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Over the moon

Chile's Atacama Desert an otherworldly experience

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"Before I arrived in this place," a guide tells us in Chile’s Atacama Desert, "I thought I had my life figured out. First, I’d go to school, then I’d get a job, get married, and have children."The guide, who is from the capital city of Santiago, spent a miserable year working in an office after graduating from university. She quit and moved to the desert. "After being here, I realize life doesn't have to follow a set pattern. Now I think anything is possible."

We're in the Salar de Atacama, the third-largest salt flat in the world. All around us are lumpy, football-sized pieces of salt rock. The falling sun makes the field whiter than bone. Like the rest of the Atacama Desert, the salt lake was covered in water more than 20 million years ago before being drained by shifts in the earth's land masses that opened ocean pathways.

It's not tough to see why one could question their world view in the Atacama, where the view is so seriously unusual. While here, a visitor often feels far away from reality -- if not in a movie set or on another planet, then in God's sketch pad.

A narrow, 1,000-kilometre strip of elevated land, the Atacama Desert is couched between the Andes and Domeyko mountains. Acting in combination, these ranges block rain-inducing weather systems from entering the desert and make it the driest place on earth. On average, the region gets only 15 to 20 millimetres of rain a year. Some areas in the Atacama have never had any recorded rainfall at all.

As the sun dips behind the Domeyko mountains, we cross the salt flat to a lagoon where flamingos linger. As tourists snap photos, the leggy, pink birds feed on microscopic brine shrimp. From behind us more flamingos swoop over, flying in squadrons of three.

For a visitor, it's difficult to imagine any life in this otherworldly place, much less flamingos. And yet not only do birds, llamas, and alpacas inhabit the Atacama, but humans, subsisting on pockets of underground water, have made this arid moonscape home for more than 10,000 years. Hunter-gatherers, originally from Asia, first settled the area. The driest place not only contains life, but a long, rich history.

The launching pad for any visit to the Chilean desert is San Pedro, which is built on an oasis at the foot of the Licancabur volcano. A grid of adobe buildings houses hotels, restaurants and Internet cafes. The town of 3,000 people has an economy that primarily caters to backpackers. Those who want to avoid roughing it can stay at Hotel de Larache, a lodge run by the Chilean luxury adventure company Explora, which has four swimming pools, a wine-tasting room, a spa, a stable of riding horses, and its own observatory for stargazing.

In San Pedro, one can visit a 16th-century church, but the area's first traces of human settlement by the Atacamen indigenous people, who once spoke a language called Cunza, go back for two millennia.

Tulor, the original Atacamenan settlement in the area, was first built in 100 BC and abandoned hundreds of years ago when erosion pushed the San Pedro River, which originates in the Andes, to the town's current location several kilometres away. The foundations of the ancient village are still intact, interlocked like honeycombs. Visitors can also step inside a reconstructed adobe house, which uses llama skin, as was the tradition, to tie together the ceiling beams.

Another human settlement from Atacama's distant past is Pukara Quitor, a Atacamen fort on a hill by the San Pedro River that was built in the 12th century. Three hundred years later, when the Incan people from Peru conquered and settled the area, the fort was used as an administrative centre. Spanish Conquistadors arrived a century later but had no use for the stronghold. Now partly restored, the tiered, stone structures on the hill were declared national monuments in 1982.

Outside these cultural excursions, one's time in Atacama is best spent exploring the varied landscapes by foot, car or horseback. One essential excursion is a visit to the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), a three kilometre-long crater in the middle of a salt mountain. To get to the moon-like crater floor, one first has to pass through wind-eroded fingers of rock and rhomboid monoliths, dotted with salt and gypsum crystals.

At the other side of the valley, one comes across a three-fingered rock formation called Las Tres Marias (The Three Marys), because it resembles three praying women, just as the moon rises in the darkening sky.

A different natural wonder awaits visitors at the Tatio geysers in the Andes at a nose-burning elevation of 5,000 metres. As the sun starts to rise, one can see the vicunas -- wispier, high-altitude versions of the llama -- off the dirt road.

We get to the geysers, which form when volcanic rock meets underground water, at seven. This early in the morning, the temperature is below freezing and the geysers pour out hot water, which boils at 85 C at this altitude. The steam billows out into huge, diamond-shaped forms, like monstrous genies.

Vans are already parked in the distance; other tourists have arrived before us. In fact, a bus full of German 20-somethings are in their swim trunks splashing in a chest-high pool heated by a geyser.

As the rising sun warms up Tatio and the steam grows clear, we settle for tea instead of a dip. I scratch my sunburnt forehead and think about the guide whose life was changed in a place where steam rises from the ground and life thrives where it doesn't rain.

-- Postmedia News


Getting there: LAN, Chile's national airline, flies to the city of Calama (an hour's drive from San Pedro) twice daily. To get to Calama you need to fly to Santiago, which has direct flights from Toronto and Los Angeles.

Where to stay: Hotel de Larache, (56 2) 206 6060,,

Hotel Tulur, (56) (55) 851027, reservas,

Don Raul Residencial, (56) (55) 851138, infodonraul. cl,

What to do: Hotels such as Explora's Hotel de Larache organize hikes and outings to various sites. Let's Tour Chile also offers tours:,(56) (55) 851573.

For history of the area, visit the Pare Le Piage Museum:

Rancho Cactus offers trips on horseback: (56) (55) 851506,,

San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations (SPACE) offers astronomical tours: (56) (55) 851935,,

For information visit the Tourism Chile website: (

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2011 D7

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