One afternoon back in 1985, I was holed up in my high school library, hiding from the strains of adolescent society, when I stumbled across a book about the world’s most extreme destinations. One in particular captured my fancy: Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth.
A 41,000 square-mile expanse of desert that gets four inches of rain every thousand years seemed at once more exotic and less overwhelming than being 14 years old. I devoured tales of active volcanoes, hills of salt, miles of marshland, carpets of wildflowers, and strange animals I could scarcely imagine. I vowed to go see it for myself someday.
A few weeks ago, exactly 28 years after I first learned it existed, I did see the Atacama Desert for myself. And you know what? It was simply amazing.
Way better than high school.
I had my first glimpse of the Atacama from a plane, just about 20 hours after I’d left Los Angeles. The landscape was beige and russet, lilac and gray, with crusts of salt, swirls and islands of knobbly hills, and jagged peaks rippling from a semi-smooth nowhere. A delicate fabric with a tugged-loose string, the folds had bunched and wrinkled with lightning scars, a sea of coffee-cream stains bleeding on hard-packed sand.
And through it all ran a road, long and mostly straight, with a few absentminded creases and turns. From the sky, cars moved along it at the airless pace of moon machines.
But on the ground, there was plenty of air. (Well, once I’d left the armpit of Calama, home to the area’s airport, the largest copper mine on Earth, some Starburst-colored houses called “chewies,” and not a heck of a lot else.) It’s definitely dry, and you should by all means arm yourself with lip balm, lotions and sunscreen, but in the fall-winter months of May-August, you can also expect chilly mornings, cool breezes, and lungfuls of crisp, clean oxygen that will fuel your hive-mind brain.
The sunshine is sharp and soft at the time, arranging a basic color palette into a thousand different scenes.
There are towers and temples and hills and dunes. There’s lots of elbow room for you both, and plenty of parking.
There are also a surprising number of animals, including free-range, sometimes be-ribboned llamas that usually belong to a shepherd. (A lucky, lucky shepherd.) Most creatures in the food-scarce Atacama feast on grasses and shrubs, like the little leaf horsebrush.
You’ll find yourselves comparing the landscape to the moon…a lot. I know I did. Think of a visit here as an opportunity to unmoor yourselves from the planet while simultaneously delighting in the marvels of Earth.
Expect surprises every few minutes, like a purple carpet of lupines scattered across a vast and dusty plain. February 2013 saw an every-once-in-a-blue-moon weather streak called an altiplano, which brings heavy rains, flash floods and months’ worth of wildflowers.
Heat things up a little with an early-morning visit to El Tatio, the third-largest geyser field in the world. It’s an adventure, it’s a wonder, it’s a facial. Most significantly, it’s 14,000 feet above sea level, both freezing cold and boiling hot, and spread across the surface of a hyperactive super-volcano.
I know, right? My eyes got a little wider after hearing that last bit, too.
The ground in many parts of the Atacama — but especially in the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) — is crusted with salt. It’s sometimes hard to remember that you’re not looking at snow, but you can always reach down, break off a bit, give it a lick, and remind yourself that 1) this is indeed salt, and 2) it tastes a little grungy.
The driest place on Earth is not entirely without water. An altiplano helps matters, but there’s often a little agua to be found in the Atacama’s marshes, lakes and rivers.
These waterscapes sustain life for everything from llamas to ducks…the latter of which I never expected to see in a desert.
Sometimes the water is clear, sometimes muddy, and sometimes mineral-bright. It can feel like you’ll go miles without seeing a single drop, and then bam — desert lake.
It’s like a metaphor for a love affair, if you ask me.
In the Atacama, golden hour is a spectacular, passionate blush. While enjoying a view like this, be sure to take a moment to appreciate the fact that you’re not inside, at work. It will be impossible not to smile.
The rosy-pink sunsets are little more than an excuse for kissing. Do your best to comply — your formerly 14 year-old selves sure would.
When I was 14, I didn’t know if life would lead me to the Atacama, but I’m absolutely thrilled that it did. While I was here, I let my mind roam free over a huge, open and unspoiled space, and it helped me to put my sometimes-weary 42 year-old self into perspective.
This is a place where you can both hear yourselves think, and allow yourselves to feel. You might want to talk to each other about what you’re seeing, or you might want to just hold hands and let it wash over you.
For a place so parched, it’s surprisingly full of love.