It’s said to be the driest desert in the world outside of Antarctica. So dry that certain riverbeds haven’t seen a drop of water in more than 120,000 years, some weather stations have never recorded any rainfall and, even where they do fall, yearly precipitations would struggle to fill the shot glass in a Jägerbomb. It’s so dry that salt crystals are so ubiquitous to seem like snow.
Still, life has found a way. Microbes thrive even in the most parched valleys, reaching such level of adaptation that, when once-in-a-millennium rains hit an area of Atacama three times in short succession (don’t you love fat tails at the end of a normal distribution?) they killed countless critters. But it’s not just about invisible bugs; larger animals also abound, but we’re not there yet.
As it often happens, the beginning of the journey is intimidating. Antofagasta is a town that Prince Philip could rightly define “Ghastly”. A jumble of condos and squat homes rolled towards a sea that was in a perennial state of upheaval. Dust blew everywhere, pushed around by the wind and, along the coast, cars paraded beneath lampposts on which sat, lugubrious, enormous vultures. Everything seemed to be saying “Go away”. Which we did.
It took only a quick, breathtakingly steep, ascent for everything to change. A wide plateau beamed under the shining sun and, above, the sky was dark blue. There was no humidity in the air and it felt that we could simply stretch our hands and grab the implements, most of them alien in their use or purpose – that peppered the desert.
There was no getting around it, the plateau wasn’t a place for poetic contemplation. Whatever romantic idea of caravans of camels we had was shattered at the sight of enormous machinery that ate the ground and spat out scoria and ore and of abandoned towns – such as Pampa Union – that died the moment the mine they supplied with manpower ran dry. Everything – houses, infrastructure, trucks – was rugged, utilitarian; at the wheel of a massive Nissan pick-up truck, 5 meters of metal and growling 2.3 litre Diesel engine with low-range gears, we felt as if we fitted right in.
Past the oasis town of Calama the desert dropped its Nine Inch Nails side and quickly wore a more flamboyant, prog-rock robe. A field of wind turbines filled the plain, their long blades turning silently in unison, in a scene that missed only a young David Gilmour playing “Us and them”. The radio burps only static and, quickly, the roads rises and dives into a background of outlandish rock formations, red outcrops and white fields of salt. The year is now 2213 and the planet is Mars. A sunset that you never thought could be seen in this planet paints the entire world crimson, purple and black.
There’s a worm-hole between the mirador Piedra de Coyote and the pueblo of San Pedro de Atacama, a passage through space and time from a Kim Stanley Robinson future to a Sergio Leone past. Adobe homes. Stray dogs. Dusty roads so rutted that cars’ exhausts drop off and doors go hara-kiri if only you attempt at driving faster than 5-an-hour. Somewhere amongst all the hippies and the indíos there must be Clint Eastwood, decked with poncho, hat and cigar, ready to mutter that his mule doesn’t like it when people laugh.