Hubert Burda Media

Valley Of Stars

Stretching over 100,000sq km, the Atacama Desert is a place so vast that time and direction seem to have no meaning. 

I’m standing at the edge of a crater close to the summit of Lascar, an active volcano in Atacama, Chile (though there has been no eruption since 2003). I’ve been up since 4.30am, I’m at an altitude of 5,540m and have another 50m or so to go before reaching the summit. Part of the charm of this particular climb is the odd lungful of sulphur, which blows into your face when the wind is in the wrong direction.
Adelante, Peter, estamos casi en la cumbre!” (“Let’s go, Peter, we’re almost at the summit!”) cries my guide Danilo. Easy for him to say; he does this for a living and is 30 years younger. Finally, I make it to the top and he produces a cup of hot Coca tea, which takes the edge off the altitude and my aching knees. It is very cold, about -25 degrees C with wind chill that particular morning, so we did not stay for long.
This volcano is one of a group of dormant and active volcanoes that can be climbed in this part of the world. Indeed, it is possible to climb a peak of over 5,000m every day for a week (if you’re fit enough, that is). This is made possible by the dryness of the atmosphere (which means there is very little snow) and a network of old mining tracks leading up to high altitudes, which allows climbers to begin their climbs at 4,000m and sometimes above.
While doing a peak a day at those altitudes can be a trying experience, you do not have to be super fit to tackle one or two, as I did. The trails are sometimes quite steep and occasionally rocky with some scree, but by taking it slow and easy, and getting into a breathing rhythm, it can be done by someone of average fitness.
There is nothing quite like standing at the top of a high mountain and looking at views that stretch, in Atacama’s case, for 100km. You may be knackered, but you feel “on top of the world” when you get there. Besides Lascar, I climbed El Toco at 5,604m. The views from this peak were unbelievable and the conditions more clement for a more leisurely sojourn at the summit.
Danilo is a splendid fellow and works for Explora, who arranged my trip up to their property in San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. The town is in what is called the Alteplano, which means high-altitude desert, at an elevation of 2,500m. The property was built by the Ibanez family and opened in 1998. Pedro Ibanez wanted to develop what was then a little-known concept in Chile at the time — eco-tourism. Everything is focused on leaving a minimal environmental footprint, so no dry-cleaning, but laundry is no problem and returned in hours. Everything from soaps to waste is managed with the strictest environmental controls.
Understated luxury is the concept and the focus is offering guests an opportunity to commune with nature. The food is sourced locally; my favourites were Quinoa risotto and a local Atacama stew made with corn and vegetables called pataka. Of course, the Chilean wines were delicious. Gathering around the bar in the evenings in front of a roaring fire was a highlight. The atmosphere is friendly, relaxed and guests from many parts of the world are willing and eager to chat.
Danilo is one of a group of guides who take the guests, known as viajeros, to the many extraordinary sights in Atacama. Viajero means voyager that’s the main concept of Explora hotels. The idea is not to sit around drinking Pisco Sours all day (though you can do this, as drinks are not charged for), but to explore this incredible part of the world. After biking, riding or hiking in the high desert, you can relax in the pools, saunas and steam baths, have a massage and a Pisco Sour or two.
If you want to do the high-altitude climbs, you need to stay at least five to seven days because you need to acclimatise with a series of lower-altitude hikes before you are allowed to go above 5,000m. The property has stunning views over the Cordillera Del Sal and my room looked out onto the volcano of Licancabur, one of the most dramatic of the volcanoes, available for climbing, though the climb has to be made from the Bolivian side of the border.
While I may have waxed lyrically about high-altitude climbing, that’s only one of the activities available at Explora Larache. The property has some 25 horses stabled there for beautiful rides around the area and a fleet of mountain bikes, allowing you to head deep into the desert and navigate through deep-walled canyons. There are levels for everyone, so no one is left out. Of the bike rides, the Piedra de la Coca, a 32km ride that takes one deep into the desert, is the most memorable. The desert stands so vast and infinite you feel like an insect in its immensity.
One of the highlights was a trip to the Puritama Reserve, owned by Explora. The reserve encompasses some 8,000 hectares and is managed and protected by the company. After a beautiful walk through canyons, you come upon a series of constructed pools connected by walkways and fed by hot springs. After an 8km walk, there was nothing quite like soaking in these crystal-clear mineral pools at the right temperature of a good hot bath. And after to be wrapped in a warm fluffy robe and to tuck into a plentiful buffet with a glass of wine.
Other memorable excursions were to Tatio, the world’s highest geysers and hot springs at over 4,300m. Here was another opportunity to have a dip, but it was pretty nippy at that altitude. There are many excursions for people of all ages and abilities. Two other favourites are to the Valle de La Luna and the Valle de la Muerte.
Did I mention the flamingoes? Yes, there are three species that are able to survive in the Salar de Atacama, a large salt lake found near San Pedro de Atacama.
The Atacama is the oldest desert on earth, with total area of 105,000sq km, mostly in Chile but with borders on Argentina and Bolivia. Parts of this desert have experienced hyper aridity for at least three million years. Evidence suggests that areas of the Atacama have not received significant rainfall since 1570. Parts are considered similar to Mars and are used by Nasa to test instruments for future Mars missions and also as a location for Mars movies. In 2003, researchers duplicated tests used by Viking 1 and Viking 2 Mars landers to detect life and were unable to detect any signs in the soil.
Due to the high altitude, nearly non-existent cloud cover, lack of humidity in the air and no light pollution or radio interference, this desert is considered one of the best places in the world to conduct astronomical observations. Some of the world’s larger telescopes are here and it will be the site for the world’s largest optical/near-infrared telescope, the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), with the main reason for building this is to find alien life. With the ability to photograph planets orbiting distant stars, the E-ELT will search for Earth-like planets in “habitable zones” where life could potentially exist.
Explora also has its own observatory on site, where I was able to see whole galaxies, explosions of light and a dense riot of stars. My mind went to Dennis Overbye’s The Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, where he described dedicated astronomers sitting night after night in cavernous and chilly telescopes on lonely mountains, following the smallest oscillation, a tiny shift in wavelength, which led to astounding discoveries. For an amateur like me, just to see the rings of Saturn was miraculous.
One thing I was unable to do is to go on what Explora calls travesias. These are eight- to 11-day explorations in more remote parts of Atacama, involving crossing borders into Bolivia and Argentina. Comprising only groups of up to eight people, these treks allow unprecedented opportunities to visit places like the Uyuni salt flats.
If there is one part of the world that needs to go on your bucket list, it’s Atacama.