“This is where all life came from.” The bespectacled Chilean version of David Attenborough, naturalist guide Gonzalez Cruz, peered cautiously over the rim of a hole the size of a truck tyre, out of which spewed forth boiling sulphuric steam into the sub-zero dawn air. He was referring to the origins of life on Earth arising from volcanic eruptions over 3-billion years ago, while all around us dozens of spurting geysers were blowing billowing clouds of steam like giant New York subway vents.
We were at El Tatio in the Atacama Desert, which, at a light-headed 4 320m above sea level, is the world’s highest geyser field. It felt fitting to think about
the beginning of existence in a place where the boundary between life and death is so fragile. Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes
mountains, the Atacama, which spreads across a vast 128 000km of northern Chile (almost the same area as the Western Cape) is one of the driest places in the world: some regions have not received rain since record-keeping began.
It’s also very high, very sunny, very cold and hot, and is home to a string of active volcanoes: all in all, a particularly harsh place for life to exist in. The Atacama is also surreally, spectacularly, surprisingly beautiful. Far from a monotonously sandy landscape, the desert is startling in its variety, and the geysers are just one of the natural architecture highlights.
Smoking conical volcanoes loom on the horizon, rippled Mars-like sand dunes melt into the rocky steep sides of mountains, tiny green oases fragrant with pomegranate and fig trees dot the terracotta blanket of sand, while turquoise salt lagoons and deep navy thermal pools provide relief from the lip-cracking dryness.
In the heart of the desert, San Pedro de Atacama, a village of dirt roads, low adobe buildings and a lovely 16th-century whitewashed church, was my base for trips out into a wilderness that looks like the backdrop of a Salvador Dalí painting. What a world it is to be immersed in: my days were spent hiking in places like Moon Valley, an apricot-coloured canyon covered in crunchy salt crystals (which I couldn’t resist licking) with rocks that crackle in the late afternoon like the sound of rain on a tin roof and riding a magnificent chestnut Anglo-Arabian along a path through sand dunes and rocky outcrops.
I mountain-biked – the sweat drying instantly – to cool off in Laguna Cejar, a small icy lagoon so salty that swimming is impossible and all you can do is float, and picnicked on empanadas at the natural hot pools of Termas de Puritama, surrounded by the elemental desert decor of cardon cacti. I spent one of the more memorable sunsets of my life at Salar de Atacama, Chile’s largest salt flat, which looks like the surface of the moon, with craggy chunks of ice like pieces of coral.
The flocks of candy-pink flamingoes’ colour matching the neon sky felt cinematically choreographed. Despite the Atacama’s growing popularity as a tourist destination, everywhere I went I found the deep solitude and silence that a vast desert promises. Nights brought with them just as much reverential
wonder as the days. After dinners of ceviche and quinoa, washed down with Chilean Malbec, I headed to the lodge’s observatory to try out amateur astronomy.
A winning combination of an absence of light pollution as well as consistently few clouds and the high altitude makes the Atacama one of the world’s best places for stargazing, and the gazing up at a sky awash with gleaming stars – with or without a telescope – felt as rare a natural treat as spotting an elusive
animal. Sixty kilometres to the east is the world’s largest astronomical project.
On a 5 000m-high plateau 66 radio antennae at Alma (the Atacama Large Millimetre Array) are pointed up at the heavens to capture radio waves from the dark parts of the universe, so researchers can see where the first galaxies were formed, but more excitingly, to find out whether there are other solar systems that have the conditions to support life.
As I contemplated the beginnings of Earth’s organisms in geysers in a place that looks out of this world, astrophysicists and astronomers were probing the deep reaches of the cosmos for extraterrestrial beings. Until they find something, the closest we’ll get to experiencing life on other planets is a trip to the Atacama Desert.
Fly from Joburg to São Paulo on South African Airways, on LAN to Santiago de Chile and on Sky Airline to Calama, the nearest airport to San Pedro de Atacama.
WHERE TO STAY
Explora Atacama, a luxury lodge on a 17ha property on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama, is an ultra-modern oasis of sleek architectural design, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls, stylishly simple rooms and a quartet of swimming pools flanked by hot tubs and a
sauna. The lodge’s philosophy is that you should spend more time out of your hotel room than in it, so on offer are 50 different activities, ranging from volcano summits to horse-back rides, led by a team of excellent bilingual guides. mantiscollection.com