From Salta, in northwestern Argentina, I planned to head east and visit Chile’s Atacama Desert. I had been there in 2014 for a week and was left completely mesmerized. The contrast of fiery-colored canyons, impressive dunes, enchanting hot springs and snow-capped volcanoes topped with the world’s best star gazing, was impossible to stop dreaming of- once I had a taste, I was dying to return to this playground of outdoor adventure!
This time around I wanted to experience more of the desert and, in particular, attempt summiting a few more of the area’s impressive volcanoes. I would start with several desert hikes and then work my way up to a couple of the area’s mid-range volcanoes and finally, end with an attempt on South America’s tallest volcano, Llullaillaco.
Crossing over the high Andes range between Salta and the Atacama Desert, was something I had been craving to do for years. After concluding several weeks in Salta, I decided that it was my time to experience this incredible overland journey. I boarded a double-decker, long-distance bus early in the morning in Salta and spent the next 8 hours winding through the massive peaks of the Andes range surrounded by epic salt flats, grazing guanacos, giant cacti and an endless blue sky.
The border crossing consisted of us stopping at small cabin in the middle of nowhere in the high desert. There were two lines leading up to two windows right next to each other: the first window was to exit Argentina and the second window was to enter Chile. A few young men were working behind the windows and blasting Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law” which I found to be terribly ironic and incredibly entertaining. Stamp, stamp. We were flagged through to enter Chile.
The road leading into San Pedro de Atacama, dips between two massive peaks: Licancabur Volcano and Cerro Toco. Upon arrival, I was greeted at the bus station by my host from the Explora Atacama Lodge, my base for the next four days. Explora Lodge is the ultimate adventure hub for travelers looking for incredibly knowledgeable guides (every single guide I had during my stay at Explora was a wealth of knowledge and passionately enthusiastic about the region- Explora Lodges have a knack for handpicking the best of the best!), an impressively wide variety of exclusive excursions (from trekking, to horseback riding, mountain biking, star gazing at their private observatory and even high altitude mountain expeditions) and total comfort.
My first excursion was trekking to the Puritama Hot Springs along the Ruta del Auga trail. In the morning, we departed by van from the lodge toward the north side of the Puritama Natural Reserve. We started hiking with views of the mountains, volcanoes and the Atacama salt flat basin. To get to the hot springs, we crossed several ravines, some of them deep and others shallow, filled with blooming flowers and cacti. Once at the hot springs, we enjoyed a light lunch and plunged into the glittering thermal pools. In the late afternoon, we continued along a ravine to finish our trek in Guatin, a rural village, where our transfer van was waiting for us with water and cold refreshments.
The following day, I set out for my first volcano of the trip- Saciel Volcano (5,661 m.a.s.l / 18,615 f.a.s.l)! We departed from Explora (2 hours driving) until we reached an old sulphur mine located between Bolivia and Chile on the ridge of the Sairecabur Volcano (5,300 m.a.s.l. / 17,400 f.a.s.l.). The ascent was along a scree field leading to the edge of the volcano’s crater. From here, we continued to the summit where we experienced sweeping views of the neighboring Sairecabur peak and multiple aquamarine lagoons across the border in Bolivia. Here, our driver, a local mountaineer, who had decided to summit with us, broke out a ukulele that he had brought up with him and started strumming and singing; it was quite the summit celebration. We descended through penitente fields (swords of ice jutting up from the ground) and finally ended back at our Explora van where a luxurious picnic was waiting for us. This was definitely the highlight excursion for me during my stay at Explora!
At night, I had the chance to visit the exclusive Explora observatory and have a guided class in astronomy and star gazing. The experience was magnificent. Through Explora’s telescope, we were able to see the craters on the moon and even the rings on Saturn!
On my final morning, we set out, once again by van from Explora to the Salt Mountains, where we walked along the Kari ravine, a canyon formed by water erosion and surrounded by huge sedimentary walls of clay, gypsum, and salt. During the hike, we tackled different kinds of slopes, descending through a sand dune and two waterfalls (these only carry water during the rainy season and were dry when we passed them). We returned in time to enjoy a delicious lunch on the terrace of the lodge.
Want to plan your next adventure escape to the Atacama?
Check out the following itineraries for the Atacama:
- 4-Day Wonders of Atacama (based from Explora Atacama)
- 4-Day San Pedro de Atacama, Geysers, and Salt Flats
Want your own Explora experience? Explora has lodges in Atacama, Torres del Paine Patagonia, Easter Island and the Sacred Valley in Peru! Check out some of our Explora itineraries here:
- 4-Day Wonders of Atacama (based from Explora Atacama)
- 5-Day Patagonia: Torres del Paine Luxury Explora
Don’t see what you want? Want to customize your trip? Contact us!
READ THE OTHER PARTS OF MY SALTA + ATACAMA ADVENTURE HERE:
- Exploring Salta: Argentina’s Undiscovered Land of Adventure and Wine PART 1
- Exploring Salta: Argentina’s Undiscovered Land of Adventure and Wine PART 2
- Gastronomic Delights and Mummies in Salta, Argentina
- Trekking To The Clouds: An Inca Trail In Argentina
Your friendly South America expert,