The Atacama desert. A line read in a geography book long ago, its claim to textbook status was ‘driest place on Earth’. And it stuck at the back of my mind ever since, long after the need to memorise it for exams passed. The driest place in the whole world.
Then, when I planned my trip to Easter Island, I realised it was not very practical to pair Easter Island with Peru, even though Peru was much more well known to someone who had never gone to South America before. You know, because Macchu Picchu is there.
But I had to fly through Santiago, not Lima. What if I simply explored Chile?
A study of the map brought me to the name: San Pedro de Atacama. Atacama? Is this the same Atacama of the ‘Atacama desert’? The one in my old geography syllabus?
I was going to be so close… I had to see it. Of course, I had to see it.
Atacama Desert: A New World
The Atacama desert was an entirely different landscape from any I had previously experienced. It had width, scale. But it was not ocean. It was a high altitude, but had a flatness that gave drama to the parched desert panorama.
I guess deserts fascinate me, because my own land is so wet, with water held into its very air.
The stratovolcanoes of Lascar and Licancabur dominate the line of the Andean range always to the side. The height of the day was dry and dusty and hot, and the gusts of mountain wind were welcome relief. Yet the night sky breathed out the heat from the air, and the winds were welcome no longer.
It was a desert, but it was not a desert like an Arabian one – not like Sharqiyah in Oman. There were no dunes of sand, but a landscape of rock.
The moon was waxing to fulness, visible even in the daytime, floating over Licancabur in the evenings as if the volcano was blowing a ping pong ball to the sky. And just after the final rays of the day completely sank below sight, it shone bright over dusky sky, which continued to fall in layers of blue. Lascar, standing like a peg to the side. Surreal.
So surreal that I have to break my rule of not repeating content that has been done many times over without adding something new. I cannot begin to write about specific places, specific people and experiences, without first setting the canvas of Atacama.
A salty, rocky Chilean desert
This landscape and biome, its wholeness and wideness. The straightforward wheeling of the moon and stars against the measuring line of the Andes.
Its silence and its redness – the red rocks of Piedras Rojas and red copper from its hills, mountains bathed red by unfiltered red sunsets, red on the feathers of flamingoes on a red shrimp diet.
Its wide, wide salar, flat fields of crystal salt and rock, and its pastel-perfect salt lagoons. It was so strange, yet so direct and comprehensible. Stupefying, and mesmerising.
Atacama lagoons: Minimalist beauty
The Atacama desert turned out to be among the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen – if not the most beautiful. Which is astonishing, considering how little of ‘things’ are in it!
But its geological bones laid bare, with little else to detract from it – there is a minimalism to its beauty, a rawness and honesty to the naked minerals.
The flowers of Atacama desert
Despite having extremely low moisture, somehow life still manages to eke a living. The high plains are interspersed with rough scrubland. There was even an incongruous field of lupins in one spot!
So strange was the sight, that the other tourists believed that it must have been planted on purpose, for there to be so many in one location. But of course, lupins are an Andean plant, and were not planted just for tourists. Seed dispersal tends to favour the formation of these hotspots of blooms without any artificial intervention.
All across the desert, on the dry rocky earth and in the crevices of the valleys, there are flowers if you but look closely enough. Each bloom a defiance, a beautiful, valiant hope.
Atacama valleys: Out of this world
I was in a bit of a spacefaring mood, going into Atacama. The only other thing I recalled about it, from when I was still subscribed to New Scientist magazine, was that a special telescope array was somewhere in the Atacama desert – the ALMA.
The feeling was bolstered by the fields of wind turbines across the desert on the way to San Pedro from Calama.
The Valley of the Moon – such an evocative name, and entirely justifiable. Could you not just imagine hemispheres of moon habitation pods in that field, and rovers crossing the dust?
The earthlings in alien Atacama
Nonetheless, this strange alien land has its denizens. Quite aside from the iconic flamingoes of the high lagoons, cute mini-alpacas called vicuña forage at altitude. Once or twice, an Andean fox strolled past, and we wondered if it could find enough to eat.
Wild donkeys gather in the colourful valleys and wander down the road, stopping by to nose at car windows. A lizard streaks past quick as lightning, zipping from boulder to the shade of a shrub.
The Atacama desert may be barren, but it is alive.
Carbon offset information to Atacama Desert, Chile
I went to Atacama Desert as part of a longer journey around the world. Visiting Atacama Desert specifically, assuming return flights from Kuala Lumpur to Calama via Sydney and Santiago, produces carbon emissions of approximately 15,383 lbs CO2e. It costs about $77 to offset this.
Thinking of travelling to Chile? Consider adding Atacama Desert to the itinerary – but as a responsible traveller, please bear in mind its remote location and water scarcity.