San Pedro De Atacama, Chile – an adventure playground for nature enthusiasts
With its landscape comparable to Mars or the Wild West frontier Vanessa heads into an adventure playground for nature enthusiasts.
A long haul flight, twenty-two hours on a bus and an hour taxi ride.
Despite forty hours of travelling I am buzzing. Perhaps it’s the rich deposits of minerals sending out positive vibes, the dizzying heights of altitude or the sheer splendor of a dramatic desert landscape. Whatever it is I can’t get enough.
Arriving by land dulls the altitude so it’s hard to believe I am standing high in the Antiplato of the Atacama Desert. But speak to any tourist who has spent time travelling through this sparse landscape and they will agree that at 2,400 metres above sea level the thinness of the air and the beauty of this wide desolate space that’s comparable to Mars will surely take your breath away.
An oasis in Northern Chile, the small adobe village of San Pedro De Atacama is made up of a small network of narrow streets. Despite having a small population of around 2,000 people the influx of restaurants and tourist agencies makes it a hot trail for gringos, like me.
What makes the Atacama region so unique and colourful are natural formations of rocks, sand, geysers, salt lakes, canyons and volcanoes. The Atacama Desert is one of the oldest and driest non-polar deserts in the world. In this isolated region of the world numerous weather stations have never recorded a drop of rain due to the basin and range topography. Surrounding mountain ranges block most of the moisture coming in from the Pacific or Atlantic ranges.
On the contrary, during 2011 an extreme Antarctic cold front broke through dumping 80 centimetres of snow and in 2012 the altiplano winter caused rare flooding in San Pedro De Atacama.
Under crystal clear skies, dry air, and a lack of air pollution San Pedro is well known amongst budding astronomers as one of the best locations on the planet for stargazing. Although you will need to rug up in winter the trade off for perfect clear skies is a minimum temperature of below zero. The days are warmer and as I canter out into the desert on a horse, it strikes me how powerful the ultraviolet is.
Heading along the dusty barren paths, north along the river to about three kilometers out of town we arrive at the old archaeological site of Pukara de Quitor. In the middle of nowhere on the summit of a hill sits a lone piece of architectural history. Built by the Atacameno in the 12th century, the pre-Inca fortress was used as a defence against other towns.
Along the way my tour guide points out the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa, it’s completely enveloped by its natural surroundings and like a mirage its not until I am up close that I can make out it’s external design. For a night of complete tranquility surrounded by nothing but a sky full of twinkling stars expect to pay around five to seven hundred US dollars.
The surreal landscape takes us through a blinding, dark tunnel. My horse ‘Dream’ is a little hesitant and I guide her with care through the shallow water and up to Devil’s Canyon or as local’s call it Quebrada del Diablo. The narrow ravine weaves through the infinite landscape of the Salt Mountain Range.
For me this is my moment of tranquility. With just my horse I am immersed in the grandeur of nature, I feel so small against the vast terrain of cliffs, strange and colourful rock formations and the stretch of barren land that connects all the way to the mountains.
But the moment ends too quickly. ‘Dream’ enjoys the freedom of galloping down the enormous sand dunes of Valle De La Muerte or Death Valley and I’ve got to admit so do I. The light wind shifts the sand constantly evolving the lands surface. Ahead bodies lay in the soft sand, gearing up for the hard walk up the hill for sand boarding.
This inspires an afternoon of trying something new, or in my case face planking and a good exfoliation. Sand Boarding! The grueling task of carrying the board up the sand dunes is enough to bring on a bout of exhaustion but with feet poised its an exhilarating ride down although my technique could do with some extra work.
After a tiring day of horse riding and sand boarding its time to relax under the almost clear pinkish sunset at Valle De La Luna or Moon Valley, aptly named for its uncanny resemblance to the moon. As the sun goes down our tour guide pours a glass of the famous Chilean drink pisco sour. ‘Salute’ to clear skies, starry eyes and the next adventure into the world’s largest salt flats.