Driest place on earth ... the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Driest place on earth ... the Atacama Desert in Chile. Photo: Getty Images

An ochre-coloured moonscape stretches towards the horizon. A smooth asphalt ribbon snakes defiantly through the driest place on earth.

Ask people to identify the driest parts of our planet and I'll bet they'll name Africa's Sahara or perhaps the rolling dunes of Arabia.

But they'll be wrong.

Climate scientists swear there's nowhere drier than Chile's little-known Atacama Desert.

No insects flit across its driest expanses, no scorpions lurk just under its parched wasteland (as they do in many deserts) and no lizards bask in bone-dry rocky terrain.

But great riches lie beneath this arid ground. Mines produce vast quantities of copper as well as lesser amounts of gold and other minerals. Atacama is also an important source of lithium. It supplied most of the world's sodium nitrate until displaced by a synthetic alternative.

About 100kms at its longest, Atacama focused global attention in 2010 when 33 men miraculously survived 69 days entombed more than a kilometre underground after a copper-and-gold mine's collapse.

This desert is also one of the world's top spots for astronomy because high altitude combines with an absence of light pollution and radio interference. Observatories include European facilities attracted by conditions far superior to those in Europe.

The Hotel de Larache, where I'm staying, has its own observatory where powerful telescopes provide a memorable evening's stargazing under expert guidance.

Tourism has grown rapidly in recent years. Nature may be inhospitable but there's plenty to do.

A two-hour flight from Chile's capital, Santiago, to Calama - a commercial city of little tourist appeal - precedes a memorable 100km desert road trip.

My destination: the pretty village of San Pedro de Atacama (usually referred to simply as San Pedro), the local tourism hub.

San Pedro, with almost 5000 people, is the largest of small oasis settlements dotted through the desert. Some oases are uninhabited. Water comes from underground because, to the desert's east, lies the snow-capped Andes.

Melted snow seeps beneath the desert, creating aquifers from which bores and natural springs pepper a brown landscape with green pock-marks.

A Hotel de Larache guide escorts me to salt flats called Salar de Atacama where protected flamingos feed on tiny prawn-like creatures. A sudden noise - a car backfiring on a nearby road - spooks the birds, which transform the sky into a burst of flamingo-pink before cascading elsewhere on their shallow lagoon.

On a drive to Toconau, 40kms south of San Pedro, I spot five llama-like vicunas grazing on arid scrub. There, close to the village church, I watch residents irrigating vegetable crops with water from beneath the desert. Next morning I swim at the El Tatio geysers, where hot water spurts from the earth before cooling rapidly in a succession of pools.

We pass a backpacker group on our way back to the hotel. They've stopped for impromptu sand-surfing - hurtling down dunes on small surfboards, drinks trays and even cardboard strips.

Later, we visit moonscapes picturesquely titled Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) and the Valley of the Moon in the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountains). In this rock-dotted sandy terrain it's said no living thing survives. "Don't get lost," warns my guide. "It could be fatal."

At the hotel I meet a couple preparing for a dawn departure on an escorted Andes trek, a three-day adventure in a mountainous zone of ice and snow. Altitude-aware staff recommend three days' pre-hike acclimatisation.

Other guests prefer less challenging options: being guided along desert trails on foot, mountain bikes or horseback.

Just back from one such horseback adventure, an Australian visitor - unaccustomed to riding - apologises for "walking like John Wayne" and describes a terrain reminding him of the most arid areas of his homeland's outback, "only drier".

Feeling lazy, I pick an easy option from an excursions list - a hike through an uninhabited oasis where giant cactuses, typically 2m tall, thrive.

Next morning I walk amid statue-like cactuses before easing myself along a narrow ledge from which there's a terrifying plunge to rocks far below.

"Surely this isn't one of the easy hikes?" I ask Jorge, my guide. "Who told you this was easy?" he laughs. It turns out that there are two hikes where cactuses grow - and a mix-up ensures I'm not on the easier.

A short walk from the Hotel de Larache brings me to San Pedro's centre. On the way I stop while a shepherd struggles to control his flock of woolly, road-blocking sheep. They're on their way to scrubby pasture at the edge of town.

San Pedro's main attraction is its white-painted adobe church, a national monument from which it's only a minute's stroll to an exceptionally good archaeological museum (offering an introduction to the lifestyles and rock art of ancient inhabitants whose native ruins are a near-town attraction) and a market where many stallholders are Amerindians from nearby Bolivia and Peru selling colourful shawls, ponchos, dresses and hats along with panpipes and other handicrafts.

Nearby streets are lined with adobe buildings, most in natural earth-brown - including shops, bike-rental outlets, restaurants and tour-selling travel agencies.

It's dusk when I sit, writing postcards, at a restaurant on San Pedro's main square. I'm at an alfresco table sipping a pisco sour (pisco, a spirit made from grapes, is claimed as indigenous by both Chile and Peru) before trying a bottle of Chile's Cristal beer.

A grinning tourist passes, commenting that it's an odd contradiction: a cold beer in the world's driest place.

The writer was a guest of Inca Tours, LAN Airlines and Explora Hotels.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Chile's LAN (lan.com; 1800 558 129), Aerolineas Argentinas (02 9234 9000; aerolineas.com.ar) and Qantas (13 13 13, qantas.com.au) fly from Australia to Santiago, the Chilean capital, with connections on LAN from Santiago to Calama.

Staying there

The Chilean Explora chain's Hotel de Larache (+ 56 2 395 2800; www.explora.com) is the area's main property. Australia-based Inca Tours (1800 024 955, www.incatours.net) sells packages including the hotel, with travel-and-accommodation options for groups and independent travellers as well as the ability to pay in Aussie dollars. San Pedro has a good choice of hotels from upscale boutique properties through mid-market to basic backpacker lodgings.

More information

Inca Tours (1800 024 955, www.incatours.net), Explora Hotels (+56 2 395 2800).

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