Holiday in Chile (3): the Atacama Desert 

It was a very early start to Wednesday and I mean early.  In Santiago, Silvia’s alarm went at 4.30 am and mine at 5 am.  The group left the hotel at 5.50 am with a packed breakfast and headed to the airport. We flew from Santiago in the centre of the country to Calama in the far north – a flight of  one hour 40 minutes with spectacular view of the Andes. 

We were met by a new – smaller – coach and driven south-east to our accommodation for the next three nights. When we left Santiago, we were at an altitude of about 500 metres (1,640 feet); when we left Calama, we were much higher and quickly rose up to 3,430 metres (11,250 feet), before dropping down to 2,440 metres (8,000 feet) so we had to breathe deeply.

The Altiplanico Hotel, just outside the village of San Pedro de Atacama, is a delightful, if rather basic, place consisting of chalets around a garden and swimming pool. Silvia and I immediately walked the 15 minutes into town where we made a few purchases and ate a salad lunch. at a welcoming gay bar called ”Lola”.

Our tour was in this part of Chile to see the Atacama Desert. This is the driest non-polar desert in the world and it has been used as experimentation sites on Earth for Mars expedition simulations. The desert occupies 105,000 sq km (41,000 sq mi), or 128,000 sq km (49,000 sq mi) if the barren lower slopes of the Andes are included. Most of the desert is composed of stony terrain, salt lakes, sand and felsic lava that flows towards the Andes.

We were out from 4 pm until almost 7 pm visiting a part of the desert called the Valle de La Luna  (Valley of the Moon).  This is a mere 15 km west of San Pedro de Atacama at the northern end of the Cordillera de la Sal mountain range and overlooked by the higher Cordillera de Domeyko range. The area is part of the Reserva National Los Flamencos. The reserve is tightly controlled and visitors are only allowed to walk on set paths and not cross over lines of stones or low strings of chain.

Our first and most spectacular visit was to a huge sand dune called Duna Mayor. We climbed up one side which was mainly soft sand and came down the other side which was mainly rock. It was not an easy climb, especially since we were so high and the weather was so warm, but it was most certainly worth the effort.

We went on to visit several other locations in the reserve, each with its own display of rocks and canyons. Finally we left the reserve so that we could set up a table with wine and nipples (no food or drink is allowed in the reserve) and observe the sunset.  Frankly it was somewhat underwhelming and a short sand storm led to particles in our eyes, ears and nose plus shoes. 

Dinner was an individual affair but we all ate at the hotel. We were exhausted – although in a happy way – and wanted an early night. As Silvia and I walked from the dining room back to our chalet, we looked up and saw stars. Then more stars. And even more.


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