When I first traced the Atacama Desert on the map with my finger, sprawling over bits of Chile and Peru, it did not seem very inviting. It was a very long way to go to experience intense heat in a treeless landscape. On a recent visit to Chile however, I was lured by stories of the Atacama's intensely beautiful landscapes and flew to Calama from Santiago to experience its vast salt pans teeming with birds, irascible volcanoes with smoking tops, dramatic gorges, other-worldly rock formations and palm-fringed oases.
Arriving late at night and driving to the Explora hotel, I was immediately able to see why the world's most serious observatories are set up here, the driest spot on earth. The night sky was awash with the brightest and the most stars I've ever seen. The young team at the Explora are up for absolutely anything at any hour. Over a tall glass of chirimoya (shareefa) juice and some empanadas (corn samosas) at the bar, Maurice and Paul filled me in on the expedition options over the next few days, sketching with a thick black pen on a glass table top that had a map of the area underneath. We walked over to the observatory and peered at the distant galaxies.
Of flora and fauna
Over the next few days, we explored Death Valley with its massive sand dunes and series of hard, sculpted mountains. Pancho explained how to careen down the sandy slopes by digging our heels in the sand one after the other. A younger, more athletic set of teenage daredevils showed off their sand-boarded antics, taking the shine off our newly learned skill. Another time Francisco would point to various shrubs and say, "good for getting pregnant" or "Atacama Viagra" or "Put in food. Good for digestion" There were hidden gorges with sparse rivers having ancient cactuses that stood like giants.
The air was palpably thinner on my favourite expedition to altiplano (high plain) towards Tara salt flats. Wild vicunas, the most beautiful of the camelids, grazed the golden grass. A host of birds rummaged by the salt lakes, including avocets and Andean flamingos. Bizarre wind-carved rock formations, called the Pacana Monks dominated the vast, featureless plains.
At Tara salt flats, a beautiful lunch table was set up, but I found myself walking towards a shepherd's hut instead. A small Atacamanian family smiled a welcome and allowed me to come up and admire their llamas, decorated with bits of brightly coloured wool. The ladies wore long, gathered skirts and bowler hats topped their braided hair. They were people of the mountains, who spoke no European languages and were unconcerned with national borders. To them, all that mattered was family, food and llamas. Wool from the llamas gave them something to sell; they knitted hats, socks and jumpers all day long.
The tiny, charming town of San Pedro is a welcome oasis in the vast, stark wilderness. It is the watering hole of young backpackers who come to climb the volcanic mountains in the region. Hand-built entirely of adobe and rocks, the town's decorative element is whitewash. An old man sat still, praying under the cactus-timber roof of the church. A host of bars, cafes and restaurants open late into the night, when the temperatures get pleasant and the scene lively. A shaded market was the best place to see the mountain folks, who come across from Bolivia selling colourful wool carpets, jewellery, baubles and cactus wood bowls. A newly opened art gallery and handful of boutique hotels confirm that this town and its surroundings are no longer a distant backwater. Five hundred years ago, the mighty Incas and then the Spanish conquistadores had bypassed it for the lush plains of the south, but modern day travellers have sniffed out its secrets and cannot have enough of it.