It is incredible how much nature and diversity can fit in almost 5000km of coastline. From San Pedro de Atacama to Punta Arenas, the most fascinating thing about Chile is its variety of territory and the sensations that wake us up.
It is difficult to enumerate everything that encompasses it without seeming to speak of opposite parts of the globe. Atacama: the aridest desert in the world, dusty, indigenous, Inca; Santiago: colonial, metropolitan, charming; Valparaiso: coastal, artistic, young; The south: green, magical, European; Patagonia: wild, extraterrestrial and surrounding.
Chile is to feel and embrace all this diversity as a whole, at the risk of suffering a sensory overdose at any moment. And that’s not a bad thing. On the contrary, it is this sensation that enriches us and makes us feel alive, although it may not make sense immediately, this sensation lasts for days, months and years after our going. Yes, Chile awakens us all, as well or even better than other destinations on the same continent.
But of all a landscaped kaleidoscope, where the choice of “where to start” imposes a challenge worthy of a sudoku book for advanced players, which perhaps presents as more introductory to the country of Pablo Neruda is the region of the Desert of Atacama.
There is something about the Atacama that is incomparable. I can not say what it is, in fact, we need to be there and find out for ourselves that in this place, the aridest desert of the planet, lies a rare mystique that provokes sensations and experiences as different as the sites that Atacama reserves for us.
It is to lose breath to 4100 meters of altitude in the Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons, the altitude lagoons of the Chilean altiplano, and try to decipher from where a blue so deep in the middle of this scenario framed by the Andean mountain range where the vicuñas graze and walk, ignoring us, simple passers-by in your kingdom.
It is to walk through the geyser fields in El Tatio, the highest thirds of the planet, and leave the sulfur odour of smoke columns escaping from the earth’s crust, flood our nostrils to realise how close we are to the primordial Mother Earth. The one that created and sculpted this landscape where the puna, or scrub of the mountain, paints the plains and slopes that ascend to the various peaks of the Altiplano.
It is to feel that in a place with the name Death Valley and Moon Valley there is so much life blown by the wind and the running of the waters recorded in the rocks the testimony of its passage through the centuries, creating works of art throughout the landscape of the desert. Forces us to reflect on how we humans are only a moment in time when compared to this millennial landscape.
It is to dive, between laughter and twists, as we try to touch the bottom of one of the Lagunas Escondidas (hidden lagoons), fighting against the salt water that keeps on leaving us afloat, doing a spectacle of acrobatics before all our friends who in turn try to clean the thick layer of salt that covers them after drying.
It is to know that we are in one of the best places on Earth to observe the cosmos. That it would be crazy not to embark on one of the many astronomical visits prepared for us in San Pedro de Atacama to explore the skies of the southern hemisphere through the sight of a pointed telescope to the immensity of the Milky Way.
It’s too much to absorb. It feels like coming back from a ride so full of life that it seems like we’re going to explode.
It is possible that returning to San Pedro de San Pedro de Atacama will bring us down to earth for moments after this whirlwind of sensations. Walking in its streets is a mix of western comfort, with plenty of restaurants and cafes for all tastes, but also a meeting with the Atacameña culture through a walk on the beaten streets, where adobe houses adorn the public thoroughfares of each side. Or with a visit to the traditional market of San Pedro, where the handicrafts and the typical blankets of the north of Chile reign in each one of the benches and they catch the eyes of the travellers with their colours and textures.
Perhaps no other site in San Pedro witnesses so well the passage of the centuries by the Atacama, as in the Archaeological Museum Gustavo Le Paige, founded by the Jesuit priest with the same name that settled there in the middle of the last century and was a fundamental character for the development of this community during the 20th century. Still, for those who do not vibrate with history and archaeology, it is still a place that wakes up the anthropologist and archaeologist that is in us. From the history of the people of the Atacama to the inheritance of the Incas, and passing through the native species of animals to the detailed description of the local flora, there is in this complex an ark of knowledge that is worth opening to better understand where we are.
But not only culture and history is made San Pedro de Atacama. To stop is important, to rest is important, to sit down in a café to exchange impressions with other travellers is important. It is also essential that when we do so, we have a glass of Pisco Sour in our hand, the traditional Chilean drink made from Pisco brandy, eggs and lemon, which unlocks conversations, quenches thirst with a taste that will be recorded permanently in that library of flavours that exists somewhere in our brain.
And may it be that we end our travels: glass in hand, in a land that touched us, in the company of those who know us better or surrounded by strangers who temporarily become our family and who will help to gratify our vision of what’s travelling.
In the specific case of Atacama, this sharing reserves something special to those who dare to go and openly surrender to the experience of the desert, and although we will all feel it differently, the reaction to this part of the South American continent seems to have a thing in common: that everything extends before us is special, unique and equal to no other place on the face of the earth.
Follow Miguel Neves’ adventures @thedeserts