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

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

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

“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

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

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

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

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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