1. San Pedro de Atacama

Day 1:

El Tatio Geyser Tour: The tour began with a hotel pick-up at 4:30 a.m. by a small coach, which brought me directly to El Tatio in two hours over bumpy desert roads. El Tatio is a geyser field comprising up to 80 geysers and is the largest of its kind in the Southern hemisphere.

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Arriving at the geyser field before dawn had broken, the scant headlights were the only source of illumination. However, as the sky brightened amid the biting desert cold, shades of pink and gold were cast across the sky.
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A basic breakfast was provided at the geyser field as the sun rose over the impressive Andes, accompanied by twittering yellow-breasted birds, plump from years of tourists’ breakfast scraps.

Geysers form when underground reservoirs of water are heated by magma, generating steam; once the pressure builds up sufficiently, the steam escapes through fissures in the earth, leading to periodic release of fumes from the mantle. If you are lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a large geyser splutter. It is lamentable that while these and other geysers represent promising opportunities to harness geothermal energy, repeated attempts to prospect geothermal sites have failed, and many projects have since been abandoned. As a result, at present, no geothermal energy is generated in Chile.

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The fuming geysers were most visible in the icy morning air; a heavenly scene coalesced with the early morning sunlight penetrating tufts of steams. 

I continued along the geyser field as the sun bathed the surrounding Andes in a warm glow, eventually reaching an empty hot spring. After being repeatedly prompted to go for a swim, I decided to strip down and jump in.

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Hopping into the naturally heated pool was the perfect way to get toasty after a cold morning, but believe me when I say that leaving the pool for the cold air was not the most pleasant experience!

Along the way back to San Pedro, the coach stopped at a lookout, or mirador, of the Putana Volcano, passing by crumbling mining outposts. Historically, the desert’s rich mineral and saltpetre deposits were heavily exploited by mining companies. In fact, the border dispute over these resources led to the War of the Pacific between Chile and Bolivia, and all Bolivian access to the Pacific Ocean was removed with Chilean victory. With the advent of synthetic nitrate and cheaper mining operations elsewhere, many mines have now been abandoned. Nonetheless, some mining operations are still underway; indeed, the famous Chilean miner incident in 2010 took place in a mine under the Atacama Desert.

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The name of the Putana Volcano – which literally means “whore” in Spanish – may allude to when prostitutes would visit primitive outposts to accompany miners.

The group had another brief stop at Machuca, a small, self-subsistent village entrenched in the miners’ era. A man by the side of the road was grilling llama skewers, with the smoky fragrance and tantalising hiss of cooking meat attracting hordes of tourists. Some of us took the opportunity to try llama meat, which was much leaner and gamier than beef and somewhat similar to venison.

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For the llama-loving folk among us, the village also presented photo opportunities with a baby llama, who was all too keen to slurp milk from a plastic bottle.

The roles of llamas and alpacas are diverse in Andean communities. Having diverged from a common ancestor with the undomesticated vicuña, llamas are sociable and are friendly around humans. Pre-Incan cultures placed a huge significance on llamas, as archaeological evidence has demonstrated their central role in offerings and sacrifices. As tribes were assimilated into the Incan Empire, the requirement for the llama as a beast of burden increased. Its ability to navigate the steep slopes of the Andes made the animal particularly important for transporting goods to and from different parts of the Empire. Even during the Spanish conquest, llamas were tamed to carry ores from mines high in the mountains. Furthermore, the wool of llamas and alpacas is famously fine, and is often used for clothing and garments, even to this day.

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A mudbrick building in Machuca. In dry climates such as the Atacama Desert, mudbrick is extraordinarily durable and have outstanding thermal properties, allowing inhabitants to be insulated from the extreme desert temperatures.

Finally, we were on our way back to San Pedro, but not before occasional stops for an explanation of the local fauna, which include the vicuña, the undomesticated relative of the llama, and the viscacha, a shy, chinchilla-like small mammal. In the arid Atacama Desert, very few species of flora and fauna thrive; those which persist despite the dry climate have extraordinary adaptations to the near-complete absence of rainfall.

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A vicuña looks out onto the Atacama Desert. The vicuña is well-adapted to desert climates. Its thick coat insulates it from the below-freezing temperatures of desert nights.

Laguna Cejar/Ojos del Salar Tour: The day’s second tour brought us to the northern edges of the Atacama salt flats. The first stop was Laguna Cejar, which provides the chance to bathe in a frigid lagoon with a salt content rivalling that of the Dead Sea.

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The mostly empty Laguna Cejar. Clearly, most members of the group were not brave enough to try swimming in the freezing winter waters. The high salinity meant that swimmers would float on the surface of the lake!

The tour then continued on to Ojos del Salar (Eyes of the Salt Flat), two perfectly circular bodies of water which give rise to their unique name. Unlike Laguna Cejar, the Ojos are freshwater lagoons, and were it not winter, there would likely be people swimming in the cratered lakes. Their remarkable stillness gives rise to reflections of the surrounding Andes for incredible photo opportunities.

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Ojos del Salar – it remains a mystery as to why they are so perfectly circular and how they came about. It is thought that the lakes are connected to and replenished by underground streams, but the exact extent of the network of subterranean rivers is still unmapped.

The tour ended on the shores of Laguna Tebenquiche, a remarkably azure lagoon.

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Laguna Tebenquiche. During the wet season, this lagoon becomes the home of flamingos and native birds; alas, during our visit, the lagoon was partially dried up, rendering it inhabitable.

Standing at the edge of the lake against the backdrop of a vermillion sunset, we were treated to a generous helping of Pisco Sour, a classic South American cocktail akin to Sours, before returning to San Pedro.

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A remarkable sunset against the backdrop of the Andes.

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