High and dry in the Atacama

Caroline Hurry
Caroline Hurry

Stripped of everything but shape and shadow in one of the planet’s remotest regions, the Atacama Desert lures adrenaline junkies, archaeologists, UFO spotters and stargazers alike

To get to this desiccated Disneyland where serpentine Chile pushes its head against Bolivia, Peru and Argentina, we flew from Santiago to Calama, a dust-blown mining town where trains carrying copper wend across tracks like rusty centipedes. Just 105 km southeast, the 17th century oasis village of San Pedro, flanked by two active volcanoes, forms the heart of the Atacamenian culture.

With our Explora guide, we visited the circular dwellings of the 2800 year-old village of Tulor, inhabited from 400 BC to 400 AD. Santiago told us how each family placed their dead in a huge earthenware jar dug into the ground in the middle of the hut, which perfectly preserved the corpses.

All that's left of the ancient city of Tulor, perfectly preserved beneath the sands of time.
All that’s left of the ancient city of Tulor, perfectly preserved beneath the sands of time.

Indeed, mummies found in the Atacama pre-date their Egyptian counterparts by more than 2000 years. They were also better preserved due to the hyper-dry atmosphere, the Atacama being the driest desert in the world. From AD400 to AD1000 the Tiwanaku tribe from Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian antiplano ruled the region before the Peruvian Incas invaded in the 15th century, followed by the Spanish 90 years later, who brought cultivars of wheat, beans, livestock and Catholicism.

We stayed at Explora’s Atacama Desert Hotel in San Pedro, a totem of luxury on the Ayllu de Larache plain with four swimming pools. Guests are encouraged to explore two destinations a day with the guides. Everything is included and there are at least 40 outings to choose from.

An Andean Avocet in the salt pan
An Andean Avocet in the salt pan

About 48 km to the south in a basin ringed by volcanoes, the salt flats of the Salar de Atacama spanning 450km are home to the Andean avocet and three species of flamingo that gobble the pink shrimps living in the brine.

One of the geysers at El Tatio.
One of the geysers at El Tatio.

Reserve another morning to see the sunrise through several hundred swaying plumes of spectral steam at the geyser fields in El Tatio, 4300 metres above sea level.

The Vizcacha, a rabbity rodent found only in the Atacama region

En route large cacti stand sentry as alpacas, vicuñas, llamas and rabbit-like rodents called Vizcacha chew at tufts of wild grass. Snow-streaked peaks beckon and you can walk on the roof of the world in the nearby Andean meadows.

Sunset is the best time to visit the Valley of the Moon, an otherworldly landscape of craters, crumpled canyons and wind-swept pillars. After the lightest rain, sodium chloride leaches out of the former salt lake to create its white lunar appearance.

Gypsum crystals glitter from walls stained red by the sinking sun as the sky fills with stars. Just 4km west of San Pedro, Death Valley is a flinty corridor of unforgiving ridges and cracked earth, where nothing can survive.

Peter and I enjoying the lunar valley at sunset

At San Pedro’s observatory, an astronomer walked us through the Zodiac using Luke Skywalker’s laser pointer. Through a telescope we saw the Jewel Box – glittering red, white and blue stars invisible to the naked eye – but the biggest thrill was seeing Saturn’s ring and three of its 60 moons.

The Atacama houses the world’s most powerful telescope – the ALMA – that allows astronomers to see some of the furthest reaches of space. Claims of UFO sightings from the Atacama are common with locals claiming to see strange lights around the Andes.

The three Marias at lunar valley
The three Marias at lunar valley
  • Review of Explora’s Atacama Desert Hotel