Landing at Calama airport, the landscape took our breath away; a vast plateau stretching out in front of us as far as the eye could see, broken only by several jagged mountain ranges and huge salt basins, shimmering in the sun. On the horizon we could make out the Andes and the snow-capped chain of volcanos. On the ground, dust spiralled up and trailed behind the huge super trucks travelling along the mining roads. Calama is a major mining town and as the copper mining industry took off in 1915, it’s labours are considered a key indicator of the Chilean economy. Chuqicamata or Chuqui as its known locally is the largest open copper mine in the world.
We headed 110km south east to San Pedro de Atacama on a near empty highway that cut through the plateau, salt ridges flanking the road, signally our approach to town – the clay and salt crusted ridges, pushed by volcanic activity and shifting plates, had been shaped by the weather and resemble the spiny backs of weird pre-historic monsters. San Pedro de Atacama is pretty much an oasis in a barren land and sits close to 2500m above sea level.
It looks almost Spanish with its cactus roofed 16th century Iglesia de San Pedro, pretty tree-lined plaza and adobe shuttered buildings, selling trinkets galore (mainly Bolivian) and trips into the desert, plus open doorways offering the promise of a cooling beer or home made juice and empanadas inside.
Luckily we had found our own little oasis in the shape of Atacama Wellness Ecolodge, just outside town. With its great food, hot tub, hammocks and shady terrace plus full programme of tours/activities, we would find little time for massages and a siesta, let alone time to paint the town!
Keen to experience as much as we could in four days in one of the driest places in the world, we headed out bright and early the next morning for our first hike in the desert. Setting off near the small village of Machuca (pop. Eight!!) we headed down the valley, surprised to see a coating of ice across the wetland’s mossy lichen and tiny streams. Mind you, we were starting out at altitude, nearly 4,000m. We followed the course of the rocky and empty river bed with its patchy tall ‘fox tails’ and sturdy fustica grass, used to make roofs. Grazing llamas eyed us quite casually as we walked by, staying close to the corrals and munching on the short tufty grass and tola bushes, that smelt like eucalyptus and rosemary. The domesticated version of guanacos we had seen running wild, these were bred for their wool. We decided they wouldn’t get any points for being smart as we walked round a pretty unconvincing llama “scare crow” on the trail… Wearing a safety helmet and clothes stretched over a few sticks, it apparently stopped them wandering too far!
We stayed with the river as it meandered towards an old Atacameno settlement, stepped and irrigated from snow melt streams, with clay baked stone walls, fustica roofs and occasionally still used by shepherds tending their flocks of llamas. The perfect lunch stop, we hungrily tucked into chicken sandwiches and juicy oranges, washed down with a kiwi juice drink – a fave of our guide.
After slapping on more sunscreen, we picked up the pace a little as we carried on down the valley – the narrow gorges off to either side, now giving way to a broad plateau and views of our first cactus plants, standing tall on the sheer scrubby side of the mountain. Sad as this may sound, we had been looking out for them, as they were the stereo typical plants we were expecting to see. We weren’t disappointed! Some of them were seriously huge – single “pillars” and branched “candelabras” – that had been slowly reaching out to the sun for some 600-800 years!
Across the plateau, the scenery was couldn’t be more different; barren layer cake rock, with massive erosion in places, battered by winds and weathered by time. Further down the valley the contrast was greater still; cacti replaced by a swaying bright blue lupins and lush grassed banks near to the widening river bed. It seemed at each and every turn we made, the landscape changed offering amazing views as we headed towards the nearby Rio Grande and our pick up point.
The next day we set off even earlier – in the dark – as we wanted to see the Geysers del Tatio in the early morning light when they would be at their most active and impressive. En route, we watched as the temperature gauge dropped and ice began to form on the windows – inside! – as we climbed higher. We kind of wished we hadn’t agreed to Fabian, our guide, suggesting we mirror conditions outside to aid acclimatisation. It was -6 degrees and falling!
We soon forgot just how cold it was when we approached the geysers, not just a handful, but loads of them! Amazingly, together with hot springs, bubbling mud pools whispy fumaroles, (steam and gas vents), they cover almost four square miles and at 4300m are the highest geysers in the world. Gingerly we approached our first one, staying behind the stepping stones that marked “safe territory”, peering into the warm steam of the fumaroles, listening with bated breath to the gurgling of hot subterranean water below, as it built up pressure…..Whoosh!! With little warning, jets of boiling water erupt from the cracks, spraying high into the air at various angles.
Together with fellow Brit, Siobhan and a couple of Californians from the lodge, we picked our way through the geysers, marvelling at how different they were; some with fumaroles that reached close to 10m, others, were a vast mass of bubbling boiling water shrouded by the steam. Thankfully all were without the nasty sulphurous odour, you would expect to find. In the early morning sunlight, with the backdrop of the Andes and ‘smoking’ Licancabur volcano, the landscape was quite something!
Just as our fingers started to turn numb from the cold, the breakfast picnic our guides had brought along was served ; a feast of cold cuts, breads, preserves and sweet cakes, served with mochas made from nescafe and hot chocolate – tetra packs heated in a thermal pool of water. Boiling at close to 85 degrees because of the altitude, it certainly brought some feeling back into our hands!
Later that evening, when we would normally have been safely tucked up in bed, we ventured into San Pedro de Atacama to check out the night sky at one of the observatories. With zero light pollution Atacama is the perfect place for star and galaxy gazing – even with the naked eye you could make out the Milky Way and various constellations, although few we could name. Mind you, we were now in the Southern Hemisphere, so nothing looked the same as it did back home.
We had our own Patrick Moore, in the shape of Miguel, who with the aid of a really neat laser guide literally pointed out Saturn, the Southern Cross, Tropic of Cancer, Alpha and B Crux and the Scorpion to name but a few. We then headed into the cupola, that housed their prized telescope. As he lined up the revolving roof and telescope, we wondered what we would actually be able to see….looking through the lens with its 120 times magnification, the tiny twinkling stars took on different colours, that gave away their age, the rings around Saturn became thick bands of white, galaxies in other solar systems unfolded as we learnt more about the sky at night. Time flew by and before we knew it, our grown up stargazing session was over. As we headed back to the lodge, it dawned on us just how insignificant planet Earth is.
Next morning, we were delighted when Marketa, the lodge owner, offered to play host and guide and bring along with her two Labradors. Not sure who was more excited, us, or the dogs as we drove across the plateau towards Valle del Arcoiris, or Rainbow Valley, as it is better known – for a very good reason. Amphibole, calcium, salt and other mineral deposits had permeated the mountainous volcanic clay valley, staining them in bizarre layers; green, blue, grey, white and orange and ochre. Impregnated with tiny shards of gypsum the slopes sparkled and glittered in the sunshine.
We marvelled at the wind sculpted clay ridges and unexpected beauty of the valley. Scrambling up to get a better view, Leo and Zoe ran up and down, panting for breath and having a great time too.