Ginormous geysers, salty lagoons and magnificent volcanoes greet those who dare tread the intrepid expanse of the Atacama desert.
Marisha Karwa | POSTED ON: July 28, 2020
The El Tatio geothermal field adds a touch of drama to the vastly naked topography of the Atacama desert. Photo By: Pawel Toczynski/The Image Bank/Getty images
The tour bus had been banging, clanging, grinding, hurtling, jangling, jerking, lurching and screeching. It was surprising that the wheels hadn’t come off already. I was certain a few of my incisors had.
Even so, I sent out gratitude tsunamis to the universe to be just moving, for to be stranded in the Atacama cannot add to the kitty of spunky travel lore. Being stuck in the world’s oldest desert can be punishing, fatal even.
The Atacama is also the world’s driest desert; parts of it have never witnessed rain. This large plateau of barren land, wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes in northern Chile, has lived through millennia of inertia. Isolated and undisturbed. It’s a place where the grains of time reluctantly turn in slow motion on a busy day. The terrain is unyielding, a veritable death zone for vegetation, made up of lava, rock, boulders, craggy hills, salt flats and volcanoes. Its stillness is precisely what makes the Atacama a treasure hunt for clues to solve the mysteries about our planet’s evolutionary years.
But I wasn’t there to solve geological riddles. I was there to inhabit and experience the obscure, to witness a land which the elements had chosen to sparingly encounter. Their ferocity, in places of such encounters, I had read, was nothing short of mind-boggling. The path to such gratifications was not for the faint-hearted. In fact, the road was really a series of ditches and craters, as I discovered on the bumpy ride to El Tatio, the highest geyser field in the world.
Castles in the Air
Standing at 14,173 feet, the geysers lie 80 kilometres north of San Pedro de Atacama, the gateway to the desert. We set out before dawn, with temperatures so low that getting out of bed was an achievement. The cold seeped into my bones through a suddenly inadequate parka. We rode in the dark for nearly two hours, making our way through dirt tracks and gaining altitude with each passing kilometre. In the twilight, I glimpsed amorphous white towers dwarfed by rugged, brown mountains on the horizon. It was surreal: to see a place so deprived of precipitation that it boasts azure skies all year round, spewing vehement jets of water.
The El Tatio geothermal field has over 80 active geysers, hot springs, steam vents and mud pools. These are best viewed in the early hours before the sunlight stings you in the thin atmosphere. I alighted the bus with extra layers: the altitude was dizzying, the cold biting and the ground frigid. An amalgam of rock, mud and vapour had made the walking path treacherous; one misstep could result in a tumble and/or send one sliding right through the stone perimeter that rimmed each fissure, demarcating its perilous zone.
I meandered on the path to hissing, bubbling water, walking in and out of thick clouds of gas and steam, mindful with each step to steer clear of the scalding forces all around. The fountains sent boiling water several feet into the sky; steam vents ejected with gusty force forming swaying castles of mist; the mud pools came to life intermittently to belch out slush.
Watching the sun come up at El Tatio was a spectacle—one I was restless to be done with. The sneakers I was wearing were a misfit on the frosty ground. My feet numb, I could no longer feel my toes. I retreated to the warmth of the bus, and found that I wasn’t the only who had made a poor wardrobe decision. Fortunately, a hot spring-fed pool lay just beyond the geyser and a dip in what would have otherwise been a scorching bath proved to be just the antidote.
As the numbness left my toes, awe consumed my mind. It was barely 15 hours earlier that I had plunged into another pool, in another part of the Atacama. Less than three hours/136 kilometres south-west of El Taito, the Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache are so distinctive that they could well have been on the other side of the world. Imagine seven stunning lagoons, part of the Salar de Atacama or the Atacama salt flats, spread over a few kilometres. These are the remnants of what was once said to have been an ocean, formed in the mountains due to tectonic changes. Of course, without rain, the ocean started to dry. Centuries later, what remains are sheets of cracked salt and the glimmering pools—scattered like nests of dewy robin’s eggs under the desert sun.
The Atacama keeps its mysteries well-guarded. I remembered a swift wave of blue hitting our irises as we, a motley crew of tourists, stepped off from our vehicle and followed the walking track towards the ‘hidden lagoons.’ It was as if the desert land was welcoming us with a toast of curaçao martinis, a well-deserved nod to perseverance.
For as far as the eyes could see, the horizon was speckled with salt flats and crusty, brown earth. One rebel pool gleamed red and emerald, perhaps an indication of its distinct minerals.
With 220 grams salt per litre of water, the lagoons at Baltinache can sometimes have higher salinity than the Dead Sea. Of the seven pools, five are off limit for conservation and research purposes. Visitors splashed in and out of the first and the last, eager to put the dense water theory to the test. And indeed, dozens of bodies bounced and bobbed in the water, making for Insta-worthy photos and videos. A few imprudent souls attempted to go underwater despite the warnings by tour guides and staff. The saline water stings the eyes, and can cause permanent damage.
I cast away my flip-flops and gingerly set foot in a pool of gorgeous turquoise. The water was icy, even though we were in the middle of an afternoon desert. I traipsed into the surrounding ankle-high water, descending in awkward spasms as I reconsidered a full soak. Following Ford Prefect’s classic advice, I had carried my towel, but little else to shield from the cold. This was no interstellar journey and our planet was under no threat whatsoever, but it was an opportune moment to carpe diem. So I plunged in—chills ran up through my body. Was I floating of my own accord? Was the water holding me up? In that moment, it didn’t really matter.
As dusk fell, swimmers emerged from the pools looking like white walkers. My head and limbs were bleached, and my clothes stiff. I made for the public baths, letting the salt flow away with the water. When the sun started to descend on the horizon, a bus full of aching limbs and glowing hearts drove away from the lagoons and towards an elevation less than an hour down the gravel road. Here, just off the Calama-San Pedro de Atacama route, we stopped for sundowners.
Fire in Their Belly
The landscape, swathes of land in chrome and ochre, stretched out beyond us for kilometres. Volcanoes, big and small, dotted the skyline. Under a rare, grey cloud stood the Licancabur volcano, marking the border between Chile
and Bolivia. Gaping at its hulking majesty, I could almost fathom why the indigenous people—the Atacameños—consider it holy.
Towering over 19,400 feet, Licancabur’s near-perfect symmetrical cone is perpetually snow dusted. Within its crater lies the Licancabur lake, among the highest lakes in the world. The volcano’s consistent 30-degree slopes are a big draw for mountain climbers. I was imagining the Atacameños dissuading climbers who hazard the two-day hike when I was pulled out of my reverie by our guide, who had laid out a picnic table of wine and cheese.
One does not simply anticipate the marvels witnessed in the Atacama desert. For all my preparatory cramming about the other-worldly terrain of Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) and the Valle de la Muerte (Mars Valley), I was still gobsmacked to walk the craggy rocks and boulders at these default filming locations for Mars movies. I was caught unawares by the whimsy of the lagoons and geysers, and the out-of-turn wildlife this no man’s land could host. I was thrilled by the South American natives of vicuñas (camelids) and the viscachas (wild rodents), and the cloud-pink flamingos at Los Flamencos National Reserve. It was true, the Atacama’s vastness is surpassed by its overwhelming emptiness. But as the sun’s parting rays bathed Licancabur in mellow orange, I realised that nature also has its way of thriving in neglect.
A toast was in order, to all things that make the spirit soar. I raised my glass of pisco sour.
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There are no direct flights from India to Chile. Flights from Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore to capital Santiago require one or more layovers in European or Middle Eastern cities such as Frankfurt, London, and Dubai. Domestic flights are available between Santiago’s Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport and El Loa Airport of Calama, a gateway city 100 km northwest of San Pedro de Atacama. Taxi and shuttle services are available from the airport.
Visa applicatioms can be made online (tramites.minrel.gov.cl). Afterwards, seek an appointment with the Chilean consulate in New Delhi to submit passport and other relevant documents. Indians with a U.S. visa can get visa on arrival.
When to Go
The best time to visit is March-May or September-December. While daytime temperatures are warm enough for shorts, keep a pullover or a parka handy after sundown.
The writer stayed at Hostal Elim (doubles from Rs4,500; www.hostalelim.cl). Hotel Terrantai Lodge and Hotel Pascual Andino also come recommended.
Carry sunscreen, hats, water, snacks, and medicine.