Interplanetary travel won’t be a reality for a while. But don't worry; Chile has plenty of alien-looking landscapes for those seeking to feel at space in the meantime.
With the exception of the poles, you’ll find that northern Chile’s Atacama desert is the driest land on earth (meaning it receives the least rain per year). Just to give you an idea, deserts are usually defined as environments that receive no more than 250mm (9.8 in) of rain for a whole year. The Atacama desert receives on average around 15mm (0.6 in), with some of its regions (Arica and Iquique) receiving less than 1mm (0.03in).
The Atacama’s unique conditions make it the perfect place to find extraordinary sights, especially when it comes to stargazing. Its lack of rain means clear skies throughout the year, and since neither cities nor factories are built on this inhospitable environment, there is no atmospheric or light pollution either. Furthermore, its strong winds, erosion, and the fact that it’s relatively untouched by human hands means its landscapes feature many amazing natural designs, including wind-sculpted rock formations, honeycomb shapes on salt flats, and a marvelous multicolored valley. It’s no wonder the Atacama desert is such a popular destination for travelers of all kinds. Whether you’re an adventurous explorer or a more laid-back luxury-seeking tourist, there’s something for everyone here.
But for those looking for an out-of-this-world, cosmic experience, there’s no better place to visit. To say that this desert resembles an alien planet is no exaggeration: NASA even tested Martian rovers on its terrains. So, without further ado, here are the best sites on the Atacama desert to visit if you want to feel like an astronaut.
Monjes De La Pacana
Scattered around the Salar de Tara, a shallow salt lake east of San Pedro de Atacama, you’ll find the fascinating rock formations called Monjes de la Pacana. These wind-sculpted monoliths are best seen with a starry backdrop. The Atacama’s altitude and perfectly clear dark skies allow for one of the best stargazing experiences in the world. There’s no terrestrial lights to stop the stars from shining through the atmosphere in all their magnificent intensity; but if you truly want the perfect scenery, avoid even the moonlight —stargaze on any night when there’s not a full moon. You’ll truly feel on another planet.
(Photo by @nordsolveig)
While we’re on the subject of stargazing, this one’s a must. Upon the sandy surface of the Chajnantor plateau stands the largest and most expensive astronomical telescope in the world, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Here’s where the hard-core astronomy enthusiasts can get some of the most impressive sights of distant stars that our planet has to offer. If you intend to visit, don’t forget to learn everything about the visits and bookings here.
Valle De La Muerte (Death Valley)
Featuring imposing dunes which stand at over 300 ft, Valle de la Muerte is a must-see location within the Atacama Desert for those who dare climb these mountains of sand. Persistence is rewarded by astounding views of the surrounding alien-looking landscape that will make you feel like you're visiting Tatooine.
Salar De Atacama
The largest salt flat in Chile, the Salar de Atacama, is located 55km (34 mi) to the south of San Pedro de Atacama. In the evenings, salt deposits surface to form beautiful honeycomb shapes across the surface. The shallow lake will not only make you feel in another planet, but it’s also the gathering place for three different kinds of flamingos that feed on the lake's algae. And who doesn’t love flamingos?
Valle De La Luna (Valley Of The Moon)
Located 13 kilometers (8 mi) west of San Pedro de Atacama, Valle de la Luna features an extraordinary array of stone and sand formations carved over millennia by wind and water. Its astounding scope of textures, shapes and colors makes this site resemble the surface of the moon (hence its name). So, if you want to see extraterrestrial terrains, here's one of your best bets.
Of the many observatories in the Atacama desert, the four mirror telescopes that compose the Very Large Telescope array (VTL) at Cerro Paranal represent one the most impressive ones. In terms of resolution and how much light it’s able to collect, the VTL is among the most advanced optical devices in the world. If you’re interested in a visit, don’t forget to book your place in advance.
Along the Andes Mountains of northern Chile you can find the world’s highest (and third-largest) geyser field. The icy morning temperatures keep steam from evaporating, turning the dawn into a spectacle of unparalleled beauty. Surrounded by the cold and the alien formations, you'll have no trouble feeling like you're walking somewhere far away from our solar system.
If you manage to visit all or most of these locations on an expedition to northern Chile, your return home will surely feel like a trip back to earth. Anyone looking to feel at space or to get closer to the cosmos can rest assured that Chile will not disappoint.
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