Text and Photos by William Graham
Clive, a Canadian astronomer who now lives in the Atacama Desert in Chile, led me through the dark on a clear, cold night to a series of telescopes pointed at different planets and stars in the night sky. Looking through them, I could see the universe with a clarity that most people do not get to experience. The air is so clear and pure in the Atacama Desert that starlight drips like honey from the sky. The Milky Way arched regally across the sky and the evening was punctuated with multiple brilliant flashes of meteorites. Gazing at the heavens in the Atacama gives one a renewed appreciation for the universe that we sometimes take for granted. As Emerson asked in his essay Nature: “What if the stars only revealed themselves for one night in every thousand years?” If that were true, we would certainly appreciate their grand spectacle more deeply.
This unforgettable evening of stargazing was just one of the many great experiences I had while traveling in the Atacama in January 2017 — which is summer in the southern hemisphere. Stretching 600 miles from Peru’s southern border into northern Chile, the Atacama is a place climatologists call an absolute desert. The Atacama is the driest place on Earth. Parts of the Atacama Desert haven’t seen a drop of rain since recordkeeping began. Chile’s coastal range to the west blocks Pacific storms from rolling in, and the Andes Mountains reaching 20,000 feet high block rains coming in from Amazonia to the east. But this landscape, which some people may see as having an apocalyptic bleakness, I found to have a purity and timelessness that was utterly captivating.
This was my second trip to Chile. Ten years ago I visited the capital of Santiago and the charming coastal city of Valparaiso before heading to see the famous stone heads (called “moais”) of Easter Island. On this trip, I made a one day stop in the bustling capital of Santiago before heading two hours north by plane to the city of Calama, which is a copper mining company town. From Calama it is a one-hour drive east to the small village of San Pedro de Atacama, which has a population of about 2,000 people and is the center of tourism in the Atacama. The village sits at an elevation of over 7,900 feet. San Pedro is a lovely town with an adobe church that is the dominant feature of the town square. The main shopping area has preserved the structure and construction of the Spanish colonial period, featuring adobe buildings with interior yards and roofs made of clay and hay. One feature I was confronted with upon arrival and during my entire stay in the Atacama was the relentless heat. Now I have been to some hot places in the world (including the Moroccan desert), but the heat of Atacama at times made me feel that I would spontaneously combust into flames, and that I would leave behind only a smoldering pair of hiking shoes. One must drink lots of water, slather on lots of sunscreen and wear a hat to help reduce the sun’s potency.
Besides the opportunity for unmatched stargazing, I was attracted to Atacama by its history and otherworldly landscape. Even though the Atacama is the driest place on Earth, people have lived there for over 10,000 years. How did they survive? The indigenous people originally called themselves the Likan-Antai, or “people of this land.” The Likan-Antai migrated across the Andes from what is now Argentina as they followed the migrating vicuñas, which were their main source of meat. The conquering Spanish renamed them the Atacameños, who were able to live and thrive in this unforgiving environment by ingeniously constructing a series of irrigation channels and land plots known as “ayllus” using run off from the snows high in the nearby Andes. I saw firsthand evidence of the long history of the Likan-Antai while visiting a deep river gorge where the people had carved petroglyphs over 10,000 years ago that depicted their daily life of hunting, growing crops and participating in religious rituals.
While the history of the region is fascinating, the landscape is haunting and mesmerizing. Once such place is the Miscanti Lagoons, which are located at over 12,000 feet and surrounded by even higher volcanoes, some of which are still active (you can see smoke arising from the calderas at the summit). The lagoons are home to the Andean Flamingos, which have distinct pink bodies and black tails. As I was walking near the lagoon, a herd of vicuñas relaxed in the early morning sun before scampering off to nibble on the desert plants. Other local wildlife that I encountered with regularity during the trip were guanacos, llamas, the Andean fox, the American ostrich (cousin to the African species) and the vizacha (similar to a rabbit.)
Coming down from the lagoon, I could see the mountain hillsides ablaze with the rust colored plants called the baja brava and the yellow plant called the cola de zorro. Their colors contrasted wonderfully with the black and red volcanic ash and boulders on the ground.
The following day I arose before dawn so that I could see the erupting Tatio geysers in the slanting light of the sunrise. These geysers are the highest in the world at over 12,000 feet above sea level. The smell of sulphur permeated the air as the sun rose over the Andes and illuminated the basin, which is fact is the collapsed caldera of an ancient volcano. The Likan-Antai believed that the geysers were the lost souls of the dead. (The word “geyser” comes from the old Norse language and means to “rush or gush forth.”)
By far the most stunning experience I had while in the Atacama was hiking in the valleys of the Moon and Mars—so called because their topography resembles that of these other celestial bodies. In fact, NASA has sent astronauts to train for missions in the Atacama because of the unique landscape. In particular, the Valley of the Moon, with its soaring sand dunes and stunning and eerie rock formations was particularly thrilling. I indeed felt as if I was on another planet. When you are in such an awe-inspiring place, you realize how insignificant human beings are amidst the vast and powerful forces of nature. Shadows in the valley lengthened as the day drew to a close. Looking east, the Andes were clutching the last rays of the day and turning a light crimson. Overhead, a shimmering Venus—the brightest object in the sky–began to shine. I knew that the Atacama sky show was about to begin again as a cool evening breeze swept across my sunburned skin.
William Graham is a poet, novelist and travel writer based in Stowe, Vermont in the United States. His latest book is “Martian Darkness: Four Detective Ace Sloan Mysteries.”
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