Picture Northern Chile’s dramatic terrain, and one place often springs to mind: San Pedro de Atacama.
Set high above the desert on an arid plateau - that’s at a dizzying altitude of around 7,900 feet - this rustic town is framed by a breathtaking blend of the Andes and the Atacama Desert. Although the town itself has its own cultural treasures to enjoy, Plaza de Armas comes alive at night with vendors selling trinkets and artisan goods; the location is what makes San Pedro de Atacama such a perfect spot for adventure and exploration. But travelers don’t have to trek the desert to take it all in; sandboarding is a popular and speedy way to sail the dunes. And for those with a head for heights, there are over 80 rock climbing routes about 80 km south of San Pedro de Atacama. But if you want to experience these rocky ravines a little closer to the ground, Northern Chile has some of the most remote and unearthly landscapes in the world.
Just 13 kilometers (8 miles) west of the town is El Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). This serene and otherworldly spot is spectacular enough by day; the unforgettable sunsets steal the show. But that’s just the start of the awe-inspiring phenomena trekkers can expect to see here.
A little further out - about an hour and a half’s drive from San Pedro de Atacama - is home to the highest geothermal field in the world: Géiseres del Tatio (Tatio Geysers). Located a staggering 4,300 meters above sea level, the best time to visit is early morning when the geothermal activity is at its peak. And despite the seemingly harsh inhospitable conditions, plant and animal life flourishes here. On top of the unique flora and fauna, lucky travelers have been known to spot grazing vicuñas (wild relatives of alpacas), Andean foxes and various bird species like flamingos and avocets.
Wildlife is also plentiful at Lauca National Park. You could spot over 130 species of birds soaring above this UNESCO-protected site. Renowned for its captivating panoramas of volcanoes, lava fields and calderas, there’s one natural attraction that tops the rest: Lago Chugará (Chungará Lake). Located in the looming shadow of Volcán Parinacota, this colossal body of water sits at a towering elevation of 4,517 meters (14,820 ft). Take a scenic hike around the 1km path that surrounds the lake and prepare for some of the most spellbinding sights that South America has to offer.
Just as ethereal but offering an entirely different vista is Elqui Valley. Famous for its vineyards, pisco production and mystical atmosphere, the lack of light pollution has made this visceral valley one of the world’s best-kept secrets regarding stargazing.
It's that that sums up this astonishing destination: naturally stunning yet completely unspoiled. For that unmistakably feeling of untamed adventure, it doesn't get much better than Northern Chile.