May 29, 2023

Do you like to see unusual places when you travel? Well, add Chile’s Atacama Desert to your must-visit list to check out its otherworldly sites. Now is an ideal time to plan a trip given Chile’s recent move to Alert Phase 1—there are currently no Covid travel restrictions other than the need for health insurance and completing a travel affidavit.

The Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert, in northern Chile, is the driest non-polar desert on the planet. By visiting this part of Chile, you’ll be able to photograph amazing landscapes including richly colored lagoons (some as salty as the Dead Sea), geysers, salt flats, caves, a valley that looks like the moon’s surface, plus ancient art drawn right onto the land itself. This part of Chile also has mummies older than those found in Egypt, beach cities like Iquique and Antofagasta, some of the best stargazing in the world, and, of course, Chile’s gastronomy and wine. You’ll like use the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, with its excellent restaurants and boutique hotels, as a base for exploring.

The Atacama Giant

The Atacama Desert has more than 5,000 ancient geoglyphs—immense designs and figures drawn into the dry flats and hills—similar to Peru’s famous Nazca Lines north of here. Some of the Atacama geoglyphs are about 1,200 years old, dating to 800 CE. The most recent was made 500 years ago in the 16th century.

The largest is called the Atacama Giant—it’s a 390-foot-tall figure on a hillside that looks a bit like an alien. Scientists think the Atacama Giant was likely an astronomical guide, as the lines that stretch off the figure’s head predict the movement of the moon and can be used to map the changing of the seasons. Or, as some believe, perhaps it really is a depiction of the alien who created it.

Chile’s blood red lagoon

Also in the Atacama Desert, near the town of Camina and about 120 miles from the coastal city of Iquique, is a mysterious red lagoon. Called both Laguna Roja and Mar Roja, this unusual body of water is 12,000 feet above sea level, is between 100 and 120 Fahrenheit, and is the color of blood. Nearby are two other colorful lagoons, one yellow and one green.

According to legend of the Aymara people, the lagoon was the devil’s and he warned people away from it by tinting it slightly red. Yet some people drank its water and died, which stained it an even deeper red. Another legend holds that three virgins were sacrificed to the gods here and each wept tears of a different color, resulting in the three colorful pools.

There isn’t a scientific consensus on why the waters are such a rich red color, though the most common theory is that the cause is sediment and algae. Regardless, the pools make for very unusual photographs (though getting to them isn’t easy).

Valley of the Moon

Much more common to visit in the Atacama Desert is Valle de la Luna (the Valley of the Moon) near San Pedro de Atacama. With landscapes resembling the surface of the moon, there are unusual rock formations, sand dunes and craters to explore, with dustings of salt that will first make you think they’re snow. The sunsets are spectacular and turn the mountains shade of pink and orange and at night the lack of light pollution makes for ideal stargazing.

Salt lagoons

Looking like tiny Caribbean Seas, blue and green salt lagoons dot some parts of the Atacama Desert too. Some have flamingoes wading in them and others have fellow travelers.

The Hidden Lagoons of Baltinache, for example, look like oases amongst snowy white salt. As with the Dead Sea on the other side of the world, their extreme saltiness makes them easy to float in. The pools are refreshing on a hot day at temperatures of about 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

Geysers and hot springs

Other waters are much hotter, both swimmable hot springs and geysers that spurt out from beneath the Earth’s surface. El Taio, for example, is a field of fumaroles that steam onto the dramatic scenery. Seeing El Taio at its ideal time requires a very early morning start (and wrapping yourself in layers to protect against the desert’s nighttime chill). But there’s also a chance you’ll see Chilean wildlife like vicunas (llama-like camelids with incredibly soft wool), viscachas (a relative of the chinchilla), and nandues (large flightless birds).

A visit to Baños de Puritama hot springs will help warm you up—“puri” means “water” and “tama” means “warm” in one of the local Indigenous languages. This bathing site has eight hot pools in a natural setting, connected by small waterfalls. The waters are between 77 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit with the coolest pools at the lowest elevation. The waters purportedly have magnesium, potassium, calcium, and sodium sulphate—soaking in them will surely have you marveling at Chile’s mysterious Atacama Desert.

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