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5 reasons to discover the beautiful Atacama Desert

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The Atacama Desert in Chile is the driest in the world, some parts of it have never seen rain. It is the oldest in the world at 150M years and the highest in the world – we visited some parts at 4,600 metres. It is also simply huge at 1,500 sq km and has many varied landscapes from salt flats and deep canyons to moonscapes and sand dunes – we visited the lot!

Our town was San Pedro de Atacama, 30km from the Bolivian border and just over the mountains from Argentina.

Every view we had, and there are some stunning ones, has the backdrop of snow capped mountains, the highest at 6,739 metres.

A visit to Valle de la Luna

The Valle de la Luna is aptly name, it’s like nothing on earth I’ve ever seen. Mountain slopes glittering with what look like diamonds, it’s actually gypsum, volcanic rock alongside sand dunes hundreds of feet high with valleys of white salt and a backdrop of mountains with gleaming white snow – quite breathtaking.

It is dry and arid so virtually nothing grows but still there are flocks of screaming green parrots flying above us as we walk the ridge looking down a sheer drop off our narrow path to the salt flats below. A little intimidating but far too spectacular to be worried about the vertical drop either side.

It was on the platform at the end of the ridge while we were taking a well deserved rest, that Marcella our guide told us the story of the “sweetest death” and the sacred mountain Llullaillaco, pronounced Ju-jay-jaco. We sat on the peak marvelling at Llullaillaco, the second highest active volcano in the world at 6,700 metres towering above the horizon between the border of Chile and Argentina, as she began her captivating story.

The views over Llullaillaco Mountain

The Incas believed the mountain to be sacred, the home of their gods and a place where annual sacrifices were made, astonishingly the sacrifices were children. The most exceptional children in the tribe, either the most beautiful or the most gifted in their education were the chosen ones. They were selected at a very young age and taken to be educated separately from the others in the tribe, not all made it to the ultimate sacrifice however.

Around 1,500 AD three children were selected from the “school” two girls, aged fifteen and eight and a boy aged six. They were escorted on foot by their families and the Inca elders on the lengthy journey to Llullaillaco. Their job was to keep the children alive on the long trek up to the 6,700M summit, our highest was 4,600M and it was tough at times even for us.

At the end of the journey there must have been all sorts of rituals performed before the children were given hallucinating drugs and alcohol to help them sleep – at 6,700M you don’t wake up. This was known as the “sweetest death”. Can you imagine how the accompanying parents must have felt? Pride perhaps that their children were selected to be sacrificed to the gods and ultimately to become gods themselves, but the devastation any parent would feel in losing a son or daughter.

In 1999 the children’s mummies were discovered on the mountain and are considered to be the best preserved Inca mummies of all time. Quite a story to reflect upon as we made our way back down the Valle de la Luna.

Watching the Flamingos in the desert

Flamingos in the driest desert in the world and at 3,300 meters, how does that work? Well, no one is really sure, but there they were on the salt flats with necks like crooked drainpipes and pink as you like against the clear blue skies and sparkling snow topped mountains, what a picture. We picnicked and watched the sun go down as flocks of flamingos sailed above us, pink necks and legs outstretched silhouetted against the matching sunset, wonderful.

This country has a huge amount of awe inspiring landscapes and scenery, but we weren’t finished yet.

Spotting the seven colours in the Rainbow Valley

We visited the Rainbow Valley, an incredibly stunning natural panorama. The seven colours making up the rainbow of rock we found in the valley included mountains of green crystal, red volcanic rock exploded from the very core of the earth, white volcanic ash slopes, purple ridges and minerals of black, silver and gold. Goodness me what a sight, it moved Helene to tears.

Seeing the El Tatio Geysers at dawn

We waited until our final day to tackle the 4,600 meter high trip to the El Tatio Geysers to ensure we were fully acclimatised. It was up at 5:00 AM to allow us time to see the sunrise.

It was minus ten on the summit, it had been minus fourteen earlier in the week and minus twenty last month, June. It was, as promised, a stunning sunrise over the mountains, with bursts of steam rising from scalding water in the snowy ground into a clear blue and pink sky.

The water at the surface of the geysers is at boiling point, packed full of minerals and some rare bacteria that makes oxygen and can actually create life. In fact, if, or perhaps when, there is Armageddon on planet earth then here is one of only three places around the globe where scientists believe life will begin again, a sobering thought and difficult to believe in this desolate harsh environment.

We had a slow descent out of the unique and recently snow covered landscape, into bright sunshine with not a cloud in the sky. We arrived back to remove layer upon layer of clothing to be replaced by shorts and a tee-shirt, and enjoy a beer around the pool.

And that just about sums up the Atacama Desert, a place of amazing contrast from salt flats to towering volcanic peaks, barren and parched lunar landscapes to warm mountain pools and hillsides that sparkle at you. We loved it.

David Moore is Author of ‘Turning Left Around the World’. Published by Mirador and available from Amazon, it is an entertaining account of David and his wife’s travel adventures – often intriguing, frequently funny and occasionally tragic. 

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