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SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA TOURS TO SALAR DE ATACAMA,
VALLEY OF THE MOON AND ANTOFAGASTA

Story and photos by

What is the driest desert in the world? The Atacama Desert. It is located in three northern regions of Chile: Tarapaca, Antofagasta and Atacama.

Viewing Atacama Desert
Viewing Atacama Desert
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

There is so little rainfall in the Atacama that our four-wheel drive vehicle had no windshield wipers. Like a dusty treasure chest, the desert's dryness preserves numerous natural and archeological treasures.

What to do in San Pedro de Atacama

The best place to begin a tour of Atacama Desert attractions is in the province of El Loa. We based ourselves in a hotel in San Pedro de Atacama, which is located 1,040 miles (1,676 kilometers) north of Santiago, the capital of Chile.

Driving directions to San Pedro from Calama, the closest city? Follow Hwy 23 southeast of Calama for 64 miles (103 kilometers).

What is the altitude of San Pedro de Atacama? The town is 7,875 feet (2,400 meters) high.

The main thing to see in San Pedro is the R.P. Gustavo Le Paige Archeological Museum (address: 380 Gustavo Le Paige St., east of the Plaza de Armas). Seven spokes radiate out from the octagonal wooden building's core, each one exhibiting a selection of the museum's 380,000-item collection.

Miss Chile mummy in San Pedro de Atacama Archeological Museum until 2007
Miss Chile mummy in San Pedro de Atacama Archeological Museum until 2007
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Atacameno mummies

You could view several mummies in the San Pedro de Atacama museum before 2007, when the local Atacameno (Likan-antay) community requested their removal from public display. Miss Chile, who had long brown braids framing her fine-boned face, was the most famous.

The mummy, estimated to be 2,000-to-3,000 years old, is young compared to the 7,000-year-old Chinchorro mummies—the world's oldest—found in the northern Atacama city of Arica.

Ceremonial gold cup with face in archeological museum
Ceremonial gold cup with face in archeological museum
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

On a guided tour of the San Pedro museum's exhibits, we saw a carved wooden spoon used for ritual hallucinatory drugs, an ancient sandal, a ceremonial gold goblet with a human face and cloth woven 8,000 years ago.

Atacama tours

San Pedro hotels, such as Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Hotel de Larache (Explora Atacama) offer hiking, biking and road trips to Antofagasta attractions.

For tours of northern Atacama Desert tourist sites in Tarapaca, Chile, such as the Pintados figures, Atacama Giant and Humberstone ghost town, it's best to take tours from Iquique.

Luisa Zuleta weaves with loom. Toconao, Chile.
Luisa Zuleta weaves with loom. Toconao, Chile.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Oasis village

Toconao is located 24 miles (40 kilometers) south of San Pedro de Atacama in an oasis. Resident Luisa Zuleta weaves at a loom similar to the one that wove the cloth in the San Pedro archeological museum.

Using wool from sheep and llamas, she creates blankets, sweaters, hats and socks to sell from her home. Like most buildings in Toconao, including the Church of San Lucas (built in 1744), her home was built from liparita (white volcanic stone).

Children with black puppy in Toconao
Children with black puppy in Toconao
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

As we walked from Luisa's house to the town square, we passed children sitting on an outdoor bench, taking turns cuddling a black puppy. We met a farmer carrying baskets of quince from his oasis orchard in the Jere Ravine. When we offered to buy a couple of the tart yellow, apple-like fruits, he insisted on giving them to us.

Lascar Volcano

Officials evacuated Toconao's 500 inhabitants in April 1993, when the Lascar volcano erupted. Fortunately, the town was spared.

The active Chilean volcano has had several smaller eruptions since then. When we viewed it, Lascar was puffing wisps of smoke into the hyacinth sky.

Salar de Atacama

The Atacama Salt Flat is located west and south of Tocanao and 34 miles (55 kilometers) south of San Pedro de Atacama. Our jeep was the only vehicle on the road through the 1,160-square-mile (3,000-square-kilometer) Salar de Atacama. Much of its water has evaporated, except for shallow lagoons surrounded by crystalline waves of salt.

Driving through Salar de Atacama Salt Flat
Driving through Salar de Atacama Salt Flat
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The second largest salt flat in the world, Salar de Atacama holds more than one-quarter of the world's supply of lithium.

We crunched along the jagged shore of Chaxa Lagoon to a pond where a few dozen flamingos congregated. Mirrored in the glassy brine, the pink birds reached down with long necks and black beaks to extract succulent morsels of food from below the surface.

Flamingo reserve

A sign read: "Los Flamencos National Reserve—Region of Protected Wilderness. Do not alter the natural landscape." Three species of flamingos populate Chaxa Lagoon: James's, Chilean and Andean.

We photographed three Andean flamingos (Phoenicopterus andinus), which we identified because they have yellow legs and yellow bills with extensive black tips.

Flamingos feed in lagoon.
Flamingos feed in lagoon.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Drive from El Tatio to Calama

One of the most popular trips north of San Pedro de Atacama goes to El Tatio geysers. Driving between El Tatio and Calama was like touring a wildlife preserve.

A South American gray fox (Lycalopex griseus) observed us from a rock-strewn landscape. Soaring condors circled over a field of grazing llamas. Adults gathered protectively around the baby in the herd when they saw the vultures.

Woman pushes wheelbarrow along road in Caspana.
Woman pushes wheelbarrow along road in Caspana.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Caspana

The cacti-covered hills gave way to endless miles of stone-covered terrain. Suddenly, Caspana appeared, like a leafy mirage flanked by rocky cliffs.

Caspana is located 53 miles (85 kilometers) east of Calama. The stone village of thatched-roof homes borders the Calama River, which gives it life.

A donkey brayed its welcome as we crossed an arched stone footbridge to photograph neat terraced orchards of apples and pears. A woman rolled a wheelbarrow down a dusty road.

Another woman decorated an outdoor altar with flowers. Her daughter removed bread from a hive-shaped clay oven.

Church of San Francisco in Chiu-Chiu, Chile
Church of San Francisco in Chiu-Chiu, Chile
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Chiu-Chiu

Located 19 miles (30 kilometers) east of Calama, Chiu-Chiu was once on the Inca Trail. Today, it is famous for its Church of San Francisco, built in 1675. Cross-topped bell towers adorn the adobe and cactus wood building.

The Atacameno ancestors of today's Chilean residents built magnificent pukaras or fortress cities here, long before the Incas invaded the region.

Lasana

Today, the 12th-century pukara of Lasana presides over an oasis with a population of 300 people. Located five miles (eight kilometers) north of Chiu-Chiu, Lasana stretches like a verdant ribbon for 12 miles (20 kilometers) between stark 656-foot (200-meter) cliffs.

From the gravel road above the oasis, we looked down on the life-giving Loa River and lovingly tended patches of carrots, corn and sunflowers. Behind us, toppled rocks were engraved with Inca carvings.

Driving on road between El Tatio and Calama
Driving on road between El Tatio and Calama
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Drive from Calama to San Pedro

We drove southeast from Calama back to San Pedro de Atacama. A startling blue sky anchored itself to the rocky, salt-encrusted earth, with a rim of mostly extinct volcanoes.

Shepherdess on donkey
Shepherdess on donkey
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The most recognizable was Licancabur. Located on the border between Chile and Bolivia, the snow-capped cone of Licancabur reaches a height 19,410 feet (5,916 meters).

At its foot, a mother and her son rode a donkey-pulled cart. A shepherdess, garbed in brilliant red, sat sidesaddle on a donkey.

A charcoal-black dog shadowed her movements as she herded a motley flock of sheep and goats. Periodically, swirls of dust swallowed up the whole biblical scene.

Valley of the Moon

Sunset was approaching, so we hurried to the Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna), located nine miles (15 kilometers) west of San Pedro de Atacama.

Climbing sand dune in Valley of the Moon
Climbing sand dune in Valley of the Moon
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The rough road jolted every nut and bolt in our vehicle and every bone in our bodies, but the scene awaiting us was well worth the bumpy trip.

Mountain ridge path and sand dune
Mountain ridge path and sand dune
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We parked below a rippled sand dune, the height of a five-storey building, and plodded our way up to the top. Sand filled our shoes. We gasped for air. But no matter—if the climb didn't take our breath away, the view from the Valley of the Moon certainly would.

Carefully, we traversed the narrow ridge along the peak of the dune, aware that one wayward step would send us sliding uncontrollably down the steep slope.

The white "snow" covering the eroded red rock outcroppings below us was actually salt. Saline crystals also dotted the ground, like shells on a sandy beach.

At sunset, the sun's last rays painted the rocks with watermelon hues. Trekking along the ridge at the peak of the dune, we looked out over a blushing lunar landscape.

Few places are as magical as the Moon Valley, at night, during a full moon. The salt crystals glimmer like diamonds, while rock formations cast their shadows over the luminescent landscape. It's the best way to end a tour of the Atacama Desert.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

San Pedro de Atacama: www.sanpedroatacama.com

More things to see and do in Chile:

Torres del Paine - Hiking from Explora Patagonia

Cruises of Chile's Inside Passage

Puerto Natales - Giant Milodon Cave

Puyuhuapi Lodge and Spa - Chilean Patagonia

Chilean Food