Travel Consultant Mary Anne Nelson, who was born in the Atacama Desert and still considers it her favourite place on Earth, offers expert advice on visiting the world's highest and driest desert.
The world’s highest, driest desert is a land of undulating dunes, explosive geysers and primeval landscapes washed over by Technicolor sunsets. Rumpled sheets of rock contorted into gnarled, surrealist patterns stretch out towards a horizon ruptured by the perfectly conical shapes of distant volcanoes. This is nature at its most vividly inhospitable, and yet life does defy the odds here, bursting up around oases such as that which supports the gateway town of San Pedro de Atacama.
Though San Pedro is the best-known place in the Atacama Desert
, this minute adobe hamlet is really just a tiny speck marooned in the sprawling desert wilderness – in fact, to the surprise of many visitors, the Atacama region actually covers the whole of the north of Chile and even encroaches into Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.
When to go
Considering that this is the driest place on the planet (not counting Antarctica), the Atacama Desert is as close to the definition of a year-round destination as they come. Having said this, its proximity with the high-altitude borders with Argentina
means that from around December to March (the rainy season up in the Andes), rains are not completely off the radar. Clouds could be a regular sight and a few drops of rain may make their way to the ground. It is what Chileans call the “Bolivian winter”. If you plan to cross the border into the above countries, then it’s better to do so outside the Andean rainy months.
As for the ideal time to go: between April and November – and particularly from June to September – the weather is fantastic and the days not too hot. It gets chilly at night though, so don’t forget to bring some warm clothes.
How long to stay
How long do you have? You could spend a month and still not get bored. However, most of us don’t have that luxury, so I would suggest a bare minimum of a three-night stay to do it justice, though four nights is my usual recommendation. This will give you three full days, allowing you to get a bit further into the incredible landscape – and see more.
Where to stay
San Pedro de Atacama has accommodation to suit all pockets, from humble camping sites to total, bells-and-whistles luxury. If yours can stretch to the latter end, then I would suggest either explora Atacama
. These are first-class properties and the service is second to none; both include an array of flexible excursions for you to choose from every day – or if you’d rather not choose anything, there's always the poolside where you can wallow in the sunshine.
For a mid-range alternative, I’d recommend something like Casa Atacama
, which, though not as luxurious as the first two, also includes fantastic flexible excursions which makes it a good compromise on a tighter budget.
If you can’t stretch that far or just want a hotel with breakfast, preferring to do your own thing during the day, then the Altiplanico
are great choices.
My top tips
Desert temperatures tend to vary enormously during the day and night. I always suggest taking layers of clothing – you will be rather cold at night, but hot during the day. If you go to the Tatio Geysers
in particular, be sure you have some really warm outer layers and ideally some thermals, too. Gloves are also a good idea – it really is freezing. However, as the day wears on, the heat will rise with it, so you can adjust your temperature better and more easily if you have relatively thin layers of clothing which you can remove or add to depending on how you feel, rather than having just a shirt and a heavy coat.
Also, please remember that the air is very dry and hence your skin will dry out very easily. Be sure you have a good moisturiser with you and keep an eye on your heels, which are usually overlooked – what with the dusty roads, the sand and the salt, as well as the dry air, they could be a sorry sight after a couple of days if you wear sandals and don’t give them some care and attention. Finally, it should go without saying, but you will also need some good sun protection.
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