CHILE: FROM THE ATACAMA DESERT, SOUTH TO THE END OF THE WORLD
DAY 1: The Atacama
Dense jungle and deserts are my favorite places in the entire world. Enchanted by the jungle I moved to the Mayalands of Mesoamerica where I lived for 3 years. Perched high upon a camel I had lumbered across Morocco’s Sahara, Erg Chebbi, in 2006 and loved it so much I returned again in 2007 and then again in 2010. Jeff understood my connection with the Maya and with the nurturing green jungle canopy but …what fascination did the desert hold for me? Especially the Atacama, famously the driest desert in the world boasting an average of 15 mm (0.6″) of rain per year. I wouldn’t budge: I had no intention of visiting Chile and not going to the Atacama. Wisely – but reluctantly and without enthusiasm – my husband agreed to spend 5 (long) days in northeastern Chile in the Atacama Desert.
Driving east from Calama airport, the flat, barren landscape stretched beyond the horizon. Transport trailers whizzed by, barreling east and west, linking landlocked Bolivia with Chile’s ocean, and the world at large. Dust and tumbleweed spun in eddies above the flat straight two-lane highway. The skyline morphed gradually into undulating peach-colored hills. Dozens of white wind generators spun lazily planted in fields lining the highway. A mining company scoured the hillsides scraping away what little beauty there had been in these barren hills. An hour into the drive, we approached the Atacama. A lone male cyclist paused on the verge for a swill of water. A stain line of sweat dripped down his spine.
Arid. Dusty. Devoid of visible life. 35 celsius in the shade. No shade. Transport trailers. Open pit mining operations. Windmills. Jeff looked at me, speechless. He wasn’t smiling.
Half an hour later, the rolling hills transformed into small mountains of banded sandstone fringed by a long line of snow-capped volcanoes, the central Andes Mountains, the spine of South America. Four fearsome spires pierced the sky, visibly marking Chile’s boundary with Bolivia. All four are components of a much larger complex with numerous unnamed craters. Guayaques, the shortest of the four giants, rises a mere 5598 metres (18,366′) with Licancabur, the “Sacred Mountain of the People”, and Sairecabur respectively at 5,920 meters and 5,971 meters (19,589 ‘). The fourth is “the whore” Volcan Putana still actively spewing steaming sulfurous gasses.
A slow smile emerged on Jeff’s face as we arrived at our hotel, Tierra Atacama, and erupted with delight as the first glow of sunset rouged the landscape.