Chile: The Atacama Desert

Uncategorized • October 17th, 2008 • Toni Neubauer


It was so hard to leave the Atacama Desert. Years from now, archaeologists will look askance at the scratched fingernail marks at the doors of the Tierra Atacama hotel and wonder what poor, desperate human would be so distraught to leave the desert that one would carve her fingers into the wood of a door of a luxury all-inclusive resort in a futile attempt to avoid being dragged away to civilization? Umm, that would be me.

On my last day in the desert, I got up at 4:30 am. I had chosen to see sunrise at the Tatio Geysers. That meant leaving by no later than 5:00 am, then driving two hours across the sands into the Altiplanico high desert plateau to an isolated spot where burbling hot springs spittle and gurgle and percolate, emitting sulfurous gas fumes into thin air. Better to go as early as possible, I was told. The colder it is, the better to see fumes. Be prepared for bitter cold. No one mentioned that 90 minutes of the drive would be on teeth-rattling, bone-shaking gravelly dirt roads that meandered up and down and around and about the Andean mountains in the pitch dark of the pre-dawn.

Even at below 5 degrees Celsius, it was magical. As the pinkish hues of sunrise draped its warm arms around the mountains, we walked among the ghostly steamy clouds of the geysers, stepping carefully over rivulets of boiling water rippling from gaping holes in the barren earth. It’s only been in the last few years that stone barriers were built around some of the bigger geysers in the areas. You really don’t want to hear the gruesome details about what’s left of a human body after it has fallen into one. At least, not before breakfast.

Next, we rattled and bounced our way to the Puritama Hot Springs, hidden in the creases of the bottom of a deep red rock canyon. It’s not easy to get there. A rock-strewn one-lane road (and believe me, I use the term “road” loosely) is the only route down. Some poor hapless soul has the thankless job of sitting on top of the canyon, peering down, and signaling drivers the thumbs up sign to head down as long as no one else is driving up. Because it would really, really, really not be a fun thing to go in reverse on a rock-strewn one lane road. Uphill. From the bottom of a canyon. No matter how pretty the view is.

It’s a short hike. The hot springs cascade down into a series of gorgeous little pools, one more spectacular than the next. High desert grasses provide a modicum of privacy. We picked Pool #4. The one with the adorable waterfalls that provided a pounding massage on my back FOR FREE. The one that we lazed in while we daintily picked from an assortment of smoked salmon, cheeses, crackers, and nuts that was thoughtfully provided to us by our guide in a floating wooden tray so we didn’t have to exert ourselves by getting out of the water. Hmmm, champagne? Beer? I went for the Fanta. Orange soda in all its sweet glory never tasted so good. Dear god, this is too decadent, I thought, as I floated in the pool, blinking at the blinding blue skies and contemplating my wrinkly fingers, shriveling from way too much time in the water.

Too soon, it was time to leave. We had to head back to the hotel so I could pack up, be driven an hour to the Calama airport, then fly two hours back to Santiago. Tonight I was staying in an executive suite at the Holiday Inn literally across the street from the SCL airport. By the time I collected my luggage and walked the 20 steps to the hotel front door, it was nearly 11 pm and I was ready to bed. I had a 6 am flight the next day and I needed to check in by 5 am.

This is the glamorous life of an adventure travel specialist!