The Driest Place on Earth, Atacama Desert, Chile | South American Ski Adventure Trip Report

Jesse Cassidy | | Trip ReportTrip Report
Sunset over Valle de la Muerte
Sunset over Valle de la Muerte

When going to South America it is easy to get caught up in the euphoria of skiing powder in August while your buddies are back home roasting in 100+ degree heat. While the skiing in South America is killer, and a great excuse to blow off work and take off on an adventure, there is a lot more to South America than skiing. Whether it’s exploring the nightlife of Buenos Aires, the coastline of Chile or eating guinea pig in Peru, exploring beyond the resort can lead to some fun times on your South American Ski Adventure.

map_of_chile

North of Santiago and the skiing most people know Chile for lies the Atacama desert, nestled in the north east corner of the country bordering Bolivia and Peru. The Atacama desert in the north of Chile is the second driest place on earth behind the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antartica. The high plateau stretches 600 miles north to south on the west slope of the Andes, and covers nearly 40,000 square miles. The desert is filled with salt flats, lunar looking landscapes, and is backed up against volcano after volcano along the Andes range. The landscape is strikingly similar to that of Nevada or Utah, except for the flamingos and large volcanos. The Atacama is a truly unique place not only in its landscape, but in its history.

San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama is the best place to start your Atacama adventure with great hotels and hostels, travel groups, bike and sandboard rentals and much more. San Pedro is about an hour away from Calama which receives daily flights from Santiago, making it pretty accessible. San Pedro itself is a pretty cool town, with dirt and brick roads that twist and turn throughout the city and a large open square. San Pedro is a small oasis amongst the sprawling desert that in some places can go years without seeing rain.

Biking in Valle de la Muerte
Biking in Valle de la Muerte

Right out side of town is Valle de la Muerte, which translates as Death Valley. The area closely resembles the landscape of Mars with red rock formations and sand dunes. Biking to Valle de la Muerte is a good time, as is night time sand boarding on the dunes within the valley. A bit further south from San Pedro is Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon. Valle de la Luna is supposed to resemble the landscape of the Moon, and with sprawling sand dunes and grayish rock it’s pretty spot on, although I’ve never been on the moon.

Matt assimilating with the Flamingos
Matt assimilating with the Flamingos

Other attractions in the Atacama that are close to San Pedro include the salt flats to the south of San Pedro, the Salar de Atacama. Standing on these salt flats you feel as if you are in Utah near Bonneville, except once you start looking around there are giant volcanoes to the east and flamingos in the pools to your left in the Chaxa Lagoon. Another cool spot is the El Tatio Geysers, a geothermic field filled with geysers that awaken early every morning as the sun rises.

Atacama at night, Photo credit: Nicholas Buer
Atacama at night, Photo credit: Nicholas Buer

While the landscape of the Atacama is spectacular and often other worldly, some of the best views are after dark. The Atacama Desert is one of the best places on earth to view the night sky, with virtually no light pollution, extremely dry air, and almost always clear, the stars in the Atacama are some of the best you will ever see. I’ve never seen so many stars in my life looking up into the sky as the Milky Way Stretched across the shining canvas. As a result of this optimal star viewing, a lot of money has been pouring into the Atacama from international astronomy organizations looking to establish in the region. And with amazing views just to the naked eye it’s not suprising.

Valle de la Muerte at sunset
Valle de la Muerte at sunset

While the Atacama Desert is a bit out of the way as far as skiing goes, it is worth the trip. It’s easy to get to, and once there you are treated to spectacular views that seem out of this world. Spending a few days in the North of Chile is not a bad call, and might even help get you back into summer mode before returning to the daily grind back home up in the Northern Hemisphere.

Biking to Valle de la Muerte from San Pedro
Biking to Valle de la Muerte from San Pedro
Sandy
Sandy
Rio Puritama
Rio Puritama
Valle de la Muerte
Valle de la Muerte
Chaxa Lagoon
Chaxa Lagoon
Atacama de Chile
Atacama de Chile

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