Chile's Atacama Desert: A place on Earth that's more like being on the moon

The foot of Volcan Licancabur in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile, at sunset.
Nina Karnikowski

The foot of Volcan Licancabur in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile, at sunset.

Here on the edge of Death Valley in Chile's Atacama Desert, with nothing but the glow of the full moon to light my way, I am about to step off into the abyss.

A great swathe of sand dune flaps down from my feet like a just shaken-out quilt. Where it ends could be anyone's guess.

"Don't think too much, just breathe, then take a chance," my guide Rayen, a 20-something Chilean with a pixie haircut and tattooed neck, whispers to me.

The Atacama Desert is a plateau in South America, covering a 1000-kilometre strip of land on the Pacific coast.

The Atacama Desert is a plateau in South America, covering a 1000-kilometre strip of land on the Pacific coast.

There's really no other way down so I lift my left foot, inhale deeply, and go. Down, down, down I go, legs scissoring wildly as my feet churn the sand into confetti all around me. I run with an increasing loss of control, but I don't care because my belly is flip-flopping with excitement.

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Halfway down, I lift my chin to the sky and howl at the moon. I still don't know what possessed me. But then that's the thing about this 1000-kilometre-long ribbon of nothingness in northern Chile. It makes you do strange things.

Cactus Valley (Los Cardones Ravine) in the Atacama Desert.
Nina Karnikowski

Cactus Valley (Los Cardones Ravine) in the Atacama Desert.

I arrived in the Atacama Desert the previous afternoon, having taken a late morning flight from Chile's buzzing capital Santiago, and was delivered directly to my luxurious desert launch pad, Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa.

Its squat terracotta-coloured adobe buildings seamlessly blended into the surrounding rock walls, which encased six small pools, large vegetable gardens, roaming llamas, and native cactus and crystal gardens in which guests could sit and contemplate the universe.

But I had not a moment to waste on contemplation; not with all that swimming and sunbathing to attend to. Activities that managed to evaporate my entire first afternoon in the desert. B

Capur Salt Flats in Chile's Atacama Desert.
Nina Karnikowski

Capur Salt Flats in Chile's Atacama Desert.

efore I knew it the stars had popped out and there I was, sitting at an alfresco dinner table being served some excellent Chilean carmenere and freshly grilled salmon, promising myself that tomorrow, the explorations would begin.

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My first order of business today, then, is meeting with Rayen to plot my itinerary. Having just finished a high-altitude trek in neighbouring Peru, I've already acclimatised to the altitude, so shirk the cycling tours, hot spring plunges and 30-odd other activities in favour of a high-altitude salt flat adventure.

I climb into a four-wheel-drive, accompanied by Rayen and a jolly English couple in their mid-60s, and start the two-hour drive to the Tara salt flats. We stop en route to admire the majestic Licancabur and Juriques volcanoes, and llama-pocked fields of tufty yellow puna grasses. But they're nothing compared to the salt flats. So white they shimmer and stretching off into the horizon, they're smattered with pink flamingos wading through the briny water in search of the tiny shrimp that Rayen tells us give them their flamboyant colour. The sun is bright and the sky is clear but, being more than 4000 metres above sea level, there's also an icy wind that forces us to do most of our flamingo perving from the warmth of our vehicle.

When we arrive at the Pacana Monks, though, we're compelled to jump back out. Poking out of the vast sand plateau, Rayen tells us these enormous stone pillars were thrown out from volcanoes millions of years ago, piercing the ground like harpoons. We stand before them in silent awe; the air is bone dry and there isn't a single sound or visibly alive creature. It's like you'd imagine it would feel standing at the end of the world, and it puts me on a bit of a high. When I tell Rayen as much, she smiles.

"Some people say it's the high levels of minerals – copper, quartz, sodium – that makes people feel so good when they come to the Atacama," she says. "Others say that because it's the highest and driest place in the world, it gets you very clear on who you are and what you want." The truth behind these musings could be anyone's guess. All I know, as I look out over the lunar-like landscape, is that there's something strangely seductive about this place.

The seduction continues later that night, as we explore Death Valley under the light of the "supermoon". It's the biggest, brightest moon of the year, and the closest and moon has been to the earth since 1948. Because of the Atacama's high altitude, nearly non-existent cloud cover and lack of light pollution, it's one of the best places in the world for observing astronomical phenomena like this. A happy coincidence that I should have arrived just in time to experience it, I think, as I howl like a wolf and tumble down into the void.

The following morning, in the frosty pre-dawn, I drag myself out of bed and swaddle myself in every layer of clothing I have for a trip to a place of Atacama legend. The drive to the El Tatio Geysers is long and quiet, despite the fact that our 4WD is full. We arrive at this field filled with 80-odd belching steam columns just as the sun's first rays peek over the surrounding volcanoes, turning the billowing smoke bright white. I can hear the bubbling waters of the boiling geysers, as I watch the shadowy figures of fellow travellers appear and disappear in the steam.

I can't begin to imagine anything more dreamy. But then, the afternoon arrives and I find myself traversing a hidden canyon filled with monolithic cacti. Our guide tells us these cacti grow just one centimetres a year and that some of them, towering several times above the height of my own body, are up to 900 years old. I stare up at these enormous, hairy fingers pointing into the sharp blue sky, feeling very Alice in Wonderland having just downed the Drink Me potion.

By the time we arrive back at the lodge the rose tinge of dusk is settling onto the desert. Call it a mineral-surge, call it insanity, but for some reason I'm still full of energy and take one of Alto's pushbikes 20 minutes along the dirt road into the main town, San Pedro de Atacama. Only about six blocks in size, it's like something out of an old-fashioned wild-west film, with its squat dusky pink- and white-coloured adobe shopfronts, rammed-earth streets and picturesque 16th century adobe church. I wander through town, poking my head into petite bars and eateries, taking a breather in the charming, tree-lined main square, and bargaining for textiles in the local craft market. On my ride back to the lodge, I find myself fantasising about renting a house in San Pedro and calling it home for a while. When I bump into Rayen in the lobby on my way to dinner and tell her so, she laughs.

"Ahh yes," she says. "Us locals nickname it San Pedro de Atrapame [atrapame means "to catch" in Spanish], because it grabs you and keeps you here. It captures a part of your soul." Rayen knows a few people, she says, who have come intending to stay just a few days, and have ended up staying a few years.

The following morning, my last in the desert, is spent in the alfresco Andean baths of Alto Atacama's Puri Spa. There, in a mineral salt bath overlooking the vast ochre-coloured plains and rock walls, I'm given a cranial massage while letting the desert's supposed good-mood minerals soak into my skin.

Later, I'm driven out to the Los Flamencos National Reserve for my final Atacama adventure to Moon Valley. When my guide tells me it has been used by NASA to test instruments for future Mars missions, I immediately understand why. Much of the rust-red sandstone has been dusted in white salt, with dome-like rock formations popping up from the surface like giant sugary biscuits. As we walk, the ground beneath our feet glitters with petrified salt crystals. We explore some of the abandoned salt mines scattered throughout the valley, then drive past rust-coloured jagged rock formations, shaped by the desert's rushing winds over centuries.

Our day ends on the lip of the valley, tucked inside the van away from the cold whip of the wind, sipping local syrah, nibbling cheese and watching the yellow sun fall below the black horizon. For a moment there, I'm sure I feel a little piece of my soul squeeze out of my belly, slip out the van window, and get carried off by the wind to find its home somewhere in this otherworldly place.

TRIP NOTES
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FLY

LATAM flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Santiago. From there it's a two-hour connecting flight to Calama. See latam.com

STAY

Rooms at Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa start from $AUD847 per night, with all meals and excursions included. See altoatacama.com

TOUR

Latin America specialist Chimu Adventures create tailor-made Chile itineraries including flights, accommodation, transfers and tours. Phone 1300 873 981; see chimuadventures.com/chile

Traveller.com.au

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