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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Atacama Adventure

This rare and fragile region is one of the driest—and most beautiful—places on Earth

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Laguna Miscanti and Cerro Miscanti with Cerro Leña and Cerro Chiliques in the background.

There’s a desert in South America that’s said to be the driest place on Earth. Its landscape is oddly reminiscent of other peculiar places you may have seen—Iceland, Death Valley, Yellowstone…Mars. It’s the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, nestled against the borders of Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. It makes news as the driest place on Earth—indeed, some weather stations report only two millimeters of rain annually while others have never registered a single drop—but that’s only the headline. To get the full story of Atacama’s rich offerings, you need to see it for yourself, or at least talk to a local.

“The Atacama has several different areas with different characteristics,” says resident and photographer Gerhard Hüdepohl. “The coastal desert has steep mountains rising straight up from the Pacific Ocean to 1,500 or 2,000 meters. In some areas, there’s constant coastal fog that nourishes plants and cacti. Behind the coastal mountains is the real desert, no obvious vegetation. It looks, indeed, like Mars, and in fact, NASA is doing research here testing Mars vehicles, and astrobiologists are studying life forms under extreme conditions. Behind that, the terrain gradually rises up and you come across enormous salt flats with lagoons and more vegetation. Then toward the borders with Bolivia and Argentina, a chain of hundreds of volcanoes dominates the landscape, many of them over 6,000 meters high and active. Here, again, you can find cacti and small shrubs, even flowers. There are regular rain and snowfalls here in winter. It gets very cold and the snow doesn’t melt; it simply evaporates in a few days since the air is so dry.”

Andean flamingos, Laguna Chaxa, Los Flamencos National Reserve.
The Atacama presents a fairly unique opportunity to explore a vast and varied landscape for photographers up to the challenge. Hüdepohl has photographed here extensively since he first visited from Germany almost 20 years ago. His job at the VLT (the Very Large Telescope, positioned in the high desert for its clear air) has afforded him the opportunity to live nearby and photograph on day trips as well as weeklong journeys to the farthest reaches of the region. It sounds daunting, and while Hüdepohl suggests some very particular cautions, he doesn’t hesitate to recommend Atacama as a photographic destination.

“One of the things that most fascinates me is that many of these places are still almost unknown and hardly visited,” Hüdepohl explains. “There’s a lot to discover and a lot to photograph that has never been photographed—a lot of unique vegetation, endemic plants and cacti, stones shaped only by the wind. There’s interesting anthropology, ancient rock paintings, geoglyphs and other prehistoric sites. When there’s no wind, you can experience absolute silence. You start hearing your own heart beating because there’s no other noise. The stars at night are another amazing sight. I often take pictures of the landscapes at night under the Milky Way. In a moonless night at higher altitudes, with the dry air and no light pollution from cities, you can see the most amazing skyscapes.”

Exotic as Atacama may be, it’s also easily reachable for North American travelers. Flights connect through Santiago to the desert town of Calama, about an hour’s drive to San Pedro de Atacama—the more populous hub of the region. Hüdepohl suggests starting here by renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle and purchasing reliable maps.

“This is a good starting point,” he says, “since around San Pedro there are many interesting sites—active volcanoes, geysers, lagoons, salt flats, flora and fauna. There’s plenty to see. Moon Valley, Salar de Atacama with lagoons, geyser El Tatio, Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques, Lascar Volcano, Salar de Tara—all of these places can be visited in a day trip.


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