A remote desert oasis of sun-baked adobe, vicuñas, cracked red earth and unexpected lagoons, blue-lips and short breath,forgotten languages, cacti, resourceful toads, pervasive dust, sand, salt, arsenic and life
“In the desert no one remembers your name…”
The small town of San Pedro de Atacama perches at an altitude of 2,400m on the edge of the driest desert in the world. Its streets are a jumble of squat, thatched adobe buildings baking in the sun. Squinting, sweating and clutching a tiny map and the name of a hostel, we pile on our rucksacks and set out from the bus station in search of a temporary home. Immediately, a slight problem arises – the streets have no apparent names and the intense midday sun means that there isn’t a soul to be seen. We wander about making increasingly desperate attempts at interpreting the map – oh Lonely Planet but that’s not where the bus station is! Finally, we spot somebody coming out from under her unhinged front door of corrugated tin. Somehow, she has no notion of the name of the street where she lives – apparently it has no name – but she happily points us in the direction of the town centre. Saved! Past a beautiful white-washed church and a grove of pink peppercorn trees in the town square, we discover our wonderfully Tatooine-esque hostel and start plotting our stay in our first ever desert!
Baked earth in the Atacama desert
A wonder-filled geographical collage
Unfortunately, the only way to truly access the desert plains, volcanoes, geysers, lagoons and salt fields of Atacama is by tour company. Crammed into a bus and herded out, on a rigid schedule, among the wonders is, for me, a sure-fire way of rendering an incredible adventure … beige! Despite my initial inner railing, the otherworldly landscapes of the Atacama leave me breathless.
The Salar de Atacama
We wander through the jagged, cracked surface of the salt flats in the Salar de Atacama. The pungent odour of sulphur hangs heavy in the air. Patches of scrubby vegetation cling tenaciously to life here in the sparce, arcenic-laced soil and yet, it is here, at the edges of the shallow, stagnant pools, that Chilean, Andean and James flamingos have chosen to feed, congregate and mate. Their pinks and blacks are clash vibrantly against the desolate backdrop.
Salar de Atacama
Lagunas Miscanti, Miñiques & Tuyajto
We pile back into our minibus and climb our way up to an altitude of 4,200m. Our lips have taken on a curious blue-ish tinge and our fingertips are tingling – common side-effects of the lower levels of oxygen at this altitude. A strange numbness creeps over my cheek bones and I mentally spin through the symptoms of altitude sickness (a nurse and trainee doctor sharing stories at the dinner table at home seems to equate to a certain degree of osmosis/paranoia/scarring – you know who you are!) but I think we’re still good to go. Diamox is placed on stand-by none-the-less.
Wild, elegant vicuñas – a relation of the llama and guanaco – graze on the salt grass tufts at the edge of the heart-shaped Laguna Miscanti. Intense hunting for their meat and their prized wool decimated the vicuña population and they were declared endangered in 1974. A prohibition on hunting and trade in vicuña wool has enabled the species to begin to re-establish their numbers, growing from a critical 6,000 in the wild to a healthier 125,000 in Chile and Peru. They remain classified as vulnerable.
A vicuña in the wetlands within the Atacama desert
Lakes Miscanti and Miñiques lie side by side in the shadow of the towering Cerro Miscanti and Miñiques volcano. As part of an eco-etno-tourism movement, the indigenous Atacameño community is responsible for the lakes and the related administration. Miscanti means ‘toad’ in Atacameño and refers to a time when the lake was populated by toads. However, in the 1940s and 1950s, rainbow trout were introduced into the lake and wiped out the local toad population. I had no idea trout could do that! It was thought that the name remained only as a remnant of toadier times but, according to our guide, these resourceful creatures have recently been rediscovered, having taken refuge from the invading trout in the area’s underground rivers. Good job, toads! The lakes also provide a habitat for the rare hornet coot which my newly bird-crazy boyfriend (I don’t know how this happened but the anorak is hovering!) sets about stalking. We also manage to spot a culpeo zorro or Andean fox (wolf) skulking in the grasses – happy days!
Again, we’re hustled into the minibus and we continue on to laguna Tuyajto, which really looks like it has been painted in watercolours. It’s hard to believe it’s real and harder to believe that these incredible lakes lie in the Atacama desert – the most arid desert in the world!
Next on the itinerary is a visit to a wonderful pre-Incan church of cactus wood, mud and straw in a village which has somehow managed to thrive high up on the altiplano. Our guide points out the isolated, baked mud huts of the llama shepherdesses, the terraces cut into the steep slopes where quinoa and potatoes are cultivated and recounts how a program for the recovery of the lost local language of Kunsa is being led here. Currently, only shamans (who, in this culture, are women) have gained a mastery of it, having been taught its songs by the wilderness. It’s a tale that definitely catches my imagination!
Meaning “grandfather” or “old man crying” in Quechua, el Tatio is a spectacular geothermal field of bubbling, spitting, spurting and steaming geysers.
A geyser in El Tatio
Interestingly, it also contains the highest natural concentrations of arsenic on Earth- hundreds of times higher than the World Health Organization’s “recommended maximum limit” of ten micrograms/litre – did we know this before hopping delightedly into its hot spring pool? Nope..hohum..
Mmm a long hot soak in some arsenic
Valle de la Muerte & Valle de la Luna
A startlingly inhospitable place where the earth’s crust has buckled and rippled to form incredible rock formations, nothing grows and nothing lives in the Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death). It is at once instinctively intimidating and alluring. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, managing to be both dustily barren and absolutely beautiful. The sun beats down relentlessly as we wander among the twisted, contorted red rock and race down the enormous dunes, I know that this is the desert I have been imagining. Here, and for the first time, it becomes possible to believe that there are places in the Atacama desert that climatologists call “absolute desert”, places where rain has never been recorded.
Valle de la Muerte
We drive on to the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) where fittingly the moon has risen and hangs above the valley’s jagged, salty outcrops. We can hear the salt mountains shift and crack in the heat. The landscape is satisfyingly lunar (they did promise!) and as the sun sets, the valley is lit up with hues of pinks and oranges which deepen to purple and black.
Sunset in Valle de la Luna