How I fell in love with the driest place on Earth

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During my 3 month solo trip in South America I didn’t do much planning. At all. When I got to Santiago de Chile (all the way from Patagonia) I only knew I wanted to head north and enter into Bolivia and then Peru. I spent a few days walking the city of Santiago, visiting its neighborhoods, going to Valparaiso and Viña del Mar (and touching this rather cold side of the Pacific Ocean) with no major plans at all. When I felt I had already seen a bit of the city (and loved it!), I looked at the map again and decided I wouldn’t fly to north Chile, but instead take the 25-or-more hour bus to the north of the country. I figured I would go to San Pedro de Atacama and from there cross to Bolivia. I would arrive tired so I though I would book accommodation for 1 night there and then continue my journey. I couldn’t be more wrong.

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San Pedro de Atacama is NOT just a passage point. The village is soooo beautiful and I fell in love completely. I wanted to stay there for a little while.  The very same day I arrived I booked a tour to walk in the desert, through the Death Valley, running down huge dunes, hike through the canyons and watching the sunset that became one of my favorite sunsets EVER (check out my favorite sunsets here). The sky would change colors every few seconds while the sun was setting down, taking along the high temperatures (as soon as the sun hid behind the mountains the temperature dropped instantly about 10 degrees ºC). The air was so dry that my skin was peeling off like snow flakes (and my nose bled a bit, the air was extremely dry), and because of the 2000-something-meter altitude the sun was the strongest I’d ever felt (and of course my fair skin complained immediately).

 

 

The desert was beautiful. I was falling madly in love, more and more I stayed in Atacama.

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The second day we (I booked more tours with the same company) headed very early to the El tatio, a geyser field located within the Andes Mountains at 4,320 meters above sea level, at about 4am we left so we could see the sun rise at the top of the mountains. In San Pedro de Atacama I got temperatures like 30ºC during the day and it dropped a lot during the night (welcome to the desert, Rita!)…but on top of the mountain, oh boy…it was COLD! When we got to the top, just before the sunrise, our van thermometer marked -7ºC and how I hate the cold! But the view blew me away and made me forgot temporally about the freezing temperatures: the sun rising and the amazing light letting see the silhouettes of the people walking by admiring the amazing and almost surreal scenario. Were we in Heaven? The cold made me realize I was very well alive and as soon as the sun raised we had breakfast while still admiring the landscape with the awesome geysers all around us.

 

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Straight after the breakfast-with-a-view, I experienced one of the best things EVER. I was so cold I could hardly feel my hands and suddenly there was something magical: a thermal pool, with lava heated water, so warm and inviting! I put on my bikini (improvising at a place where I didn’t have much privacy) and I jumped in. It was too hot at times, sitting in places where the rock was burning, but it felt so damn good! The temperatures outside were so cold and inside it was like a perfect summer day. When I came out I was so warm I hardly felt the cold. Changed again clothes and I was ready for a whole day spent visiting Atacama! I won’t say this enough: I was loving more and more my days in Atacama, the driest and probably the most awesome place on Earth.

 

 

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The rest of the day and days after were spent on hiking through canyons filled with ancient and incredible cave painting art, visiting old typical villages, trekking through canyons packed with the tallest (and oldest!) cactus I’d ever seen, along with mini waterfalls; visiting the salt flats where gorgeous flamingos were dancing for our eyes happiness; swimming in salt lagoons where the amount of salt makes you float no matter what (it reminded me why I thought it would be so cool to go to the dead sea). My days in Atacama were wonderful. People there are so welcoming and friendly too. It’s a very touristy place, as it only survives because of the tourism, but that fact also makes San Pedro de Atacama a very safe place where you almost feel at home.

 

 

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That said, how could I possibly not fall completely and madly in love with this place? The photos alone should be enough to conquer anyone’s heart. I went to Atacama thinking it would only be a quick visit. I stayed. And when I finally left, I promise I would go back. Yes, I will go back.

 

 

 

 

 

The things we have to bear in mind when going to Atacama are:
– The burning sun (because of the altitude it’s a lot stronger than you’re used too – it doesn’t feel at first, but trust me!)
– The shortage of water (well, it’s the driest place on Earth! But I didn’t always immediately remember that fact when I wanted to have shower and….woops… no water!) – always have a bottle of  water with you (it’s very easy to dehydrate there).
– The dry skin (I was lucky enough to buy body cream in Santiago just before going to Atacama…otherwise my skin would suffer a lot more!)
– It’s not cheap (It was probably the place where I got the most expensive accommodation while in South America…it was well worth it, but nothing is really cheap here, just sayin’)
– A hat!! (I hate hats and I only bought one on one of my last days in San Pedro…silly me! But I made a good friend on my first tour: Paulo, the tour guide, made me wear his hat – I think he might have saved my life! “Burning Rita – in Atacama” wouldn’t be a pleasant title for this post)
– Don’t forget to carry your camera with you everywhere and enjoy every little second of it!

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Interesting facts:
– “El Tatio is the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third largest field in the world, after Yellowstone, USA, and Dolina Giezerov (partially destroyed June 2007), Russia” (Glennon, J.A. and Pfaff, R.M., 2003).

– “The Atacama Desert is commonly known as the driest place in the world. (…) The average rainfall is about 15 millimetres (0.59 in) per year, although some parts receive as little as 1 millimetre (0.04 in) to 3 millimetres (0.12 in) in a year. Moreover, some weather stations in the Atacama have never received rain.” (Wikipedia)