If you’ve ever wanted to travel to the moon but can’t quite afford the airfare, it’s time for you to visit the Atacama Desert, located where the borders of Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Argentina converge.
The Atacama is home to a whole host of other-worldly looking natural formations of stony terrain, salt lakes and felsic lava – plus you’ll regularly stumble across vicuñas and llamas, so it’s probably better than the moon anyway.
Depending on your budget and time constraints, there are a few ways to see the Atacama, but the simplest way to make the most of her beauty is to base yourself in San Pedro de Atacama in the north of Chile. From here it is easy to take day trips around the area, and travel onward. San Pedro is also one of the starting points (or ending points depending on your direction) to take a tour of the breathtaking Salar de Uyuni in southern Bolivia.
San Pedro itself is a pretty average town, with a few hostels and hotels, a couple of restaurants and bars, vendors selling your typical alpaca jumpers and beanies, and a butt-ton of tour agencies. The agencies are generally all on one strip, so it’s pretty easy to shop around and find good deals on various tours.
The ‘must-sees’ are the Valle de la Luna, Laguna Cejar and Los Ojos (giant, deep pools in the middle of the desert), which are easy to visit cheaply on a tour. Additionally, for full-on moon-vibes, a pre-sunrise visit the the Geysers del Tatio is imperative, as you stand around in the cold watching boiling hot gases and water shoot out of the earth, metres into the air, before taking a dip in the hot springs.
If your budget allows, I would highly recommend a day trip to the Salar de Tara, which is way-away towards the Argentinian border. This is a less popular destination, as it takes a full day, but it is well worth the time and the money if you’re keen on feeling completely isolated (other than the 5 or so people that are generally in your group). There are amazing rock formations called the Cathedrals there – and it’s hard to believe that these shapes were created by the erosive forces of nature, not some 6th century Roman architect.
While there isn’t exactly a raging nightlife, there are a few pubs around and you will inevitably find friends in your hostel to share some cervezas or a joint with. You should however reserve one night to visit the Ahlarkapin Observatory. Given San Pedros complete isolation, it is one of the clearest places in the world to look at the nights sky. There is a very cool telescope at Ahlarkapin, and they provide a great, informative presentation and even hot chocolate at the end. You can visit this either on a tour or it’s easy enough to organise transport if you have a group that are interested in attending.