Photographer: Photo by Victor Ovies Arenas/Getty Images/Moment Open

Why You Need to Go to Chile’s Atacama Desert, in 17 Spellbinding Photos

Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert takes the prize for being the world’s driest, as well as one of earth’s most surreal adventure destinations. From lunar landscapes that NASA used for testing Martian rovers to nighttime star fields you might as well reach up to touch (plus archeological sites, dune surfing, and pink flamingos), you can do it all without wanting for luxury. Here’s how.

The Atacama Desert’s 41,000 square miles of diverse terrain includes spurting geysers best visited at dawn, wind-sculpted golden dunes perfect for surfing, salt lagoons for a bracing float, and cliffs of colorfully striped strata known as Rainbow Valley. Those are just the terrestrial offerings.

It’s also one of the best locations on earth to appreciate our Milky Way’s glittering collection of stars, with April through September the best time to see it. For the darkest skies, time your visit to a waning rather than a full moon—or better yet, a Lunar Eclipse (the next will come on March 23). Prepare to be wowed by the most amazing natural light show on earth.

  1. Stargazing
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    Stargazing

    Adhemar Duro’s stunning nighttime photograph (and video) of Monjes de la Pacana was taken in such strong winds that he had to pile rocks on the base of his tripod to stop it from shaking. The monolith pictured is the most emblematic of the desert's gigantic rock formations. A perfect combination of altitude, dry air, and a lack of light pollution means the Atacama is one of the best stargazing locations on earth. Cloudless skies April through September is a peak period to appreciate the stars, as well as Jupiter and Saturn. You won’t even need a telescope to see the breathtaking light show above. Darker skies are best, so avoid visiting during a full moon. (Still, that spectacle is beautiful in itself.)

    Photographer: Adhemar Duro/Flickr

  2. To Infinity
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    To Infinity

    For those who want more detail as to what they’re looking at, take a tour with an astronomer who will point out specifics (Spaceobs’ tours provide telescopes). For hardcore stargazers, the Atacama’s Chajnantor plateau hosts the largest astronomical project in existence—a single telescope composed of 66 high-precision antennas called ALMA. It is open to the public on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but remember to register before you visit.

    Photographer: Dave Yoder/Getty Images/National Geographic Magazines

  3. Coyote Lookout
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    Coyote Lookout

    Mountain bikes are an excellent way to get around San Pedro de Atacama and venture farther afield. It’s a short ride to the nearby salt lagoons, and hardier adventurers can also ride into rugged terrain. Coyote Lookout is a popular stop (and photo op), thanks to a nail-biting drop to Cordillera de la Sal.

    Source: Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa

  4. El Tatio Geysers
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    El Tatio Geysers

    The El Tatio geysers are well worth braving icy temperatures and an early start. Low morning temperatures prevent steam from the 80 geysers from evaporating, which creates an immensely magical, Instagram-worthy spectacle when the dawn's rising rays hit the billowing clouds. More than 14,000 feet above sea level, this is the world's highest geyser field.

    Photographer: Ignacio Palacios/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

  5. Vicuñas
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    Vicuñas

    Endangered in the 1970s, the since-protected vicuña population is back up to healthy numbers in South America. This most delicate of camelids is Bambi-face pretty, with a thick, soft coat that can be shorn only very three years, making that luxurious wool expensive. You’re guaranteed to sight a Vicuña herd in Atacama Desert, along with its larger cousin, the llama. Other fluffy offerings include the Southern viscacha (a large rodent with bunny ears and long bushy tails), the South American gray fox, and the culpeo fox.

    Source: Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa

  6. The Pan-American Highway
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    The Pan-American Highway

    The Pan-American Highway is a lonely strip of asphalt that cuts through the Atacama Desert. This dramatic section is a highlight on PAH’s 30,000-mile stretch from Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay to Chile's Tierra de Fuego (save for the Darien Gap, a stretch of jungle and mountain between Panama and Columbia that requires a flight or a ferry), in what is undoubtedly more an endurance test than a road trip.

    Photographer: Rosemary Calvert/Getty Images

  7. Los Flamencos National Reserve
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    Los Flamencos National Reserve

    The Los Flamencos National Reserve is best consumed in chunks. Seven distinct zones over 73,986 hectares (286 square miles) offer different geologic environments, flora, and fauna: Salar de Tara, Salar de Aguas Calientes, Salar de Puisa, Soncor, Aguas de Quelana Lagoon (Salar de Atacama), Moon Valley, Tambillo, and the Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons. The Salar de Atacama is where you’ll find the majority of the flamingos that give the reserve its name.

    Photographer: Michael Stolp-Smith/Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa

  8. Death Valley Dunes (Valle de la Muerte)
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    Death Valley Dunes (Valle de la Muerte)

    Climbing the sand dunes in Valle de la Muerte is hard going. A 330-foot-high dune, with the energy-sapping effect of sand underfoot combined with altitude, poses quite the quads challenge. Nobody at the top regrets the effort, rewarded by a 360-degree view of a stunning, almost alien, landscape. (It's little wonder that Nasa and the European Space Agency tested their Martian rovers here.) Those who also lug boards to the summit face the added thrill of surfing down the dunes at hair-raising speed.

    Photographer: Santiago Urquijo/Getty Images/Moment RF

  9. San Pedro de Atacama
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    San Pedro de Atacama

    Initially a quartz- and copper-mining town, San Pedro caters primarily to the demands of tourists. There’s a fine selection of cafes and restaurants, with tour agencies aplenty along the main Caracoles Street. While accommodations run the gamut from backpacker to luxury, the point here isn’t so much to linger as to base yourself for adventures. Adobe buildings line narrow, dusty roads leading to a pretty plaza and the town’s historic church, built in 1744.

    Photographer: Laurent Marolleau/Getty Images/age fotostock RM

  10. Cejar Lagoon
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    Cejar Lagoon

    You can take a buoyant and bracing dip in one of the swimming holes at the Cejar Lagoon, where water temperatures vary. With 28 percent salt concentration, there’s no point trying to swim; give in and float. (By comparison, the Dead Sea is roughly 34 percent saline.) There are on-site showers for cleansing your salty coating afterward.

  11. Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna)
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    Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna)

    Divided from Death Valley by the Cordillera de la Sal—a rugged, salt-covered range—Moon Valley lies only 10 miles from San Pedro. It’s a popular location for watching the lunar landscape turn from pink to red at sunset, with a pisco sour in hand. It’s also a perfect perch to watch the magical Andes Mountains change hue until the moon rises in the night sky.

    Source: Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa

  12. Fiesta de San Pedro y San Pablo
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    Fiesta de San Pedro y San Pablo

    San Pedro’s historic church plays a vital role in the annual Fiesta de San Pedro y San Pablo in June. The weeklong, colorful event, which celebrates the martyrdom in Rome of two leading Christian saints, combines traditional folk dancing and a rodeo with Catholic processions and masses.

    Source: Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa

  13. Salar de Atacama
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    Salar de Atacama

    Just to the south of San Pedro in in Los Flamencos National Reserve, the Salar de Atacama, Chile’s largest salt flat, beautifully mirrors the distant Andes in water that's only a few feet deep. Come evening, the thick salt deposits form large honeycomb shapes, which you can hear cracking in the low temperatures.

    Photographer: Larry Dale Gordon/Getty Images

  14. Flying Flamingos
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    Flying Flamingos

    Three types of flamingos gather in the Salar de Atacama to feed on lake algae: the Andean flamingo, the Chilean flamingo, and the smaller yellow- and black-beaked James's flamingo, named after British naturalist Harry Berkeley James. Fun fact: Flamingo feathers are actually gray and get their pink color from natural dyes in their food.

    Source: Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa

  15. Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa
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    Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa

    The terracotta-hued Alto Atacama Desert Lodge blends into the Catarpe Valley landscape, a tranquil setting just over a mile from the town of San Pedro. The 42-room, luxurious property is surrounded by gardens with native plants and hand-carved local bricks and tiles. Six outdoor pools and a Jacuzzi add an intense cyan to the ochre palette. A stable of llamas and alpacas is popular with guests, as is the lodge’s 30 adventure-heavy excursions with experienced guides. Starting last year, Alto Atacama has also offered a few nights of "glamping" (Glamorous camping) in the desert with luxe tour partners Abercrombie & Kent.

    Source: Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa

  16. Yerbas Buenas, Rainbow Valley
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    Yerbas Buenas, Rainbow Valley

    There are a number of archeological sites in the Atacama Desert, including Tulor, which features the remains of circular adobe buildings in the Valley of the Moon. It was settled by indigenous people who grew maize and herded llamas some 2,800 years ago. You can also visit the Incan fortress at Pukará de Quitor, built in the 12th century but taken over by Spain in the 16th century. Carved into the orange rocks at Yerbas Buenas are more than 1,000 prehistoric petroglyphs, many of them such native animals as llamas, flamingos, and pregnant foxes. (Look for a tiny fox inside a bigger one.)

    Photographer: Babak Tafreshi/Getty Images/National Geographic Magazines

  17. Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa
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    Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa

    Tierra Atacama, a 32-room boutique hotel and spa on the edge of San Pedro, gives a nod to its original function as a cattle corral by incorporating its traditional adobe walls into the property’s entrance. Guests are offered daily excursions or can just kick back beside terrace fire pits and lounge next to a pool with stunning views of the Licancabur volcano. The grounds, with ancient algarrobo and chañar trees, include 10 acres for growing quinoa, corn, and herbs, all watered by snow melt.

    Photographer: James Florio/Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa