The Atacama Desert in a Camper Van

When I first arrived in Santiago, Chile, there was a large poster on the wall just outside of the gate showing the Atacama Desert. It was vast and mysterious. I knew that I would go there at some point during my time abroad.

A friend of mine who had traveled to the Atacama before told me to rent from Wicked Vans, located in San Pedro De Atacama. I knew that was what I wanted to do because I wanted to be in control of my journey there and not go with a tour group or program. I wanted to camp way out in the desert with my friends!

The first place we camped at was Valle De Cactus. It was off from the main road and very, very quiet. One of my favorite parts of camping is the silence. When the loudest noise is the wind, it makes it a breeze to relax. 

Our first camping spot. The roof had artificial grass on it and we could put chairs on top to hang out!

Enjoying sunset on the roof.
That night we set up our sleeping bags outside to look at the stars.

This photo doesn’t even come close to giving the stars justice. In the bottom right corner, there’s a short white streak which I believe is a shooting star. Within ten minutes of laying on my back and looking at the sky, I probably saw two or three shooting stars. It’s no surprise ancient cultures attributed so much spiritual importance to the sky, it’s truly a magical experience when you can see it on a clear night with no light pollution – especially in a place like the Atacama Desert!

The next morning we drove to some Salt Lagoons close to Valle De La Luna. We drove on a dirt road for about 30 minutes until we found it. There was absolutely nothing around, besides strange rock formations and mountains in the distance.

The view from the trail going to the salt lagoons.
My friends feeling the water and then going in.

The high density of the water means that the human body floats like a cork. It is quite a strange feeling, swimming on top of the water instead of in it. The photo below shows my friend Gage floating with his feet sticking out. The water would push the majority of your body out of the water.

Gage’s back and my arm once we were dry. We could stretch our bodies and salt would flake off everywhere. Luckily there were showers to rinse it all off.
Gage’s back and my arm once we were dry. We could stretch our bodies and salt would flake off everywhere. Luckily there were showers to rinse it all off.

We made our way to a new camping spot that night and decided to visit La Mano del Desierto, or The Hand in The Desert, for our last full day in the Atacama. 

Gage driving us on a dirt road.

The hand in the Desert was pretty far away, but we made our way there eventually.


Sadie really promoting that desert style.

The hand was quite large, and a total mystery. Why was it so far out in the desert? Who made it? Why did they make it? I’m sure there’s some interesting history about it.

After that, we headed back and camped at the same spot we had on the first day. I slept on the roof that night and fell asleep looking at the millions of stars above me. The next day we packed everything up, dropped the van off at Wicked Vans and made our way back to the airport: dirty, tired, but most of all, happy.

Jordan Stern is a student at University of Denver and was an ISA Photo Blogger. He studied abroad with ISA in Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, Chile.

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