“What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well…”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Atacama Desert is known as the driest place on Earth. The average rainfall in Arica and Iquique is between 1 and 3 mm in a year, but some weather stations in Atacama have never received any rain. Despite all this, Atacama met us with rain and snow.
After long, exhausting day on unpaved roads and many surreal landscapes from Humahuaca, Argentina, we entered Chile through a mountain pass at 4,300 meters elevation. It was late and dark. The snow blizzard was a big surprise and we started asking ourselves if we are on our way to Atacama.
After an hour we reached the small town of San Pedro de Atacama and the weather finally become in tune with my expectations. Late at night, the temperature was at lovely 25 Celsius, the air was dry and fresh and … what a surprise: there were mosquitos waiting for me.
San Pedro de Atacama is a small adobe town with dusty streets. If you get rid of the tourists, it looks like taken from an old western movie. Like many other touristy places, the gringos outnumber the locals and it makes it to look odd.
We spent few hours, took few pictures and decided to set our base in the more remote oasis village of Toconao.
It was a good decision. We enjoyed all the beauty of the life in the dessert, but away from the tourist mobs. On our first night there, Ivan befriended Bruce, the mosquito. When we noticed him in our room, we run after him with our slippers for couple of hours. He proved to die hard, so we named him after Bruce Willis. After that, we spent the night in peace. On the second night, some younger friends of him came to visit and snacked heavily on us. They were rude, misbehaving, not very experienced in surviving, so I didn’t have problems to exterminate them. Ivan still claims, that Bruce is a friend, he will never eat us and he survived my crusade against the mosquitos in Atacama. I want to believe him.
Atacama Desert is more than 41 000 square miles of lunar landscape,
smoking geysers, golden and red sand dunes, perfect for surfing,
abandoned nitrate mining ghost towns,
clear lagoons, so salty, that you can float in, abundance of pink flamingos, vicunas and other wildlife.
For the five days we spent there, we only could scratch the surface and glance at its unreal beauty.
Moon Valley or Valle de la Luna
We explored Atacama for few days before visiting Vale de la Luna. We liked the desert, but we were not overly impressed. Yes, it is beautiful, it is arid, it is colorful, but we visited already many other interesting, colorful, and dry places. Vale de la Luna is just 17 kilometers away from the overcrowded San Pedro de Atacama and we were afraid that it will be full of gringos.
With one word, it blew our minds. It looks surrealistic, the colors and the shapes are out of this world. I’m not sure how the Moon really looks, but from the three other Moon Valleys we visited in South America, this one is the most spectacular.
The usual advice is to visit Valle de la Luna at sunset and enjoy the changing light, but a local guide tipped us to get a day ticket and visit once in the morning and then again at sunset. We took the advice and we were awarded with having all the place for ourselves in the morning.
No, no, the white thing on the pictures is not snow.
It is salt and finally I am warm in the desert.
Sunset at Valle de la Luna
Valle de Marte or Mars Valley
Very often the Mars Valley is referred as Valle de la Muerte or Valley of the Death. It is only across the road from Moon Valley but is very different. There are no white salt deposit and the main color of the sand is not golden but red.
Even the driest place on Earth could be full of life. We arrived in Valle de Marte at the end of the rainy season. The little rain the place received in last few months was sufficient for all the sleeping seeds. The place was spotted with beautiful miniature flowers, just few millimeters, with succulent dry leaves. You even can see small plant bugs on them.
Ojos de la Salar (Eyes of the Salt flat)
They are two circular lagoons in the middle of Salar de Atacama set very close to each other. From above, they look like sad blue eyes. From the ground, they are a perfect spot for pictures.
Laguna Cejar and Laguna Piedra
Finally, I can swim! There are probably only two places on Earth where this could happen – Dead Sea and Laguna Piedra. The water is so salty, that according to Ivan, no one could drown, even me. Anyway, I didn’t trust him and stayed around the shallow water. But he enjoyed his buoyancy.
The salt on my skin make me look like a piece of art.
Salar de Atacama
A local guide told us that 50% of the world reserves of lithium are in Salar de Atacama. One form Bolivia told us earlier that 60% are in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. As far as I know, there are also at least 60% in Australia, and some smaller percentages in China, Argentina, US and some other countries. Well, even with my math knowledge it doesn’t seem right, but the truth is that Chile is one of the largest producer of lithium.
The Salt flat in Atacama is very different from the flats in Argentina and Bolivia.
The salts here is mixed with soil and is formed into art like forms and sculptures. Still, it is beautiful.
Geyser del Taito
The next advice we followed was awful. Everyone says that you must visit the Taito geyser as early in the morning as possible. That’s why we decided to spend the night in the car in front of park and to be first there in the morning. Sleeping in the car at 4,300 elevation and negative temperatures is not something new to us, so we arrived at the entrance at dusk and asked politely to spend the night at their parking. We got a strange look and permission.
After a while, little Mama fox and her two youngsters came to check on us. One of them was pretty brave and came just a meter away and looked curiously at me.
We dined on the backseats, set the sleeping bags, brace for the cold and even set the alarm for 5 am. We didn’t want to be “the stupid gringos that overslept on the parking lot”.
We woke up at 4 am frozen and spent the remaining two hours until opening of the park chattering our teeth and thinking about the amazing, mind blowing geysers expecting us.
At 6 am, Ivan crawled out of the car, bought the quite expensive tickets and we entered the park, followed by busses arriving from San Pedro and full of other tourists. It was cold (-10 C), it was dark, it was packed with people.
Just imagine a mob of two hundred silhouettes with torch lights strolling through shady, smoky field the size of a soccer field, trying to see something in the dark.
And Ivan with his pathological hatred for crowds in the middle of it. Simply recipe for disaster.
The last, but not the least we visited Piedras Rojas and Laguna Agua Calientes. Don’t be fooled by the name, the water in the lagoon is freezing cold. But the place is exceptionally beautiful.
The red stones are created by frozen lava, the sand is white and the lagoon is blue. We were planning to spend one more night in the car at this striking place, but two nights in a row at over 4,000 meters and the cold we felt the previous night discouraged us. We decided to drive to Argentina instead and around 6 pm we reached the border at Paso Seco. We were the first and looks like the only people crossing the border that day. The officer changed the date before stamping our passports. He checked our car and luggage for half an hour, while chatting with us about our trip and the places we visited. I think he was bored and simply enjoyed our company.
‘I was looking at all the life There were plants and birds and rocks and things There was sand and hills and rings
You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name…”
Growing up in mild climate and green surroundings, I always thought that the desert is harsh place with no life in it. Atacama proved me wrong. It mesmerized me. It is full of life and color. It is beautiful.