Sustainable Tourism in the Atacama Desert

Pristine skies for optimal stargazing, endemic pink flamingos, enchanting landscapes reminiscent of Mars, geysers and salt flats. All things considered, there seems to be an agglomeration of reasons why San Pedro de Atacama attracts thousands of tourists every year.

 The magical scenery of Laguna Miscanti. Photo by Jacob Atkins
The magical scenery of Laguna Miscanti. Photo by Jacob Atkins

In light of this steady migration of visitors to the most arid landscape on Earth, though, one may ask: is there a “sustainable” way to roam the world? Well, according to one travel agency within this desert-fortress, the answer is undoubtedly yes.

Travel, discover, live: this is the mantra of Etnikus - a company committed to the advancement of sustainable tourism. Unknown to some, this term relates to “low-impact” tourism where travelers are encouraged to respect the ancestral roots of the land, and therefore, not alter, degrade or interfere with the local community in which one encounters.

"This is a gorgeous place that I believe everyone should experience,” says Carolina Tapia Miranda, a guide for Etnikus. “But there is a right way to do it.”

 Carolina Tapia Miranda in action. Photo by Jacob Atkins
Carolina Tapia Miranda in action. Photo by Jacob Atkins

Under the assumption that tourism can benefit society, Etnikus strives to educate guests about the culture, history and challenges that communities face throughout the region, such as geographic location.

“One of the most important things about this place is its isolation,” says Carolina. “When a place is isolated, the people are different. They protect what they have because they don't have too much.”

Accompanied by piola guides like Carolina, travelers can journey to a multitude of places throughout this surreal landscape alongside Etnikus. On top of your agenda should be the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) where visitors can climb mammoth sand dunes, visit the amphitheater, gawk at the natural sculptures of Tres Marias, or shimmy their way through narrow caverns. Don’t be surprised when your group hurdles together for a moment of silence to hear the slow drip of salt within these intricate rock formations, for the Atacama Desert yields the highest supply of sodium nitrate (salt) in the world.

 Profound scenery at the Valle de la Luna. Photo by Jacob Atkins
Profound scenery at the Valle de la Luna. Photo by Jacob Atkins

"You have to wait a little bit and stop your life for one minute to hear the silence of nature," says Carolina.

Another equally impressive tour that Etnikus offers is at the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos ("National Flamingo Reserve"), where one will learn everything there is to know about the pink creatures, most likely developing a newfound appreciation for these flamboyant birds as they graze in the marshy salares (salt flats). Expect a bounty of intriguing information, such as: how their pinkness intensifies with age due to the consumption of a rosy-colored microscopic plankton, how they can fly up to 30 miles per hour in large colonies, and how the Corporación Nacional Forestal (National Forestry Corporation) protects the conservation zone from potential development projects.

Save the best for last during your time with Etnikus by paying your dues at the Cejar Lagoons where the brave-hearted can go for a little dip. Plunge into the refreshingly freezing water and feel the sensation of weightlessness. Due to such high levels of salt, bathers don’t have to make the least bit of effort to stay afloat.

Other Etnikus-sponsored excursions include: archaeological tours at sites dating back to the era of hunter-gathers, stopping by the aldea (tiny village) of Socaire where visitors can purchase impeccable artisanal crafts to support the local economy, facing the elements 4320 meters above sea level at Tatio Geyser, and so much more.

 The tiny village of Socaire. Photo by Jacob Atkins
The tiny village of Socaire. Photo by Jacob Atkins

As the last batch of the desiertos floridos (desert flowers) grace the Atacama Desert with their luxuriant presence, November is an ideal time to travel north. Keeping this information in mind, those who hop on board with Etnikus are likely to have a well-rounded experience - all while absorbing the grandeur of the region in the most thought-provoking of manners.


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