CHILE: FROM THE ATACAMA DESERT, SOUTH TO THE END OF THE WORLD
DAYS 2 – 3: Inside the Atacama.
I write “inside the Atacama” because the experience was other-worldly, stark yet enveloping. Though the desert environment was sunny, bright, and expansive in contrast to the shadowy, constricted souks of Fes al Bali, I shivered with a similar pleasure, the excitement of plunging into foreign territory. Unlike the crowded metropolis of Fes, thriving life forms weren’t omnipresent; in fact, enroute to the desert we had seen one lone guanaco grazing beside the highway. That had been it for wildlife (this definitely wasn’t the African savannah where herds of buffalo, gazelles, and wildebeest cover the landscape). Scrawny scrub bushes randomly popped up amidst desiccated plants, a few festooned with minute splashes of color, a rare flower here and there. Yet far from wondering what we might do in the driest desert in the world, our five days really weren’t enough. Next time we’ll stay longer, rent a car, and meander. Or find some willing camels.
As we entered the adobe-and-stone hotel Tierra Atacama, staff had greeted us with a welcome beverage (a caution here to minimize or avoid alcohol until your body acclimatizes to the 2407 metre elevation) and briefed us about various activities and excursions. Each day we could sign up for morning, afternoon, or full-day private or small group tours of 4-8 people on foot, bicycle, horse, or 4WD, or choose a day of dolce far niente lazing about the decadent indoor pool with integral SPAAHH or sunbathing by the outdoor pool gazing at the Andean crests.
We lazed a wee bit poolside and cycled once into the nearby village of San Pedro but only after each full day adventure, spurred by the remembrance of 10 hours on a plane flying from one hemisphere to another, followed by 2 more hours on a regional plane then nearly 2 hours by car. We’d traveled hard to have the privilege of being in the Atacama visiting Andean volcanoes, salt flats, local village culture, and hot springs. We signed up for the Tatio Geysers with a brief stop at the mountain village of Machuca, Salt Flats of Atacama (Salar de Atacama), the Salt Flats of Tara (Salar de Tara), Valle de la Lune (Moon Valley), Valle de la Muerta (Death Valley), Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), and the Agua Caliente Lagoon, but passed on bathing in the Puritama Hot Springs.
As none of these attractions are, strictly speaking, very close to the village of San Pedro and accommodations Day 2 saw us back on the road first to Moon and Death Valleys before lunch then south to the Chaxa Lagoon within the Salt Flats of Atacama. However, I passed the time marveling at the shimmering sand and stones morphing into shades of pink, peach, orange, taupe, sienna, and rust in the constantly changing light and perspective.
The appropriately named Valle de la Luna transported us to a lunar landscape like images sent by astronauts but our driver/guide told us the real story behind the naming of Death Valley. When Chilean locals guided one of the first Spanish missionaries to the gaping crevasse, the missionary exclaimed: “Parece como Marte!” This seems like [the planet] Mars! But the locals whose native tongue was Mapuche not Spanish heard: “Parece como muerte! – This seems like death!
The afternoon was disappointing. A long drive to see very little. Mining operations have siphoned off much of the already sparse desert water from the salt flats. Lacking sufficient saline water, fewer than 2 dozen flamingoes searched for crustaceans, the food that contributes to their pink tones. And to think I’d actually anticipated floating in these salt flats, once a highlight of a visit to the Salar de Atacama.
Never mind. This memory of this disappointment was completely eliminated by the Tatio Geysers. Awake at 05:30 we were on the road by 6:25. Steam streams from the geyser cauldrons all day long so one doesn’t need to arrive while night stars still glisten in the coal-black sky. But if you can drag yourself out of bed you’ll witness massive billows of steam in the early morning when the temperature differential between the boiling cauldrons and the cold night air is greatest. Interestingly, though water boils at 212F/100C at sea level, at Tatio’s elevation of 4320metres water boils at 91C. But it is still boiling. My mind flashed to childhood memories of mom’s packaged cake mixes that provided different baking instructions for those [women] who lived at Denver, Colorado’s mile-high elevation of 5,280′.
White shards of sunray crested the eastern Andean ridge around 08:00. Obedient to our guide’s strict warning, we followed single file along the narrow pathways, borders marked with rocks painted cadmium yellow.
Earlier that morning we had learned that less than one month before our visit, a Belgian physician had stepped backwards, perhaps to get a better photographic angle, or perhaps to let another visitor pass. She stumbled, tripped, and fell backwards into one of these boiling vats! Airlifted by Medevac helicopter to the nation’s capital, Santiago, she died two days later from 3rd degree burns. Since this horrific accident, that area has been cordoned off, prohibiting entry and the painted rocks have been moved further from all the cauldrons. One might still trip over these rocks but a fall wouldn’t pitch your body into the pit.