Why you should care
Because the parched landscape is like nothing else on Earth — just ask NASA, which uses it as a stand-in for Mars.
If you had the chance to visit the moon and Mars while chewing on llama meat, would you take it? If so, book a trip to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
Exploring the Atacama Desert makes you feel as if you have landed on a different planet. This 1,000-kilometer strip on the Pacific Coast, west of the Andes, features alien rock formations and sand dunes cascading into red adobe mountains covered in salt. Flamingo-dotted salt flats, steaming geysers, hot springs and volcanic peaks are all on offer. The views are breathtaking — especially when you’re propelling down a dune with a plank of wood strapped to your feet.
Sandboarding has become a popular sport in the region, and it is easy to see why. For beginners, the falls are more forgiving than snowboarding, and like surfing, all you need to get started is a board.
The sport is common in one of Atacama’s outlying sites known as Death Valley. The name conjures images of travelers dying from a fall off a steep dune or from lack of water. Neither is true. A Belgian Jesuit priest, Gustavo Le Paige, named it “Valle de la Marte” after its Martian-like landscape, but people misunderstood his accent and thought he was saying “muerte.” And thus, Death Valley was born. The scenery is so outlandish that NASA tests some of its equipment there because the landscape is the closest it has found to Mars.
If you’re feeling adventurous, rent bikes and head to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) in the late afternoon. Warning: The ride is eight miles uphill at high altitude. Remember, there’s no shame in opting for a tour bus. Hike up the tallest sand dune for a view of the sunset, and look behind you. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a glowing moon, which will light your path as you head home.
Parts of the Atacama desert have never seen rain, at least not since modern weather measurement began.
Waking up at 4:00 a.m. and “vacation” don’t usually go together, but visiting El Tatio for sunrise geyser-spotting is worth losing sleep over. With more than 80 steaming, spewing geysers, El Tatio is best seen pre-dawn, when the temperature is freezing and the explosions of vapor are more visible. Warm up afterward by soaking in the emerald-green thermal pools created by the geysers’ run-off and then head to Machuca to feast on llama kebabs. Even more options include taking a float in Laguna Cejas, a lake saltier than the Dead Sea, or hiking the Cerro Toco volcano, a few miles from the Bolivia/Chile border, for jaw-dropping views.
Bonus: Now you can tell your friends about the real Death Valley.