Last week I spent five nights in the Atacama Desert in the north of Chile. It is beautiful, remote, relaxing, and very much worth visiting during a trip to the southern cone.
Atacama is the driest desert in the world. In some parts, there has been no recorded rainfall since recording began. It looks and feels like a bigger, grander, sandier version of the Grand Canyon and Utah canyons, though grander only by a bit.
The town of San Pedro was erected in the middle of the desert to service tourists. It's not as cheesy a town as it could be, and does a nice job providing basic infrastructure and tours to see the desert, canyons, and sand mountains. The food in San Pedro was surprisingly good. There were many excellent menús to choose from — the set, three course meals is how you eat well and cheaply in Chile (and all of Latin America).
There are three main tours to do in Atacama. Two involve early wake-ups (4 and 6 AM, respectively) which ruled them out for us. That left an afternoon hiking tour through a moon-like landscape followed by a view of the sun setting behind mountains way out in the distance. We watched it perched on a top of a rock formation. Beautiful. The rest of the time we lounged around the hotel pool and enjoyed the still, dry desert air.
The most annoying part of San Pedro is the stray dogs. They sleep by day, and wander the streets by night. They bark and growl and make so much noise that they keep you up at night, even if your hotel is far away. Mostly, it's rape. Male dogs pinning female dogs and trying to have their way. Yelps and barks ensue. I know: I saw this happen more than once up-close. Why don't poor countries more aggressively neuter dogs?
My friend Steve Dodson visited Chile for a couple weeks and we went up there together. After our epic swing through Argentina last summer, a reunion was in order. We had a blast. We chatted for several hours each day, sometimes shooting the shit, sometimes discussing a set topic around which there was structure. About a fourth of the time we discussed relationships (generally), a fourth on business / entrepreneurship / finance, a fourth blogging / information diet, and a fourth other stuff. Thanks to our conversations I must issue a retroactive and prospective hat tip to Steve for helping me think through a handful of blog posts.
I recommend visiting the Atacama Desert on your trip to Chile. A good southern cone trip would involve visiting B.A., Valparaiso, Atacama, Iguazu Falls, and Patagonia if you have time / money. Don't forget little Uruguay, too.