The Atacama Desert in Chile – Like Nowhere Else on Earth

Written by Leonie Crowden
(One of two winning entries in the Travel for Seniors Writing Competition.)

Moon Valley in the Atacama Desert

Moon Valley in the Atacama Desert

A desert landscape conjures images of relentless dust, gritty sand, rugged rocks, prickly cacti and crawly critters. Not the usual destination to entice the more mature traveller searching for holiday inspiration.

With rough terrain, salt filled lakes and active volcanoes, the Atacama Desert in Chile has all of the above and much more. Situated on a plateau sandwiched between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the desert covers a 1000 kilometre ribbon of land on the west coast of South America. However, this huge land tract is bursting with unique and diverse possibilities waiting to be discovered.

El Tatio Geysers

El Tatio Geysers

Forget preconceived impressions of a barren desert environment. The Atacama Desert, the driest non-polar desert in the world, encompasses a plethora of experiences to tempt and satisfy the most discerning traveller.

The biggest surprise is the palette of colours reflecting the entire spectrum of the rainbow. The intense, pure light provides a constantly changing kaleidoscope of hues, depending on the time of day. Subtle browns, earthy yellows, vivid oranges and vibrant reds are to be anticipated but the muted blues, aquas, mauves, purples and pinks are an unexpected delight.

The author at El Tatio

The author at El Tatio

A camera buff’s dream, the Atacama Desert provides a smorgasbord of photographic opportunities – awe-inspiring rock formations, spectacular snow-covered mountains and steaming active volcanoes; lagoons tinted extraordinary colours by the salty, mineral content and bubbling mud geysers belching steam into the atmosphere; unique flora specifically adapted to the harsh conditions and camouflaged fauna blending perfectly with the terrain; light glistening on the mosaic patterned salt flats and surreal lunar landscapes used for NASA space testing; quaint mud-brick structures and charming indigenous faces smiling innocently at the lens.

With its scarcity of human inhabitants, high altitude, almost non-existent cloud cover, dry air and lack of pollution, the clear, pristine atmosphere of the Atacama Desert will cleanse the body and clear the mind of the most jaded senior traveller.

Some choose to camp under the stars but staying in this desert doesn’t mean you have to rough it.

Hotel Alto Atacama

Hotel Alto Atacama

It’s possible to enjoy luxurious accommodation such as my hotel, the Alto Atacama, in the heart of the desert at San Pedro. The architecture of this unique terracotta-coloured adobe building blends into the spectacular desert scenery.

After a day exploring, it’s heaven to enjoy all the comforts of home and more, including luxurious beds, mood music and subdued lighting; private patios, refreshing pools, pampering spa and relaxing hot tub; well stocked bar, indoor and outdoor lounge and dining areas with cosy open fires; and three course gourmet meals accompanied by an extensive wine list to cater for the most finicky palates.

Vicuna at Salar De Aguas Calientes

A herd of vicunas bathing in the chilly waters

There’s also the unique fauna to challenge the photographer’s reflexes – furry viscachas, with rabbit ears and possum-like tails and furtive foxes hiding in the shadows; regal vicunas, a relative of the llama, grazing on grasslands and elusive ostrich-like rheas scavenging amongst the gravel; elegant pink flamingos feeding in the shallows and geckos scampering amongst rock crevices; and majestic condors soaring in the updraft of the Andes mountains.

Add to this mix of sensory delights, a few unexpected experiences which make the Atacama Desert one to include on the bucket list.

Salar de Aguas Calientes

Salar de Aguas Calientes

Things such as witnessing the sun rise over snow topped volcanoes; an early morning bracing plunge into a thermal pool; indulging in a gourmet lunch beside an aqua lagoon, observing a herd of vicunas bathing in the chilly waters; enjoying wine and canapés while watching the sun set over the Andes; reclining on a sun lounge in the pitch dark, stargazing at a crystal clear night sky; snuggling under the stars by an open fire, quaffing a hearty red carmenere; or relaxing in a hot tub, sipping an original cocktail and reminiscing over the day’s excursions.

Flamingo at Salar de Aguas Calientes

Flamingo at Salar de Aguas Calientes

Senior travel needn’t be restricted to the security of iconic tourist destinations and clichéd experiences, where crowds, noise and pollution are unbearable, space is limited and technology overbearing.

Less developed destinations, however, don’t have to mean dodgy deals, unroadworthy transport, sub-standard accommodation and unpalatable cuisine. Avoid holiday trends, jump into your ‘adventure pants’ and leave behind the stresses and constraints of urban life. Visit a piece of the universe where Mother Nature let her hair down and absorb the majesty and serenity of an ancient, timeless environment.

You’ll arrive with misconceived expectations but leave with a greater appreciation of the powerful forces of nature that created this impressive and imposing landscape. Stimulate the senses, inspire the imagination and rejuvenate the soul by visiting a place like nowhere else on Earth, the Atacama Desert in Chile.


POSTED 11th SEPTEMBER 2017 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of LEONIE CROWDEN. The photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.

The author lives in Launceston in Tasmania.  After retiring from teaching she now works as a Tour Guide at a UNESCO World Heritage site, Woolmers Estate. She has travelled widely and believes that: “There is certainly a lot to see in our fabulous world.”

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