Even though it’s now been two months since my trip to Chile (sorry for the blogging hiatus – moving to Chicago and starting a new job took over my life), I am still immensely grateful for my six-week adventure there. My last big adventure in Chile was to the Atacama Desert, which is the most arid place in the world (besides the poles), and receives the highest radiation and celestial exposure – which means it is very dry, the sun is extremely strong, and the stars are incredible. Even though I was there during a full moon, I could still see the Milky Way and thousands of stars filling every corner of the night sky.
I decided to go there for a week to not only see the incredible, out-of-this-world landscape, but to get a better sense for the history and culture of the north, which – you guessed it – developed very differently from the Santiago region and the south of Chile. I spent the majority of my time in San Pedro de Atacama, a tiny pueblo in a natural oasis of the Atacama Desert that contained not a single paved road, and then spent two days in the seaside city of Antofagasta.
The first thing that struck me about the Atacama was how isolated and alien it looked. The landscapes truly seemed like something from another planet – and two of my excursions were to aptly named Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) and Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley), also known as Mars Valley. These mystical valleys are folded within the Cordillera de la Sal, or the Salt Range, that rises up from the salt flats that surround San Pedro and stretch west from the foot of the mighty Andes mountains. I visited Valle de la Luna with a tour that took us clambering through caves, where we saw up close how the crusted salt blanketed the walls, and hiking up to a ridge where we could see the entire valley. Filled with sand dunes and steep rock walls painted white with salt, it reminded me of a crater on the moon. We ended the tour watching the sunset descend behind the textured landscape, lighting up the Andes with a deep pink glow.
I chose to explore Valle de la Muerte on my own – I rented a mountain bike in San Pedro and while it was a very quick ride along the highway to the entrance, the journey became much more exhilarating once I hit the dirt road and started winding through the canyon. What amazed me at first was the rich red of the canyon walls and the huge cracks in the earth, which reminded me how dry it was (if my deep urge to chug water every two minutes didn’t already do the trick). But the most astounding moments of this ride happened when I rounded a corner and found myself completely alone, with no people or cars within sight, and with only the blue sky above and the red earth around me to keep me company. In these moments, I would stop my bike, hold my breath, and listen. And for the first time in my life, I heard nothing – not even the faintest breeze or the far-off cry of a bird. The silence was deafening. I had heard about the screaming nothingness of the Atacaman air, but nothing prepared me for the utter beauty of complete silence. Once I got deep into the canyon, I climbed to a ridge overlooking the entire valley, and I truly felt that I was gazing at the surface of Mars – steep craggly peaks, dried river beds that etched and carved into the deep red ground.
A similar must-see ecosystem in the Atacama is the salt flats, and the lagoons that have formed there. Located just south of San Pedro, the Salar de Atacama is a spectacularly dry and breathtaking place. The ground is made up of sharp, misshapen mini-mountains of salted earth, and every once in a while, a gorgeous blue lagoon, reflecting the gray peaks of the Andes, attracts flocks of bright pink flamingoes. The brackish lagoons are fed by groundwater that mixes with the salt and other minerals on the surface. I was lucky enough to visit the Salar on two different tours, visiting the flamingoes in Laguna Chaxa, bathing in the extremely salty Laguna Cejar, peering into the Ojos del Salar, and marveling at the pink and purple alpenglow at Lago Tebenquiche.
In the case of the lagoons in the Salar, there is water underground to feed them, although the lagoons experience lots of evaporation which simply concentrates the minerals even more, making them saltier and more brackish. Surface water, however, is harder to come by in San Pedro de Atacama, the largest town in the region. Even though it sits on a natural oasis, which is why you can find plenty of trees there, water has always been the determining factor. The little rains they do get come mostly in January and February, and they get some water that trickles down from the mountains in the form of snowmelt. Indigenous populations settled in the region starting around 10,000 years ago, when the Atacama was more humid than it was now. But the atacameños still built a massive fort now called the Pukará de Quitor as a gathering place to defend themselves against other groups next to the Loa River, which remains a crucial water source. Today, the people of San Pedro still use irrigation channels to make the most of the natural water sources that feed the oasis. As I said before, water determines everything, and even in an oasis there still isn’t enough to farm much more than alfalfa. But there’s some livestock there, and I enjoyed visiting some llamas, covered in the brightly colored ribbons that identify their owners. Legend has it that the colorful identification system started when the first llama came to this region of the Andes, and in exchange for eating the brightly colored flowers, it agreed to wear the ribbons.
The water that is the lifeline of San Pedro de Atacama flows from the Andes, home to a completely different, high alpine ecosystem. It proved to be a stark contrast to what I had seen on the salt flats and in San Pedro, but allowed me to get a much fuller picture of the environmental and human history of the region. As we rose higher and higher, driving up into the Andes and watching the salt flats stretch out below us, the peaks turned from two-dimensional images in the distance to towering structures that reached towards the sky. Many of these peaks were volcanoes – a handful of the 2,000 volcanoes (500 of them active) that flank Chile’s eastern border – the most impressive being Volcan Licancabur. It has special significance for the native people of the region, known as the atacameños. Named after an ancient warrior and protector of the people, Licancabur fell in love with a woman named Quimal. But Licancabur had a brother, Juriques, that was jealous and tried to woo Quimal. When Licancabur found out, he was so angry that he beheaded his brother. His father, Lascar, banished Quimal as punishment to Licancabur for killing Juriques. Today, their spirits are believed to live on in the volcanoes – Lascar is the most active volcano in the region, Licancabur is now extinct but very tall, and Juriques is right next to him with a flat top (to represent his beheadedness). Quimal is a faraway mountain, and one day a year, on the winter solstice, Licancabur’s shadow covers Quimal, reuniting them once again.
The high alpine ecosystem was starkly different from the salt flats – crystalline blue lakes, spouting geyser fields at 13,000 feet, wild vicuñas grazing in fields of green and yellow shrubbery, vast expanses of smooth red rock formations with cactuses tucked into nooks and crannies, and flowing hot springs protected by canyon walls. While it was still the desert in some ways, it was a lot colder and had a lot more access to water than the flat lands. It was great to be up at high altitude and see the diversity of that environment while also getting great views of the salt flats stretching for miles below.
But I didn’t really begin to understand the San Pedro region in the context of northern Chile and the entire country until I visited Antofagasta. The largest coastal city in the region, Antofagasta stretches long, filling the limited space between the coastal mountain range and the Pacific Ocean. The downtown features a modern walking mall, a gorgeous cathedral, and a beautiful coastline with magnificent sunsets over the ocean. It can also be a difficult and expensive city to live in. The environment is not very suitable for farming, so all fruit and vegetables have to be shipped from Santiago, and fresh water is pretty hard to come by, so utility costs are high. Antofagasta was such a bustling city that I had to remind myself how isolated it truly was.
The one thing that Antofagasta has a lot of is seafood, which fuels the major fishing industry here. The Humboldt Current runs from south to north along the coast of northern Chile and southern Peru, pushing up cold, nutrient-rich bottom waters that sustain a complex and vibrant marine food web. Along the coast, crashing waves mix with the cries of birds, which fill the sky with little black dots. I learned from my time in the Pacific Ocean in 2015 that the prevalence of birds in a marine ecosystem reflects biological activity – so the more birds there are, the more fish there are. As soon as I saw the flocks of birds along the coastline, I knew that there was something very special going on in the water. It is some of the most unique coastline I’ve ever experienced – during a day trip to La Portada, a natural rock arch north of the city, I saw the desert ecosystem crashing almost violently into the ocean, shaping dramatic sand-strewn cliffs that dropped into the crashing waves below, birds roosting on the edge before diving down fifty feet or more to feed.
But fishing isn’t the only industry in this area – there’s mining of copper and other minerals, coal processing, and historical extraction of guano (which you can learn more about in a previous blog post). I spent a few hours in Mejillones, a sleepy town about an hour north of Antofagasta which used to support many local fishermen who went out in their boats right off the main beach, but now the bay has been polluted by the nearby coal plant, mainly through the release of hot water back into the ecosystem, which tends to be bad news for fish and other marine life. Things have gotten so bad that the fishermen now have to drive 45 minutes or more over the next hill to access the open ocean, where fishing is still economical. But the coal plant provides many jobs for folks in Mejillones – illustrating a common dilemma when it comes to the impacts of fossil fuel extraction on nearby communities.
Chile’s northern region had an overwhelming feeling of isolation and separation from certainly the Santiago region and the south of Chile. It was both ecologically and culturally distinct, and while I definitely got this impression when I was in San Pedro, it was even more acute in Antofagasta. One reason for this is that the northern coast has a very different human history than the San Pedro region just a few hours’ drive away. Like San Pedro, Antofagasta’s first human inhabitants arrived around 10,000 years ago, but then they disappeared from the area 9,000 years ago. Antofagasta remained essentially uninhabited until 6,000 years ago. While the conquistadors traveled to the San Pedro region in 1512 and the area came under Spanish control in 1556, Antofagasta was largely left alone. Interest in the northern coast eventually increased in the mid-19th century with the discovery of guano and minerals, and the city was actually founded and governed by the Bolivians until Chile annexed the region after the War of the Pacific.
The Atacama region was unlike any place I’d ever visited – with its dramatic landscapes, profound isolation, and cultural distinction, it was hard to believe that it was part of the same country as Santiago, Pucón, and Chiloé. It was an incredible way to end my six weeks in Chile, and reinforced the lesson that in the skinniest country in the world, it’s a challenge to understand and meet the needs of such a huge diversity of people and ecosystems, especially factoring in modern trends like globalization and climate change. I was extremely enchanted by my time in Chile, and am so grateful to have gotten to know my relatives there much better while exploring so many beautiful places. I will be returning to Chile as soon as possible! But for now, I made a video of my GoPro footage, featuring the Atacama, to commemorate my time there:
This concludes my blog posts on Chile (for now)…if you missed any of my previous three posts in this series, check them out below: