Mark Daffey ex­plores chile top to bot­tom, from the ata­cama Desert up north to tierra del fuego way down south.

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From the Ata­cama Desert to the end of the world in Tierra del Fuego.

Aper­fectly sym­met­ri­cal vol­cano tow­ers over the town of san Pe­dro de ata­cama. ris­ing to a peak of just un­der 6000 me­tres, li­can­cabur dom­i­nates our western hori­zon. Dozens of other an­dean gi­ants stretch out along­side it, but none are as im­pres­sive as this.

li­can­cabur sep­a­rates chile from Bo­livia. although the bor­der is just 45 kilo­me­tres away, there’s a marked con­trast be­tween the rain­fall over there and the one here in chile. on that side of the ranges, an­nual pre­cip­i­ta­tion mea­sures around the 300-mil­lime­tre mark. here, in the ata­cama re­gion, we’re lucky if we get 10 mil­lime­tres a year. in some years there’s noth­ing. and it makes this – the ata­cama – the world’s dri­est desert.

Most of the rain tum­bling off the moun­tains into chile seeps into the ground, where it trick­les to­wards a 3000-square-kilo­me­tre de­pres­sion via a net­work of un­der­ground rivers. once there, all but a few drops evap­o­rate into the at­mos­phere, and all that re­mains are the min­er­als col­lected along the way. over time that min­eral de­posit has grown, to the point where it’s now be­lieved to be over a kilo­me­tre thick. it’s known as the salar de ata­cama, or ata­cama salt flat, and it’s a bru­tally in­hos­pitable place to be. Dis­cov­er­ing the desert still, that doesn’t stop trav­ellers from swarm­ing here me in­cluded. i’m booked into the alto ata­cama Desert lodge & spa, and within an hour of check­ing in and talk­ing to the ac­tiv­i­ties man­ager, i know i’ve short-changed my­self. i def­i­nitely need longer.

this sprawl­ing adobe-style re­sort in the catarpe Val­ley, just out­side san Pe­dro, has a cat­a­logue of 33 ac­tiv­i­ties in­cluded in its nightly tar­iff. the ac­tiv­i­ties are split into four cat­e­gories and i want to do ev­ery one of them.

these ‘ex­cur­sions’ range from half-day cul­tural out­ings vis­it­ing sur­round­ing vil­lages to multi-day vol­cano as­cents re­quir­ing ad­e­quate time for ac­cli­ma­ti­sa­tion. i de­cide to try a lit­tle of ev­ery­thing: a moun­tain bike ride through the Devil’s throat gorge, a full-day high al­ti­tude hike amongst wild vicuñas and flamin­gos, a sun­set tour through the Val­ley of the Moon and to Death Val­ley, and a se­date in­tro­duc­tion to as­tron­omy af­ter din­ner one evening.

But there’s too much i miss out on. i don’t man­age to squeeze in a visit to the el tatio geyser field or to hike through a val­ley sprout­ing cacti that are 10 me­tres tall. there’s a val­ley where the walls are coloured like rain­bows and walks through cul­ti­vated gar­dens and past alpine la­goons.


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