With so many natural attractions within easy reach of the village of San Pedro de Atacama, the only problem is that you won’t have enough time to see and do everything in this dreamlike desert.
Main town: Copiapó
Major industry: mining
Unit of currency: Chilean peso (Ch$)
Cost index: pisco sour Ch$1500-2500 (US$3-5), hotel double Ch$44,000- 105,000 (US$80-180), day trip to El Tatio geysers Ch$20,000-30,000
Why go ASAP?
`What makes the desert beautiful,’ says the little prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s famed 1943 novella, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well.’ Indeed, it was a deep recess in the earth that brought the world’s attention to the Atacama in 2010, when a collapsed mine trapped 33 Chilean miners underground for more than two months. After their miraculous rescue, Hollywood jumped on the story, trooping camera crews and movie stars through the desert in 2014 to film the adventure flick The 33.
The subterranean drama set the stage for exciting developments in the opposite space – the stunningly clear skies high above the sun-parched desert.
In cooperation with major research foundations in Europe, East Asia and the United States, Chile has launched ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter/ submillimeter Array), the largest astronomical project in existence. The high-precision radio antennae of this revolutionary observatory, perched atop a 5000m plateau, are drawing astronomers and scientists from around the world to study the formation of stars and planets.
With fascinating astronomer-led stargazing tours leaving nightly from the village of San Pedro de Atacama – ground zero for outdoor adventure in this psychedelic desert landscape – there’s never been a better time to make the voyage to the driest desert in the world. Peering up into the night sky, the immense view might conjure another line from The Little Prince: ‘All the stars are a-bloom with flowers..?
From adrenaline-fueled adventures – ascending a high-altitude volcano, sandboarding down a towering dune, galloping on horseback towards a massive salt flat – to mellower excursions -observing spurting geysers at dawn, trekking past layercake rock formations at sunset, floating on your back in a crystal-blue laguna – the Atacama is all about outdoor adventure. With so many natural attractions within easy reach of the village of San Pedro de Atacama, the only problem is that you won’t have enough time to see and do everything in this dreamlike desert.
2014 drew a string of A-list celebrities to the Atacama – including movie stars Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche – for the filming of The 33, based on the true story of the ordeal and rescue of the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground. Shot partly in Copiapo near the site of the real-life events in the San Jose mine, the film is set for release at the start of the year.
Until recently, the staggeringly huge mine at Chuquicamata (Chuqui’) was the world’s largest producer of copper. It’s also famous as a hotbed of social issues: the 2004 Che Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries depicts the young revolutionary’s visit to the mine – and the way his outrage over poor working conditions helped to shape his political views. Today, it’s a side trip from San Pedro that’s extremely popular with international visitors.
Hiking, cycling, sandboarding, horseback riding -visitors to the Atacama usually work up a ravenous appetite. Classic Chilean comfort foods from empanadas to pastel de papas (potato casserole) are on offer at overpriced-for-tourists restaurants in town. Catering more to locals are a handful of restaurants and outdoor food stalls featuring regional specialities like pataska (a hearty corn-based stew with vegetables and meat). At night, look for the rica rica sour, a delicious twist on the pisco sour made with an aromatic herb that’s native to the desert.
Most bizarre sight:
The 4am wake-up call is worth it when you’re standing at the edge of El Tatio, an otherworldly geyser field ringed with volcanoes, at dawn – the sight of swirling pillars of steam against the stark blue backdrop of the altiplano is unforgettable.