A weekend in the Atacama Desert

Saturday 23 April 2022

Up early, we headed across the road to the to the LATAM terminal to board our flight to Calama.  A two-hour flight north took us over large desert-like ranges with large solar farms and mines dotted along the way. There was even the odd town along the way. A driver met us and a nice Brazilian couple at the exit. We mounted a ford transit van and headed north out of town, passing a couple of wind and solar farms as we headed north to San Pedro de Atacama on a well-maintained, sealed road. There is a little rather hardy vegetation spaced out in places across the desert.

A little over an hour later we arrived at the Nayara Alto Atacama,  a little oasis in amongst what is bare-rock and river bed. The staff welcomed us and we had a quick briefing on the afternoon, evening and early morning activities that we were to participate in. We quickly settled into our room before heading off to a rather delicious BBQ lunch. This place has been well put together with green paddocks, ponds and the odd llama grazing behind the fences.

After lunch we enjoyed a massage before heading out in a van with two other couples for a journey into the salt mountains. Heading back out onto the main road we turned south, driving several miles before turning right (east) onto a good shingle road on a large flat valley. This road is surprisingly smooth and there are a few vehicles on it. After a few minutes we turned left (north) and headed down a not so well kept road. Heading up a slight hill we stopped on a low ridge and dismounted, where our guide gave us a run down on how the interesting formations had come about. 65-odd million years ago this had all been under the sea. Over many millions of years the Nazca and South American plates have been opposing one another, thus raising the land up from beneath the sea.  It is essentially salt, rock, sand and lots of minerals. Nothing visible to the naked eye grows here. Features such as rocks are sand blasted by the southerly winds that carry sand at around 100 kilometres an hour. Infrequent but heavy rain also has an effect, washing away any soft material and leaving large grooves in this moon-like landscape. The white stuff in the photos is salt.

Several other vans and a rugged bus were also in the area. We drove on to another stop inspecting a large piece of rock that had been mined in the past. Standing in silence we could hear the cracking as the salt expanded in the veins of the rock.

Another short drive had us standing on a ridge where our guide pointed out a large sand drift in the lee of a small hill. There is a  mountain range to the east and the Andes Mountains to the west with the salt mountain range in between them. There is absolutely no sign of vegetation here. It is the highest and driest desert on earth. The average rainfall is 1-3mm a year. Some rain stations in the desert have never recorded rain. By the look of the terrain, when they do get rain it comes all at once.

We continued out into a flat part of the desert where our guide and driver set up a wine and cheese table while we watched the sunset and the colour on the mountains change. We could also see the sun reflecting of  he buildings at the Alma, the worlds largest radio telescope station.

Around here the sand has almost buried large trees, which still keep growing in spite of the sand. We also had a good chat to Mike and Charlotte (on the right) from London, who have spent a couple of weeks in Chile.

We headed northeast, the track bringing us back onto the main road just north on San Pedro. Back at the Alto Atacama camp we relaxed for a while then at 8pm we took a stroll up a  onto small hill with a guide to star gaze. The milky way was quite prominent in the clear sky with various star groups standing out such as the southern cross. After a late night and an early start I almost dozed off as we lay on the bed type chairs looking at the sky.

Sunday 24 April 2022

At 0500 we arrive at the reception ready to hit the road to the geysers. On the board the trip shows a start time at 0530. Sylvia is not impressed as she would have loved another 30 mins sleep. The poor bloke that had written the time down wrong on our sheet did later apologise.  After a cup of coffee or two, the two couples joining us, one from Brasil and the other from New York, turned up. We mounted the van for the hour and a half drive to the geysers. Apart from being stopped by the police to see we had the correct paperwork the journey was uninterrupted. A steady climb took us up to 4500m before dropping down slightly onto an almost plateau, where we often deviated off the road onto desert tracks to avoid the corrugations in the shingle road. At first light we arrived at the geyser field.

We stopped for a bathroom visit and were told as we alighted the van it was -10 degrees C. The air was really dry so it didn’t feel that cold – or else they were exaggerating the temperature to add to the experience. We mounted up again and drove a short distance to the steam field. These were defiantly not the biggest geysers in the world but the people who hadn’t seen geysers before were certainly excited. We wandered through the field as our guide provided some explanations. They have tried to generate electricity from these fields with little success, there is and old piece of such equipment sitting rusting in the field. Unlike geyser fields around Rotorua in NZ there was no  smell of sulphur. Even though we are at 4300 meters the nearby volcanos of the Andes tower above us. One such still active mountain has a road to the top from where they used to mine sulphur.

After a couple of strolls around the geyser field, at one spot waiting 10 minutes for the geyser to blow off a bit of steam, we  headed back down the road we had come in on. Stopping by a small wetland the guide and driver set up some chairs and prepared a rather nice breakfast as we relaxed in the sunshine. The pond was surrounded by a tussock like plant – even in a climate this dry and still at 4000m add water and stuff grows.

As we drove away I spotted a sly Andean fox waiting to race out and see if we had left any scraps behind.

Heading back down the hill we passed another pond hosting water birds and a mob of vicuna with young ones in tow. These are often hunted by the locals for their nice fur and meat. Crook, teal and Andean geese floated around on the water (or walked on the ice) as if oblivious to all us tourists studying them.

The contrast of colours in this area are really quite outstanding and not what one would expect in such a dry barren place. As we headed further down the hill we stopped on a steep incline where the guide pointed out a couple of green rabbit type things with long tails apparently these viscacha are quite good eating.  Another wetland a little further down the hill, just past a small village, had the four varieties of Pink Flamingos found in this part of the world all feeding in little groups on a fresh water pink shrimp. There was also a little hut near the pond designed for the rangers to take shelter in.

On the drive back to the hotel we got to see some great views across the plains as well is some rather large cactus plants on the side of a canyon. Arriving back at the hotel we had lunch and a massage and all to soon it was time to head to the airport for the flight back to Santiago – a great weekend break over far too quickly.

Monday 25 April 2022

The morning was spent catching up on some work stuff in NZ; most of the afternoon was spent trying to change a booking with Aerolineas Argentinas airlines. I have mentioned before that travel has got a lot harder post Covid! Well these bastards set out to confirm that. I had the fare to Buenos Aires booked for Wednesday night instead of Tuesday. Sylvia had had a go at changing it yesterday online with no luck. I had a go on line but it just could not be done – well not by me either.  I then went for a stroll down to their local office just down the road. A sign on the window “closed until further notice! Phone ….!” Back at the hotel I tried the phone, no luck! Then the WhatsApp number by message (not allowed to ring that one) following the prompts which ended with “we will get someone to contact you”. That was two days ago and yes, you guessed it, that someone is no one!! I headed down to the hotel reception and got help from a very helpful staff member who spoke english. She rang all the numbers and got the same message on each number she tried: “we don’t answer the phone, contact us on WhatsApp”. My interpretation “You’re a customer, we want nothing to do with you! Piss off and fly with someone else!”. In the end we just booked another fare and went to the airport early to check in, where a very helpful woman sorted it out after checking with her supervisor and me paying another 75USD.

Tuesday 25 April 2022

A driver picked me up mid-morning and we headed to the National History Museum, situated next to the Plazade Armas (a revered city plaza with many statues). A bunch of school children were in full noise as they marched around the plaza protesting, about what I am not sure.

Chile was taken by the Spanish in the mid 1500s although there was little gold here compared with Peru. Pedro de Valdivia, an army captain recognised the agricultural value and with around 200 men ventured into the country, overpowering the locals and founding Santiago in 1542. The greatest resistance to Spanish rule came from the Mapuche people, who opposed European conquest and colonisation until the 1880s; this resistance is known as the Arauco War. Valdivia died at the Battle of Tucapel, defeated by Lautaro, a young Mapuche toqui (war chief), but the European conquest was well underway.

The country was basically ruled by the Spanish until the early 1800s when a war of independence was fought in 1818. Chile declared itself independent although this was not recognised by Spain until 1840. Apart from the normal political punch-ups things rolled along until the early 1970s when Chile headed down the socialist path under Allende’s presidency. In 1973 a coup, backed by the CIA, saw Allende shoot himself and Pinochet take power. At this stage inflation was running at 600% ( I hope NZ is not heading that way under our socialist orientated government). Since then Chile has been through many ups and downs but appears to be on an up just now although there is a fair bit of unrest and a lot of change coming with a newly elected left-leaning government and the constitution being rewritten – apparently by a committee of some 150 citizens… watch this space.

A stroll through the local streets took us to the Museo Chileno De Art (art history Museum) where some of the aftifacts looked like some of the pre European NZ stuff. Maybe there was a copyright breach way back.

Not far away is the presidential palace where i could only observe from behind a low fence as the local military in their smart uniforms and shiny long boots stood guard. The police here still wear polished leather belts and holsters

From there we strolled back to the car, passing the demonstrating students gathered around a large statue of a horse in the Square of many statues. Next I was driven to the military museum, which took one on a journey of the country’s years of conflicts and military history, including escapades into Antartica.


The last stop of the day was the Sky Costanera. At 300 meters high it has a good view of the city and i am sure on a better day a good view of the surrounding countryside. Looking down on the city I was surprised to see a complex and and very modern infrastructure in relation to the roading system with roads seeming to run both underground and above ground, crossing over each other with ease; there appears to be a lack of congestion from where I sat. With just under 6 million people it is a big city with wide streets and some nice buildings, let down a little by the amount of graffiti on many buildings. A short stroll took me back to the hotel. At 5.45pm the driver picked me up and we cruised past the Royal Canin office to pick Sylvia up on the way to the airport for our flight to Buenos Aires. A big thanks to the team at Royal Canin for organising the driver and the places to go.

3 thoughts on “A weekend in the Atacama Desert

  1. Kevin Holley says:

    Excellent report on you holiday tour,loved the photos.
    Love to you both
    Kevin and Jocelyn Holley

  2. Jo Hitchcock says:

    So it’s -10 degrees and everyone else is wearing puffer jackets and yet again you are in shorts Roger! I think this is just your signature now

  3. Rosie says:

    Thanks again Sylvia and Roger. That desert is amazing. And your world travels continue!

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