Atacama Desert


After our unplanned stop in Germany we finally set off for the desert, to be close to the stars. 2,500 kilometers lay ahead of us and we obviously wanted to see and experience things on the way. We therefore did not take the direct route to the desert. What would have been the point of that?

First we took the tunnel route north from Santiago. The route consists of a number of single-lane tunnels, carved into the mountains. The traffic rule is very simple: Drive into the dark and hope that no car comes from the opposite direction. When you finally see light at the end of the tunnel, you cannot help feeling relieved.

We continued through villages, dirt tracks, past mountains, valleys and cacti. After more and more of this, we finally arrived in Pisco Elqui in the Valle de Elqui. Beautiful and cute little towns but unfortunately in the midst of the last school holiday weekend in Chile. As you can guess, one of our favourite things. We fled.

After an unexpected invitation to a kids’ birthday party by the pool because the Chilean hospitality is unbelievable, and a further night at a beach all by ourselves, we finally arrived in the desert.

The Very Large Telescope of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) was on our way through the Atacama. It consists of four individual telescopes with mirrors with a diameter of 8.20m each which can operate together and form the largest telescope of the world. Next to the Hubble Space Telescope it provides the largest amount of scientific information.

We had been really keen from the beginning to be able to visit the VLT, not least as one of the last Bond movies was partially filmed at the Residenzia where the scientists stay during their visits. However, after researching the website, we realised that it probably would not happen. The tours only take place on Saturdays and we had no idea when we would be at the VLT. We also would have had to register at least 48 hours in advance and bring a printed and signed declaration along. We are traveling with a lot of stuff but we are not carrying a printer. So that was that. That’s at least what we thought.

When we got close to the VLT, the navigator mentioned that we could possible make the 2  pm tour. Coincidentally, it was Saturday and we still had 45 minutes. So we just went for it.

Shortly before arriving at the gate, we met Dieter and Juliana again. We had met them more than once on the Carretera Austral. Just like us, they had driven up without any tickets and were allowed to take part in the morning tour. Without printed papers, without prior registration. So we got back into Humphrey and carried on to the entrance gate. As we are in South America and not everything is handled super strictly, we were allowed to take part in the tour without much further ado. We were really lucky.

Unfortunately we were not allowed into the Residenzia as a new pool was being built. Our guide mentioned that he did not understand why they needed a new pool as the old one was hardly ever used. But that did not really matter as the tour was fantastic without that bit. Very informative and we were allowed really close. If you want to know more about the VLT, more information is available here or here. Really interesting stuff.

We carried on towards Antofagasta, we went past the Mano del Desierto, the Hand of the Desert. We obviously had to stop and take a picture.

Near Antofagasta, a city that is primarily known as a hub for all the mines in the region, we spent our weirdest night camping so far at a truck stop. We made the acquaintance of a whole number of truckers. And of the freight trains that made the ground shake under us during the night.

All of that was quickly forgotten though on the next day when we crossed the Salar de Atacama. We travelled via the B-385, past the mines SQM Salar Brines, the largest known lithium and potassium resources in the world. You can see them really well on satellite pictures. Unfortunately they are not open to the public.

And then we finally reached the heart of the Atacama desert. After driving for six days and 2,258 km, we arrived at the Laguna Miscanti and shortly after Laguna Miniques. Two days earlier we were at sea level at the beach. We spent the night at the truck stop at around 1,000m altitude and now we were at 4,200m. Everyone who has experienced such abrupt altitude differences or has spent longer periods of time at more than 2,500m of altitude has a sense for what it can do to your body. Altitude has been and remains a constant topic for us as we have not gone below 2,500m since.

Laguna Miscanti & Laguna Miniques

We had finally arrived at a place that we felt very much at home: fantastic and vast landscapes and, with a little bit of planning, very few people. You just need to work out when the tour groups land up where and avoid those places at those times.

Laguna Chaxa

We stopped at the Tropic of Capricorn which is situated along the Inka Trail. Tropic of Capricorn? That’s the southernmost circle of latitude where the sun is directly overhead on the solstice (on 21 December). Not sure whether that is really relevant. But we were just really happy to be back at 2,500m of altitude. Followed by a beautiful evening with the Salar and the sinking sun in front of us and the volcanoes behind us. Plus a night of shooting stars and the Milky Way.

We spent more than a week in the Atacama, driving from place to place to see and experience as much as possible. It was great. As we mentioned, exactly our kind of place. It reminded us very much of Africa. That is always a good thing.

Laguna Tebinquinche

We jumped into salty lagoons where we could not lie on our stomachs in the water as our stomach was pressed upwards and consequently the head was pressed under water. Felt quite weird.

Laguna Piedra

We walked through valleys and deserts, obviously always as anti-cyclically as possible to avoid the crowds.

Valle de la Luna

And then there was the moon. We were in the Atacama for the full moon. And while this is the worst time to stargaze, the moon had its own – let’s call it charisma. Every evening when the moon rose on the horizon we were impressed by its size, beauty and radiance. I cannot remember having enjoyed watching the moon rise as much as here.

We also really loved our excursion to the Valle del Arcoiris. The colours of the rocks are unique and are best seen from the top with our drone allowing us to see all of this from a different angle.

It’s not only the attractions as such that were worth seeing but also the drive taking us there.

We went to see the Tatio Geysers. It is the third largest area of geysers in the world. Again one of these things that we did for the sake of completeness. To be able to tick off a list. But we chose to go after all the tour buses that go for sunrise. We really enjoyed the drive in the rising sun and then arrived at the geysers when the crowds were taking off again.

It was quite amusing to see but it’s not really our kind of thing. Just like bathing in hot springs. We passed zillions of them on our trip and made it a point not to enter a single one of them. We have a bath tub at home but we don’t use that either. 😏

The best thing about our excursion to the geysers was that we met Juliana and Dieter again. It’s weird how you meet the same overlanders again and again on such a trip. We had met the two of them on the Carretera Austral for the first time, 4,400 km further south. And now we were back at the same place at the same time.

There are not enough words to give them credit for what they are doing. They left their regular lives in Germany in their mid-twenties to follow their dream of traveling. All of us would probably need several lives to experience all the crazy and exciting things that they have seen and done. Most of all though, we respect them for being on the road now being aged in their seventies. Other people at that age are quite caught up in their microcosm. If you’d like to read more about the two of them, click here.

Before we left Chile, we took another day trip to the Salar de Tara. It was a very special excursion. From San Pedro de Atacama, by the way not a very pretty town, we drove up from an altitude of 2,500m to 4,800m within an hour. It does have its side effects, despite having spent a week at 2,500m and having traveled to altitudes above 4,000m during the week regularly. I was not feeling too well and decided to take a couple of gulps of water at an altitude of 4,900m. My cardio-vascular system was not happy about that at all and I started feeling quite dizzy. There was no way of stopping, so I carried on to our destination, back down at 4,200m. I got out of the car, lay on the ground, feet up. A couple of minutes later I felt much improved and a bit further on everything was back to normal. But clearly the altitude is quite stressful, at least for me. The Salar de Tara more than compensates for all the hardship though. It takes your breath away – in the true sense of the word.

Deserts are Humphrey’s and our favourite place. We are going to remember the Atacama for a long time, lingering in our thoughts…

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