The high life
Chile’s stunningly beautiful but harsh Atacama desert, the driest place on earth, is a place of intriguing contrasts
The Vally of the Moon in the Atacama desert, Chile
El Tatio geysers in Chile
The Explora Hotel in the Atacama desert
‘Do you have a coat? He says it’s minus 12 up there.” The voice is a tad nervous and its owner scurries off hurriedly to see if he can find something warmer to don at 6am before we set off. I’m not bothered; I prefer the cold and stick with my T-shirt and fleece. The “up there” to which the anxious voice refers is Tatio, an area of geysers some 4,300 metres above sea level in the heart of the Atacama desert of northern Chile, nudging the border with Bolivia. The Andes separate the two countries.
Just then, our guide Lius emerges into the pre-dawn half light. “Peter,” he exclaims with a smile, “are you ready? Did you bring your swimming gear?”
I am in the driest place on the face of the earth for the second day of my stay at the Explora Hotel in San Pedro de Atacama but it’s already clear that the desert is a place of intriguing contrasts.
A few minutes after 6am and we’re off – Lius and me and a film crew of English lads – two Gregs, Goodall and Charters, Matt Brocklehurst and Cain Scrimgeour, all of Adventures Without Limit, or AWOL. They are making an online ad for American Express in which the main character is an old fashioned suitcase, whose stickers from places visited bespeak a life of adventure.
The road out of San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis town of some 5,000 people, is unpaved but smooth. It’s made of salt, says Luis, salt mixed with mud and sand and compacted through use. It rains here but once a year, usually in February, briefly but intensely, often resulting in destructive flash floods. But today, in late October, the threshold of the Chilean summer, the place is as dry as a bone.
San Pedro is at the northern tip of a 3,000sq km salt lake (largely dry) named the Salar de Atacama. To the west across arid desert is the small city of Calama whose population of 140,000 is almost wholly dependent, either directly or indirectly, on the vast Chuquicamata open cast copper mine just outside town, producer of much of Chile’s wealth.
To the east of San Pedro a chain of volcanoes form a backdrop to the little town. Ten to 20 million years ago they spewed billions of tons of lava, ash and dust, carpeting the region and turning it largely barren, the Earth’s angry response to great movements deep beneath its surface.
Once we move away from any greenery of the oasis, the landscape appears more and more lunar and sometimes Martian.
Our road heads north towards Tatio, a name meaning “the grandfather who cries”. We climb steadily through a valley, skirting the shoulders of the volcanoes.
As the sun breaks the tops of the cone-shaped mountains, extinguishing Jupiter, Orion, Sirius and the rest of the majesty of the crystal clear desert night sky, the landscape reveals itself in sharp outline.
The volcanoes stand tall against the blue morning. The land below them is at times a vast expanse of gritty cinder ash, at other times an expanse, mile upon mile, of sand or rocks the size of tennis balls. Sometimes the road plunges into a deep ravine, the way lined with huge volcanic boulders and those tall cacti beloved of cartoonists.
In some places nothing, absolutely nothing, can be seen growing: the landscape is utterly barren. And then there will appear a large area dotted with yellow-coloured scrub, a dense knot of stiff grass that grows no more than about 12 inches tall.
Up, up ever higher we rise to the Altiplano, the area of the geysers but also (astonishingly) of lakes and streams and wetlands teeming with life. The air at 4,300 metres is thin; exertion leads quickly to exhaustion; blood vessels rupture inside one’s nostrils and they begin to feel like sandpaper and itch. But the exhilaration felt at being in such a place overcomes such minor discomfort.
Up here it is, truly, like being on another planet. It looks and feels extremely hostile: this is not a place to be on one’s own, or without a vehicle. It is not, most definitely, a place in which to get lost. Without water, without protection of some sort, a person here is at the mercy of extreme elements, and nature doesn’t do mercy.
But despite the hostility of the environment to humans, life is all about us. Among the shrubs stroll families of vicuña, an antelope-sized creature that looks like the result of an encounter between a deer and a llama. It can extract nourishment from the yellow ground shrubs that feel to human touch like a porcupine coat (and look about as appetising). Viscacha, rabbit-sized rodents, also live here, as do foxes, one of which sat nonchalantly and looked at us when our minibus stopped beside him. Occasionally, birds of prey hover overhead, waiting to swoop.