Desert Driving – Atacama Desert and Beyond
Best for: Off-road adventures, desert landscapes, stargazing, dining, luxury hotels
Route: Antofagasta – San Pedro de Atacama – Uyuni (Bolivia)
When to Go: Year round. This is the driest place in South America – make that the world
Despite being Chile’s second-largest city, Antofagasta is often ignored by travellers. Yet buried behind the high-rises lies the leafy Plaza Colon and a handful of wood-fronted Victorian and Georgian buildings found in its Barrio Histórico, which are worth seeking out.
From here it’s a 3.5-hour drive to San Pedro de Atacama, through harsh, arid desert landscapes. This oasis town is the hub of the region, within day-trip distance of Chile’s largest salt flat, several photogenic volcanoes – including 5,916-metre Licancábur – the El Tatio geysers (impressive at dawn, when the spurting steam is visible) and all manner of dramatic rock formations. The Atacama is known for its ink-black skies and stargazers should seek out the Meteorite Museum and the ALMA and Ahlarkapin observatories before heading off on night-sky tours.
Restaurants, beer bars and cafés of every class and budget adorn San Pedro’s tree-lined plaza, while hotels like the Explora, Alta and Tierra Atacama offer five-star stays. The three-day 4WD trip across the altiplano to Uyuni in Bolivia is also a backpacker classic, and several tours offer packages with guides, food and board. Look out for salt lakes, geysers and hot springs en route, as well as wildlife such as flamingos and vizcachas chinchillas.