Slightly to the west of the Gringo Trail, an arid and drab immensity fills the void between northern Chile’s top destinations of Iquique, Antofagasta, and San Pedro de Atacama. Sometimes a bus, ferrying tourists between holiday destinations, stops briefly near the odd salt flat or geoglyph bedecked hillside. For most, however, these forlorn stretches of South America occupy a space between complete mystery and utter emptiness.
Coca Coello and Marco Fernández-Concha, owners of the El Huarango Ecocamp, on the outskirts of La Tirana, told us that the desert was anything but empty. To the beat of reggaeton rhythms blaring from her cell phone, Coca scattered maps and brochures across a rough-hewn wooden table and filled their empty spaces with tales of dinosaur bones, fossilized waterfalls, salt flats and the ghosts of empires past.
“Explore my home,” she said and we obeyed.
At a sleepy roadside eatery in La Tirana, a woman served us a lunch of meat and rice and told us the tale of her town’s unusual name.
The Tyrant, in her telling, was an Inca princess, who earned her title by making war on the Spaniards. She killed many of Diego de Almagro Valdivia’s men but eventually fell in love with one of the conquistadores. As she began to adopt Spanish ways and convert to Catholicism, her skin turned pale white. On the eve of her baptism, her own people killed her, on the orders of her father.
Our hostess next told us of a table that moved of its own accord in a neighboring village, “maybe Huayca.”
“I haven’t seen it myself, but I know a señora in the village who has. One night, it climbed on top of an old woman’s roof, even though the priest had chained it down.”
She then spoke of the beautiful desolation of the high desert, of having few neighbors, but boundless space for her five-year-old to play in and of the subterranean streams that her husband was tasked with finding and into which he dug wells. Everything she said sounded lonely but for the way in which she said it.
The cook’s tales seemed less strange as we listened to the sound of glacial ice popping in the sun’s heat at the Salar de los Pintados. Long familiar with the sound in our native Southeast Alaska, here it produced a sense of geographical dissonance as if we had discovered a place where Euclidean geometry failed and new rules let us straddle our world of ice and this one of salt and sand.
The reality proved no less amazing than our fantastical first impression. The desert’s daily temperature extremes force the continual expansion and contraction of the salt crust, fracturing it into a continually evolving pattern of wide and brittle flakes that slowly shift across the desert surface.
Geoglyphs left by past people observed us from the hillsides above. “Put llamas here,” one seemed to say.
The glyph in question depicted a stick figure llama walking towards an arrow pointing down between two squares. Half-buried remnants of rectangular mud-walled buildings rose feebly to meet the arrowhead.
A placard at the site’s single room museum suggested that my simple interpretation may not have been half bad. The Salar de los Pintados was once used as a trading post and watering hole for traveling llama herders.
Dozens of other geoglyphs blanketed the hillsides. Hunters, fishers, numerous sea creatures and iterations of the Andean Cross broadcast their presence for kilometers. A glance across the surrounding infinity of fractured salt crusts spoke to the need for markers on such a grand scale. One requires little effort to imagine a lone herder becoming disoriented while crossing this bleakly beautiful terrain.
Further down the highway and tucked deftly into the desert’s obscuring folds, a drop of the deep cerulean sky lands in the desert’s brown hills to form the Salar de Llamará. Saltgrass born before my great-grandparents lined the salar, drawing up the water and sweating out the salt through pores on their fibrous stalks. Crystalline waters allowed unobstructed glimpses into the strange world of extreme salt water. Saltier than the Dead Sea, the presence of life here tempts the imagination with the possibility of life beyond Earth’s confines.
Despite the eye-opening beauty of the salar’s surface, the real treasure lies beneath. Difficult to see and all but impossible to photograph from the site’s boardwalk, hardy brine shrimp forge symbiotic relationships with salt-loving bacteria to cultivate crops of algae and survive in this precarious habitat.
A circle of life in miniature plays out just beyond the limit of human vision. Cyanobacteria provide growth conditions for the algae, which the shrimp eat with the help of yet more brine-loving bacteria colonizing their guts and without whom, said algae would be indigestible. Scientific mysteries abound. How exactly do the shrimp’s bacteria enable them to live in this salty environment? Do the cyanobacteria benefit from the presence of the shrimp? These questions and many others remain areas of active scientific research and suggestions are welcome.
Shimmering curtains of sand blown up by the wind dropped into the distance as we ascended the mountains that separate the previous salares from the Salar del Huasco. We rounded a curve in a road that the desert sand intently sought to reclaim and an otherworldly landscape stopped us in our tracks.
The Salar del Huasco is nature that defies our ideas of nature. Its borders with the surrounding sand are too sharp, too well defined. They have clearly been etched into the terrain with an enormous Exacto knife. As our eyes adjusted, dots of green that were too green appeared along its western edge. Pink specks of flamingos moved languidly through a saltwater haze in the very center of this window to an alien world.
The harsh desert environment cut our visit short. Planning to camp, but with no natural protection available, we picked a flat place and set out to explore the salar on foot. Only minutes later, the sandstorm that we had seen so far below us swung around a nearby ridge and barreled up our shallow valley. Balking at the prospect of making camp and trying to cook in the storm and uncertain how long it might last, we took comfort in our mobility and retreated to el Huarango for a night of relative safety.
I understood my misinterpretation the second I spied the waterfall in Reserva Arqueológica Guatacondo. Several hours and nearly a half tank of fuel on a rocky 4×4 track up a dry valley delivered us to the base of a waterfall improbably frozen in the middle of the desert. Successive layers of mineral deposits had precipitated out of the cascading trickle of water, resulting in a grey and yellow facsimile of a much larger waterfall.
Coca had earlier told us tales of fossilized dinosaur bones and when the subject of the fossilized waterfall arose, I conflated the two things. We now had only enough fuel to return to the gas station that we had last used, the next one in our desired direction lying over 100 miles distant.
With little to do regarding our fuel, we set out to enjoy the view and explore the area. With better planning, this would have made an unforgettable campsite. Silent clues of long-gone water flow hinted at unimaginable passages of time. Rivers once sculpted this now-barren topography, feeding the trees that have since evolved into their own tombstones, ageless half-buried stumps condemned to an arid purgatory in a land too dry for either decay or petrification.
Our mistaken path didn’t rule out dinosaur bones. “No one comes here but the mines,” Coca had said, “so no one knows how many bones are waiting to be found.” The accordion folds of the enveloping mountainsides hid within them a lifetime of exploration. All that we could see merely hinted at the enormity of what we could not.
Hours later, we coasted into a gas station on fumes and an old man with hands as wrinkled as the mountains he was a part of filled our tank. “There aren’t many fuel stations around here,” I commented lamely.
“Es el desierto,” he replied.
If you look at the map just right, South America is a smallish continent, whose land narrows rapidly in its southward trajectory. Maps lie. Vast distances unfold between only lightly inhabited points. The traveler who dares to explore the expanse must face his or her own smallness in the world. Reinforcing the sense of otherworldliness, many way markers, whole villages, fail to appear on Google maps, as if belonging of another world, or perhaps to another time before humanity had sent eyes into the heavens to report back to us how they saw our world.
The traveler in this desolate expanse must forge their own way through it. Away from established routes, more information exists by mouth than online, demanding a measure of the self-reliance that desert environments have always brought out in those who wander through them.
Those who go will be rewarded. Before we parted ways, the cook, whose husband dug wells near La Tirana, gazed across her beloved expanse and sighed, “I wouldn’t trade this for anything.”
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
MSR Windburner Stove: The Atacama is a cold and windy place with scant natural protection. This handy wind-protected stove ensures you a hot meal, or just hot water when you need it.
San Pedro de Atacama Topographical Travel Map: If you’re going to explore the Atacama, get ready to experience data and wifi blackouts. Even apps that rely on GPS can fail as a backup when you need them the most (I’m looking at you, maps.me and your latest iPhone interface). An old-school paper map can go a long way towards keeping your adventure from turning into a nightmare.
GoalZero Solar Recharging Kit: Two things you’ll find in the Atacama are lots of sun and few outlets. Electronic gear like cell phones are handy even when you can’t get a wifi signal, so don’t let yours go dead on you in the middle of nowhere.