The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile is the driest desert on earth. Created by the rain shadow of the Andes, east of the desert, It is one of the most spectacular and dramatic landscapes on earth, made up of salt basins (salares), sand and lava flows. Although extremely dry, on this equestrian route, horseback riders follow 2 natural river systems coming from the high Andes which cut deep into the sandstone, depositing salty water marks and attracting a surprising variety of wildlife. The Atacama is extremely sparsely populated and the ride leads from Calama in the centre of the desert to San Pedro de Atacama, a natural oasis. Camp in tents en-route under brilliant clear skies - no rain is guaranteed! The horseback riding is at all paces through challenging terrain on excellent criollo horses. An incredible equestrian adventure, and not too hot due to the 6,000ft altitude. See the video below and visit You Tube for more videos of this ride.
Please Note: The opinions expressed in these reviews are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Unicorn Trails Ltd. These reviews are "directly from the horses mouth" and unedited. Unicorn Trails may make additional comments for clarification clearly identified in red.
Review received from KM of Gütersloh on 12/11/2022
Below is the itinerary for the classic 10 day itinerary.
SANTIAGO – CALAMA – CHIU CHIU 2,525m
Flight Santiago-Calama. Guests will be met at Calama airport and transferred to the village of Chiu Chiu by minibus (approx. 1 hour drive). Here riders will check in at the guesthouse before having lunch in a local restaurant. In the afternoon take a stroll through the typical Atacama village. Night in guesthouse.
CHIU CHIU – PUENTE DEL DIABLO (6hrs riding)
After breakfast guests will visit the oldest church of Chile, the church of San Lucas of Chiu Chiu, build in 1600. It is then time to start the horse riding adventure. Leaving the village behind, set off at a trot towards the lake Laguna Inka Coya. From there, riders follow the riverbed of Rio Salado, climbing up to Puente del Diablo (‘Devils Bridge’), a natural bridge over the narrowest point of the canyon of the river Salado. Set up camp next to the river bed. Sleep under the millions of stars, or in the tent,
PUENTE DEL DIABLO - TURI (7hrs riding) 3,100m
Nothing is more spectacular than waking up in the desert. After coffee and breakfast, mount the horses and continue the trail along the river Rio Salado, part of the pilgrim route of the Virgin Aiquina. The mighty volcanoes San Pedro, San Pablo and Paniri are watching from nearby as riders continue along the canyon where they are likely to come across herds of lamas and goats until reaching the plains of Turi (3,100m). Arrive at the foot of pucará Turi to set up camp.
TURI - CASPANA (6hrs riding) 3,600m
There is a chance to start the day with a natural mineral bath at Turi before getting in the saddle this morning. Ride to the Pucara of Turi, the largest fortress built by the Atacameño people. Continue on to Caspana to visit this typical village, surrounded by a fertile valley of terraced fields of crops and fruit orchards. The village has only 400 inhabitants and live in houses built from liparita clay. Riders can also visit the Church which was built in 1641 and has been declared a national monument. Overnight in camp.
CASPANA - TARAPACA (9hrs riding)
An early start sees the group leaving the village of Caspana and climb the dizzying rocky landscape following an Inca trail until reaching a high plateau. Continue the ride in a south-easterly direction, passing the foot of the mountains of Cablor. After four to the Chita mountain. Follow the path to the top of the plateau and ride for about four more hours through breath-taking views of the surrounding mountain peaks and volcanoes. At the end of the day, descend a long slope that leads to the bottom of a large, rugged canyon dotted with small salt flats. Visit one of the few locals who live in a natural cave before reaching Turcapo. Set up camp in a corral with local villagers.
TARAPACO – RIO GRANDE (8hrs riding)
Start the riding day between orchards before reaching a plateau full of wild donkeys. Continue through the dramatic landscape to a ravine where there are large pools, and the ideal stop place for a refreshing bath. Cross the plateau along the Inca Trail before descending toward the Rio Grande, and oasis in the valley, and the camp spot for the night.
RIO GRANDE - CATARPE (7hrs riding)
Leave the Rio Grande on a route that climbs out of the Rio Grande to reach the pampas. From here, follow the Inca Trail again before a long descent through the hills wih views of snow covered volcanoes and mountains al around. In the distance riders will see the sparse vegetation of San Pedro de Atacama. Continue the ride through San Bartolo to reach the meeting point where the Rio Salado and Rio Grande rivers meet. Camp in the grounds of Catarpe.
CATARPE – SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA (7hrs riding) 2,450m
After finishing the last breakfast on the trail, mount the horses to the river and follow the Rio Grande river until reaching the Valley of Death (Valle de la Muerte). Ride to the entrance of the impressive Valle de la Luna or Valley of the Moon, the ideal place for a last gallop or canter in the Atacama desert. Due to the layer of dust, riders will arrive looking like outlaws on reaching the village of San Pedro de Atacama. Wash away the dust with Ice-cold pisco sour and take a warm and well deserved shower before dinner. Night in a hotel in San Pedro de Atacama.
SAN PEDRDO - SALAR DE ATACAMA
Free morning in San Pedro de Atacama with an afternoon visit the Salar, the largest salt flat in Chile. This surreal landscape is dominated by the volcanoes Licancabur, Acamarachi, Aguas Calientes and the Láscar (one of the most actice in Chile). Tonight's farewell dinner is at a local restaurant.
SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA – CALAMA'S AIRPORT
After breakfast, guests will be transferred to the airport of Calama.
More videos on You Tube, search for Unicorn Trails Atacama.
Please note: All itineraries are given for your guidance only and it may be altered on the ground and in accordance with the prevailing conditions by the organising team.
Each rider is allocated their own horse from a herd of 50 at the start of the trip and, depending on the number of riders, 2 spare horses are taken along on the route. The horses are all local criollo and cross, about 15hh, sure footed and saddled with local Chilean saddles. Due to the high pommel and cantel, trotting is not a favoured gait and most of the riding is done at either a walk or canter. The horses are a gentle, energetic but not nervous and endowed with incredible powers of endurance. Although the average pace is not fast - mainly walk interspersed with regular canters and the occasional gallop, the days are long and some of the terrain is very rugged with steep drop-offs. The horses are very well adapted to this and carry riders confidently and calmly with good responsiveness. All the horses are provided with saddle bags and each rider is given a 1.6 litre water bottle to carry in their saddle bag. This is refilled as necessary.
Riders must be confident in walk, trot and canter on a good horse. A reasonable level of fitness and endurance is required as up to 8 hours riding over rough terrain on some days is required. An adventurous nature is essential and some experience of riding out and camping is very helpful.
The weight limit for this ride is 198 lb/90 kg, please enquire if you are an experienced rider exceeding this weight.
Accommodation at the start and finish is in twin or double rooms in good quality hotels with en-suite bathrooms, TV, phone and safety box. On the trail accommodation is in 2 person tents out in wild nature with minimal facilities. Washing is done at natural springs (some hot) or rivers (yes, there are some in this desert making for a surprisingly varied surroundings!). No single supplement is possible on the camping trip, 2 person tents are provided. Should a rider wish to have a tent to themselves, we advise to bring a lightweight tent.
Breakfast is from 7am onwards although the ride may not start until much later. Breakfast before striking the camp. Breakfasts of fruit, yoghurts, bread, avocado, cereals, tea, coffee etc are provided with a warm egg dish on some days. There are snacks for en-route, usually fruit. Lunch is carried on a pack horse and eaten after the majority of the riding is done (which can be quite late some on some days). Freshly prepared tacos are a lunch favourite! Dinner is some time after arrival in camp. Typically hearty Chilean food is cooked: barbecue goat, llama, lamb with salads, corn (a staple here), rice, potatoes, goats cheese, fruits, bread, avocado, etc…
Vegetarian or other dietary requirements within reason can be accommodated with advance notice. Please contact Unicorn Trails with requests before booking.
Please note that it is your responsibility to ensure you have the correct documentation in place for your trip.
NB: Be sure to check the COVID status of the country you plan to visit including entry procedures and requirements while travelling.
Passport and Visa requirements can change from year to year depending on diplomatic relations. Please request information from the appropriate Consulate in your home country.
Unicorn Trails will assist with any questions you have or supply any necessary supporting documents as required by the consulate should you need a visa.
Departure tax – Unless a departure tax was included in your airfare, you will have to pay it on leaving.
In the UK the British Foreign Office gives advice: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/chile
In the US: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages/Chile.html
In Canada: https://travel.gc.ca/destinations/chile
The Atacama Desert is the driest place on Earth, and is virtually sterile because it is blocked from moisture on both sides by the Andes mountains and by coastal mountains. The average rainfall in the Chilean region of Antofagasta is just 1 mm per year, and at one time no rain fell in the entire desert for 400 years. Some weather stations in the Atacama have never received rain. Evidence suggests that the Atacama may not have had any significant rainfall from 1570 to 1971.
It is so arid that mountains that reach as high as 6,885 metres (22,590 feet) are completely free of glaciers and, in the southern part from 25°S to 27°S, may have been glacier-free throughout the Quaternary — though permafrost extends down to an altitude of 4,400 metres and is continuous above 5,600 metres. Studies by a group of British scientists have suggested that some river beds have been dry for 120,000 years.
Some locations in the Atacama do receive a marine fog known locally as the Camanchaca, providing sufficient moisture for hypolithic algae, lichens and even some cacti. But in the region that is in the "fog shadow" of the high coastal crest-line, which averages 3,000 m height for about 100 km south of Antofagasta, the soil has been compared to that of Mars. Due to its otherworldly appearance, the Atacama has been used as a location for filming Mars scenes, most notably in the television series Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets.
April and October best month for horse riding. Night temperature:0° Daytime: 30°C August is a little colder and night temperatures can even be frosty (-2°C). Daytime temperatures about 25°C. Very sunny during daytime, dry, no rain foreseen during April, August or October. No mosquitoes due to the dry weather.
COVID: Be sure to check the latest COVID regulations for travelling in any country you visit.
There are good health facilities in Santiago and other major cities, but private clinics and hospitals are expensive. Make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment abroad and repatriation.
Please refer to your country’s latest health guideline for travel in Chile and contact your own GP for up to date advice on vaccinations and prophylaxis prior to travel.
Health (ride specific)
Please take along sun cream and anti-allergy medicine for possible insect bites.
The high altitude and proximity to the equator lead to extremely high UV radiation, so a high factor sun screen is essential.
Please take along anti-allergy medicine for possible insect bites
In Chile the supply voltage is 220V. If the appliance is a single voltage rated appliance, it will need to operate at the same voltage as the supply voltage of the country i.e. 220V. If this is not the case it should be used alongside a voltage transformer or converter to allow the appliance to work safely and properly.
It is recommended that all equipment required is bought with you. There is no internet access on the entire trip and no electricity or mobile phone reception on much of the riding portion. Calama and San Pedro de Atacama are the only points at which reliable electricity and telephone reception are available.
In addition to the usual clothes needed for dry, sunny and cold weather bring:
-sleeping bag (very warm, 4 seasons)
-sleeping mat with good insulation
-binoculars (optional, recommended)
-sun hats with brim
-boots suitable for walking and riding
- extra pair of "camp" shoes to change into
-sunscreen with high protection factor
-wind proof gear
-chaps are essential, half leg chaps will do
-riding helmet recommended but optional, remember sun protection
-a light scarf to keep the sun/dust off your face
This is a 10 day/9 night programme with 7 days riding available on set dates.
2023: 8-15 October, 22-31 October
2024: 19 - 28 October; 2 - 11 November
Only available for Tulor Hotel; please enquire.
|Riding days||Product item description||£|
|2023 8 days||8d/7n||5||Group 8-10 riders||3,055|
|2023 8 days||8d/7n||5||Group 2-4 riders||3,279|
|2023 8 days||8d/7n||5||Group 5-7 riders||3,169|
|2023 10 days||10d/9n||7||Group 8-10 riders||3,279|
|2023 10 days||10d/9n||7||Group 2-4 riders||3,509|
|2023 10 days||10d/9n||7||Group 5-7 riders||3,395|
|2024 10 days||10d/9n||7||Dbl pp Group 8-10 riders||3,509|
|2024 10 days||10d/9n||7||Dbl pp Group 2-4 riders||3,735|
|2024 10 days||10d/9n||7||Dbl pp Group 5-7 riders||3,619|
|Riding days||Product item description||€|
|2023 8 days||8d/7n||5||Group 8-10 riders||3,419|
|2023 8 days||8d/7n||5||Group 2-4 riders||3,669|
|2023 8 days||8d/7n||5||Group 5-7 riders||3,545|
|2023 10 days||10d/9n||7||Group 8-10 riders||3,669|
|2023 10 days||10d/9n||7||Group 2-4 riders||3,925|
|2023 10 days||10d/9n||7||Group 5-7 riders||3,799|
|2024 10 days||10d/9n||7||Dbl pp Group 8-10 riders||3,925|
|2024 10 days||10d/9n||7||Dbl pp Group 2-4 riders||4,179|
|2024 10 days||10d/9n||7||Dbl pp Group 5-7 riders||4,049|
|Riding days||Product item description||US $|
|2023 8 days||8d/7n||5||Group 8-10 riders||3,925|
|2023 8 days||8d/7n||5||Group 2-4 riders||4,215|
|2023 8 days||8d/7n||5||Group 5-7 riders||4,069|
|2023 10 days||10d/9n||7||Group 8-10 riders||4,215|
|2023 10 days||10d/9n||7||Group 2-4 riders||4,509|
|2023 10 days||10d/9n||7||Group 5-7 riders||4,365|
|2024 10 days||10d/9n||7||Dbl pp Group 8-10 riders||4,509|
|2024 10 days||10d/9n||7||Dbl pp Group 2-4 riders||4,799|
|2024 10 days||10d/9n||7||Dbl pp Group 5-7 riders||4,655|
|Riding days||Product item description||SEK|
|2023 8 days||8d/7n||5||Group 8-10 riders||40,129|
|2023 8 days||8d/7n||5||Group 2-4 riders||43,099|
|2023 8 days||8d/7n||5||Group 5-7 riders||41,615|
|2023 10 days||10d/9n||7||Group 8-10 riders||43,099|
|2023 10 days||10d/9n||7||Group 2-4 riders||46,075|
|2023 10 days||10d/9n||7||Group 5-7 riders||44,585|
|2024 10 days||10d/9n||7||Dbl pp Group 8-10 riders||46,075|
|2024 10 days||10d/9n||7||Dbl pp Group 2-4 riders||49,045|
|2024 10 days||10d/9n||7||Dbl pp Group 5-7 riders||47,559|
“LICANANTAI Pueblo de las Alturas” Eugenio Hughes G-P Atacama-Chile (available in Spanish and English).
Even in this extreme dryness there is some wildlife that has adapted: Wild donkeys, foxes, camelide family such as alpaca, llama, “vicuña” and “guanaco”. Condors can be seen en route as well as the small “vizcacha”(like a marmotte). When it comes to plant life there are giant cacti called “yareta” and other vegetation typical of high altitude deserts on the “altiplano”.
The Atacama Desert is a virtually rainless plateau in South America, extending 966 km (600 mi) between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It is created by the rain shadow of the Andes east of the desert. Its area is 181,300 square kilometers (70,000 mi²), in northern Chile. It is made up of salt basins (salares), sand and lava flows, and is 15 million years old and 100 times more arid than California's Death Valley.
The Atacama has rich deposits of copper and other minerals, and the world's largest natural supply of sodium nitrate, which was mined on a large scale until the early 1940s. The Atacama border dispute over these resources between Chile and Bolivia began in the 1800s.
The Atacama is sparsely populated. In an oasis, in the middle of the desert, at about 2000 meters elevation, lies the village of San Pedro de Atacama. Its church was built by the Spanish in 1577. In pre-hispanic times, before the Inca empire, the super-arid interior was inhabited mainly by the Atacameño tribe. It is most notable for the construction of fortified towns called pucara(s), one of which can be seen a few miles from San Pedro de Atacama.
During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries when under the Spanish Empire towns grew along the coast shipping ports for silver produced in Potosí and other mines.
During the 19th century the desert came under control of Bolivia, Chile and Peru and soon became a conflictive zone due to unclear borders and the discovery of nitrate there. After the War of the Pacific in which Chile annexed most of the desert, cities in the zone grew into big international ports, and many Chilean workers migrated there.
The Escondida Mine and Chuquicamata are also located within the Atacama Desert.
The Pan-American Highway runs through the Atacama in a north-south trajectory.
Because of its high altitude, nearly non-existent cloud cover, and lack of light pollution and radio interference from the very widely spaced cities, the desert is one of the best places in the world to conduct astronomical observations. The European Southern Observatory operates two major observatories in the Atacama:
The La Silla Observatory
The Paranal Observatory, which includes the Very Large Telescope.
A new radio astronomy observatory, called ALMA, is being built in the Atacama by astronomers from Europe, Japan, and North America. Another radio astronomy observatory, ACT, is being built on Cerro Toco in the Atacama Desert.
Now the desert is littered with approximately 170 abandoned nitrate (or "saltpeter") mining towns, almost all of which were shut down decades after the invention of synthetic nitrate in Germany at the turn of the 20th century.
Chile's boundaries are geographically well-defined: to the west is the Pacific Ocean; to the east the Andes mountains; to the north is the Atacama Desert, the driest in the World; and to the south are the icefields and glaciers of Chilean Patagonia. There are wide variations of soil and climate between these features. Its 4,500 km coastline includes an amazing assortment of archipelagos and channels south of Puerto Montt. Although Chile is 4,329 km long at no point is it wider than 180 km. Chile's sovereign territory includes some Pacific islands, among them Easter Island, and it has a claim to a sector of Antarctica.
Chilean territory was among the last to be populated in Latin America. Prehispanic Chile was home to over a dozen different groups of indigenous people. The three main cultural groups were Incan, Mapuche and Patagonian.
Northern Chile was an important centre of culture in the medieval and early modern Inca empire. Afterwards, their culture was dominated by the Spanish during the Colonial and early Republican period. Other European influences, primarily English and French, began in the 19th century and have continued until today, as in other Western societies.
The national dance is the cueca. Another form of traditional Chilean song, though not a dance, is the tonada. In the mid-1960s native musical forms were revitalized with the Nueva Canción Chilena, which was associated with political activists and reformers.
Chileans call their country País de Poetas which means land of poets. Gabriela Mistral, was the first Chilean to win a Nobel Prize for literature. Chile's most famous poet, however, is Pablo Neruda, who also won the Nobel Prize and is world-renowned for his extensive library of works on romance, nature, and politics. His three highly individualistic homes, located in Isla Negra, Santiago and Valparaiso are popular tourist destinations.
Chile is four hours behind GMT and they use the metric weights and measures system, so kilometres and kilograms instead of miles and pounds. There is approximately 1.6 kilometres in a mile and 2.2 pounds in a kilogram.
The international dialling code is +56.