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Atacama Desert (Chile)

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      17.05.2009 19:16



      Beautiful part of Chile, well worth the visit!

      The Atacama Desert is a must see for anyone who visits Chile. Whilst it is touristy, it has truly a magical feel to it at night. Everything seems beautiful and clean, but rustic. You find some beautiful hotels and restaurants lit by candles in San Pedro de Atacama, a gentle buzz from a relatively small town but it is definitely worth the visit!

      The Atacama desert is just simply stunning - at night, the view of the starts is breathtaking - those of you who want to wish on shooting stars, you'll run out of wishes, You'll see that many. It's like the sky is white with black patches!! So star gazers, this is a must - bring some star maps!

      You can cycle to look out points to watch the sun rise over the sand dunes - you leave in pitch blackness and hopefully they have sign posted the roads a little better now but by the time you get to the dunes and if you've made it in time to scramble to the top - it is simply stunning the way the sun lights up the desert and the colours you see are beautiful.

      Part of Atacama is called Moon Valley and the landscape is a dip of curves, crater like formations, extinct geysers and huge rocks. It makes you feel like an ant looking at it all!!

      Whilst many people say its just a desert, if you go there, you realise that it's much more than that - it does have this magical pull, the sun changes the colours, shapes and formations of the dunes on a daily basis.

      From San Pedro there are tours you can take to go into the desert and discover the beauty. Well worth the money!!


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      16.10.2005 12:21
      Very helpful



      The serene atmosphere that pervades and the amazing natural sights

      The Desert of Atacama, in the extreme north of Chile, is the driest desert in the world.

      Make sure you always carry a good supply of water with you, you will not need big amounts of food; the scenery will feed your spirit to such an extent that your body will not require the extra energy. You will lose weight and be uplifted, what more can you ask of a place?

      All right, I might be exaggerating slightly, but there is a lot of truth to it as well.


      The borders of the Atacama Desert are not very precisely outlined; they are1000 to 1100 kilometres long (600 to 700 miles), snaking all the way from Chile’s northern border with Peru (in Region I – Chile is divided into 12 regions), down to Antofagasta in Region II (still in the north of Chile really, but further down!). It is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes to the east.

      The altitude ranges from about 800m (2500 feet) to above 4300m (14,000 feet), so if you have altitude sickness, you may want to think twice before planning a trip there, although I personally have not been affected by this in any way (must be the fact that I live in the clouds!)

      This is an area of the world which was inhabited for over 10,000 years, a fact established by the multiple finds discovered throughout the Atacama region, from the pacific coast up to 6000 metres above sea level in the High Andean Mountain Ranges. There once was an Atacamanian Civilization, and the oldest mummies ever to have been located, thought to date from 18,000 BC, were found in this area and are believed to have belonged to this now departed civilization.


      When we think of a desert, we tend to think of dunes, and dunes are plentiful in the desert of Atacama, but I can assure you that they are by no means its most enchanting attribute nor are the dunes primarily responsible for the state of bewilderment in which most visitors tend to reluctantly depart from Atacama.

      The splendour of this desert is almost equally distributed amongst its Salares (salt basins), lagoons, geysers, extensive lunar-like valleys and many volcanoes (most of them extinct).

      I was not fortunate enough to visit the whole of the Atacama Desert, as my travel companion and I were in a rush to get to Santiago from Arica in the very extreme north of the country. However, we drove all the way through it and stopped en route to soak ourselves in its serenity before reaching the madness of Santiago.

      Driving down mountain ranges, you cannot help but be struck by the gracious way in which the foot of the mountains joins the ground. An affirmation of their belonging to this soil is declared in a frozen dance of proud compliance. While the main roads are long and at times dull, skirting off the highway and into little (often bumpy) roads is when the adventure really begins.

      Having departed from Arica very early in the morning, we prepared ourselves for a very long drive: 2 huge hot water thermose and many bottles of water, some empanadas and lots of fruits. But essentially, trembling with enthusiasm!

      Put me in a car, tell me I am going ANYWHERE far and for a long time, and my senses are alight with excitement at the thought of new discoveries!! Music is an essential part of the adventure, and we had many CDs for accompaniment; I was singing, my partner refrained tactfully from telling me to s*** *p, the blood in my veins was flowing like a clear and limpid river (making little noises too!).


      The road from Arica to Iquique is renowned for being dangerous; you drive past very deep valleys and wind your way through, spotting ever so often tell-tale vehicle skeletons at the bottom (at which point I switched the music off and kept very silent, not wanting to cause any mishaps). The few times we saw cars and buses passing by, they were doing so at such a speed that we thought they were either tempting fate very foolishly or perhaps they were just ghosts whizzing past! The mono-hued and isolated scenery is well capable of endowing you with the capacity to have such visions, so concentrating and avoiding the use of any form of hallucinatory substance is essential here!

      Having said this, on our way up to Arica, we had taken a bus from Iquique (then my partner left me in Arica and came back to pick me up with the car – long story) and while the bus was extremely comfortable, we felt compelled at one point to have a talk with the driver, pointing out that our intention upon using this service was NOT to rid ourselves of our human existence just yet – however comfortably that may be (the bus, not the human existence) – and that we would very much appreciate it if he slowed down a little so as to give us a chance to get to Arica without having lost our lives to either a valley or lack of neurons. He did slow down and as we were seated right behind him, we made sure our meaningful gazes often crossed his.


      After Iquique, the drive becomes rather monotonous and is one long straight line.
      But this can be just as dangerous, as the ubiquitous little “shrines” that dot the roads strive to remind one. Many people kill themselves down these long highways; because they do not see danger coming; many of them keep on driving despite feeling weary or sleepy and a fatal accident ensues. We sadly drove past a car whose driver had killed himself minutes before we got there, his body still lay there, and the police were waiting for an ambulance to carry him away. So we made sure we stopped often.

      The little shrines are placed there by the families of the victims, in remembrance of their beloved ones. I am told this has now been prohibited by the government, but there isn’t exactly anyone there to watch over such a huge expanse.

      The amazing thing about the north of Chile is that you have the desert on one side and the sea on the other! I love contrasts and I was spoiled! One of our stops was between Chañaral and Copiapó; it was a wide sand beach (and I mean white!) upon which huge and some smaller pitch black volcanic rocks lay almost glowing (yes, black things glow too, and they glow much more mysteriously!). To make the scene perfect, the Pacific Ocean was a dazzling turquoise blue and waves pounded the shore with vigour but no anger.

      My then less than 3 months old son took his first plunge in a little natural pool in the white sand, with pebbles and little… things, in it. Behind us, very tall mountains (ok, the Andes) beckoned approvingly, as if rejoicing in the joy that this landscape was offering us. I almost started talking to them, but I was trying to desist from my urge to talk to walls and rocks, so I didn’t.

      Then we skirted off the main road and were on our way to San Pedro de Atacama.
      This is the number one destination for most people who go to the Atacama Desert. I will tell you more about it when I get there. The road to a destination is as important as the destination itself, if not more so, you see, and should never be disregarded.

      It was not, I almost didn’t want to get to San Pedro anymore, for although this was not the first desert I’d visited, I had never been “inside” the desert and the desert had never so possessed me! (Don’t be so vulgar now!)

      On all sides, I could see amazing sights. Far away salares (salt basins), none of which we had time to visit, but which looked like far away mirrors in the desert; the Cordillera (de los Andes) of course, volcanoes and very strangely shaped hills and formations.

      When we did get to San Pedro, I was slightly disappointed at first. I thought it would be bigger, but it was quite small. Not that small, but after Arica and Iquique, it felt so. Our 4x4 looked like an insult in its streets, but others were being rude, so we just tried to offend it slowly!

      San Pedro de Atacama is a little oasis, with adobe houses and narrow streets. There are a many hostels, hotels, camping sites and houses you can rent. Numerous bars, cafés and restaurants. All very well kept and clean, but more expensive than other places in Chile.

      Accommodation starts at $10 per person in a hostel (you may find cheaper, but I didn’t, these are prices I have checked today on the internet) and can go up to well over $100 if you want luxury.

      Many excursions can be organised from there (or other parts of Chile for that matter) with personal or group guides, be it for visits to specific sites only, or for trekking, climbing, biking etc…

      The very famous “Museo Arqueologico de San Pedro de Atacama”, which we did not visit (idiots!) contains a collection of over 300,000 items, including pottery, woven fabrics and mummies, and I am told their library is very interesting.

      There is decidedly a “weird” air to San Pedro, or was it the heat and the effect of the long drive? It used to be a very hippy place and you can still see people trying to linger in what was. It is just as decidedly touristic, hence the prices I reckon. You will meet people from all over the word and of course, the ubiquitous Americans with their unmistakeable accents (nothing wrong with that, of course).

      We only stayed one day in San Pedro because my purpose in life had suddenly become to visit the Valle de La Luna (The Valley of the Moon). There are many “Valles de La Luna” in Latin America, and I only know one other in Argentina, which is not as impressive as this one. It made me wonder whether this side of the world was not truly alien, for it seemed to be, in the most positive sense possible.

      So back into the car we drove straight into the arms of the Valley of the Moon.
      I don’t remember what time it was when we got to the Valle de La Luna (which is part of the “Los Flamencos Natural Reserve” – I will give more details about this later), but it must have been a little after noon because I remember thinking the light was still too flat for (decent) photographs.

      The Valle de La Luna is the most inhospitable place on this planet (not for the spirit though). There is no form of live whatsoever and no such thing as humidity (so the heat is very bearable).

      It lies in the Region of Antofagasta (Chile’s II Region) and is 15 kms from San Pedro and 331 kms from the city of Antofagasta. It is part of what is known as the Cordillera de la Sal (Salty Mountain Range) and consists of a diametric depression of 500 metres (1650 feet). Set on salty ground, it has been sculpted into mysteriously astounding shapes, partly due to the folding of the marshy ground beneath the Salt Lake and partly due to erosion.

      In the South of Chile, people criticise the North because there are no lush green forests and no cows! Most people who say these things have never seen the North and I spent hours contradicting the southerners’ prejudices. But you must see this for yourself if you are to truly appreciate the almost ghostly serenity that is an inherent atom in each molecule that forms this area.

      Thankfully, they did not pave any part of the Valley, but there is a dirt road that is bumpy but easy to follow. Down this road we drove and decided that muteness conveyed our feelings better than any words might. Even the music was turned off, for we were trying to listen to the wind’s secrets and giggles.

      There was no one but us for about an hour, after which we began seeing tourist vans and a few cars pass by here and there. However it is unlikely that you will be swamped by masses of tourists descending upon the valley. There was a very slight breeze for a while, but as we were exploring every nook, every rock, every shape, a strong wind started blowing and as there are also some dunes in the area, it quickly seemed like a good idea to get back in the car.

      From inside the car, I watched the light change. The desert took on an almost bluish hue, and I covered myself and my camera, leaving my son and his father in their shelter, to try and capture some images and see if I could have a first flying experience. I almost did take off, but hiding against a rock, I was also lucky to secure some photos before I had to get back in the car for fear of being eroded into one of the rock formations.

      Soon, the wind died down and we drove towards a dune near the valley. It must have a name, but I don’t know it (forgive my ignorance). What I do know is that it takes a good 15 minutes to climb to the top of the dune, to take in some mind-blowing views from atop. Because of the altitude and the sheer steepness of the sides of the dune, you have to walk slowly. There were many tourists now, but not enough to ruin the possibility of some beautiful photographs.

      We parked the car at the bottom and knew that climbing there with the baby was not a good idea, because of the wind mainly and the sand grains that almost whipped your face at times. So I breastfed him to be on the safe side and left him in the car with his father. We agreed that if he started crying, he would make light signals from the car.

      So a very enthralled, lifted and smiling Lola descended lightly from the car and started feeling less and less light as she climbed up the side of the hill. Someone tried to talk to me, but by then, I no longer made out any human sounds, I was just listening to the harmony of the desert. When I found myself at the very top, I decided to just sit and watch before taking any pictures. It would have been offensive not to pay my respects to this wonder of nature before starting to shoot with my camera (I always have a sense of guilt when photographing nature, as though I were trying to steal her beauty; but that is never so, for a photograph will never truly be faithful to what the eye and the soul have perceived, and nature knows that so she gracefully complies with our photographic whims).

      It was almost sunset by now, and the sky was shyly taking on a pinkish hue, with delicate veils of cirrus clouds discreetly gathering to cover its apparent nakedness.

      I kept looking towards the car to make sure there were no emergencies. I had been up there for over an hour and a half and was wondering whether I should walk along the long dune to get to its other end, where apparently, the sunset was a magical experience.

      Sadly, as I started doing so and was halfway along the dune, I saw light signals being frantically sent from the car. For some reason I have yet to elucidate, I panicked and as a fairly new mother started feeling that I had been very irresponsible to leave my son down there! I literally ran down (more slid down really) the dune and was near the car in less than 5 minutes (Having metamorphosed into Super Woman for a very short while ) to find my son crying hysterically. My reaction didn’t help, because I started crying too to the bewilderment and utter lack of comprehension of my then partner, so my son cried even more. The concert didn’t last long, thankfully, but I had missed the sunset!!

      Should you ever go there, try not to miss that. I know it must have been mind-blowing for, as I watched people returning from there once the sun had disappeared, I could still see its reflection upon their expressions and I am convinced that I saw minds blowing in the wind!

      It was now getting dark but we knew we would be spending the night here (in the car). We were lucky, it would be a full moon and we wanted to watch it rising (at 11.30pm) behind the mystifying formations.

      A few tourist vans were here for this purpose (about 3 or 4) as well. However, either due to the serene atmosphere that emphatically prevailed or some fruit of my transported imagination, they were not noisy or annoying but very friendly and … interesting!

      Now if you have the slightest interest in astronomy (which I do) and some knowledge of the residents of the sky (which sadly I don’t) or if you are just romantic, poetic and thirsty of awe and wonders, then the night sky of the desert of Atacama will fulfil your most intense expectations. And even if you are none of these things but have the capacity to feel, you will not be immune to the magnetism of this firmament.

      You now I tend to exaggerate sometimes, but this I am not amplifying. This, I simply could not embellish any further. Darkness is but an illusion, and this illusion was pure light. There is a song by Gustavo Cerati called “Crema de Estrellas” (Cream of Stars) and this describes what your eyes will be kissed by. A dancing, twinkling cream of stars embroiders the entire night as a sea of constellations (which truly are an illusion, for stars in a constellation often belong to completely different galaxies, like humans in a community) hold hands and seem to draw near you in a flicker, only to back up in the next. Never in my entire life had I seen so many stars, you could hardly see the sky in the background (what background?).

      One of the guides started to point to the constellations and tell me their names as though reading a map. How I envied and admired his knowledge, which was clearly intertwined with passion for these heavenly bodies. We spent the night talking to him; drinking coffee with whisky to keep warm (it was absolutely freezing by then) and thinking how lucky we were to be here.

      Then the moon made its appearance! Prior to honouring us with her presence, she sent her halo as messenger to illuminate our vision with the imminence of her arrival.
      Everyone was silent now and if someone opened his mouth, a big “shshshsh!!” would be heard. There is a reason for which the moon appears 10 times bigger there than we see it here, but I am not sure what it is, I think it’s the fact that we are closer to the pole, but please enlighten me further if your knowledge permits. Nevertheless that is how it was; brought upon the scene in the arms of her aura, Madame La Lune suddenly ascended upon the valley named after her, baffling us all with her sheer size. Painting the landscape in multiple silvery orange hues with a poise only she owns. Before we realised what was happening, she was already very high (and so were we, heeheehee!) and the sparkling heavens welcomed her elegant luminescence naturally.

      Then murmurs were heard and Ahs and Ohs and before long we got used to the beauty, as we humans do – why can we only harbour so much beauty in a day before we o.d.? – and everyone was talking.

      Soon the vans of tourists started departing one after the other, and it was just us in the middle of the Valley of the Moon, with a roof of stars in a wide abode of tranquillity.
      My partner went to bed; I stayed outside a little longer to converse with the spirits of the desert and enjoy the last minutes I still had in company of this enlightening desert night.

      A lot of people go to the desert of Atacama for the “spiritual” experience and to “find themselves” (this thing has always killed me…). I, personally, being one who seems to relentlessly pursue her own self wherever she goes, was rather looking to get rid of myself (why do I keep following me?). But it certainly is an ideal place for meditation and I trust that whatever you are looking for, there are enough geological formations that will help you form the illusions or visions you wish to find. Just look slightly closer… and do use your imagination (you don’t even need drugs!).

      I did finally manage to get some sleep but was up before dawn (you can’t miss that when sleeping “à la belle étoile” (out in the open) and out to inspect the photographic possibilities. There were many!

      This is going to seem like a slash with a dagger and in a way it was, but this is where our adventures in the desert of Atacama ended. Too soon, we were speeding down the motorway on our way to Santiago.

      What we saw was but a glimpse of everything worth seeing in Atacama. So here is a brief description (by no means fully exhaustive) of others places to visit:

      El Tatio Geysers

      At 4300m (14,000 feet) above sea level, El Tatio Geysers happen to be the highest Geysers in the world. Apparently, most visitors go there by bus at sunrise, which is when steam clouds up to 35ft high are caused by geothermic vents set in motion by changing atmospheric pressure. This is when the Geysers offer their most spectacular show.


      This natural reserve was created in 1990 and has a surface area of no less than 73,986 hectares, so not exactly a day trip here. It is divided into 7 main parts:

      *Salar de Tara – Salar Aguas Calientes (Sector 1)
      *Salar de Pujsa (Sector 2)
      *Lagunas Miscanti – Miñiques (Sector 3)
      *Salar de Atacama – Sector Soncor (Sector 4)
      (This is a huge vast lake and is surrounded by unique species of wildlife)
      *Salar de Atacama – Sector Laguna Agua de Quelana (Sector 5)
      *Valle de La Luna (Sector 6)
      *Tambillo - Bosque de Tamarugo (Sector 7)

      Amongst the many things you will encounter there are an array of salt basins, salt lakes, lagoons, volcanoes, archaeological sites and an interesting flora and fauna, including:
      vicuñas (vicugna vicugna – a member of the Camelidae family), zorro culpeo (dusicyon culpaeus – a small fox with yellow-brown fur and a long tail ending in black), at least three different sorts of flamingos; Chilean (Phoenicopterus Chilensis, Andean (Phoenicoparrus Andinus and “James’” (Phoenicoparrus Jamesi). I only know the name of some flowers in Spanish, so I will not mention any, sorry.

      The City of Calama is an oasis right in the middle of the desert and is a perfect base for further exploration of the desert. You will find many hotels, restaurants and tourist centres in Calama.

      San Miguel de Azapa Museum, in the Azapa Valley (extreme north, 12kms from Arica) houses the oldest mummies in the world (as mentioned far above) dating back to 18,000 BC as well as over 20,000 objects discovered in the area. (Excavations are still taking place – when financially possible – around the ruins of Indian Fortresses (or Pukaras) in places such as Lasana, Turi and Quitor, and many new discoveries are constantly being made).

      Chuquicamata is the biggest open pit (copper) mine in the world, with a very sad history (shshsh! Don’t tell the Chileans, they are very forgetful). It is 15 kms away from Calama and there are morning and afternoon tours.

      I am going to leave out many other sites, but I hope enough was said to wet your appetite.

      The desert of Atacama can be visited all year long, it is always hot during the day but temperatures drop dramatically at night time. It is essential to protect your skin from the sun’s radiation when out and about, so light but long clothes, hats, sunglasses are a necessity.

      All over, accommodation starts around $8 in youth hostels, some nice hotels charge between $20 to $50 a night (double rooms) and of course, the more you can pay, the more luxury you will have. All the places we stayed in were very clean and the people were quite friendly.

      Food! A lot of food for thought… I am very sorry, I frankly don’t remember eating there… I am sure we did, but I don’t recall. All over Chile though, you can find empanadas (Samosa like pastry filled with either meat, onions and spices, cheese, seafood, chicken), many sorts of “Completos” (a sort of hotdog served with all sorts of things, tomatoes, avocado, onion…) and other sandwiches and “normal” restaurants.

      Trips to Chile can cost between £550 and £800 in economy, depending on the airline you chose and time of year. To get to the Atacama desert, you can fly from Santiago to Arica, Iquique or Antofagasta, flights are not so expensive. Or you can take a bus from anywhere to anywhere in Chile (literally) and they have three kinds of buses:

      *Pullman: (cheapest ones, but better than the worst buses I have ever used anywhere in Europe)
      *Semi-Cama (half-bed): slightly more expensive, but very comfortable. Seats recline almost completely and you have a thing that you raise at the front to put your legs (ok, it has a name, I don’t know it). For long journeys (they always are in Chile) coffee/tea/juice is served and biscuits or sandwiches are handed out.
      *Cama (bed): More expensive still (but I don’t think they are, considering what you get and the comfort you have). Your seat turns into a bed. Yes.

      Buses are wonderful because you get to see a lot, and they stop a few times, there are toilets in the bus, the staff are very nice and the drivers are changed every four hours, there are always 2 drivers at any one time for long journeys.

      I highly recommend Chilean buses.


      As a brief final note, even if you only see a small part of the Desert of Atacama, as I have, it will be well worth it. Because of the landscape, because of the wildlife, the air, the sun, the archaeology; because of the sky and because of the stars.

      I have tried to take you back with me and I hope you have enjoyed the ride. Now I am still stuck there, probably for a few more days… until my mind decides to roam into other magical pastures, true or imaginary!

      © Lola Awada 2005


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