Chile’s Atacama desert is unlike anywhere else on the planet. It’s simultaneously eerie and seemingly void — as many deserts are — but also vibrant and full of life, as flamingos, foxes, llamas, and more call it home. If the sight of volcanoes, lagoons, valleys, and dunes don’t take your breath away, the elevation certainly will — much of the region sits between 8,000 and 14,000 feet. It does feel like stepping onto another planet, which makes it entirely worth the trek to get there.

1

Last light on Licancabur Volcano

Licancabur rises a whopping 19,423 feet, and this is one of the more popular spots to view the stunning stratovolcano. As sunset approached, clouds began drifting towards the mountains, and after the alpenglow faded, the skies turned an electric shade of pink.

2

Flamingos at Chaxa Lagoon

This salty body of water is home to not one but three different kinds of flamingos (Andean, James, and Chilean), and with the mountains in the background, it’s an incredible place to catch sunset.

3

Sand dunes at Valle de la Luna

They aren’t known for their prominence, but the bronze hue of the dunes at Valle de la Luna is kind of mesmerizing. The sand glitters under the late afternoon sun, and a short hike up the dunes offers visitors a massive view of the surrounding area, which borders both salt flats and alien-esque rock formations.

4

Landing at Valle de la Luna

The aptly named Valley of the Moon is a place I wish I had a few more days to explore, because there is something new around every bend. NASA has tested the KREX-2 Rover in some areas here, as the extreme dryness and heat creates “one of the most important environments on Earth for researchers who need to approximate the conditions of Mars.”

5

A world within a world

At first glance this looks like it could be a sweeping aerial shot, like Mars from above, but I actually snapped this zoomed in with a long lens. Though tourists are permitted to wander all over sand dunes in many other parts of the world, most of the dunes here were roped off, to preserve the landscape - and rightly so.

6

Vicuñas on the move

Despite the harsh conditions of the Atacama desert, there is a surprising amount of wildlife in the area. Vicuñas, llamas, and guanacos are among the camelids in the region, and watching them dip their heads as they lope around the landscape is just as beautiful as it is strange.

7

Blending in with the brush

I saw brown, tan, and the occasional splash of green as I scanned the landscape around me, and then I caught a flash of movement next to the road. It was too small to be a puma, but could it be… an Andean fox? After pulling over and killing the engine, the critter trotted back into view, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. With a camouflage like this, it’s no wonder this canid goes largely undetected by humans - and the rodents it preys on.

8

Sunrise steam at the El Tatio geysers

It was so cold I needed gloves and a puffy jacket, and seeing as I was more than 14,000 feet above sea level, I’ll be honest: I wasn’t feeling so hot. However, getting to the El Tatio geysers at 6 AM to catch the first rays of sun poking through the steam was well worth the trek. This is the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere, and there were so many around me, I had no idea where to point my camera.

9

The simple things

There’s something about the smell of the dry, desert earth that I find intoxicating, and though the temperature dropped just as fast as the sun, it was a struggle for me to leave this vista and head back to the car, let alone pack up and leave this amazing place.

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