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The driest place on Earth, Chile’s Atacama Desert is also fascinating, colorful and surprisingly full of life. Requiring long flights from the US and possible overnight stays coming and going, it’s also a great destination for using your hard-earned points and miles. TPG Travel Editor Melanie Wynne guides you to and through the Atacama, a journey she found to be an amazing adventure. (All photos by the author, except where noted.)
A 41,000 square-mile expanse of desert that usually gets four inches of rain every thousand years might seem an unlikely place to find active volcanoes, soaring geysers, towers of rock, hills of salt, miles of marshland, mineral-rich lakes and lagoons, carpets of wildflowers and a plethora of birds and animals, but that’s Chile’s Atacama Desert in a nutshell. In this fantastic place that can seem more like the Moon than the Earth, the daytime, pollution-free skies are ridiculously blue, and at night they’re often crystal clear, widely considered the world’s best for stargazing.
The Atacama runs for roughly 600 miles along the Pacific coast of Chile, on the western edge of the Andes Mountains. From the air, this Southern Hemisphere landscape is beige, russet, lilac and gray, with swirled crusts of salt, islands of knobby hills and jagged mountain peaks that seem to ripple from nowhere. The hard-packed sand is bunched and wrinkled, as though someone pulled a giant thread from a delicate piece of fabric.
On the ground, the high-altitude air is very dry, so you should arm yourself with water, lip balm, lotions and sunscreen; in the fall-winter months of March-August, you can also expect chilly mornings and cool evenings. Pack lightweight layers and sturdy footwear, and if you’re planning to venture up into the Andes (where elevations can top 14,000 feet), bring along a parka and other outerwear to keep yourself warm.
Americans will first fly into Santiago International Airport (SCL), which is served by American Airlines from Dallas (DFW) and Miami (MIA); Delta from Atlanta (ATL); LAN Airlines from Los Angeles (LAX), Miami (MIA) and New York-JFK; and United from Houston (IAH). The fastest route from Santiago to the Atacama Desert is a two-hour connecting flight to El Loa Airport (CJC) in Calama, Chile on LAN or Sky Airline.
American AAdvantage: One-way from 20,000 miles (economy), 50,000 miles (business) and 62,500 miles (first) on American Airlines or LAN. One-way within Chile is 6,000 (economy) and 17,500 (business) on LAN.
Delta SkyMiles: Round-trip from North America to South America requires 60,000 miles (economy) and 160,000 miles (business) on Delta.
United MileagePlus: Round-trip from North America to South America requires 60,000 miles (economy) and 110,000 miles (business) on United.
From Calama — which is home to the largest copper mine on Earth, some Starburst-colored houses and not much else — it’s about a 45-minute drive to the Atacama’s one major town, San Pedro de Atacama. Assuming you stay in or near town, you can get around by bike to a few natural attractions, but to explore most of the sprawling desert area, you’ll need to either rent a car or employ a driver through your hotel/resort. Car rental options at CJC include Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Europcar and Hertz, and roads are generally well paved and marked.
Where to Stay in Santiago
If you’d rather not step off a long flight to Santiago and immediately face a two-hour flight and a 45-minute desert drive, consider staying overnight (or longer) in/near the airport or in Santiago. Set right outside of baggage claim, The Holiday Inn Santiago – Airport Terminal is your closest option to SCL; starting room rates hover around $170 until October, when they spike to $234 and up, but redemptions stay steady at 20,000 IHG Rewards per night. Roughly two miles from the airport is the Hilton Garden Inn Santiago Airport, which offers complimentary shuttle service and starts at $149 or 30,000 HHonors points per night.
The Chilean capital of Santiago is only about nine miles south of SCL, and if you venture into the enormous city full of grand late-19th/early-20th-century architecture, you’ll have a ton of redemption options at your disposal, including: the Grand Hyatt Santiago ($250 or 8,000 points), the Santiago Marriott ($167 or 30,000 points), The Ritz-Carlton, Santiago ($339 or 40,000 points), W Santiago (about $319 or 12,000 points — and where The Points Guy stayed in 2013), the InterContinental Santiago ($290 or 25,000 points), Renaissance Santiago ($189 or 30,000 points) and Radisson Ciudad Empresarial Santiago ($153 or 28,500 points).
For more to do in and around the city, see Eric Rosen’s post on Santiago and nearby skiing adventures.
Where to Stay in the Atacama Desert
Points-redemption options and bargains (aside from hostels) can be hard to come by in the small, rustic village of San Pedro de Atacama, but Altiplanico is a good mid-range option, set three blocks outside of town and starting at $170 per night. The hip, laid-back hotel compound features 29 individual lodge rooms made from adobe and straw (some with outdoor showers), with a swimming pool and an on-site restaurant that serves a blend of Peruvian, Chilean and Atacameñan cuisine.
To save a little money on lodgings, you could instead opt to stay in one of the area homes available on Airbnb that offer a more local taste of the Atacama. Most go for roughly $80-200 per night, and you can rack up reward points for your stay or redeem American Express Membership Rewards (earned with Amex cards like the Platinum, EveryDay, Premier Rewards Gold, etc.) for Airbnb eGift Cards in denominations of $100 or $250.
Up for an eco-friendly splurge? One mile outside of town, set beside the San Pedro de Atacama River and near an ancient ruin, the 42-room Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa offers sustainable design, its own llama paddock and stargazing observatory, a lively bar, cuisine with indigenous ingredients, a full spa, adventure excursions and a massive barbecue pit on a deck surrounded by the Andes. Full-board rates start at $600 per night.
San Pedro de Atacama is also home to three Visa Signature Hotel properties: In the heart of town, the boutique, romantic Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa starts at $633 per night; inside an ancient historic site, Relais & Chateaux’s Awasi starts at $826 per night; and the cutting-edge explora Atacama starts at $767 per night.
When you book though the Visa Signature Hotels online portal, these properties grant perks such as room upgrades and late check-out to Visa Signature cardholders (e.g., Chase Sapphire Preferred, Marriott Rewards Premier, Southwest Premier, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines card, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors, etc.).
What to See and Do
The seemingly extraterrestrial landscape of the Atacama’s Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) looks like it’s been strewn with snow, but if you look more closely, you’ll see that all that white stuff is actually salt. The result of ancient, evaporated inland seas, underground salt deposits rise to the surface when it rains, which happens very rarely in the Atacama Desert — though there was a huge, valley-flooding downpour in February 2013. Salt is still mined in a few areas of the Atacama, but more often these days, the desert is mined for lithium, the chemical element that powers batteries used for cell phones and laptops.
In addition to salt and the western edge of the Andes, the Valle de la Luna is home to several active volcanoes, like the Volcán Aguas Calientas (famous for a red lake that lies at the top of its crater) and the smaller, rounder, exceedingly volatile Volcán Láscar, which last erupted in 2006.
About 15 minutes’ drive from San Pedro de Atacama, a small visitors’ center (2,243 CLP or about $3.50) offers detailed descriptions of these volcanoes, as well as the layout of the valley, the Andes and the area’s mineral deposits — albeit in Spanish. Pre-download the Google Translate app for Android or iOS so that you can aim your smartphone’s camera at the written text and translate it automatically. While you’re here, be sure to stop by the bathrooms, as you won’t find any elsewhere in the Valle de la Luna.
At day’s end, it’s area tradition for tourists to flock to the Valle de la Luna to see the dazzling, golden-pink sunset, and to bring along provisions (e.g., wine, crackers and cheese) for a proper sundowner.
After you’ve had at least a night to acclimate yourself to the Atacama’s altitude, consider a roughly two-hour, six-mile trek (guided or not) through Los Cardones Ravine, at the junction of two minor rivers. Start near the Guatin entrance of the Puritama Highway, at the bottom of a gently graded hill. Along the rocky slopes you’ll find a forest of tall cardon cacti, so well adapted to the Atacama’s dry conditions that their cores contain porous, bone-dry wood — one of the only natural building materials in these parts. Some small succulents (like the magenta cistanthe) creep out of cracks in the clay ground, and other plants thrive, like the red-tipped, bushy “mother-in-law’s couch”; feathery ivory-white pampas grass; and sage-green saltbush, whose tiny leaves offer a tasty snack. After a steep scramble up the tall, rocky wall of the ravine, you’ll find a wide-open plain of rocks sliced by a long ribbon of hard-packed path leading out to the horizon.
At the heart of the Atacama, the marshy Laguna Chaxa at Los Flamencos National Reserve is rimmed by rock cathedrals and volcanoes, and attracts hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of Chilean, Andean and/or James flamingoes, pecking, squawking or flying. You’re also likely to see a small herd of be-ribboned llamas that are brought here by a shepherd to graze on little leaf horsebrush and dun-colored grass.
Set about 20 miles outside of San Pedro de Atacama amidst a huge salt flat, don’t miss the Laguna Cejar, a salt-heavy “floating lake” (meaning you can literally float on it) with a glassy, mirror-like surface that looks especially dramatic when reflecting the light of the sunrise or sunset. You can drive or bike here yourself, or Viator offers a half-day tour.
Not far from Cejar is the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array, otherwise known as the ALMA Observatory. The world’s largest astronomical project, ALMA employs an array of 66 antennae to provide astronomers views of the universe at about 10 times the resolution of the Hubble space telescope. You can arrange in advance to take a tour of ALMA’s Operations Support Facility (OSF) and its laboratory and control center; tours must be pre-arranged, are given only on Saturdays and Sundays, and leave from the Le Paige Archeological Museum in San Pedro de Atacama (another worthwhile stop) at 9am.
Take an early-morning trip up to El Tatio, the third-largest geyser field in the world. Set 14,000 feet above the desert floor and spread across the surface of a hyperactive super-volcano, the ground is boiling hot while the air is very cold (this is why you’ve brought your parka). Plan to spend at least a few hours here, as it’s an exciting landscape — akin to a smaller, more mountainous Yellowstone.
Mind the signage around the pools and geysers, as people have been known to die from falling into the bubbling water. All the more confusing, then, that someone figured out that there’s a perfectly safe hot springs here; consider bringing a swimsuit to bathe in them, as changing rooms are provided.
Just don’t feed the foxes who may venture adorably close to your vehicle — it trains them to depend on humans for food, and they then risk starvation in the less-touristed winter.
On the way back, stop by the tiny village of Machuca, one of the few human-inhabited spots in the desert, where you’ll find a church and a small collection of homes made of rock, mud and straw, as well as a few souvenir shops where you can find hand-woven llama woolens and grilled skewers of low-fat llama meat. If you like lamb, you’ll probably like llama; the two have a similar taste and texture.
Keep an eye out for an unusual rodent called a vizcacha (pronounced “vizz-KOTCH-ah”). A little larger than the average house cat, this chubby rabbit-mouse has shorter-than-bunny ears and a long brushy tail, and spends the bulk of its time tucked up in small caves or sunning itself on/bounding between one rock or another.
In addition to vizcachas, llamas, flamingos and lots of marsh ducks, you’re likely to see fluffy, long-necked vicuñas (pronounced “vy-KOO-nyas”) grazing on desert grasses. If you’re lucky, you might see a herd of these graceful camelids loping across the land, providing one of those exotic, breathtaking moments that prompts a wanderluster to travel far from home.
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