Santiago/Atacama Desert/Andean Altiplano, Chile. [February 2016]
Sometimes a solo escape to the other end of the world can do wonders for the body and soul. Hop on a flight out of JFK, waste your time reading the AA in-flight magazine and re-runs of Big Bang Theory, and a hazy 13 hours later…well, not much is different, at first.
Today’s Santiago, though retaining much of its latin soul, is as efficient, metropolitan, and grand as New York City. February brings peak heat (85 Fahrenheit) and late sunsets at 8:30PM – a welcome change out of the wintry Northeast. Similar to many mountain-enshrouded Latin American cities, a decent amount of particulate pollution renders visibility of the lovely hills a bit limited, but ironically the deflections from these particles create a magical visual effect during dusk and dawn.
La Chascona/Cerro San Cristobal
The first stop: a literary pilgrimage of sorts to La Chascona, one of Pablo Naruda’s three houses. Nested at the foot of Cerro San Cristobal, the compact blue building seems unassuming from the outside, but holds impressive furniture, artifacts, and awards inside (including his 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature). Plenty of colorful graffiti art pave the way as you wander through the bohemian streets of Barrio Bellavista.
Then begins a grueling hike up Cerro San Cristobal via the Zorro Vidal trail to glimpse the Andes-backed sunset, if waiting for the lame teleférico isn’t your thing. The views at the top surely reward you for all that effort. Sip on a sugary mote con huesillo, but more importantly drink in the glorious, polychrome colors of the city as the sun gently retreats beneath the zig-zags of the Andes in the horizon.
Enbalse el Yeso
Quick excursions out of the city are plenty – AndoAndes runs a well-organized day trip to Enbalse el Yeso, a glacial reservoir in the Cajón del Maipo canyon up a backbreaking drive into the mountains. Once the car engine shuts and you settle in to the serene environs, tranquility is discovered along with hordes of goats casually grazing along 45-degree slopes.
Turistik runs tours to several well-known wineries in the Maipo Valley – Undurraga’s Santa Ana estate offered a low-key, casual walk through the property and an exquisite five-wine tasting. A bottle of 2013 Carménère (interesting side-note: the varietal was thought to be lost forever after Europe’s phylloxera plague in 1867 and was mistaken for Merlot in Chile until 1994, when a French researcher rediscovered it) costs only $7 (thanks Janet Yellen for the 700 CLP/USD exchange rate).
What happens when you combine the two most inhospitable geographies – arid desert and high altitude – into one sh!tstorm? You get an unexpectedly scenic oasis that recognizes life and its tenacity for survival.
A 2-hour flight from Santiago into Calama ($100 round-trip via Sky Airlines?! Crazy good deal) followed by an hour-long drive through the lone highway in the desert brings you to the adobe town of San Pedro de Atacama, elevation 2400m – part backpacker central, part pre-Columbian relic, part Antofagasta mining pitstop, and 100% the best springboard for excursions into the vast nothingness engulfing it.
Valle de la Luna/Valle de la Muerte
CosmoAndino brings our group into the nearby valleys – Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte – in the late afternoon. The landscape, as the name suggests, is out of this world: lunar rock formations, purple skies, Mandelbrotian clouds, and grand volcanoes decorate the infinite expanse around you, no question a unique genesis between the parching climate and tremendous elevation.
Desert adrenaline rush
Sand boarding down 120-meter giant sand dunes and running down almost 250 meters of incline with a tour group aged 18 to 80: top 10 experiences life-to-date.
Salar de Tara/Altiplanic lagoons
Unlike some of the more popular excursions, Salar de Tara was tough to find among the 50-some tour agencies in town, probably because the drive in is a proverbial journey through hell: our tour guide from Maxim Experience had to lie his way past a police checkpoint for a flood-shut road, we were assaulted by a drunk llama/alpaca herder (the first person to fit that description) for taking photos of his herd, and after 2 hours on the highway the 4×4 van went off-road into a spastic hour-long ride that would make Captain Ahab seasick. At the same time, we gain more than 2500m in elevation and all the coca tea and Mexican cokes I took in the morning failed to prevent the massive headaches from punching.
But what a reward for enduring that pain: wild vicunas, the fluffy, protected source of $2,000 scarves, thrive in these altitudes above 4000m, and roam the desert grazing on the sparse vegetation. Color combinations beyond your wildest opiate-induced fantasies. The whole place is a plain ode to the perseverance of life, how it can adapt to any condition nature throws its way, and how humble one man can feel, standing alone in an impossibly inaccessible corner of the world.
Farewell, Chile, until the beckoning of Patagonia and Easter Island grows too strong to resist – thank you for the sights, the memories, and the reminder to never stop exploring the grandeur of this boundless world.
“Unexpected intrusions of beauty. That is what life is.” -Saul Bellow, Herzog
“There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.” -Bruce Lee
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arm farther….And one fine morning–
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
An excellent map here of attractions around San Pedro de Atacama (notice how far you have to drive off-road to get to the heard of Salar de Tara)