4 Oct 2011

Atacama

The contrast could not have been more stark. Less than a month ago, I was visiting one of the wettest spots on earth. This weekend, I found myself in the most arid desert on earth: The Atacama in northern Chile. Amongst the many attractive destinations the country has to offer, I prioritized this spectacular place for one of the few weekend outings I can squeeze in. I had expected it to be different from anything I had seen before, and I was not disappointed.

From the moment the plane touched down on a sandy airstrip near a giant copper mine, I felt like I was visiting another planet. Had I arrived on Tatooine? Sand as far as the eyes can see, bizarre rock formations, barren ridges, dusty trails and hardly a shrub lined the road to San Pedro de Atacama, the oasis town that has grown from a small trading post into the hub of tourist activity for the region. Today, its compact center of adobe huts seems to host only tour agencies, eateries and handicrafts merchants, with gringo visitors duly shuffling from one to another.

With the sun beating down, I felt it wise to apply a generous layer of sunscreen before joining them, and as I reached for my bottle of lotion, I found it so bloated it was about to burst, thanks to the change in air pressure from Santiago to this 2500m desert valley. Yet this was only the beginning: The Andean altiplano was calling.

Spoilt for choice but pressed for time, I opted for a tour that took me out into the vast salt pan (something I only knew from an iconic Orange commercial), where flamingos waded through the brine. Pictures taken, our little van stuttered upwards past roaming vicuñas to reach the crystal clear twin lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques, some 4200m above sea level. In the absence of any precipitation, what would be an icy wonderland in the alps presented itself in its sheer barren beauty here, with the volcanos of the Andes gently puffing away in the background. Climbing up a little boulder, I immediately felt the shortness of breath, but sitting down on a rock, taking in the panorama and snacking on the summit supply of Ragusa, I decided that this was mountaineering to my taste.

In comparison with these sky-high adventures, the following day's bike ride through a desolate canyon named valle de la muerte, at a mere 2500m, seemed like a cream puff. Armed with nothing more than a bottle of water, a pocket knife and a mobile phone without signal, I pedaled off into the wilderness. With the tour groups not scheduled to hit this spot until much later in the day, I was soon completely alone in the overwhelming landscape. The silence, solitude and big sky felt liberating and meditative at first, but as the sun rose and the water level my bottle sank, I increasingly started contemplating the significance of the de la muerte bit in the area's name. Hmm, what if....

I abruptly turned around and cycled back to civilization. Being squeezed in with the crowds at the back of a plane never felt quite so reassuring as it did that night.

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