Chile's Atacama Desert is widely regarded as the driest place on the planet, but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty to see and do there. Quite the contrary, as the Atacama is actually a paradise for adventure travelers, offering plenty of things to see and do while exploring a landscape that is amongst the most beautiful and dramatic on Earth.
Visit the Valley of the Moon
Perhaps the Atacama's most famous destination is the Valle de la Luna aka the Valley of the Moon. This stunning location is so named because the landscape resembles something you're more likely to encounter on the moon than in South America. And whether you explore it on foot, by Jeep, or on a bike, it is likely to be one of the most unusual and memorable places you'll come across in your travels. Starkly beautiful, the valley is surrounded by jagged peaks and towering dunes, with hidden caves to explore and twisty gorges to wander.
For a real treat, visit as the sun sets to see the red rocks and sand of the valley glow in the fading twilight.
Go Mountain Biking
The Atacama's unique landscapes make it a great spot to go mountain biking. Exploring the desert landscape by bike can be incredibly rewarding, particularly when you head off-road and explore the local single track. Beginner riders will find plenty of easy trails to help them build their confidence, while more experienced mountain bikers will find plenty of technical trails that will test their skills. And when you're ready to get your adrenaline pumping, why not scream down the side of a volcano? The Sairecabur Volcano brings plenty of speed, but isn't for the faint of heart.
Watch the Geysers at El Tatio
The El Tatio region of the Atacama is home to some of the most spectacular geothermal activity found anywhere on the planet outside of Yellowstone National Park. The geysers found at El Tatio are constantly spitting steam and water into the air and the hot springs can be inviting to weary travelers. Sunrise is a particularly great time to visit as the early morning light adds to the experience.
Learn How to Sandboard in Death Valley
The Atacama has its own Death Valley and its even drier than the one found in California. It also happens to be a great place to learn how to sandboard, which is the desert equivalent of snowboarding. In this case, you'll glide down the side of a massive dune with a board attached to your feet, carving up the sand like it's fresh powder. It can take a few runs to get the hang of it, but fortunately landing on the soft dune is a lot more forgiving than hard packed snow. There are no lift lines either, so you'll have to hike back to the top of the hill in order to make your next run.
Spot Flamingos on the Salar de Tara
The Atacama is home to some amazing salt flats just like the ones found in its northern neighbor, Bolivia. The Salar de Tara are the most well known of these salt flats, which feature saline lagoons and unique rock formations to go along with its crusty surface. But best of all, the Salar is home to a large number of flamingos, which flock to the salty lakes in great numbers. Watching these colorful birds in the wild—particularly at sunset—is a highlight of any trip to the region.
Climb an 18,000-Foot Volcano
Those looking for a bit of an extra challenge may want to go for a hike to the summit of one of the Atacama's towering volcanos. There are several excellent options to choose from, and each will test your legs and lungs, although no formal mountaineering training is needed. Two of the best of these volcanos are Cerro Loco and Lascar which climb as high as 18,336 feet and 18,346 feet respectively.
Most visitors to the Atacama stay in San Pedro, which serves as base camp for travelers coming and going from the region. But, if you're looking to truly escape the tourist crowds, why not go camping in the desert instead? The desert is wide open when it comes to camping, with no reservations necessary. Visitors are free to pitch their tent anywhere they like, although it is important to bring plenty of water with you when you strike out into the desert. Additionally, you won't find any wood to make a fire or much in the way of other resources. You will find plenty of solitude, wide open vistas, and some of the most beautiful landscapes imaginable.
Examine the Petroglyphs at Yerbas Buenas
Some of the most amazing petroglyphs found anywhere in the world are located at a place called Yerbas Buenas in the Atacama. The site features thousands of ancient images of animals and humans, some of which date back more than 10,000 years, providing a glimpse at life in the desert in an age before the great civilizations took rise across South America. The dry environment of the Atacama helps to preserve these markings, which are clearly visible and amazing to witness first hand.
Wander Through an Ancient Fortress
Located just outside the town of San Pedro you'll find a fascinating archaeological site that is more than 700 years old. The local Atacameño people built the fortress at Pukará Quitor to defend themselves from invaders and today its stone walls still stand. Hike the path through the ruins to the top of the mountain, where you can take in some spectacular views of the surrounding area.
With its dry air, high altitude, and a complete lack of light pollution, the Atacama is one of the best places on Earth to go stargazing. The night's skies are utterly breathtaking with literally billions of stars on display. It is a sight that has to be seen to be believed and is truly one of the highlights of any visit to Northern Chile.