Would you like to go to Mars? Bounce around on the moon? Walk through a rainbow? Float through the stars? Be somewhere truly out of this world? You can do all that in the Atacama Desert.
Step into the otherworldly majesty of this high altitude desert with Cascada’s Expediciones’ key account manager for Latin America and Europe, Conzuelo Zamorano, while she embarks on a trip through the highlights of the Atacama Desert, and see and experience this incredible part of Chile through her eyes.
The Heart of the Atacama: San Pedro
My Atacama adventure started with a quick flight from Chile’s capital, Santiago, to the city of Calama. From the minute we landed, we were surrounded by the stark beauty of the Atacama...and definitely the heat! But we were quickly ushered onto a bus and driven to San Pedro de Atacama. As we drove, we watched the peaks of the Cordillera de la Sal (the Salt Mountains) slide past outside the window. On the way, our guide also told us about what we would be doing on the trip.
After about an hour and a half, we arrived in San Pedro. It's a small village furnished with squat, red and white adobe buildings that house a population of roughly 4,000 inhabitants. We had the afternoon free to explore, so we headed out for a leisurely few hours to roam the dusty streets, meet the locals, peruse artisan shops, and try local foods. A quick stop at the church was one of my favorite sights of the day, as it’s the second oldest in Chile, and the simple but beautiful construction is perfect for quiet, contemplative thought and prayer.
An afternoon spent exploring is also perfect for helping acclimatize to the altitude, since San Pedro sits almost 8,000 feet (2,407 meters) above sea level, which can lead to some mild altitude sickness if you’re not used to it.
After exploring, we returned to the hotel to be briefed about the rest of the trip. There were a lot of interesting people from all over the world in my group: mountain climbers who told terrifying stories about the peaks they'd climbed, a young couple on a trip, and a few people from Australia. We all got to know each other over dinner in the village and stayed up late talking.
Valle del Marte/Muerte and Salar de Atacama
The next day, we headed out into the desert to explore the Valle del Marte on the Corniza trail and visit the Atacama Salt Flats. On the way there, our guide told us an interesting story about how the valley's martian name came from a French explorer who named it after the red planet due its red coloration and rock formations, but when locals heard him saying ‘marte’ (Mars), they all misunderstood due to his accent and thought he was saying “muerte” (death) and the name stuck. I never knew that! The short and pretty easy walk up the Corniza trail revealed a magnificent vista of the valley with San Pedro in the distance. We were all awestruck.
In the late afternoon, after a few more hours exploring San Pedro, we drove to the Salar de Atacama, which is a vast expanse of salt lakes and flats. The views were very pretty, the lakes a shimmering blue that reflected the sky. And we also got to see wild flamingos! It was a very relaxing second day and a good start to the rest of the trip, letting us get used to the altitude without being overexerted. We then returned to the hotel in San Pedro for dinner and rest.
Valle del Luna, and Rio Grande Pueblo
On the third day, we started out with a cultural tour at the Pukara de Quitor historical site, which is a former Indian fort is dated to be of pre-Inca origins, built by the Atacamenians when they needed a central point of defense. The ruins were partially restored, and we explored the site's church and museum. There was also a cemetery, which we could enter if we wanted, but the guide did not recommend it, out of respect for the deceased. Throughout the tour, the guide was incredibly knowledgable, sharing all this information about the people who used to call this place home.
After lunch in San Pedro, we drove to one of the Atacama's most famous sites, the Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon. Since it's one of the most popular tourist destinations here, it was very crowded and there were a lot of tourists. But it was still amazing. The mountains throughout the valley have a truly "out of this world" feel, full of spiny ridges, dramatic peaks, and bizarre rock formations. After exploring the valley floor, we climbed a short ways to a viewpoint to watch the sunset, which bathed the landscape in color. Even though it was crowded, that was a beautiful moment. We drove back to San Pedro under a night sky full of stars.
We were up bright and early the next morning for the drive to the starting point of our desert trek! The beginning of the hike was very relaxed and easy, allowing us to get warmed up. But then the hills started getting steeper, with lots of ups and downs, which was starting to put a strain on all of us! The place we were hiking was called Valle de Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley), and it was filled with multicolored strata layers that created a breathtaking array of colors. We also passed by petroglyphs and cave paintings left behind by ancient people.
After 6-7 hours of hiking through the valley, we finally arrived at our overnight stay near San Bartolo, and what a wonderful sight it was! Our guides had already set up a whole table with fruit, food, water, and drinks for when we arrived. After relaxing a bit and having something to eat and drink, we spent the evening hanging out. The views from where we were staying were very peaceful, so I did some yoga to center myself after the long day. Then, when the sun went down, the sky was filled with the most amazing stars I've ever seen. It was so clear and bright. I swear, it's the best sky in the world.
The next morning, after breakfast and some more yoga to limber up for the hike ahead, we continued trekking through the Rio Grande gorge. The terrain was more difficult the second day, with steeper and more frequent hills. Because of the river below, there was also more vegetation than we'd seen previously. At one point, as we were crossing the gorge floor, we were able to wade through the cool water of the river, which was very refreshing and really helped with the heat! Walking through the river with the canyon walls rising around us was the best moment of the day for me.
After pausing for lunch, we continued on, and that's where the going got tough. The terrain was very difficult and the heat didn't help. It was probably the most tired I've ever been, but it was still great because of our surroundings. Finally, we arrived in the tiny village of Rio Grande to spend the night. We were all dead tired, but we'd seen some truly interesting and unique places that day, so of course it was worth it!
On the last day of our desert trek, we explored the village of Machuca, which is a quiet rural town of dusty red stone houses with straw roofs, and the nearby river valley, which was beautiful. The area also had lots of local wildlife, like guanacos and vicunas, so we took lots of pictures! At one point, we climbed to a viewpoint overlooking the village, which gave us a very interesting persepctive. Just a tiny village in the middle of a vast desert.
Geysers, Green Lakes, and Volcanoes...oh my!
After returning to San Pedro, our next destination was the geyser field at El Tatio. Named after an ancient Quechua word meaning ‘oven,’ El Tatio is home to more than eighty geysers and is one of the highest geyser fields in the world. Visitors usually like to arrive at sunrise, when the intense heat rising from the geysers hits the cold morning air, resulting in clouds of steam that dreamily float through the air. But we took a different approach to avoid the crowds.
We arrived at the site early to trek up Copa Coya Hill, which is located near the springs and geysers. There were lots of tourists around. It was weird to see so many people after being out alone in the desert over the last few days! The first part of the hike was pretty easy, passing cool rock formations, but then the trail got really steep as we climbed straight up the mountain. But the view at the top...wow! That was really incredible, we could see the whole cordillera surrounding us. After lunch at the summit, we hiked back down and past the now-empty geyser field, which was peaceful and which we had to ourselves. We returned to San Pedro for dinner and a good night's sleep!
The next day, I sadly had to say goodbye to the group (whom I'd gotten to know very well over the trip) because I had to return home, but the rest of the group got to continue on to Bolivia! While there, they visited Laguna Verde, with its piercing turquoise blue waters that dazzle the surrounding sepia desert. And best of all, they climbed a volcano!
Bolivia’s imposing Licancabur volcano dominates the skyline, its highest reaches often dusted with snow and the dormant summit cradling a small lake. To climb the mountain, it’s necessary to cross the border into Bolivia and spend the night, as the ascent to the summit starts at 2 am! Although the hike up the side of the volcano isn’t technical or overly difficult, the steep grade and the altitude can result in slow progress. But reaching the top is well worth it. Not only do you get major bragging rights for ascending a volcano, the views are unbeatable, with the pristine aquamarine of Laguna Verde in the foreground and hills, mountains, and valleys stretching off into the distance. After that, the group returned to Chile for the flight out the next day.
Does Conzuelo’s adventure sound like something you would enjoy? Click here to find out more about our programs in the Atacama Desert!