The Atacama Desert is frequently called the driest place on Earth. Occasionally even in scholarly writing, where it is designated the driest non-polar region on Earth. The desert is a huge area, covering 40,000-plus square miles over the northern third of Chile and extending into both Peru and Bolivia. Parts of the desert have been dry for over 200 million years and most of it arid for over 3 million years. There are several spots in the desert where, using the tools found on NASA Mars landers, it has proved impossible to detect life. The current “driest spot” is a place called Maria Elena South, which is located about 100 km west of Calama. There you will find soil with, very nearly, the same water content as the soil on Mars.
My methodology was unlike that used by geologists; I judged this the driest desert I’ve been to by the fact that, in two trips of four days each, I returned to Santiago each time with cracked, bleeding skin on my hands, something that has never happened in many previous trips to other deserts. This despite liberal application of various moisturizers left by Mary.
We had our second program trip to San Pedro de Atacama last week. The first, you may recall, was to Isla de Pascua in May. Easter Island is a tropical island and very humid. So we have visited both the most humid and driest locations in Chile within a month.
We flew into Calama and then rode a bus 90 minutes over a mountain pass at about 10,000 feet to reach San Pedro which is, roughly, southeast of Calama and about 200 km from Maria Elena South. I’m not sure how dry it really is in San Pedro as the town is located on the Rio San Pedro, a literal oasis in the desert. It’s not at all surprising to find a desert town on a river. The surrounding territory is very dry and it would be hard to maintain a household, much less a town in such dry conditions. But the river – it’s really just a trickle – is sufficient to provide some trees and a little bit of agriculture and allowed San Pedro to survive before tourism boomed and provided a larger source of income to the inhabitants. Today, a lot of bottled water is trucked into San Pedro every day. Power, I assume, is provided by the solar and wind farms you pass on the way from Calama. There is a great deal of mining in the area – all through the Atacama, really – so there must be some power plants somewhere. Individual houses and businesses usually have a few solar cells on the roof as well.
San Pedro lacks paved roads or traffic lights and the packed dirt lanes are very narrow, having been built before anyone imagined someone would be daft enough to drive double-decker tourist buses down them. At times, in front of our hotel, we could watch several such persons negotiate the lanes simultaneously, winding in and around other tourist buses and vans and a huge populations of dogs. A few birds were flown at such times.
The lane outside our hotel, which actually occupied space on both sides of the street. My room and the restaurant are to the right and about half the students stayed on the left.
Dogs fighting for control of the central plaza.
I was last in San Pedro for an astronomy trip and stayed south of town at SpaceObs. You can read about all that here. My friend, Steve, couldn’t believe we’d be staying in San Pedro as, at a glance, which is about all we gave it due to fatigue and twin colds, it didn’t look full of hotels. Most of the dirt lanes are lined with thick dried mud walls and, as is common in Chile, there are not large, brightly lit signs advertising businesses. So you need to look close and, when you do, you find that San Pedro is lousy with hotels, hostels, casas, restaurants and bars.
Our hotel was on the northwest side of the town, right up on the river, and was very nice. The restaurant was excellent and service top notch. The town occupies a very small area (just a little larger than my hometown, though with four times the inhabitants) and, so, you could walk pretty much anywhere in a few minutes.
We arrived before noon on Tuesday. We had a few hours to unpack, moisturize, have some lunch and orient ourselves before we joined a tour bus to visit Valle de la Luna for a couple of hours and then to a few other little canyons around San Pedro before ending up on a mesa north of town to watch the sunset. It was a beautiful day topped with a fantastic dinner at the Hotel Kimal restaurant. We had had to be at the airport by 4:45am so at the close of dinner, around 9:30 pm, we all turned in. Yes, 30 college students a block from a set of bars went to bed at 9:30.
Pictures from the first day. These are mostly in Valle de la Luna.
In front of a formation called “Tres Marias” so named by someone who was hallucinating badly.
The next two days consisted of tours to the Salar de Atacama, a massive salt flat south of town. Runoff from the Andes filters down to the basin, carrying salts and minerals with it and then evaporates as there is no drainage from the basin. There is a lot of salt. There are also lagoons that are highly saline. On Wednesday, we swam/floated in one. I nearly chickened out as it was very, very cold both in the air and the water. You’re probably thinking, “Cold? But it’s the desert!” Yes but a high desert and a week from winter solstice. The lagoons sit at about 7,500 feet elevation and air flow, directed by the mountains keep the salar relatively cool even in summer. The water is runoff from melting snow. To sum up: it’s very cold here in winter. I finally figured, hey, you only live once and it seemed highly unlikely I would be afforded a second chance to swim in this lagoon. The salinity is about 25% (for reference, of a sort, the Dead Sea is about 34%). The attraction is that you can float with little to no effort.
I had packed a swimsuit to South America for two reasons: Easter Island and this lagoon. Seeing as how I had failed to pack the suit to Easter Island, if I didn’t actually get in the water, having the suit would prove pointless and I hate the idea of having brought something I didn’t use. So, I stripped down on the salt beach and sprinted past the students wavering on the edge of the water, trying to work up the nerve to get in the very cold water. This would have been a glorious display of leadership had I not hit a rock about 10 feet in and gone sprawling into the water, heels over head, immediately neglecting the wise advice of our guide to not “get any water in your eyes or mouth.” I did both and did not enjoy it. I also lost my sunglasses but the students, shamed by my bravery and pitying my clumsiness entered the water to help me locate them.
The first 30 feet or so from the beach were no more than a few feet deep but then there was a steep ledge and the bottom dropped out. I have no idea how deep the water was but the temperature dropped at least 15 degrees from an already cold starting point. However, true to form, floating required no effort. I could not actually submerge and could lie back on top of the water as if it were an improperly inflated air mattress. But I couldn’t do it for long. After about five minutes, I retreated to the salt beach and sat on a towel in the sun until I stopped shivering. A few students managed to stay 10 or 15 minutes but most just entered, floated for a picture and got out. As cold as it was, it was wonderful and I’m glad we did it. Later, as I packed to go home, I would discover my swimsuit completely stiff and covered with white salt. I’m sorry I have no pictures of that.
We continued the day by touring various other lagoons in the salar and the salar itself. It was a short day and we were back early enough for a late lunch and some touring of the town. I bought a highly overpriced copper magnet from a store that specializes in highly overpriced copper things. There is a lot of copper in the Atacama and many minerals. The region we were in used to be Bolivia but then nitrates became profitable and Bolivia and Peru tried to push Chilean interests out of the area, which, after all, was theirs. This led to the War of the Pacific which Chile won, surprising even to the Chileans, pushing the Peruvian army all the way back to Lima. That added nearly a third of present day Chilean territory to the nation and provided them with vast mineral wealth, much of which was exploited by American and European interests. The war also cut Bolivia off from the sea which continues to be a sore point and tensions between Bolivia and Chile periodically flare.
Deserts are amazing places. Only two of the 30 students (my group plus another intercambio group from an American university) had ever been to a desert before. A few, very few, did the usual thing of claiming that it was “ugly” or “there is nothing here” – that last always amazes me; unless you’re in a vacuum, there is something there. In this case there were huge volcanoes, salt flats, lagoons, canyons, etc. To be sure, it’s nothing like the bucolic beauty of a lush, humid forest but the expansive views, with little to no water (and none potable) combined with the harsh, steep slopes of Andean volcanoes is awe inspiring and humbling. It is a land in which you clearly are not designed to live. That feeling is even greater in the Atacama where there is very little in the way of wildlife. I’m happy to report that the vast majority of the students loved it, which surprised them.
The second day was to be a full day tour, extending to lagoons on the altiplano to the east, above 4,000 meters. However, we were shut out of this by snow. The week before we arrived, a front had broken through the rain shadow to the west and dumped over an inch of rain on San Pedro. This is serious business. The buildings are dried mud, the roads are packed dirt and there is little drainage. The town basically shut down as roads were impassable and the tours that form the foundation of the economy could not run. Of course, by the time we arrived, you could not really tell any water had fallen for years.
At Laguna Tebinquinche the highlight was the quiet (when you could get away from 30 students talking) and the reflection of the surrounding mountains in the exceptionally still water. One of my students snapped this without my knowledge, which is the best way to photograph me.
Laguna Chaxa and the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos
Ojos de Salar
Laguna Chaxa in Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos
Laguna Chaxa in Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos
Salt crystallizing out of an evaporating puddle.
Taken by a student with a long lens.
More still water in Laguna Chaxa.
Valle de Jere, near Toconao.
At high altitude, the front dumped a ton of snow. I had planned to try to hit El Geysers del Tatio on our last morning but was told they would not be open before we left. The snow also kept us from visiting the altiplanic lagoons planned for Thursday so we were back in town around 4pm, time enough for me to visit Museo de Meterorito on the east side of town. A few students had visited on Wednesday afternoon and, I guess, talked about being chemistry students and mentioned me. I know this because when I walked in, the guy behind the counter looked at me and said, “You must be Dr. Jones!” That was pretty cool. He’s a geologist from Washington working the desk at the museum to fund his climbing habit. The museum itself was small but outstanding. The owner has been hunting and collecting meteorites from the Atacama for 25 years and has a nice collection. The displays did a good job of walking you through the types of meteorites, how to locate them and what they tell us. It is well worth your time if you are ever there.
I had a bad half hour at the start of dinner on Thursday. I had been trying for a couple of days to book a van to take us back out to Valle de la Luna to finish a hike we’d started on the tour but not had time to complete. I had struggled with the language but finally thought I’d made progress. I was, I thought, to meet the driver at 7:30 pm to finalize plans. On my way to do that, I ran into the lady I’d made the arrangements with. She said there was no problem with tomorrow’s van but that SpaceObs was looking for me. I was evidently supposed to pay them by 3pm for that night’s tour. But I hadn’t seen the email, having limited connectivity and being busy diving in salty lagoons. She was “this close” to cancelling us. Alain’s wife had come looking for us because I’d told them our hotel for pickup. I was probably fortunate in that I knew Alain and had exchanged many emails with him. My guess is that had that not been the case, they’d have simply cancelled on us, justifiably.
So it was that I quickly forked over half a million pesos, which is not nearly as much as it sounds like but is significantly more than I enjoyed, and confirmed with the desk that we were good for the van the next morning. It was close to our having no planned activities for the final 24 hours. Fortunately, the students were good for it and I was paid back before heading out that night.
You can read about the star tour here.
After getting to bed a little after 1am, I was up at 7 for breakfast, checkout and then the van. Eight of us headed back to Valle de la Luna to finish a hike that looked really good. I had understood our guide to say that there were three more miles past where we stopped.
I did not understand him correctly. It was beautiful but it was no more than half a mile past where we stopped the day before to the end of the trail. By end I mean we came to a ledge with a 100 meter dropoff. But it was okay as it gave us time to walk back toward the park entrance and explore a salt cavern the tour had skipped.
Me in the salt cavern on my first trip here.
Once we were back in town, I took one more stroll around town and grabbed a bite to eat at a little restaurant off the central plaza while I listened to a group playing what I assume is traditional music of the indigenous people. It didn’t look like a tour and I saw no basket for donations. Just some folks playing music. I also spent time fighting dogs and birds off of my lunch.
And then we were off, heading back over the mountain pass to Calama. I think most of us slept on that drive. When we got back to Santiago it had been raining all day and many streets were flooded. It was a shocking contrast.
The consensus seems to be that the Atacama is the best trip we’ve done and those who’ve travelled extensively in Chile say it’s their favorite part of the country. I’m clearly biased in that it is an outstanding place for astronomy and I’ve always loved deserts. If you’re an urban dweller or more fond of wet and wooded places you should give it a chance.