It’s there as soon as I emerge from El Loa Airport. A vision so colossal that I find myself taking an unconscious step backwards — as if this will somehow help me to fit the entire thing into my field of vision. Licancabur returns my stare, a peak of such conical perfection that it might almost be the model volcano — an idealised poster image for less symmetrical fire mountains to aspire to. It rears to an astonishing 19,420ft, a geographical god among mortals, the rest of the Atacama Desert praying at its broad feet.
I’m so entranced by its majesty that, for two minutes, that crucial word ‘desert’ loses its meaning. But for a vague rumour of snow around the volcano’s pursed summit mouth, I would swear my position was somewhere stormily tropical — some verdant mid-Pacific island or other such enclave where magma-born krakens typically rise from the ground. And yet, all around me, orange dust is swirling, cloaking my boots, sticking to my face — the first reminder that this is not a place of shirt-soaking humidity or deep jungle foliage. This is a realm of sand and rock, baked by the arrogant forcefulness of an unfettered sun.
The Atacama Desert is a conflicted prospect — unflinchingly flat in parts, yet fringed by the last, westernmost outriders of the Andes; a 49,000sq mile pocket that sits at an elevation of 7,900ft yet manages to be one of the most persistently dry corners of the planet (receiving only 15mm of rainfall a year); an inhospitable context for human life that’s sustained busy settlements for millennia; barren — and yet beautiful.
You could even argue that it’s Chile at its most alluring. True, in a country that supports the grassy expanses of Patagonia and the glaciers and forests of Torres del Paine National Park, that’s quite a statement. Not least because, with a slight redrawing of Latin borders, the Atacama would not be Chilean at all — wedged as it is into a 600-mile strip in the extreme north of the state; its salt plains and boulders pushing firmly against the frontiers with Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. Yet this merely supplies it with a remoteness that adds to its charm. The Atacama Desert is Chile at its most serrated; Chile without a safety net.
Or, at least, that’s the theory. For when I arrive at the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, I could barely feel more comfortable. Tucked into a gulch just outside the local ‘capital’, San Pedro de Atacama, this luxury hideaway might feasibly be missed by the unobservant passer-by; its adobe-walled suites all but camouflaged by the sandstone ridges framing them. Within, there’s a little spa, a gourmet house restaurant, a cluster of swimming pools gasping in the morning heat (maybe as much water as can be seen in any one spot in this arid zone).
Over three days, I use the Alto Atacama as a base for forays into the wilderness — via the hotel’s daily guided tours, which sneak guests out through the piercing rays to sample the starkness of their surroundings in small doses. And it soon becomes obvious that, while at first glance only volcanic titans would seem to be at home here, the Atacama Desert has witnessed the ascent and retreat of a long parade of communities — flinty souls carving out a living amid the unforgiving stones. On a low bluff immediately above the hotel, a tumbledown fortress recalls the Licanantay people who constructed it in the 12th century — and the marauding Incas who took it from them in the 15th. These warriors, too, were swept away, by the Spanish conquistadors who barrelled into the region in the 1540s, changing the language of a continent and leaving a mark that’s still visible in San Pedro de Atacama, where compact plazas and squat whitewashed churches still talk of Madrid.
The tale goes back further, to the dim recesses of the eighth century BC, when the mud-brick village of Tulor (the oldest archaeological site in Chile) stumbled into being under this fierce sky. And to the relatively recent past of AD200, when Calima tribesmen painted their existence onto the clay of a narrow gully; a chorus line of shepherds and sheep, each scratchy line singing through the centuries of stubborn survival in this harsh environment.
It is, though, precisely this harsh environment that speaks most loudly of the Atacama Desert’s magnificence. Another excursion takes me into the Valle del Arcoiris — ‘Rainbow Valley’ revealing its colours in cobalt, gypsum and lamprophyre, illuminating the flanks of a forgotten river course in a blend of green, blue, pink and yellow, as if some geological graffiti artist has been in residence. Valle de la Luna proves aptly named — very much a ‘Moon Valley’ in its extraterrestrial appearance, all cracked earth and unfriendly terrain; pillars of salt torturing the thirsty soil. Valle de la Muerte is also appropriately christened — ‘Death Valley’ issuing a palpable threat to onlookers in its waterless chasms and ravines.
It’s easy, in such a setting, to peer downwards, at the dirt and desolation below your feet. It’s only as the day ends I remember to look up. For all its sharp teeth, the Atacama Desert bathes in a soft glow every evening, revelling in its status as one of the globe’s stargazing hotspots. Everything that makes midday so ferocious — the desiccated air, the lack of cloud cover, the lung-tugging altitude — allies itself to a near-complete absence of light pollution to produce gloriously clear night skies. In fact, so perfect are conditions that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) operates two bases here — La Silla Observatory and Paranal Observatory: windows on worlds beyond worlds.
Astronomical interest isn’t, however, limited to the professionals. The Alto Atacama features its own high-powered telescope, concealed a short walk from the accommodation complex so as to shut out even this meagre possibility of luminous interruption. So it’s that, after dinner, I find myself padding through the dusk to its hidden platform, where six lounge chairs are arranged around the device’s metal torso. I’m not alone — five other guests here, each as eager as me to scan the heavens. Nor do I feel alone when my turn comes — the firmament, through the lens, twitching with dots and dabs of white, incomprehensible in its enormity; the idea that it might be empty improbable. As I crane my neck, I become aware of something on the periphery of my eyeline. There it is again: Licancabur, black against the constellations — a silent guardian of ageless authority.
How to do it
Journey Latin America has a private 15-day ‘Signature Northern Chile and Argentina: Atacama Desert to Iguazu Falls’. From £3,174 per person, excluding flights.
High Lives Travel has a four-day break in the Atacama Desert, from £1,500 per person (minus flights).
Doubles at the Hotel Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, from $600 (£382) a night, full board.
Three Chilean star-gazing spots
The Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory — located near Vicuna, 300 miles north of Santiago — offers free two-hour tours on Saturdays, which must be organised in advance.
A neighbour of Mamalluca, Pangue Observatory runs two-hour tours, from CP21,500 (£21.50). Group hire starts at CP230,000 (£230) for 14 people.
Also near Vicuna, Mamalluca is open for two-hour tours enabling guests to search the skies for glimpses of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. From CP18,000 (£18).
Published in the South America guide, distributed with the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)