12/30/2011 12:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Discovering Chile's Atacama Desert

Click here if you missed Part 1 of my Chile adventure.

Not even 24 hours after touching down in Santiago, Chile, I was on the road again.

Destination?  The  Chilean desert.

 My second day in Chile I woke up at the frighteningly early hour of 4 am.  My flight to Calama, the dusty town that is the gateway to Chile's Atacama Desert, was early and I wanted to make sure that I had enough time for my transfer to Santiago's airport.  Stiff and aching from my flight into Chile the night before, I quickly got dressed and assembled my back pack, hurriedly making my way to the hostel's kitchen for a bite to eat.  The lovely staff of Hostel Bella 269, knowing I was leaving very early, set out all of the breakfast goodies for me, even though breakfast usually doesn't start until 7 am.  So very nice of them.

My airport shuttle, arranged the day before by the hostel's staff, arrived in good time and whisked me off to the airport, where I half-slept until it was time to board the plane. Once aboard, however, the views outside my little window had my full attention.

Two hours later, my LAN flight began its descent into Calama and I was struck at how different the terrain was.  The landscape looked like something out of a movie.

Once in Calama's tiny El Loa airport, I collected my bag and wondered what to do next.  Gusts of cold air lashed me about the face and legs and I had to undo my pack and take out a pair of jeans and my coat.  I had forgotten that mornings in the desert tend to be brisk.  I pulled my jeans on over my leggings and wrapped myself in the coat.  After approaching a group of what turned out to be foreign college students on study abroad in Chile, I figured out that the smartest way to get to San Pedro, the town where I would be basing myself for the next three days, was to take a taxi to a bus terminal in Calama, then a bus.

Precisely two hours later I found myself in San Pedro de Atacama.  This
quaint town is often hailed as a tourist trap, but it is the best place
to base oneself if planning to explore the desert region.  A tiny town,
rife with travel agencies and touts who line the streets offering the
best deals on tours, San Pedro is easy to navigate and allows travellers
to plan their desert itinerary with relative ease. Within 90 minutes of
my arrival, I met Marcel, a tour operator, in the street, and
successfully arranged three days of tours with his help.

The first item on the docket was the "Valle de la Luna" and the "Valle de la Muerte" tours (Moon and Mars Valley, respectively). That very afternoon I was picked up by a shuttle and whisked off to this magical place.  I had initially come across photos of these valleys while researching the trip, and the jaw-dropping vista begged to be seen in person. Both valleys make up the Cordillera de Sal (Salt mountain range) in Chile's Atacama Desert.  The peaks and valleys, resembling a terrain that is other-worldly, have been formed over thousands of years by wind, rain, and sun. Over time this has resulted in a plethora of impressive landscapes.

I spent the afternoon in exploration mode, fluctuating between feelings of intense glee and wonderment as I made discovery after amazing discovery.

I took a ridiculous amount of pictures in Moon Valley.

Then did it all again in Mars Valley, where I watched the sun set.

After watching the sun go down we packed it in and drove 15 minutes to San Pedro. Exhausted and cold, I called it an early night, since I was to have yet another early wakeup call for the next day's tour: the salt flats of Atacama.

The Chilean desert is stunning.  Have you ever been to a desert or seen something similar?

Read more about Oneika's travel adventures on her blog: Oneika the Traveller