Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Atacama Desert, Chile

The Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world, runs from Peru to the northern third of Chile for an astonishing 1600 miles. We spent many months in this vast desert, only making a short detour through Bolivia (previous blog posts), before popping back into Chile at the popular tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama. Since crossing into Chile, we found that we had to conserve water like never before. Gone were the days of finding a tap where we could fill water containers, much less fill the tank in our truck. This shouldn't have been a surprise, given that the area sees barely 3 mm of rain PER YEAR.

Mountain biking near San Pedro de Atacama - like biking on mars

This sculpture, Mano del Desierto, was constructed in the middle of the Atacama in 1992.
Unfortunately, there was a ridiculous amount of graffiti on it during our visit. 

It's a desert, but it's not flat

Occasionally, we would run across a fertile valley that contained enough moisture from the mountain rivers to support growing produce. We stopped at roadside stands to buy artichokes, plump raisins, olives, and goat cheese.  All consumed with maaaaybe a bit of wine.

Serving olives from a 60 gallon drum - that's how we like it!

We were lucky to visit the desert in the spring when the brown landscape was accented with some color

The best part of our desert traveling was taking advantage of the clear skies and brilliant show of stars every night. Due to it's high altitude, dry air, and lack of light pollution, the Atacama is one of the best places in the world to view the night's sky. There are dozens of observatories dotting the mountain tops - most of them closed to the public. Before our nightly star-gazing, we started with dinner by the campfire - a fun, rare occurrence for us. By the time the stars appeared, the coals were ready to keep us warm.

The view from one of our camp spots in the Atacama

One evening, while camping at a lookout in the Elqui Valley, we sat outside lamenting the non-existant sunset that was hidden by the unusual cloud cover. In an instant, the sky turned from greyish-brown to this:

Elqui Valley alpenglow

We madly ran around trying to gather the camera and proper shoes to climb the hill behind us. It was so spectacular and unbelievable that I felt a lump in my throat during the short 10 minute show.

Multi-colored rocks and steep switchbacks near Elqui Valley

The coastal portion of the Atacama was also quite memorable. It was sparsely populated, which made for easy camping, but the weather was relatively extreme. Most mornings a thick fog cloaked the coastline. If and when the fog lifted, a cold ocean wind would start blowing. We spent many days and nights all alone on dramatic beaches, watching penguins, sea lions, sea otters, and sneaky little foxes. As if the sea otters, foxes, and penguins (all arguably the cutest animals in the world) weren't enough, we also shared a campspot with a great horned owl - they really do say "who-whoooo, who-whooooo". As for surfing, it's official, the water here is really cold.  It is so cold that I am lucky to last an hour in the water.

Camping somewhere south of Antofogasta, Chile 

Camping south of Huasco, Chile

We had multiple encounters with curious and sneaky little foxes hoping to get some scraps of food (or maybe water).
They were not particularly shy.

We definitely enjoyed our travels through the desert, but truth be told, we are ready for some non-pokey greenery.

I only poked myself a little bit trying to pose for this picture

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