Why Go to Mars When There’s Chile’s Otherworldly Atacama Desert? (2023)

  • Travel
  • National Parks

The driest place on Earth has pink mountains, pink flowers, and pink flamingos.


Charis McGowan

Published on 1/13/2023 at 2:50 PM

There are two places in this universe where you can find extinct volcanoes, extreme aridness, and fluvial landforms that carve deep gorges and crimson canyons: Mars and the Atacama Desert in Chile. A place where NASA scientists test their rovers before sending them to the Red Planet, the Atacama Desert is an otherworldly, sparsely populated area that spans 100,000 square kilometers, extending from Chile into Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. The desert is so vast that the Chilean stretch alone runs through five of the country’s sixteen regions.

Best part? Dozens of sacred sites in this desert have been turned into national parks and reserves, protected by the state for their historical and scientific value—and are open to visitors. These parks include a flamingo reserve (Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos) in the Antofagasta state and the soon-to-open Flowering Desert Park (officially called Parque Desierto Florido) in the lower Atacama region of the desert.

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The Atacama Desert is a sacred and valued place for the Indigenous communities, which include Atacameños (Lickan Antay), Aymara, and Diaguita people. When Los Flamenco’s reserve was founded in 1990, it was the first in the country to be co-managed by the state and Indigenous peoples. The communities stipulate rules, routes, and opening hours, which are loyally upheld by any credible tour agencies operating in the region.

Historically, this desert served as an important trading hub for ancestral cultures crossing the continent hundreds of years ago, which adds to the timeless, spiritual feel of the Atacama. Many ancient relics, including prehistoric geoglyphs and petroglyphs, can still be seen among the rocky dunes and looming volcanoes.

The picturesque oasis village San Pedro de Atacama is the most popular base for tourists visiting the Los Flamencos reserve, who will need several days to best explore the seven sections of the 73,986 hectare area. Whereas travelers hoping to see Flowering Desert park will want to plan a separate stop in the southern Atacama region. Here’s what you need to know to see either the flamingo or desert flower parks in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

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How to get to Los Flamencos and the Flowering Desert Park

While NASA describes Atacama Desert as “inhospitable” for microorganisms, conditions are thankfully much more welcoming for travelers: the most popular sites of Los Flamencos reserve are easily accessible by car and there are plenty of tour agencies offering transport and guide packages.

To reach San Pedro de Atacama, fly directly to Calama airport, El Loa. Several airlines offer direct flights numerous times a day from Chile’s capital, Santiago, to El Loa. Prices go as low as $50-100 USD roundtrip when booked ahead of time.

From there, travelers can book a two-hour shuttle ride to the town; the cheaper, shared shuttle only leaves when the van is full. Reserve ahead to avoid wait times. Tour agencies are found on and around the main Carcoles street in San Pedro de Atacama, and it’s best to visit the ones in offices rather than buying tickets from street sellers.

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To get to the Flowering Desert, visitors must fly to Coquimbo from Santiago. The closest towns including Caldera, Copiapó, Huasco, Freirina, and Vallenar.

This park is a bit more off the tourist track—and remember, the bloom event only occurs after the rare chance of a rainy winter in literally the driest place on Earth. As the park is set to have an expansive surface area of 57,111 hectares, it’s recommended to rent a car and check where the bloom is set to occur to best decide your route.

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Hang out with flamingoes and guanacos of the altiplano

It’s probably pretty easy to guess the star animal attraction of a place called Los Flamencos reserve, right? Yup, herds of flamingo can be found perched by the several salt flats in the area, feeding on the microsize shrimp that color the striking hues of their feathers.

The flamingos can be found in the Chaxa Lagoon, which is at the Salar de Atacama sector of the reserve and higher up into the mountains in the Lagunas Miscante-Miñiques sector. The Chaxa lagoon is about 7,500 feet above sea level, while Miñiques is at an altitude of 13,500 feet. If unaccustomed to heights, it’s typical to feel woozy and nauseous. Make sure you are well-hydrated and take your time. Entrances to each sector must be bought separately.

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It’s a mesmerizing journey, where chains of snow-capped volcanoes—both active and extinct—crowd around salty lagoons, watching over the flamingos as they feast. These elegant birds aren’t the only fascinating fauna that roam the area: llama- and camel-related guanaco trot across the arid plains, with endemic foxes and rodent species darting amongst the rocks and shrubbery.

Unfortunately, ramped up lithium mining in the sector has drained the precious water sources that these animals rely upon, and flamingo numbers are declining as a result. Lithium is vital to the batteries that power electric cars, laptops, and smartphones, and while electric power is celebrated as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, it’s the Atacama wildlife paying the price. While the reserve is open year-round, flamingos are also migratory, so it’s not guaranteed you’ll see them. The best time of the year to go is between September and March.

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Travel to space and touch the stars

You won’t need to pay a premium to Elon Musk for this space adventure: the Atacama Desert has its very own moon valley, La Valle de la Luna. The valley is marked by rugged, rocky cliffs and towering salt dunes, framed by a range of Salt Mountains. Wide, circular dips in the landscape are reminiscent of craters, while otherworldly rock formations add to the lunar feel of the place.

The Valle de la Luna is the sixth sector of the Reserva Nacional de Los Flamencos and is one of the most accessible sites, a short 9 mile drive from San Pedro de Atacama. This expansive area was used for salt mining in the early 20th century, but the families who owned the mines found alternatives for higher quality minerals elsewhere and left it abandoned. In 1982, it was deemed a national protected site for its singular geological formations and unique ecosystem.

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The rugged landscape of the Moon Valley isn’t the only connection the Atacama Desert has with space: the Chilean desert also boasts the world’s clearest skies. There are several observatories around San Pedro de Atacama, which can be booked through tour agencies lining the town’s Caracoles street.

One experience that stands out includes the Observatorio Etno-Astronomico Licantay, which explains how Indigenous communities relate to the skies and how stargazing was and continues to be a key part of ancestral beliefs. For astronomy enthusiasts, ALMA—the world’s most powerful telescope—is open to visitors on the weekend. Just make sure to reserve ahead of time.

Pro tip: If you schedule your trip during the new moon, you’ll feel closer than ever to the stars here.

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See the desert in bloom

Want to find endless fields of flowers in the world’s driest desert? Yes, it blooming-well is possible and the incoming Parque Desierto Florido will be the place to see it. Seeds brought by birds, winds, and other wildlife can lay dormant for over a decade, preserved in the desert’s cool temperatures. All it takes is one rainy winter to make them shoot up come spring.

However, given the scarcity of rainfall in the area, the flowering desert occurs sporadically, roughly every five to ten years. In the last twenty years, super blooms have happened in 2002, 2011, 2015, 2017 and 2022. While the creation of the Flowering Desert park is underway, which will provide walking routes and tourist kiosks as well as protect the zone for research and preservation purposes, any visits should be planned for 2026 onwards—and even then, it really depends on the climatic conditions of the year.

On the off-chance that another bloom will happen ahead of time and before the official opening of the Flowering Desert Park, the Llanos de Challe National Park is another option nearby to witness the phenomenon.

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Where to stay in the Atacama Desert

San Pedro de Atacama has plenty of accommodation options that are for visiting Los Flamencos reserve. For those wanting a more intimate connection to the stars above, the Atacama Lodge is a mid-range option that specializes in astronomical experiences. Whereas the Nayara Alto Desert is a luxury choice with private tour guides and a professional on-site telescope. There are also plenty of hostels at affordable prices: boutique hostel La Casa de José has a lovely terrace overlooking the breathtaking Licancabur volcano, and it includes an abundant breakfast spread and relaxing pool area. While the desert is a place of eternal spring, the warmest temperatures for poolside chilling can be found in December through March.

Visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the Flowering Desert can base themselves in Coquimbo. While it’s not much of a tourist town (yet?), the city has plenty of Airbnb choices, as well as established Ibis chains for budget hotel options. For something a bit off-the-grid, coastal towns like Caldera offer beachside cabins and family-run inns with sea-views.

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Charis McGowanis a contributor for Thrillist.

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