The desierto florido (flowering desert) is a phenomenon that happens every 5-7 years when the driest desert in the world faces unprecedented amounts of rainfall. There are only a few places in a world that experience this, including Chile, Peru, the USA, and Australia. Here I’ll help you find out where in the Atacama Desert you can see this stunning transformation and when is the best time to go.
A strangely and beautifully flowering desert. Four girls that just wanna have fun. A pit stop on the way up north to see penguins and sea lions. Photo shoots in endless fields of flowers. Cruising the open, sunny road in a rented car with the music booming and the mouths moving in conversation that never runs out. And chips, too many chips… because who doesn’t munch on chips in the car?
Well, that’s a quick snyopsis of my most recent girls getaway to the flowering desert (in spanish, known as the Desierto Florido). It was great. But then again, when isn’t a girls getaway great?
What causes the flowering desert / desierto florido?
There’s a climate phenomenon that occasionally turns the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile, the world’s driest desert, into a diverse and gorgeous flower garden. Normally, the Atacama Desert gets less than a 1/2 inch (12mm) of rain a year. Some parts have even never seen rain.
Some years, however, it sees unprecedented rainfall. This means that dormant seeds, buried deep down under the dusty land, get germinated. On these years, over 200 species of flowers and plans can bloom!!
There are other factors that can come into play and make one year of the flowering desert / desierto florido more blooming than another. These include coincidences like the right amount of sunny and cloudy days, humidity, temperature, and the El Niño effect. While the flowering desert is always astounding, the right combination of these factors can cause it to be more or less historic.
When you really think about it, it’s pure magic that this happens. Just think about it. The driest desert in the world needs at least 15mm of rain (way more than normal), on the right days, with the right combination of sunny / cloudy days, and with the right humidity. It’s really quite crazy!
An epic girls weekend to the flowering desert / desierto florido in the Atacama Desert.
Naturally, my girlfriends and I wanted to see this sight with the whites of our own eyes so we decided to call it a girls weekend and take the midnight bus from Santiago to La Serena. This way, we could get some shut eye during the 300 mile (475km) trip and be ready to roll upon our 7am arrival.
The original plan was to get in, get a coffee and some breakfast, then head to our rental car at 9:30. However, as very typical Chile outside Santiago, we arrive at 7am and nothing is open. We walk for a good hour and all the cafes open at 9:30. Yes, process that. The coffee is available at 9:30. I can feel your eyes opening wider as you read that.
Anyways, after walking half the city, we gave up on the food and beverage. Thankfully, Marcela, was more prepared and whipped out a cheese sandwich for each of us. Points for Marcela. We hopped on a bus and told the driver where we needed to go pick up our car, and after about 10 minutes, he stopped on in the middle of nowhere, pointed across a field, and said, “that’s where you need to go.”
A little confused we got out and soon realized we couldn’t cross the field. What happens if there’s a fence on the other side and we have to walk all the way back? We ended up walking behind the bus that had left us for at least 1/2 hour, making a big U to finally end up at our rental car. Sigh.
How do you get to the flowering desert / desierto florido?
There are various places in the Atacama Desert where you can see the most variety of flowers. One of the best is Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe, north of La Serena in Vallenar, and another is Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, north of Copiapo. However, there are smaller parts in between, or closer to La Serena, Copiapo, Bahia Inglesa.
We chose to go to Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe, since La Serena is an easy bus ride from Santiago. We picked up our rental car in La Serena and headed about 2 hours north, destination Vallenar.
Pit stop to see the penguins on Punta de Choros
It was a gorgeous drive up the coast and we detoured a few hours across rocky, bumpy dirt roads to get to a little town of about 300 people called Punta de Choros. This hidden gem is a the starting point for a boat ride filled with wildlife. We saw penguins, sea lions, otters and many species of birds. During summertime, there are dolphins and even orcas too!
This is an area where they fish a lot of seafood, like scallops and different kinds of clams, and are therefore famous for making fried cheese and seafood empanadas. They are so good, you don’t even remember what calories are.
We took the boatride, which included dropping us off at a small island for an hour “Isla de Damas”, where we walked around, laid on the beach, and soaked in the sun, which felt very necessary with the brisk sea breeze. The water on Isla de Damas, well, in this entire area, is incredible. Some parts are a celeste blue, others parts turquoise, other parts completely clear… and white sand beaches. Just lovely.
Vallenar or Huasco, the flowering desert / desierto florido base camps.
As we left Punta de Choros and continued our journey to Vallenar, we could see the beginning off the flowering desert. Amidst the brown, dusty desert road, many more green bushes than normal and random patches of flowers increasingly started popping up. Once we got to Vallenar, we stopped at a cool, open space pizza and beer joint for dinner, which had beautiful murals of iconic artists painted on the walls.
Our cabin was just outside town, so it had such a great “country” feel, with barns and animals and all. Just perfect for feeling like really, this was a long weekend getaway! The next day, Saturday, we woke up early for a leisurely breakfast with coffee and chats and the windows open with the sun shining in.
Tummies full, we hopped in the car and headed towards the coast and the national park “Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe.”
We spent the entire day driving. Stopping. Laying in flower fields. Taking flower pictures. Photoshoot. Repeat a million times.
In one stop, there was a whole herd of motorcyclists and we stopped and sure caused a ruckus haha. We took pictures with the motorcycles, and all the motorcyclists wanted pictures with all of us, we laughed and joked and it was a fun little shared moment.
It surprised me how diverse the flowers were. There were so many different colors and so many different species. Yellow, Orange, White, Purple, Violet and in the full range of shades.
We ended up driving probably around 10 hours that day, but hadn’t brought food, other than munchies, because we thought we’d find a little dive/local restaurant joint on the coast to have lunch. We were very wrong. The little towns were so small, there literally was just a few spatterings of homes. We joked that we were the only girls to go to the coast and find no seafood! So basically, we ate doritos, peanuts, ramitas, and a cheddar “snack pack” with various bad-for-you munchies all in the same bag. Oh, and thankfully, we had purchased a few bananas, mandarin oranges and apples.
In one really densly populated flower field, we parked and laid in the middle with all our snacks and a cracked open a beer for each of us.
It was so utterly gratifying to lay there, chat, munch, feel the sun, smell the flowers and sip a beer…. all with my girls <3
Heading out of the park at the end of a long day, we saw a gorgeous sunset over the beach, in the middle of the flowering desert. Chile has such a unique geography that this visual and emotional experience is possible.
You’re on the coast, so a seafood dinner is a must.
On the way back, we finally stopped for our seafood and a beer in Huasco, which is a really cute and colorful little town. Back at the cabin, we chatted the night way, munching more chips and sipping more beers. Oh, and my friend Liz gets a special mention because we went to open a bottle of wine, but the screw broke off in the cork, and she very diligently worked on that cork with a knife…. even sacrificing a cut on her finger, for the good of the team 🙂
The next day we had another really leisure morning and then headed the couple hours back to La Serena, to give the car back at 2:30 and then catch our 7 hour bus ride back to Santiago at 3:30pm.
It was a truly beautiful weekend and we were blessed with perfect weather. The energy of the Atacama desert in Northern Chile is already so magical and powerful. Being able to experience it in a such a special, temporary state all filled with colors and millions of flowers is and was such a gift.
Chile is such a beautiful country and weekends like this remind me that weekend getaways are not only so necessary, but so possible! Thousands of great spots are just a bus ride or short (and affordable) plane ride away, and these are the moments that put the pep back in your step.