Salt, stars and survival in Chile's otherworldly Atacama Desert

Dotted with ruins and tattooed with petroglyphs, the moonscapes of Chile’s Atacama Desert also hold a repository of stories. Hike into mineral-coated canyons and camp under brilliant night skies to see how this arid landscape offers a gateway to the past.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

A cold, bloodless dawn breaks above the Andes, the yolk of a white sun spilling out across the Atacama Desert ahead.  I’m standing next to the ruins of a shepherd’s hut, 13,800ft above sea level. This altitude — over three times that of Ben Nevis — plus the fact I’ve been up since 4.45am mean my energy levels are close to zero. My skull feels like an empty shell. A cutting wind slashes around my face, causing my eyes to water, but as uncomfortable as this is, moving seems almost impossible. 

Given the circumstances, quite how Lily Marchant is able to spring over rocks towards me is baffling. The guide from Awasi Atacama hotel has a habit of bounding; enthusiasm comes to her more readily than it does to a sugar-spiked toddler. I can hear it in her voice when she asks: “Beautiful, no?” Ahead of us, great, dry plains stretch to the hazy horizon. To the north, Andean volcanos are painted pink, then a chalky orange by the rising sun. I pull my hood a little tighter and tell her I agree.

I first heard of the Atacama, as most people do, at school. The driest non-polar desert on Earth, “a place where they say it hasn’t rained for 100 years”, says Lily. “They told us that, too. It really stuck with me.” Born in the Colchagua Valley south of Chile’s capital, Santiago, Lily was raised among vineyards. Having lived in the arid ocean that is the Atacama for the past five years, when she goes home now, she has a renewed appreciation for the colour green. 

“When I first got here, it took me weeks to stop looking for trees,” she tells me as we retreat to the warmth of our car. “I grew up surrounded by mountains, but they aren’t as naked as they are here. When I visit home, I’m like a little girl, saying ‘Wow! Was this place always so green? Were there this many shades?’”

These days, Lily has found her green spaces, even here in the blasted moonscapes of the Atacama. For the length of my stay at Awasi, she’s determined to surprise me with them. The few, thin Atacama ‘facts’ I have at my disposal are mostly dispelled and I spend my time variously dazzled, confused and terrified by the profundities of this deeply weird place.

It may not rain much in the Atacama, but in certain areas it doesn’t need to. Andean meltwater is abundant enough to supply rivers, above and below ground. Wells provide water to the lonely oasis that is San Pedro de Atacama — once a vital refuelling station for traders and herders, now home to a community dedicated to tourism. Almost all residents are involved in one form or another, enabling the town to serve as a base from which travellers can explore the immensities of the desert. While San Pedro’s function may have changed over the centuries, its aesthetic is still that of an ancient outpost, with adobe walls, a gleaming white church and a salt-baked central plaza in which hippies seek shade under gnarled peppercorn trees. Those trees, with their deep roots, can reach the buried water, but north of the town the vegetation has readier access to liquid sustenance: a pair of rivers — aquatic arteries that flow through the desert like Biblical miracles. 

Signs of life

One afternoon, Lily takes me hiking along the waterways, following the Puritama River to the hamlet of Guatín. Leaving the bare rock of the roadside behind, we descend to the riverbed where a dozen or so plant species have set up home along the banks. They’ve been joined by dragonflies, lizards and a peculiar rodent called a viscacha. The size of a Jack Russell, with ears like a hare’s and a tail like a minuscule horse’s, it rarely spends time standing around in the open, instead preferring to flee beneath cacti or leap effortlessly across boulders. It’s the only creature I see that’s more adept at bounding than Lily herself. 

Qué lindo!” she shouts, as we run after one of these bizarre animals in the forlorn hope of catching up with it. How beautiful, indeed. But also, how dangerous. “I’ve heard about kids catching them back in town, thinking they could be a pet,” says Lily. “But they’re really aggressive. One killed a dog.”

We spend the rest of the afternoon trekking upstream, giant cardon cacti looming above us like skyscrapers, a series of pretty little waterfalls ahead. Amid the humidity at the waters’ edge, it’s easy to forget about the desolation beyond the canyon walls. 

The following morning, Lily takes me to the Putana wetlands to prove that the gorge was no fluke. This is probably her favourite place in the Atacama, she tells me: a wide river and marsh that freeze most nights, then thaw to allow its residents — giant coots, blue-billed puna teals and dozens more viscachas — to forage along it shores. The water here is so clear and rich in nutrients that it’s also home to fish and — although we never see them — is probably visited by members of the dwindling puma population.

A short drive down the mountain, in the village of Machuca, we find yet more wildlife eking out a living. The water has attracted flamboyances of flamingos, as well as geese, ducks and, as though they were missing the salt of the sea, Andean gulls. Looking out across the wetland, I’m reminded of being on safari. This wasn’t the Atacama I’d been told about in class as a child. But I was soon to find out that this desert can be hellish, too.

Memories & minerals

It’s difficult to know where to begin describing the Atacama’s dryness. It’s so dry that in places it may not have rained for 20 million years. It’s so dry that as I’m writing a note about the ceaseless desiccation, my new pen seizes up, its moisture also reaped by the Atacama. It’s so dry that Covid-19 rates here were some of the lowest in Chile — it seemed that even the hated virus couldn’t thrive in this harsh environment. For a time, locals took to leaving non-perishable shopping outside for half an hour before bringing it in, hoping the high UV levels and unrelenting dryness might have a sterilising effect.

As we stand next to the rusted skeleton of a bus in a nowhere west of San Pedro de Atacama, Lily tells me you don’t really get used to this environment, but learn coping strategies instead. Pointing to the bus, which looks about as dead as a vehicle can look, she tells me it was used to transport miners but, since being abandoned here, has served as a bar — a place to party in a shallow valley bleached by sodium and gypsum. Perhaps hedonism was a coping strategy for some, but the thought of a hangover in this charnel air makes my soul shudder with fear.

If, in your mind’s eye, a desert is defined by mighty, Saharan-style dunes, then you should know that the Atacama is quite different. It’s rockier, starker, meaner. Yet there’s a strange and terrible beauty to it all the same. Around the bus, the scene looks almost festive, with a dusting of what looks like snow covering most surfaces. This is evaporite, the remnants of saltwater long since carried into the ether by sun and wind. 

Above, the merciless sky hangs tight and blue and deadly. Driving off-road to get here, I’d noticed the skull and spinal column of an unlucky guanaco (a llama-like creature related to the camel) lying on the ground. Bleached white, it looked ready to blow away like ash. Elsewhere, Lily shows me a cliff face with long, serrated blades of pure sodium that looks like something from the pages of a fantasy novel.

Here, at 6,500ft above sea level, there’s salt where you’d expect to find soil; sulphur instead of snow; lithium and copper also — and a sense that life isn’t welcome here. Today, mining operations are draining the Atacama of its mineral riches. That pillaging happens far from San Pedro, but there are traces that it once took place around these parts, too. This flayed wasteland still holds remnants of former miners’ refugios (mountain huts), and as I follow Lily across a salt-crusted landscape, our feet crunching through the surface as though it were frozen, I notice a few rusty cans and other long-lost industrial remnants.

In other parts of the desert, there are far fewer artifacts. The Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet turned abandoned saltpetre mines into concentration camps during the 1970s and ’80s. The man, whose arrest for human rights abuses was described by his personal friend Margaret Thatcher as “a tragedy”, sent thousands of his own citizens to die up here in the desert’s furnace. The Atacama was a site of torture, murder and mass graves — all of those darkest human acts that we hope to learn from and leave in the past but never quite do.

Spread across over 40,000sq miles, the Atacama is a place to be both feared and respected. I can feel my lips drying and my hair follicles pleading for mercy during our excursion as a sapping wind blows relentlessly towards the Andes. Dust clings to my clothes and camera and, for a moment, it seems plausible the mountain range could have grown from millennia of this accumulated displacement.

Lily reassures me this isn’t the case by explaining the science behind the landscape: its history of tectonic shifts, of volcanic and seismic activity. As we cross a long-since-cauterised riverbed, I ask what she finds appealing about an environment that many others would find unbearable. 

“I like the quiet and the notion of timelessness,” she says, cheery as ever. “Being in the desert and so close to the Tropic of Capricorn gives us only two seasons: it’s either extreme summer or extreme winter. It reinforces the idea that time passes in a different way here.”

Lily never intended to stay in the Atacama. But after a few months here, she was drawn to it in ways she hadn’t expected. Now she has no plans to leave. “You need to give up on certain things to have the quietness,” she says. “I spent a couple of months in Santiago studying and I found I missed the eternal blue sky. Here it can be freezing or 40C, and still the sun will be shining.”

Window to the past

In the Atacama, the extreme brightness of the day is countered by the darkest night imaginable. Standing outside of San Pedro under the arthritic boughs of a carob tree, I’ve come to take photographs of the cosmos. As a waxing crescent moon sets behind the Loa mountains, the Milky Way appears like a distant storm. Shooting stars dart across the black so quickly as to seem imagined. Mars follows the moon over the horizon. The silence is breathless. The fabled Atacamanian night doesn’t disappoint.

As a photographer, I’ve had to learn about light and time. In that respect, I’m not alone in the Atacama — a few hundred people here think of little else. The altitude, the lack of light pollution and the near total absence of humidity combine to provide optimal conditions for celestial observation. Consequently, astronomers have been coming here for decades to explore the depths of our galaxy and beyond. When they do so, they’re always looking into the past — it takes just over a second for light to reach us from the moon, eight minutes and 20 seconds for it to get here from the sun. At greater distances, the astronomical numbers seem hard to believe. The light from the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy easily visible to the naked eye from the Atacama, is already 163,000 years old by the time it shoots into our retinas. The human race may no longer exist by the time Earth gets to see what’s happening there right now.

As the Atacama Large Millimeter Array — the world’s largest ground-based astronomical project — was being completed in 2010, documentary film director Patricio Guzmán released Nostalgia for the Light, which explored the relationship between the desert, the cosmos and time. In the film, Chilean archaeologist Lautaro Núñez says: “Here, the past is more accessible than anywhere else. The translucency of the sky is, for the archaeologists of space, what the dry climate gives us. It facilitates our access to evidence from the past. The translucency allows the astronomers to shed light on the mysteries of space… the desert is a gateway to the past.”

The film blends science with mysticism — two approaches that rarely share the same platform. But the longer I spend in the desert, the more naturally they seem to commingle: when we look at the sky or at rocks, we look into the past.

The valleys around San Pedro de Atacama are richly tattooed in petroglyphs: artwork left as far back as 2,500 years ago by herders and explorers leading great caravans of animals from the Andes to the Pacific coast. Stalked by thirst and desperation, theirs must have been a harsh migration. When they came across rare water, it’s little wonder they tarried for a while and drew what they could of their world on surrounding rocks. 

“Here you can see a camelid, maybe a llama or an alpaca,” says Lily, delicately running her fingers over the crude outline on ochre rock. “There you can see — quick! Turn around!” I instinctively protect my camera and eyes as a whirlwind spins past. “Here that’s called a cola del diablo,” says Lily, shaking dust from her hair. “The devil’s tail.”

The Atacama does strange things to the body and the mind, just as it does to the land and air. My guide tells me that salt miners used to hear voices while working at saline rock faces. They became so convinced that some kind of sprite was watching them that they’d leave offerings each evening.

Standing close to one of these old pits, Lily and I fall silent and listen as the earth groans and cracks, grumbling like an unhappy glacier. The great Chilean politician and poet Pablo Neruda heard these same noises during his time in the Atacama in the middle of the 20th century. ‘I shivered in those solitudes when I heard the voice of salt in the desert’, he wrote in the poem Ode to Salt. Neruda was describing the mineral’s journey from mine to table. But the line that speaks to me most about the soul of the vast, pitiless Atacama is its closing one: ‘In it, we taste infinitude’.  

Getting there & around

British Airways has weekly flights from Heathrow to Santiago.
Average flight time: 14h
The onward flight from Santiago to Calama, which is a one-hour drive from San Pedro de Atacama, takes approximately two hours with several daily routes offered by LATAM Airlines, Sky Airline and JetSmart. It’s also possible to take a 24-hour sleeper bus.It’s not practical to drive yourself around the Atacama as the terrain is challenging and conditions can be severe. Hiring a local driver and/or guide is recommended. 

When to go

For the best celestial photography, with reduced haze, visit during the austral winter (June to September). For the most varied wildlife experiences, November and December are ideal, before temperatures soar as high as 40C in the day during summer.  

Where to stay

Awasi Atacama, San Pedro de Atacama

More info

Latin American Travel Association
Chile Travel

How to do it

Journey Latin America has 14 days in Chile from £6,911 per person, with four nights in the Atacama Desert staying at Awasi Atacama. Includes flights from London, transfers, most meals, alcoholic beverages in the Atacama and daily excursions.

Published in the June 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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