When people talk about Chile as a destination, you almost always hear names like Patagonia, the capital Santiago de Chile, its street-art hub Valparaíso and Chile’s volcano and lake region.

I don’t blame anyone, because these are beautiful and spectacular places, but lately, I have a new favorite region in this narrow strip of land spread across the South American continent: The Atacama Desert.

The Atacama Desert in Chile is the driest desert on earth.
The Atacama Desert in Chile is the driest desert on earth. Photo by Alexandra Huetter

What is the Atacama Desert?

The Atacama Desert is the driest desert on earth. It stretches across an area of 1,000 km, wedged between the Andes and the coastal mountain range, the Cordillera de la Costa.

The Atacama is also the oldest desert on earth, and it boasts incredible geologic formations that remind me of lunar landscapes. The reasons for these arid conditions are the Andes Mountains blocking rainfall from the east, and the cold water from the Pacific preventing the formation of rain in the west.

You get it. It’s dry, very dry. You can imagine the looks my husband and I received arriving in San Pedro de Atacama, a traveler-friendly town smack bang in the middle of the desert, when we unloaded a huge bag with three surfboards from the luggage compartment of the bus.

Thankfully, after waiting at the bus stop for a while with numerous taxi drivers passing by shaking their head at our load, a guy stopped and seemed confident that he could fit us plus two huge backpacks, a board-bag and some hand-luggage into his pick-up truck.

Chile's Atacama Desert
Chile’s Atacama Desert. Photo by Alexandra Huetter

Lunar Landscapes and Stargazing

We stayed in tipi-like accommodation in the Atacama Desert, and even though we still worked on our freelance assignments while there, we found some time to explore the area.

I was amazed by the breathtakingly clear, star-studded skies at night, that made it perfect for stargazing. The clear skies of the Atacama Desert are not only a result of the lack of light pollution, but also of the moisture-free air as well as the altitude.

My husband loved our private BBQ area next to our tipi and I enjoyed waiting for dinner to be ready from the comfort of our hammock, book in hand, gazing up into the blue skies. Our stay in the desert was shaping up to be a great choice.

Exploring the Desert by Bike

After some quiet days getting work done and exploring the town, we decided it was time for a little bit of an adventure. I remembered talking to a couple we met surfing in Pichilemu, south of Santiago de Chile, and their entertaining story about biking in the desert.

The author and her husband riding in the Atacama Desert
The author and her husband riding in the Atacama Desert. Photo courtesy Alexandra Huetter

Biking in the Atacama Desert

With all these breathtaking landscapes around us waiting to be explored, we followed their advice and rented bikes in town.

A taxi stopped almost immediately to pick us up, and we secured our bikes at the back of the truck. The bike rental place gave us helmets and reflective vests, and together with our backpacks filled with towels, swimsuits, snacks and water, we were ready to embark on this little daytrip in the desert.

San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama. Photo by Alexandra Huetter

Our taxi brought us to the natural hot springs called ‘Termas de Puritama’, a lush oasis about 30 km outside of San Pedro de Atacama. Stepping out of the car, we pushed our bikes down a quite steep ravine between dry red boulders and couldn’t believe our eyes when we found a green strip of land amongst the barren desert.

Relaxing in Natural Hot Springs

After paying the half day entrance fee, we walked along the wooden pathway and found a little nook to put down our towels and backpacks. I couldn’t wait to get into the hot water and relax in one of the cascading pools framed by beautiful vegetation.

Hot springs in the Atacama Desert
Hot springs in the Atacama Desert. Photo by Alexandra Huetter

The water was not too hot, which made it easier to stay in and soak for a while looking up into the blue skies that were in perfect contrast to the red desert rock surrounding us.

We stayed for a few hours, walked down to other pools, sprawled across the wooden floors to dry off in the sun and ate our bananas we brought as a snack. Once dried and all soaked-out, we made our way back to our bikes and hiked up the ravine to reach the road.

Ready for Our Adventure

“Relaxing is over, now for the adventure part!” We couldn’t help but giggle when we put on our helmets, vests and sunglasses before jumping on our bikes and riding along the empty road.

A path that took us into a panorama filled with mountain ranges on the outer left and right corners followed by red boulders, gravel and shrubs. The dark blue skies were clear without the tiniest hint of a single little cloud. It was surreal.

Biking in the Atacama Desert was a fun adventure
Biking in the Atacama Desert is a fun adventure. Photo courtesy Alexandra Huetter

We stopped more times than I could count after long downhill stretches that left us breathless from all the beauty. We took photos of our surroundings as well as some slow-motion videos of one of us racing along the road. Needless to say, it was fun.

As we followed the road mostly downhill back towards San Pedro de Atacama, we enjoyed the sight of jagged peaks and dry riverbeds. What made this 1.5-hour bike ride even more special was the fact that we were all alone in the desert with a total of only three cars overtaking us the entire time.

If You Go:

Getting to the Atacama Desert

The closest airport from San Pedro de Atacama is Calama’s El Loa Airport, about an hour by bus. You can reach it via Santiago de Chile with LATAM, Sky Airline or JetSmart. We travelled from the Chilean capital by bus, which took us 33 hours, but the scenic ride was definitely worth it, and we also saved some money this way. We purchased our ticket from TurBus, but there are various companies like Pullman Bus or a few others that offer bus trips within Chile or from neighbouring countries.

Accommodation in the Atacama Desert:

There are many different hostels and hotels to choose from in San Pedro de Atacama.

Activities in the Atacama Desert:

From salt flats, moon landscapes and geysers to stargazing and biking in the desert, the activities in and around San Pedro de Atacama are endless.

Author’s Bio: An avid reader, a humble writer, a traveller at heart – Austrian-born Alexandra Huetter has been working as a freelance writer, copywriter and translator for eight years. She recently traded her digital nomad life for the experience of living in a small fisherman’s village in the Algarve in Portugal with her husband.