Atacama: A Desert With Many Faces

Our destinations

Machuca, a tiny, nearly deserted Atacama town. The small table indicates tourists can buy a few souvenirs. The small white building visible above and behind the houses is the church, sitting on grounds surrounded by a wall, also visible.

Machuca, a tiny, nearly deserted Atacama town. The small table indicates tourists can buy a few souvenirs. The small white building visible above and behind the houses is the church, sitting on grounds surrounded by a wall, also visible.

• Ancient petroglyphs are seen in an area called Yierbas Buenas. Ancestors of today’s native Atacamenos carved the petroglyphs into reddish volcanic rocks between 500 and 3,000 years ago. The figures, sometimes reached only by climbing up among the rocks, typically show llamas and shamans with an occasional fox.

• Moon Valley is located in the Salt Mountain range but is named for its lunar-like

Moon Valley in the Atacama Desert, viewed at sunset from a popular lookout. Another group views the sunset from a lookout visible at far left; the scene indicates the sweeping grandeur of the site.

Moon Valley in the Atacama Desert, viewed at sunset from a popular lookout. Another group views the sunset from a lookout visible at far left; the scene indicates the sweeping grandeur of the site.

surface. The U.S. has used the terrain to test a model for a Mars robot.

We got close to it ourselves, walking and climbing through a dry cave covered with salt that we got all over our clothes. This ended with a climb up a hill, via insecure-looking chunks of salt, where we could get a new slant on the place.

But, for the most striking views of the dramatic lunarscape, we drove outside Moon Valley to a point called the Coyote lookout to see the effects of the sunset on the valley and the mountains beyond.

• There are some 80 Tatio Geysers about 90 minutes’ drive from San Pedro and more

Billowing steam rises to the height of a multistory building before sunrise at the Tatio geyser field.

Billowing steam rises to the height of a multistory building before sunrise at the Tatio geyser field.

than 14,100 feet above sea level.
The Atacama has geysers because snowmelt flowing underground confronts the hot magma of a volcanic zone, producing steam and a great pressure to escape.

The phenomenon is most impressive at sunrise when hot water hits very cold air, producing dramatically billowing steam.

For our August visit, we departed our hotel at 5:15 a.m. to arrive in time for a bracing (23F) sunrise walk among the geysers in thin air.

We stuck to marked paths (people have gotten too close with fatal results), observing the bubbling hot water at the base of geysers and, of course, the steam. Visitors also took dips in a hot springs on site, but not me.

Pink flamingos seen at the Chaxa Lagoon in the Atacama Desert’s salt flats.

Pink flamingos seen at the Chaxa Lagoon in the Atacama Desert’s salt flats.

• We were entranced by flamingos at the Chaxa Lagoon, which sits inside the desert’s roughly 1,160 square miles of salt flats. Our guide said these flats, about an hour’s drive from San Pedro, are the world’s third largest, after those in Bolivia and at Utah’s Salt Lake.

As we approached the flats, sparse vegetation disappeared as land became saltier. Our guide pointed out volcanoes, too, including one called Llullaillaco, which indigenous people consider sacred. The Incas left sacrificed children on this volcano, and those mummies are now in a museum in Argentina.

At the salt flats, we followed a designated path surrounded by barren mounds of salty earth, leading to still water, in which a snow-capped mountain was reflected and where a smattering of flamingos ate the tiny shrimp that give them their pink hue. Our guide said they eat all the time and asked us not to disturb them with our voices.

We saw other birds, including avocet, plover, and sandpiper.

After collecting a zillion photos, we drove back to the hotel.

A touch of urbanity

A cafe in the main square of San Pedro de Atacama.

A cafe in the main square of San Pedro de Atacama.

More than a million people live in the Atacama. San Pedro, the largest oasis, accommodates only a fraction — 6,000 people in greater San Pedro. The altitude is a

Shops in San Pedro de Atacama.

Shops in San Pedro de Atacama.

bigger number: 8,100 feet.

San Pedro is charming, with a large central square, the 18th century adobe San Pedro Church and streets lined with low-rise, mostly white shops, restaurants and small hotels and hostels. I was struck by the well-designed signage on many establishments. San Pedro also is home to a noted archaeological museum.

Tourism is obviously a mainstay in San Pedro. I walked through, but many Atacama visitors cycle in the area and include the village on their itineraries.

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

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