A love affair in the Atacama Desert

I have a confession. I have fallen totally and completely in love with the Atacama Desert in Chile.

The varied landscapes created by the wind, the sun, and the presence or absence of water are mind blowing.

The contrasts of the desert can be found everywhere you look. Hot and cold, wet and dry, life and death.

We spent the first few days here exploring closer to the town of San Pedro de Atacama. These were places of amazing beauty…but they were also places more easily accessed by the countless buses of tourists.

By contrast, we spent our final days in the Atacama hiking through gorgeous desert landscapes virtually untouched by tourists.

Our guide Yasu met us at our hotel early one morning, we strapped on our backpacks and began walking. Three days and 42 miles later we emerged in a small village high in the Andes mountains (12,000 feet in elevation) called Machuca.

Me and my hiking buddies, Chris (Glenn’s brother), Glenn and Yasu.

There were several things about this amazing multi-day trek through the desert that will stick with me.

1. The solitude

Aside from my hiking companions, we were virtually alone during the entire three day trek. We were on the trail, under the blazing desert sun, for 8 hours a day. Much of this time was spent in total silence except for the crunch of the rocks beneath my feet and the cachink-cachink-cachink of my hiking poles hitting the ground with each step.

Yasu, me and Glenn crossing mile after mile of desert.

The sky was a deep blue and was completely devoid of clouds, planes and birds. In general the only other life forms we encountered were small lizards, a few shepherds with their flocks of sheep and goats, and the occasional wayward llama that would give you a curious look as you walked by.

The fellas hiking into the great beyond. The sky was so clear and blue it seemed otherworldly, and the moon – as seen here – looked down on us for much of the day.

Hello cute llamas!

It was such an amazing experience to be so far removed from civilization, as well as the life giving forces of nature such as fresh water and shade.

Shade was impossible to find on much of our hike so we would hunker down under big rocks when we could find them to get a break from the sun. This spot came with a friendly dog, which made Glenn very happy.

2. My body can do amazing things

The trek was very demanding on multiple levels – the heat, the sun, the steep climbs, the high elevation. I was actually quite anxious about the trekking part of our trip itinerary. Although I have done some longer backpacking trips around Mt. Hood and in the Olympic National Forest, I had never tried to do something like this in a demanding desert environment. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it.

But, as is often the case, my body showed me that it can do amazing things if given the opportunity. Many times, particularly on the climbs up to the canyon ridges, I would place myself directly behind our guide Yasu and concentrate on matching his footfalls with my own. The next thing you knew I would find myself at the top staring back down into the deep canyon below at the river I had just recently waded through.

Wading through the meandering river.

Yasu enjoying the view from the ridge we climbed.

3. The stars!

The Atacama Desert is known for amazing stargazing. Several large telescopes and observatories are stationed here because the (typically) cloudless skies, high elevation, dry air and remote location make for great visibility.


Amazing view of the stars from our campsite the first night. Look at all those little stars! We got to see several constellations that are only visible from the Southern Hemisphere. (Photo by Chris)

I can honestly say I have never…ever…seen so many stars in my life. The sky was absolutely fuzzy with them and had sort of a light gray hue (instead of black) because the stars put off so much light. In fact, I was able to walk around our campsite in the dead of night without the use of a flashlight. The landscape was completely illuminated by starlight alone. Amazing.

Zoomed in view of the Milky Way. (Photo by Chris)

Zoomed in view of the Milky Way. (Photo by Chris)

Tomorrow we begin an epic 4X4 road trip into Bolivia.

Although we are excited to start a new adventure, both Glenn and I are more than a bit saddened to leave Chile. We have been here for a full month (beginning with our visit to Easter Island) and there is so much about Chile that we will miss.

The friendly dogs and exceedingly polite car drivers; the fresh bread and desserts; the sense of safety and security; the half-cooked runny scrambled eggs and the heavenly sweet concoction called “manjar”; Independence Day (week!) parties, parades and huge kabobs of meat.

We will even miss Chilean Spanish, which is impossible to describe.

It almost sounds as if Chileans have taken the Spanish words, cut them into pieces, stirred them up in a big pot (spilling a bunch of them on the floor in the process) and then recombined what was left into some sort of a truncated version of Spanish that is mumbled at warp speed.

For example, instead of a typical greeting of “Hola. Buenos días. ¿Cómo estás?” they might say what sounds like “Wenawena-mumble-whisper-mumble?” As most Chileans don’t speak English, Glenn and I have had to try to figure things out on our own. Adding the additional complexity of Chilean Spanish has actually been great fun – even though our success rate is pretty low. It may take us five minutes to successfully place an order for pineapple juice, but we eventually get the job done!

Enjoying a refreshing Chilean drink called “mote con huesillo” – it tastes like cold peach cobbler in liquid form. A great way to enjoy one last taste of Chile before we go.

Enjoy more pictures of our final days in the Atacama Desert below!

Note: Some of these pictures – especially those that picture me – were taken by Chris, Glenn’s brother. I’m very grateful to him for sharing them!

An early morning outing to see the El Tatio Geysers.

Glenn attempting to play some local music.

Me, Chris and Glenn celebrating a successful summit of Zoquete Mountain.

The reward for hard uphill hikes? Enjoying the view on the way down.

The Atacama salt flats. (Photo by Chris)

Amazing view at the Miscanti Lagoon. (Photo by Chris)

Chris having a moment of zen.

Me telling Glenn not to ruin the picture by making a face or pretending to pick his nose!

Three day desert trek photos

Yasu, Glenn and Chris making their way across the desert.

Yasu, Chris and the ever-changing landscape. 

Campsites on our desert trek: 1) the site of a mining ghost town, 2) village churchyard of one of the few remaining communities of indigenous Atacameno people.

One foot in front of the other…

Grasses mean higher altitude…which means we are getting closer to the finish line!

We made it! Three days, 42 miles, lots of elevation gain!

Wildlife photos

Elegant vicuña, a high altitude relative of the camel. (Photo by Chris)

A fox hunting for his lunch. (Photo by Chris)

A majestic flamingo with an amazing reflection. (Photo by Chris)

One last note…

I’m so thankful to the amazing folks at BikeHike, an adventure tour company out of Vancouver, B.C., for designing this custom trip for us (including the upcoming bits in Bolivia). The Atacama Desert is awash with countless tour companies and I was having a horrible time trying to find reputable and reliable guides based on online reviews. We told BikeHike what sorts of activities we were interested in (hiking, biking, horseback riding) and they took care of the rest. The local guides arranged for us by BikeHike were great fun and we had a chance to see and do things that most visitors to the Atacama don’t get to experience.

10 comments on “A love affair in the Atacama Desert

  1. Thanks for the blog posts, it’s inspiring to travel along with you on your adventures via your photos and descriptions!

  2. Michele, you and Glen are an inspiration. What an amazing experience you are having and wonderful that you are taking the time to photograph parts of the experience and share pieces of it with us. It’s wonderful to see and hear about where you have been and what you are doing. I hope the next steps in your adventure are as interesting and enjoyable. Cheers!

  3. Keep on going, 1 foot in front of the other, for 10 paces. Every 10 paces stop and take another beautiful picture to share with us.

  4. When I left the Orinoco River in Venezuela I felt the same way you did leaving the desert. No geography has ever impacted me that way. I cried in appreciation and with love and admiration for the life of other people in this world.
    I was so wondering how you had arranged this amazing experience. Thanks for the tip about Bike Hikes!
    Travel on! Judy

    • BikeHike is great Judy. They offer lots of amazing trips, and as was the case here, are really willing to help create custom trips too.

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