A road trip through the most arid land in the world
Chile, with more than 2.800 vulcans, contains the 18% of the active Vulcans in the world! It’s the largest place with no humidity in the world. For this reason, for the clarity of the skies, In this desert engineers together with astronomers, built the largest telescope in the world over the Paranal mountain.
We flew from Santiago to Calama, a 3 gates airport.
There we rented a car. Since the roads are very bad around San Pedro, I suggest to rent a 4×4 or a Pick-up. There are a lot of mines’ car available for renting. It’s a little bit more expensive but we saw many cars in the middle of nowhere changing wheels.
If you don’t feel comfortable to drive the car every accommodation or travel agency can arrange a tour for you.
We arrived a Thursday morning, the kids had few days of holidays due to the Thanksgiving. We already had plenty of time to start to discover the desert!
# DAY 1 – LAGUNA ESCONDIDAS + VALLE DE MARTE
I couldn’t wait the day after, I had to see by myself the hidden lagoons!
We hit an unpaved road in the middle of the Salar and we drove for about 30 km, wondering every 5 minutes if we were going in the right direction, until we saw something. There was a small house where you pay for the entrance, yes we get our destination.
I know that it’s quite frustrating paying to see the nature, but it’s a good way to preserve it and to avoid disasters.
We drove other 100 Mts and….O.M.G is the only thing I said when I saw it….
It seemed to be in front of Ice. There were different holes full of salt and water. Some of them were deep others less so you could see the end, but all of them had a special color, passing from blue to green!
Once in life you have to try to jump in a salty lake, the sensation is unique! It’s not possible to swim in a normal way because all your body floats alone, so the only thing you can do it’s staying face up letting the water push you around! It was so funny!
There are Two Pools where you can swim, the first one is easy to reach by car, instead the second one is 10 minutes walking. Today there is a wooden path but remember to wear closed shoes to not slide. Another suggestion is to bring some water both to drink (the sun is super strong) and to wash your body if you decide to stay in the water more than few minutes.
My kids stayed too much with the salt on their body and they get their skin burnt, especially closed to the swimsuit. So be careful with them.
The Park Rangers leave the people use only few pools because inside this water there are very important microorganisms, the ones that started to produce oxygens billions of years ago. So please respect those places.
When you finish the tour, at the exit there are fortunately some sweet water showers, so you can clean your body from the salt.
The first thing we saw was so impressive that I thought it couldn’t have been more than this… but… reached again the main road to San Pedro we decided to stop to the Moon Valley.
There we realized we were visiting a very special place!
I saw different deserts in my life but nothing compared to this.
Vulcans, salty waters, desolated flat lands, and now this, it seemed the skin of a prehistorical animal, smooth and sharp at the same time. It’s very difficult to describe it. It’s possible to go inside by car but it was possible only in the morning and unfortunately we didn’t make it, but we pass through the Mars Valley and also here the view took our breath away!
The Mars Valley “gives the shoulders” to the sunset, so when the sun goes down it’s better to watch it over the Moon Valley. The best place to see it, of course, is paid and if you go with small kids be sure they stay all the time with you, there is only a small and short rope dividing you from a deep cliff.
# DAY 2 – ALTIPLANIC LAGOONS – Miscanti and Miñiques
We spent our nights at the Atacama Loft, a sort of Glamping (but more camping then glamour I have to say), where in the morning fresh bread and eggs were ready for us! The right energy to start the day!
We wanted to see the Altiplanic Lagoons, all created by Vulcans millions of years ago and all over 4.000 mt of altitude. From San Pedro is more than 2 hours by car, be sure to have enough gasoline because there are no gas station and the phone has no signal there.
The road is beautiful, full of warm colors and some small flowers
During the trip it’s better to drink a lot of water to compensate the altitude.I felt a little bit dizzy when we overpassed the 4.000 Mts but nothing more. We had lunch in front of Miscanti Lagoon, what a place!
Vulcans and Andes are the stars of the view, together with Vicuñas (a selvatic Llama), used to stay closed to the water.
Driving more to the south we crossed by a big Salar lake. An immense expanse of white salt between the mountains. The colors were incredible, the sun turned on them in different way during the different times of the day. Probably during the sunset this place must be similar to heaven! The mountains had rose shades reflected to the salar, giving a unique landscape to our eyes!
Pure uncontaminated nature, a beautiful experience for us and the kids!
Going back to San Pedro we crossed again the Salar de Atacama, where flamingos are the kings, spending their time on their long flipped legs, eating small organism similar to shrimps.
# DAY 3 – RAINBOW VALLEY and PETROGLYPHS OF YERBA BUENA
Not so far from San Pedro on the road to Calama there are two beautiful places to visit: the rocks with petroglyphs and the colors of the rainbow valley.
These rocks are located at 3.200 Mts above the sea and these colors are due to the large presence of minerals that have come to the surface. It was formed by tectonic movements and volcanic activity of millions of years.
Probably the images you see on internet are a little bit over saturated but it’s something to see without any doubts! If you walk a little bit inside you can also find some canyons probably created by the water.
#DAY 4 GEYSER of TATI
The last day we woke up at 4 a.m. to see the Geyser El Tatio. It’s 2 hours far from San Pedro. If you are driving alone please be sure you have a 4×4 because the road is full of holes and not well lighted.
We drove climbing the mountain until we reached 4.200 Mts of altitude. It was 6:45 a.m. in the morning and we were maybe the second car entering the park. The sun light started to rise and the show was stunning!
The air was extremely cold to be summer, there were 7°C ! And the smell of sulphur was so strong! It seemed to be in another world. The land was full of small holes from where hot steam came out.
Be aware that we are talking about very hot steam, it’s important to follow the path and not going too close. Having your kids under supervision is mandatory.
For the bravest you can also fight the cold and jump in a thermal pool! It was quite an experience! The warm water was coming out from some springs in between the rocks so if you stay too far from them the water can be cold.
Since the oxygen level is lower because of the altitude this thermal pool can give some imbalances, feeling with no forces, dizziness, but there is always a medical point if you don’t feel good.
The return to our glamping was a little bit sad because our trip was ending but we felt so exhausted for all experiences we had and we still had our eyes full of colors and different landscapes that it was ok coming back home.
The Atacama desert is one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen in my life but if you know a little bit about the history of Chile, it has been also a dark place for many families. In this beautiful place thousands of people “disappeared” under Pinochet’s dictatorship.
I really suggest to what the documentary of Patrtizio Guzman “Nostalgia de la Luz” to ‘complete’ the experience in the desert and never forget the past.