Desert dreaming

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Caroline Maber cannot recommend a visit to the Atacama highly enough.

Travel to the Atacama desert to explore one of the driest places on earth, a vast desert plateau covering a 1,600 km strip of land on the Pacific coast of South America, set at an altitude of 2400m. As if this otherworldly landscape wasn’t surreal enough already, it is also scattered with volcanoes (some of which are still active), including the highest volcano in the world, Ojos del Salado, standing at an impressive 22,615 feet.  

The colours of the Atacama always amaze me – think shades of browns, oranges, yellows and even white, thanks to the bright plains of the salt flats. It’s on the latter that you’ll witness abundant wildlife, from flocks of flamingos and vicuñas (from the same family as the llama, but smaller) to desert fox, vizcachas (a large, chinchilla-like rodent) and perhaps even the magnificent condor. 

For those that are active, there are plenty of opportunities for bike rides, plus several incredible hikes of varying length, suitable for all abilities. These include treks through the Valley of the Moon, known for its striking lunar landscape, as well as through the emotively named, Death Valley and Rainbow Valley. Expect to sand-surf down the dunes or ride though the vast, dusty terrain, observe giant cacti, and for those interested in history, marvel at the various petroglyphs that are found in certain sites.  

A trip to the Tatio Geysers – an impressive geothermal site – is also a must. While it’s an early start, around dawn, you’ll soon forget the time when confronted with the volcanic fumaroles steaming and bubbling away. Prefer some down time? A leisurely soak in the volcanic hot springs can be very relaxing, or why not get lost in the sky – the Atacama is one of the best places in the world to star gaze, and home to the wondrous Alma Observatory. All the lodges offer a guided interpretation of the constellations, so lie down outside and drink in the inky sky as it shimmers with the light of a million stars and enjoy tales of planetary exploration. Some lodges come complete with seriously powerful telescopes, too – we were able to see the rings of Saturn and Jupiter, and a whole lot more! Come prepared to make a wish because I can almost guarantee you will see at least one shooting star.  

As you travel to the Atacama desert you will experience sunsets just as beautiful as the night sky. Your lodge will prepare a gourmet picnic and drinks for you to enjoy whilst you watch the sun go down. However, as is often the case with deserts, while the Atacama can be very hot in the day, it gets chilly at night and in the early morning – even dropping below zero at the highest altitudes: layers are an absolute must.  

All in all, the Atacama is a magical place to visit, and I’d highly recommend a four-night stay here – or even a night longer if you can spare it.