by Dave Stamboulis for USA TODAY 10Best

Virtual tour of the surreal Atacama Desert

Image courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

Salt flats, rainbow mountains and turquoise lakes are just part of the surreal landscape you'll find in the Atacama Desert in Chile. It's like a hallucinogenic landscape painting run amok.

Image courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

Vicuñas, wild relatives of llamas, inhabit much of the altiplano, the high plains that cover the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes. They graze on grassy meadows under the high volcanoes.

Out on the altiplano, you'll usually find more vicuñas than people, as they are now protected and have free reign. A decade ago, they were in danger of being wiped out, used for their meat, but they have made a stunning comeback.

Image courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

There are some amazing contrasts in the Atacama, such as salt deposits that sit at the base of flaming red mountains, which look like snow in the rarefied air.

Image courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

You might be in a sandy desert, but the Atacama is full of extremely high volcanoes. the most famous of which is the stratovolcano Licancabur. It has a crater lake near its summit and marks the border between Chile and Bolivia.

Image courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

The Valle de Marte, or Mars Valley, changes colors throughout the day, from soft red tones come sunrise and sunset, to harsh bright orange during the day, with plenty of shades and space in between.

The Moon Valley is a popular afternoon favorite for photographers, looking out to sand dunes and the arid salt mountains that make up the terrain.

Image courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

The contrasts of elements and colors in the Atacama is astounding. Abundant salt looks like fresh snow, set in front of rising sand dunes.

Image courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

Despite having almost no rainfall, there are pools of water to be found in the arid Atacama. Ojos de Salar, "the eyes of the Salar," are a pair of freshwater lagoons that are popular for swimming.

Image courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

You'll even find flowing rivers in the "dry" Atacama, with waterfalls and cold pools to plunge into. The Gautin Canyon is one of the best locales, as the river here eventually leads to a series of eight hot spring pools near the canyon's end.

Due to the active volcanoes found in the Atacama Desert, there are an abundance of geysers (in fact, the El Tatio geyser field is one of the world's largest), along with mud pools, hot springs and mineral deposits.

One great route takes guests along the Rio Blanco, a hot river full of geysers and fumaroles, which doesn't see any of the visitor traffic that the more popular El Tatio geyser does.

Image courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

Salar Aguas Calientes sits along a curving mountain road that leads over a high pass into Argentina. The entire area looks like an artist's palette, with rainbow mountains soaring above emerald lagoons and the white salt deposits of the Salar.

Read more at USA TODAY 10Best

Read the article
Read the article