Atacama, the driest desert on earth, occupies an extensive stretch between the Altiplano and the coast. Despite of the inhospitable nature of this desert, it is also the site of some of the oldest archeological finds in Chile, bearing witness to the fact that people have long inhabited this land wherever water created a green oasis in this this barren land. Paradoxically it is here that one encounters the most bizarre manifestations of water.
San Pedro de Atacama - the legendary oasis and gateway to the Atacama desert has been settled since pre-Incan times. Today it is a major hub for travellers exploring this ancient and strangely otherworldy region. Impressive rock fortresses cling to the steep mountains and stand guard over the green valley. In contrast, the eerily silent landscape of the nearby Valley of the Moon with its tiny, but beautiful salt ponds and the backdrop of snow-capped volcanoes bears few signs of life. At the huge Atacama Salt Lake, on the other hand, a former inland sea formed millions of years ago, many species of birds can be observed. The bizarre shapes of the salt crust formations that cover the far stretching plain and the mirror like lagoons that reflect the surrounding mountains and volcanoes, is a stunning sight.
Higher up we come upon the El Tatio, the highest geothermal field on earth; a multitude of fumaroles, small geysers, multicolored craters and steam rising from the soil. Nearby hot springs invite you to a comforting bath. What an amazing variety of manifestations water can take in the world's driest desert!
Another rewarding destination is the Los Flamencos Natural Reserve at 100 km / 65 mi south of San Pedro with its pleasant highland lagoons Miscanti and Miniques; flocks of flamingoes and rare birds can be observed here in their breeding grounds.
On the coast, Antofagasta is the largest city of the region. It emerged due to the mining industry, which boomed here during the 19th century. With 20 km / 12 miles of beachfront and a mild, dry climate, Antofagasta has also become a popular, year-round beach resort. The highlight of its shoreline is the Portada, an enormous rock located just to the north of the town, which the sea steadily eroded into a dramatic natural arch. Today Antofagasta is still an important port for the copper that is mined in Chuquicamata - the largest open-pit mine in the world.
Upon arrival at Calama Airport your guide will meet you and take you to San Pedro de Atacama. After driving through the desert, the fertile oasis of San Pedro will seem like a mirage. There is a sense of ancient history here - and indeed, this oasis town has been inhabited since pre-Incan times. Numerous archeological sites in the surrounding area bear silent witness to these bygone civilizations. San Pedro has a fascinating and very well presented archeological museum, which is well worth a visit. Among its immense collection of pre-Hispanic artefacts it also features some amazingly well preserved mummies. The Spanish conquistadores arrived here in 1540; the local church, built in 1577, is the first of many mark the Spaniards have imposed on the region and their influence has shaped the town ever since. In the evening we will venture out to the famous Valley of the Moon, located just outside San Pedro. Sunset is the best time to see this lunar landscape as it becomes increasingly beautiful and surreal in the fading light, which brings out the amazing colours of the rocks. Overnight at San Pedro.
In the morning we start the day with a drive through the vast landscapes of the valley and the Atacama Salt Flat. We will visit the oasis of Quebrada de Jerez, where farmers still grow many fruits and vegetables using the old terraced irrigation system. Afterwards we will make our way up to the highlands to visit Miscanti and the Miñiques lagoons at an altitude beyond 4000 m /13,100 ft in the Los Flamencos National Reserve. Miscanti means 'toad' in Atacameño and refers to a time when the lagoon was full of toads. The introduction of trout has wiped them out so that today only the name remains. The lagoon, framed by the towing mountains and glistening white banks is a sight to behold. On the way back we will have lunch in Socaire, where we have time to walk around and visit the picturesque village with its pretty church. After lunch we will stop in the village of Toconao from where we have an amazing view of the surrounding area and can admire the beautiful white bell tower made out of volcanic rock, and its door, made with cactus wood. We end the day at Chaxa Lagoon, a rich bird habitat and home to 2 out of 3 species of flamingoes that live in Chile. 'the landscape is littered with salt rocks. After watching the sunset we will return to San Pedro, Overnight in San Pedro. (B,BL)
Today is a day to treat ourselves and our bodies. The day starts with a hike in the beautiful Canyon of Guatin about 30km from San Pedro. This canyon, a hidden crack in the landscape is a microcosm unto itself. The water that continuously flows of the rocks irrigates the cacti, producing the most amazing desert garden. The hike takes about 3 hours and ends at the Termas of Puritama, where you can take a relaxing bath in one of the terrace shaped hotspring pools. Later in the day we will visit a 'chacra' or small farm house and get an insight into everyday life in the Atacameñan desert. We will prepare a typical dinner with the family and enjoy it with fellow travellers and locals alike. Overnight in San Pedro (B, BL, D)
Today we will be treated to a half day tour that combines history, geology and culture. After breakfast we visit the petroglyphs at Yerbas Buenas, which tell us about the history and way of life of the Atacameñan peoples, depicting animals and nomadic lifestyles of the past. Afterwards we will continue to Mantancilla, following a stream up a little valley which will lead us to the hidden Valle de Arcoiris, Valley of the Rainbow. The colors of the mountains are spectacular: green, purple and red tones of clay contrast and blend with the shadows and light of the sun to create a most otherworldly spectacle. Afterwards you will be dropped off in San Pedro or at the airport in Calama (B).
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Hotel Altiplanico is an exceptional,impressive hotel; all rooms feature a unique design, built completely out of adobe which gives the hotel a special local identity. From the inner courtyard you can enjoy a great view of the snow-capped volcanoes. The hotel is situated outside of San Pedro, at 10 minutes walking distance from the center. The hotel features 21 rooms, all with a terrace facing the Andes. Additional services include: swimming pool, snack bar, bar, cafeteria, Internet access, private parking and laundry service.