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The Atacama Desert: Another kind of life

The Atacama Desert stretches across Chile in a staggering diversity of discrete landscapes — the fabled craggy contours of the Andes; simmering volcanoes; vast salt flats; and verdant oases. While it can be a challenging place to call home, it is a playground of adventure for intrepid visitors

The Atacama Desert: Another kind of life

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Crunch. Crackle. Crack. There’s a final creak as centuries of petrified rock and the Earth’s calcified crust crumble beneath my boots. The exposed layers are startling in their crude condition. Everything is on show here: bare and boisterous. This is the Atacama Desert and its geological history juts out, yearning for examination and admiration. It’s not long before I’m pointing out the difference between the shining salt and glittering gypsum in the rock; it’s the gypsum that forms the skeleton of this valley. I’m told these crystallised white lines that traverse the clay prevent the erosion of the mountains. I repeat and remember. The Atacama has the ability to rouse the most reluctant of geologists.

I feel miniscule in the middle of the desert’s Moon Valley, surrounded by 360-degrees of wind-sculpted waves of vermilion rock, dusted with twinkling emerging minerals. Known as Las Salinas by the miners who arrived in the 1950s due to its high salt content, it wasn’t populated for long — the miners left when the salt ran out. What brings people back here today is the topography. I’m standing before the coffee ice cream-coloured dune that piled up here 200 million years ago. Made up of volcanic ash from the erosion of the Cordillera Domeyko (a stretch of the Andes marking the eastern border of the Atacama), this is one of the only places in the desert that actually has sand. It’s certainly beautiful, but it turns out this is a relatively novel way of looking at the Atacama.

“At first, no one came here for the beauty of the place, you know. The people living here are really strong people. They just live to survive, so they really don’t care about whether it’s beautiful or not,” Mary, my guide, tells me. It’s another kind of life.

I try to seek out some shade, but pockets of it are few and far between. The sun is unwavering. It has nothing  standing in its way. No hint of cloud blocks its path; they get caught up at the coastal mountain range and don’t make it this far inland. And so, the sun beats down, cracking ground and parching landscapes until it reaches San Pedro de Atacama. Here it collides with an underground water source and creates a veritable desert oasis and the town that Mary calls home.

“Hardly anybody lived here before. We were a village of maybe 200 people with no electricity, no water. I remember the first person to get a fridge. I remember the first TV,” Mary tells me.

Now, pockets of the Atacama teem with life. There’s tourism, the copper and lithium mines, the telescopes, the connectivity — and it takes less than four hours to get here from Santiago. The adobe streets of San Pedro de Atacama that once provided shelter to llama herders on their way to the coast now host gaggles of travellers and contrast with Mary’s tales of childhood. Everyone in this frontier-esque town is in search of adventure.

Atacama Desert - flamingo on the salt lagoon

Anything but flat

“The Atacama isn’t the cliché of the desert. It’s not just sand and rocks,” Marcela Diaz Arce tells me as we approach the salt flats. She’s from Santiago, but is here like me for the adventures — except she’s guiding and I’m following.

We take the Ruta del Desierto. Every part of the van shakes as we bounce along the road. “Our salt flat is anything but flat,” she continues, as the Andes soar on one side and the rugged salt crust unfurls on the other. Stretching out nearly 2,000sq miles, the flats are the second largest in the world. Here, the salt crust descends over a 1,000 metres: some four million years ago, this was a lake. A scant layer of water sits atop the salts creating the Chaxa Lagoon where flashes of stark pink, reflected from the sky, shimmer in the water.

This is flamingo territory, and where you can find: the Andean, the Chilean and the James’s flamingo, also known as the puna flamingo. When they take flight, I marvel at their mighty wingspan. Beyond the flamingos, however, I notice the lagoon is peppered with birdlife. Most species sport a protruding pointed beak; perfect for searching out food in these sodium-rich waters that reflect the peaks of the Chilean stretch of the Andes.

This skyline is anything but ordinary, yet the ingredients are simple: rocks and sand, plus the odd guanaco — one of the four types of llama that call this arid land home. From time to time, one wanders across the horizon, picking out a path between the rocks and the solitary sprouts of vegetation.

“This is the pharmacy, the natural pharmacy,” says Marcela, as she gestures to the hedgehog-like tufts of green dotted around the barren landscape. “In town there are still people who treat themselves using plants”. The rica rica plant is still used for digestion or to ease stomach ache and pingo-pingo tea helps colds or anything kidney-related. The land belongs to the indigenous Atacamanians and they maintain a strong relationship with it.

They’re strict landlords, renting out swathes for tourism and charging entrance fees to everyone who isn’t indigenous — non-indigenous Chileans included. It’s controversial but keeps overtourism and development at bay.

Hints of life

Our van bounces past the hamlet of Guatin, a tiny settlement where only 20 people remain — many hamlets and small towns are slowly dying as the younger generation relocates to cities in search of jobs and an easier life. Life here is tough. Known as the driest desert in the world, it’s still rumoured that some parts of the Atacama have never seen rainfall. Ancient riverbeds gasp and crack. The air is dry.

Yet, I’m confronted by stark contrasts. I’m marching through a sunken riverbed looking for Puritama Hot Springs. The sides of the gorge soar either side of me. Up there’s a barren rocky land with spindly sporadic cacti providing the only hint of life, but down here I’m dodging massive dragonflies, slipping on algae-covered rocks and dipping my hands into the gushing water as it charges through this verdant riverbed. Birds dart, lizards laze and fluffy pampas grasses flounce in the wind. I tiptoe around little clumps of flowers — delicate droplets of colour that only arrive after the rare rains. They’re tiny, unlike most things here, and their passion fruit scent is pungent yet pretty.

We’re following the passage once used by desert-crossing shepherds en route to the sea from the Andes. The corrals for the animals, which were constructed with volcanic rock, and smallholdings remain. I lay my hand on it and feel the emanating heat of the insulating and energy-efficient materials. The desert may seem barren in parts, but energy pulses through it everywhere. Marcela hands me a small bunch of coca leaves to chew — a pick-me-up. I get it all wrong, over chewing so that they break up and scatter across my teeth, emitting a bitter green tea taste, but the effect is the same. The hit of energy at altitude is very welcome as I sink into the steaming hot springs.

No rest for the intrepid

Sunsets and sunrises are celebrated at different locations, but what comes between — the night sky — can scintillate even the weariest and most jaded traveller. For the intrepid, this is a 24-hour destination.

The Atacama Desert is able to make the vast distance between the Earth and space seem that little bit smaller. This is where celestial meets terrestrial and a cosmic energy has pervaded communities for millennia. The indigenous Atacamians and Andeans would use the constellations to orient themselves through the year. The relationship here between Pachamama (Mother Earth), Inti (the sun) and the rest of the Interstellar Neighbourhood was pivotal to them, and today it’s led one group of Atacamian descendents to pursue further knowledge and share their findings. I’m at the Ahlarkapin Observatory just outside San Pedro de Atacama. This humble setup is one group’s homage to the skies.

We wait as an inky black transforms the canvas above and the first star appears, Alpha Centauri. A smattering of sparkles follows and then the incandescent outline of the Milky Way.

“I’ve never seen the sky as it is here,” Vicente, the resident guide, tells me. What you can see with the naked eye rivals many dark sky destinations around the world. But it’s when you get behind a telescope that the shimmering nebulae really come to life. I squint at the Southern Cross and try to get my head around this half of the sky — the half I’ve never seen before. I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere for my whole life, so the night sky here’s completely different.

Vicente was drawn to the Atacama by the stars. He guides us around the observatory with the air of someone who’s been here for decades, but he’s been here for just a month. He talks us through the solar system’s plans — what will be here in a few years and what’s already been extinguished. Then, he moves on to his own plans.

He’s working to open a farm producing the superfood spirulina. It’s not the most obvious place to fulfil agricultural yearnings, but there’s an end goal in sight. Vicente wants to prove his worth as a farmer here so he can pitch himself as the first farmer on another planet. There have also been rumours that Elon Musk is scoping out deserts — and more specifically the Atacama — for its Mars-like conditions. Vicente’s extraterrestrial ambition is what the Atacama is all about. Stretching to the very outskirts of possibility. Another kind of life.

Essentials

Black Tomato can arrange a tailor-made luxury, culinary and adventure holiday to Chile from £7,000 per person. The package includes accommodation at the Singular Santiago, Casa Higueras, Tierra Atacama and Vina Vik, plus private transfers, experiences and international flights with British Airways. blacktomato.com

Published in the South America guide, distributed with the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)