CHILE: FROM THE ATACAMA DESERT, SOUTH TO THE END OF THE WORLD
DAYS 4 – 5: Salar de Tara & Garganuta del Diablo.
We should have paid more attention to the promo photos of the couple dining on the shores of Salar de Tara. Their mittens, wind-breakers, and Andean style hats with integral earmuffs should have prompted us to dress a wee bit more warmly. The elevation of 4322m (14195 ft) should have been another clue. Dramatic temperatures – very hot to very cold – are a regular feature of desert life. Departing at 08:00 hours from our fantastic hotel, Tierra Atacama, located just outside the picturesque adobe village of San Pedro de Atacama (elevation of 2407m/7900 ft), the temperature was 22C and sunny with calm winds, predicted to increase to 28C. A perfect day to lounge by the pool day, if you like to lounge by pools.
I recalled our first excursion in this desert. We had been parked a mere 20 minutes under a cloudless sky while admiring the vista of the Valle de Muerta. It was just 10:00 AM yet the temperature was skyrocketing past 100C. Back inside our vehicle, I was amazed to feel tremendous heat radiating from the window, especially through tinted glass, I placed my palm open onto the glass, rapidly withdrawing it, unable to hold it there for more than a couple seconds.
The sunny part remained all day for our excursion east toward Bolivia. But at our first scenic stop enroute, the temperature decrease forced us to use the vehicle as a windbreak from the chill and the 40-knot-knock-you-over winds. I should have realized that the temperature would be much colder as one climbed into the mountains. If I’d taken even the briefest moment to reflect on charts used during my aviation days, I would have recalled that the average decrease in dry climates (referred to as the dry adiabatic lapse rate/DALR) is 3C per each 1000′. The change in elevation from the hotel (7,900′ ASL) to 14,195′ at Salar de Tara equaled 6,295′.
Thus, I should have realized that the temperature would decrease from 22C to 4C (roughly 6000′ change at 3C per each 1000′).
But hey – we’re Canadian! We bucked up and enjoyed ourselves in our windbreakers and shorts as the wind whipping relentlessly across the plains and the salt flats, up and down mountain slopes onto our rosy red cheeks.
Our final day in the Atacama didn’t disappoint. El Gargantua del Diablo commenced with a spectacular zigzag scramble up boulders dotting a steep ravine. This short burst of exertion was followed by an easy stroll along relatively flat terrain, under the relentless heat of the sun. And today, there wasn’t a breath of wind (of course!). Our only living companions were clumps of tiny flower clusters struggling in the rock-strewn desiccated soil.
Sporadically we spotted remnant traces of rock art, images carved centuries ago as messages to other travelers: “Hey buddy this carved-in-stove image of a four-footed animal means I ate this for dinner. If you’re lucky, your bow-and-arrow will kill one, too!”
After a couple hours we descended into the Throat of the Devil, an ancient meandering river bed carved by flood waters from melting mountain ice and snow. Steep ravine walls bracketed the narrow pathway. We’d been alone throughout most of the hike as we’d been delivered by car to one of the many trailheads. We were the only travelers heading toward town. Closer to town we began to greet opposite-direction walkers, horseback riders, and cyclists tailed by “stray” dogs (that belonged to someone in the village) on an adventure of their own. Some of these travelers we saw twice: those without hats, sufficient water, and bare-armed/bare-legged raced past us, eager for shelter. Wearing short shorts and sleeveless tops, two of these unprepared travelers sported skin the color of pink azalea. And it wasn’t even noon.
Returning to the Tierra Atacama, we had time for a quick lemonade before departing for the Calama Airport and….the end of the world.