Mars on Earth: The Atacama Desert in Chile
Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the driest, most inhospitable places on Earth.
Rain may not fall in this place for decades at a time.
In fact, NASA even used the Atacama Desert to simulate expeditions to Mars in 2003 with their vehicles Viking 1 and 2.
Despite its apparent hostility, Atacama desert is home to both people and animals. What’s more, visitors can enjoy varied activities including stargazing, camping, sandboarding, and motorsports.
Can you imagine exploring this vast desert on your next trip to Chile? Join me as we discover more about Atacama Desert.
Atacama Desert Facts
El Desierto de Atacama (Atacama desert) in Chile is 1,000 mi (1,600 km) long and 111 mi (180 km) wide, covering an area of 40,540 sq mi (105,000 sq km). It is “the most arid nonpolar place on Earth.”
In this section, I answer the following questions:
- Where exactly is Atacama Desert?
- How’s the weather here?
- Is there an airport?
- What kind of animals and plants live here?
After this section, I share six activities to do in the Atacama Desert and explore five cities that are located inside the desert!
Where To Find the Atacama Desert in Chile
Chile is divided in 16 regions, 56 provinces, and 346 communes. Through La Corporación de Fomento de la Producción de Chile-CORFO (The Production Development Corporation) they also divide their country in five natural regions:
|Big North, Far North or Great North of Chile||El Norte Grande de Chile|
|Small North, Near North, or Little North of Chile||El Norte Chico de Chile|
|Central Chile||La Zona Central de Chile|
|Southern Zone of Chile||La Zona Sur de Chile|
|Southernmost Zone of Chile||La Zona Austral de Chile|
The Atacama desert begins in the commune of Arica—11 miles (18 km) away from the border with Perú—in El Norte Grande de Chile and ends in the city of La Serena, in the Coquimbo (political) and El Norte Chico de Chile region. This is 293 mi (472 km) North of Santiago de Chile. The Atacama desert occupies the regions of Antafagosta and the Northern part of the Atacama region.
How Is the Weather in the Atacama Desert?
The short answer is: extremely fluctuating and somewhat hostile. With highs of 122°F and lows of -13°F, it’s not exactly the most inviting place for travelers.
But let’s get into the details to figure out when it’s best to visit.
There is little difference between summer and winter in the Atacama desert. However, in the summer temperatures can reach up to 122°F (50°C) under the sun, and between 77°F (25°C) and 86°F (30°C) under the shadow. At night, in some parts of the Atacama desert, temperatures can drop as low as -13°F (-25°C°).
The Atacama desert is so arid that it can rain once every 15 or 40 years! Historians have registered 400-year periods in which there has been no rain in the central part of the Atacama desert!
FUN FACT: Marc Forster filmed a part of 007: Quantum of Solace in the Atacama Desert.
How To Get To the Atacama Desert?
There are different ways to get to the Atacama desert. The most common one is to land in Santiago de Chile from an international flight and from there you can drive around five and a half hours northbound until you get to the city of La Serena.
From Santiago de Chile you can also take a regional flight to El aeropuerto de Calama (Calama airport.)
PRO TIP: While there are several cities, towns, and populations in the Atacama desert, the most popular one is San Pedro de Atacama.
Flora and Fauna in the Atacama Desert
Despite being so arid, the Atacama desert has earned the name of el desierto florido (the flowery desert) because besides being able to spot cacti, you can spot several different flowers and animals as well.
These are some flowers you can find in there:
|Alstroemeria kingii||los lirios amarillos|
|Aristolochia bridgesii||las orejas del zorro|
|Argylia||los cartuchos amarillos|
|Cistanthe grandiflora||la pata de guanaco, la doquilla|
|Cristaria ovata||la malvilla|
|Encelia canescens||la coronilla del fraile, el sunchu|
|Nolana paradoxa||el suspiro costero|
|Rhodophiala phycelloides||la revienta ojos|
Amongst the animals that live in the Atacama desert we can find:
|Amazalia hummingbird||el picaflor|
6 Activities To Do in the Atacama Desert
Besides flying to the Atacama desert, spotting vicuñas and malvillas, the Atacama desert has a lot of options to experience it!
Romina Aracena Lois, a Chilean student who lives in Copiapó, says that “A lot of people practice sandboarding, dunebugging and even rally in the Atacama desert (…)—some time ago, they even ran the Dakar (rally) here.”
1. Stargazing and Camping
If you are a fan of astronomy and stargazing, the Atacama desert is the place for you! The words that the band Incubus wrote about it, “the sky resembles a back-lit canopy with holes punched in it,” could not be any more accurate.
Thanks to the lack of artificial illumination, and its position in the globe, the Atacama desert is perfect to stargaze. Places such as el valle de Marte (Mars’ valley), el valle del arcoíris (Rainbow Valley) or el valle de la Luna (Moon valley) can fill your eyes with the lights of stars that have traveled millions of years just to meet them.
The Atacama desert also offers great places to camp in, such as Atacama Loft & Glamp, Hotel y Camping Takha Takha, or Andes Nomads Desert Camp & Lodge.
FUN FACT: Chile owns 40% of the astronomical observations in the world.
2. Sandboarding in the Atacama Desert
If you are familiar with snowboarding, sandboarding is a sport that follows the same principles. The Atacama desert (alongside the Huacachina desert in Perú) is the perfect place to ride those dunes!
The best spot is el valle de la muerte (Death Valley) where you’ll be able to descend almost 400 ft (120 m) riding a sandboard! To get there, go to the city of Calama (where the airport is) and just deviate one mile (2 km) off the road. You’ll be able to rent a sandboard in town!
3. Motorsports in the Atacama Desert
Just as Romina mentioned, they ran the Dakar Rally in the Atacama desert, every year between 2009 and 2015. But there are more competitions that the Atacama desert hosts. Rally Baja Atacama, Rally Baja Chile, Rally Patagonia Atacama, and the coolest one of them all: La carrera solar the Atacama (Atacama’s solar race)—a 600-mile (1,000-km) race that lasts four days and teams use solar powered cars!
You don’t have to be a professional pilot to ride a buggy in the Atacama desert, though. You can always book a tour which could take around three hours—they can pick you up at your hotel, show you a couple of archeological sites in the Atacama desert, and drop you in your hotel in San Pedro de Atacama.
4. El Tatio Geysers in the Atacama Desert
El Tatio is the biggest group of geysers in the Southern hemisphere, and the third biggest in the world only behind Yellowstone and Krontotski in Russia.
You can find these 80 geysers in los montes andinos in the Antofagasta region spread in a 4 sq mi (10 sq km) region. These geysers spit water at 186°F (86°C) at a height of 30 in (75 cm). These geysers attract more than 10,000 tourists yearly!
5. Baltinache Hidden Lagoon in the Atacama Desert
La laguna escondida de Baltinache (Baltinache hidden Lagoon) is a group of seven salt lagoons in the Atacama desert. These salt lagoons have an approximate diameter of 16 ft (5 m) and the deepest one is around 20 feet (6 m) deep.
Because they are quite close to la cordillera de la sal (salt mountain range) they have a very high salinity of 220 g/L—around two thirds of the salinity that the Dead Sea has.
6. El Salar de Pedernales in the Atacama Desert
El salar de Pedernales (Pedernales’ salt pan)—El Salar de Uyuni’s Chilean cousin—is a salt pan set in the Atacama desert. This salt pan hosts many amazing things, such as Andian flamingos, turquoise and red waters in lagoons and volcanoes!
The best part is that this place is not that popular because tourists like to check out another salt pan, El Salar de Atacama.
From there you can also climb the Doña Inés volcano in the Atacama desert.
5 Chilean Cities Inside the Atacama Desert
The Atacama desert occupies 40% of the Chilean territory and is home to 12% of the 20,000,000 Chileans who live in the country. 80% of these Chileans live in urban centers while a few others live in tiny villages, such as Quillagua—the most arid town on Earth.
In this section, we are going to check out five Chilean cities in the Atacama desert, San Pedro de Atacama, the most popular one, Arica, the Northern door to the Atacama desert, La Serena, the Southern door to the Atacama desert, Copiapó, the capital of the Atacama region and Antafogasta, the capital of the Antofagasta region.
1. San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama is the most touristic place in the Atacama desert. It is around 1,000 mi (1,600 km) off Santiago de Chile. But it is also around 120 mi (200 km) off the border with Argentina, with the Salta region.
In 2012, there were 4,000 people living there, but don’t let this number fool you, there are a lot of things to check out in San Pedro de Atacama, some of which we’ve covered.
Check them out:
|ALMA astronomical observatory||el observatorio astronómico ALMA|
|archaeological museum R.P. Gustavo Le Paige||el museo arqueológico R.P. Gustavo Le Paige|
|Atacama salt pan||el salar de Atacama|
|Cejar, Piedra, Ojos del Salar, and Tebinquinche lagoons||las lagunas del Cejar, Piedra, Ojos del Salar y Tebinquinche|
|Coyote stone||la piedra del Coyote|
|El Tatio geysers||los geysers del Tatio|
|Incaica house||la casa incaica|
|Moon valley||el valle de la Luna|
|Pukará de Quitor||Pukará de Quitor|
|Puritama hot springs||las termas de puritama|
|Saint Peter’s Church||la iglesia de San Pedro|
|Tulor village||la aldea de Tulor|
Arica is the Northern gateway to the Atacama desert, just 11 mi (18 km) off the border with Perú. The population of Arica reached around 230,000 in 2017, and Chileans call it La ciudad de la eterna primavera (The eternal spring city) thanks to its amazing weather. Arica hosts a ton of tourist attractions, here are 12.
|Anzota caves||las cuevas de Anzota|
|Bolognesi house||la casa Bolognesi|
|Chinchorro beach||la playa Chinchorro|
|Chinchorro mummies||las momias de Chinchorro|
|Chungará lake||el lago de Chungará|
|Eiffel apple||la manzana Eiffel|
|La Lisera beach||la playa La Lisera|
|Las Machas beach||la playa Las Machas|
|Lauca national park||el parque nacional Lauca|
|morro de Arica||el Morro de Arica|
|Saint Mark of Arica Cathedral||la catedral de San Marcos de Arica|
|sea museum||el museo del mar|
FUN FACT: Since Bolivia does not have a gateway to the ocean, Arica serves Bolivian as a puerto libre (free zone) to Bolivia.
3. La Serena
La Serena is Chile’s second oldest city, as Spaniards established it in 1544.
506,000 people lived there in 2020, and it is the Southern gateway to the Atacama desert.
Amongst the touristic attractions in La Serena you can find:
|Del Mar avenue||la avenida Del Mar|
|Gabriela Mistral building||el edificio Gabriela Mistral|
|Gabriela Mistral regional library||la biblioteca regional Gabriela Mistral|
|González Videla house||la casa González Videla|
|Japanese park Kokoro No Niwa||el parque japonés Kokoro No Niwa|
|La Recova market||el mercado La Recova|
|La Serena archaeological museum||el museo arqueológico de La Serena|
|La Serena main square||la plaza de armas de La Serena|
|monumental lighthouse||el faro monumental|
|Palms’ house||la casa de las palmeras|
Copiapó is right in the middle of the Atacama desert, but it is an oasis that Chileans know as el lugar donde el desierto florece (the place where the desert blooms).
In 2017 there were around 175,000 people in the Chilean city. Copiapó also offers lots of touristic places to visit, here are five of them!
|Atacama regional museum||el museo regional de Atacama|
|Copiapó cathedral||la catedral de Copiapó|
|El Pretil park||el parque El Pretil|
|flowery desert||el desierto florido|
|Sernatur building||el edificio Sernatur|
Chileans call Antofagasta la perla del norte (the Northern pearl) and it has around 425,000 inhabitants. It is Chile’s fifth most populated city.
Antofagasta hosts several tourist spots worth seeing but the three coolest ones might be:
- The hand of the desert – la mano del desierto
- La Portada natural monument – monumento natural La Portada
- Huanchaca ruins – las ruinas de Huanchaca
Learn Spanish Before Visiting Chile!
FUN FACT: Chileans speak Spanish in a very peculiar way. They have a huge set of slang words, and love to end their phrases with their famous ¿cachai?, which means “do you get (it)?”
Chile is much more than the Atacama desert. Its beautiful capital, Santiago de Chile with Cerro San Cristóbal (San Cristóbal Hill), Roan Jase Observatory, or El Parque Bicentenario (Bicentennial Park), is incredibly worth visiting.
Chile is actually one of the best places to live in Latin America. Down South, you can also find the Chilean Patagonia, and as part of the Valparaíso region, you can find the amazing Isla de Pascua (Easter Island).
The best way to explore all these amazing places and many more in Latin America is by learning Spanish! Spanish will open the door for you to visit 21 countries! It will also open the door for you to talk to more than 53,000,000 people in the U.S and access the third most used language on the internet!
As if all of this wasn’t enough, Spanish might also land you a better paycheck so you can explore Latin America!
Sign up for a free Spanish class with us and learn why there are more than 24,000 active students monthly in Homeschool Spanish Academy! Here is a hint: We offer great payment options, flexible scheduling, earned highschool credit and friendly teachers! Learn Spanish today!
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