On the Map, Off the Grid: A Journey Through the Atacama Desert

The map spread out on the table in front of us is peppered with dots and annotations. Small scribbles noting special stargazing spots, little-known hikes and viewpoints, the best places to see flamingos at that time of the year - everything we'd need to guide our steps throughout the course of the next week. I look at the map and see a potential wealth of experiences and adventure that triggers a frisson of excitement.

We are in a small parking lot in San Pedro de Atacama, the largest town in Chile's Atacama Desert and the jumping off point for our week-long foray in a campervan across the world's driest desert.

"You need to stock up on food, water and sunscreen in town", warns Karen, the local manager at Wicked Campers, the campervan rental outfit we are hiring our brightly coloured transportation for the week from. "Once you get out into the desert, there are a few very small villages and hamlets but they're few and far between, and you can't rely on them for your provisions."

I come to understand the sageness of this advice later in the trip. With the exception of a few stops for meals in villages tucked away in the high reaches of remote dusty roads, that initial time in San Pedro de Atacama provides us with our sustenance for the week to come.

Eager to get on the road, I hurry round the small local shop that is the nearest thing to a supermarket in San Pedro. Groceries duly purchased, it's then a matter of filling up the tank and getting on the road.

By the time we are all packed up, I am already hot and grimy. The dry heat, tolerable out in the open desert settles over the narrow streets of San Pedro de Atacama in a thin haze of ever-present dust. Gritty-eyed and slightly sticky, we get into the van, opened the windows and turn the fan up to full blast to encourage just the smallest bit of air circulation.

Pool Goals

Fortuitously, one of the nearest places on the map is the Cejars de Ojos - two almost perfectly round natural pools near the top of the vast Atacama salt flats. The sun had baked the ground to an almost unbearable temperature, demanding a quick hop between the van and the pools in bare feet. The cool relief as I ease into the water is a welcome contrast.

"What do you think we'd be doing if we were at home?" I ask my companion as we float in the pools, buoyed a little by the slight salinity of the water and staring up at the sky. "I don't know, it feels so far away, it's hard to even picture it at the moment". It is true. The lazy swimming strokes in the cold water and the sun beating on my face is a world of its own, demanding that I focus on the beauty of the surroundings and nothing else. Until the hunger kicks in.

We make our first meal in the back of the campervan next to the pools and sit down to eat it on our portable picnic table and chairs, to the delight of the bus load of tourists who turn up as we are midway through our makeshift meal. "Do you mind if I take a picture?" one asks, already wielding her camera in our faces. "Sure, not a problem", I reply, then do my best to look nonchalant as if people snap me eating at the back of a bright yellow campervan in the middle of a desert every day.

Starry Nights

Unsurprisingly, with the camerawoman still lurking well after we finish our meal, we don't linger long, instead opting to drive a few miles further to Laguna Tebinquinche. Tebinquinche is a vast lake famous for its perfectly reflective waters that take on the hues and moods of the surrounding skies and volcanos. At first we plan to only stay for a few hours but, as the sun starts to set and the lake comes ablaze in a riot of rich colours, we decide that it's as good a place as any to spend the first night and open a bottle of celebratory Chilean red wine.

After an extraordinary sunset, another equally entrancing show starts to begin. The Atacama Desert is blessed with the clearest nighttime skies on the planet. Its high altitude, lack of pollution and near-constant dryness mean it is almost unparalleled when it comes to looking at the night sky.

Within moments, the sky takes on another dimension. Everywhere I look there are twinkling stars, bright planets and shooting stars.

Flirting with Altitude

We bump our way up the road, dodging cars driven by locals who know the roads too well and navigate their vehicles with too little caution. Our destinations are two lesser-visited high altitude lakes, the Salar de Capur and Salar de Talar, both accessed on a small road that eventually leads to Argentina. As we drive upwards, we watch as the landscape changes from the pale hues of the salt plains to dull red volcanic earth, spotted with tufts of bright yellow grass and thorny flowers.

By the time we reach the Salar de Capur, we are at an altitude of over 4,000 metres. Though I proclaim to not be feeling any noticeable effects, I eat my words after I've pulled on my hiking boots and taken a few (very breathy) steps. Maybe it's the scenery - where Laguna Tebinquinche had been still and reflective, the waters of Salar de Capur are coloured an almost unreal pale turquoise, a landscape rendered even more vivid by the pastel-pink salt crust surrounding the lake and purple-hued volcanos behind.

While the map promises adventures and exploration, it's not always so good at the specifics. Karen had told us about a relatively short hike to the Piedras Rojas (red rocks) for the best views over the salar. As we look around, we realise that we have absolutely no idea which direction to head in to reach the rocks, but set off for the far side of the lake with the reasoning that the already spectacular view is unlikely to get worse.

It's slow going. The altitude seems to affect me worst, which makes me slightly put out. Every step feels like I am running, not walking at a snail's pace. Still, we make it to the Piedras and the view is every bit as impressive as Karen had promised.

Driving back down into the valley of the Salar de Atacama and up out of the other side, we find a spot that is miles away from any main road and pull up in the shadow of a range of small mountain foothills, patterned with seams of salt. It's time to watch the nightly star show unfold. There is no one around, no noise, no cars and the stars come out in full force before being eclipsed by rising moon around midnight.

Sunrise at the Valle de la Luna

"If you go to the Valle de la Luna at sunset, you'll have to fight the crowds to see it. If you go at sunrise though, it's the opposite story. No one really knows that you can go to the Valle in the morning so nobody does." As we make our way blearily to the front of the van at 5AM, we can only hope that Karen is right. Thanks to a few misjudged calculations on my part, the sky is already getting light and we have a way to drive to the valley's entrance.

It's always the roughest road that you encounter when you need to make the fastest time. By the time we arrive at the Valle de la Luna, my teeth are chattering and my neck slightly sore from all the jolting around in our breakneck bid to race the sunrise. Luckily, getting in is a breeze and once we're inside it quickly becomes apparent that Karen was right - there's no one else here.

The Valle de La Luna translates into English as the valley of the moon. No visitor will ever question why. The jagged peaks and salt-crusted rocks invoke more than a touch of other-wordliness about them. Walking through it is like walking through some giant lunar landscape, or perhaps one from mars given the reddish colour of the rocks. The sunrise only serves to emphasise this effect, bathing the whole thing in hues of orange and red.

The Last Moments

I drink in the scenery before me. The largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world slowly coming to life as the quickly changing temperature at sunrise causes the geysers to bubble and erupt.

The water boils at a temperature at 85 degrees celsius, a lower boiling point because of the altitude. It's the contrast between the geo-thermal heated water and the very cold outside temperatures (it can dip to -30) that causes one of Chile's most dramatic natural spectacles.

El Tatio geysers have long been held as a sacred site by the Atacama's indigenous people and there's an undeniable magic and violence as the fumaroles hiss, burp and spurt as far as the eye can see. My fingers are cold as I try to position the tripod and time the shutter to capture the geyser directly ahead as it erupts. I'm entranced. I could stay in the same spot for hours, but as the temperature gets warmer, the geysers become less active, subsiding into a state of inactivity to keep their magic for another day.

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