San Pedro de Atacama: Our nightbus disgorges us, bleary-eyed and shivering in the feeble morning sun, in Calama, a dirty copper town that owes its nearly 3000-metre-high existence to the enormous Chuquicamata mine. We decide against a protracted visit and board another bus that takes us out of the town and into the vast expanse of desert that stretches as far as the eyes can see, until it’s swallowed by the horizon.
The salt road travels a straight path through the terracotta sands as if scratched out by a giant fingernail. We enter a moonscape of giant canyons and cliffs of sand that appear scrunched up, as if by some enormous fist, before being dumped haphazardly with their internal layers askew. Monoliths of hardened sand, sculpted by the wind, stand in hunched forms against the bright blue sky. But most impressive – most alien – is the vastness. And the nothingness. Scientists have spent years searching for life in this dry desert and found a few species of birds that inhabit caves here. No other life. No insects, bacteria, mammals.
The salt flats here are a different story. The salt lakes harbour brine shrimp, which feed on algae that are full of betacarotene and able to survive the harsh conditions. The shrimp, in turn, are dinner for three different species of flamingo (‘flamenco’ in Spanish), which complete the bizarre picture. We visit the salt lakes at sunrise, intensifying the pinks and creating a wonderfully surreal scene.
To see so much salt is disorientating. Huge pans of salt, crystals of it bordering the salt paths, crusting the edges of lakes, standing in odd statues and mounds: everywhere you look, more salt. In Medieval Europe salt was so valuable it was used as currency – what would they have thought if they’d taken a trip to the Americas, to Utah or Bolivia or here, and seen so much of the stuff?
San Pedro de Atacama is a small adobe village, an oasis in the middle of all this nothingness, owing to a small springfed stream that nourishes a little greenery. It’s a lovely little place: rusty mud walls under a deep blue sky, a sweet church constructed from cactus and mud, bar-restaurants set around courtyards swinging with hammocks and nursing warm bonfires at night, laid-back locals reaping a nice earner from land-rentals to Chilean or foreign businessmen with tour companies and hotels.
We stay with one of the few locals who rent out rooms, a wonderful guy with a moon-round face and long black hair, whose forefathers spoke Kunza before the arrival of the Incas and then the Spanish.
He wants to find a girlfriend, he tells me, but there are far more men than women in the north of Chile, and he doesn’t drink alcohol or like the bang-bang techno music they play in the tourist bars, so why should he go there – but if not, where can he find a girl? We mull the question, while his five kitten-cats play around us, pouncing from the thatch, murdering a shoelace and discovering their own naughty flickering tails. European women are very nice, he says, with their pale faces, light hair and fine features. But they usually only stay for a few days, which is not long enough to get married. I agree that it is a rather brief time for a wedding, but reassure him that at 30, he still has plenty of time.
While he is waiting to get married, Roberto cares for his father who lost both his hands in 1986 in a mining accident and now spends his days doing tasks that would take a handed person a few minutes but which for him take hours.
We head out of town on excursions into Andean desert, passing the construction site, on a high plateau, of the new Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) radio telescope. The workers live in a camp halfway up the mountain, at around 3500 metres, because the massive telescope will be built above 5000 metres in a place too high and cold for comfort. Alma is supposed to be completed by 2013, but from talking to people working on the site, it sounds like it won’t be ready until at least 2015. It’s a big expensive project consisting of 80 antennae working together to probe the early Universe and reveal embryonic planets by detecting in the microwave portion of the spectrum. It will be better than Hubble by a factor of 10 – very exciting.
Continuing on the same heavenly theme, we visit Moon Valley and Mars Valley, both named by a 19th century Spanish missionary, who arrived in the area carrying a small statue of San Pedro – hence the village’s current name. Actually, Mars Valley is called Death Valley, because when he named it Valle de Martes, the locals got their Spanish twisted and heard Muertes. Both valleys are other-worldly with their incredible landscapes displaying ancient geological traumas and we spend a few happy hours walking through them and marvelling at the patterns and colours created by pressure, minerals and time.
It’s a 4am start to reach the Tatio geysers for sunrise, but we’re game (well, we agreed the night before), so we set off down a boneshaking dirt track to the world’s highest geyser field to see steam rising out of the belly of the Earth at a time when the air is the coldest, so the steam is most impressive. It’s -18C when we get there – that’s MINUS EIGHTEEN DEGREES! – not counting the freezing wind, so I bow out of bathing in the hot springs, unlike almost all the other tourists there. It’s as much as I can do to breathe and I’m soon back in the vehicle despite my many thermal layers. Pathetic, I know.
I’m not the only visitor to think that all this geothermal energy could be used more effectively, although the Italian company Enel was not thinking of my personal warmth when it constructed its geothermal plant here last year. The whole project was a complete disaster, not least because the pipe they used burst spectacularly, issuing a steaming jet several metres high that could be seen for several miles.
The main problem with the plant though, was that it exploited the field’s pressure so that the spectacular geysers disappeared. Tourist companies were angry, conservationists were angry, the project became highly controversial during an election year, giving prospective candidates an easy crowd-pleasing option: the plant was shut down. It was a very stupid decision to build a plant in such a popular place, but I hope that it doesn’t mean that Chile fails to use its bountiful geothermal resource elsewhere. With so many energy (and water) hungry mines in this desert north, the only power source currently being used is coal-fired. The Atacama is also the place hit with the world’s greatest solar radiation…
We descend from 4300 metres to a more manageable 3500m and walk through a forest of cacti – some are simple poles, others have branches that result from a cactus seed landing and germinating on the side of a cactus, I learn. There were once trees in this area, but they were long ago chopped down.
Vicuña graze on the sparse grass that withstands salt – they are the high-altitude cousins of guanacos, both of which are wild. Alpaca and llama, both domesticated, were bred from vicuña and guanaco around 4000 years ago, and we pass a tiny village with a small herd of llama, where I have my first llama kebab – yummy.
We return to San Pedro via Chile’s oldest bell tower, a mud and cactus construction next to (but not attached to) a small church housing a rather fantastic icon of Jesus and God – I can now reveal that God does have a beard (like his son) and wears black sandals and a blue and white satin pinafore.