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Touring the Chilean Atacama Desert

Concurrently oppressive, terrifying, lovely and spectacular.

Other than the luxurious, rugged areas to the south of Santiago, Chile is mostly a harsh, barren nation. We knew this earlier than we arrived. Karl has spent unknown hours scoring digital maps marking out potential surf breaks and spots to camp for the evening.

Regardless of all this preliminary analysis and expertise within the harsh deserts of Australia, the Atacama desert each impressed and examined us. Driving by means of the countryside with solely rocky, sandy hills to what an odd sensation. Australia is the longest straight part of highway.

In some space of ​​the Atacama it's attainable to drive a whole day with out seeing a single type of life; not even a cactus! Simply sand and rocks.

Looking for immense, barren and inhospitable desert searches for the atacama does have a uncooked vitality and sweetness to it. However even with a full tank of fuel and per week, we at all times felt insignificant and weak.

One late afternoon, on the mouth of the Rio Loa, positioned between Antofagasta and Iquique, we want to drive up a sketchy wanting. Ultimately we arrived at a lifeless finish the place the highway become a 20m sheer drop off into the grim, desolate valley.

Rio Loa Chile Atacama

Rio Loa, the longest river in Chile, originates from excessive up within the Andes. By the point it meets the ocean it’s typically nothing greater than a small stream. Even with a supply of recent water there was not a lot plants. What did develop what harsh and scrubby to match it's surrounding surroundings. The greenery was a welcome sight nonetheless, it was the primary time we'd see any plants that day.

Rio Loa Chile

The cities of northern Chile are few and much between. Antofagasta, Iquique and Arica are the primary cities, with smaller mining cities and fishing villages scattered in between.

For those who're desirous about doing the drive your self, these are our suggestions of locations to go to:


The outdated Ruta 1 between Taltal and Iquique (not steady): Spectacular and dynamic coastal drive with fields of desert flows and misty, damp circumstances throughout sure seasons. Barely any individuals, other than the occasional fisherman's shack. A number of wild tenting alternatives. The highway is pretty nicely alongside the coast, but it surely doesn’t deteriorate at some factors, particularly because it eastwards to reconnect to the primary freeway. 4WD desires assist alongside this part particularly if there was rain lately. Be warned the drive inland from the coast is gradual going on account of slender, unsealed, winding roads.


Rio Loa: Chile's longest river and a tiny speck of inexperienced life in an in any other case desolate surroundings. The place the Loa meets the ocean is a reasonably lengthy, vast sandy seashore which regularly affords up enjoyable, peaky waves and offshore winds (as a result of valley). With a 4WD automobile it's attainable to drive on the seashore proper all the way down to the shore, however watch out to comply with current tracks as there are boggy patches. It's a gateway to the Arica area. It was a bit complicated for us as we simply drove by means of and no-one stopped us. One the way in which again we did cease and all we needed to do was our paper, visa and the automotive's paperwork. You’ll be able to camp on the seashore, but it surely's fairly uncovered to the wind. Alternatively a couple of miles south of the river mouth there's a big rocky outcrop with plenty of tracks and sheltered spots to camp in a single day. There's no gas offered right here, so deliver loads of your personal. There’s a small, cozy cafe and bogs on the border checkpoint.

Iquique: Surprisingly vibrant and exquisite, with lately upgraded foreshore and park areas, loads of alternatives to lounge proper on the town, cafes, eating places, massive grocery and retail shops, and lodging to swimsuit all budgets. We stayed in Iquique for 5 days and actually loved the trip to the automotive on the hostel and simply stroll 50m to the foreshore and surf among the enjoyable reef break waves with the locals. Free tenting is difficult within the metropolis as individuals are fond of getting BBQ and ingesting alcohol at most and searching across the metropolis, it doesn’t matter what the week it’s.

Montero Sport camper conversion El Gringo del Chile

Arica: Our favourite coastal metropolis in Chile. The unique plan was to remain in Arica for one week, nonetheless, as we’ve got struggled with Chilean-Peruvian border crossing dramas, getting worldwide insurance coverage, and acquiring an up to date copy of our automobile's 'padron' (possession paper). After a brief stint in Bolivia, we returned to Arica and stayed there for an additional two weeks. Arica has a phenomenal pedestrian mall, varied ocean foreshore parks, an enormous sandy seashore, and plenty of very constant, high-performance reef break-waves. Gentle climate all yr round, nonetheless, is within the desert areas of the South American west coast being overcast and gloomy circumstances within the mornings (nice for browsing although, because the winds are nonetheless and no solar glare). The cottage is positioned within the coronary heart of the town, however there are loads of quiet coastal lookouts about 7km to the south of the town. Anticipate some revelry on weekends or after soccer matches although, as some locals go to these spots to drink and take heed to superior reggaeton music.

Montero Sport camper conversion San Pedro de Atacama Chile

San Pedro de Atacama and Valle de la Luna: Sure, this can be a nicely established vacationer / backpacker hub and for good purpose. While San Pedro city is a quaint, touristy city with adobe fashion buildings, slender alleys, cafes, eating places, inns / hostels and tour locations the actual magic is the spectacular, virtually off-world landscapes surrounding it. Each afternoon there’s a sundown within the sundown and windswept, martian valleys. Valle de la Luna is a couple of miles west of city and may be very lovely. To the north of the highway that runs previous the valley are quite a few tracks which take you to excellent wild tenting spots. Simply watch out when driving at evening as there are some sheer dropoffs into the valley beneath. Gasoline is restricted and costly right here. We advocate filling up in Calama in case you are approaching from the coast.

Laguna's Miscanti

Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques (Lake Miscanti and Miñiques): Positioned about 2-2.5 hours drive south of San Pedro. The freeway is sealed and pretty straight, so it's straightforward driving, nonetheless when you get again into the park it’s going to deteriorate as you wind down, lumpy gravel monitor and compete for house with the quite a few vacationer vans. Chilean parks passport is owned / managed by the native indigenous individuals and is a supply of funding and employment for them. The Miscanti Lake is spectacular and infrequently has hearths of vicuña hanging round. Free tenting will not be attainable throughout the park, however there are many spots off the highway to park in a single day if wanted. We determined to drive again to San Pedro the identical day so we might watch the sundown over the Valle de Luna once more.

Puritina thermal baths

Puritama thermal baths: We'd stumbled upon plenty of free thermal baths throughout distant areas of northern Chile, however the baths had been undoubtedly among the nicest and well worth the entry charge (about $ 20 every). It's a boring, hour-long drive north of San Pedro after which a 10 minute stroll down the valley. We had been amazed on the tranquil, inexperienced oasis that would see as we descended into the valley and noticed the stream and baths beneath. The water is heat (25-30ºC), there's a bunch of various ranges, the water is crystal clear, and it was surprisingly quiet as we arrived there at 9am, nicely earlier than the gringo vacationer buses had been due. We’re visiting the thermal baths on the San Pedro space, simply earlier than the Santiago, and it was nicely value it! There's loads of spots to choose up and camp in a single day, however the spot has been discovered within the Valle de la Luna.

Issues we missed, however you shouldn’t:

Atacama desert flower blooms: A uncommon occasion that happens after rainfall within the desert. In the correct place on the proper time.

El Tatio Geysers: Positioned in San Pedro de Atacama, these are the third largest geyser subject on this planet. We heard that it's a bit surreal, however you actually have to be there at daybreak. Be ready for an early morning, freezing chilly morning. Touring in New Zealand.

Key ideas for touring in northern Chile and the Atacama desert:

Carry surplus ingesting water with you always

The Atacama is the third non-polar desert on this planet. Don’t threat it! Take with you a minimum of 5L per individual, per day. We carried 60L + always when leaving the primary highway.

Acquiring ingesting water might be difficult. Typically faucet water is protected in Chile. We refilled at any time when and wherever we might, together with at hostels, cafes and fuel stations. Simply ask the proprietor / attendant for potable water and so they'll show you how to out. The 5-10L plastic water jugs, as offered in grocery shops, are actually helpful for refilling water from laborious to entry areas.

Watch out for temperature fluctuations

We traveled throughout winter to keep away from crowds and maximize browsing alternatives. The climate alongside the coast is mostly gentle, being cool at evening and heat throughout the day. Nevertheless, as you head residence the distinction in temperatures widens. Some days had been over 35ºC. Just a few hours later, as soon as the solar had dropped down, it might be beneath 0ºC. Carry appropriate clothes and be ready to take away / take away layers all through the day.

Gasoline is positioned on the primary route 5 freeway and outdoors of main cities

All the time refill at any alternative you possibly can, particularly earlier than going into the backcountry. We so carried an additional 20L gas canister which saved us from getting stranded

Watch out of petty crime and break-ins, particularly within the cities

By no means depart any valuables inside your automobile when unattended. Theft from autos is pretty widespread in Chile, particularly in case you seem like a gringo vacationer. Individuals desires discover you and your automobile. To reduce threat we advocate to park in safe parking areas when attainable and take your valuables with you always.

Free tenting is feasible all through Chile, particularly within the wilderness of the north

Remember that in case you attempt parking in a single day close to a serious metropolis or metropolis, there’s a excessive probability that the secluded seashore overlooks you additionally a favourite hang-out for locals to hang around, drink beer, speak loudly and blast horrible, repetitive reggaeton music all evening, on any evening of the week, as soon as they've had their night meal (10pm onwards). The Police won’t harass them. They’re so to talk. Both approach, don’t be stunned if there have been a whole bunch of meters of seashore they might have parked as a substitute. It's all innocent, simply deliver earplugs!

A 4WD automobile will not be important, however it’s extremely really useful if you wish to get off the primary highways and away from the most important cities and cities

We handle to entry plenty of lovely campsites because of the 4WD capabilities of our Montero Sport and our personal prior expertise with off highway driving.

When touring at greater altitudes from the coast, take into account that the air will likely be decreased

Moreover, altitude sickness of various levels turns into a possible problem at altitudes above 2,400m for most individuals. In case you are planning to go to the altiplano areas of Chile which are sometimes excessive altitude, it’s endorsed to ascend over 24 hours (camp out someplace at 1,500-1,800m) and permit a couple of days to acclimatise. We made the error of going from sea-level to 4,500m in two days. We paid the value for the primary evening at that altitude. Basic altitude illness feels such as you've received a nasty hangover, plus you're feeling in need of breath, and your limbs really feel like they're th occasions heavier than regular. Don’t underestimate it! You don’t want to get caught in some distant space of ​​the Atacama.

Having a automotive in South America is superior, however it may be a ache …

Try our information article on how to buy a car in Chile as a foreign traveler, It's additionally value contacting among the native automobile gross sales and gross sales firms in Santiago, akin to Suzi Santiago, to see if they’ll with an honest automobile and tools able to discover the huge expanse that’s northern Chile.

Questions or feedback? Go away your ideas beneath.

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