The Astounding Atacama

Atacama 153 With some reservations, we headed from Machu Picchu for the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.  After the magic of Machu Picchu, we were braced for a letdown.  And I had been to San Pedro de la Atacama seventeen years ago and found it interesting, but not a “must visit.”  Our travel strategist highly encouraged us to go there, though, and we followed her suggest — thankfully!  This place was a clear trip highlight.  Any family that enjoys the outdoors will have a blast in Atacama, especially if they stay at the Awasi.

Atacama 195 The Atacama is the world’s driest desert, and places there have never recorded a drop of rainfall.  Not surprisingly, sand is in abundance, and plant and animal life are unusual, although far from scarce.  At times, we felt like our worldwide trip had been extended to include another planet, since the geological structures in the Atacama are so surreal.  Much of the region stands between two mountain ranges and, over time, a lake bed there evaporated, leaving a bizarre residue of crystallized residue.

Atacama 212 Our days (and one of our nights) were filled with unusual and astounding activities.  Our first night we went for a hike in the Valley of the Moon just before sunset.  We walked high up on some cliffs and watched a gorgeous sunset.  It’s one of the few places where the best view of the sunset is facing in the opposite direction, and we saw magnificent colors reflecting off the Andes, which were to our east.   

Atacama 519 Our first full day included a hefty hike along a mountain ridge, followed by a couple of hours of “sand-boarding.”  Our sand-boarding instructor was one of the sports pioneers, and it was a blast to ‘surf” on a board down a huge sand dune.  [In fair disclosure, I was the photojournalist, leaving the surfing to Elizabeth and the kids].  I think we could have stayed there for several months and our kids wouldn’t have tired of it, despite the lack of a “sand lift.”  After every trip down the dune, the surfer had to walk their way through deep sand back up to the top of the hill.  You may want to check out a couple of our videos of sandboarding in motion.

Atacama 696 That afternoon, we drove to a local national park, where we saw some great wildlife, including birds and lizards.  And we got another great sunset there.  The birds included two species of flamingos (Chilean and Andean), a Puna Plover, and some fascinating Andean Avocets.  The combination of a great view of the Andes, a surface that looked like the moon, and some beautiful animals made this a great visiting spot for us.

Gibson Atacama 234 The next day brought more once-in-a-lifetime adventure.  That morning we dirt-biked about an hour from our hotel to a very salty and beautiful lagoon.  The salt concentration at this lagoon is 7x normal ocean saltwater, making it impossible to sink.  We swam in the lagoon at length, and also saw some great animals.  It’s hard to describe how much fun it was to swim in this lagoon, but the experience probably resembles how an astronaut feels when he or she is weightless.

Atacama 731 After lunch and homework, we then headed off for our second desert water experience of the day.  After a short drive, we hiked a challenging hour through a ravine.  Our path was often blocked by boulders or a native plant with leaves as sharp as razor blades (not a good thing, in case you’re wondering).  At the end of the hike, though, we came to a series of hot water pools made by the stream, and were able to soak in delicious hot springs for an hour or so.  The hike seemed well worth it once we got to our destination.

Atacama 339 That night, we got an astronomy lesson from a local French astronomer, who had a very useful set-up with about six different high-power telescopes set up to explore different areas of our Southern Hemisphere sky.  Since the previous three weeks were cloudy with rain (!!) at times, we were quite fortunate to have crystal clear skies for our stay in Atacama, and for our astronomy night.  We learned all about the Southern Cross, Orion, Mars, Alpha Centauri, the Seven Sisters, overhead satellites that were perfectly visible to the naked eye, and the history of astronomy.  It was a late night for our kids, but a great night for all.

Atacama 653 On our way to the airport the next day, we stopped at the world’s biggest mine, a copper mine operated by the state-owned Cordecal.  We saw some gigantic trucks (able to hold up to 400 tons), and an enormous open pit mind.  We also saw, and felt, and breathed, lots and lots of dust and dirt, so the visit didn’t rocket to the top of our highlight list. 

Picture 312 Our time in Atacama contained another highlight some 4,000 miles away.  In South Carolina, where we lived until June, the Democratic Party held its primary, and Barack Obama won resoundingly.  We were very involved in Barack’s campaign while we lived in South Carolina, including meeting him at his first rally in Columbia (see photo above of Barack with Sterling’s favorite stuffed animal, Little Bear), and then hosting and helping organize his first fund-raiser in Charleston.  We followed the primary quite closely, both from news sources and friends in Charleston.  I think Barack was put in a very challenging position by some of his competition, and did a great job of balancing “push back” with running a dignified positive campaign.  So we were thrilled with the outcome.  Fired up, ready to go!! 

All in all, Atacama is just a fabulous spot to visit.  It’s not the easiest place to get to, but we had a blast there and will go back again down the road!  For now, though, feel free to check out our photos.

One Response to “The Astounding Atacama”

  1. Izhar Says:

    Hi Ted,
    so interesting to read about the Atacama! your description of the salty lagoon sounds very similar to what you will experience in the Red Sea between Israel and Jordan assuming it is on your road map…
    believe it or not, it is very likely that the 2009 “Dakar” race will be held in Argentina an Chile, so I am quite sure we will spend quite a few days in the Atacama desert…. any tips?

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