Driest place on Earth

San Pedro de Atacama is nestled in the far North Eastern corner of this amazingly diverse sliver of country along the Oceania Pacifica.
We have walked on glaciers, waded rivers on horseback and by bike, climbed volcanoes, trekked through forests, tempted to swim in the seas and now it’s time to march through desert.

The drive from the capital, Santiago, northwards, has unfolded the most remarkable scenery. Just to our right, across the Andes and hidden from us, the Argentinian pampas sprawl, to our left the ever persistent sea and ahead the start of desert terrain.

Driving down the pass towards San Pedro de Atacama

Our clutch is holding, the fuel pump is pumping and our bike starts first time every time. It’s a long haul from Santiago about 1700km which we made over a few days stopping off at little no-man’s towns along the way. The temperature has increased to a wonderful riding temp of 24deg! A giant tar road tears up the desert all the way to San Pedro, the tourist capital of Chile. There are miles and miles of nothingness around us and then suddenly, quite literally this oasis pops up over yet another rolling hill.

There are several things that make San Pedro so famous; for starters it’s an oasis; you can access the world’s highest altitude geyser fields, swim/float in a salt lake, view high altitude lakes (@4200m), see several species of flamingo in/on the salt plains and above all visit the Salar de Atacama – the enormous salt plains of the Atacama.

Our first naive impression of these salt fields was of vast plains of smooth, cracking, white salt pans {think Kgalagadi in Botswana}; oops, this is actually in Bolivia……
In this Salar, the plains seem to have been tilled by monstrous tractors and the resultant soil/salt mix looks ready for receiving seed. Aggressively shaped clods of hardened salt/soil create a landscape suspended in animation while awaiting a crop that will never be. Slap bang in the centre of these flats are several large salt water lakes teaming with micro-organism, insect and bird life – all species adapted to a visciously harse saline and thermal environment.

The famous El Tatio geysers are at 4300m. Cath had just recovered from a cold so we opted for a tour rather than bike up here ( good choice since the temp on the fields was -11 degrees!!). The tours leave at 4am with the intention of getting to the geyser field at dawn when things are coldest in order to see the most steam coming off the various geysers.

The El Tatio Geysers at sunrise. If you look closely you can see a figure in the distance to give you some idea of size

Minus 11 at the geysers at about 6 in the morning….. pretty chilly


Andy in the Thermal Pool

I think the pics tell the story! The entire San Pedro is bounded by volcanoes between 4000 and 6000m high, in fact the highest active volcanoe in Chile is also here! Where there are volcanoes, expect hot water geysers! After seeing the geysers I even attempted a swim in the thermal baths to try to get my feet to unfreeze.

One of the largest geysers with steam rising far above the mountains in the background

Unfortunately one is trapped in this tourist Mecca, so everything is expensive. We were lucky to have the bike, for after the geyser trip, we did the rest by ourselves. It is truly spectacular to be able to drive in the desert in search of lakes, salt pans and salt water pools!

During Cath’s convalescence I kept busy by enjoying some of the extras offered; sand boarding the dunes in Death Valley ( gonna have to wait for the movie for these pics 🙂 and biking Devil’s gorge. The latter turned into a nightmare 40km desert slog, half at night. I had ridden the gorge then decided to take a roundabout way home though the desert…..navigating a desert in the day is pretty tough, it sucks at night! Having brushed up on my star-navigating abilities in Vicuña, I guided myself back to the main tar road (ok, I just looked for car headlights in the distance 🙂 oops, I hit the tar road 14km from San Pedro at 8pm!

We have spent almost a week here and look forward to shedding the desert in exchange for Peru!

Categories: Diary | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Driest place on Earth

  1. Eve

    Brrrrr…..l looks cold but amazing!

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