CHILE: Trekking the Atacama Desert, the Driest Place On Earth

Flowers in Chile's Atacama Desert

Photo by by Javier Rubilar via Creative Commons

Trekking the Atacama Desert,

the Driest Place On Earth

 

Trekking through the Atacama Desert, I was sweating in ways I never thought possible.

 

I felt like there wasn’t enough air in the atmosphere to fill my lungs. Every breath I took was short, sharp, and labored. The muscles in my legs burned like fire, and every step felt like I was dragging huge weights. Our guide spoke only Spanish, which really tested the language skills I had so over-confidently proclaimed to have.

 

This might sound like a nightmare-ish situation. But, in truth, visiting the driest place on Earth was one of the best I had during my six-month trip to South America.

 

Emma Higgins Trekking the Atacama Desert

Photo provided by Emma Higgins

 

We started our trek in the north of Chile, taking a day trip from the town of San Pedro de Atacama. Most of the Atacama Desert spreads across this region, but its outskirts extend as far as Argentina, southern Bolivia, and even into the very bottom of Peru.

 

The Atacama holds the title for the driest place on the planet, receiving less than 0.01cm of rainfall each year. Some spots in this desert haven’t seen rain for over 400 years now. On top of that, this area has an average altitude of 7,900ft (2,407 meters).

 

This bizarre mixture of extreme heat and altitude makes this a challenging region to trek through. Yet many people come here throughout the year to trudge their way across this incredibly sparse, yet beautiful landscape.

 

Atacama Desert, Chile

Photo by Emma Higgins

 

Our tour group set out in a tiny van (with no air conditioning– score!) and made our way up to what is known as the Valle de la Luna, or the Valley of the Moon. Our first stop took us up to a point where we could see the surrounding landscape for miles around, with jagged, unpredictable rock formations in the foreground and several volcanoes far off in the distance.

 

This striking landscape has been shaped by the winds over centuries, and resembles what we imagine the lunar landscape might look like.  In fact, this area was where the Mars Rover was tested, due to the ground’s sharp, undulating surface. Looking out across the valley, it really does look like the surface of another planet.

 

Snow in Atacama Desert

Photo by by Stéphane Guisard, via Creative Commons

 

Our next stop took us down into these rock formations, and into the caves that these structures cover. The rocks here have a white covering, and look like they’re oozing a bubbling froth from their surface. This is due to a build-up of salt, which is hard to the touch, very odd to see, and ever-increasing.

 

As we entered the caves, our guide explained that our electronic devices might shut off, as the magnetic field in the area has been known to mess with cameras and cell phones. I had mixed feelings: I was praying that my camera wouldn’t fail, because I wanted to take pictures of my beautiful surroundings. But, at the same time, to fall victim to such a phenomena would have been a thrilling experience!

 

Fortunately (or sadly, depending on your viewpoint) no one’s electronics failed that day, even though our guide was adamant that it happened all the time.

 

Flamingos in the Atacama Desert, Chile

photo by Leon Petrosyan via Creative Commons

 

Our final stop in the Atacama Desert took us back up into the mountains, to watch the sun set over the desert. This was easily the hardest part of the trek, as we had to walk uphill through the sand.

 

This process is difficult enough when you’re climbing a dune at the beach. But, when you’re at a high altitude and climbing, it’s like torture if you’re not used to it.

 

Finally I could see our intended destination, so I simply put my head down, focused on powering through every single step, and pushed every shred of energy I had left into my feet and lungs. Fortunately, the heart-pounding struggle to get to the top was made completely worth it when we saw the view from the top.

 

Sunset in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Photo by Emma Higgins

 

Watching a gorgeous setting sun is one of those travel moments that every nomad revels in. I have to say that the sunset in the Atacama Desert was one of the best I’ve ever witnessed… but for an unorthodox reason.

 

Watching the sun disappear behind the mountains was something special. But turning around to see the sun turn the landscape of the driest place on Earth a bright, burning orange was even more phenomenal.

 

In the end, the silence that fell amongst the group was profound. And the last of my breath– whatever was left of it at that point, anyway– was completely taken away. –Emma Higgins

 

 

GGT Editor Emma Higgins has been writing/travelling on and off since 2009. Her blog, Gotta Keep Movin’, is full of stories and advice from her trips, which include Europe, India, Morocco, South America, USA and Canada. Her focuses are budget travel and volunteering, and she’s been involved in sustainable farming in Argentina, animal shelters in Peru, and making goat cheese in British Columbia. Follow her on FacebookTwitter & Pinterest.

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  1. It looks absolutely gorgeous, and despite the altitude and heat, I wish we could’ve gone there while we were in the region…but the boarder between Argentina and Chile was closed due to snow. How ironic!

  2. I was just thinking as I looked at your photos, “Wow. It looks just like the surface of Mars.” Then you mentioned the Rover was tested there. I’ve wanted to see the Atacama for years now, after reading about the big Gemini South telescope (and others) that take advantage of the high, dry air there.

  3. wow! surprise to see flowers valley in desert…….
    Atacama Desert looking like mars land very dry and very hot……..

    its very interesting!

  4. A few years ago we were fortunate to spend four nights in the Atcama Desert. I truly loved the place and would go back in a heartbeat. Wildflowers weren’t blooming when we were there so I’d love to see that. We did climb one of the volcanoes and got over 18,000 feet as a day trip – without a headache. Great photos and wonderful memories.

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  6. Wow, nice pictures! You must have been rather high up in the Atacama desert. Cold as hell at night, but an unforgetable experience.

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  8. Sounds like an incredible trip and a strenuous hike and journey through the desert. I can’t believe it has those beautiful flowers for being so hot and dry! I loved your photo of the sunset, looks like it’s a beautiful place to see.
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