Where on earth can you get as close to exploring Mars without actually leaving the planet? The Atacama Desert, of course! As the world’s driest desert, Atacama ranks high on the list of otherworldly destinations, alongside Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.
In this article, we share everything we know about the Atacama and why it is a destination worth considering for your next private journey into South America. Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, adrenaline junkie, or Outerspace fanatic, traversing the Atacama Desert may just be the most exciting adventure you’ll never regret taking!
Where is the Atacama Desert?
The Atacama Desert spans about 900 miles in Northern Chile, reaching the border of Peru. However, its total area measures a whopping 40,540 square miles! Atacama’s borders lack a precise marker, but we know that the Pacific Ocean lines the desert in the west and the Andes mountains in the east.
Just like the coastal desert of Peru (not quite as dry as Atacama, but almost), the dryness of Atacama comes from the unique Humbolt current, which pulls icy water from Antarctica all the way to the Chilean and Peruvian coastlines. As a result, the sea breezes cool down to a degree that discourages the formation of clouds leaving little to no precipitation.
Atacama fun facts
1. Driest desert on earth
Not only is the Atacama Desert the driest place on earth, but the northern city of Arica, Chile also holds the world’s record for the longest dry spell – 173 months! And the Humboldt current is also not the only factor contributing to Atacama’s extreme arid landscape.
Atacama Desert’s location alongside the Andes mountains allows for something called the Foehn effect, which dumps all precipitation into the mountainside, leaving a rainless ecosystem on the other side.
Something worth mentioning about this ultra-dry climate is the extreme temperature range. During the day, it can reach a scorching 100-120 degrees Fahrenheit, while at night dropping to –10 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. World’s largest supply of sodium nitrate
In general, South America is a highly mineral-rich continent. This is thanks to its abundant biodiversity and geographic diversity. Everything from gold to silver, copper, nickel, iron ore, lithium, and so much more is mined here.
In the Atacama Desert, in particular, sodium nitrate abounds. Major exportation of this coveted mineral began in the 1800s through the 1940s to both Europe and the U.S. to be used in explosives, gunpowder, and agricultural fertilizers. To this day, it provides the world’s largest supply of sodium nitrate.
3. Home to world’s oldest mummies
Who doesn’t love a good mummy story? Despite its status as the world’s driest desert, with the most extreme temperatures, Atacama once served as the home base for the world’s oldest mummification on record. And this isn’t your average mummification.
The local culture of Chinchorro reigned in the Atacama Desert from 5450 BCE to 890 BCE and honed a very sophisticated mortuary practice of artificial mummification. They took apart and then reassembled people’s bodies from every social class and fashioned tools and instruments to reflect the importance of how they lived in harmony with the ocean.
4. Otherworldly soil
Probably the most curious Atacama fact of them all leads us to the soil. Soil samples from this desert region mirror those taken from Mars! Due to the soil’s extraordinary composition, NASA often tests their instruments here, preparing for future missions to Mars. This is why Atacama offers the most authentic experience into Outerspace without actually exiting the atmosphere.
How to get there?
The point of arrival into the Atacama Desert is a town called San Pedro de Atacama. The good news is it’s pretty easy to get there, and you have a couple different options. The fastest route is a quick two-hour flight from Santiago, Chile, to the closest airport in Calama city. From here, you can enjoy a 60-mile private drive to San Pedro de Atacama and start your desert adventure that same day.
If you are really into road trips and have the available time to build into your custom-designed itinerary, we recommend talking with our travel experts about including a two-day private drive from Santiago into San Pedro. Your driver will take Route 5 on the Panamerican highway, the longest highway in the world!
What to do and see in Atacama
– Explore Moon Valley
One of the most popular jumping-off points into a private Atacama journey is the Moon Valley, or Valle de la Luna in Spanish, just ten miles from the center of San Pedro. The surreal beauty of this moonscape will leave you wanting more, especially at night when the literal moonlight reflects off of the unique colors and textures in this region created by eons of natural erosion.
– Swim in the Cejar Lagoon
Want to say you’ve gone swimming in the driest place on earth? You can! Cejar Lagoon is a tranquil saltwater turquoise lagoon in the forefront of the stoic Licancabur Volcano. The enormous salt deposit of the Cejar Lagoon allows for the memorable experience of floating in its healing waters with little to no effort.
– Visit the Chaxa Lagoon
The Chaxa Lagoon lies in the magical Los Flamencos National Reserve, part of the Salar de Atacama. Like the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the Salar de Atacama is a substantial salt flat surrounded by mountains and happens to be the largest in Chile. The Chaxa Lagoon, in particular, makes for an exciting excursion because of the abundant flamingo communities that call it home.
– Bathe near the El Tatio Geysers
The El Tatio Geysers of Atacama are the most impressive in the world due to the extreme height of its eruptions – up to 4,300 meters! These massive geysers form part of the geothermal field next to the great Tatio volcano. Visiting and exploring this site alone is sure to be a highlight of your Atacama-curated journey, but you can go a step further and bathe in its thermal mineral pools as well.
Those who have been to the Atacama Desert will vouch for it offering the world’s best stargazing! The stargazing is almost literally out of this world because of 1) the almost 100% guarantee that you will have a clear sky (more than 300 clear skies a year), 2) world-renowned observatories and telescopes 3) the high-altitude 4) far away from major cities, so no light pollution to speak of!
Where to stay
You have quite a few fabulous luxury options in San Pedro de Atacama when it comes to accommodation. Many of these properties blend into the rustic desert landscape and promote sustainable practices. Just to name a few of our tried-and-true favorites we have to recommend 1) Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa, 2) Nayara Alto Atacama, and 3) Noi Casa Atacama!
Why travel to the Atacama Desert with Kuoda?
Like all of our signature and curated itineraries, our travel designers build your particular journey into the Atacama Desert and greater Chile with your interests in mind. We don’t have any package deals. So, we can include any or all of the activities mentioned above and more based on your exact timeline. Contact us today to get the planning started!