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Outdoor Adventures in the Atacama Desert Chile

Angela Wood

Senior Contributor

It's hard to believe that Chile has a desert, salt lakes which you can float in and some of the best stargazing on the planet. But it’s true. The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is one of the best places to experience outdoor adventures in the world. From mountain biking to hot air balloon rides and even sand surfing, it offers myriad activities for intrepid travellers who wish to immerse themselves in the country’s natural beauty.

Discover the Constellations of the Southern Hemisphere

Gain knowledge of the skies just as the ancients did with an astronomical tour in the Atacama Desert, Chile. The largest tour observation centre in South America is located here and nightly excursions are available from San Pedro de Atacama, except when there’s a full moon. If you’re new to stargazing, you will learn how to map constellations of the Southern Hemisphere, begin to recognise prominent star systems and view the night skies through powerful telescopes. With little light pollution, you gain clear views of the skies, making this one of the most unforgettable experiences you’ll have on your Chilean adventure.

Astronomical Tour - Atacama Desert

Credit: Abriendomundo

Mountain Bike through Desert Canyons

One of the best ways to see the beautiful shifting landscapes of the Atacama Desert is by bike. You can guide yourself to salt caves, geysers and even to the ancient petroglyphs at Yerbas Buenas, but if you don’t wish to go it alone, half-day bike excursions are available from San Pedro de Atacama. Throughout the guided trip you ride through mysterious Moon Valley, Kari Canyon and Mars Valley, famous for its red rock terrain. The tours are invigorating but not for the faint-hearted as you will cover up to 30 kilometres and face gruelling elevations during the ride. However, if you plan in advance and bring plenty of water, snacks and high SPF sun cream, you’re guaranteed to have an experience to remember.

Biking Atacama Desert

Credit: Lupus 69

Go Hiking in Moon Valley

If cycling isn’t for you, you can always hike instead. The Atacama Desert is the perfect place to become at one with nature, and there’s no better place to begin than in Valle de la Luna or Moon Valley. This natural ochre-coloured terrain is home to rugged rock formations, sand dunes and other-worldly landscapes. You could be forgiven for thinking you’ve been transported to a distant planet as you sit on the rocks at Kari Canyon look-out point and gaze over the Salt Range.

As you continue your hike, caves and gorges come into view, old Pre-Inca ruins and unusual geological formations make for interesting photo opportunities. If you can organise your trip to incorporate the sunset, you won’t be disappointed. As the sun descends over the desert you are reminded of how wonderful nature is, and how fortunate you are to experience it in its purest form in the Atacama.

Hiking Moon Valley Atacama

Credit: Obscur

Float in a Saltwater Flat Lagoon

In such arid terrain, the last thing you expect to see is a lake – a salt one at that! In fact, Cejar Lagoon is so famous in South America it rivals the Dead Sea for floatability. It’s the perfect place to cool off following an energetic hike or cycle through the desert. Relax, strip off and melt into the saltwater beneath a cloudless sky, and a backdrop of distant volcanoes and snow-capped mountains. The earlier or later you arrive the less crowded it will be, so if you wish to float your troubles away and feel like the only person on earth, plan your trip accordingly.

Floating in Lagoon, Atacama Desert

Credit: Jaume

Experience Sandboarding on the Dunes

It’s wise to choose your sandboarding experience carefully based on your fitness levels. If you decide to cycle to Valle de Marte (Mars Valley) around 1.5 miles from San Pedro de Atacama, you then have to walk to the top of the dunes with your board, as there’s no such thing as a chair lift. However, if you’re healthy but not on the Iron Man spectrum, it’s wise to join an excursion. You’ll travel to the destination by car, thus preserving your energy for the sandboarding experience itself.

The rewards from atop the dunes are awe-inspiring with endless views of plateaus and volcanic peaks, plus you are likely to meet new like-minded friends during your dune boarding experience! On your return to San Pedro, venture to a local bar, share a bottle of Chilean wine and regale each other with amusing tales of your day’s adventures.

Sandboarding Atacama Desert

Credit: Erich Fend

Enjoy a Hot Air Balloon Ride

Ever fancied seeing the desert from an elevated perspective? You can with an Atacama Balloon ride. Carrying between 2 and 6 passengers, the balloon soars high above mountain peaks and rainbow landscapes. You’re accompanied by a local team who can answer your questions about life in the Atacama, plus you’re even presented with an artisan breakfast before you depart. All flights are named in Kunza, an indigenous language used by people of the desert. One of the most interesting trips is the 45-minute Lalcktur Balloon flight which transports you across stunning landscapes of Moon Valley, the Salt Mountain Range, Mars Valley and the Andes at sunrise.

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Credit: Yasemin Olgunoz Berber

Meet the Locals in San Pedro de Atacama

Located on a high Andean plateau in the Atacama Desert in northeastern Chile, San Pedro de Atacama is a bustling town nestled between steaming geysers, volcanoes and lunar landscapes. There’s plenty to see and do in the town, from visiting the Church of San Pedro de Atacama (one of Chile’s oldest structures) to exploring Pukara Quitor – an important 12th-century fortress a couple of miles outside the centre. In the town itself, low rise adobe houses on the high street hide tour operators, handicraft shops and restaurants. There are several restaurants where you can sample delicious Chilean or fusion cuisine, plus a medley of Peruvian and International eateries in the town. 

Should you decide to stay awhile, Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa offers luxury, yet eco-friendly lodgings. Built into the natural rocky landscape, dark terracotta walls hide an artistic dwelling with exceptional cuisine and a fine array of Chilean wines. In the evenings, sit by the pool with a glass of wine or enjoy outdoor stargazing by the fire pit. It’s a great place to meet the locals too, as the hotel employs indigenous staff who are happy to share their stories with you.

Aerial View of San Pedro de Atacama

Credit: Martin Gstoehl

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