We began our winter vacation in the Atacama desert in the north of neighboring Chile. After a 5:15 wake up call and an adventure getting our luggage when changing planes in Santiago, the trip was off to a bit of rocky start. Things immediately turned around once we arrived in at the Calama airport and were greeted by Sebastian our guide from the Awasi hotel in San Pedro de Atacama. The Awasi is just a wonderful hotel and I can’t possibly say enough good things about the service. We had our own guide who helped us plan our excursions and then accompanied us on each of them explaining the flora, fauna and geology of the region and bringing along little engañitos (treats) to keep our bellies full.
What makes the Atacama region so special is that it is a high desert surrounded by the massive Andes mountain chain with a number of active volcanoes. The region’s main town, San Pedro de Atacama, is at about 10,000 ft above sea level. Our excursions took us up to almost 14,000 feet while the nearby peaks reached up above 17,000 feet. By way of comparison, the highest peak in the continental US is Mt. Whitney at 14.5k.
The region is full of micro-climates including barren salt flats, lush canyons filled with rivers from the melting snow pack and barren rocky terrain at altitude. San Pedro is built on an oasis where the run off from the Andes has created on aquifer. The many different climates creates a number different types of spots to explore.
Our first mini-excursion was to watch the sunset from the ridge of the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). After a long day of travel, I wasn’t sure we would be up for it, but we saw an absolutely spectacular sunset. This little trip gave us a clue that we were in for a special vacation.
The next day we set out for Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) a series of hills and sand dunes caused by the eruptions of the near by volcanoes. It was other worldly.
We then proceeded to explore some caves in the area. The kids were thrilled to be wearing headlamps and climbing around.
We stopped back at the hotel for some lunch and R&R and then headed out to the Salar de Atacama, the actual salt flats. Again, a totally different landscape but equally otherworldly. We also go a chance to see a flock of flamingos that inhabits the salt flats, living off tiny little shrimp.
This would have made for a full day, but Sebastian drove us outside the salt flat to a spot just underneath the Lascar volcano (which I adopted as my personal favorite) to watch the sunset. There is something just magical about a desert sunset and being alone in this vast space, the family just roving around, made for one of the best parts of our trip.
The following day the girls stayed back at the ranch while Jake and I headed toward Guatin to hike through one of the valleys. Once again, the landscape changed dramatically as we descended from an arid desert into a valley filled with pampas grass with a river running through it.
After a nice lunch and a couple of hands of truco, we set out to revisit the Valle de la Muerte. This type the team was on horseback.
After a pretty mellow ride we came to the foot of these giant sand dunes. Naturally we got snow boards and rode them down the hill which made for a pretty terrific adventure
The next day we went for a full day excursion. We began by climbing to 13,500 feet to visit the geysers of Taito. It was a beautiful drive and we saw llamas and wild vicuñas (which are small camels).
The geysers are really the same geothermic phenomenon that you see in Yellowstone where heat from the earth’s crust warms up water and creates a geyser when the chemicals cause the warm water to shoot upward. There are multiple geysers at this particular site and it is possible to see brand new holes that will soon result in geysers in a number of spots.
After walking through the geyers we then drove over the top of a small pass where we could see the remaining of the Inca trail over the volcano Linzor to what is now Bolivia. This was my favorite spot of all of our time in Atacama and I hope to get a chance to return some day to hike it.
It was pretty chilly at 13,5k feet, so we hustled down the mountain to some natural hotsprings (Los Baños de Puritama) for a quick dip and a picnic. The kids loved it.
After yet another wonderful meal at the Awasi (where Senor Apple plied us with delightful Chilean wines) and a two man band played some local tunes, we ended our last day in Atacama with some star gazing. Atacama is one of the best places to look at the stars in the world because it is high, dry and has very little light pollution owing to the sparse population. Many of the world’s great observatories are located there. We went over to the local guides’ home where he had a number of telescopes in his backyard. We were able to see the Milky Way with our naked eye, including what the Incas referred to as the great llama in the sky. We also got to see Saturn and the Moon through his telescope.
An incredible adventure. We are really proud of how the kids handled some difficult conditions (cold, altitude, lots of driving, learning to snow board on sand) and we had a spectacular time. If you are looking for a truly unique adventure, the Atacama desert has our strong endrosement.