When I learned there was a place on this earth where there has been almost no measurable rainfall...ever...my curiosity was piqued, and I booked a trip to this extraordinary place -- the Atacama desert in northern Chile.
The desert stretches some 600 miles between Peru's southern border and Chile's central Pacific coast, and extends 41,000 square miles. Because the area is protected by the Andes Mountains and the Chilean coastal mountain ranges, rain clouds are blocked from moving across the area and it remains dry. Some places in the desert do, however, receive moisture from the snow runoff that comes from the Andes, but that amounts to a whopping 0.004" per year.
Nine curious and excited travelers landed in Calama, Chile for our tour of the Atacama desert. The first jaw-dropping area we came to was Yerbas Buenas with its ancient petroglyphs and colored spires. More than a thousand of these petroglyphs were deeply incised on the surface -- some of them nearly life sized.
We were able to identify foxes, pumas, jaguars, snakes, flamingos and human figures. The extreme dry climate and lack of rain makes the area ideal for preserving rock art, and in many cases the drawings appear as fresh as if they were made yesterday even though some are estimated to be thousands of years old. The sun was scorching and as we searched for a small piece of shade, it was easy to imagine ancient hunters escaping the sun in the same way. A short bus ride took us to Rainbow Valley or Valle del Arcoiris, a series of huge spires with colors of green, blue, purple and orange -- the variety of colors are a result of copper, quartz, iron and well other minerals embedded in the rocks. We felt dwarfed as we walked among these cathedral like stone structures.￼
Our next stop was Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile to see it at sunset with the jagged peaks of the Andes Mountains as a backdrop. It was surprising to us that as dry as the region is, there is a constant underground water supply. As we neared the flats, we saw hundreds of flamingos dipping their heads in the water to feast on the brine shrimp that live in the flats. Out of the blue, as if they received a signal, they were in flight and in an instant they were gone! It was breathtaking.
The next morning we were awakened at 4:15 to begin our trip north to the El Tatio geyser field. At about 14,000', El Tatio or The Grandfather, is among the highest elevation geyser fields in the world. With over 80 active geysers, it's the largest in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world. We arrived at sunrise because the steaming fumaroles look more impressive when you can actually see the columns of steam condensing in the frigid air. The fumaroles seemed to disappear as the sun rose and the air temperature warmed. The bright and bold red and yellow colored boulders strewn throughout the geyser fields are a result of evaporation of the mineral rich geyser water.
The Valley of the Moon and the Valley of Death are vast expanses of land composed solely of rock and minerals. The area is desolate and beautiful at the same time. There is absolutely no humidity and absolutely nothing lives here -- we didn't see a blade of grass or a cactus stump, not a lizard, not a gnat. But we did see huge otherworldly figures of salt and clay -- some more than 20' tall. We felt as if we were walking in the valley of giants.
The most beautiful figures were the rock formations known as The Three Marias, which are estimated to be more than a million years old. They are a combination of gravel, clay, salt and quartz which formed into unusual shapes because of extreme erosion over time. Another amusing formation was the Dinosaur Head. It was fun to make up names for the other rock formations. After walking through the Valley of Death, we feared no evil. Our guides set out a table with cheese, wine and other hors d'oeuvres. As the sun went down, we had a toast to our extraordinary trip to the Atacama Desert.
Photos courtesy of Charlotte Temple