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 route we 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. As you can imagine the Atacama is extremely sparsely populated. Our ride takes us from Calama in the centre of the desert to San Pedro de Atacama, a natural oasis. En-route we camp in tents under brilliant clear skies - no rain is guaranteed! We ride at all paces through challenging terrain on excellent criollo horses. An incredible adventure and not too much heat due to the 6,000ft altitude. See the video below of a gallop in Moon Valley 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 JW of Straffan on 27/11/2016
PLEASE NOTE: The departure dates given include 1 day of travel from your home country to Santiago Airport. You will need to arrange your own onward travel from Santiago to arrive in Calama on Day 2.
Day 1: LONDON - SANTIAGO
Day 2: SANTIAGO – CALAMA – CHIU CHIU 2,525m
Flight Santiago-Calama. You will be met at Calama airport and transferred to the village of Chiu Chiu by minibus (approx. 1 hour drive). Here you will check in at the guesthouse before having lunch in a local restaurant. In the afternoon you will take a stroll through the typical Atacama village. Night in guesthouse.
Day 3: CHIU CHIU – PUENTE DEL DIABLO (6hrs riding)
After breakfast and before getting on to your horses you will visit the oldest church of Chile, the church of San Lucas of Chiu Chiu, build in 1600. It is then time to start your horse riding adventure. Leaving the village behind you, you set off at a trot towards the lake Laguna Inka Coya. From there you follow the riverbed of Rio Salado, climbing all the way up to Puente del Diablo (‘Devils Bridge’), a natural bridge over the narrowest point of the canyon of the river Salado. It is here in the plains next to the river bed that you will set up our camp. One million stars to look at! If you prefer you can sleep in the tent, or stay out in the open air to fall asleep looking at the milky way.
Day 4: PUENTE DEL DIABLO - TURI (7hrs riding) 3,100m
Nothing is more spectacular than waking up in the desert. After coffee and a good breakfast at the campsite you mount your criollo horse and continue the desert expedition. You ride along the river Rio Salado and follow part of the pilgrim route of the Virgin Aiquina. The mighty volcanoes San Pedro, San Pablo and Paniri are watching from nearby. You continue along the canyon where you are likely to come across herds of lamas and goats until reaching the vast plains of Turi (3,100m). You will arrive at the foot of pucará Turi where you set up camp.
Day 5: TURI - CASPANA (6hrs riding) 3.600m
If you fancy it you can have an early bath in the natural mineral baths of Turi before getting in the saddle this morning. Ride to the Pucara of Turi, the largest fortress built by the Atacameño people, which you can stop at and look at more closely. You will continue on to Caspana and visit this typical village. The village is surrounded by a fertile valley where you will see its many terraced crops and fruit trees. The village has only 400 inhabitants and the houses are built in liparita clay. You can also visit the Church built in 1641 which is declared a national monument. Overnight in camp.
Day 6: CASPANA - TURCAPO (9hrs riding)
Its an early wake up today to fit in a long day of riding. You leave the village of Caspana and climb the dizzying rocky landscape following an Inca trail until you reach a high plateau. Continuing your ride in a south-easterly direction, you pass the foot of the mountains of Cablor. After four hours of riding you arrive at the Chita mountain. Follow the path to the top of the plateau where you ride for about four more hours with a breath-taking view of all the peaks and volcanoes surrounding you. At the end of the day you descend a long slope that leads to the bottom of a huge and very rugged canyon with small salt flats. You will visit one of the few locals who live in a natural cave and continue to ride in the canyon until you reach Turcapo. Set up camp in a corral with local villagers.
Day 7: TURCAPO – RIO GRANDE (8hrs riding)
Today you start by riding between the orchards of the local inhabitants, then ride up a beautiful slope reaching a plateau full of wild donkeys. Continue through dramatic landscapes and come to a ravine where you will find large pools, the ideal stop place for a refreshing bath. You cross this plateau along the Inca Trail and descend towards the Rio Grande where you will appreciate an oasis in the valley. It is here that you will set up camp.
Day 8: RIO GRANDE - CATARPE (7hrs riding)
You leave Rio Grande by climbing up the hill with the horses until you reach the pampas. From here you follow the Inca Trail again and descend for a long time through small hills with big views of the snow covered volcanoes and mountains. In the distance you can see the sparse vegetation of San Pedro de Atacama. You continue the ride through San Bartolo to reach the place where the rivers Rio Salado and Rio Grande meet. Descending, you reach your camp place on the grounds of Catarpe.
Day 9: CATARPE – SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA (7hrs riding) 2,450m
After having your last camping breakfast you mount the horses and take them to the river. You follow the Rio Grande river until you reach the Valley of Death (Valle de la Muerte). Here you ride all the way to the entrance of the impressive Valle de la Luna or Valley of the Moon. Sand dunes and fantastic surroundings is the ideal décor for your last gallop in the Atacama desert. Due to the layer of dust you will arrive looking like outlaws in the splendid 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.
Day 10: SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA – CALAMA'S AIRPORT
After breakfast you will be transferred to the airport of Calama.
More videos on You Tube, search for Unicorn Trails Atacama.
Small group supplement - there is a small group supplement for less than 5 riders - this means that if the ride does not reach the official mininum number of 5 then it can still go ahead. The supplement will be refunded if the minimum number of 5 is reached.
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 if 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 neccesary.
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 14 st/198 lb/90 kg, please enquire if you are an experienced rider exceeding this weight.
Acommodation 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 you wish to have a tent to yourself we advise to bring a lightweight tent.
Breakfast is from 7am on although we may not ride out until much later. Usually we have breakfast before packing up the tents. Fruit, yoghurts, bread, avocado, cereals, tea, coffee etc is provided with a warm egg dish on some days. You are given snacks for en-route, usually fruit. Lunch is carried with us 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 can be accommodated with advanced notice. Please contact Unicorn Trails with requests.
Please note that it is your responsibility to ensure you have the correct documentation in place for your trip. If Visa’s are required the 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 on request.
Visa are not required for U.K. or other European nationals staying for less than 90 days. In the UK the British Foreign Office gives travel advice on 0207 008 0232/0233 or at www.fco.gov.uk.
The Chilean Embassy in the UK is at 12 Devonshire Street, London W1G 7DS.
The British Consulate in Santiago is at Avda. El Bosque Norte 0125, Las Condes, Santiago. Telephone: +56 (2) 370 4100.
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.
No special health precautions are required for visits to Chile but please see your local doctor for advice and further details. We do advise taking plenty of sunscreen! If you are visiting wetter regions, such as Patagonia, insect repellent could be useful for warm days after rain.
For up to date information on specific health concerns please contact the Medical Advisors For Travellers Abroad. Their website can be found at www.masta.org or visit the Department of Health's web site on www.dh.gov.uk
The high altitude and proximity to the equator lead to extremely high UV radiation, so a high factor sun screen is essential.
Voltage is 220V, so check this input is appropriate for your appliance before leaving. You will also require a plug adaptor, which you may purchase at most airports and travel shops.
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 days/9 nights programme with 7 days riding available on set dates. Please note that the departure date is the date you would need to fly from your home country, and you will be met at Calama airport on Day 2.
Paid locally; please enquire.
“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.