Crunch. Crackle. Crack. There’s a remaining creak as centuries of petrified rock and the Earth’s calcified crust crumble beneath my boots. The uncovered layers are startling of their crude situation. Every thing is on present right here: naked and boisterous. That is the Atacama Desert and its geological historical past juts out, craving for examination and admiration. It’s not lengthy earlier than I’m stating the distinction between the shining salt and glittering gypsum within the rock; it’s the gypsum that varieties the skeleton of this valley. I’m informed these crystallised white strains that traverse the clay forestall the erosion of the mountains. I repeat and keep in mind. The Atacama has the power to awaken probably the most reluctant of geologists.
I really feel miniscule within the center of the desert’s Moon Valley, surrounded by 360-degrees of wind-sculpted waves of vermilion rock, dusted with twinkling rising minerals. Often known as Las Salinas by the miners who arrived within the 1950s resulting from its excessive salt content material, it wasn’t populated for lengthy — the miners left when the salt ran out. What brings individuals again right here in the present day is the topography. I’m standing earlier than the espresso ice cream-coloured dune that piled up right here 200 million years in the past. Made up of volcanic ash from the erosion of the Cordillera Domeyko (a stretch of the Andes marking the japanese border of the Atacama), that is one of the one locations within the desert that really has sand. It’s definitely lovely, nevertheless it seems this can be a comparatively novel method of wanting on the Atacama.
“At first, no one came here for the beauty of the place, you know. The people living here are really strong people. They just live to survive, so they really don’t care about whether it’s beautiful or not,” Mary, my information, tells me. It’s one other kind of life.
I attempt to hunt down some shade, however pockets of it are few and much between. The solar is unwavering. It has nothing standing in its means. No trace of cloud blocks its path; they get caught up on the coastal mountain vary and don’t make it this far inland. And so, the solar beats down, cracking floor and parching landscapes till it reaches San Pedro de Atacama. Right here it collides with an underground water supply and creates a veritable desert oasis and the city that Mary calls residence.
“Hardly anybody lived here before. We were a village of maybe 200 people with no electricity, no water. I remember the first person to get a fridge. I remember the first TV,” Mary tells me.
Now, pockets of the Atacama teem with life. There’s tourism, the copper and lithium mines, the telescopes, the connectivity — and it takes lower than 4 hours to get right here from Santiago. The adobe streets of San Pedro de Atacama that when offered shelter to llama herders on their solution to the coast now host gaggles of travellers and distinction with Mary’s tales of childhood. Everybody on this frontier-esque city is in search of journey.
Something however flat
“The Atacama isn’t the cliché of the desert. It’s not just sand and rocks,” Marcela Diaz Arce tells me as we strategy the salt flats. She’s from Santiago, however is right here like me for the adventures — besides she’s guiding and I’m following.
We take the Ruta del Desierto. Each half of the van shakes as we bounce alongside the street. “Our salt flat is anything but flat,” she continues, because the Andes soar on one aspect and the rugged salt crust unfurls on the opposite. Stretching out almost 2,000sq miles, the flats are the second largest on the earth. Right here, the salt crust descends over a 1,000 metres: some 4 million years in the past, this was a lake. A scant layer of water sits atop the salts creating the Chaxa Lagoon the place flashes of stark pink, mirrored from the sky, shimmer within the water.
That is flamingo territory, and the place yow will discover: the Andean, the Chilean and the James’s flamingo, also referred to as the puna flamingo. Once they take flight, I marvel at their mighty wingspan. Past the flamingos, nevertheless, I discover the lagoon is peppered with birdlife. Most species sport a protruding pointed beak; good for looking for meals in these sodium-rich waters that mirror the peaks of the Chilean stretch of the Andes.
This skyline is something however abnormal, but the components are easy: rocks and sand, plus the odd guanaco — one of the 4 varieties of llama that decision this arid land house. On occasion, one wanders throughout the horizon, choosing out a path between the rocks and the solitary sprouts of vegetation.
“This is the pharmacy, the natural pharmacy,” says Marcela, as she gestures to the hedgehog-like tufts of inexperienced dotted across the barren panorama. “In town there are still people who treat themselves using plants”. The rica rica plant continues to be used for digestion or to ease abdomen ache and pingo-pingo tea helps colds or something kidney-related. The land belongs to the indigenous Atacamanians they usually keep a robust relationship with it.
They’re strict landlords, renting out swathes for tourism and charging entrance charges to everybody who isn’t indigenous — non-indigenous Chileans included. It’s controversial however retains overtourism and improvement at bay.
Hints of life
Our van bounces previous the hamlet of Guatin, a tiny settlement the place solely 20 individuals stay — many hamlets and small cities are slowly dying because the youthful era relocates to cities in search of jobs and a neater life. Life right here is hard. Referred to as the driest desert on the earth, it’s nonetheless rumoured that some elements of the Atacama have by no means seen rainfall. Historic riverbeds gasp and crack. The air is dry.
But, I’m confronted by stark contrasts. I’m marching by way of a sunken riverbed on the lookout for Puritama Scorching Springs. The sides of the gorge soar both aspect of me. Up there’s a barren rocky land with spindly sporadic cacti offering the one trace of life, however down right here I’m dodging large dragonflies, slipping on algae-covered rocks and dipping my arms into the gushing water because it costs by means of this verdant riverbed. Birds dart, lizards laze and fluffy pampas grasses flounce within the wind. I tiptoe round little clumps of flowers — delicate droplets of color that solely arrive after the uncommon rains. They’re tiny, in contrast to most issues right here, and their ardour fruit scent is pungent but fairly.
We’re following the passage as soon as utilized by desert-crossing shepherds en path to the ocean from the Andes. The corrals for the animals, which have been constructed with volcanic rock, and smallholdings stay. I lay my hand on it and really feel the emanating warmth of the insulating and energy-efficient supplies. The desert could seem barren in elements, however power pulses by way of it all over the place. Marcela palms me a small bunch of coca leaves to chew — a pick-me-up. I get all of it incorrect, over chewing in order that they break up and scatter throughout my tooth, emitting a bitter inexperienced tea style, however the impact is identical. The hit of power at altitude could be very welcome as I sink into the steaming scorching springs.
No relaxation for the intrepid
Sunsets and sunrises are celebrated at totally different places, however what comes between — the night time sky — can scintillate even the weariest and most jaded traveller. For the intrepid, this can be a 24-hour vacation spot.
The Atacama Desert is ready to make the huge distance between the Earth and area appear that little bit smaller. That is the place celestial meets terrestrial and a cosmic power has pervaded communities for millennia. The indigenous Atacamians and Andeans would use the constellations to orient themselves by means of the yr. The relationship right here between Pachamama (Mom Earth), Inti (the solar) and the remaining of the Interstellar Neighbourhood was pivotal to them, and as we speak it’s led one group of Atacamian descendents to pursue additional information and share their findings. I’m on the Ahlarkapin Observatory simply outdoors San Pedro de Atacama. This humble setup is one group’s homage to the skies.
We wait as an inky black transforms the canvas above and the primary star seems, Alpha Centauri. A smattering of sparkles follows after which the incandescent define of the Milky Means.
“I’ve never seen the sky as it is here,” Vicente, the resident information, tells me. What you possibly can see with the bare eye rivals many darkish sky locations all over the world. Nevertheless it’s once you get behind a telescope that the shimmering nebulae actually come to life. I squint on the Southern Cross and attempt to get my head round this half of the sky — the half I’ve by no means seen earlier than. I’ve lived within the Northern Hemisphere for my entire life, so the night time sky right here’s utterly totally different.
Vicente was drawn to the Atacama by the celebs. He guides us across the observatory with the air of somebody who’s been right here for many years, however he’s been right here for only a month. He talks us by means of the photo voltaic system’s plans — what will probably be right here in a couple of years and what’s already been extinguished. Then, he strikes on to his personal plans.
He’s working to open a farm producing the superfood spirulina. It’s not the obvious place to fulfil agricultural yearnings, however there’s an finish aim in sight. Vicente needs to show his value as a farmer right here so he can pitch himself as the primary farmer on one other planet. There have additionally been rumours that Elon Musk is scoping out deserts — and extra particularly the Atacama — for its Mars-like circumstances. Vicente’s extraterrestrial ambition is what the Atacama is all about. Stretching to the very outskirts of risk. Another kind of life.
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Revealed within the South America information, distributed with the October situation of Nationwide Geographic Traveller (UK)