What to expect in the Atacama Desert

What to expect in the Atacama Desert?

A Guide to the secrets of the driest place in the world

The Atacama desert is a mystical place. It’s blessed with stunning beauty, breathtaking natural wonders and a small exciting unusualness.  You probably heard about all the incredible sights, which give the Atacama its fame. Coming to the driest desert in the world is an adventure, let me tell you why and what you should be aware of when coming here…

Always hot and sunny in the desert?

Yes that’s what I thought when coming to Atacama the first time. Quite blue-eyed considering I was travelling to parts 4000m above the sea. Can you imagine my astonishment, while standing in front of the Tatio Geysers with a temperature of 14 degrees Fahrenheit / -10 Degrees Celsius? Just don’t make the same mistake as I did and let your luggage consist out of beach outfits only. The weather in Chile can take you by surprise. You may start the day in -5 degree weather at the Tatio Geysers and a couple hours later be trekking in the Moon Valley in 30 degree heat. Best is to dress in layers and make sure you bring a good set of winter accessories for cold mornings. Don’t forget to bring your earmuffs when visiting the Salt Flats as the wind can get very strong there. Last but not least, wear sunscreen at all times even when it’s cold outside. Otherwise you risk leaving looking like a lobster.


The best photo shots or safety first?

The Altiplanic winter takes place during the Southern hemisphere summer months and consists of afternoon downpours with plenty of electrical storms. I wouldn’t recommend to visit San Pedro during February, although with good luck the vast majority of sites stay open. However, some sites might be forced to close down temporarily so please bear in mind some of the tours might be changed or cancelled due to safety reasons. Having mentioned this – some photographers swear that this period is the best to get to the most amazing shots, as the Salt Flats reflect even more with a bit of rain on the surface. But – you have to be lucky-.  


All the way up – No meat, no fish, no alcohol!

Am I joking? No, honestly you will be more than pleased, after following these (simple?) rules. If you’re like me and looking forward to giant platters of grilled meat and multiple glasses of delicious Chilean wine, this particular piece of news is a bummer. Now: The question is Why? Did you hear about height sickness? Well don’t be afraid. Most people are fine on their trip (as long as they follow these simple rules), but it can happen that you feel dizzy, get a headache, feel tired or just have troubles to breath. It’s very normal considering the air is definitely thinner in this altitude. Elderly people in particular should consider taking less trips in a short period of time, to give the body some time to actually get used to the drastic altitude changes. Especially if you are visiting the Salar de Tara, Altiplano Lakes or the Tatio Geysers.  But believe me it’s all worth it!


Welcome to the dead zone!

We are in the desert, so dead zone can be ambiguously understood. But what I mean: Don’t rely on cellular network or wireless in the Atacama Desert. San Pedro de Atacama and the surrounding areas are pretty much out of service, when it comes to internet connection.  That is why I would recommend taking a guided tour, as you won’t be able to rely on GPS signal here. But hey, you are on holiday right?


Time is fluent in Atacama

Sounds like a relaxing life hint right? Go with the flow, don’t think too much about deadlines. As I said, you are on holiday! Well we are not in the Caribbean here though. Your stay will be filled with tours, expeditions and hikes. Basically you are on a very tight schedule, at least if you want to make the most of your time in the desert. That’s why in our usual attitude we do get stressed as soon as a driver is not picking us up on time. Especially when you’re waiting at 4 AM in front of your hotel. But let me warn you: This is exactly what is going to happen in San Pedro de Atacama. And I’m betting on you thinking about my words in this situation. The only hint I can give you: Stay relaxed. The locals do. As you got to know, the service is unpredictable in the desert, the roads are not paved and you are most likely not the only person on the tour. As soon as you realized that, there is nothing to worry about. Tours might start a bit later, but they always do. And that’s the important part right? As well, you can be sure they will wait for you too!


Water is the liquid Gold

We are in the driest desert of the world, please be aware that water is precious here – try to be conscient about the use of water. Yes it can be quite annoying when the water tank decides to just present you the last drop,  while you are in the middle of a shower, but don’t forget: You are in the desert. Water is travelling quite far until it finds the way into your showerhead. As well, you shouldn’t drink the water here, buy bottles or do re-filling.


You will get dirty and have sand in your shoes!

You might think it’s a joke, but there are people who get surprised to discover that there is sand all over the desert! Roads, paths and even houses are made out of sand and dust. Of course your feet and shoes will most likely be dirty at the end of the day. As well caused by the dryness of the Atacama Desert and the amount of 4 wheels and bikes cruising through San Pedro, the streets, the paths, the houses are dusty, you will be dusty, including your nose. Now you know. Prepare yourself for feeling dusty and get dirty feet!


No dancing in the desert!

Last but not least- no dancing in the desert! At least not in San Pedro. Another curious fact you should know and accept while visiting the Atacama Desert. You won’t find a club or pub in the small tourist town and as well consuming alcohol is a difficult project in San Pedro. What a dry place to go you think? You are right, it seems baffling why the so common South American occasion is banned from one of THE tourist spots. Well, it’s actually to protect you. You and your unforgettable stay in the desert. The governor of the area wants to protect the natural and adventurous tourism in the oasis. As tours usually start early here, they want to prevent conjunctures between drunken party people and excited travelers on the way to their next big adventure. And don’t worry too much, of course you can get your Pisco Sour for dinner after a long day on the road (just not before visiting the Tatio Geyser the next day).


Considering all these facts and accepting the uniqueness of the Atacama Desert, you are more than prepared for your desert adventure!

Stay relaxed and enjoy your time!