High, dry and breathless in the Atacama desert

For our member JohnM, a visit to the Atacama Desert in Chile was just one of the stops on a round-the-world trip. If the photos are anything to go by, the Atacama is far from an arid desert like one might find in the Australian outback. Instead, there are mountains, wildlife, lagunas and lots more to be seen.

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After flying into the Chilean Coastal city of Antofagasta, a vehicle was acquired in order to independently explore the Atacama Desert. There wasn’t much of a choice when it came to rental cars, but the red 4WD does the trick.

I joined the party and had a Hertz red dual cab replete with whopping reflective signs, roll bars and wheel chocks on cables. It was clearly just off a mine site and did get a few stares in some of the more remote tourist regions I visited – along with considerable scepticism from the Carabinieri at a mandatory checkpoint when I, with hopeless Spanish, tried to explain to the non-English speaking officer that I was merely a tourist.

The roads in Chile are built to a superb standard, making driving vast distances a breeze. Despite this, it seems road fatalities do still occur and are marked by some rather bizarre memorials on the side of the road.


The more touristy town of San Pedro was used a base to explore some of the other sights in the area. There are a lot of interesting things to see and having a rental vehicle appears to have many advantages.

The great majority of visitors bus in and do tours (albeit in small buses and 4WDs) – but precisely why I do the independent self-drive thing. I used San Pedro as a base to do day trips up across the high altiplano as far as the Argentinian border, up some (really rough) back roads to the El Tatio geysers, out to the Valle de la Luna (very close to San Pedro and very tourist-infested), the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos and Laguna Miscanti, a serene high-altitude lake.

We are treated to some spectacular photos as our member travels north and continues the journey around the Chilean desert. But it isn’t just the scenery in the Atacama Desert that will leave you breathless; much of the region sits thousands of metres above sea level. At the peaks of the Suriplaza, the altitude gets to as high as 6,500m. At such heights, travellers might well find themselves quite literally gasping for air. But it’s not just the tourists that find the altitude a struggle…

The vehicle gasps at 5000m (me too – although I never felt sick or had headaches from the altitude. Some people get very badly affected with severe migraine-like headaches.) It really had to be revved hard to get it moving after stopping, although once under way it was OK.

What other adventures will JohnM get up to during his time in Chile? “High, dry and breathless in the Atacama desert” makes for an enjoyable read, with stunning photos to match. Follow along HERE.

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Matt Graham
The editor of Australian Frequent Flyer, Matt's passion for travel has taken him to over 60 countries… with the help of frequent flyer points, of course!
Matt's favourite destinations (so far) are Germany, Brazil, New Zealand & Kazakhstan. His interests include economics, aviation & foreign languages, and he has a soft spot for good food and red wine.

You can contact Matt at [email protected]