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Overview

Maybe the Gobi and the Sahara have higher profiles, but the Atacama may be the world's greatest road trip desert — two parallel highways, one on the coast and one on the piedmont, make it easy to cover great distances, and almost equally good roads penetrate into the highest Andes. Because of cool Pacific currents, it's a temperate desert despite its subtropical and tropical latitudes — water may be in short supply, but heat stroke is improbable. The Atacama was an outlier of the great central Andean civilizations, and ruined pre-Columbian citadels lie scattered throughout the region. So do the gigantic earth artworks known as geoglyphs, ...

Maybe the Gobi and the Sahara have higher profiles, but the Atacama may be the world's greatest road trip desert — two parallel highways, one on the coast and one on the piedmont, make it easy to cover great distances, and almost equally good roads penetrate into the highest Andes. Because of cool Pacific currents, it's a temperate desert despite its subtropical and tropical latitudes — water may be in short supply, but heat stroke is improbable. The Atacama was an outlier of the great central Andean civilizations, and ruined pre-Columbian citadels lie scattered throughout the region. So do the gigantic earth artworks known as geoglyphs, best seen at Cerros Pintados near the city of Iquique, almost alongside historic nitrate ghost towns like Humberstone. Chile's best-preserved colonial village, San Pedro de Atacama is home to a landmark archaeological museum and gateway to Tatio, the world's highest geyser field. Near the Bolivian border, Lauca National Park boasts soaring volcanic cones and bird-rich lakes, while the southerly Pan de Azúcar features unique flora that survive on ocean fog drip. For surfers, the alternatives are almost unlimited and competition for waves is slight.

Wayne Bernhardson
About the Expert

Wayne Bernhardson is the author of Moon Handbooks to Argentina, Buenos Aires (including coastal Uruguay), Chile (including Easter Island), and Patagonia (including the Falkland Islands).

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Wayne Bernhardson for Triporati

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Facts at a Glance

Climate

  • Best Time to Visit:

    All year (but winter gets cold at high altitudes)