Spirit of the Atacama

Chile’s colorful desert is a hidden showcase of nature’s raw beauty
outdoors, travel, nature
Written By Lesley Conn
Photography By Terry Duthu

Yellow tussock grass sustains animals and provides shelter for birds and reptiles.

Long before the sun rises to its noon zenith, the wind comes rolling over the plateaus of Chile’s Atacama Desert.

With nothing in its path to stop it, the wind roars past like a supercar on the autobahn, ruffling hair, snapping at clothing and peeling moisture from anything in its path. Yet under a wide, brilliant blue sky, the wind seems more a playful companion than howling fury, pulling away heat and animating the brushy golden tussock grass that dots the open plains.

The wind whips and tugs as if to say, “Come on, keep going! This way.”

And so you let yourself be carried by the wind, traveling over miles of desolate roads that lull you into a meditative relaxation.

Until one turn in the road changes everything.

“The spirit of the wind is everywhere.”

Some visitors linger longer at their surreal surroundings.

Suddenly, your eyes are confronted by vision so bright it momentarily confuses the mind. Is this snow? A frozen lake? Stretching along the horizon is the pale splendor of the Talar Salt Flats.

With its edges caked by thick white salt that encircles the turquoise water, it’s as though you’ve stepped onto the rim of a giant margarita kept waiting to celebrate your arrival. The chunky salt is so potent that even a touch to the tongue makes the eyes water.

The salt transitions toward the center from hard and dry to slushy, like sidewalk ice melting on a warm afternoon, and the ever-present wind sends thousands of ripples over the liquid surface.

These 17 square miles of shimmering beauty are only one of the surprises waiting in the Atacama, where nature is exhibited in wind-streaked mountains, spewing geyser fields and golden hillsides that, while seemingly barren, are home to flora and fauna and a human population sharing life at its most elemental.

“When you are here, you appreciate the silence,” says Carolina Ulloa Reyes, who has guided visitors around the Atacama Desert for four years. “It’s a very special experience. The spirit of the wind is everywhere. You have nature all around you. Life is not complicated here.”

High and Dry

A pair of visitors is dwarfed by the vastness of Atacama’s salt flats.

The Atacama is the driest, coldest and highest desert on Earth. Overall, annual rainfall averages about half an inch. In some areas, no rainfall has ever been recorded.

In its driest parts, the only signs of life are tiny algae and bacteria, driven into the soil to escape heat and light. Because the Atacama is so similar to conditions on Mars, the desert has become an ideal proving ground to develop rovers for the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Earlier this year, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories tested a rover-mounted chemical laptop that uses tiny amounts of water to identify amino acids, the building blocks for all life as we know it. Technology developed in the Atacama one day may be in use on the Red Planet.

Ancient life reveals itself in the Atacama, too. In the extreme dryness, nothing decomposes. Instead, the Atacama preserves everything that falls, everything buried in its sand. In 1983, elaborately mummified bodies were discovered near the coastal city of Arica. Named the “Chinchorro,” for a nearby beach, the mummies are nearly 8,000 years old, predating the Egyptians and their similar burial rites by nearly 2,000 years.

For all its dryness, there are parts of the Atacama where life is sustained. Fog and clouds are key. Moisture rolling in from the Pacific and clouds trapped by the Andes Mountains, only 60 miles to the east, provide occasional relief, enough to sustain the hardiest plants, insects and small birds.

About every seven years, especially when El Niño is active, the Atacama is spectacularly transformed. Greater volumes of warm, moist air push into the desert, awakening long-dormant flowers and turning dusty brown plains into exuberantly vibrant flowering fields of fuchsia, violet, red and white. In 2015, some parts of the Atacama near the Pacific coast were devastated by floods after receiving 0.96 inches of rain in a single day—what is typically a 14-year accumulation.

Eastern Exposure

A traveler’s hut is the only manmade structure for miles.

The eastern edge of the Atacama, not far from the Bolivian border, is where geology and habitat become showstopping attractions, the result of nature at its most tumultuous.

Dark, steep volcanoes are clustered throughout the region. On a still day, round flat clouds hover above them like smoke rings, suggesting that a fiery exhibition is still a possibility.

But the hissing and spewing these days comes from El Tatio, the highest-altitude geothermal pools and geyser fields in the world. At their best, the geysers’ spray reaches about 20 feet in the air. But it is their sheer number, the panorama of steaming, bubbling cauldrons that impresses and adds to the otherworldly atmosphere.

The small town of San Pedro de Atacama in more than one way serves as a gateway to the desert. At an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet, it serves as a base camp where visitors can get acclimated to the altitude before pushing into steeper regions of 14,000 feet, where many of the desert’s most stunning attributes are.

For those who want to experience the town, San Pedro offers rows of whitewashed adobe buildings, narrow dirt streets and a shady plaza at its center. Pedestrian traffic flows in and out of restaurants, art studios, gift shops and excursion outfitters.

It’s the streets that best show the convergence of international and local. Young, well-outfitted adventure travelers, retirement cruisers and family vacationers all blend amicably with an Andean population that experienced their first foreign influx more than 600 years ago, when the Incas expanded their empire from Peru.

The most iconic images near San Pedro de Atacama are those of Moon Valley, or Valle de la Luna. Whether in the pale lavender of sunrise or the deep tangerine of evening sky, the bare, wind-sculpted mesas earn their name because they so closely resemble a lunar landscape. On clear, dusky nights, a luminous evening moon centers beautifully over the valley, a silent endorsement of its namesake.

South of San Pedro, the hills become steeper and the turns sharper as the altitude climbs past 13,000 feet. Volcanoes rise in the distance, slivers of ice hanging like pendant jewels from their summits.

In a wide, flat stretch between two volcanoes, the majesty of Miñiques Lagoon appears. The late morning sun reflects off the still, glossy surface of the water, creating a mirror image stretched between the hillsides. Except for a few tourists who share a simple morning breakfast on the porch of a stone travelers’ retreat, there is no sound except the wind and no movement as far as the eye can see.

Of Nature and Man

A rock-bordered path leads to Miñiques Lagoon.

As groundwater-fed lagoons, Miñiques and its neighboring lagoon, Miscanti, are vital to the survival of wildlife.

Around each lake, narrow paths with stone borders are in place. Visitors are instructed not to stray. The balance of nature and man is so precarious that trampling the yellow tussock grass—food for the vicuñas and guanaco, more slender variants of the llama—or crushing bird nests hidden among them would further strain the desert life cycle.

At Los Flamencos National Reserve, about 19 miles from the salt flats, flamingos flap and fish in the briny shallows. The variation in coloring (red legs on a Puna flamingo, pink knees and feet for a Chilean and no pink or red on the legs of an Andean) make spotting them of interest, but their sheer volume also draws tourists to the seven protected areas near San Pedro de Atacama.

The mining industry is also taking a renewed interest in the Atacama Desert. Copper and iron mining have been vital to Chile’s economy since the 1800s. But the salty Atacama also has the most abundant, highly concentrated quantities of lithium, now highly sought after for use in batteries that power everything from cellular phones to electric cars.

The turquoise beauty of a lagoon at the Talar Salt Flats.

Well north of San Pedro, massive expanses of evaporation pools are spread in the glaring white sands. The mineral-rich brine deposits found underground are pumped to the surface to the pools, where the heat and wind of the Atacama speed evaporation. The brine beds are also rich in potassium, sulphate and boron. After some additional processing, these hidden compounds of the Atacama are shipped around the world.

As a result, world financial markets are now keeping a close eye on Chile’s lithium pricing and production.

For now, though, saline beauty and mineral mining are two very separate worlds in the Atacama. The unspoiled desert held tremendous appeal for Mathijs Campman and Geraldine Van der Meer. Over the years, the couple has traveled from their home in the Netherlands to Nicaragua, Mexico, Vietnam, Cuba and Africa. They were looking for something different.

“We saw all the pictures of the desert here and it was so beautiful,” Van der Meer says.

“We wanted something more about the outdoors,” Campman adds. “We wanted something totally unpredictable, and we found it here.”

Nathalie Troxler traveled to the Atacama from Toronto, Canada. Standing at the Talar flats, she lifts her face to the sun, eyes closed as a smile begins to spread.

“We debated coming, but then thought ‘Why deny ourselves this experience?’ ” Troxler says. “You have to see the enormity of this place, smell the air and feel the force of the wind.”

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