A Nightmare Becomes a Dream: The Atacama Desert

Since the cycling journey through Southern Chile won’t start until next week, I had to fill a month with activities. I’d thought about visiting Easter Island and The Galapagos islands at the end of my trip, so I just moved those up into November and had a great experience in both places.

But I still had an empty week. In Northern Chile, the Atacama desert comes up again and again as a great place to visit. I was skeptical (I am not a desert person – I love ocean, trees, green stuff, and I care less about sand and rocks). But, several people said, “GO!” so, I goeth.

My opinion of the Atacama changed quite a bit during my week there.

(Apologies, I wanted to include more pics, but the mobile/tablet editing experience on Medium is quite broken at the moment)

The First Two Days: “Why would anyone come here?”

I landed in Calama and was shuttled to the Atacama Lofts just South of San Pedro. As we drove through San Pedro, my nostrils flared and eyebrows furrowed. The town was built entirely of low adobe walls, which channeled dust and dirt through the narrow streets filled with stray dogs, tour buskers, and backpackers who reeked of low quality pot smoke.

After settling into the Atacama Lofts, I walked to San Pedro to rent a mountain bike and buy a couple of items I would need for the week.

As I walked down Caracoles, the main street of San Pedro, I asked myself what the hell I was doing there. The entire street was lined with tour companies and tourism focused restaurants and tourism shops and tourism tourists.

One bike shop with the best selection attempted an amateur version of bait and switch on me, so I let them know that wasn’t cool and walked out. Finally I rented a bike from a tour shop that looked the least likely to know anything about cycling, and prepared to be disappointed. José, about 60 years old, outfit me and gave me the full kit. While José had trouble figuring out how many days I would need the bike, he was friendly, hoest, and even laughed it off when the chain jammed and I was worried I’d scrape the frame fixing it. José, muchas gracias a usted.

That first night I went to a stargazing tour, which was pretty great. The air in the Atacama is so arid, that it’s the best place on Earth for space research. ALMA is a key project with over 70 radio dishes receiving signals from space. At night the desert is freezing, and I froze.

(There should be an awesome picture of me stargazing. I mean, I was totally gazing. Imagine me holding the Magellanic Clouds between my hands).

The next day I went on a tour of “La Valle de Arcoiris” (Valley of Rainbows because of the multi-colored rocks), which was entirely in Spanish, and entirely about Geological concepts. While I understood about 80% of the content, I didn’t really get along with the other people on the tour, though I think that was mostly my state of mind. The rocks were interesting, but not worth flying out here to see.

As I ate dinner each night in San Pedro, I would look forward to getting back to the lofts and away from the town and the streams of people in the streets.

The Middle Two Days: “This is a place of death”

The next two days, I hit the bike. The first day I was prohibited from cycling into to La Valle de La Luna (called Valley of the Moon because it looks like the surface of the moon), because I wasn’t wearing a helmet and didn’t have a yellow reflective vest. I offered to rent a helmet and vest from the park, or pay a fine, or teach them several jokes about pedophiles, but they would not budge. Or smile. Or act like decent human beings.

So I told them I was going to hike in (no one hikes in). They kept pointing to the maps and quoting distances, trying to talk me out of hiking in, and I kept smiling my fake smile and them and saying, “Siiiiiiiiiii” in my most patronizing gringo voice. Eventually they gave up and I started hiking.

While the scenery is interesting, it’s still just dirt and rocks, and not my thing. On the hike out, there was a duathlon happening, so I cheered on all the competitors, especially those at the end, looking worse for wear in the heat, dust, and wind.

The next morning I set out for two lakes (Cejar and Tebinquiche) South of San Pedro. The road was gravel all the way, and 20% was poorly maintained. The bike I rented only had front shocks, so I had to slow down quite a bit on the bad parts.

The entry fee for Cejar was about $20 Australian, and I think I spent 10 minutes there walking around and looking at the salt lakes before I left, shrugging my shoulders. Tebinquiche was a little more interesting to me, but it was getting hot and the winds were picking up, so I started the 30k ride back to the Lofts after just 5–6 minutes of looking around. The park ranger raised his eyebrows as I left and said, “Muy rapido…”

At night, I went to a different stargazing tour, that the occupants of the “glent” (glamping tent) next door to me had recommended, and it was much worse. Our guide was a former guitar playing loafer from Bali and really didn’t know much about the universe other than what was in his bad joke laden presentation. Our group had three chain-smoking, drunk Argentinians, who kept bumping the telescopes, and asking the dumbest possible questions. (After our loaf-guide mentioned that there are binary stars, one of them asked if our solar system had one star or two…) The one highlight was Rodrigo, the owner of the tour company, who knew an amazing amount about the constellations and taught us to how to find several of them.

That night, I did not understand why life existed here. The water is undrinkable (and I’m still suffering from the gastro that I think came from a minimal exposure to it), the sun is unbearable, there is no natural shade. The desert was trying to kill me, and prevent me from killing the chain-smoking, drunk Argentinians. In the daytime you will die of skin cancer and dehydrating. Then the climate shifts in 30 minutes and you risk frostbite or pneumonia. There were no trees outside of oases like San Pedro, and humanity had turned those oases into cesspools of humanity. Maybe San Pedro is like a giant roach motel, that attracts and traps the worst of humanity.

But that view was inconsistent with some of the people I had met, who were both amazing human beings and who loved the Atacama.

The Third Three Days: There’s no other place like it on Earth…

But you have to work into order to understand it (or at least I did).

My second to last day, I had an all-day tour of “Las Piedras Rojas” (Red Rocks). We drove South East to some of the volcanoes that form the Andes, and the sights were incredible. The colors in the panorama and the clear sky, with vicuna (a smaller relative of the llama) and flamingos wandering around.

I managed a lunch with a French couple entirely in Spanish, which I was proud of. After lunch was a bit of a letdown with the Salt Lake, and the last 30 minutes in a horrible tourist trap of a town called Toconao, even worse than San Pedro. Even with that cruel punctuation mark on the tour, the day showed me the wonder of the Atacama.

My final day in the Atacama, I went for one of the shortest hikes in my life, but at a higher altitude than I had ever been. The tour guides (Esteban and Carlos) picked up five hikers in total, and we drove the 45 minutes to the 5,000 meter (16,400 feet) end-of-the-road to begin our hike up Cerro / Volcán Toco.

Our guides from Nortrek were great, coaching us on walking incredibly slowly, with short steps. After just 10 steps my body showed all the signs of high altitude: a high heart rate, feeling short of breath, slight dizziness, and even slight lack of coordination (more than normal). The total vertical ascent was 600m over about 1.8km of dirt and shale trail. We stopped about 8–10 times on the way up, for water and snacks. As we climbed higher, Esteban encouraged us to focus, and that the summit was close at hand. The temperatures dropped lower, well below 0 Celcius.

With patience, the summit emerged and we were standing on top of Cerro Toco. The view of the Atacama from here was exceptional – and showed me what I feel the Atacama is all about – the volcanos (one of which, Volcán Lazcar) was erupting slightly) and mountains, and getting as close to them as possible. I would not have been able to go from sea level to climb Toco on my first day, and the days sleeping at 2000m certainly made the summit possible. I was standing at 5,600m (or 18,600 feet), still slightly short of breath, and with the feeling of having accomplished something by slowing down, relaxing, and focusing, instead of my usual heads-down-acceleration approach to the rest of my life.

On the summit, as we talked about our backgrounds, Esteban let me know that I’d just told everyone I had two ex-husbands, and I’d been using the wrong word for the last month. I’m proud to do my part for pride, even if inadvertently! It does explain some of the other conversations over the last month.

Unlike the normal “attack the mountain” approach I usually take that leaves my muscles aching, I felt like I had spent the day inside of a paint mixer. An altitude induced headache greeted me in the late afternoon, but had evaporated by the next morning as I headed back to the airport.

While I will not miss the dust and the dirt, as the sun rose over the mountains behind me, I whispered Adios, Atacama. You are special. But you should see someone about getting rid of everything in the center of San Pedro.


Even on the worst days of the last month, they’ve been experiences I am lucky to have. But I might have completely missed the magic of Atacama were it not for two people:

Carola, who recommended I stay at that Atacama Lofts, outside of San Pedro, a ‘glamping’ ranch with lots of space and an amazing view of Licancabur, a conical volcano that you can’t help but stare at. I would not have made it the whole week had I stayed in the crowded dust bowl of San Pedro.

Vivian, who works at the Atacama Loft, helped me pick the right activities and found the best group to hike Cerro Toco. She was constantly there to chat with me about how my day went, and she even tolerated listening to some of my favorite music. We’d switch back and forth between my broken Spanish and her fantastic English. Spending time with Vivian helped me become ‘tranquilo’ (the most commonly word said to me during this trip, i.e. “Chill Out”. She helped me understand that the trekking needed acclimation, and that these hikes were not the kind where I would just ride my bike to the base and start hiking up with a liter of water and six muesli bars. My experience would never have turned the corner and been as good as it was without her.

Now, I’m in Temuco, and the cycling begins in two days, and will likley run until mid-Feb, with a few breaks for hiking. Vamos!

A man. A plan. Subscribe via email at http://eepurl.com/dhhmvr

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