The Atacama Desert. 41,000 square miles of the driest non-polar desert in the world. With an average of less than one inch of rain per year, some areas have no rain fall on record. Scientists have compared some of the most aired stretches of soil to that of Mars. I think it’s safe to say we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.
Another 40 hours on buses took us north to San Pedro de Atacama, where we spent a few days soaking in the intense desert heat and being surprised by the beauty we had highly underestimated. The bus ride itself was intimidating, driving us into a never-ending plane of sand and moon rocks.
A place long deserted with highways of cracked, broken sand where water once flowed and abandoned villages diffused across the terrain.
To be honest, we weren’t really sure what all we were going to do when we got there. We had seen many photos of breathtaking views of stargazing and had that strong on our list but beyond that, we were pretty much just taking it by day. And we ended up doing much more than we anticipated. From stargazing, sunsets, floating in salt pools, navigating through geyser fields at dawn and trekking around highly concentrated mineral lagunas, we had our hands full with activities.
On our first day out exploring the lagunas (which were so highly concentrated with minerals the water is not digestible for humans), as we were hiking around we both started to feel a little… loopy. Light headed and short of breath, we realized all at once that we hadn’t taken the altitude into account. After spending so much time in Patagonia we figured altitude wouldn’t be an issue for us. We found ourselves needing way too many rest breaks and getting short of breath going up and down three bus steps.
After we were officially out of Patagonia we had contemplated whether or not we should send some gear home. Our down jackets, some random cookware, clothes that had seen better days.. Our second morning in the desert we headed out to start our day, the earliest and coldest morning to date. We had every layer of clothing on that we had with us including our down jackets and still froze our asses off. The only thing that kept us going was the intermittent, short-lived heat waves we felt from the geysers. Yes, at 4:30 in the morning we found ourselves navigating a geyser field. As first light was getting closer, the steam from the geysers rose up like chimney smoke, scattered throughout the hills like land mines. Animals wandered in and out of the steam like they were lost, confused from all of the random shooting, boiling water. Definitely a scene that made us feel like we were in another world.
Our options for getting around the desert were few, and for most of the activities we had to book an organized tour to do so. Most days started really early in the morning and went later into the evening, full days packed with exploring. The first day was great but by the time we were on our last day of tours, we swore we would never book a tour again. Luckily we figured out that we could do our own tour within the tours. We could usually break away from the group for a while and do some of our own exploring. In Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) we were able to go off on our own and explore some salt caves and snap some photos.
We have had freedom for the past few months to explore at our own pace, and having the organization and time constraints of a tour wasn’t exactly our cup of tea. Between that and the amount of selfies taken constantly around us, we were ready to be on our own again. When it was time to watch the sunset in Valle de la Luna, there were hundreds of people crowded around, sipping Pisco Sours and taking endless photos of each other jumping, frozen in time mid-air. But, one thing the desert is definitely not lacking is the amount of open space. All we had to do was walk about three hundred meters away from the crowd and we felt like we were watching our very own desert sunset.
The only thing we had expectations for going into the desert, as we said, was the stargazing. We took a bus out of town, away from the city lights, to an observatory where an astronomer explained things about the many galaxies and the stars, the moon, pointed out constellations, and so on. It was so interesting to hear about the stars that were closest and how long it would take to travel to the closest one to Earth (80,000 years in our fastest space craft!) We also had the opportunity to look through many telescopes that were pointed into space at different things like Jupiter, different galaxies and star clusters. At this particular observatory, we were able to look through the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere! It was an amazing experience and was worth the trip to the Atacama Desert for that alone.
As much as we appreciated our time in the desert, it was time to head back south for the last week of our trip in a place completely different than the desert and close to our hearts. Pichilemu.