The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is one of the driest places on earth. Nestled between the Pacific and the Andes, it has a unique landscape made up of sandy plains, salt flats, rocky peaks and active volcanoes. In some parts of the region, there hasn’t been a single drop of rain for more than 400 years.
‘There’s much more to the Atacama than meets the eye,’ reveals expedition guide Danilo Olivares Hidalgo, who’s accompanying us during our visit. ‘In general, people think a desert is an empty place with no interesting features, but, actually, it’s quite the opposite. The Atacama is home to a fascinating variety of different landscapes, plants and wildlife. To get the most out of it, you just need to know how to look in the right places at the right time.’
As an introduction, Danilo takes us to explore one of those places, the wind-carved rock formations of the Valley of the Moon, from where it’s possible to admire that diverse panorama. From here, you can see high Arabian-style sand banks, white rocky outcrops, fields of boulders and dusty plains dissected by rivers of salt.
But the fact we’re in a desert doesn’t mean there’s a total absence of water – it may not fall in the form of rain, but liquid is actually all around us, below the surface. Underground rivers up in the mountains bring it down to the plains and plateaux, and as the heat of day rises, it quickly evaporates into the atmosphere.
While the views here are indisputably breathtaking, the high altitude is also literally making us gasp for air. The town of San Pedro de Atacama, where we’re staying, is already situated at 2500m above sea level – that’s a height nearly twice that of Ben Nevis – but if you head into the mountains, you can soon find yourself at more than 5000m. Hiking is hard-going in these conditions and, in light of the rough terrain, a 4x4 is essential for exploring the region. The Audi Q8 is an ideal companion – it can cope with the most challenging conditions while transporting passengers in the utmost comfort.
This high level of comfort continues once the day’s adventuring is done. We retreat to our hotel, the five-star Awasi Atacama. On arrival, we’re handed warm towels with which to wipe our hands and faces, and staff serve us fresh glasses of cool lemonade infused with ricarica, a minty herb that grows in the desert. While we relax in the outdoor lounge that surrounds the pool, we enjoy a cocktail and peruse the mouthwatering dinner menu, which is a blend of South American and European cuisines and uses the finest ingredients. It’s complemented, of course, by a long list of fine Chilean wines.
‘Local ingredients and flavours form a big part of our cuisine,’ says head chef Juan Pablo Mardones. ‘They’re delicious and play an important role in telling the story of our neighbourhood and giving our guests the full Atacama experience. The traditional people were much cleverer than us and found uses for everything around them. Each of the tough little plants you can see growing around here was used as foods, remedies or building material. Nothing went to waste and everything had a purpose.’
This focus on sustainability is also shared by the local administration, which is trying to maintain a healthy balance between touristic development and local requirements. Catherine Vilches, co-ordinator of tourism at the San Pedro de Atacama Culture and Tourism Foundation, spends her days working with the many different stakeholders to ensure that things are done properly.
‘It’s essential that we ensure the area develops in a sustainable way, respecting not only the landscape but also the culture here,’ she explains. ‘Far too often, people seem to jump to the defence of industry and the economy, rather than the local environment or the local people. My job is to make sure we consider all angles before acting, and that everyone has a say. I spend my time working with local stakeholders to make sure they all understand the vital importance of sustainability. The Atacama is a fragile paradise and it could be ruined if development isn’t handled correctly. We have a duty to make sure that doesn’t happen.’
Words by John Silcox. Photographs by Paul Calver.