A desert is technically a place with an average of 10 inches (25 cm) or less of annual rainfall. Covering about a seventh of the earth’s surface, desert landscapes can vary from sandy to icy, hilly to flat. Yet they all have one thing in common: they are extremely dry and their barren landscapes sprawled beneath massive skies provide spectacularly beautiful scenery, as well as numerous adventure activities. We recommend checking out at least one of these three remarkable South American deserts during your Latin American vacation.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
The largest salt desert in the world may change your notion of deserts altogether. Located in Bolivia’s southwest corner, this immense, sparkling sea of salt is beautifully blinding at its lofty height of 11,985 feet (3,653 meters) above sea level. The 4,633-square mile (12,000 sq km) salt flat was once a prehistoric salt lake, called Lago Minchín, which covered most of southwest Bolivia. It dried up and its remains created a beautiful geographic feature of their own—today’s spectacular Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Desert). This otherworldly Bolivian landscape is speckled with flamingos and colorful soda-colored lakes like the red Laguna Colorada and the jade green Laguna Verde. When you stand with your back to the vibrant lakes and gaze to the horizon, all you can see for miles is one giant expanse of endless white sand.
Ocucaje Desert, Peru
With the Andes and Amazon as neighbors, Peru’s coastal desert is often overlooked. But with the famous and mysterious Nazca Lines and the charming city of Ica, with its surrounding sand dunes, this area is a must see. Just a few hours south of Lima down the PanAmerican Highway, these attractions—as well as the Paracas National Reserve, the Ballesta Islands, and the town of Pisco—are easy to reach. Thanks to new Lima-Pisco flight routes, visitors can now easily combine a Paracas and Nazca tour with other Peruvian destinations.
While in the area, travelers should also be sure to visit the oasis town of Huacachina, which appears like a mirage just outside of Ica. With its relaxed vibe and cooling lagoon surrounded by lush vegetation, Huacachina is a great place to take it easy, especially if you’ve taken a thrilling flight over the Nazca Lines and are ready for some land-based activities. However, those looking for more adventures will also be pleased—this area is famous for its dune buggies and sand boarding.
Atacama Desert, Chile
Chile also boasts a spectacular desert: the Atacama Desert. Located in northern Chile, it perhaps best known for its breathtaking landscapes. Despite being one of the driest deserts in the world, Atacama has beautiful animal wildlife, including flamingos, coots, and guallatas. You’re must likely to spot them congregated around small lagoons. In addition to vibrant birds, the region provides ample opportunities to see colorful rock strata, impressive geysers, picturesque towns, the stunning Valley de Luna, and of course, some of the best stargazing skies in the world. (The Atamaca Desert is peppered with scientists and astronomers drawn by the area’s remarkably clear skies.) On an Atacama Desert tour you can see the area’s main attraction, Salar de Atacama, an impressive salt flat dominated by astounding volcanoes.