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Mars on Earth: How to Travel to Chile's Atacama Desert

Where: Calama, Chile
October 22, 2013 at 2:27 PM | by | ()

The Atacama Desert of northern Chile is the driest place in the world with some of the craziest scenery. It's no wonder it often features high on traveler's bucketlists. We've just crossed it off our own, and all week we'll be sharing our top tips to making this dream destination a reality vacation.

Listen for the whirr as the landing gear of the LAN Airlines A320 descends. In a few minutes more, you'll be on the ground that now, at a few thousand feet, looks like a stretch of rusty orange nothingness. From that nothingness appears a runway, and a few bumps later you've entered the oldest desert on Earth.

Although the Atacama's arid expanse seems peaceful, it's actually only a thin veil disguising the truth of the region—that its volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, salt lakes, towering sand dunes and whipping winds mean the very ground underneath your feet is extremely alive and active. It's often said that the terrain resembles the surface of Mars more than anything you'd expect to find here on Earth and, in fact, NASA maintains testing sites here.

As you can imagine, reaching such an extreme place requires some equally extreme travel, but it can be done. Pack moisturizer and come along...

How to get there

LAN Airlines
Routes: from Santiago-SCL
Flight time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Aircraft: all-economy class Airbus A320
Average price: $770 roundtrip from SCL, or loop it in with your flight from the US for a better deal, with total prices like $1400 roundtrip from New York via Santiago. LAN is also a member of the Oneworld alliance, so mileage redemptions are possible for this route.

What to know about flying in/out of Calama El Loa Airport

· If you're flying in from an international destination to Santiago, to connect to Calama, you'll have to collect your checked luggage and pass through immigration and customs before re-checking and re-clearing security, this time through the domestic flight terminal portion, "Embarques Nacionales."

· There is no free WiFi at Santiago Airport, but various cafes (like Dunkin Donuts, Gatsby and La Pausa) do offer a password with purchase.

· Liquids over 3oz are allowed on Chilean domestic flights, and you won't be required to remove your shoes or laptop at domestic security check, unless your shoes are really heavy-duty.

· Unlike on US flights, you'll be fed free snack and drinks on the 2-hour flight from Santiago to Calama. LAN provides beverages and your choice of two snacks from four options (nut mix, coffee cake, fruit cup or savory breadsticks).

· The approach to Calama Airport is a windy one, seeing as how you're flying over ever-changing terrain with an area known for high winds. Our flight in wasn't scary, but there was some turbulence.

· Calama's El Loa Airport is nearby the town of Calama, but a good 2 hours of driving away from San Pedro de Atacama. Have your transportation pre-arranged either through your hotel or with a rental car, since you cannot just hop in a taxi and ask them to drive you to your hotel in the Atacama. In a related note, the drive gets bumpier the nearer you are to the Atacama, so this is one time to definitely consider upgrading to an SUV/4-wheel-drive rental car.

· You'll notice this as you walk off your plane, but El Loa Airport is busy building an all-new terminal, new control tower, and second runway due to open in a few years. Tourism to the Atacama is on an upswing, so best to get in before the crowds.

The desert scenery begins nearly immediately after leaving the airport:

We traveled to the Atacama as a guest of LAN, but all photos, observations and opinions are completely our own.

[Photos: Cynthia Drescher/Jaunted]

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