Exploring The Atacama: Unique Things to do in the World's Driest Desert (by Vincent)

A visit to the Atacama will likely redefine your understanding of the word "desert."  Extending roughly 600 miles down the Pacific coastline, from southern Peru through northern Chile, this particular desert is the driest place on earth.

A vast stretch of sand dotted by salt lakes and felsic lava, some regions of the desert have even gone up to four years without a single drop of rainfall.  Though, while the landscape might be barren and the population sparse, this area is a truly fascinating place, full of unique and interesting things to do.

Sandboard in Huacachina

Located at the meeting point of the Peruvian Sechura desert and the northern limit of the Atacama, Huacachina is situated around a picturesque desert oasis.  Famous for its impressive sand dunes and raucous nightlife, Huacachina has become a kind of backpacker haven, a staple stop on the tourist travel through southern Peru. 

Sandboarding (think surfing, but on sand) is an absolute must in Huacachina.  The trek up the dune provides breathtaking views of the surrounding desert and the ride down is equally impressive...gliding down a one hundred foot sand dune at a whirlwind speed is certainly an exhilarating thrill.

Surf in Arica

(Photo above is Laguna Verde taken by Lucash)

This region isn't all sand and salt.  The desert's Pacific coastline is actually home to some of Chile's best beaches.  Arica, a coastal city just south of the Peruvian border is becoming an increasingly prominent beach destination.  Because of its warm currents and great wave breaks, the city has be come a prime surf spot and has hosted several high profile surf and body-boarding competitions.

Stargaze in San Pedro de Atacama

(Photo above by European Southern Observatory)

One of the most remarkable aspects of this desert?  Its low population density.  Tucked away from the bright lights of civilization, the desert is home to one of the world's darkest stretches of night sky. 

This remarkable lack of light pollution, coupled with virtually non-existent cloud cover and extremely dry air, makes the region a perfect spot for stargazing.  In fact, it's is one of the best places in the world for astronomical observation and is home to both the La Silla Observatory and the Paranal Observatory.

San Pedro de A' is a city located in the area's interior of northern Chile, is an especially excellent spot for those searching for unobstructed views of glittering constellations.  If you are interested in stargazing you can head out into the desert night on your own, but it is probably best to go with a tour guide. 

Servicios Astronomicos Maury y Compania is a highly recommended tour service, led by French astronomer Alain Maury who is both extremely knowledgeable and very friendly.

Explore Extraterrestrial Landscapes in Valle De La Luna

(Photo above taken by Zootalures)

There is something undeniably extraterrestrial about the sandy, rocky landscape.  NASA uses the desert to conduct testing of instruments for future missions to Mars and the desert has been used to film several Mars scenes in movies and TV series:  Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, La Valle de La Luna (The Valley of the Moon), specifically is reported to bare striking similarities to the moon's surface. 

The valley is certainly worth checking out and it is easily accessible from San Pedro de A' which is situated about 8 miles west of the town.  

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