Three hours’ flying time north of Santiago, Chile’s Atacama is the world’s driest desert, a dramatic panorama of tiny, white-washed colonial villages amidst canyons, gorges and salt-lakes, all under the distant shadow of the high Andes. At is heart, sitting at 2440 metres above sea-level, the iconic oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama provides the perfect base for desert exploration. San Pedro has grown dramatically over the last 10 years since its early days as a hippy, backpacker stop and now offers a wide range of hotels, restaurants and tours. Its origins, however, date back to the Atacameno culture some 4000 years ago, remnants of which can be found in the town’s archaeological museum and in the pre-Inca sites of Tulor and the fortress of Pukara de Quitor.
For visitors, the key draw of the Atacama is the captivating landscape. The dazzling “Salar de Atacama”, the area’s vast salt-lake, provides safe haven to countless flamingo while higher into the Andes, cobalt blue lakes sit under smouldering volcanoes and geysers and hotsprings gently smoke under the midday sun. Closer to town multi-coloured canyons hide eerie, otherworldly rock formations while distant villages, lush oases surrounded by fruit trees, breathe life into the stark panorama.