OF SALT & STARS
National Geographic Traveller (UK)|June 2021
The dramatic moonscapes of Chile’s Atacama Desert are anything but vacant. Dotted with ruins and richly tattooed with ancient petroglyphs, this high-altitude playground, popular with adventurous travellers, is also a repository of stories. Hike into mineral-coated canyons and camp out under brilliant night skies to discover how this arid landscape offers a gateway to the past
JAMIE LAFFERTY

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.

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