Many Americans skip the town of San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile, reasoning that they’ve already seen deserts in the western U.S. Most visitors to the area are Europeans. My fellow Americans, having been there, I can tell you that you are missing something special.
The Atacama Desert is the driest in the world and is located in the northern part of Chile, in the region of the Chile / Argentina / Bolivia border. San Pedro de Atacama is a small desert town about a 1.5 hour drive from Calama airport and is where nearly all visitors stay. This town of strictly adobe structures is located at an elevation of slightly above 8,000 feet. The area is home to ancient human history, towering volcanoes, seemingly endless salt flats, unique wildlife, and great small hotels and restaurants. If you ever make it to this amazing place, here are three highlight places to visit.
1. Geysers de Tatio – Located at an elevation of 14,043 feet, these geysers will make the 1.5 hour drive from San Pedro worthwhile. To arrive, there are excursions that go out very early in the morning, generally between 4 and 5 AM, in order to arrive in time to see the geysers spouting between 6 and 7 AM. The sight is impressive. However, be prepared for very cold temperatures. In the morning the temperatures go well below zero and do not warm up until later in the day. While there you can breathe in the clean mountain air, behold the snow capped peaks, and listen to the majestic sounds of the geysers going off around you. You also have an opportunity to jump into one of the natural thermal pools created by the geysers and go for a swim. On your way back to San Pedro, the sun will be up, so be ready to snap some photos of the amazing scenery which includes volcanoes, llamas, lagoons, and a numerous variety of high altitude mountain flowers.
2. Termas Puritama – A hidden gem of San Pedro, these hot springs are located at an altitude of above 11,000 feet. After climbing in car for less than an hour you arrive to this magnificent location. Located in between two cliff walls, this river valley spills out into eight thermal pools to relax or spend the day in. In a dry and arid rock face, the hot springs bring green life to the barren terrain. It is recommended to go in the afternoon to enjoy warmer air temperatures for moving around between the pools. The pools average 92 degrees Fahrenheit in temperatures. Be sure to sit and relax under a cascading waterfall or to swim about admiring the different varieties of fish that can be seen in the crystalline water. You can also schedule a massage at the hot springs to finish off your day.
3. Laguna Cejar – A final destination to include in your trip is one to Laguna Cejar. You can generally get a sunset excursion that will take you onto the salt flats of Sand Pedro and let you swim in the salt water lagoons that allow your whole body to float effortlessly without swimming. It is a surreal experience and if you like you can bring a book along with you and float in the lagoon while reading. While the water temperature is a little cold in the wintertime, this excursion can be done year round because in the afternoon it warms up considerably. Afterwards, the excursions take you farther out on the salt flats to experience a beautiful sunset while enjoying, what else, a pisco sour.