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.
I did not think it would be so beautiful.
How Atacama Desert became part of the itinerary
When I planned my trip to Easter Island, I intended to pair it with Peru. You know, because Macchu Picchu is there. But I soon realised it was not very practical, as I had to fly to Easter Island through Santiago, not Lima.
It was disappointing, for South America is very far, and how could I go all the way around the world and miss Macchi Picchu? At the time, I did not quite realise how large the distances are between these landmarks in South America. I soon did, however, and it made me feel better about not being able to do both places in the same trip.
But what if I simply explored Chile? Chile is much less better known to people who aren’t familiar with South America, compared to Peru. But just because I knew less about it, didn’t mean it had fewer worthy things.
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 was a completely new world
I guess deserts fascinate me, because my own land is so wet, with water held into its very air. But 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.
The stratovolcanoes of Lascar and Licancabur dominate the line of the Andean range, always in the distance. 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 instead.
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.
The minimalist beauty of the altiplanic lagoons
The altiplanic lagoons of 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.
The Atacama valleys are out of this world
The only other thing I recalled about Atacama was from when I was still subscribed to New Scientist magazine. There is a special telescope array somewhere in the Atacama desert – the ALMA. It put me into a bit of a spacefaring mood when I planned my itinerary. It was probably why I ended up doing an Andean full moon ritual (although it doesn’t explain how I managed to time the trip wrong for stargazing, or for visiting the ALMA).
Atacama also has a 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? Add Atacama Desert to your itinerary – but bear in mind its remote location and water scarcity.