Travel Magazine

Chile's Atacama Desert: Part II

By Carolinearnoldtravel @CarolineSArnold
(Continuation of our trip to Chile, December 2009)

Ancient Rock Art, Llamas, and Geysers

Chile's Atacama Desert:  Part II

Pregnant Llama Petroglyph

The focus of our second day’s trip was an ancient petroglyph site in the foothills of the Andes. This turned out to be a private tour, as no one else from the hotel wanted to go there that day. About an hour’s drive north of San Pedro, we approached an open valley surrounding a semi-circular rock outcrop. Even from a distance I could see the outline of a llama on the first boulder. Deeply incised on the vertical surface, it was nearly life size. The surprise, as we got closer, was that there was another smaller llama drawn inside the larger one, perhaps to indicate fertility. Although it is difficult to date rock art, it is believed that some of the images are thousands of years old. Scrambling up the boulders we saw more llamas big and small, as well foxes, pumas, jaguars, snakes, flamingos, and human figures with feather headdresses. As we stood there in the shadow of these ancient images, it was easy to imagine prehistoric hunters resting here on their way to the next oasis. The extremely dry climate is ideal for preserving rock art, and in many cases the drawings appear as fresh as if they were made yesterday.
Terraced Farms and Llamas

Chile's Atacama Desert:  Part II

Llama with decorative ear tassels near Machuca

For our picnic lunch we went to Rainbow Canyon, named for the unusual variety of colorful rock formations. Shade was in short supply, but we found a large rock whose shadow was just big enough to set up our table. For our final stop we drove to the remote village of Rio Grande for another example of terraced farming. The contrast between the small but lush fields at the base of the river canyon and the stark, steep walls that contained them was huge. On the way back to the highway, we spotted a group of guanacos, wild relatives of llamas and alpacas, domestic animals that are kept for their wool and meat. The following day we had a chance to see llamas with their colorful ear tassels in the tiny village of Machuca and to try barbecued llama meat. But the main event of our last day was a visit to the Tatio geysers.
The Highest Geyser Field in the World

Chile's Atacama Desert:  Part II

Tatio Geysers

At 14,000 feet, the Tatio geyser field in the Andes is the highest geyser field in the world. Recently, it was declared a protected area and helpful signs in both Spanish and English are being installed. The optimal time to visit is at sunrise when the cold air condenses the rising steam into small dense clouds. Since the drive from San Pedro is about an hour and forty minutes, we met at 5:15 a.m. for our departure. Fortified with a cup of coca tea (which tastes just like any herb tea and is said to combat altitude sickness) we dozed in the van for the ride up. It was pitch dark when we left, but by the time we arrived the sun was beginning to shimmer through the mist. I was worried about being light-headed at the high elevation, but, as long as I didn’t move too fast, I found I had no trouble walking around the geyser field. We had been advised to wear warm clothes because dawn temperatures are often below freezing, so I bundled up. All around us geysers spurted, hot pools bubbled, and steam puffed dramatically out of dozens of vents. Near a spring, a pool had been excavated that mixes cold spring water with the nearly boiling geyser water to make a giant hot tub. It was filled with bathers, although we didn’t try it ourselves. Instead, our guide set up our breakfast overlooking the geysers. By the time we finished, most other people were gone, and a group of vicunas moved in to graze on the tough grasses that grow at the edge of the geyser field. Vicunas, valued for their unusually fine wool, are the delicate and extremely endangered other wild relative of the llama. We left and they had the mountains all to themselves.
Reliving History in Books

Chile's Atacama Desert:  Part II

Church, Machuca

In preparation for the trip to Chile, I read two books: Ariel Dorfman's fascinating account of his personal journey to the Atacama in his book Desert Memories and Isabel Allende’s book Ines of My Soul, the dramatic retelling of Chile’s history from the point of view of the woman who accompanied the Spanish explorers as they made their way south in the mid-1500's. Much of the book details their arduous journey across the Atacama. Now, having been there, I can begin to appreciate the hardships they faced, but unlike those early explorers, we returned each day to the comfort of our very gracious hotel.
Heading South
That evening we boarded a plane for our return flight to Santiago. The combination of dramatic landscape, extreme climate, exotic wildlife, ancient history, and rich local culture had made for a unique vacation. Now we were on our way to meet family and to spend the rest of the trip immersed in contemporary Chilean life. As we neared the capitol, I looked out the window at lush green fields below, and was struck anew that I had just left the driest place on earth. Although the paper showed no rain in the immediate forecast, there was a chance that I might need the umbrella packed at the bottom of my suitcase.
Getting there: After flying from the U.S. to Santiago, the capitol of Chile, we took a local flight on Sky Airlines to Calama. Lan Chile also flies there. (Calama is 1225 kilometers from Santiago.) Our ground transportation to and around San Pedro was provided by our hotel, the Tierra Atacama, but it is possible to rent a car and drive yourself. (The main road is paved but most other roads are dirt.) Click here for a MAP of Chile. (Calama and San Pedro de Atacama are east of Antofagasta near the Bolivia border.)
Did we need to speak Spanish? Although we can get along in basic Spanish, almost everyone at the hotel spoke English. English was the international language for us and the other international tourists, many from Brazil and Europe. Except for one person, there were no other Americans at our hotel.
When did we go to Chile? Art and I made this trip to the Atacama in December 2009. We also spent time in Santiago, Rancagua, and the beach town of Iloca (later greatly damaged by the earthquake and tsunami.)

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