by Edward Wilkinson Latham

Outpost Magazine #38, National Post Travel


" Olé! Oi! Get away from me with that sword, you fiend." I am beating a hasty retreat from a man dressed as Zorro.

He waves the point of his sword at me, gesturing for me to take off my clothes. He flicks his wrist and I back off. I’d rather avoid any Z-shaped lacerations on my forehead. In the water with you, he commands, plunging forward with a dandy fencing move. He motions me to the hot spring pool, where a herd of bathing travelers are cavorting in the rich mineral waters like small pink hippos. Not for me, Foxy. Zorro means fox in Spanish. This eccentric swashbuckler is not a camp and caped crime fighter, but a local guide named Miguel. Just one of a group from the village of San Pedro in Chile’s Atacama Desert, who have driven the willing across 95 kilometres of rough track at 4 a.m. to see the Tatio Geysers at dawn. Plumes of boiling water and steam spurt in to the cold morning air.

Like Miguel, with the many characters that he keeps in his wardrobe (Batman, Superman, the monster from the movie Alien), the Atacama Desert hosts a mind-boggling repertoire of mesmerizing colours and environments, from ocean coastline to moonscapes, Andean mountains to salt flats, that stretch into Bolivia, Peru and Argentina. Travelling through it is as much a hallucination as it is a journey the spectrum of high altitude vistas, curtained by the Andes. More like a vivid dream than a place of this earth. With or without the mask and cape.

THE ATACAMA BEGINS some 1,500 kilometres north, as the condor flies, from Chile’s capital, Santiago. Far from the urban maze of sprawling rooftops, billboards and TV antennas, it is where the arid pampas rise out of the Pacific Ocean and bevel up to the altiplano and the Andean range of mountains and volcanoes. A dramatic and austere environment that occupies 1,200 square kilometres a full quarter of mainland Chile and yet is home to only five percent of its population. In this vast landscape, the oasis village of San Pedro, over 200 kilometres inland from the coast, overshadowed by a famed trio of volcanoes Licancabur, Juriques and the still-active Lascar makes for the best base camp. From there the compass points to innumerable excursions: emerald green mountain lakes, cracked-dry desert plains, or the Salar de Atacama, a salt basin I find myself marching through now.

Salt crystals crunch beneath my feet, the radiating sun reflecting off the white surface. I pull my hat down and my scarf up, protecting myself from the cold altiplano wind that keeps the salt plain flat. Pods of clouds rapidly pan across the sky as in a time-lapse film, casting dark fleeting shadows on the open plain. Horizontal lines of pink and violet shiver in the distant pearly grey vapour, whilst behind us the lofty white-capped Andean cordillera of volcanoes and mountains stands sentry along the continental divide.

Despite its stark alien beauty and the visual magnitude of its morphing pastel visions, this is not the type of landscape that one ventures into for an unguided Sunday stroll. My guide Paula, the photographer Marina Dempster and I are all equipped with plenty of water and are hiking along a section of the map that borders the desert’s large salt basin. I have never felt so small, a scuttling insect on a vast sun-baked plain, more galactic than earthly. Flamingos fly overhead, the sound of their calls barely audible over the sound of the brutal crosswinds. Through my binoculars I can pick out small lagoons of bright red minerals in the ground’s jagged saline crust; there, a flock of flamingos feeds on the microbe-rich cocktail.

Despite a few forays by Spanish conquistadors into the Atacama in the 16th century, the region was largely ignored by outsiders until the 19th century, when the discovery that sodium nitrate made for a good fertilizer created a mining boom. Although the southern half of the Atacama belonged to Bolivia, the companies exploiting the deposits were mainly Chilean. Conflict ensued, and in the resulting Pacific War, Chile won control of the entire area. But when synthetic nitrates were developed after World War I, the boom collapsed and the area returned to its quieter way.

Paula came to the desert in her late teens, leaving her hometown of Puerto Montt in northern Patagonia. After studying in the United States and Europe, she returned to the desert, unable to stay away. Having fallen utterly in love with the landscape, she became a guide, her encyclopedic memory for the myths, flora and fauna of this land making her one of the most knowledgeable guides in the Atacama. We sit and rest, looking over the salt plains and the imposing Andes in the background. All this salt. The Salar de Atacama is made from the tears of the volcano gods, says Paula, over the sound of the roaring wind. She points to the nearby volcanoes of Licancabur (6,965m), Lascar (5,200m) and Juriques (5,200m).

Long ago there were two brothers, she explains. Princes in ancient Incan mythology, named Licancabur and Lascar. They both fell in love with the same woman Juriques. Because of his size and splendid cone, Juriques chose Licancabur. Lascar’s tears created a salt lake, but soon his sadness was replaced by anger. He threw fire against his brother, Licancabur, but missed and chopped Juriques’ head off. Licancabur shed many tears and soon both brothers’ anger for each other dried the salt lake to crystals.

In the looming distance there is a citadel of rock towers rising out of the heat curtain: the Valley of the Moon. Wind-sculpted waves of pink rock burst from salt-encrusted ground. An altitude wind races like a phantom around us as we approach the vaulted cliff sides that are honeycombed with rounded chambers, buttressed against huge dunes of volcanic sand.

The whipped peaks of salt and sand and surrounding dunes of black volcanic earth evoke landscape equal parts Salvador Dali and George Lucas. A man called Neil Armstrong came here once, jokes Paula. He came with a few friends and some film equipment and then left.” We slip between corridors of iron-red pinnacles while rock auditoriums tower above us, numerous paths snaking in all directions into gullies and winding corridors. The walls of clay-coloured rock reveal long crystals, some the length of swords and with the sharpness of razors. The annual rain that this valley receives makes the sand and clay drip like treacle, pushing the salt to the surface. We stop for a rest and sit in silence, listening to the wind passing through the chasm. As the shadows of afternoon cast down upon the walls of crystals, they begin to crack and natter amongst themselves, contracting in the cooling temperatures.

Paula discovered this trackless route through the desert one inspired afternoon with a couple of fellow guides. Connected by walkie-talkies they splintered off to each climb one of the surrounding rocky ramparts. It was like playing Star Wars as we ran through gullies and along the top of dunes.

We explore the Valley and climb to the top of one of the formations, the loose scree and sand making climbing difficult. From the top we gaze out between the rocky spires and watch the late afternoon light wash a saffron-yellow tinge over the salt fields and surrounding desert. Along the length of the ridge, wind-eroded holes and flat honeycombed pavilions wait like open mouths, leading to narrow hidden chambers. The rocks are so curiously shaped and coloured that they seem to live and breathe.

Bathed in these final moments of sunlight, the Andes flaunt their red mineral colour, then slowly darken to maroon and shroud over to blue. Down below we notice that a collection of cars and buses has gathered in the fading light. Above, the inky night sky blackens and reveals more stars than I have ever seen, while the light from the moon illuminates the desert. Phil, an amateur astronomer from San Francisco, is one of the few still hanging around. In Chile for a two-week star gazing tour, it is his fifth time to the area. There is nowhere better to see this amount of stars on any given night. He tells me that astronomy has long been a favorite pastime in Chile, and is even taught in the local school curriculum.

The arid, cloud-free climate of northern Chile, the driest in the world, has long been considered the ideal place for stargazing and as a testing site for NASA robots that are designed to explore the surface of Mars. Several observatories started operating here in the 1960s, including Cerro Tololo, built by the U.S.National Science Foundation, and La Silla, built by the European Southern Observatory. ESO, a consortium of eight European nations, began building the Very Large Telescope (VLT) here in 1999. When completed this year, it will become the world’s most powerful optical telescope, eclipsing Hawaii's Keck Observatory.

We’re going to look up at things that we’ve never seen before, says Phil as he lays back on the sand, arms behind his head. It will revolutionize the study of the formation of galaxies and stars.

We all look up at the infinite night sky. Like white paint daubed and flicked across a black canvas, clusters and arcs of stars stretch above the silhouettes of the distant mountains and volcanoes. As beautiful as it seems, if I was to believe the local folklore and the rumours, I might not be lying back so comfortably. Over the last decade it is reported that many curious incidents have taken place here. NASA, the Chilean and U.S. governments and various desert scientific facilities have all been blamed for strange goings on in the Atacama. From mysterious lights and odd objects hovering in the skies to the infamous chupacabra – a large, gruesome puma-like creature that drains its victims of their blood. Fortunately, its victims are mostly sheep and goats.

DIM LIGHTS FORM A translucent glow as were turn to San Pedro that evening. Over the millennia this Atacama oasis has been a rest stop for hunters, herders, traders and, more recently, travelers en route between the coast and the Andes. Fed by underground rivers and melt water from the mountains, it’s a convenient staging point for exploration of the area; it still feels like a frontier town with single-storey adobe houses and sandy streets. At the centre of town is a white washed church, built in the 16th century following the defeat of the Incan Empire.

In keeping with the desert’s harsh character, there is a chapel inside dedicated to San Isidro – the patron saint of rain – while the roof of the church is made from cactus wood.

Our pick-up coasts slowly through town, churning up a small trail of red dust. We pass groups of conversing dogs, international travelers and modern urban hippies, parading along the dusty streets. A nexus for desert fanatics, San Pedro’s mix of adventure sports and hedonism attracts a laidback crowd.

Thirsty, we settle on a bar. The adobe walled building, with inner rooms exposed to the night sky, is candle-lit and suitably bohemian in ambience. An open fire roars away on the mud floor, while a DJ in a wooly hat and goatee spins soothing, downtempo club tracks. The crowd is international, with Spanish and South American 20-somethings sporting native jewelry and home-chopped hairdos. They are all enjoying a drink, the music, and a view of the stars overhead.

I meet Ricardo, Paula’s boss and the proprietor of La Aldea, an adobe-style ranch that caters to visiting adventurers. Ricardo has been guiding in the area for 11 years. Considered one of the founders of the region’s nascent tourism industry, he also shares the honour of being among the team that executed the highest altitude scuba dive.

In 1996, Ricardo guided an expedition to the summit of Licancabur, the horizon’s dominant extinguished volcano. His group, consisting of a Swiss film crew and a collection of international marine archeologists, some of whom had worked with Jacques Cousteau, had made two attempts that had failed to reach the volcano’s summit due to weather. But the third try – which happened to fall on the summer solstice – was successful.

At 6,000 metres, at the summit of Licancabur, they conducted a very cold dive into the green crater lake, in search of Inca artifacts. They discovered not only Incan ruins and a collection of llama bones, but also, strangely, a crystal ball.” It was a very emotional day,” Ricardo remembers. “The solstice and the sun shining directly onto the lake. There was a lot of strong energy up there. All the men were crying. And then someone discovers the crystal ball.” It turned out that a previous climber, an American woman, had tossed the ball in the lake in a moment of self-created ritual, making her own offering to the mountain gods.

THE FOLLOWING MORNING I visit the Museo Arqueológico Padre le Paige. Named after the Belgian missionary-cum-archaeologist who founded it in 1955, it possesses 380,000 artifacts, including mummies and ritual ornaments gathered from the region around San Pedro, in effect charting the development of local pre-Columbian peoples. Father Gustavo Le Paige arrived in San Pedro in 1951 after working in Africa, but his Catholic zeal was soon replaced with a desire to explore the surrounding desert. At the time it had been largely neglected by the archaeological world.

Curiosity became life’s work as Le Paige discovered numerous tombs, including those of a culture of coastal hunter-gatherers called Chinchorro, who lived 7,000 years ago on the northern Pacific coast of Chile. The Chinchorro developed a complex surgical procedure whereby the dead body’s soft parts were replaced with branches, mud and plants and then buried in the hot sand. This practice, the earliest known use of artificial mummification in the world, pre-dates Egyptian examples by some 2,000 years. It was a ritualistic preparation not reserved just for those of importance, but for all members of the tribe.

For the indigenous peoples of the Atacama, Le Paige’s discoveries have shed light on the hidden world of their ancestors, strengthening both their modern identity and ties to the land. The Aymaras, for example, were the former lords of the high Andes; the Diaguitas were known for their pottery and geometric designs. These Atacamenians inhabited the oasis and its surrounding hunting grounds. The most surprising of all was the Chango people: fishermen who lived much of their time on the sea, off the arid Pacific coast, floating on a bed of seal bladders as they hunted for fish and shells.

In the early 15th century the Incas expanded their empire to become one of the largest in pre-Columbian history. The Inca conquered fellow tribes with diplomacy rather than violence, establishing numerous Andean chiefdoms, ruling over many tribes with many dialects, all answerable to the central governing body in Cuzco. “Land of the Four Quarters,” or Tahuantinsuyu, is the Quecha name the Inca gave to their empire. The Qhapaqñan, the highway that led out in all directions from Cuzco, comprised 40,000 kilometres of main and secondary roads. Referred to as an all-weather highway system, it enabled efficient communication and transport, linking the mountains, jungles, deserts and seas, while withstanding the extreme natural forces of wind, floods, ice and drought.

IT’S MIDDAY AND we are traveling along the main road east out of San Pedro, originally built by the Incas, running straight up into the Andes. Apart from a tiny cloud hovering over a distant volcano, the sky is clear and still. The pick-up truck is performing sluggishly as we ascend into the high plateau. The air is thin and the only vegetation here is scant patches of straw-coloured grass and prickly clumps of cactus. The skeletons of wrecked vehicle sand roadside shrines adorned with plastic flowers appear at the side of the road every so often. “The drivers fall asleep,” says Andres, coaxing the accelerator to no avail. “As they descend from the high altitude, the increased oxygen makes them very drowsy.” At six feet tall with slicked-back salt and pepper hair and a goatee, many women find our desert driver irresistible, Paula tells us quietly. “He is like the men in the cowboy songs,” she says to us in English to avoid embarrassing Andres.

UP THE HIGHWAY, there’s a herd of llamas loitering by the side of the road. As I approach I see that their ears are decorated with colourful wool to identify ownership. They graze on the same lands they have for thousands of years. Llama trains would travel from the Bolivian highlands all the way to the coast of Chile, bringing dehydrated potatoes, meat and cereals, all of them invaluable sources of nutrition. While researching the Andean cultures in the area and bridging the old and new worlds, NASA found that some of the highland grains were ideal food for astronauts.

Llama herders also transported prized luxury items such as tropical bird feathers, coca leaves and hallucinogenic vilca seeds from the Argentine northeast. The llama herder played an integral part in the communication and cultural union between different peoples scattered throughout the enormous arid space of the southern Andeanpuna. Constantly chewing on coca leaves mixed with lime, shepherds were able to walk for days without resting, fortified against the harshness of the altitude and climate. These communication systems and pathways exist today, as many people from San Pedro work in Bolivian and Argentinean mines, and pilgrimages across the antiplano bring groups across ancient highland trails to attend weddings, holy days and fairs.

STILL HEADING DUE east from San Pedro, at an altitude of 4,500 metres, we pass green lakes ringed with salt, and small gurgling brooks of fresh melt water from the Andes – somehow this environment sustains lush green moss, small trout and bathing ducks and geese. It’s typical – one moment you’re crossing flat, desolate, lifeless scrub, then you come upon a gorge, and at the bottom of that gorge is a river and greenery. It betrays all your concepts of what this desert, so lacking in precipitation, should be.

Small relatives of the alpaca and llama, known as the vicuña, feed far away from any road or track, wary of our presence. Avery timid animal that lives in the high, lonely parts of this mountain range, its wool is considered the finest and most exquisite fibre in the world, much in demand abroad. Set back from the road I notice a pile of stones, not unlike Tibetan cairns. The stack of flat rocks rises to about five feet. Paula tells me it is an apacheta. “Like a marker. One of many that stretch across the desert, guiding shepherds from the lowland to the highland pastures.” Like the Tibetan cairns in design, the apacheta also has a strong spiritual connection. “A shepherd will place a new rock on the pile every time an apacheta is passed. The belief is that you are cleansing your sin.” Offerings of coca leaves, liquor, fruit and water are often left at the sites, to give thanks to ancestors and deities for use of the route and to ensure good luck on the journey. It is not uncommon for stranded drivers to survive from the offerings left behind at apachetas until they are discovered.

It is not long before we catch sight of a shepherd guiding a flock of sheep to the pastures hidden in the lush valleys secretly hiding out here. I try to imagine the life of a shepherd in such a harsh environment. Baking in the desert heat or freezing in the violent snow and thunderstorms at higher ground – all this while governing a flock of unruly animals alone. Alone for many days and nights at a time.” Did I mention that they are all women?” says Paula, as we approach the shepherd and her dog. The small woman wears a tiny pair of hiking boots and layered clothing. Around her back are a bundle of possessions: a blanket, food and cooking utensils. She wears a wide-brimmed straw hat, and relies on a cane. In her other hand she holds a small ball of natural wool and three large cactus needles.” A lot of the shepherds knit,” says Paula, “Even when they are jogging along they can knit without trouble.”

Shy and suspicious of our presence, the woman chats with Marina and Paula. “My name is Antonia,” she says, smiling. Her face is dark, lined with years of living at this dry altitude. Her almond-shaped eyes betray an astounding vibrancy. Paula asks her if she has heard any news of an old shepherd named Matilda, who at the age of 93 has been a shepherd since she was nine years old. She still divides her time between the mountains and the lowlands, depending on pastures and season. “She is in the high country.” Wary of saying very much, Antonia turns away and gives one of her flock a whack with her stick. Sensing that the rest of the sheep aren’t in the mood for stopping, she gives us a shy smile and continues walking, her dog trotting by her side.” The men all went off to work in the mines a long time ago,” Paula tells us. I had seen the roaring fires of the Chiuquicamate copper mine the evening I had flown into the airport at Calama, just north of San Pedro, some days previous. Tremendous yellow flames glowed and smoked in the distant desert hills, like the angry roar of the underworld. A state-owed company, Codelco produces a third of the nation’s copper and has attracted migratory workers for decades from Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Ever since the mines opened, women have been the shepherds. For generations it has been like this.

ANDRES LEAVES THE road and the truck skids and scrambles its way across the arid plain past solitary rocks that are shaped like large chess pieces. Known as Los Gigantes, the giants, they resemble the mysterious stone statues of Easter Island.

The pick-up is equipped with sand filters but is still finding the going tough. The engine’s thirst has consumed eight bottles of water – I’m hoping there is enough for us.

Andres navigates one particularly perilous pass that skirts the edge of the volcanoes, only a stone’s-throw away from the Bolivian border– several hours away now from San Pedro. I try not to look at the drop-off as the truck hugs the hillside. As the track levels out we reach a higher plateau and pass mounds of yellow and white minerals. A collection of sorry-looking wooden huts is huddled together at the base of the mountain.

“Bolivian salt miners,” says Andres, “others say military.” There’s a Bolivian flag blowing limply on a weathered flagpole. Ten minutes later we encounter another collection of buildings in various states of repair surrounded by mounds of raw sulphur and a stack of plastic tubing. We stop outside the main building to be met by a small, enthusiastic dog, wagging its tail frantically.” This is where Tata lives,” says Andres.” His name is Don Roberto Torres, but we call him Tata. Grandfather.”

AS WE GET OUT of the truck, I hear a flute being played, sounding out softly into the crisp mountain air. Inside a stone and mud brick building that was once used to house miners, we discover a young man with curly black hair named Jamie relaxing by the window playing a cenacho – a traditional flute made of bamboo. A guide and close friend of Paula and Andres, Jamie came out here six months ago to take care of Tata, but also to turn these former mining huts into a quiet frontier lodge for travelers wanting to hike the Andes.

Hearing the commotion of visitors, old Tata emerges from behind a curtain with a smile. His eyes are milky with cataracts and white stubble shines against his dark, leathery skin. He feels around for where things should be on the kitchen counter and offers us a cup of coca tea and some freshly baked biscuits. A traditional crop for 6,500 years, coca is widely drank as tea or chewed in the Andean culture and is believed to evoke wisdom and knowledge, as well as being a palliative for fatigue and hunger. While we sit and relax, Tata grabs his sunglasses and cap and steps outside, eager to start the fresh packet of cigarettes that Andres has brought for him. Both he and Jamie sit outside and enjoy the luxuries of what visitors proffer from time to time.

“I haven’t had a cigarette in a week,” he says in a gravelly voice.

Tata has lived out on the frontier for over 30 years, having worked all his life in the mines of the Atacama. As he smokes he tells me that he in fact has more friends than the church.” There’s a saying,” Andres tells me, “that there is no such thing as an old miner.” Tata is one of the very few remaining workers of his generation.

“It was the best way to earn money back then,” Tata says, “Before all you kids started to think the desert was interesting.”

While happily smoking their cigarettes, Jamie tells me of their fishing exploits in the nearby rivers, providing a fresh addition to the sporadic supply of canned and dried food that is brought in by guides and friends from San Pedro. For needed heat, they gather yareta in the hills. A large moss-like plant it only grows at elevations of 3,400-4,000 metres and has been used for thousands of years as a slow burning fuel when dried and also as a native remedy for diabetes. Jamie takes me outside and shows me some of the construction he has been doing at this high altitude with nothing but hand tools, digging trenches to lay plastic pipe for toilets and showers. “I’ll have it finished one day. Come back next year and you’ll find me doing the same. I love it out here and I don’t miss San Pedro that much.” You should stay a while. Besides we need to go fishing for trout for dinner.”

WE ALL AGREE to stay for a candle-lit evening. As Jamie grabs his fishing pole and flute, I decide to accompany him for some desert fishing.” The weather can change quickly up there,” says Andres. The sun glares down at us as we hike off into the mountains bundled up in coats and wool hats. The variety of weather in the area, from freezing temperatures at mountain summits to a damp and suffocating heat in the valleys, has supported adaptive and resourceful food-gathering societies here for 10,000 years.

I follow Jamie towards a cluster of peaks as he plays soothingly melodic Incan songs on his flute. “This one is the song that was played when they washed and sheared the llamas. It’s still played at festivals.” The mountain breeze picks up as if buffeted by the song. Jamie holds the flute up to my ear, but instead of blowing he lets the wind flow through the flute as he fingers the holes.” Sometimes Pachamama, the Mother Goddess, has a tune to play of her own,” he says, pointing to the clouds, bruised and churning like colossal waves over the mountain peaks. “It’s the start of invierno antiplánico, Bolivian Winter. Soon this area will be wet and then covered in flowers.”

Jamie assures me that the storms will not come for another week. We find a lush ravine, that at first I think is another espejismo, or mirage, and we settle down to fish in a small brook. A minor vein of the River Puna, the fresh melt water attracts crested ducks, Andean geese and Andean gulls. With desert scrub in front of us and the vibrant, maroon tinted slopes of Andean volcanoes at our backs, we do what men have done in the Atacama for thousands of years. Contemplate in silence and fish.