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Almost any continent in the world has deserts. Even Europe has some areas which can (almost) be classified as deserts. But what actually makes a desert a desert? Officially, deserts are areas with an average annual precipitation of less than 250 millimetres per year or as areas where more water is lost by evapotranspiration than falls as precipitation. According to this, also the Antarctic and Arctic areas fall under the name 'desert'.
One of the most famous deserts in the world is the Sahara (meaning 'greatest desert' in Arabic) and it is in fact the biggest classical desert in the world, apart from the above mentioned Antarctic and Arctic deserts.
There is also a difference in types of deserts. There are hot subtropical deserts, cool coastal deserts (which are actually being the driest on earth!), cold winter deserts and polar deserts.
Some deserts are extremely difficult to get to, let alone cross it, while others are relatively easy to navigate like the ones in Australia and the United States where tarmac roads provide a comfortable desert experience.
There are more deserts you could imagine, with extremely small areas (like the desert in Almeria, Spain), often being refered to as desertlike landscapes. Still, below you will find the most popular and famous ones that will often pop in mind when someone says the word 'desert'.
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The Kalahari desert is a large arid to semi-arid area, covering over half of Botswana and parts of Namibia and South Africa. It's not as dry as the Sahara or Namib deserts and during the wetter summermonths rain is possible in heavy showers. It's also extremely hot during this period. The Kalahari is characterized by its rolling red sanddunes and also by large quantities of animals, which make this part of Africa particularly good for a traditional 'safari' (meaning trip or journey in Swahili). The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (Botswana and South Africa) is one of the more popular areas and although the Botswanan side requires a 4wd, the South African side is accessible by regular sedans (though not recommended!) and also has more options regarding restcamps. Other popular parks are the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and Khutse Game Reserve, but those require 4wd cars again. Most of the areas and parks are accessible from good tarmac roads, leading from places like Windhoek (Namibia), Ghanzi and Gaborone (Botswana) and Upington (South Africa).
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The Namib desert is one of the two cool coastal deserts in the world (the other being the Atacama desert in South America). Therefore, it's also one of the driest and to add, it is one of the oldest in the world as well (after again the Atacama desert). It stretches for over 1.500 kilometres from north (Angola) to south (Namibia) and it's just 50 to 150 kilometres wide. Much of the southern part of the Namib desert contains of large areas of sanddunes, which are the highest in the world at around 300 metres!
These high dunes are easily accessible near Sesriem where a good road leads into the Sossusvlei. You don't need a 4 wheel drive vehicle to get there, only the last couple of kilometres are 4wd only, but there is a 2wd parking area and free shuttle to the end of the 'vlei' (valley in Afrikaanse language). The area is accessible along good tarred and gravel roads from Windhoek and the Swakopmund/Walvisbaai area along the coast. It takes about a day to get here.
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The Sahara is the biggest 'traditional' (apart from the polar deserts) in the world and stretches across most of Northern Africa from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east, and from the Mediterranean coastline in the north to the Sahel in the south. The classic pictures of endless sanddunes are true to a certain point, as there are larges areas of 'ergs' (sandsea in Arabic) to be found mainly in Algeria and Libya. Most of the Sahara is gravel and rocks though and there are several mountain ranges within its boundaries as well, including the Ahaggar Mountains in Algeria, the Aïr Mountains in Niger and the Tibesti Mountains in Chad. The latter also has the highest point at 3.415 metres above sea level.
Travelling across the Sahara is possible and there are even possibilities to travel almost exclusively along tarmac roads if you choose to travel along the coastline of Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania. There are other routes though there are more demanding, like the ones across Algeria into Niger. For more information on this and other aspects check the Sahara Overland website.
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Antarctica is not the first place that comes to mind when you are talking about deserts. Still, the entire continent is considered to be a desert as even the wettest parts have an annual precipitation of only around 200 mm. Some areas (valleys) have no precipitation at all. It's mainly to cold to have snow, let alone rain.
Getting to the official southpole requires a lot of money and time (unless you fly in), but many people now visit Antarctica on cruises that typically take around 10 to 12 days. The cheapest trips visit the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands. More expensive ones go further away or to more remote places.
Check the Antarctica article about more information regarding geography, climate and getting there.
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Again an a-typical desert, the Arctic Desert covers large areas north of the Arctic Circle. Still, not every area within its boundaries can be called a desert conform the official definition. The Northpole itself though and large quantities of tundra landscapes in the north of Europe, Russia and North America are in fact deserts with less than 250 mm of precipitation. Some areas are too cold to receive any snow or rain at all. It's not as dry as its southern counterpart though. Much of this region is hard to reach, but the southern edges of the Arctic like Alaska, northern Scandinavia and parts of Greenland and Russia are relatively easy to reach, even overland by road. Crossing the Greenlandic icecape or going to the georgraphical northpole however requires a lot more persistance.
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The Gobi desert is the largest desert in continental Asia and the fifth largest in the world. It is located in the northern parts of China and southern Mongolia. Its boundaries are roughly the Altai Mountains, Tibetan Plateau and the North China Plain. Apart from the polar areas, it's also one of the northernmost deserts in the world, which is reflected by bitterly cold winters with frost and snow. Although this is not the best time for a visit, it certainly makes for some great photos: snow on desert dunes! Temperatures can plummit to -40 degrees Celsius, but in summer can rise to a soaring 50 degrees in the shade.
It is relatively easy to cross the Gobi, especially because the main trainline from Ulan Bator to Beijing traverses the desert. There are also organised trips from the capital of Mongolia, which can take from several days to (much better) several weeks and even longer if you wish.
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The Karakum desert is dry and barren landscape in the central part of Asia, covering over two-thirds of Turkmenistan. It covers and area east of the Caspian Sea, south of the Aral Sea. The Amu Darya river and the Kyzyl Kum (see below) desert are located to the northeast. Although the desert is of course extremely dry, it is home to the largest irrigation canal in the world, which unfortunately causes soil salination because of leaks due to pour maintenance. The Karakum desert is easily visited if you have made it to Turkmenistan in the first place, which has very strict visa regulations. The Caspian railroad from Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat and the nearby main road cross the desert. One of the main attractions in the desert, apart from several old city ruins, are the Darvaza Gas Craters.
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The Kyzyl Kum desert is located in Central Asia between the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya, north of the Karakum (see above). Kyzyl means 'red' in local languages and although this might not be particularly thrue for all of the desert, it certainly differs from the Karakum (Kara meaning black). Most of the desert is located at a 300 metre high plateau with some lower basins and higher hills occasionally. It mainly contains of sand dunes. Although some parts are easily accessible and have good tarmac roads, there is not much to do and see for the regular visitor. It's quite adventurous though to do a trek through the desert is you are in the region of east Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
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The Taklamakan is located in the northwestern Chinese subdivision of Xinjiang or the Uygur Autonomous Region. Its boudaries are the Kunlun Mountains to the south and Pamir Mountains and Tian Shan mountain ranges to the west and north respectively. It forms part of the Tarim Basin and is one of the largest sandseas in the world. Just like the Gobi, it is a cold winter desert, which is reflected by temperatures sometimes below -20 degrees Celsius and occasional snow cover. In summer, it's extremely hot, with generally around 40 degrees Celsius, but sometimes way higher than this.
Although up until recently it was only possible to travel north or south of the Taklamakan along two branches of the ancient Silk Route, now there is the Tarim Desert Highway, linking the cities of Luntai and Minfeng. It's well over 500 kilometers long and 80% of the route travels through high shifting sand dunes. The completion in 1995 came together with bushes along the road to prevent the shifting sand dunes, and an irrigation system for that same vegetation. You can fuel up somewhere in the middle of the desert, the rest is totally deserted, making this trip a once in lifetime experience!
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The Thar desert is arid region in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent. It covers much of Rajasthan, extending from here into the southern Haryana and Punjab states and into northern Gujarat state. Apart from India, it also covers the astern Sindh province and southeastern Punjab province in Pakistan. The Sutlej and Indus Rivers and Aravalli Range and Rann of Kutch form its natural boundaries. It is a hilly desert, with large areas of sand dunes, athough the central part is more of a plain with no dunes at all. Unlike much of India, it hasn't got a monsoon season as wet as other parts of the country, although also here the wetter months are from July to October. It's also a good region to see lots of animals typical for this part of India and there are some interesting cities within its boundaries as well, including Jodhpur and the 'capital' of the desert Jaisalmer, where camel rides into the desert are one of the more popular trips.
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The Tabernas desert is probably the best example of a rea desert in Europe. It is located in the southeast of Spain, in the province of Almeria, in Andalusia. The Tabernas Desert is situated between the Sierra de los Filabres to the north and the Sierra de Alhamilla to the south and southeast. It is a protected wilderness area with fantastic desert landscapes and as a desert is receives just less of the maximum of 250 mm a year in an area known as Levante. It is isolated from the humid winds of the Mediterranean Sea. On top of that, evaporation is much higher than that, especially during the long and hot summers when months pass without a single drop of rain and 12 hours of sunshine a day occur. This is when temperatures can exceed 40 °C in the shade (if you can find any!). Because of its splended desert wilderness, it was the location of many Spaghetti westerns, Lawrence of Arabia, an Indian Jones movie and many more. Some of the sets are now in use as theme parks, with names as Oasys, Fort Bravo and Western Leone.
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The Arabian desert is the second biggest non-polar desert in the world (after the Sahara). It covers most of the Arabian Peninsula from Jordan to Oman and is a mix of mountains, plains and large sand seas. Only the coastal areas of Oman, Yemen and southeast Saudi Arabia are not part of the Arabian Desert.
Within the Arabian desert is the Rub-al-Khali, one of the largest bodies of sand in the world! It's extremely difficult to travel here as there are no roads and even borders between countries are not exactly clear, nor guarded. Be careful not cross borders accidentally though, as you might be in trouble. Most of this region is not a popular area for travellers anyway. Saudi Arabia generally is not a country where travellers go, as visa regulations are quite strict and apart from foreign workers and people on a tour, no independent travelling is possible. One of the best places to experience the Arabian desert is in Oman or in the United Arab Emirates. In the latter country, you can actually drive quite easily to some spectactular desert in the south near the Liwa Oasis.
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The Iranian Desert actually contains two adjacent deserts, the Dasht-e Kavir and the Dasht-e Lut. The Dash-e Kavir ('Great Salt Desert') is the bigger one, located at the Iranian plateau in the central north of the country. This desert stretches from the Alborz mountain range in the northwest to the Dasht-e Lut desert in the southeast. It covers parts of the the Iranian provinces of Khorasan, Semnan, Tehran, Isfahan and Yazd. It's almost rainless and the area contains of large salty areas and some marshes and lakes. Although it's a cold winter desert, that's mainly because nights can drop well below -10 degrees Celsius. Days are actually not as cold, with still fine weather in January.
The somewhat smaller Dasht-e Lut ('Emptiness Desert') is located in the central southeastern parts of the country and is a large salt desert. In fact it's a big basin and one of the hottest and driest places of Iran, where surface temperatures of more than 70 degrees Celsius have been measured, the highest anywhere in the world. Still, also here nights in winter can drop way below zero though days are still pretty warm. Surprisingly, the southeastern portion of the Dasht-e Lut has large sand seas with dunes up to 300 metres high, competing with the ones in the Namib desert.
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The Syrian Desert actually is not located in Syria only. Northern Jordan and northern Iraq have pieces as well. The southern border is actually formed by the Arabian desert, although sometimes they tend to cover some of the same landmass, depending on which source you read. The western border is the Orontes Valley while the eastern border is formed by the Euphrates River. In the north it slowly integrates with the somewhat more fertile areas of northern Syria, where agriculture is more common. It's a combination of steppe and real desert and there are some excellent parts which can be visited quite easily. The major attraction in the Syrian desert is Palmyra, ancient ruines in the heart of Syria. The oasis of Deir-ez-Zor and the ruins of Doura Europos along the Euphrates River south of the city are known to a much lesser extent, but certainly worth a visit as you cross endless gravel plains of desert, only to be suprised by the fertile Euphrates River and it's beautiful setting with ancient ruins.
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The Chihuahuan Desert is located in the central south of the United States and central north of Mexico. In the US it occupies the valleys and basins of central and southern New Mexico, Texas west of the Pecos River and the southeastern part of Arizona. In Mexico, it covers the northern half of the state of Chihuahua, large parts of Coahuila, the northeast of Durango and a small northern area of Zacatecas and small western portions of Nuevo Leon. After the Great Basin desert, it's the biggest in North America. The area mainly covers basins intersected by mountain ranges including the Sierra Madre, the Sierra del Carmen, the Sacramento Mountains, the Sandia-Manzano Mountains, the Magdalena-San Mateo Mountains, the Chisos, the Guadalupe Mountains and the Davis Mountains. The result is that although some areas are dry, others have micro-climates with more rain and even forests. Due to the fact that most of the desert is between 500 an 1500 metres, temperatures are somewhat lower compared to for example the Sonoran desert, resulting even in relatively cold winters (but still mild, it is not a cold winter desert). Most of the rain falls in the late 'monsoon' summer. It's an easy place to get to and travel around, especially in the US section of the desert, where cities like El Paso and Albuquerque are located. The cities of Ciudad Juarez (across the border from El Paso) and Chihuahua are the main urban areas in Mexico.
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The Colorado Plateau is a cold winter desert in the central west of the United States. It is a plateau in between several mountains ranges and is bounded by the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and by the Uinta Mountains and Wasatch Mountains branches of the Rockies in northern and central Utah. It is also bounded by the Rio Grande Rift, Mogollon Rim and the Basin and Range. It covers the west of Colorado, the north of Arizona, west and south of Utah and northwest of New Mexico.
About 90% of the area is drained by the Colorado River. The area is one of the most popular to go on a typical American roadtrip and visit dozens of fantastic places with many national parks and monuments to choose from. It has the greatest concentration of national parks in the United States, including Grand Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, and Petrified Forest National Park. Among the national monuments are Dinosaur NM, Hovenweep NM, Wapatki NM, Grand Staircase-Escalante NM, and Colorado NM.
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The Great Basin desert is a large arid region in the western states of the US. The Great Basin itself is actually a little bigger and the Great Basin desert proper is defined by the extent of characteristic plant species. It is roughly located roughly between the Wasatch Mountains and the Sierra Nevada mountains and covers the extreme east and northeastern border areas of California, a southern portion of Oregon, a very small part in Idaho, the western half of Utah and most of the state of Nevada. The Great Basin itself follows approximately the same borders, but extents onto the border with Wyoming and mainly covers a larger area to the south, including parts of the Mojave desert.
It basically forms a high plateau in between the above mentioned mountains ranges and and covers a significant amount of watersheds, bounded by larger ones at all sides. Some of these have become dry as a bone, leaving behind places like the Bonneville Salt Flats (where world landspeed records are broken over and over again, it's totally flat!) and the Black Rock Desert. Main urban areas within the Great Basin Desert are Salt Lake City in Utah and both Reno and Carson City in Nevada. The scenery is fantastic and it's a good area to travel along some of the most amazing roads anywhere in the US, including Route 50, the Loneliest Road in America, which runs across of Nevada on its way between the west and eastcoast of the country. Several railroads, including the California Zephyr, run across the area as well, one of the most scenic Amtrak routes in the USA.
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Named after the Mohave tribe of Native Americans, the Mojave desert stretches across four states in the western part of the United States. The majority is located on Californian grounds, while the remainder can be find just across the borders with Utah, Arizona and Nevada. A typical characteristic feature in the Mojave desert are the Joshua trees and the appearance of these remarkable trees actually forms the official boundaries of the desert. The Tehachapi, San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges are other indicators within which the Mojave desert lies and they are outlined by the two largest faults in California: the San Andreas and the Garlock. To the south is the Sonoran desert (low desert as opposed to the high desert that Mojave is called). The Mojave desert does see occassional rain and thunder storms, but it's drier than its southern counterpart. Death Valley is located within the Mojave as well, being the lowest and hottest place anywhere in North America. Officially, the highest recorded temperature ever is its honour, being 56,7 °C (the record in Libya is doubted!). The desert is easily accessible by good tarmac roads that cross California and into the other three states and is one of the most popular and most beautiful areas anywhere in the country.
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The Sonoran desert is one of the largest and hottest deserts in the Americas and it covers the southeast of California and the southwest of Arizona in the US, and the northhwest Mexican states of Sonora, Baja California, and Baja California Sur. To the north of this 'low desert' is the 'high desert' Mojave. In eastern direction it borders the coniferous Arizona Mountains forests and Sierra Madre Occidental forests which are at higher elevations and not part of the desert anymore. One of the main features of the Sonoran desert is the famous Saguaro cactus, one of the biggest in the world. The biggest cities within the Sonoran desert are Phoenix and Tucson in the US and Mexicali and Hermosillo in Mexico. The Baja California peninsula is a popular getaway for people searching for beaches, blue waters and great diving and snorkelling. As a result, it's fairly easy to travel to and around the Sonoran desert, with generally good roads, certainly in the US and Baja California.
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The Gibson Desert is located in the central eastern part of Western Australia, south of the Great Sandy desert, east of the Little Sandy desert and north of the Great Victoria desert and is large still pristine area. Lying between Lake Disappointment and Lake Macdonald along the Tropic of Capricorn, it consists of huge areas with sand plains and dunefields and low rocky and gravely ridges. It is very thinly populated, only several groups of Aborigines live here and the climate is harsh with low rainfall, high evaporation and temperatures well over 40 degrees Celsius during the summer months (November to March). Travelling here requires a 4wd vehicle and all the necessary things you need like fuel, food and water. It's a rewarding trip to if you cross the desert along one of the tracks, like the Gunbarrel Highway.
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The Great Sandy Desert is located in the northwest of Australia, entirely in Western Australia in between the Pilbara and Kimberley rock formations. It's a rather flat area, bounded by the Little Sandy desert to the south and the Gibson desert to the southwest. To the east is the Tanami desert. There are several seasonal salt lakes like Lake Dora and a great park, Rudall River National Park. It's sparsely populated with scattered Aborigines people living in separate groups. As the term suggest, there are large areas of sandseas (ergs) in some parts. Although it might receive much rain for a desert (usually over the limit over 250 mm), the evaporation is extreme and much higher compared to precipitation. Temperatures are warm to extremely hot yearround and only in the south bordering the Gibson Desert the occasional frost might be possible one a day or so a year, usually in June or July.
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The Great Victoria desert is a large arid area in the southern part of Australia and the largest desert in the country. It covers part of the west of South Australia and some eastern parts of Western Australia. It mainly consists of many small sandhills, grasslands and salt lakes. It is bounded by lots of other subregions including deserts like the Tirari and Sturt's Stony to the west, and the Little Sandy and Gibson to the northwest and north. The famous Nullarbor Plain is to the south, forming a transition zone to the ocean. It is just sparsely populated but there are several Aborigines (native Australians) living in different groups. The Mamungari Conservation Park form part of the South Australian Great Victoria desert as well and is a world biosphere reserve.
It's possible to travel across parts of the Great Victoria desert, including the Great Central Road which basically connects Western Australia with Uluru and further on to Alice Springs. There are even plans to make this road suitable for all vehicles and during all weather circumstances. Even now, it is possible to cross it in a regular car, but it's preferred to take a high clearance vehicle like a 4wd. It is advised to be full selfsufficient and bring food, water, fuel and spare parts, and travelling with at least 2 vehicles is recommended but not strictly necessary. Also arrange the permits you will need to cross Aborigines land. For more information check the Great Victoria Desert website.
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The Simpson Desert is a huge desert in the central east of Australia, and covers parts of Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales. Its boundaries are the Finke River and Mabel Range to the west, the Adam Range to the north ,the Georgina and Diamantina Rivers to the east and Lake Eyre to the south. The Simpson Desert is an erg which contains the world's longest parallel sand dunes, reaching in hight between 3 and 40 metres. Although there no maintained roads across the deserts, several rough tracks can be navigated by well equipped 4wd vehicles, but it is advised to carry extra supplies and recommended to travel with 2 vehicles. Access points to the desert include Oodnadatta in South Australia and Birdsville in Queensland.
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The Atacama desert is an area of mainly salt basins, sand and lava flows in South America. It stretches Peru and Chile and the part in the latter country is well known to travellers who visit places like San Pedro de Atacama. The Chilean part is also the driest and on the whole the Atacama is the driest desert in the world (some places never receive rainfall and some have been known to be completely dry for 400 years!) and together with the Namib desert the only cool coastal deserts. Still, due to the warm tropical air that cools off above the cold water of the Humoldt Current, fog (locally know as Camanchaca) penetrates inland up until 50 kilometres, sometimes more. It might not rain, but the coastal area is still suitable for agriculture. This doesn't apply to places more inland, where it is just too dry for agriculture and almost no rain falls as well.
The Atacama desert is not a very hot place, both because of the influence of the ocean as well as the fact that much of it is located at higher elevations (San Pedro for example at more than 2,000 metres). It is still warm, and sometimes even quite hot though, but nights, especially inland can drop well below zero, especially during the cooler months of May to September. The clear skies are perfect for watching stars though during these nights. La Sila and Paranal Observatories are the best ones.
It is easy to travel to and across the Atacama, with good tarmac roads and lots of places to spend the night, go sightseeing and enjoy the fantastic lunar landscape. San Pedro is a good base for daytrips or as a start for a longer trip up the Altiplano.
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The Patagonian desert might not be as well known as many other mentioned above, it is the largest desert in the America's and covers a huge area between the Andes Mountains in the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. It mainly covers a good part of Southern Argentina and some areas in Chile as well. The Andes Mountains and the cold Falkland current are the main reason that Patagonia is so dry, preventing most of the rain that falls on the other side of the mountains, to fall down here. There is also not much snow, even during the colder winter months. Temperatures are cold during winter and even during the cool summer frost at night is still common. Temperatures can exceed 30 degrees Celsius during hot summer days though when the wind blows directly from the north or northeast but these days are not common. Some areas are easily accessible with good roads and connections by buses between major towns and cities. Although the landscape is impressive, it is not where most travellers visiting the south of Chile and Argentina go though.
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