I always imagined a desert as a huge plain with lots of red sand and dust, dunes and unimaginable heat. Like the Sahara Desert in North Africa for example. I also thought it would be kind of lonely and you could get lost easily. I was not prepared for what Atacama would be like. It is a class of its own, to say the least. Huge, marvellous, breathtaking (literally because of the height), with many different faces and lots of cute inhabitants - these would already be 5 reasons to visit Atacama...
Atacama Desert is not like the desert I imagined. There are areas with red sand dunes like Valle de la Luna but there are also plaines with saltflakes, volcanoes, hot springs and salt lakes you can swim in, a rich variety of flora and some really cute animals.
Temperature and climate. It's simply an experience.
Atacama is not as hot as you would probabely expect. Depending on the height it could even be chilly or simply damn cold. On our way to El Tatio Geyser field (4280m) at about 9 am it was -10°C which went up to about +10°C around noon. In some lower parts like San Pedro de Atacama (2443m) or Valle de la Luna it is rather pleasantly warm, i.e. around 25°C in spring/summer.
But the sun. It will not only burn your skin but also turn your brain into a rare dried fruit if you don't wear a hat. That region has the highest radiation on earth. You can almost feel your brain cells melting. As a light-skinned north european we wore a wide-brimmed hat and long sleeves (looking like Indiana Jones in his best days) and used sunscreen factor 50 - also UNDERNEATH our long sleeves. What should I say, I still got sunburnt on my nose after a day outside...
And it's dry. This region is one of the dryest places on earth. Your nose gets parched and turns into a dusty desert itself. You might even find rocks in there... I was constantly moisturizing my face and lips to keep me from turning into a mummy. And my hair broke off after 5 days.
The sundowns. OMG.
Lincancabur means "mountain of the people" in atacameño and he is the sacred mountain of the indigenious people (Atacameño or Licanantay), who believe that mountains are male and hills are female. Lincancabur is the protagonist of many legends and traditions. One comes from the time, when the inca dominated northern chile and tells that the people living close to the volcan climbed to his summit on 5916m to calm his fits of rage. They brought sacrificial offerings, built pircas (walls of loose stones), prayed and went down with their soul relieved. Their descendants still worship the spirit of the mountain and the huge pircas on the summit and in many other places are evidence of a still vital tradition.
Another legend tells, that Licancabur and Juriques were 2 princes... The Legend of Licancabur and Quimal
You can see Licancabur from almost everywhere in the Atacama Desert. And he really has kind of a presence. Like a guardian. Being in the desert for a few days we couldn't help but develop a relationship to that mountain and we said good bye to Licancabur on our last night. Markus even promised to him he would stop smoking and he held it so far. :-)
The desert is inhabited by lots of animals. My personal favorite were the cute vizcachas, members of the chinchilla family. They kept us company during a hearty breakfast in the desert. Obviously they love sun-bathing as much as we do.
The last but not less important reason to visit the Atacama Desert are our guides. Two girls, Olivia and Thalía, that really made all the difference for us. They made the impossible happen and took us to incredible and sometimes hidden places while avoiding the tourist spots. Or if we wanted to go to a tourist spot, we went at a different time, so that we still were alone in the area. They prepared food and drinks and surprised us with a picnic including pisco sour from a thermos on the top of a plateau featuring an incredible view at sundown. They even took us to a "last sundown" after the tour was officially over - in their free time, just to say good-bye. We ended up in a bar having drinks and the distinct feeling that we met new friends. Let me know, if you want to travel to Atacama, I could pass the contact.
Thalía runs her own business with her husband. You might check out http://www.atacamawild.cl/