Standing at the brink of a high cliff, drinking in the breathtaking view of the desolate plains of Valle de la Muer te and the majestic Andes mountain range on the horizon, I had to wonder what the Spanish explorer Diego de Almagro thought as he gazed across the same desert landscape, only from the opposite direction, almost 500 years ago.
In an epic journey of endurance, he crossed the Andes cordillera from Peru with a large contingent of soldiers and slaves in search of the vast gold treasures he believed awaited him in Chile, but instead of gold he found an inhospitable desert and a native population of hostile Mapuche Indians who were less than welcoming. Adding to his woes was the fact that nearly half his men had perished, frozen in the snow and ice during the mountain crossing, so, fair to say his impression of Chile couldn’t have been very flattering.
Poor Diego; after achieving the distinction of being the first European to cross into Chile and walk across the Atacama Desert, he ended up a few years later back in Peru a broke and broken man, never finding the treasure he sought ... if only he had known about the rich deposits of copper and other minerals that lay under his feet he might have given up the adventurous life of a conquistador and become a cigar-chomping mine owner instead!
Valle de la Muerte translates as Valley of Death - a name that resonates with this dried up landscape of grey volcanic sand and rock formations sculpted out of the earth by the strong winds, ice and water over millennia. Standing here under an azure sky so clear and bright it looks as though it’s been photoshopped into the scene, I experienced an overwhelming sense of awe at the profusion of contrasting geological sights (such as turquoise lakes, steaming geysers, sand-whipped and carved rock formations, crusty salt plains, hot springs and snowcapped volcanoes), experienced after just a couple of days in this haunting, majestic land.
Located in the north of the country around 1500 kilometres from the capital of Santiago, this is the world’s highest, driest and oldest desert and it’s the first stop on our two week Chilean odyssey which includes a few days in both Patagonia and Easter Island. It’s a two-hour flight and just over an hour’s drive from Santiago to the town of San Pedro de Atacama where we’re staying at Explora’s Hotel de Larache, a stunning five-star property just a few minutes walk from town.
Sprawled over 17 hectares with horse stables, observatory, four swimming pools – one heated, hot tub and a spa, the hotel was designed by award winning Chilean architect, German Del Sol Guzman as a series of hacienda style buildings which radiate from a central square – the guest rooms and suites housed in the three, single storey arms.The public spaces of relaxation lounges, bar, shop, viewing decks and restaurant are located in a separate, raised structure, which provides the most exquisite views of the enchanting, snowcapped Andean peaks.The decor is minimalist and the interior spaces vast but inviting, while the rooms and suites are extremely stylish and comfortably and colourfully furnished.
Explora Hotels is a company specialising in five-star journeys to remote areas of South America and offers a holistic experience to all its guests with everything included in the tariff, including five-star cuisine, wine, all tours and equipment. Each day you get to choose from a wide range of explorations, from trekking to mountain climbing, bicycling and horse- riding accompanied by professional, bilingual guides who seem to be extremely knowledgeable about everything.
There’s so much to experience, we know it’s impossible to cover it all in the few days we have here so we cull ruthlessly and just choose the highlights. On day one after dragging ourselves out of a warm bed at 4am and rugging up for the bitterly cold, minus-degree morning, we embarked on a trip to the El Tatio Geysers which are located 145 kilometres away at an altitude of over 4,000 metres and reached by an impossibly rugged, bumpy road.Watching the spectacular eruption of steam shooting from the bowels of the earth through over 80 geysers as the sun came up was pretty exciting stuff and made the early start worthwhile - even if my teeth were chattering and knees knocking with the cold.This is a popular day trip and there were people everywhere, some even taking a dip in the hot water pools, although we were warned against doing this as people have been scalded by the boiling waters.
On the way back we stopped for a swim in the thermal waters of the Puritama Hot Springs (much safer and deliciously warming) before calling into a small, rustic village whose name I can’t recall, or perhaps never knew, to visit an ancient church and poke around the handicraft shop. Driving along the long, straight highway that connects Chile to Bolivia, we were stopped by a herd of llamas idly crossing the road, one in front of the other, paying no heed to us as they headed toward the mountains looking very sweet with pretty ribbons tied in their hair. Few places in the world could match the Atacama Desert for absolute wow factor and even though we’ve been to deserts in Arabia and Australia, driving through this landscape was like nothing we’d seen before. It really is what you would imagine the moon to be like and in fact, this was where NASA did some road tests before the moon landing took place.
The next day my husband opted for an adventurous, 20-kilometre bike ride which ended with a swim in a salty, buoyant lagoon, while I settled on a drive to see the 3,000-year-old petroglyphs (rock carvings) in the valley of Yerbas Buena, about an hour away. Little is known about the prehistoric carvings but being in the dry desert air has preserved them as though they were carved yesterday ... and I did wonder about a couple of them!
Another 20 minutes driving brought us to the small village of Rio Grande, named after the trickle of a river that runs through it – a pretty, tidy town with a lovely old church, stone houses and terraced orchards and gardens. According to my guide, there’s only about 50 people still living here because the young people leave as soon as they can to seek work in the closest city of Calama. No bus comes here even though there’s a new black ribbon of tarmac running into the deep valley, so if the local people want to go shopping in the big smoke, they have to hitch a ride or walk for hours to and from the main highway. Puts a whole new spin on the weekly food shopping trip!
The guides at the hotel come here to teach the remaining children English in the small school which has maybe 12 children, but in the 20 minutes we spent walking around the village, I didn’t see one person and I also didn’t see a vehicle - it was like being in a town in one of those creepy movies where the populace had been taken away by aliens - quite an eerie feeling.
Our separate activities were a fitting prelude to a stunning sunset walk through the salt plains of Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile situated just an hour’s drive from the hotel in the Los Flamencos National Reserve.This place was amazing; dried-up and very sharp salt crystals as far as the eye could see, only interrupted by a couple of shallow lakes where flamingoes danced around on their long, skinny legs. Walking through the man-made paths we could feel and hear the crackle of salt under our boots and taste it on our tongue - what a fascinating, totally unique landscape to be walking through.
Our guides timed it so we would be there just as the sun went into free-fall behind the distant Domeyko mountains, creating an incredible, luminescent light show over the Andes, changing colours from ochre to pink then orange and finally to red - spectacular!
And so, here we are on our final day, standing on the peak of a cliff enjoying the incredible view across the Valley of Death and thinking about poor old Diego when our guide José says we’re going to walk - or run - down the 200-metre high sand dune in front of us. A sudden panic comes over me at the thought of tumbling head-first down this precipitous dune where I’m certain I’ll break my neck or at least a leg or a shoulder but it’s too late – he’s gone, so we have no option but to plunge down after him sliding deep into the volcanic sand so our boots and pants filled with sand. The trek down was actually great fun and I felt like a child again, playing in a giant sandpit, sorry when it ended on the valley floor so far below.
On our last night after yet another superb three course dinner and wine at the hotel, we walked into the small town of San Pedro de Atacama through its almost deserted streets of cafes and backpacker hostels, souvenir and tour shops.The town, laid out by the Spanish in the sixteenth century looked sleepy and charming with its lovely plaza and postcard perfect church and because it was low season was almost empty - a far cry from peak tourist season when the streets are apparently crowded and alive with the bonhomie of visitors from all parts of the globe.
There was just time for one more activity before we left for Patagonia in the morning, so we wandered back to the hotel’s observatory where we were dazzled by the clarity and number of heavenly bodies peppered across the inky night sky. With little light pollution it’s the clearest in the world so it’s easy to spot (and make a wish upon) Sirius and Canopus, the brightest stars in the sky – the same stars poor old Diego must have fruitlessly wished upon so many centuries ago.