Atacama Desert | Chile | Once in a lifetime

Cool, understated elegance that belies inner sparkle and sizzle.

The Atacama Desert, in the north of Chile, is one of the world’s must-see landscapes, with its compelling colours, contours, wildlife and culture. Susan Skelly reports on a once-in a-lifetime experience.

Navigating the compacted, deeply rutted sand of northern Chile’s salt flats in a perky red Jeep calls for a special kind of soundtrack. Pierre Cara, the guide, pulls it off: a Radio Gaga cache that includes Argentine rock, a Chilean tribute to jazz drummer Buddy Rich, Portuguese fado, Serbian folk – and Pearl Jam. His mix tape is as defiantly eclectic as the Atacama Desert: all barren and a bad host one minute; flamingos, blue lagoons, geysers and majestic landscapes the next.

And pass the salt, please.


One of the salt lakes in the Atacama Desert – Source: Explora

The 105,000sq km Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth thanks to the mountain ranges that repel incoming wet winds – the Andes to the east, the Domeyko Mountain Range to the west and the Salt Mountain Range buffer in between. Its lack of humidity and signature blue skies have shaped it as the desert of choice for astronomers, geologists and archaeologists.

Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman nails the shock and awe of the place in Desert Memories, his profile of Chile’s chameleon north: “There are long hours where nothing seems to change. But then suddenly there is a cuesta, a series of hills and such a dizzying array of browns and greys and terracottas all the hues that blend into each other and into something approaching whiteness farther on, and then a shining arenal, dunes of almost carrot-like pale red and then another granular slice of distance that wants to be the colour of milk, but can’t quite manage it.”

Cycling, trekking, horseriding and, yes, sandboarding

San Pedro de Atacama, 105km south-east of Calama airport (a one hour and 20 minute flight from Chile’s capital, Santiago), is a hub whose colour palette is adobe mud. Almost. There are blue doors. Says a local: “Most of the houses look the same. Sometimes the only way to tell you are at the right one is by the dog at the front door.” Which is why some wags call it San Perro (dog). The dusty little town of eateries, money changers, tour operators and homes away from homes is a magnet for the curious and courageous, from gap-year backpackers to cashed up baby boomers. It’s a jumping-off point to the region’s many attractions – and pursuits such as cycling, trekking, horseriding, motorbiking and sandboarding.

BB King is leading the excursion to the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), 17km west of San Pedro. But before we get there, just beyond the Dinosaur Valley, and with no fanfare at all, comes an unexpected surprise: Ancient Language, one of the 48 massive stone sculptures that comprise Australian Andrew Rogers’ global Rhythm Of Life series, land sculptures built in more than a dozen countries, from Israel to Iceland, China to Chile. The two-headed creature, constructed in 2004, is 80m long and 2.8m high and is based on a 6000-year-old petroglyph (rock engraving) of a llama found near Chile’s Rio Loa. There are no other sightseers in sight. Cara was using his local knowledge to tread paths less travelled.

Crossing the Salt Mountain Range feels apocalyptic. Valle de la Luna, formed some 22 million years ago, is a geography lesson on sedimentary rocks beset with salt, gypsum, chlorate, borate and clay. Mad Max eat your heart out. A decaying bus is a monument to salt mines closed in the 1950s. Relics of a miner’s camp among salt deposits that feel like overcooked apple crumble one minute, collapsed pavlova the next, include mattress springs, one sad shoe, shredded rubber, fossilised wool. The sunset is spectacular.

Indeed, no place does sunsets quite like Chile. As Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda reflected in his Memoirs: “In the late afternoon, outside my balcony, there unfolded a spectacle I never missed for anything in the world. It was the sunset with its glorious sheaves of colors, scattered arrays of light, enormous orange and scarlet fans.”

The snow on the Andes is the partner in prime.


the multicoloured charisma of the Atacama Desert – source: Explora

Laguna Tebenquiche is Cara’s sunset of choice. The salt flat that is the Salar de Atacama, to the south of San Pedro is, at 300,000ha, the largest salt deposit in Chile. The silence is spellbinding; the snow-capped volcano Licancbur, and its lopped sidekick, Juriques, receive another day’s dying rays in a blaze of glory. For a magical hour, the peaks are mirrored immaculately in the glassy water which, by the time summer comes, will have evaporated completely.

Atacama Accommodation | Hostels to luxury camps

On the way to Tebenquiche, with Ravi Shankar’s sitar working up an Inca wail, is Laguna Cjar – today three lagoons (it rained in February), one full of buoyant tourists who look as if they have missed the turn-off to Brighton. Cara points out four flamingos on a far shore. To the short-sighted, they might as well be rabbits. Further on, sunk deep into the salt flat are two “eyes”, deep lakes of water, coffee-plunger precise.

Radiant Venus guides the way home in the dark with a milky entourage of stars.

Out of San Pedro de Atacama, ancient lives are chronicled in the walls of the 12th-century pucar (fortress ruins) of Quitor, 3km north-east of town, and to the south-west in the 3000-year-old village of Tulor, whose dwellings have been all but buried by sand. There’s a replica of a typical house, and the outlines of rooms can still be seen from a boardwalk above them.

In the centre of dusty San Pedro, a beautiful white colonial church and a compact museum with 380,000 artefacts further evoke Atacaman culture. It is named for the dedicated Belgian Jesuit, Gustavo Le Paige, who arrived in 1955 and over the next 25 years undertook an invaluable study of Andean archaeology.

Accommodation in the 21st century is a little more luxe, ranging from comfortable hostels to five-star establishments such as Awasi, Kunza, Explorer and Alto Atacama. Last November, the six-year-old Awasi became part of the Relais & Chteaux portfolio. Designed by Chilean architect Gonzalo Domnguez, it’s a series of low-lying thatched adobe-rendered cottages – just eight – in what feels like an oasis within an oasis. The alfresco dining and lounging areas are desert chic, with painterly trees, flitting sparrows, metres of plump lounges and cushions. Juan Pablo Mardones’ food is imaginative, intuitive and abundant, as close as you’ll get to fine dining in the desert. At Awasi, everything is included in the rate (rooms from about $US1500 for two nights) – meals, wine, transfers, a bespoke itinerary and a personal guide (Cara is one of them) with 4WD. The rooms are tiled, spacious and come with a private outdoor (extra) shower and sunbed.

Rocks, lakes, wildlife and stars

Time to get high. Heading east towards Argentina and the Jama Pass, our destination is the Altiplano (High Plains) and the vast Salar de Tara. On the way are fields of indigo lupins, a shepherd herding fat woolly llamas, the odd horned coot, snow on the ground.

For a few moments we are running with, not wolves, but a nervous family of native birds with stripey faces called kiula, whose females, Cara declares, are polyandrous. All power to the sisterhood!

The arrival at a vast crater caused by the eruption, about 10 million years ago, of Zapaleri, which straddles the borders of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, brings a welcoming committee of giant natural volcanic ash sculptures. These are the Moais, or Guardians of the Pacana – some standing sentinel like those iconic Rapa Nui figures, some forming mini ranges, others looking like experimental lunar installations or ideas that simply ran out of stone. The soundtrack is political diplomacy: Chile’s rock underground, an Argentine folk-lorist – and Leonard Cohen, who is not, everybody knows, Bolivian.

One of the most impressive formations, probably because it looks like an art work that actually got finished, is The Cathedral – huge weathered stones that resemble a mediaeval castle.

Unusually, there are lakes, mostly frozen, some vivid blue, others tinged with the yellow of sulphur. One that has thawed in the centre has attracted a plump james flamingo, too absorbed with its foraging to recognise a photo opportunity. Thus, 20 photos of a pink rump.

Leaving that lake, high in the Salar de Tara, a flock of lithe wild vicunas hoves into view, heads held high, owning the landscape. At 4900m, we wind down the windows to inhale a shock of icy desert air.


Vicuna on the plain of the Atacama Desert

About 120km south of San Pedro is the abandoned oasis of Tilomonte and the Atacama Adventur-Camp, which is – no surprises here – at its best on sunset. Fourteen large tents, in putty hues, sit ghostly against the Andes backdrop. A fire has been lit and wicker chairs are draped with thick alpaca shawls. Pisco sours are the Atacama aperitif on this Classic Safari Company journey, Norah Jones is the patron saint of mood music and, before you know it, the stars are showing the universe who’s boss.

Juan Pablo Rivas, an amateur astronomer and motorbike tour operator, delivers an enthusiastic lecture on the night sky: training his 40-power telescope at the stars, planets and galaxies, discoursing on the Southern Cross, the Milky Way, Orion, Mars.

The owners of the camp, Augusto Nuez and Rafael Pizarro, were inspired in their venture by the Hungarian desert adventurer Lszl Almsy who, in the 1930s, set out to find the legendary lost oasis of Zerzura, surveying vast swathes of the Sahara along the way.

Nuez, who moved from Spain to Chile six years ago and loves the desert’s “immensity, silence and energy”, has always been fascinated by the way explorers such as Almsy were able to conjure luxury in the desert, and how remote places throw up an element of surprise. The tents are copies of Almsy’s. The duo’s company name, Swimmers in the Desert, refers to Almsy’s Saharan rock art discovery that suggested the desert must have once been more hospitable savannah.

The local community of Peine, on whose land the camp is sited, was consulted and gave it the go-ahead: it provides jobs and revenue.

Ancient archaeological site

A night in desert central is surprisingly snug: there’s a gas heater to warm the “room”, plenty of bedding, an electric blanket if needed, and neat solar torches for witching-hour trips to the amenities (yes, there are bathrooms). Dining is civilised. Almsy would have approved: a well-set table, and respectable, honest offerings such as paella, lamb shanks, and barbecued ribs with good Chilean wines.

There are 14 bouncy kilometres between the camp and the archaeological site of Tulan. A ceremony acknowledging both Mother Earth and Peine ancestors is performed before a careful descent on foot into the Tulan canyon, across a spring that’s bubbling musically underground, and up the other side to rock ledges that bring us face to face with a panel of drawings on a vertical slab of cliff face – life-sized engravings of camelids (llamas, vicunas), pumas and goose-like birds. Archaeologists might be uncertain about exact dates for the work, but the climb from history ends right in the 21st century with Champagne and salmon ceviche.

Peine is a pretty little village of 450 citizens – and 200 extras who are mining the salt flats for lithium and borax. The locals have just completed a lush swimming hole; the sense of both civic pride and getting along with change is palpable.

Local guide Adrian Germishuizen is one of many in the Atacama who came by chance and stayed by choice. For Germishuizen, the appeal of the desert lies in the hidden jewels he continues to unearth. Born in Swaziland, he has lived in San Pedro de Atacama for 13 years. His must-do list for guests includes: the Tatio geysers, the Miscanti and Meiques lagoons, the hot springs of Puritama, the volcanic ash town of Toconao, and Laguna Chaxa for pink flamingos.

“Sometimes you can get so close you can hear the sound they make when they are feeding,” says Germishuizen, whose father used to take him into the woods to hunt for dinosaur fossils and petrified wood. “They have a tongue that sounds like a little pump as they filter their food.”

Later, in the dark heart of night, the wind starts a samba and the ghosts of the Atacama Desert whisper through the Belgian canvas of the tent, finally giving way to the music of silence.
One big, fat silence.
In D major.


Roadway through the salt lake of the Atacama Desert

Source: Qantas The Australian Way September 2012
Images – Peter Eastway for Qantas The Australian Way, Explora, and AdventurCamp


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Copyright © Susan Skelly 2020.