For an area famous as the driest place in the world, Chile’s Atacama Desert boasts a surprising amount of activities involving water. Which is fabulous when the temperature tops a sizzling 35 degrees (91deg F) and you’re dying to cool off in a lagoon or a refreshing river.
The Atacama, in the north of the country, is a place full of contrasts, and my favorite is the unusual opportunities to get wet in the desert. But let’s rewind to the starting point: San Pedro de Atacama, which has evolved into the region’s adventure capital.
San Pedro is a no-horse town where you expect to see tumbleweed and hear the haunting tune from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly when you walk down its dusty unpaved roads. Without tourists, it would be the sleepiest place on Earth, with rows of squat adobe houses shuttered up against the sun. But tourism has turned its buildings into a succession of travel agencies, bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops. When you pass through their small doorways, you often discover vast places where a restaurant may have three or four large rooms and an inviting terrace.
San Pedro is a 90-minute drive from the airport at Calama, and shuttle buses ferry passengers to and fro. People are coming from all over the world these days, and it’s an easy destination for solo travelers, with countless hostels and dozens of organized trips to join. I’ve also heard that it’s a hub for drug and alcohol-fueled desert raves, but I didn’t see any evidence. On the other hand, I didn’t actively go looking.
I spent five nights there and struggled to fit in everything I wanted to do. As a water baby, I loved Termas de Puritama, where wooden pathways and changing rooms have been built around eight warm pools in a river fed by volcanic springs. It’s brilliant to drive through the harsh golden-brown desert then walk down into a lush valley and swim in pools so clear that you can see the bottom. I spent almost three hours dipping and splashing in the miniature waterfalls that flow into each pool, loving every moment.
Another watery wonder are the Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache, where you can float in one of several small lagoons that punctuate the arid landscape. Our guide explained that it rains in this part of Atacama for two weeks every year, and the water soaks into the mineral-rich ground formed by volcanic explosions eons ago. When the harsh sun makes the water evaporate, it draws up minerals and salts too, leaving a salty crust on the surface. The result is dramatic – brilliant white salt flats, turquoise water, and volcanoes in the distance under a clear blue sky. Then you walk into the lagoon, bob to the surface and float on the salt-rich water, laughing with delight.
Our guide believes that one lagoon that people used to swim in has been closed for a while because it was polluted with sunscreen, but it will heal itself over the years.
For boiling hot water, you can visit Tatio Geysers, which spew out tremendous torrents that form spooky mists in the cold pre-dawn air. It’s an excellent show if you’re willing to set off at 4.30am – which I wasn’t – so that was one watery sight I deliberately skipped. (I saw them seven years ago, and since they’ve been performing for millennia, I figured nothing would have changed.)
The temperatures are another of Atacama’s contrasts, and depending on when you visit it could be very cold, very hot, or very cold and very hot on the same day. I was there for Christmas in high summer so the nights weren’t cold, just not as flaming hot as the days. The pool in my complex of cabañas remained cold, however, presenting a challenging contrast after a day of relentless heat.
One evening my friend and I strolled up to Asiatico, a restaurant that offers large happy hour mojitos. Its food is Asian style, and since Chilean food can be rather bland it proved a good find. Other nights we walked along the main street, Caracoles, where several restaurants vie for business. One good find was La Picada del Indio up a side street – not that the main street is noticeably ‘main’. La Picada is a Peruvian restaurant that serves a set menu for a decent price and plays 1980s rock music. Another place worth checking is La Casona, with an outdoor dining area and sometimes a live band.
There’s a decent supermarket at the end of Caracoles, a craft market shaded from the sun, and an old church painted pure glistening white. On the downside the abundance of stray dogs scared me a little, especially in the evenings when they’re scavenging for supper.
But holidays here aren’t about San Pedro itself, they’re about the stark landscapes around it. Chile has about 2,000 volcanoes, and many of them are in Atacama. The picturesque Licancabur dominates the skyline and invites adventurous climbers, while the smaller but active Láscar regularly puffs out little plumes of smoke.
On Christmas Day the tour company Feel Atacama was still operating, and I took a trip to Piedras Rojas. It was a magical way to spend the day, first driving through more spectacular scenery to the Tropic of Capricorn. We stopped for breakfast and photos by the signpost on the long straight road, while our guide Denny explained the equinoxes by sketching pictures in the sand. Next we went to the red stones themselves, which weren’t looking too red that day, but as we walked to a lake Denny explained the geology. He passed around heavy volcanic rocks, then far lighter rocks formed when the molten contents of an eruption solidified, trapping air that makes them remarkably light.
After lunch we drove to Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons, which were once one body of water until they were torn apart by a volcanic eruption. This is wild territory where nature has done battle with itself for 33 million years.
Our last stop was Chaxa Lagoon, a reserve controlled by the native population and home to three varieties of flamingos. The small information center is great, with details about the wildlife in English and Spanish. I was disappointed to see only 30 or 40 flamingos, not the hundreds I’d expected, and Denny explained that the lithium mine we could see in the distance had disturbed their territory and their habits. Yes, people had objected, he said, but money spoke louder than environmentalists. Hopefully the birds will get used to the mining and return in bigger numbers.
A final unmissable trip is Moon Valley, filled with vast sand dunes, dramatic folds of mountains, and rock formations sculptured by the wind and sand. The sun was blazing as we walked through otherworldly landscapes and alongside sheer vertical rocks. We gratefully sheltered in their shade, and our guide hushed us into silence to listen to the massive rocks creak and groan as they expanded in the heat. The finale comes when you stand on the heights of Mirador de Ckari, looking out over the plains as the sun sets. Then it was back to my cabaña for a last dunk in the chilly swimming pool.