Exploring Chile's Atacama Desert

The sands of the Atacama hide a mysterious past, as Paul Morrison discovers in northern Chile

4 mins

“There is a legend,” said Juan, “Of a shepherd who was driving his sheep through here and met the devil. He led them to their deaths over a cliff – this is why it is called Valle de la Muerte.”

But the ‘Valley of Death’ seemed far too beautiful to have such a sinister past, and though the rock took on a fiery hue in the late afternoon sun, it was more my idea of heaven than hell on our horse-ride through the desert. Wind-sculptured waves of pink rock burst from the sparkling sand against a background of volcanic peaks. The only cloud in the deep blue sky was a distant plume of steam rising from a smouldering crater.

“I love the desert,” called Juan, as we reached the ridge overlooking the valley. “I am an Atacameño!” His proud declaration was poignant, for the local people, particularly the indigenous communities, have often felt excluded from the increasing tourism in the region. Outsiders, even other Chileans, are viewed with suspicion by the Atacameños, but to Juan the changes presented an opportunity to set up a business that combined his two passions – horses and the desert. His confidence in the saddle was evident, and the horses were in beautiful condition. “They are a special breed – very tough,” he told me. And I imagine the same could be said of the people.

This region of northern Chile is one of the driest in the world. Parts of it have seen no rain in living memory. But there are pockets of green in the scattering of oases fed by underground rivers and meltwater from the Andes. San Pedro de Atacama is one such place, a little settlement established as a mission station by the Spaniards in the 16th century, and now a focal point for exploration of the area. It still feels like a frontier town with its single-storey adobe homes and sandy streets. The whitewashed church at its centre has a roof made out of cactus wood and a side-chapel devoted to San Isidro – the patron saint of rain. The main street, Caracoles, runs west towards the Valle de la Muerte and east towards the conical tower of Licancábur – the most striking of a string of active and dormant volcanoes that make up this stretch of the Andes.

Like all settlements in the Atacama, San Pedro is under perpetual seige from the desert. In the afternoons the wind whips up and dusts homes and people alike in a fine layer of sand. It settles on your clothes, in your ears and up your nostrils – bringing a reminder of your location whenever you blow your nose. In the cemetery at the edge of town the desert seemed to be winning. Shallow mounds were arranged in uncertain rows and marked by brightly-painted crosses, with paper flowers – fading but never wilting – rustling in the breeze that blew the relentless sand over the walls. The phrase ‘dust to dust’ seemed so appropriate.

The Catholic church and cemetery are conspicuous reminders of the region’s history, but it’s a long way to Santiago, let alone Rome, and the local faith still contains strands of more ancient beliefs routed in reverence for Pacha Mama – mother earth. The whitewashed walls of the cemetery were my first clue to this – they were topped with a string of little triangular windows, the shape of the volcano, Licancábur.

It was a potent icon I saw repeated around San Pedro and other villages in the region, and a clue to a world that predated the arrival of the Europeans. The people we now call the Atacameños settled in the region around the same time as Christianity was born. They developed a sophisticated culture, hinted at in the rock paintings and petroglyphs still visible around the area. When the Spanish arrived in 1540 they found an Incan culture in the Atacama, but the Incas were also newcomers, having incorporated the Atacameños into their own empire less than a century before. However, their dominance was short-lived; not far from San Pedro, rising up from the banks of a dried-up river bed, lie the ruins of a 900-year-old hill fort, an evocative setting for one of the New World’s most brutal and decisive battles. Incan rule in the Atacama ended at Pukará de Quitor when a force of well-armed Spanish overcame and beheaded the 1,000 Incan defenders. But as with the horseride into the ‘Valley of Death’ I found the setting far too spectacular to feel anything but uplifting emotions.

Over the millennia the oasis settlements of the Atacama have offered rest stops for hunter-gatherers, herders, traders and, more recently, travellers heading between the coast and the Andes. Today there are classy hotels, excellent restaurants and even internet cafés in the largely unspoilt town of San Pedro, and for those in no hurry to get away it serves as a perfect base for exploring the Atacama.

One such outing took me up to the altiplano

The high plains over 4,000m above sea level – where the air is thin and the light a stark bright spotlight that casts deep shadows and makes distant mountains seem within arm’s reach. There is scant vegetation at this altitude but for patches of straw-coloured grass and prickly clumps of cactus that rejoice in the name of mother-in-law’s cushion. The destination for my first day-trip was the twin lakes of Miscanti and Miñiques, set at the base of adjacent volcanoes that shared their names. Laguna Miscanti was spectacular with the deep-blue sky reflected in its surface. My heart pounded and my lungs protested as I strode off towards the shore, realising very swiftly the wisdom of taking things slowly at altitude. The unfiltered sun was roasting my face, but the air still stung with cold whenever a breeze picked up, so we ate a packed lunch in the shelter of an old corral, once used by ranchers driving their cattle down from Argentina.

This whole region was once part of Bolivia until the 19th century Pacific War, when victorious Chile annexed these mineral-rich lands. Poor Bolivia, landlocked as a result, lost out on a source of great wealth, from copper mines in particular. Relations between the two countries have only recently started to ease, and with the help of a Bolivian-born operator in town, day-trips from San Pedro are now a possibility. So a couple of days after my first foray into the altiplano, I set off for a brief journey across the border.

Having exited Chile at the frontier post in San Pedro, we drove for an hour straight up into the mountains, a dramatic climb that doubled our altitude to 4,500m above sea level. We passed a cyclist pedalling heroically uphill in the thinning air, and marvelled at the view as we neared Licancábur. The volcano straddles the border and the road ran close enough to get a true feeling of scale from this magnificent mountain. Then, having paused at a lonely entry post to have our passports stamped again, we entered Bolivia.

There wasn’t a great deal we could see in such a short trip; the journey itself was the attraction. We stopped at a row of wooden cabins overlooking a turquoise lake and had breakfast of bread rolls washed down with coca tea. Coca leaves are said to combat the effects of altitude and are often chewed by the locals. Refreshed, we headed off on a drive to another lake, and on the way back down we passed the cyclist once more, still going strong, and very nearly at the top.

On excursions such as the trips to the altiplano I would return dusted and desiccated. The sand forced us to keep the windows shut on the rocky trails, but it still seeped through the tiniest cracks to build up layers on my face and clothes. There was no air-conditioning (it can’t cope with the dust), and so I returned to town after each trip relishing the prospect of a rejuvenating shower... until the day that the ominous sight of the main street being dug up heralded the unthinkable. Bianca, the young hotel manager confirmed my suspicions. “Bad news – there is a problem with the water.” A water pump had exploded and the whole town was dry. Perhaps Pacha Mama had had enough.

The dry spell lasted two nights

It was a salutory reminder of the tentative hold the modern world has on the Atacama. Even at the best of times, electricity goes off around midnight in San Pedro, and in the small hours the town is lit only by the stars, which shine with a startling brilliance in the clear desert air. At four o’clock one morning I wrapped up warm and boarded a mini-bus for an excursion that demanded a very early start. As we snaked upwards into the darkness the outline of the mountains emerged in the pre-dawn glow, and once again the thinning air told me we were high in the altiplano.

At 6.30 we arrived at our destination...

El Tatio – a geothermal area flanked by volcanoes. Great plumes of steam rose up from an array of geysers, fumaroles and bubbling mud pools. I emerged from the warmth of the minibus to a rude awakening in the freezing air, and I willed the sun’s rays to speed down the mountainside. It arrived with Incan grandeur to drive the chill from my bones and light up the steam – the whole area resembled a great Turkish bath, with silhouetted figures shuffling in and out of view.

El Tatio was impressive in the morning light, though worringly uncontrolled, with no pathways or fencing. Visitors wandered at will between bubbling mud and steaming vents, but having heard some horrendous first-hand accounts of people stepping into scalding water, I trod a wary path. I opted for a plunge in the nearby hot springs, where the water was like a jacuzzi. At last I could wash the desert away, for a few hours at least; despite the shock of emerging from the glorious pool into the icy air, it left me glowing all over.

We returned to San Pedro around midday, having shed layer after layer of clothing during the descent back to the desert. After a brief flurry of activity after breakfast, when the day’s excursions depart and the locals conduct a little business, the town reverts to its sleepy self for most of the daylight hours. The dopey dogs follow the shade across from one side of the street to the other, but otherwise all is still and all sensible humans are indoors. I decided to do likewise, and made for Café Tierra – makers of the best empanada in town.

Munching my lunch in the doorway of the café, I pondered the snoozing mutts in the shade across the street. San Pedro dogs are an odd bunch; placid and well fed, no two are alike. The only physical characteristic they have in common is their colour – sandy. For the wild animals of the Atacama life is a little more challenging, but despite the harsh conditions there is still plenty of wildlife. Even in the altiplano we came across small groups of shy vicuñas – the doe-eyed, wild relatives of the domesticated llama. Crossing one sandy plain at the foot of a great ridge we watched a zorro making his mark in the sand – a desert fox digging for moles. And not far from him a group of ñandú – emu-like birds that graze on the sparse vegetation. Down in the Atacama the great salt lake at its heart – the Salar de Atacama – is home to an equally peculiar bird that seems to thrive where other creatures would perish. Three species of flamingo live on the Salar, building nests that resemble scale models of the volcanoes, and feeding off the tiny crustaceans that swim in the alkaline water. From a distance they emerge as a pink, shimmering haze above the crusty crystals around the lake.

Clues to the past...

To the ancient inhabitants of the Atacama, wildlife clearly had an important part to play in their lives. On a trip around the valley we came across pre-Incan rock paintings, in shady overhangs, of stick figure creatures – one like a llama, another a fox. The big bird was clearly a ñandú, and another a condor.

These clues to the past are part of what put the Atacama back on the map in more recent times. In fact it would be safe to say that San Pedro was in slow decline before the work of a Belgian priest heralded a new age of discovery. Father Gustavo Le Paige arrived in the forgotten little pueblo from Africa in 1951 and set about exploring the surrounding desert. The discovery of an ancient grave sparked a curiosity about the history of the region, which at the time was largely neglected by the archaeological world. Curiosity became a life’s work as Le Paige, driven by a need to uncover the desert’s mysteries, ended up sharing his tiny home with a growing collection of mummies. His work gradually drew international attention to the region, and after he died in 1980, a splendid archaeological museum was established in the town – a fitting testament to his work and a fascinating insight to the lost worlds of the Atacama.

For the indigenous people of the Atacama Father Le Paige’s work presented an opportunity to rediscover their past after centuries of cultural suppression. My own curiosity about the history of such a strange part of the world was growing, and there were clearly many more mysteries to be solved. “You must meet Ana Maria,” said Claudia, our guide on the trip to the rock paintings. And so a meeting with the town’s most eminent resident was arranged.

In an upmarket hotel on the edge of town I met Ana Maria Barón. As an archaeology student from the capital, Santiago, she arrived in San Pedro in 1978 to work with Father Le Paige, and found her life’s calling in the sands and mountains of the Atacama. Today she runs a hotel named after her first big excavation – the 3,000-year-old settlement of Tulor, which lies a few kilometres from San Pedro. The circular rooms and local materials that characterise her hotel mimic that of the ancient settlement and demonstrate her passion for the past.

“When I first came here the town was closing down and all the young people were leaving. The town was reborn thanks to Father Le Paige and today tourism is very important.”

Father God of the Atacama

With her warm tan and red hair Ana Maria seemed to have taken on certain characteristics of the desert in her years in the Atacama. Her own contribution to the understanding of the region is considerable, thanks to some remarkable finds, although her most recent big discovery sounds more like an episode of the X-Files. In January 1995 she led an expedition to the top of Licancábur – the sacred volcano whose shape had already figured repeatedly throughout my trip. Knowing how mountain tops had great ceremonial use to the Incas, she wanted to perform a proper investigation of the summit, and the crater lake that she knew to be there.

“Before we set off I spoke with an old local man who told me that Licancábur was not an altar, as I had supposed, but a god – in fact the Father God of the Atacama. He told me to make a ceremony before I left, when I was to pray for permission to climb and promise not to take anything from the mountain. This we did.”

At around 6,000m high it was to be an archaeological expedition needing mountaineering skills, and Ana Maria assembled a 13-strong team that included the diver Henri Garcia, who had worked with Jacques Cousteau. It was to be a trip that was to change both Ana’s and Henri’s lives.

“It was very difficult climb for me, but we found 18 archaeological sites at the top, including evidence of a sacrifice.” But it was to be Henri Garcia’s find, on his dive into the crater lake, that was to be the most memorable.

“I remember sitting by the lake while he was diving, and then he rose to the surface and called out to me, ‘I’ve found something beautiful!’ and swam over to me. He held up a crystal ball. I remember the elation – we just marvelled at it. ‘This is for you!’ he said, and so I asked him to take it across the lake to the others so they could photograph and film it. When he got there he held it up to be photographed, but a moment later it slipped out of his hand and back into the water. He dived after it immediately, and tried again and again, but could not find it.”

As she recounted the tale, Ana Maria’s eyes filled with emotion and her hands flayed with excitement.

“It was incredible and inexplicable, but I was not upset. The crystal ball was so beautiful, with a bright white light.”

Ana Maria sat back in her chair and clasped a crystal pendant around her neck, her thoughts clearly a long way away. Since the discovery she has learnt of many legends of crystal balls all over the world. Henri Garcia wants to return to the mountain to resume the search, but Ana Maria has a book to complete and a hotel to run. Excuses perhaps, for she is clearly torn on the subject, as if returning to Licancábur might break a spell. She kept her promise to the mountain, and life has treated her well ever since. Her life had been at a crossroads when she began the expedition, and she thought that she might have to leave the Atacama. “When I saw the crystal ball it changed my life,” she declared.

We walked around the hotel before leaving

 In the dining room there are photos on the wall, reminders of her excavations and expeditions. One is of a man in a diving suit, emerging from the water, and holding aloft a glassy sphere the size of a grapefruit. The photo is the only evidence that they brought back with them. The documentary they were making yielded no such results. “The film never came out,” said Ana Maria. “We don’t know why.”

After meeting with Ana Maria I returned to the centre of town as daylight was fading from the sky and distant Licancábur had become a purple shadow on the horizon. San Pedro comes awake as the sun goes down, and the bars and restaurants were lighting their open fires that would keep the drinkers and diners warm. The dust had settled and as the people stirred even the dogs turned out for their evening social gatherings. In a couple of hours the town would be buzzing: local musicians moving from bar to bar, clutching pan-pipes and guitars, and dusty travellers wandering the streets perusing the menus and craft shops, and swapping tales of the day’s adventures.

I turned at the sound of hooves as a horse trotted past, the unmistakable shape of Juan perched confidently on its back. And I walked on again, over a freshly-dug mound in the centre of the main street. A reminder once again of the sweetest music of all in this little town in the desert – the sound of running water.

Footnotes: essential information

When to go: Hot and dry year-round, with cool nights. Summer (Dec-Feb) is particularly hot and also peak season for visitors so accommodation can be scarce. Ironically, the altiplano (the Andean high country above 4,000m) experiences the ‘Bolivian winter’ at this time, when moisture trapped by the mountains can result in afternoon storms and even snow. Spring (Sep/Oct) or autumn (Mar/Apr) are ideal times to visit.

Food and drink: For a small town San Pedro has a surprisingly good choice of restaurants, often offering live music at night, and serving a mixture of Chilean and western fare. Most have a daily set menu. Steak or chicken, served with chips, potatoes or rice, are the staples here. All restaurants have at least one vegetarian dish. For a local treat try humita – a sweetcorn paste wrapped in a corn leaf. Spice up your meals with the traditional hot sauce – pebre.

Imported and Chilean beers are available, plus Chilean wines. Fresh fruit juices are widely available, and bottled water is sold in several stores.

Recommended restaurants include the popular Adobe (good food, lots of character and a fire in its courtyard); La Estaka (good atmosphere and food), Esquina del Sol (Mexican food and crazy decor).

The best breakfast/snack bar in town is Cafe Tierra, offering very tasty wholemeal food, fruit juices and coffee.

Tipping of 10% is the norm in restaurants.

What to take:
Bring lots of tissues (for nose-blowing), a torch, moisturiser, lip-salve, sunblock and sunglasses. A hat is essential. Remember, it gets cold at night and on high excursions, so bring warm layers. A scarf helps protect against dust.

What to do: The archaeological museum is a must, and though signs are only in Spanish, a good English-language guidebook is available.

Apart from the excursions mentioned in the next section, local activites include:

Trekking trips, including camping in the desert.

Horseriding La Herradura on Tocopilla street is Juan Mostajo’s operation, offering a variety of trips.

Horseriding is also available from Rancho Cactus (opposite Hosteria San Pedro on Toconau).

Mountain bikes can be hired in town. Pangea on Tocopilla is the most expensive but has the best bikes and provides maps.

Health and safety: Be especially careful if you take one of the excursions to Tatio geysers. There are many tales of visitors being badly scalded by stepping into hot springs or boiling mud. Altitude sickness is another risk on excursions to the altiplano – if you have arrived from near sea-level spend a day or two in the valley first to acclimatise. Beware of the sun which can burn very fast at this altitude. Don’t drink the water which has a high mineral content – bottled water is widely available in San Pedro.

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