Almost a third of Chile's 6,000km (3,720-mile) length is the driest desert in the world; the Atacama is an area of red sand and stone so dry that NASA has picked it to conduct experiments for Martian exploration as some areas are practically devoid of any life at all. Death Valley is moist by comparison. Still, several rivers descend from the Andes -- including Chile's longest, the Loa -- and oases dot the region, giving life to picturesque villages steeped in native and colonial Spanish tradition, including, most famously, San Pedro de Atacama.

In this desert, you'll find literally breathtaking high-altitude landscapes, abundant wildlife, archaeological and architectural heritage, and multiple activities for sports enthusiasts. San Pedro's burst onto the travel scene has led to many improvements in infrastructure: The dusty village itself boasts some of the best hotels in the country amid a relaxed, laid-back atmosphere easily accessible to those with limited time. But the area also holds many more remote jewels to entice adventuresome travelers.