Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)
A good first stop, the Valley of the Moon contains a variety of sights. Note the steep rock cliff known as the "amphitheater," the perfect hikeable sand dune ("perfect" as in formed by the wind to a peak from both sides), and terrain that generally appears from another planet.
Valle del Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley)
This "Rainbow Valley" lives up to its name with tinted striations and entire hill portions colored in shades of red, white, green and orange. Heavy mica content means the entire valley sparkles in the sun, and rock formations of this former salt lake make for dramatic photos.
The Tatio Geysers
Best done on the third or later day you're in the Atacama because of its high altitude (12-14,000'), the geothermal field of the Tatio Geysers is something to behold. There are several minimally active geysers spouting forth water and steam, while other holes bubble like a witch's cauldron. Bring a swimsuit to take advantage of the natural hot springs (there are changing rooms).
The Altiplano Lagoons and Salt Lake
Water with 10x the salinity of the ocean makes this lagoon oasis a popular spot for a quick float. Just know that one is for swimming, and the other a protected lagoon for the local bird population. Be still and watch the tiny local shrimp flit about in the silt, soon to be food for the Atacama's local population of Austral flamingos.
Los Ojos del Salar (Eyes of the Salt Flats)
One of a few tempting bodies of water in the Atacama, the "Ojos," or "eyes," of the Atacama are a pair of salty, sunken pools that lend themselves well to a quick dip if you haven't already got your float on in the Altiplano lagoons. Cannonball!
Etchings of llamas, foxes, and even monkeys tell the story of some of the earliest settlers and travelers to this forbidden region. We couldn't direct you to this place in the middle of nowhere even if we had a map, so go with a guided excursion.
No, this is not a joke. One of the greatest attractions of the Atacama Desert is the night sky up above. Lack of light pollution and lack of clouds heavy with precipitation means star-gazing can be spectacular. Some hotels even often an astronomy walk as part of their activities program; the Hotel Alto Atacama, for example, has built a small observatory atop a nearby hill, to which they organize evening hikes to lie back and observe the constellations from a better vantage point.
We traveled to the Atacama as a guest of LAN, but all photos, observations and opinions are completely our own.
[Photos: Cynthia Drescher/Jaunted]