Trekking the Atacama Desert, Chile

When I was in high school, after school I’d watch Lonely Planet (also called Globe Trekker) on the Travel Channel. I loved seeing the hosts (my favourites were Ian and Justine) visit some of the most remote parts of the planet and interact with the distinct local cultures amongst stunning landscapes. This was no Rick Steves’ Europe*: they visited glaciers, isolated villages, took harrowing rides through outback roads…

Tres Marias natural rock formation, Valle de la Luna

All that was missing this past weekend was a camera man and a sound guy, because I experienced my very own episode of Lonely Planet, finding myself (along with my husband and two guests) in the spectacular, isolated, endless Atacama Desert and Andean mountain range.

We left Antofagasta early on Friday morning and drove five hours from the ocean to about 8,000 ft above sea level. We crossed endless stretches of desert and sand dunes and rocky mountains to a (relatively) fertile plain where the ancient Andean people once dwelled. Now the village of San Pedro de Atacama sits in this valley, a town where I was told only got electricity less than 10 years ago. It is currently nurturing a burgeoning tourism industry.

Street in San Pedro de Atacama

The tiny village – population around 2,000 – is filled with souvenir shops, hotels and hostels, restaurants and bars. It does, however, still manage to maintain its rustic feel, with its unpaved roads and sidewalks, adobe huts and thatched roofs and packs of stray dogs that roam the streets. Many of the tourists we saw were the more rugged types: backpacking, motorbiking, and even biking (!) across South America, hikers and mountain climbers and adventurers. Many of the tourists were from Chile or nearby Argentina, or, to my surprise, there were several groups from France, Germany or England as well. Perhaps interest in this isolated town has been piqued in recent years thanks to television programs and guidebooks like Lonely Planet that romanticize such rustic, off-the-beaten-path destinations.

View of the village of San Pedro (the green patch to the left) from the rocky cliffs

We arrived with our driver Eduardo, a Chilean man who is used to taking academics to obscure locales to study things like rock formations and volcanoes. After settling at our hotel in town he drove us out to the spectacular Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon, where we watched the sun set.

View in the Valle de la Luna

It was idyllic to climb the cliffs and enjoy such a spectacular clear sky overhead, but my experience was tempered slightly by the fact that I was feeling the altitude. The Valley was maybe only 9 or 10,000 feet above sea level, but I have never been at altitude and was surprised when my body would not cooperate with the situation. Travellers well into their 60s were breezing past me along the path through sand dunes and cliffs while I was feeling dizzy, short of breath and slightly nauseous. I kept stopping along the way, which at least afforded me the opportunity to take some great pictures. Finally, I reached a cliff where my group left me behind with a few other out-of-breath tourists to keep climbing higher along the narrow, crumbly, steep rock formation, while I sat down and had a wonderful view of the empty alien landscape and bright sky.

Sunset from Valle de la Luna

The next morning, we drove past the salt flats (Salar de Atacama) to the Flamingo National Park. Along our route through the plains, we saw pockets of trees that grow with the assistance of subterranean rivers. Every once in a while we would pass through a village, which always had a natural river and a small waterfall cutting through it. Village life in this part of the world clearly revolves around one thing: the natural availability of fresh water.

Salt Flats in Flamingo National Park

The ethereal salt flats are surrounded as far as the eye can see by mountains and a quite active volcano, Licancabur, which was letting off some steam and further adding to the eerie ambiance. In the foreground, there was nothing but hard salt crystal. The air was heavy in the hot, startlingly bright morning sunlight with the smell of sulphur. Graceful flamingos, most of which were the unique Andean and Chilean flamingoes, were grazing in the water, eating the tiny shrimp-like creatures that live in the harsh environment.

Andean Flamingos

The sulphur, salt and other minerals under the bright blue dome of a sky created a stunning combination of colours in the water. I could have spent the day there with my watercolours, committing the view to paint and paper.

We continued to drive uphill for a little over another hour. We were headed into the mountains. A narrow gravel road led us uphill, along sharp cliffs and hairpin turns. I was shocked to see that huge busses and semi trucks were actually navigating the poorly-kept gravel road where, should your brakes fail, would see you plummeting right off the side of a cliff like an action movie. It turns out that this unforgiving road is a regular route for shipping between Argentina, Paraguay and Chile. I hope the truckers are paid well.

High altitude lagoon with volcano in the background

We ascended to something around 13,000 feet above sea level, leaving trees behind, then eventually the spectacular bright reddish-pink succulent flowers, for nothing but rock and short puffs of yellowish grasses. When we finally reached our destination, a beautiful vista awaited us: three spectacular bright blue lagoons set amongst the mountains. The silent, tranquil waters of the lagoons were surrounded by the purest white gravel I have ever seen, where a large herd of wild llama were enjoying a mid-day frolick. Everything seemed pure and silent.

The desert is littered with stacks of rocks. This was an old Incan tradition: a way of marking a route or a path, and also a way of marking one’s presence in the vast desert.

Unfortunately, my head was not feeling all that relaxed, as I was suffering even worse from the altitude. Dizziness and the feeling of being unable to move prompted me to sit on a large boulder to take in the view while my companions slowly walked up and down the surrounding hills. If you’ve never felt sick from altitude, it sort of feels like all of the life has been sucked out of you and you are trapped under water: dizzy, your head throbbing, ears popping, and your arms and legs feeling heavy and unable to move.

High altitude lagoon

We spent a while at the lagoons, where the sun was hot but the air was cool. A few of the llamas got used to us and came quite close. Small birds and a strange seagull also scoped us out. There are enough tourists that pass by the lagoons for the birds to know that people often equal crumbs.

On our return from the lagoon, we stopped in a small village where he buildings were made of mud bricks and a small, serene church stood in the stark landscape. We saw a nun tending to her garden near the church. It could have been the year 1800.

Church in small desert village

Finally, back in San Pedro, we enjoyed a traditional Chilean meal: grilled meat and potatoes, a soup served in traditional clay bowls, and a refreshing and sweet dessert made with dried peaches soaked in a syrup with barley called mote con huesillo.

Church in San Pedro

The next day, we criss-crossed the desert to get back to Antofagasta. The desert is littered with active mines along with eerie abandoned mining towns. Trains snake through the desert, bringing supplies to and from the mines. Shrines line the highway: the highway, though paved, is a dark and treacherous one at night especially when cars fail during the long journey.

I must admit I was relieved to see the ocean before me when we returned. I missed the green of the palm trees and the bright blue of the lively water.

The Pacific

Here’s where we were:

The green dot indicates where we were in proximity to the rest of the continent

San Pedro de Atacama. The salt flats and mountains and lagoons were to the right of the map, near Bolivia and Argentina

*No offense to Rick Steves’ Europe. I like his show, too!

**Please note that all photos were taken by me, Amanda. Please contact me for more information. The maps are from Google.

Updated 4 Dec. 2011 to add: I’ve received many questions asking about what kind of camera I used to take these photos. Believe it or not, all were taken with my iPhone 4 using the Camera Plus app. Not a single photo in this post was touched up with Camera Plus or other photo editing software.

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