The Atacama Desert

In my previous post, La Comida de Chile (, I mentioned our visit to San Pedro de Atacama in the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile.  Hubby and I backpacked through San Pedro in 1999, and had always envisioned returning with our children.  We live in a desert, so why would we want to go to one on vacation?  I think it is because the Atacama is one of those places that you don’t easily forget: the stark beauty of the high desert plateau, the intensity of the colors, and the other-worldly nature of landscape.

In order to give the kids an introduction to the desert on our first full day, we chose to visit the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), named for its strange rock formations and sand dunes, and the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley), known for its Mars-like landscape.  Located near one another a few miles from San Pedro in what is called the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Range), these two valleys showcase some of the area’s most fantastical geological formations.  The Valle de la Luna is a small depression of salt ground were you can mountain bike, hike to the remains of an old salt mine, or sand board down the dunes.


The surreal lunar landscape of the Valle de la Luna. 


Walking at 7,500 feet is a nice way to acclimatize in the high desert.

Las Tres Marias, a rock formation resembling three women (Marias) praying (the Maria to the left was sadly broken by a tourist a few years ago).

Las Tres Marias, a rock formation resembling three women, Marias, praying (the Maria to the left was sadly broken by a tourist a few years ago).


Watching the parade of colors over the Valle de la Muerte.


It is a popular spot from which to watch the sunset.

The next morning, we hit the ground running, literally, and took a hike overlooking the Valle de los Colorados (Colorful Valley).  The hike begins by passing through the old tunnel to Calama (now closed to car traffic after several earthquakes), crossing the ridge of the Cordillera de la Sal range, and running down the great sand dune of the Mars Valley.  I think if you asked the kids they would unanimously rank this one as their favorite excursions for the sand dunes alone.

In the late afternoon, we took a van to another oasis town, Toconao, to see the church and bell tower, before continuing on to the salt flat, or the Salar de Atacama, where we would be able to see flamingos in their natural habitat.


The old tunnel that connected Calama to San Pedro de Atacama.


From our hotel, the Valle de los Colorados was a short van ride to the start of our hike, where after a bit of an altitude climb, we were rewarded with views of the Valle de la Muerte and San Pedro in the background.


Everyone would agree that running down the sand dunes was a hit.


The bell tower and church in Toconao were originally built in the 18th century (approx. 1750)  but have been reconstructed after a few earthquakes and fires.


El Salar de Atacama, the third largest salt flat in the world after the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and Salinas Grandes in Argentina, is said to be the world’s largest source of lithium.


There are three types of flamingos found in the salar: the Chilean, the James and the Andean.


Flamingos with the backdrop of the Lascar volcano, the most active of 125 active volcanos in Chile.

We originally felt a visit to El Tatio geysers were a must, but after a day spent in a van on winding roads and kids suffering from both car and altitude sickness, I am on the fence.  Some say it’s worth it, but I don’t think the poor chap stuck in our van for 5 hours would agree.


At an altitude of 14,173 feet, El Tatio geysers erupt from more than 80 vents.


The outside temperature was 28 degrees fahrenheit while we were admiring the fumeroles.



A thermal bath was built nearby for those that were interested in shaking off the chills.


The vistas were magnificent and we coaxed the kids out of the van for a pic or two.

After a quick breakfast and coffee, we slowly wound our way back down the mountain towards San Pedro, stopping in the small herding village of Machuca for a “tour” of the local church and a bite of llama kabobs.


The herding village of Machuca has a year-round population of only 4 people.



The church is lovely in its simplicity.

If waking up before sunrise and spending the day vomiting in a van is not for you, a nice alternative is an excursion to the Puritama Hot Springs.  Operated by the Explora Hotel, Puritama was a big hit with our family.


The thermal baths.


The water cascades down the valley.


Find a quiet pier and lounge for a few hours.

Not far from Puritama is an interesting hike through the Los Cardones Ravine.  This 6 kilometer hike at 10,000 feet takes you through a breath-taking cactus-filled ravine.  I am fascinated by the native cactus, called the cardón, and its similarities to the saguaro cactus of Arizona.  While the saguaro can grow in altitudes of up to 4,000 feet, the cardón of Chile only grows at very high altitudes, between 9,500 and 10,500 feet.  The cardón seems slightly larger, but the skeletal structure is very different than that of the saguaro.  You will see that the native Atacameñian people used the skeleton of the cardón for the doors and roofs of their churches.


Quebrada de los Cardones.


The cardón cactus looks very similar to the saguaro.


The flower of the cardón is similar to that of the saguaro.


However, the skeletal structure resembles planks of wood.


The Atacameñians used these planks for doors.


The planks were also used as roofs in churches, like this one in Machuca.

So after having been to the Atacama two times now, would I return?  Absolutely.  I still feel as if there was so much I missed.  On my list for next time: the travesía program through the Explora Hotel that takes you from Chile into Bolivia to explore the Salar de Uyuni, and to tackle this bad boy, the Licancabur volcano at 19,423 feet.  Here’s to dreaming!  xoM


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  • Alto Atacama Desert Lodge – Texaz Taste
    February 25, 2016 - 8:18 pm

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