The Atacama Desert
After eighteen hours of travel from Santiago we arrived in the otherworldly town of San Pedro de Atacama. Starting at hour six, the desert spread out before us like a blanket, endless and bizarrely comforting. First the night and then the blazing sunshine – hours and hours of podcast after podcast, staring out a window at a world I had never known existed, witnessed, or even dreamt of. Something inside of me sighed and my childhood memories of Dr. Seuss books took root here, finding a landscape so odd only his genius mind could create them. Maybe we'd walked through a door, but instead of finding Narnia we'd found ourselves in Oh the Places You'll Go. This is actually a likely theory.
If you've read Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende or know any Chilean history, you'll know that Chile has had many wars. The book mentions how the various attacks took place, most of which involved people traveling by horse up to the north and over the Andes, or over the Andes and then through the whole of the desert. If an eighteen-hour bus ride seems like an eternity to most, I can't even begin to picture that journey. This land is so vast I'm shocked at how little it's publicized. It's longer than the United States is wide, and the terrain is absolutely insane. We went horseback riding through the desert with three other girls from our hostel. The guy who led the trip was a legitimate cowboy with a ponytail named Robin, which was weirdly fitting. Of course I got the crazy horse that kept getting angry at the others and my boyfriend Nathan got the shameless horse that had some kind of itch which made him rub his face against every other horse. The views were absolutely incredible as we went journeyed from town out to desert rocks where the mountains illuminated the background. And then out of nowhere a lush green valley appeared, a kind of valley within the valley we were already in. Somehow this greenery survives in the driest desert. “All of a sudden” and “out of nowhere” became my favorite phrases. Nothing can be expected.
The next day, after a delicious lunch of chicken with potatoes for me and tomatoes for Nathan to the sweet sweet sounds of Nikki Minaj and Ludacris, I headed to Valle de la Luna with the same newfound friends. Let me just tell you right now that this tour was one of the most, if not the most, incredible thing I've done in my life so far. We went to town (the tour office is called Ccaptcha expeditions) and got the tour van first to the top of Valle de la Luna where we could overlook Los Coyotes, a neat outcropping of rocks. Overlooking the desert, I felt something shift in me with these people, who were kind enough to let me into their little group as if I were there from the start. Traveling makes you soft.
We continued on to Valle de la Muerte, a valley whose original name was Valle de Marte after the unusual Mars-like landscape. A bout of bad translation turned it into Valley of Death, an equally appropriate name if you run out of water. We walked along the top of the valley for an hour before being told to take off our shoes and socks and run down a sand dune. Already laughing uncontrollably, overjoyed at the whole trip, we arrived at Valle de la Luna just in time for the sunset. From 6 to 8 pm we walked along the ridge of what I am convinced is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I walked all the way to the very end and the way the light changed the already foreign land around us was incredible. The colors changed from reds, to pinks, to purples, as the contours became increasingly obvious, darkened by shadows. I have never seen anything like it, and I likely never will again. I really don't have words for how completely beautiful Valle de la Luna is. The next morning I found out that Nat Geo Expeditions had been there photographing the valley the night before, so if you aren't convinced by me telling you that you have to go, be convinced by them.
The following day was just as surreal. Renting a car from Europcar, we went back to the hostel, packed our swimsuits, and headed out immediately to Laguna Cejar. Laguna Cejar is a lake whose salt content is extremely high, which allows these microscopic shrimp-like animals to live there, which in turn attracts flamingos. The shrimp contain high levels of carotenoid, which cause the flamingos to be a specific shade of pink. You arrive to brilliant turquoise water so saturated you believe you're in the Caribbean.
Right next to Laguna Cejar is Laguna Piedra, whose salt content is as high as the Dead Sea. You can swim in this laguna, and so Nathan and I changed into our swimsuits and “waded in” which really involved us plopping ourselves off a little ledge as the water was so cold you didn't want to wade. As soon as you got off the ledge it was the most pleasant feeling as your legs float up immediately and you find yourself along the top upper part of the laguna. I imagine this must be what it feels like with zero gravity, except then you'd be able to move all around. Note to self: if you have any cut at all it will HURT. When we got out we were absolutely covered in crusted salt as the freezing wind dried us off in no time. There are showers and so we rinsed off, but the water is like an ice bath so truth be told I just kind of splashed myself like I was in a bird bath. Most tours have people go to Laguna Cejar at sunset to drink a fancy pisco sour as the sun goes down - something that sounds incredibly bourgeoisie (but also very nice) until you consider HOW COLD IT WOULD BE GETTING OUT OF THE WATER. Not so nice, tour companies.
Still salty, we got back in the truck and continued on to Ojos del Salar - two massive holes in the desert face filled with fresh water. You can jump in these, and so of course we did. With everything we saw in the desert I can't help but think of the first person who discovered it. They were probably astounded! Can you imagine walking through the desert and suddenly finding yourself faced with two giant deep blue holes? They honestly probably fell upon them accidentally.
The next place was Laguna Tebinquiche, a lake of such light blue water you wonder whether you are still really in the desert. There was another fee to be paid if you wanted to walk around the laguna, but Nathan and I opted out of that and instead went on to Laguna Chaxa.
I understand this list may sound quite bizarre to most as I'm mentioning laguna this and laguna that but I'm in a desert, right? Weirdly enough there are lots of lagunas dotted around near San Pedro apparently created through precipitation from the Andes that help create the salt flats as the minerals multiply into more minerals through evaporation…or something like that.
Laguna Chaxa is also known for its flamingos as it is part of the Flamingo Reserve. There are two lagunas there that the flamingos spend time in, but surrounding them are masses upon masses of salt rocks. We were here for sunset and the salt turned a gorgeous light pink and purple as the mountains in the background did the same. The whole ride back was like one beautiful painting. The light on the volcanoes was spectacular as it changed them from being flat cut outs to actual giant landmasses with every contour suddenly highlighted.
We got back and prepared for the next day. We met a German boy who learned we had a car so he asked if he could come along. Nico, the German boy, joined us in the morning as we headed to Piedras Rojas, a natural phenomenon found 160 km to the southeast. According to Google they are only 120 km away, but sometimes Google lies, what can I say. The altitude goes way up as you travel in that direction and by the time we got to Piedras Rojas the elevation was over 4000 meters. There were vicuñas all over the hills and plains on our drive there and even some by Piedras Rojas that were nice enough to model in front of the volcanoes. This area is astounding. You have a really light blue stream-like lake that is surrounded by mountains and volcanoes as well as yellow pampa grass and these red rocks that jut out of nowhere. We ran around taking photographs and trying to stay warm as the wind chill is quite intense, and then got back in the truck to head back in the direction of San Pedro.
Along the way you pass by a sign that says Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miniques, where you turn in to see the Lagunas Altiplanicas. There were many more vicuñas around these lakes and although they were beautiful, I didn't feel the same way about them as everyone I had met. Everyone else said the Lagunas Altiplanicas tour was their favorite one, and this may be because it normally includes Piedras Rojas and Laguna Chaxa, but on their own the lakes aren't as awe inspiring as the others ones we had seen (in my opinion). Don't get me wrong, they are still BEAUTIFUL (in real need of a thesaurus guys...) but they are just not the MOST beautiful. I was feeling very out of breath at this point as we were back at high altitude and we luckily got back in the truck and headed to lower ground.
Somehow these landscapes exist in the real world. You just need to go out and find them.
Anna Groman is a web designer and artist raised in Zimbabwe, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Wales. She is currently living and working in Denver, Colorado where she spends all of her free time exploring the outdoors.