South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
The Atacama Desert, a vast wind-rippled volcanic upland situated between the Andes and the Pacific, is best reached by plane from the Chilean capital of Santiago. A landscape of barren strangeness awaited us, with scarcely a tree or shrub in sight. Charles Darwin, on his 1832 visit to this part of northern Chile, marvelled that the sun ever shone over “so useless” a land.
Though the Atacama is only a fraction of the Sahara’s size, its beauty is inexpressibly haunting. I hoped to experience true silence there — the kind that rings in your ears. El Norte Grande, the “Big North”, as Chileans call the region in which the Atacama is located, is reckoned by geologists to be the driest place on earth, drier even than California’s Death Valley. In some parts of this shadowless immensity it has not rained for 400 years.
The plane landed in Calama airport, 1,400km north of Santiago. Photographs up on the terminal walls showed llama-herders and Inca faces in a timeless world devoid of water. “You can imagine dinosaurs here,” said my daughter Maud, surveying the lava-encrusted nothingness outside. It was only after the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, and the return of democracy to Chile in 1990, that the desert was developed as a tourist attraction; before then, it was viewed as a place fit only for copper mines and the disposal of Pinochet’s political “enemies”.
Already the thin desert air made me feel light-headed. Our Chilean guide Pamela Acosta urged us to drink quantities of water. “It’s super salty here,” she said, handing us each a bottle at the airport, adding: “The salinity can make you feel parched — then there’s the altitude.” At 2,300 metres above sea level, Calama stood in a blinding emptiness of copper-seamed rock formations and nitrate pampas. During the 19th-century nitrate boom, Croatians, Orthodox Slavs and Lutheran Germans had poured into the desert town in search of work. Chile was made rich by these hard-broke migrants. Pamela’s Scottish great-grandmother Melanie Duncan, we learnt, had married a nitrate bigwig, and had “flaming red hair”. Only one nitrate mine functions in the Atacama today but the desert’s copper provides Chile with three-quarters of its foreign currency. Near the airport we passed the largest opencast copper mine in the world, Chuquicamata, home to 5,000 Chilean workers.
We drove out of Calama along the asphalted Camino Internacional, which runs to Argentina via the Paso de Jama. Luis Poblete, our driver, kept his eyes warily on the mountain pass road for stray rocks and clumps of desert thorn. Spacey synth sounds — Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here — drifted from his dashboard as the snow-tipped Andes glimmered to our left. The land was desolate, like the dried mud-bed of the sea. Four hundred million years ago the Atacama had been an ocean bed. Dribbles of brackish water appeared here and there in the sterile, hard-packed plains as we shadowed the Andean Cordillera.
Presently, a gigantic metal crucifix marking 26 victims of General Pinochet’s regime loomed by the roadside. The extreme aridity had mummified the bodies, which were disinterred and given a decent burial in the early 1990s. “Even the zips worked,” said Pamela. In this driest of dry places, the secrets of the past have never been truly lost. From the salt sands, archaeologists have turned up pre-Columbian peoples preserved for nearly nine millennia — the oldest mummies in the world.
At intervals the desert showed yellow-coloured steppe plants, their taproots reaching deep into the earth for moisture. We stopped by the grave of Sydney Hollingworth, the London geologist who spent years exploring the desert’s Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley. Strange shapes resembling human figures — kneeling Virgin Marys sandblasted over time — darkened in the lunar valley beneath us as the afternoon sun dipped behind crags flecked with selenite crystal. The hushed white landscape dotted with Inca-built apacheta cairns provided a visual education in the grand style. A heavy rainfall would dissolve the valley’s gypsum-and-clay shapes entirely, but fortunately it has never rained. Nasa road-tested their moon vehicles in the valley; only drought-resistant flies and tiny, bat-eared mice are able to survive in it.
The afternoon sun was now at the flat horizon. Dust-streaked lorries rumbled past us ferrying borax ore to markets in Paraguay and northern Argentina. At San Pedro de Atacama on the desert’s edge we checked into the Tierra, a sumptuous spa hotel with views of Licancabur volcano. It was Chilean Independence Day — September 18 — and the old mining town was hung with blue, white and red “Viva Chile” bunting. San Pedro, one of the oldest settlements in South America, was built in 1540 by the Spaniards who first came to desert Chile in search of gold. The ceiling of the Hispano-Incaic church was fashioned from cactus wood bound with llama-leather strips. Adobe-constructed souvenir shops lined the streets — matchbox buildings, easy come, easy go. We half expected to see Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western poncho.
At dawn, dry-nosed and sleepy, we set out for a hot-air balloon journey across the desert sands. Eastern Safaris, a company that started out running balloon rides over the temples of Bagan in Myanmar, then spread out to the valleys of Bhutan, began operating here in August.
The balloon was half-inflated by the time we arrived; it flapped and waved on the chill morning air like a giant red sea anemone. A crew of khaki-uniformed orderlies ran about checking guy ropes as the sun came up behind Licancabur like an Inca god. After safety checks, nine passengers, including the pilot, climbed into the wicker basket. The dragon-roar of propane gas felt hot as a hairdryer on the top of my head as the balloon held over the sands for a few seconds, pausing majestically before its ascent. In 10 minutes we had reached a height of 160 metres. To the south we could make out the volcanic sand dunes of Moon Valley; elsewhere amid the bone-dry desolation were Atacameñan-Indian farmstead-settlements known as ayllus. Meltwater from the Andean mountaintops had turned them into green oases.
From the air, the Atacama resembled an African savannah, with thorny gorse, inland beaches of white dunes, and the occasional llama skeleton picked clean by condors. I thought: this must be one of the most magnificent views in all the world. We could clearly see horses grazing in a ranch; and away there, beyond a row of solitary carob trees, meadows of alfalfa dwindling in size to resemble toy-railway lichen.
By 8am the sky was a pure magnesium-blue; over to the east the Andes glittered like a new-honed knife. The lava world was calm that morning, with not much of a breeze. The pilot spoke into his radio: “Brian from Barry … We’re coming in to land.” After the 12km flight lasting an hour and a half, we bumped down within view of the Alma astronomic observatory. On a trestle table by a minibus was a celebratory bottle of champagne, along with personalised balloon-flight certificates. “Well done, all of you!” the pilot Barry saluted us.
After breakfast at San Pedro, we drove 11 miles south to the Salar de Atacama salt flats. In the twilight the flats shone like points of diamond light; chlorides of sodium, potassium, magnesium, as well as borax and lithium, have turned the salt expanse a wedding-cake white tinged with grey. The Inca view of hell as a freezing desert (where the damned have only stones to eat) might have looked something like this. Through Pamela’s field-glasses we picked out Chilean and Andean flamingos feeding on microscopic shrimp and algae; the pink apparitions stalked gingerly over sharp, coral-like formations while gulls scavenged overhead for their new-laid, fishy-tasting eggs.
Soon it was dark; the stars burned sequin-bright and the salt-whiteness of the landscape by the roadside looked like snow. From the car window, Pamela pointed out Venus, the brightest star. The desert’s near-zero light pollution makes it ideal for stargazing. I realised it was the first time I had seen a clear night sky unobscured by dust or city smog. Maud’s hair had meanwhile become static in the moistureless air. My inclination was to do very little except immerse myself in the hotel’s rejuvenating sauna, which I did.
A high point for us were the El Tatio geysers, situated at 4,300 metres above sea level. At 5am the cold was quite severe but the steam clouds evaporate at sunrise, so El Tatio should be seen at dawn. In hats and scarves we walked across a vast stony plateau amid a hiss and gurgle of steam and hot mud. At times the ground seemed to ring hollow beneath our tread. El Tatio, the highest geothermal field in the world, is not without its dangers. In 2015, a Belgian tourist died when she accidentally backed into one of the geysers while taking a photograph of herself. We watched awestruck as 80 jets of hot water shot vertically from the calcined, leafless terrain.
Paradoxically, life in the Chilean desert begins at higher altitudes, as the aridity is replaced by flowing meltwaters and mountain mist. Driving back from the geysers we spotted chinchilla-like viscacha rodents bounding over rocks. Pamela said she used to eat them as a child (“It’s the most delicious meat ever”). With Pink Floyd still on the radio, the sky coruscated brilliantly in the blue and empty overhead. A bumpy zigzag road brought us to Machuca village, where llama meat was being grilled on skewers for the benefit of tourists. With a population of only 40, Machuca radiated a sleepy, Wild West charm, its adobe houses baked by the sun to a dead-leaf drab. Outside the Hispanic-era church I found platefuls of offerings to the Inca earth-mother goddess Pachamama — chañar-tree nuts, coca cuds, rica rica herb sticks. Magic and superstition still underlie much of Atacameño life.
The higher we climbed that day, the richer and more varied the road became. Giant candelabra cacti jutting from rock ledges gave way to troops of wild vicuña loitering by highland streams. In the silence of the Atacama evening, the moon hung bright and radiant; the silence was as deep and complete as if never disturbed. In Santiago the next day it really felt as if we had returned from the moon.
Ian Thomson was a guest of Steppes Travel, the Tierra Atacama hotel and Balloons over Atacama. Steppes Travel offers a five-night trip, with two nights in Santiago and three at Tierra Atacama, including flights from London, transfers, all meals, private guides and daily excursions, including a sunrise balloon ride, from £4,465