Hello Atacama, the driest desert in the world and one of the most fascinating places in the Americas. Its surreal salt flats, spectacular gorges, immense turquoise lagoons, geysers and mountain peaks form a landscape of unearthly beauty, lit by the best sky in the world for astronomers.
Above the rooftops of San Pedro de Atacama, my base in the heart of the Atacama Desert, I can see the cones of Licancabur and Juriques. A cloud tinged pink by the dawning of the new day crowns both volcanoes. The heat of the coming day is already chasing away the chill of a starlit night.
I am on my way to the Valley of the Moon with Nicole, a local mountain guide originally from Switzerland. The landscape that unfolds before me as we drive is overwhelmingly beautiful, with the road running between mountains drawn in mysterious shapes across a plain covered in salt. “This valley is part of the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountains), the floor of what was a lake about 20 million years ago,” says Nicole. “The layers of sediment were pushed to the surface by the same movements of the Earth’s crust which created the Andes.”
We get out of the car and climb to the top of the Great Dune, which offers one of the best views of the valley. The geomorphology is awesome, creating an arid and enigmatic landscape that takes its name from its resemblance to the surface of the moon. My imagination soars even higher before Nicole brings me back down to earth. “These fascinating shapes are the result of erosion caused by wind and extreme temperatures,” she says. “Nature has shaped the place at will.”
From here, the snow-dusted Andes serve as a majestic backdrop. Besides the peaks of Licancabur and Juriques, I can see the volcanic cones of Sairecabur and Putana – all around the 6,000 meter mark. Legend has it that the Putana is named after a woman who offered sexual services to workers in the nearby mines of old.
These high mountains act as a barrier against rain clouds from the east and an invisible mountain of cold air from Antarctic currents acts as a similar barrier along the coast. “Atacama is famous for being the driest desert in the world,” says Nicole. “There are even areas where it has never rained since rainfall data has been collected.” There is no life here, with few native animals or plants and parts too dry even for insect life, making it one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.
We move on to Piedra del Coyote, another breathtaking viewpoint overlooking the valley. It is popular as a place to take photos of the Great Dune with the Cordillera behind, especially at sunset. Looking at this monumental landscape against a high, cobalt-blue sky, it is easy to understand why many producers choose Atacama for filming. It is particularly popular for high-end car ads.
The Atacama Desert has historically been populated by the Atacamenian, or so-called Lickan Antay, who have almost disappeared under the influx of outsiders here to exploit the mining and tourism potential of Atacama. The lifestyle of the new arrivals is alien to the balance between man and the desert that the Lickan Antay had developed over 100,000 years.
Everything revolves around the Atacama Desert
It is almost impossible to find families still living in the old way and Kunza, the native language, has also disappeared. Traces only remain in place names such as Puri Tama (Aguas Calientes) or the names of animals and birds such as parina (flamingo). In San Pedro and its surroundings, everything revolves around tourism and the attractions of the Atacama Desert.
To learn more about the origins of the Lickan Antay, I visit the village of Tulor, near San Pedro. University professor Andrés Rivera oversees the archaeological digs, wearing cream-colored trousers and shirt as well as a pith helmet. It is a look that invites you to think of him as a man from another age, an Indiana Jones looking for mysteries hidden in the desert. He invites me on a tour of the site, which was once an oasis by the San Pedro River.
“With the rapid disappearance of the traditional culture of Atacama, which is being erased by modern life, we must act like the foundations to support it,” he says. “In Tulor, we can see the remains of the pre-Hispanic cultures that first settled on this land. The authorities, aware of the importance of the past, have put a great effort into research in order to rescue a valuable historical legacy. The villa here is more than 3,000 years old. This is where the first settled communities in the area lived, in groups of about 200 people, engaged in weaving, agriculture and pottery.”
Desert sand softens the remains of the village houses, built in adobe with circular floors and conical roofs, and interconnected to each other by walkways and patios. Next to the ruins there are two replicas that show exactly how these homes might have looked. To continue the history lesson, Andrés leads me to Pucara of Quitor, next to Valley Catarpe. Gigantic ruins clearly show the grandeur of the place that once was. “This is perhaps the most valuable monument of all those in San Pedro, in terms of offering some knowledge of the history of the area,” he says.
They beheaded all the leaders of the area
“The Pucara is a fortification built in the 12th century on terraces of rocks held together by mortar. The building was used to store food and shelter from external threats. It was taken by the Incas and then later by the Spanish in 1540. The Spaniards had far superior military technology – the natives had never seen horses or firearms – and they beheaded all the leaders of the area.”
The rarefied air here at altitude makes acclimatizing difficult – even San Pedro sits at 2,407 meters – but Nicole promises a trek to Guatin Canyon will help. The altitude can even generate altitude sickness, here called “Soroche” or “Apunamiento”. Dizziness, headache, vomiting and even difficulty breathing are not uncommon. Taking time to acclimatize properly is wise.
After climbing up the road north from San Pedro to 2,800 meters, we abandon the car and hike into the gorge. My first surprise is to find we are following a river. “Atacama may be the driest place in the world, but that does not make it a place where there is no water,” says Nicole. “We are at the foot of the Andes where there are eternal snows. The snowmelt filters underground and then emerges in the desert through breaks like this that are full of life.”
The climb proves more difficult than Nicole had promised and I find myself clambering past large waterfalls and even climbing the rock walls that make up the channel. It is amazing to be in the desert but I am enjoying the pleasant sound generated by the presence of so much water.
The hills around are dotted with huge cacti – Echinopsis atacamensis – whose large spines look very threatening. “They are endemic to the high Andes of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina,” says Nicole. “The thorns were used by women as knitting needles and its wood is even used for building houses. It is the only plant in this wilderness that can provide beams, although it is a laborious process to press and dry them.”
Their use dates to the time of the Incas
Our walk ends in another surprise: Puritama Hot Springs. Several natural pools, surrounded by greenery, have been turned into a bathing area with a few simple changing huts. The thermal waters are around 33C and are said to have therapeutic properties, especially against rheumatism. Their use dates to the time of the Incas.
Isabel Rodriguez, a 70-year-old from Santiago, tells me she comes every two months, despite the long journey. “Since I first came here, my rheumatic pains have become virtually non- existent,” she says. “These waters are miraculous. Try it – you’ll see!” Although I can’t certify their powers with regard to rheumatism, I do find the warm waters very relaxing. The silence of the desert, broken only by the singing of the birds that inhabit this small oasis, descends like a heavy blanket. It is the perfect ending to a day’s hike.
My day, however, is not over. After making a stop in the beautiful village of Toconao to buy some food and visit the church, where the ceiling is made of cactus-wood, we follow the lonely road to the huge Salar de Atacama.
The world’s third-largest salt flat is not the blinding white you might expect, but grey and broken with lumps of salt. Its highlight is the Laguna Chaxa, where crowds of bright pink Andean and Chilean flamingos pick their way through the shallow water. At sunset, it becomes a mirror, throwing back the amber rays of the fading day.
This glorious day is still far from over. As the stars come out in all their glory, we are joined by André, a French astronomer who has worked here for six years. “This is one of the best skies in the world for stargazing because of the low light pollution, high altitude, low cloud cover and the low humidity,” he says. “The extraordinarily clear atmosphere is why ALMA was built here, our most ambitious project to observe the Universe."
The Inca calendar was based on the stars and planets
ALMA is the Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, a telescope made up of 66 high-precision antennas that stands at 5,000 meters in Atacama. But André’s equipment turns out to be less ambitious. He pulls a laser pen out of his pocket and starts pointing at the planets, stars and constellations above us. They are so bright and clear that the naked eye can distinguish them. Amazing. I had not considered that the stars here are different to those I am used to in the northern hemisphere.
“Don’t look to orientate yourself on Polaris here,” says André. “You won’t find it. Find the Southern Cross, those four stars in the Milky Way.” He goes on to explain the key role that the Milky Way played in the worldview and the cycles of life of the Andean culture. The Incas did not keep written records, but we know their calendar was based on the movements of the stars and planets.
After the late night, a 5am start is a shock. It is still dark and brutally cold when we set off in time to catch the sunrise at El Tatio, a geyser field. “At 4,200 meters, it is the highest geothermal field in the world,” says Juan Bastita, who is driving me in his Toyota jeep. The road is long and the rough dirt surface for most of the later stretch makes catching up on sleep difficult.
When we arrive, still before the dawn, Juan has a few words of caution. “Wrap up, we are at less than 15C,” he says. “Walk slow and take deep breaths. We are above 4,000 meters, so you need to be careful.”
Jets of water that burst out violently
The reason for our early start is not so much to catch the sunrise as to see the geysers at their best before the heat of the day dissipates their plumes of steam. As the first rays of sun appear above the 6,000-meter Andean Cordillera, the show is impressive. Dozens of columns of steam rise as high as ten meters or more, driven by jets of water that burst out violently.
The different colors of the air, water and earth, backlit in orange, create a dramatic picture – one dozens of visitors are striving to capture on cameras and phones. I can feel that this is one of the highlights of their trip, as well as my own.
Juan does this trip regularly, and breaks in quietly with some practical information that does little to dispel the majesty. “The eruptions are the result of underground water hitting a sea of lava, generating the gases and steam that are driven out of fissures in the earth to create the peculiar landscape you can see,” he says. “This is the third-largest geothermal field in the world, with 40 geysers, 60 springs and 70 vents.”
My final excursion in Atacama is to the highland region of Talar, near the border with Argentina. This is another salt flat, also above 4,000 meters. The drive takes several hours and passes through the Puna ecosystem of this Central Andean region that Chile shares with its neighbors, Argentina and Bolivia. I stop several times to take pictures of this beautiful landscape of tussocked grass. I see several grazing vicuñas, a relative of the llama, and then I spot a llama itself when it suddenly darts across the lonely road.
A common ancestor with the domesticated llama
“The Puna is a treeless steppe,” says Juan Bastita. “Sometimes there are not even any shrubs. That makes it easy to see the wildlife, particularly the camelids such as the llama, vicuña and guanaco. But it’s easy to confuse them if you are not familiar with them.” The vicuña and guanaco are wild animals but share a common ancestor with the domesticated llama.
The highlight of Talar is the Salar de Aguas Calientes, whose beauty is such that I almost rub my eyes to make sure I am not in a dream. Although the sun is shining, the height and the wind-chill bring the temperature down to about two degrees below zero, while I struggle to draw breath in the thin air. “It’s the same advice I gave you for the geysers,” says Juan when he sees me wheezing. “Move slowly and really fill your lungs with air.”
Walking down to the Laguna Talar, I come to an area called the Red Rocks. Large, flat red stones of irregular shape cover the ground, fitted perfectly with one another as if a divine hand had paved the ground. Their deep red contrasts with the bright blue sky and turquoise water of the lagoon, an attractive color clash of warm and cold tones that give the place an almost supernatural beauty.
When I return to the jeep, I find that the driver and Juan have prepared a picnic and laid out a bottle of the excellent Chilean Carmenere wine. It is a surprise that I am not expecting, typical of the warmth of Chilean hospitality. “We’ll start with a pisco sour, to whet your appetite,” says Juan. “We had planned to return to San Pedro and look for a restaurant but, since it’s your last meal in Atacama, I thought this might be a better setting.”
As we eat in front of the majestic landscape, I have to agree. Not only is it a better setting than I might find in the humble town of San Pedro, but better than almost anywhere else on Earth.