Calama, a scrappy boomtown served by frequent flights from Santiago, is the gateway to San Pedro de Atacama. Calama is usually experienced by travelers only from an airplane window, as an inspiring jumble tossed upon the dusty and inhospitable desertscape. It's not surprising that most visitors make a hasty exit and head to the more soulful oasis town of San Pedro. The only reasons to spend the night in Calama are to visit the immense Chuquicamata copper mine and to use it as a springboard to the border with Bolivia at Ollagüe. From San Pedro, you can take part in a multitude of day trips ranging from close encounters with ethereal natural phenomenon to soulful wanderings amid the colonial villages that dot the central desert. Plan for at least 4 days to visit this region's highlights, or 6 to 7 days to really explore it, if you're a fan of active travel. With a plethora of adobe-style accommodations, convivial restaurants where travelers gather around fire pits under star studded skies, and an artsy laissez faire vibe, it's easy to yield to San Pedro's wild mysticism. It's certainly nothing like home.
Arica, the coastal city on the border with Peru and home to the world's oldest mummies, is your first stop on the way to spectacular Lauca National Park and its unique villages, but it's also a fine place to unwind on the beach. The city and immediate environs can be explored in a day. While Lauca is less than 200km (124 miles) from Arica, take it easy because of the high altitude and allot at least 2 days for your visit, with an overnight stay in the pretty Aymara village of Putre.
Immense distances between sites of interest means that travelers should focus on one area of Chile's northern desert rather than trying to pack in too many stops. Many tour operators offer multiday excursions to a variety of additional locations in this otherworldly environment, some of which may not be highlighted in this book. Considering the compact size of the villages and the plentiful, very reasonably priced guided tours that are available to all destinations, a vehicle is unnecessary. However, if your intrepid spirit demands the freedom and spontaneity that a vehicle affords, safety considerations are imperative. For obvious reasons, solo travel is not the ideal way to explore this region. Bring plenty of water -- a gallon per person per day -- and extra food, as well as sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, warm clothing, and even a thick blanket or sleeping bag (in case you have to spend a chilly night on the road). If driving to remote areas, take at least one extra tank filling; few places outside cities sell fuel, and then only at exorbitant prices. Your rental agency will provide you with a phone number for breakdowns and emergencies; however, even if you are carrying a cellphone, the signal will likely not be in range while on the road. Always double-check the state of any spare tires. Be certain to give at least one person your planned itinerary, even if it's the car-rental agency.
Also, land mines left over from the paranoid Pinochet era still endanger some areas. Keep the threat in mind and ask locals before heading to remote areas -- shifting sands mean some warning signs may not be accurate, even if they're trilingual in Spanish, English, and German.
Another consideration is flash floods. Though the region receives only a few days of rainfall each year, it can come in a torrential downpour known as the "Bolivian Winter," which impedes travel and drowns the region in flash floods causing substantial damage to roads and bridges. Bad weather can strike anywhere during the summer between December and early March.