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Atacama, a desert of surprises

by Elizabeth Willoughby

Supposedly the driest desert on our planet, the Atacama presents a world of colour, oases and wildlife that will surprise even the most sceptical traveller.

020 Atacama Desert

The moons of Atacama

Flying from Santiago, Chile to the Atacama Desert in the north, the dry, brown mountains seem endless. Eventually, I spy a trail of dust chasing a truck that is barrelling across the emptiness, and then green seeps into the landscape as the plane approaches Calama, the isolated mining town where we will land.

My destination is San Pedro, a 75-minute drive southeast of the airport. The scenery does not improve en route — stony shades of brown alternate between flat and hilly until I arrive at the "oasis" town. Here there are trees that appear thirstier than I am. One-story homes are boxed in behind cracked and crumbling adobe walls.

070 San Pedro

Passing the main plaza, a livelier scene appears: bicyclers skirt pedestrians, tall, willowy trees shade park benches, and a 16th-century mission church, painted a crisp clean white, dominates the corner. Adjacent to that, narrow streets are crowded with backpackers and more cyclists. They're fronted by restaurants and tourist shops with colourfully painted wooden doors and window shutters that open directly onto the sidewalk. These buildings are in good repair, at least on the outside.

Continuing on, bumpy, gutted dirt roads reappear outside the town centre and my van tilts and lurches on. My hotel turns out to be the real oasis, for which I am grateful as I ponder the wisdom of this trip. So far it seems overly romanticised by poetic travel writers.

After a siesta, my first excursion is to the Valley of the Moon that is said to mimic the Moon's terrain. I wonder what the point of seeing more desolation is; my question is soon answered.

185 Atacama high plateau

The Valley of the Moon's mountains, part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, were forced out of the earth by the shifting of tectonic plates. The salt, clay and gypsum that compose the range create diverse formations and textures. First I'm slide-walking down a hill of brown sand as if I were fast forwarding along a moving sidewalk. Then I'm surrounded by muck that looks like oozing lava frozen in motion. The red clay has a cracked and leathery finish much like the skin of a centenarian sunbather. More hills appear. They're densely forested with crystal-like towers that are coated with mud, and each peak is dusted lightly in white salt. Finally, I walk the valley floor between the mountains. As the sun begins to set, it casts a colourful glow across them – from yellow to orange to red. I feel very small.

Back at the hotel, after dinner, George the astronomer arrives to give me a basic lesson on the universe. It's good to know what the southern hemisphere sky might display before we walk down the dark pathway to the hotel's observatory. George flicks a switch by the door and the domed roof rotates and opens to reveal the twinkling darkness above. Through a Meade LX200R (a big telescope), I study the details of a moon surface much different than what I walked through this afternoon. I've never seen Earth's moon in such detail; it is work to keep up with its trajectory through the view finder. George finds Orion's Belt, then the North Star. Now I feel even smaller.

Tonight I must decide on tomorrow's excursions. The desert has much to see. It has more valleys, such as the Valley of Death and Cactus Valley. It has petroglyphs of llamas, foxes and even jaguars, curious creatures to be depicted in this locale. But my time here will be very short, so I want to see something I've never seen before. I choose a predawn trip to El Tatio, a geothermal field.

200 Atacama geysers

Geysers and salt flats

After a two-hour drive, the first rays of sunlight illuminate a field scattered with bubbling pools of hot water and streams of steam spewing up into the cold air. With subterranean water temperatures reaching up to 86 degrees Celsius, water vapour reveals the fumaroles and long cracks in the earth when heat from below meets the near zero temperatures at the surface. Columns of water, some a few metres high, shoot up from the geysers, the early morning light providing a back light to its clouds of wispy vapour. On the ground around the geysers, patches of orange and yellow grow out of the water's mineral content.

Although one large, steaming cauldron is already filled with eager bathers, my guide suggests a different pool and we head back out into the desert. We pass former president Pinochet's airstrip built to guard the border with Bolivia. We pass ostriches and vicuñas roaming the plains – it looks like they subsist on dirt, but at closer inspection it might be dead grass. We pass a guy in black spandex and reflective safety vest walking his bicycle. We pass a smoking volcano, dusty mining ghost towns nestled in hills that the road winds around, and rust-hued mountains mined for their copper.

225 Atacama hot springs

Then we come upon a small, steep valley, brown except for a dense strip of foxtail grass along the bottom. The grass is fed by the runoff of a graduation of pools set along the rising valley floor. They're filled by a natural hot spring, one pool "waterfalling" gently into the next. The highest pool, surrounded by tall grasses, is reserved for me. A picnic lunch of wine, cheese, salmon and fruit-kabobs is laid out on my private patio's canopied table. While soaking in my secluded natural bath, I reflect again upon the over-romanticised view of this desert by poetic travel writers and decide to cut them some slack.

In the evening, Catherine the sommelier has set up a wine tasting for me. Before I begin the sampling, however, I am faced with tiny bottles of different scents, all of which are common ingredients in wine. I am able to guess the clove, pepper, pineapple and smoke scents. The butter, chocolate and honey completely stump me. Then, with a wall map of Chilean wine regions to reference, we sip into Chilean Sauvignons, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.

For my last day, I choose to visit the salt flats of the Atacama high plateau. The van heads southeast towards Argentina, then turns left towards Bolivia. We drive past green, purple and rusty mountains, strange colours that my guide blames on mineral content, likely copper and magnesium.

165 Atacama high plateau

We stop a couple of hours later in the middle of a flat, gravelly plane where a collection of red stone pillars stand about 20 metres tall. They're what are left of the 40-million-year-old lava rock that still gets sand blasted by 80-kilometre/hour winds. One that stands alone is called the Monk. I'm not sure why, though the shape would better represent a monk than a nun, I guess. We nibble on coco leaves to ease the headaches that can develop at these altitudes of over 4,000 metres. It works.

A few kilometres beyond, past more pebbly flatlands, mounds of stones and jaggedy pillars, is the Salar de Tara salt flat, a medley of life smack in the middle of the dry, crumbly desert. Tara Lake is surrounded by clumps of grass. Some clumps sit like tiny islands; others have grown into each other forming miniature peninsulas. The spongy, lumpy ground gradually gives way to a broken shoreline of crunchy white salt and minerals. They stretch into the blue water like sandbars. The lake supports a great number of ducks and geese and, wading near the far shore, hundreds of pink flamingos. Beyond them, brown flats reach out to red mountains. A llama caravan passes by in front of me, leisurely and in single file, staring at me as much as I stare back. Birds and ducks fly and swim about, unconcerned by my presence.

160 Atacama high plateau

As I enjoy another picnic lunch by the water's edge, the wildlife performance dancing before me, I resist the temptation to wax poetic, although I now understand why some cannot. Atacama's natural beauty and wildlife are bountiful, dazzling, completely surprising and deserving of perhaps a little creative lyricism.

Where to Stay

A great way to visit Atacama's great and varied landscapes and its oases that appear out of nowhere in the middle of nothing is to stay in a top hotel in San Pedro. I recommend Explora's Hotel de Larache, who hosted me during my visit. Highly organised and geared toward comfort, good food and luxurious leisure, Larache's team offers excursions to some places that other organisations cannot. They can even offer the night sky up close. www.explora.com

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2009

This article was published at ©WorldGuide.eu 2010

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