Some locals say that when God created the world he had a few bits of different landscapes left over, and it was with these pieces that he finally built Chile. Glaciers, mountains, forests, beaches, lakes, salt flats, geysers, volcanoes and deserts – you name it, Chile has it. Remarkable, for a country which at its widest is only 350 km across.
We travelled through many of these contrasting environments as we made our way from Santiago through northern Chile, but there is one place that clearly stands out from the rest – the Atacama Desert. If the first analogy is to be believed then by the time God got to the Atacama he was really running low of earthly landscapes. One minute you could he standing on the moon, the next the surface of Mars.
With an average altitude of 4,000 meters; an average rainfall of just 15mm per year and some areas where no rainfall has ever been recorded – the Atacama is the highest and driest desert in the world. It is also thought to be the oldest desert, with scientists estimating that this hyperaridity has lasted at least 200 million years.
What water there is here is often highly concentrated with salt, or other chemicals spewed out from one of the 63 surrounding volcanoes. The temperature ranges from +40oC to -2oC (just within our short stay we experienced extremes of +35oC to -1oC in a single day).
Clearly the conditions are not particularly conducive to life! Yet for a few special species – including our own – this is home. There can’t be many tougher jobs than providing for your family by trying to farm on the slopes of an active volcano, where there has been no rain in 9 months!
But, apart from the odd exception, wildlife is obviously not abundant here. So unless you have a niche interest in vicuna’s (the species tame llamas are derived from) or flamingo’s, you shouldn’t come here specifically to see animals . Instead, natural attractions and the unusual altiplano scenery take centre stage.
In just four days, we visited the red rocks of the Valle De La Muerte; the moon landscapes of the Valle De La Luna; Chile’s largest salt flat, Salar De Atacama; El Tatio geysers, which is the world’s highest geothermal field; as well as several lagoons. All of which were completely different to anything I had ever seen. The highlight for us was definitely spending the afternoon floating in the salty Laguna de Cejar, which is in the middle of the salt flat, before enjoyind a pisco sour as the sun set and the moon rise behind a volcano.
If you want to witness landscapes that are truly out of this world, and you don’t have a ticket on a space flight anytime soon, then I’d strongly consider heading to the Atacama. It won’t disappoint.