Chile, Atacama Desert
There is some debate as the where the Atacama Desert officially begins with regards its southern border. The terrain is appears more “desert like” just north of the Chilean coastal city of La Serena, and La Serena is 470km north from Santiago. However, for all intents and purposes La Serena can be considered within the Atacama southern boundary line, which also puts the Elqui Valley within the Atacama too.
From La Serena, up to Arica in the far north of Chile, by the border with Peru is it 1,602km, meaning that this is at the least, the vertical area covered by the Atacama.
If we run south, down the Pacific coast from Arica, the principal cities on the list are Iquique, Antofagasta: and inland is Copiapo, then La Serena on the coast. The Tropic of Capricorn passes just to the north of Antofagasta cutting through the Salar de Atacama, which is close to San Pedro de Atacama. Therefore, officially above this line is the tropics, heading towards the equator.
As with all high temperature deserts the Atacama is hot and dry. It is said that there are places where rainfall has never been recorded. However, the Atacama also covers an area, width-wise, from the cold Pacific coast up to the tops of the cold, Andes mountains and this geological reality has an effect on the weather. For example, on the coast there is often coastal fog, therefore moisture in these areas, and in the highlands of the Altiplanico, there are often rain clouds, especially in the summer months, that descend and empty their watery contents rapidly over villages like San Pedro de Atacama. The water provided by nature covers the Andes in white snow and provides the lower valleys with water for certain plants to thrive.
From the visitor’s perspective, what makes the Atacama Desert so appealing is the dramatic, geographical scenery which, to the unaccustomed, is, in places “jaw dropping”.
In addition, due to the dry air and relative lack of artificial light pollution, the Atacama night sky is one of the clearest in the World, offering, even to the naked eye, a dramatic view of the Milky Way.
San Pedro de Atacama
What we intend to do here is draw your attention to three particular destinations in the Atacama Desert that warrant a visit. Having said that, the “king” of all the Atacama destinations is none other than the small oasis village called San Pedro de Atacama. Therefore, if you can only visit one place in the north of Chile is has to be San Pedro.
The Elqui Valley & Iquique
The other places are the Elqui Valley, which is drivable from Santiago – about 5hrs, and Iquique further north and on the coast. The Elqui Valley is an amazing fertile valley that runs west to east from La Serena (470km north from Santiago) towards the Andes, whereupon the town of Vicuña is located, and further into the Andes is the tiny village of Pisco Elqui.
Iquique used to be an important coastal base for the English who were busy making money from the Nitrate mining back in the 19th century. Today there are still a few of the interesting period houses lining some of the streets. Near to Iquique is also the facinating ghost, mining town called Humberstone a UNESCO Heritage Site, and well worth a visit if you like history.
Please see the individual menu tabs for more information on these key Atacama destinations.