like a museum, or someone can say it is a ghost town. If you are an artistic photographer, Chacabuco village is the ideal place for a classical shoot.

Atacama Desert: Walk around the Death Valley

Valle de la Muerte or the Death Valley is located so close to San Pedro de Atacama. Since this valley has ideal dunes for sandboarding, people attract more. On the other hand, you can hike to the huge dunes and get a sensational overall view of the whole desert area. (Atacama Desert)

Visit the Pukara de Quitor (Quito Fort)

This is a human-made travel attraction located outside of San Pedro de Atacama. The history of this fortress runs to the Incan era back in 700 years. So, you can get a view of an old fortress in the desert climate. Keep in mind, since there’s no shade, visit as early as possible in the morning.

Walk around the village of San Pedro de Atacama.

The nearest village to the Atacama desert is the San Pedro de Atacama. I highly recommend visiting this town since you may surely feel like you are walking to a few hundred years back.

This area is very harsh and having muddy roads and low facilities. You can observe how people live there and what they do to live if you visit there. And one of the most important places you should not miss here is the old church in San Pedro de Atacama.

Hotels in Atacama Desert Chile

Looking for the best hotels near the Atacama Desert?? Just check here for the best hotels that match your budget. (zoom out the map to view the best hotels)

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