San Pedro de Atacama was my starting point for exploring the Atacama Desert. This small city lies at 2440 m above sea level, so it’s quite a prelude in adjusting yourself to altitude so as to avoid altitude sickness. Especially, if you’re planning further trips to Atacama lagunas or Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. These places are located much higher so it might be a good idea to stay a few days longer in the town before your further adventure.
San Pedro de Atacama itself is a typical desert town encompassing several sandy lanes (transforming into a muddy slush with the lightest rain) and houses built from adobes.
The main square is tiny but also very cheerful. There is a spreading breadfruit tree growing in the center. It gives a blissful shade, inviting you to sit and have a break from the blistering sun. Nearby, there is XVII century Iglesia de San Pedro – a church built from adobes and cordon cactus wood.
Next to it, there is 464-year-old Pedro de Valdivia home – he conquered Chile for the Spanish monarchy and came here along with his train in 1540.
At present, the town is populated by about 3 000 citizens, majority of them make a living thanks to tourism. Some of them run hostels, others work as travel agents or tourist guides. In addition, the town is rich in hundreds of… dogs. There are so many of them that residents came up with a new name for San Pedro and they call it San Perro (Saint Dog) :D Dogs population is increasing so rapidly that it is becoming a serious problem. Mainly because animals scatter rubbish while making a huge mess. What’s more, hungry packs can be dangerous. At the same time, dogs are careless and often you need to literally move them over from the door or stairs in order to enter a house.
The town is surrounded by the Atacama Desert – the driest area in the world. A particular climate is the result of the cold Peruvian Current flowing along the coast.
Landscape of this place takes you into another dimension. Especially us, Europeans, unaware of what the real desert actually is. It’s 450 km long and 100 km wide and consists of sand and rocks. Chilean part of the desert is not as high as Bolivian (around 500 – 2000 m asl). The territory is located between Coastal and Western Cordillera.
My first days in Atacama are devoted to acclimatization, so I decide to explore the neighborhood. For starters, I choose Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) – the driest place in Cordillera de la Sal mountain range.
It is claimed that roughly 300 mil years ago today’s territory was completely flat. Then, 26 mil years ago, tectonic plates movements caused earthquakes resulting in upheaval of four mountain ranges there: Cordillera de la Costa, Cordillera de Domeyko, Cordillera de los Andes and Cordillera de la Sal. Along with climate warming, the Andes began to melt and the flowing water met on its’ way Cordillera de Domeyko. For hundreds of thousands of years it was swirling in the valley, forming Valle de la Muerte. It is fascinating that such a rocky wilderness was full of water back then.
It rains here for about two weeks a year, in January and February. The water, draining off nearby mountains and a volcano, carries salt and minerals that leave visible damp patches on rocks and hills. It’s also the reason of desert lagunas high salinity. Interestingly, you can still find areas where a single raindrop hasn’t fallen for 450 years.
The name Valle de la Muerte itself has nothing to do with death but with a slip of the pen. In 1955, Gustavo Le Paige, a pioneering explorer of this territory, was supposed to say ‘eso parece el Valle del Muerte’ (it looks like a Mars valley). In Spanish, Mars (Marte) and death (muerte) sound much alike. Everybody thought it was muerte (death). However, there were attempts to clarify the mistake, but the name Death Valley has already clung to the place and it was too late for a change.
Rocks of unusual structure and shape entwine with hills and sandy hills, perfect for so-called sandboarding. By the way, snowboarding on sand is quite a challenge!
Walk in the valley is impressive but the top view is what takes your breath away. As usual, in order to have your breath taken, you need to earn it. Although climbing Valle de la Muerte rocks is not the hardest thing in the world, it demands a lot of effort. Mainly because foot are stuck in the sand. The wind isn’t helpful, either. It blows between the rocks, biting your head off and blinding eyes with sand punches. I was climbing for about 20 minutes with my eyes closed, almost deaf and blind, wobbling right and left and the sand was literally everywhere. As they say, a piece of cake :D
I wonder why it’s all easy-peasy when you ask, no one tells you about sand blizzards :)
However, you must admit, the view is deathless :D
Not only it looks like Mars but it also feels like Mars! Conditions are very similar to those on the red planet, it’s dry, hot and dusty. That’s why NASA has conducted a series of research and experiments, using valleys as models. Vehicles such as Nomad and Zoe have been tested here before being sent into space. Landscapes served as settings of many films, such as The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) about Che Guevara’s life journey or Bond episode Quantum of Solace (2008).
Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) looks a bit different. Its area was a salty lake once, that’s why it’s covered by a layer of salt. It gives you the impression of snow in the desert. Except, it’s 30 degrees :)
Atacama is also rich in a variety of minerals. There are mines of lead, iron, copper, Chile nitre, gold, silver, cobalt and rock salt.
Popular tourist attraction of Valle de la Luna is salt cave covered in vast salt crystals. Walking inside is a blast. Sometimes it gets so low you need to squat and then it becomes so high you need to climb it. No time to be bored here!
A few kilometers further there are famous Tres Marias (Three Marys). They are three rocks formed as people throughout hundreds of years of rain and wind. Back in time, they were called Tres Vigilantes (Three Firefighters), since there was an entrance to a mine that has been already closed. Miners prayed to them for help and protection on their way to work.
By the way, in South America everything tripled is called Tres Marias. Three trees on the road – look! Tres Marias! Three stars in the sky – wow! Tres Marias! Three goals – we won! Thank you, Tres Marias! :)
Out of the original three rocks there are only two and a half left. A few years ago a tourist has tried to climb it and broke it. As a result, the Valle de la Luna territory is fenced now and tourists can walk only on specially designated trails. I think it’s for the best, there were lots of tourists coming here with their own hammers, chipping off pieces of the rock as souvenirs. Human ignorance is truly limitless.
Half an hour or so ago a few cowboys passed me on their horses. Since then, nothing. Not a soul to be seen for miles and miles.
Except dogs wandering in the desert. I’m curious, how did they get here? It’s a long distance from the city. Local dogs change their owners a few times a day. If you walk their way, they join you and treat you as an old travel buddy.
I love the silence and loneliness you can find in the desert nature. You can really hear your own thoughts, which is so unusual in everyday city life.
It’s only my first date with the desert so far but I sense it will be my favorite place during this journey.