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