The great beyond

Thanks to Emirates’ new direct flights to Santiago, you can twin a city stay with an out-of-this-world experience in the nearby Atacama Desert

 

From the car, the desert looked like the surface of Mars, desolate and pockmarked. The guide obviously read my mind. ‘NASA uses the Atacama Desert to test instruments for future Mars missions,’ Jorge said. I wasn’t sure this was a recommendation for a holiday destination.

‘What is there to do here?’ I asked, gazing out the window, trying not to sound too sceptical. ‘In the event that I am not planning a Mars mission.’

Too much to do, my friend,’ he said. ‘You want to explore the Atacama? You could spend a month here and do something different every day. Welcome to a whole new world.’

Deserts tend to divide opinions. People veer between horror and enchantment. Some find the apparently lifeless expanses the geographic equivalent of Morris dancing — inexplicable and mind-numbingly dull. Others see sensual beauty, a seductive simplicity and grandeur, a place to jettison anxieties, to revisit life’s priorities, to embrace the sublime, while eating dates on the top of a sand dune.

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile conforms to the stereotype — vast, arid and mystifying. It is the second- largest desert in South America. Wedged between the Pacific and the great wall of the Andes, it stretches a thousand kilometres north to south. It is also the highest and driest desert in the world. There are places in the Atacama where no rain has fallen in 400 years. In this extraordinary place, archaeologists have discovered the world’s oldest mummies, wrapped and buried here 5,000 years BC, and still perfectly preserved.

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Surreal skies are a feature of the desert

But the Atacama has something else going for it besides top-notch mummification. The Atacama not only looks like something from outer space, it is also the best place on Earth from which to contemplate outer space. Every self-respecting astronomical institution on Earth has built observatories in its clear, elevated atmosphere. People don’t just come to the Atacama to embrace the sublime. They come to explore the Universe.

The Atacama not only looks like something from outer space, it is also the best place on Earth from which to contemplate outer space

The town of San Pedro de Atacama was a welcome diversion. A small wind-blown place, it evoked the American West. (In about 1850.) I kept expecting Clint Eastwood to turn up in a poncho and a scowl. Adobe buildings, whitewashed and flat-fronted, lined the dirt streets. Dust devils blew round corners. Jugglers, buskers and mountebanks, presumably just off the morning stagecoach, plied their trades. In the central square, a couple of guys were hunkered down at the base of the pepper trees, hats tipped over their eyes, probably asleep, possibly dead. An adobe church stood to one side, the lone bell in its tower tolling for evening mass.

The Awasi Inn was a quick reality check. No-one in the Old West ate pistachio-crusted yellowfin tuna for lunch, accompanied by a fine Sauvignon from the Central Valley. The best of San Pedro’s upmarket desert hotels, the Awasi was a luxurious oasis within an oasis, a sybaritic retreat behind high adobe walls.

I confess that my initial response was just to hide out here. I wanted to sink into the pool, sunbathe on the loungers, linger over afternoon tea on a deep sofa, indulge in some decadent treatment or other in the spa. But, unfortunately, Jorge returned after lunch. The Awasi prides itself on its personalised guiding services, and Jorge wanted to discuss desert excursions. I dragged myself away from a delicious slice of carrot cake to look at maps that seemed to contain nothing but vast blanks. For the next three days, we explored the Atacama. And something happened. I fell for it. Scepticism was swept aside. Call me a hopeless romantic, but by the end of the first day, I was madly in love with the desert. The Atacama had seduced me. It was not just the sheer drama of the landscape, so extreme, so vivid, so intense. It was not just the thrilling simplicity, a place stripped of all fussy details leaving just skeletal form. It was the fathomless distances, the staggering scale of the place. In the Atacama you could see for hundreds of kilometres with the slightest turn of the head.

As it turned out, the Atacama was only pretending to be a flat monoculture of gravel and sand. In its vast reaches there are dozens of landscapes. Jorge and I went hiking in Moon Valley, through twisting canyons and across valleys enclosed by wind-eroded escarpments.

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The Mano de Desierto (The Hand of the Desert)

It was a world rich with mineral colour — rose, verdigris, sapphire, malachite, copper, cobalt blue, graphite — and convoluted rock formations.

From a high ridge we gazed out over stretches of sand where the Atacaman winds had traced abstract geometries of lines and patterns. In the middle distance, stands of carob trees and green patches of corn marked farmsteads watered by springs and by snow melt from the Andes. To the east, the Andes, etched against the bluest of skies, carried the evening light on their flanks. Half an hour later we were watching the sun slip away beyond a horizon several hundred kilometres away.

Another day, we drove south to the Salar de Atacama, the great salt flats, a surreal white world where distant flamingoes stepped elegantly through shimmering mirages. On the third morning, with a dawn chorus of birds serenading from the desert scrub, we drove up to the El Tatio geysers, where 80 steaming jets shot upwards from calcified rock amid hot pools and bubbling mud. I donned a swimsuit and sank into a steaming mineral pool like a happy hippo. Instagrammers should beware, though: a Belgian tourist died here in 2015 when she backed into a hot geyser while trying to get a better selfie angle.

But my favourite excursion was a long drive south to the desert lakes, las lagunas, on a road as straight as a drawn line past the sensuous shadow-sculpted curves of the Andes, past grazing vicunas (small llamas) and Inca terracing still used for the cultivation of alfalfa and potatoes. At Miscanti and Minigues, the lake-waters danced with light. It was a place of perfect simplicities. All unnecessary detail, all elaboration, all fussiness had been stripped away, as if the earth has been skinned, leaving only the elegant fluid lines of this rare landscape, overlooked by Andean summits, beneath a cloudless sky.

The great salt flats, a surreal white world where distant flamingoes stepped elegantly through shimmering mirages

On the final day, I went to party with the dead. We took a mountain road that clung to the canyon walls of the Rio Grande River. Below us, the green strip of vegetation along the river wound through a wilderness of rock and stone. We were on an ancient Inca road that connected the Atacama to the high altiplano beyond.

At the end of the road, we came to a tiny village of narrow twisting streets lined with high adobe walls. It was the Day of the Dead, the second day of November and, as in most of South America, the villagers were convinced the dead liked nothing more than a serious knees-up.

It didn’t really matter that my own grandparents were buried several thousand kilometres away. I, too, must sing to the ancestors. I opted for the Skye Boat Song. The locals gazed at me blankly as Jorge translated. These were people who had never seen an island or an ocean or a boat. But keen to be supportive, after their initial bemusement, they clapped and cheered my efforts. Elaborate picnics were laid out by the gravesides in case the dead were peckish after all the music. Then the living stumbled downhill, battered trumpets blaring, to the churchyard where cuts of llama meat were grilled and drinks consumed.

But the best part of the Atacama wasn’t in the Atacama at all. It was millions of light years away. The Atacama merely provided the platform from which to see it.

With the world’s highest and driest atmosphere, this desert has become a prime location for observatories, including ALMA, the world’s largest, a joint project by the Americans, the Canadians, the EU, and the Japanese. On my last night, after dinner, I adjourned to a private observatory to take a look at the Universe.

The observatory had the air of some science-fiction installation. The buildings were in semi-darkness. Men in uniform black T-shirts moved about the platforms with green and blue torches so as not to create light pollution. Everyone spoke in hushed tones, as if aliens were listening.

Along dark boardwalks, my astronomer guide led me to an upper room equipped with a telescope the size of a small truck. It looked like the kind of instrument a Bond villain might use to plot the world’s destruction, complete with levers, keyboards and malevolent dials. With a remote, he turned the great machine slowly on its axis as panels in the roof opened to reveal a night sky swarming with stars.

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Salt flats

I peered through the eyepiece. I was looking at the Virgo Cluster, said to contain as many as 2,000 galaxies, with each galaxy containing potentially billions of stars. It was 65 million light years away, which meant that the light reflected through the lens at this very moment had left the cluster of stars some 63.5 million years before man stood upright.

While I looked at points of light glowing in the viewfinder, the guide whispered one astonishing fact after another. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, consisting of 200 billion stars, turns out to be little more than a cubby-hole in the Universe. There are 100,000 million galaxies in the part of the Universe that we can observe, the guide whispered. But there may be two trillion galaxies in the entire Universe, each of them with hundreds of billions of stars. After half an hour of this stuff, I needed a lie-down. If the scale of the Atacama was thrilling, the scale of space was making my head spin.

I asked about habitable planets.

‘We say habitable planets are in the Goldilocks Zone,’ the astronomer purred. ‘Planets close enough to a star and with sufficient atmospheric pressure to maintain liquid water on their surface. In other words, conditions that may be roughly comparable to those of Earth.’

‘How many are there?’

‘The Kepler space mission brought back a lot of new data. We think there are now about 40 billion habitable planets. But only 11 billion of them may be orbiting sun-like stars.’

‘Billion?’ I asked, unable to get my head round the numbers. ‘Yes, that’s right — 11 billion.’

Such is the Universe: beyond imagining.

I walked back to Awasi along the edge of the desert. A moon had risen over Licancabur, the volcano profile like a child’s drawing. Ghostly in silver light, tilting away to infinities, the desert seemed to go on forever.

But it didn’t. In the greater scheme of things, it turned out that it hardly went any distance at all. Everything was relative. My Atacama had shrunk. I knew now that the great desert was hardly more than a speck of dust on the telescope lens. In the course of a week I had been on a rollercoaster of shifting perspectives.

 

Credit: Stanley Stewart /Sunday Times Travel Magazine/ News Licensing