Why the Atacama Salt Flats Are Like Nowhere Else on Earth
In northern Chile, a short drive south from the local capital of San Pedro, you'll find one of the world’s most alluring treasures: the Atacama Salt Flats. One of the driest areas in the world — so dry it hardly sees more than 1 mm of rainfall in an entire year — it’s also one of the most conflicted, due its history and unforgiving environment.
The Andes mountains borders it on the east while to the west lies a secondary mountain range, Cordillera de Domeyko. There are also volcanoes, including the Aguas Calientes, Acamarachi and the Lincancabur. The salt flats were the site (and much of the cause) of the War of the Pacific, also called the Saltpeter War. During this time, Chile obtained most of the valuable mineral-rich territory desired by Bolivia and Peru, which went on to shape much of Bolivia’s economic identity and wedged Chile between the borders of Argentina, Bolivia and Peru.
Still, there is astounding beauty in this remote desert. The Valle de Luna, or Moon Valley, lives up to its name with an extraterrestrial appearance that has inspired onlookers for centuries. And while you may be tempted to look downward, the night skies are as wondrous as the sand thanks to the absence of light pollution, arid climate and high altitude. No wonder the European Southern Observatory maintains two astronomical bases here: Paranal Observatory and La Silla Observatory.
Would-be travelers will find many ways to explore Atacama, some with trips into the Andes or activities focused on wellness. Others even offer a chance to glimpse the rings of Saturn at night. Whatever you do, just be sure to go.
You can watch geysers.
Set your alarm to catch the El Tatio Geysers, at 14,173 feet above sea level. The white steam columns are most powerful between 6 and 7 a.m., so get an early start. While you’re there, keep an eye out for local wildlife foraging for breakfast.
See one of the rarest birds in the world.
One of the joys of visiting the Atacama Salt Flats is trying to spot the all differences between the flamingos, the most characteristic bird of this area. The Andean flamingo, one of the rarest birds in the world, can be seen here, along with the Chilean and James.
And more wildlife.
Among the other fauna species you’ll find are the Puna Plover, a tiny bird that loves saltwater marshes, Andean gull, often found around rivers and freshwater lakes, and swallows, which are known for their long pointed wings.
See a massive salt lake.
Beneath all that salt — the largest deposit in all of Chile — lies a massive salt lake. There you’ll find one of the largest lithium reserves in the world, which has been a boon to the region further south.
It’s the driest place on Earth.
Few plants flourish here.
That’s no surprise considering the extremity of the landscape, with sandy deserts, craggy peaks and active volcanoes. With temperatures ranging from 71F by day to 28F at night, only cactuses and hardy grasses can survive.
Book a tour in San Pedro.
At San Pedro de Atacama, the jumping-off point for exploring the area, you’ll find travel agencies on every block, particularly on the main drag, Caracoles. Most of these offer similar tours, but be sure to do your research to find what works best.
The landscapes seem lunar and Martian.
The stargazing is excellent.
The clean, clear air and lack of light pollution keeps the stars and planets of the southern sky incredibly visible at night. Pack a telescope to view the Milky Way, rings of Saturn and Jupiter — or make your way to the four mirror telescopes that comprise the Very Large Telescope at Cerro Paranal.
You can stargaze with experts.
If you prefer to stargaze with experts, try booking a tour with firms like Astronomy Adventures, which heads out every Saturday, or the aptly named Space, which rents visual and photographic telescopes to amateurs and offers specialized tours most nights.
The desert features in “The Motorcycle Diaries.”
Of the 5,000-plus miles Ernesto “Che” Guevara traveled on his soul-seeking journey, the Atacama Desert, where he and his friend Alberto Granado met a pair of abused Communists, made the strongest impression.
When it rains, the desert blooms.
A springtime bloom of flowers — known locally as desierto florito — is a rare treat in the Atacama desert that occurs every five to seven years. October 2015 saw one of the brightest: After heavy rains in March, mallow fields stretched for miles and a variety of insects, lizards and birds swept in.
Over 200 species of flowers grow here.
Lion’s claws, suspiros and añañucas are among the most striking, and can be seen on trails like Juan Soldado, Quebrada Honda or in the village of Carrizal Bajo.
You can tour abandoned mining sites.
Towns devoted to extracting sodium nitrate, or white gold, appeared at the turn of the century, luring workers from South America, Europe and Asia. When two German scientists learned how to make white gold on an industrial level, the nitrate towns went under, and by 1960 they were abandoned. Today their haunted remains are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
White gold caused a war.
Back in 1879, rich deposits of white gold were so valuable Chile went to war to preserve the territories containing them. Chile, Peru and Bolivia duked it out in the War of the Pacific or “saltpeter war,” which lasted four years. By the end, Chile had gained substantial territory, annexing the Peruvian province of Tarapacá and the Litoral province in Bolivia.
The war had long-term consequences.
In Bolivia, losing the litoral, or coast, became embedded in the public consciousness as the cause of the country’s economic problems. Diplomatic relations with Chile soured, then were ultimately severed in March 1978. In recent years, Bolivian presidents have vied for sovereign access to the sea.
James Bond was here.
The Antofagasta region in the Atacama Desert portrayed Bond’s vengeful mood in the 2008 film “Quantum of Solace.” In its riveting final fight scene, he sneaks into the Hotel Perla de las Dunas, where villains are scheming. The Cerra Paranal, which houses the ESO Very Large Telescope, served as the setting.
More movies have been filmed here.
Among them are the acclaimed Patricio Guzmán documentary, “Nostalgia for the Light,” “The Motorcycle Diaries” starring Gael García Bernal and the action-adventure flick “Spy Kids.” Many westerns and South American documentaries have also been shot here.
The 33 were trapped here.
Speaking of movies, “The 33,” a docudrama about the 2010 Chilean mining disaster that gripped the world, was filmed here. It was only appropriate: Those 33 miners were trapped 2,300 feet below ground when the San Jose mine in Atacama collapsed.
The world’s oldest mummies are buried here.
You probably think the oldest mummies are in Egypt, but those buried by the Chinchorro predate Egypt’s by thousands of years. According to The Archaeological Institute of America, the oldest of these dates all the way to 5,000 B.C. The desert’s aridity preserved them.