It may be one of South America’s top tourist destinations, but San Pedro de Atacama still has some remote places to discover, says Sarah Marshall.
A blindingly white plateau marbled with rust-red rivers and rimmed by volcanoes sharper than a newly sharpened pencil, Laguna Tebenquiche could easily pass for the beginning of time.
In fact, it has been scientifically proven.
In 2019, this section of the third largest salt flat in the world was placed under protection due to the existence of extremophiles – those resistant microorganisms whose metabolic activity introduced oxygen to our planet 3 years ago. 800 million years old. (These rare ecosystems are found only in Australia, Mexico and the highlands of Argentina.)
Traveling through crystalline pathways where these “living rocks” still thrive, I find it hard to project my mind that far back; it’s an infinity beyond the comprehension of our little brains, where everything has a beginning and an end.
Yet anything is plausible in this otherworldly environment of alien landscapes and night skies so clear that telescopes can reveal stars that lived and died long before humans first breathed.
In recent decades, the Atacama Desert has become one of Chile’s main tourist attractions. But popularity has brought with it an alien invasion of a whole different kind. Pre-pandemic big names such as the steaming geysers of the Tatio and the fantastic Valley of the Moon have been besieged by up to 1,000 tourists a day, forcing indigenous communities to abruptly close sites on their ancestral lands.
Covid, of course, has meant extended closures, allowing for an unexpected cooling-off period, leading many alyllus (family clans) to question whether they really want tourists again.
South of Tebenquiche, the Chaxa lagoon, an important breeding area for flamingos, has been off limits for three years, and there are no signs of its reopening. Prior to my arrival, activities in Moon Valley did not resume until three days later, due to an increase in Omicron cases.
On the plus side, operators and hoteliers clustering around the man-made tourist town of San Pedro have been busy scouting out new sites and finding other ways to visit old favorites. In many ways Covid could have been the catalyst to save this place.
A 990-mile strip of land north of Chile, sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, the Atacama is the world’s driest non-polar desert, encompassing three mountain ranges and formed over 150 years ago. millions of years. Stretching along the borders with Bolivia and Argentina, snow-capped volcanoes soar like rocket noses into the sky.
One of the most iconic, Licancabur, can be admired in all its glory from the terrace restaurant at Tierra Atacama Lodge & Spa, on the dusty outskirts of San Pedro. Built around a historic cattle corral, the adobe brick-built rooms are tucked behind sunflower-yellow doors, bushes laden with overripe pomegranates, opening to reveal their ruby jewels.
The property’s spa, complete with indoor and outdoor pools, is a highlight — but it’s the menu of activities led by trained guides that brought me here.
Although the hotel closed during the Covid, Cécile, a hiking enthusiast, chose to stay in San Pedro. “We survived on barter,” she told me proudly, as we set off on an excursion. “We learned to grow onions and corn like people did in the past.”
With no tourists in town, she and her friends spent their time researching new hiking routes and areas to explore, even digging up an undocumented petroglyph “in the books.”
Another great find from this period was an adventurous hike through the Rio Salado north of the Salt Mountain Range, now offered as an activity for Tierra guests.
Weaving through a steep-sided canyon, we wade knee-deep in an icy river so salty it leaves my legs glistening with crystals. I stop to munch on the brackish leaves of cachiyuyo plants (sprinkled as a condiment on salads), run my hands over fronds of pampas grass as fluffy as foxtails, and admire a flock of mountain parakeets fluttering overhead. above me like pieces of emerald confetti.
The greatest beauty of all? We are alone. Aside from the hoof prints of the wild donkeys, ours are the only footprints in the terra cotta sand.
Open to everyone without an entrance ticket, Rio Salado is one of the few community sites above ground. Another is Vallecito, which is also part of the famous Salt Mountain Range and often sold as an alternative to Moon Valley.
“It’s much better”, insists our guide, Christian, listing the assets of the “little valley”. “The crystal formations are more impressive, there’s the biggest sand dune in the area and it’s free.”
At sunrise, tiny lamellae of selenite sparkle in the rocks, electrifying the landscape. As temperatures rise, a mountain of salt begins to sing as the crystals expand and contract: a discordant chorus of dawn mimicking the patter of heavy summer raindrops on a scorching tin roof.
The abandoned shell of a bus, affectionately nicknamed La Micro, tells the story of Vallecito’s recent past: once used to transport salt miners, it became a makeshift bar during full moon parties and now serves as fodder for Instagram posts.
Covid restrictions make it much more difficult to interact with Atacamenos. But even before the pandemic, little was known about the heritage of the original landowners. Disorganized by the Inca and Spanish conquests, the history of human habitation is hazy.
A good place to start is Devil’s Throat, a small canyon near San Pedro. In the 16th century, the conquistadors fought their first battle with the nearby Atacamenos, while cave paintings of local llamas and alligators from distant lands were carved by nomadic traders up to 5,000 years ago.
A maze of trails carved by wind and rain, it’s a popular site for mountain biking and hiking. In the past, Tierra could take her guests for walks on a full moon, when the gypsum-speckled cliffs shone brighter than the stars of the night. For now, the community-run site is only open during the day – but it’s still one of Atacama’s lesser-known attractions.
I discover that not all adventures off the beaten track are a big secret. In some cases, it is simply the sheer difficulty of access that keeps the crowds away.
Although regularly climbed by visitors to Tierra, towering 5,604 meters above sea level, the extinct volcano Cerro Toco is not for everyone. Higher than Mont Blanc, it’s only a fraction lower than Kilimanjaro – but can (theoretically) be climbed in less than an hour.
Driving towards the start of the 5,100 meter trail, we pass through plateaus of coiron grass with acid hues of lemon and lime. At this height there are still patches of snow – even in the heat of summer – and sulfur-tinged icicles clinging desperately to the rocks.
Slowly progressing skyward, my words begin to flow as the air thins and the effects of altitude set in.
By the time I reach the top, with a 360 degree view of mint green lagoons, volcanic cones and horizons rising and falling like a stormy ocean, I’m not sure if it’s the view or a lack of oxygen that makes me dizzy.
Where are these extremophiles when I need them?
In the distance I can see the Atacama Cosmological Telescope, one of the tallest permanent devices of its kind in the world, and the remains of a dissolved sulfur mine – both reminders that tourism is not the sole economic interest of Atacama.
Chile is currently the world’s largest producer of lithium, a chemical element used in rechargeable batteries and in growing demand as the world shifts from fossil fuels to renewable energy. One of the largest reserves lies beneath the Atacama Salt Flats, and rumor has it that the closure of community-owned sites to tourism may be the result of mounting pressure from mining companies whose promises of financial rewards are too high. difficult to resist.
Whether true or not, the mere threat is another strong incentive for tourists to return.
If the numbers can be managed with care and the land treated with respect, there’s no reason the Atacama Desert shouldn’t remain a unique window into a world much bigger and bolder than us.
How to plan your trip
Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.co.uk; 03301 734 712) is offering a seven-night trip to Chile, including five nights’ B&B in Tierra Atacama from £3,150 pp (two sharing). Includes direct flights with British Airways, private transfers, domestic flights and two nights in Santiago.