Stories from South America: Desierto de Atacama

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We woke up at 4:30 and by 5am were on a bus to the airport for our last major group trip. The sky was dark, the stars remained hidden above smog, and the full moon shone brightly over the horizon. After arriving at the airport, making it through security, waiting for Cinnabon to open, and boarding our flight, we were off to the north. We landed in the morning in a small airport in the middle of vast desert, enclosed in the distance by rolling mountains carved out by wind and water (the tiny bit they receive every now and again). The 2 hour drive to San Pedro took us over the oldest mountain range, a vast plane that rose and fell, dotted with wind turbines and distant glacier-covered peaks.

We dropped our bags in our various hostels and walked out into the red-brown streets for our great tour guide Ivan to show us around. We walked in a small square through the red-brown streets between red-brown walls and red-brown doors, past dogs and tourists and markets and tour companies until we ended in the plaza next to one of the country’s oldest churches: a red-brown building standing high amongst the trees.

Everyone split off to find lunch in little restaurants playing 80s American music videos and we returned to the hostel before our tour of Valle de la Luna. The drive was brown and reminded me of road trips in the western US, but the volcanoes in the distance sat on a large plane that gradually rose to their bases, which was unlike anything I had ever seen. We stopped at the salt caves (which were rained out from February, even in the driest place on earth) and we wandered through the heat across planes covered in white salt, past mines and old GM equipment and adobe/salt buildings. The landscape didn’t look like it was real. We drove to three rocks, Las Tres Marias, before finally ending near Coyote Rock to watch the sunset. As the bright ball fell over the mountains to the west, the volcanoes of the Andes began to turn from a pale brown to a beautiful pink, blue, red, and finally to a deep, dark night, and we drove to San Pedro.

San Pedro de Atacama is a party town at night, and we were warned of the two faces that it boasts: one of tourists in the day and vampires in the night. Everyone ventured out in little groups to find dinner in the dark streets, where car lights shone through dusty fog to cast shadows of silhouettes walking by. It’s a weird air, yet somehow beautiful, and after a quick run to Barros to watch the Argentina/Chile soccer game, we loaded up in Zane’s car to go see the stars.

When we arrived at the lookout, the barely waning moon shone so brightly on the valley that you didn’t need any flashlights to walk around. It shone over the stars, but we all laid together in the freezing cold playing telephone, laughing, and marveling at the bright night.


Everyone bundled up in our warm clothes to go to a little café that served us breakfast under a thatched roof, where the occasional stray dog would become curious and stand by our tables. I always tried my hardest to shoo them away, but evidently I wasn’t intimidating at all. We made our way back to the hostel to rent bikes and sand boards and head out into the dunes for a morning in the sand.

Sand-boarding might be one of the strangest things I’ve done, but it was quite eventful. One by one we trekked up the hill with our waxed boards and chacos, strapped in, and tried to slide down. Some made it far on their first attempt, some slid to a face-plant or a graceful halt within twenty feet, and somehow all had the time of our lives. Sitting at the top you could see the vast desert on one side and the volcanoes on the other side. We stayed for hours, going up and down and cheering each other on, laughing at every fall and clapping at every victorious finish.

Once we were back at the hostel, everyone found restaurants and coffee shops and artisan markets to fill the time until our evening tour. We drove out into the desert again, armed with swim suits and towels. From a distance it looks like there’s nothing around, but we drove up to a small, 50-foot hole in the ground boasting some of the densest water on the planet. One by one we stepped in and floated across the pond, unable (and unwilling) to sink into the sulfurous salty water no matter what we did. With excited screams and laughter and creative floating positions, we put on quite a show for the other tourists who wandered over to photograph us.

Covered in white salt and stiff bathing suits, we drove to a couple of more pleasant bodies of water, Los Ojos. These are two holes in the desert, with water 5 feet below the surrounding cliff edges. One by one we jumped/flipped/twisted into the cold, salty pool and emerged numb and wet against the desert wind. We stood for a while to marvel at how vast the plane truly was, stretching for miles and miles in any direction. Drying off as best we could, the group then went to find another sunset spot at a small salt flat.

White salty chunks stretched forever, filled with little pockets of water. Once again we watched the volcanoes turn a deep pink, until they were backlit by the orange clouds, massive silhouettes drawing the attention of everyone with us. Ivan provided a snack for our sunset, and once again we piled into the car for a drive back to town.

This drive was my favorite, as I sat there listening to worship songs, thinking about Easter, and staring into the infinite stars. They came out one by one, starting with Orion and the Southern Cross, and at one point a massive meteor fell down behind the Andes, just above ALMA, the world’s largest observatory. The moon stayed down for longer that night, so we were able to pile into the Perkins’ car, driven by Ivan, and find a spot nestled in the rocks by the road.

Lindsay, Isaac, Jared and I had a very Peruvian dinner experience, featuring live deafening pan flute music by a ratty-looking (and very talented) group of locals who serenaded (and yelled) over our attempted conversations. Clubs and dancing are illegal there, due to the messes and inconveniences they caused in the past, but workers in the back were showing off their moves to the cultural tunes. The city was a strange place, but even with these weird encounters we were learning to love it.


Saturday morning we woke up earlier to begin a long day on the bus. We drove through the desert as the bright moon began to fade over the pale blue skies and pastel desert landscape. The first stop was to the salt flats in Flamingo National Reserve. Sharp reflective waters remained in part of the dried flat, where flamingos stood to feast on shrimp. Several weeks before, I met a professor from MIT on Cerro San Cristobal, who recognized the lens I was using and asked for recommendations on Patagonian photography locations. We ran into him again at the flamingos, where he told us about his travels and we waited for the flamingos to fly across the lake.

We drove away from the flats to spend another several hours in the bus, crossing through Socaire (a town of 233 inhabitants) and on to two lagoons at 13,000 feet in the Andes. The lagoons were majestic, deep blue against the yellow and green plants coating the mountains. We walked around to take pictures, goof off, and drive back to Socaire for lunch. We squeezed into the small restaurant where a family made mystery food for us, with the occasional dead fly or ant thrown in for protein. With these strange plates, mystery jello, and more dead bugs, we made our way back to San Pedro for the evening.

Most people were in search of wifi, so we split off and went to coffee shops in the Plaza. Children ran about, people were dancing, and dogs jumped up to snag some food from the trash cans. We had several hours before dark, so Madi and I wandered through the dimming streets, passing a man in a Spiderman suit, a guy with a broken neck holding a puppy, and so many unexplainable events. We were greeted in the hostel by Ivan and his bear of a dog, whom we excitedly embraced and held and hugged. The following morning would be an early one.


Sunday morning at 5:30am we loaded up in the buses to drive to El Tatio, the geysers. It was Easter Morning, so I streamed worship music through the car stereo as we drove in the quiet, freezing morning. We arrived just before sunrise, and we piled out of the van freezing and bundled up in our warmest attire. As the sun began to color the mountains, geysers burst forth from the ground. We walked through the flat, frozen landscape of steaming hot water until our hands were frozen beyond what we could imagine. The reflection of the towering steam was clear on the flats, backlit by the morning sun.

We scrambled back into the buses to drive to our breakfast spot, which was a nice green valley of a hot river, nestled amongst brown cliffs. Fruit, toast, jam, and coffee were laid out on a small table in the valley, where we sat on the rocks to enjoy creation. After eating breakfast, we gathered into a small circle to talk about the resurrection and to sing songs of praise. We discussed the empty tomb, the power of God that is displayed in that act and the ways that our sins fill and are buried in that tomb. In that morning, as I dwelt on the past several days and the adventures we’d had, I saw the pinnacle of the explosion of color throughout the weekend. What began as white, brown land gradually added pale colors, deep greens, and ended on the bright Easter morning. I realized again my unworthiness, the ways that I fail and I was brought humbly to my knees in view of the Resurrection. We left the valley refreshed, celebrating Jesus’s victory and worshipping the entire way back to San Pedro.

After another lunch provided by Ivan, we took off to go to the airport. Halfway up the hill, our small van blew a part of the engine, and soon the bus was taking all 37 people in chairs, in the aisles, and stacked on top of each other. With that, we successfully made it before our flight, and we arrived back in Santiago.

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