There is no reason for traveling to the Atacama Desert, or to any other desert. The drier the arid region is, the less it has to offer to the traveler and Atacama is the driest desert on earth. This became evident in the first two journals dedicated to this eternally empty glass of water. Even for isolating oneself this desert is no good, supplies must be brought from far away. After seeing ochre for mile after mile, why would the traveler delay the unavoidable departure? Green pastures are elsewhere.
NASA considers Atacama a Mars-analogue terrain. Reality is different. All its basic parameters – pressure, temperature, atmosphere, and many others – belong to Earth. More important, the desert has boundaries with friendlier areas. There, the ochre oxidizes into earthlier colors and the rocks rarify giving place to geysers, lakes and even manmade structures. The strangest boundary is between the desert and the Andean High Plateau, on the Bolivian department of Potosi. The last could rate by itself as one of the strangest spots on the planet. On the touch point between the two is San Pedro de Atacama, the only deep desert in this inaccurate version of Mars. For these tiny bits of color, it is worth staying a here bit more, breathing dust and longing for green.
Western travelers reaching South America - or Southeast Asia - for the first time, suffer from the infamous New York Syndrome. They tend to plan every minute of the trip in advance; they book hotels, meals and trips from half a world away and are not pleased until they know the exact second everything would occur. Yet, there is no Wall Street in San Pedro de Atacama. The whole settlement wouldn’t classify even as a town in most countries; not even South American ones. The best approach is planning nothing, drop by and see what is available. That ensures flexibility in the planning of the trip in the case of unexpected events. Make no mistake, in the Fourth World – and the whole of South America is in there – unexpected events are the only certainty. Here they still believe in right and left, communism and capitalism, European empires and history books written by political policemen. Laws seem to change faster than the weather and in a similarly arbitrary fashion. Ignore all these, don’t listen to local chit-chat, pack a small backpack and drop by the driest desert. There, enjoy some of the strangest sights on our rough planet.
San Pedro de Atacama lies slightly higher than Calama – the nearest town - yet, 80% of humans won’t need an altitude acclimatization period here. The situation changes once crossing over into Bolivia; roughly at four kilometers above the sea level, Potosi (the department and the city) would invariably demand an acclimatization period of all visitors. San Pedro de Atatcama is also a major crossing point from Chile to Salta in Argentina. On the edge of the fringe, San Pedro de Atacama is a transition point with a few pretty sights.
What to see? It depends on the time the traveler can stop here. The Licancabur, San Pedro and San Pablo volcanoes are major – in every sense of the word – attractions. The Salar de Atacama – a major salt flat – is just north of the city. If planning visiting the larger Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, this one can be skipped. The Pukará de Quitor is a fortification built by the Atacameño people in the 12th century and of mild interest; if having seen Inca forts elsewhere, this one has nothing new to offer. The Laguna Miscanti is similar on many aspects to the Lagunas Verde y Colorada (red and green lagoons) just on the Bolivian side, though this one is filled up with just regular blue water. The most impressive site is the called El Tatio, where eighty geysers compete for the travelers’ attention. Finally, a Valle de la Luna (Moon’s Valley) not very different from those found elsewhere on earth is available for a visit. To these, the journal is dedicated.