Published on April 23rd, 2010 | by Mark Chesnut

Sun and Sand Take on New Meanings in Chile’s Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert in Chile offers postcard-perfect photo opportunities.

On Wednesday, I flew from Santiago de Chile to Calama, the main airport serving the most tourism-friendly region of Chile’s northern deserts. After the two-hour flight, we took a one-hour van ride to San Pedro de Atacama, where a growing number of luxury desert resorts have been springing up (I’ll soon be posting reviews of some of the best). 

The following morning, I awoke and grazed at the breakfast buffet at the luxurious Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa (which hosted one of this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue photoshoots) before choosing my early excursion. There are plenty of possibilities at Alto Atacama and I really wanted to go bike riding, but the altitude still had me breathing a bit oddly so decided instead to join a trip into the desert to see three distinct sites: Rio Grande, Rainbow Valley and Hierbas Buenas. 

First, we wound our way along curvy roads in the vast desert. Suddenly, the brown landscape gave way to a brilliant site in the valley ahead: a lush green oasis running along a river. A kaleidoscope of greens appeared before us as we approached the town of Rio Grande, which is shrinking from its population of 93 as younger people move into larger towns to study and work. We get out briefly to admire the beautiful tiny church, which dates to 1780, and the bubbling irrigation system, which dates to the Incan era.

The next stop was Rainbow Valley, which upon first glance appears desolate until you see small strips of green where water flows and llamas stop to feed. We pass an abandoned house and the skeleton of a horse or donkey as we go further into the valley, where we view an array of rocky textures and hues, as well as sparkly stones.

On the way back, we stop at Hierbas Buenas, a site that’s home to ancient petroglyphs that depict llamas, humans and other creatures of the region. 

After lunch at the stylish Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa we went to Laguna de Chaxa, on the salt lake flats. Walking along the rocky pathways was like stumbling around another planet — or perhaps following a heavily salted winter sidewalk in Buffalo. It was an otherworldly scene, highlighted by plenty of sitings of two species of flamingos  —James and Andean — that grazing in the shallow waters for brine shrimp. 

The oasis running toward the town of Rio Grande, Chile. 

The church in the town of Río Grande, Chile.

Curious llamas grazing in an oasis in Chile’s Atacama Desert. 

Chile’s Atacama Desert is home to ancient petroglyphs.

Walking toward Laguna de Chaxa in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

You might think you’re on another planet, but this otherworldly terrain is just part of the salt flats in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Flamingos in flight over Laguna de Chaxa, Chile. 

Flamingos spend hours searching for brine shrimp at Laguna de Chaxa, Chile. 

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About the Author

The founder and editor of, Mark has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and manager. He's worked with some of the biggest consumer, in-flight and travel trade publishers that cover Latin America.

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