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Outdoors + Adventure

Explore the Atacama Desert

Jetsetter’s Senior Producer, Andrew Skwarek, cashed in on an unheard-of $381 round-trip ticket to Santiago, where he boarded another plane and flew up to Calama in the Atacama Desert. His mission: To see as much of the desert as possible and snap some killer photos in the process. From swimming in salt lagoons and hot springs to spotting llamas and cruising over sand dunes, this itinerary should make every adventure traveler's bucket—and instragram—list

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Your home base in the desert? San Pedro de Atacama, a small town that sits almost 8,000 feet above sea level. Check into the adobe-and-stone Tierra Atacama Desert and Spa, with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the vast arid landscape. The Licancabur Volcano towers over the village at 19,420 feet and provides the most dramatic sunrises and sunsets you'll ever see.

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The best tour company in the area is Layana Tours, which can arrange daily excursions. Kick off the trip with a journey to the Salar de Tara (Tara Salt Flat), where you can cruise over windswept dunes and sand beds; the area is barren and remote, yet eerie and beautiful at the same time.

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Your guide will drop you off at the massive rock formations for a 40-minute trek down the tire tracks—you’re at 16,000 feet and the air is thin, so take it slow. Get your camera ready: Along the way, you’ll spot incredible wildlife, including llamas (no worries, these ones don’t spit), vicuñas (a member of the camel family) and flamingos. Once you reach the salt flat, you'll be rewarded with an incredible breakfast spread and a jaw-dropping view of the Andes Mountains.

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The next day, wake up early (read: 4:30 a.m.) to see El Tatio geysers, about a two-hour drive away. Be sure to bring warm clothes, since the altitude is high and the temperature close to freezing. You'll arrive in the Andes Mountains just before sunrise, when you can see countless steam plumes rise from the scalding water. If you’re game for battling the cold temps in your bathing suit, go for a dip in the geothermal pool.

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In the afternoon, book a guided tour of Moon Valley and Death Valley, also with Layana Tours. The climate will be much warmer, so pack accordingly. You'll hike to the top of colossal sand dunes, which provide 360-degree views of the celestial landscape.

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On the tour of Moon Valley, you'll also see the shimmering Salt Mountain Range, where the white-capped mountains are—you guessed it—salt.

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The evening tour wraps up at 8 p.m. with an unforgettable sunset from high above the valley. After, head back to San Pedro de Atacama for dinner at Adobe (be sure to make reservations ahead of time—it’s one of the most popular restaurants in town). We recommend the grilled steak, quesadillas and standout quinoa risotto.

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Can someone pass the OJ, please? On your third day, head back to the mountains for breakfast at Laguna Miscanti and Miñiques. These picturesque high altitude lagoons were formed when a volcano erupted nearly a million years ago.

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Ask the driver to pull over for photo ops of the breathtaking scenery. The tour ends at Laguna Chaxa, where Andean flamingo, Chilean flamingo and James flamingo roam.

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