In the darkness of a waning night, our cramped van wound its way up an Andean roadway in a desolate corner of northern Chile. Against the black sky, the profusion of stars stretched all the way to the horizon, cocooning us in a sparkling dome.
As we neared the over 14,000-foot-high El Tatio, the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere, a crisp white early light emerged to reveal the outlines of volcanic peaks. Our driver and guide, Mauricio Gonzalez, rolled down his window and stretched out a hand.
“I think it’s going to be the coldest Tatio of the year. It must be -18, -15 degrees [Celsius] up there,” he said, adding, “Congratulations.”
Gonzalez was only partly joking. The Tatio Geysers are best visited when temperatures are lowest; hence our pre-dawn arrival. When the hot, pressurized groundwater hits the frigid air, it condenses to produce towering pillars of white, thick vapor. It was July, the heart of the southern hemisphere winter, and the ultra-cold air would make for a jaw-dropping show.
The day before, my husband Mika, three children, and I had flown from Chile’s capital Santiago to Calama, an austere copper mining town in Atacama, one of the driest regions on earth. From there, we’d driven our rented cherry-red off-road vehicle 60 miles across a barren landscape to San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis at the foot of an Andean range.
Although San Pedro had grown markedly since I’d first visited twenty years earlier, when it had just one good eatery, it hadn’t lost its bohemian charm. After leaving our bags at our hotel, where we stayed in a thatched-roof bungalow, we drove to the Mirador de Kari lookout point to savor a spectacular desert sunset and returned to town for dinner at one of the half-dozen restaurants that now enliven San Pedro’s unpaved main street.
At El Tatio, it was not yet sunrise when Gonzalez parked the van. Although the desert basin can go years without seeing rain, storms batter the Andes a few times a year, said Gonzalez. The accumulated precipitation seeps underground, where it’s heated by the hot magma that lies close to the surface in this volcanic region. The pressurized water escapes at El Tatio.
“‘Tata-iu’ means ‘the grandfather who cries,’ in the native Kunza language,” said Gonzalez. “This is how the indigenous people understood this place.”
Steam surged upwards from over 80 fumaroles, openings in the earth’s crust, glowing white against the deep azure sky. Walking slowly to avoid getting even more light-headed in the oxygen-poor expanse, I passed dense columns of vapor, bubbling pools, and geysers spouting hot liquid. It looked like a sci-fi version of a distant planet.
Fingers aching from the biting cold, I continued to snap photos… until I looked over at our nine-year-old son. Gripped with nausea and a headache, symptoms of altitude sickness, Aksel had lost all interest in the alien scenery.
The spray cans of oxygen we’d bought at the pharmacy the day before had no effect. I wondered if Aksel was old enough for a sweet coca confection. Indigenous Andean people have long chewed coca to deal with excess altitude, and bags of whole leaves, as well as packaged caramels made with crushed coca, were available all over San Pedro. But was cocaine’s raw ingredient really okay for a nine-year-old?
I needn’t have worried about the dilemma. Aksel took one taste of the brownish-green candy and spat it out.
“This candy tastes like hay,” opined Aksel’s 15-year-old sister Natasha, sucking contentedly.
The sun soon crested the eastern ridge, and the warming air thinned the swirling vapors. As Andean gulls flew overhead, our van left El Tatio, stopping frequently on the 50-mile journey back to San Pedro to accommodate Aksel’s nausea. Mauricio parked strategically, so we could gaze at red-toed Andean geese and gentle vicuñas, wild members of the camelid family that includes the domesticated llama and alpaca.
Mauricio returned us to our hotel at San Pedro’s more bearable 7900-foot altitude, and Aksel and Natasha rushed inside to sleep off the 4:00am wake-up. Annika, then 17, and I shed our warm layers, borrowed mountain bikes from the hotel, and rode the rutted dirt road to San Pedro’s central square, stopping to order rich, avocado-filled sandwiches from a local kiosk.
San Pedro’s Catholic church, a bright white adobe structure erected in 1744, still overlooks the central plaza, which on this Saturday afternoon bustled with local families. Seated on a bench under a leafy tamarugo tree, Annika and I ate our sandwiches too quickly, fending off hungry stray dogs. At the far end of the plaza, we entered a long, narrow market hall jammed with vendors offering hand woven ponchos and pungent medicinal herbs made from local flora. Annika settled on a few knitted alpaca wool caps for friends back home.
Later, with Aksel and Natasha refreshed from their naps, we loaded our red pickup with water bottles for the hour-long drive south to the Salar de Atacama, one of the world’s largest salt flats. San Pedro’s stocky algorrobo trees and yellow-leaved chañar trees quickly ended and we continued across a dusty plain flanked to our east by majestic volcanoes. In shades of taupe and old rose, topped with patches of white snow, the conical forms were often interrupted by a volcano whose peak had long since blown off.
“Whoa,” said Natasha, as the ground crunched underneath her feet.
We’d parked our pickup and were walking on crusted salt. We’d reached the lowest point in the desert basin, where Andean groundwater has accumulated and evaporated over millennia to produce a 1,200-square-mile salt flat dotted by a few bodies of water. As we approached one of them, Laguna Chaxa, I saw the same wonder in my kids’ eyes that I’d experienced so many years ago upon seeing, in the middle of the arid emptiness, dozens of pale pink flamingos.
Laguna Chaxa is part of the Flamingo National Forest, a protected area where three flamingo species, Andean, Chilean, and James, thrive. The day we visited, Andean flamingos waded gracefully in the shallow lake, their distinctive hooked white and black beaks probing the water for tiny brine shrimp that flourish in the saline environment. Alongside them were native caitís, petite white birds with black wings and thin, elongated beaks that bent upwards towards the cloudless blue sky.
We took in the tranquil scene as the afternoon seemed to grow ever hotter, the dryness parching our lips and sapping the moisture from our skin. We eventually left for our air-conditioned jeep and, then, our hotel, venturing out again after evening brought a drop in temperature. We ate grilled meats, with pisco sours for me and Mika, near a fire that roared under an open roof in the middle of a bustling dining room. Smatterings of Brazilian Portuguese, French, and German from nearby tables wafted over, along with the fire’s smoke.
Early the next morning, we boarded a bus for ALMA, the most powerful telescope on earth. “Soul” in Spanish, ALMA stands for Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, as it’s actually composed of 66 ultra-precise antennas working in unison on the 16,000-foot-high Chajnantor plateau.
The ALMA bus didn’t take us to Chajnantor itself, access to which is limited to trained personnel for mere hours at a time, given the risks of oxygen deprivation. Instead, after 45 minutes ascending the rust-brown Andean foothills, we arrived at ALMA’s Operations Support Facility, a collection of white, rectangular buildings nearly 2000 feet above the desert basin, decorated only with a line of flags from the over twenty countries that support ALMA.
“The worst enemy of astronomy is water. It causes [optical] aberration…. The more humidity, the more aberration, the worse the observation,” explained ALMA’s educational outreach officer Danilo Vidal. “Atacama is the driest desert in the world, so it’s the center of astronomy.” Chajnantor’s extreme remoteness and altitude, which reduces humidity, also made it an ideal location from which to survey the heavens, said Vidal.
We toured the facility, entering a room where scientists were analyzing just a tiny fraction of the celestial data collected. That data was correlated by ALMA’s 134 million processors, processing 17 quadrillion operations per second and allowing the 66 radio dishes to function as one telescope. ALMA’s correlator, “is as powerful as the most powerful supercomputer in the world,” said Vidal.
“I loved the big trucks,” said Aksel of our ALMA visit. We’d donned hardhats to check out two massive yellow trucks built to move the multi-million-dollar, 100-ton dishes. Named Otto and Lora, the 20-foot tall leviathans move at a top speed of 7.4 mph when transporting the antennas.
Indeed, this day’s activities seemed tailor made for Aksel. In the afternoon, we went to the Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon, to climb inside, between, and over jagged orange and white slopes made of eerie mineral and salt formations. Aksel zipped his way through a winding cavern that the rest of us had to duck to squeeze through.
From there, we hurried to Valle de la Muerte, Valley of Death, an ominous name that stuck in my head as we drove our off-road vehicle through a bumpy, narrow lane between high canyon walls that twisted left and right, leading from one blind curve to another. We gasped at each turn; it was like finding yet another wall in front of you as you navigate a labyrinth.
“This looks like Fury Road,” said Annika, referring to the post-apocalyptic world envisioned in the Mad Max films. The difference, I thought, is that in Fury Road an ambush was usually awaiting you at the next turn.
What awaited us, once we finally emerged into the larger canyon, was one of the tallest walls of sand I’d ever seen. The site of people high up on the dune, aiming to ride it on snowboards, broke the sense of desolation. Eager to reclaim the solitude, we drove deeper into the canyon, the sand slope to our right and a rocky canyon wall to our left, until the sandboarders were out of sight. We parked, stepped out, and gazed at the soaring hill of sand.
We started climbing. Our feet sunk and fine granules seeped into our shoes, through our socks, and between our toes as we trudged upwards. Wiry and limber, Aksel worked his way almost effortlessly upward. The rest of us moved more carefully, cautious – needlessly so, it turned out – not to slip down the steep grade, until we could go no higher.
From our perch high up in the Valle de la Muerte, we looked out at the Atacama Desert and the Licancabur Volcano beyond. The lowering sun turned the volcano a deeper shade of purple. My only regret, surveying the scene, was that we were leaving the next day. I hoped it wouldn’t take another twenty years to return.
Shoes heavy with sand, we turned to make our way back down and discovered, surprisingly, that we couldn’t really slide. Despite the steep grade, the sand held us in place. We took bigger and bigger steps, and then began to jump, landing solidly on the majestic dune. Because we were on a sharp incline, we soared with every leap. It felt like, perhaps, walking on the moon.
And so we jumped and jumped in this otherworldly landscape, laughing the whole way down.
Latam and Sky Airlines offer inexpensive round-trip fares from Santiago, Chile, to El Lao Airport in Calama, Chile. From there, you can take the TransLicanCabur bus or another shuttle service, or rent a car to take you the 60 miles to San Pedro de Atacama. If you plan on doing only guided tours from Atacama, you can manage without a car. For more flexibility during your stay, you can rent an off-road vehicle at El Lao Airport through such international rental agencies as Avis and Hertz.
Where to Stay
San Pedro de Atacama offers several accommodations options, from small inns in the heart of town to more expansive hotels, with pools and spa services, on the outskirts of San Pedro. We stayed at Cumbres San Pedro de Atacama, a short bike ride into the town center; we appreciated having a two-guestroom bungalow for our family of five.
Make sure to catch at least one sunset from Mirador del Cadi in the Valle de la Luna. While you can drive to places like the Laguna Chaxa on your own, some destinations are best visited with local experts. The pre-dawn drive to El Tatio geysers, located 14,000 feet above sea level, is risky to do solo, as the roads lack signage and the only lights would be from the moon (if it’s out) and your headlights.
You can organize the geyser tour through your hotel or through any one of the independent tour operators who operate in San Pedro. We visited El Tatio with Mauricio Gonzalez of QueLindoChile. We appreciated the small size of our group, and Gonzalez’s in-depth knowledge of local flora and fauna. Tours to ALMA are only available on weekend mornings and should be booked well in advance. More information is at almaobservatory.org/en/about-alma/alma-public-visit.