Life on the edge in the Atacama Desert

El Tatio Geyser field, Atacama Desert, Chile

“This is where all life came from”. The Chilean version of David Attenborough, our guide Gonzalez Cruz, peered into a hole the size of a truck tyre, out of which spewed forth boiling sulfuric steam. I assumed he wasn’t referring to the eggs some other guides were boiling in the ferociously bubbling water a few metres away from us.

More dramatically, he was talking about the origins of life on Earth, 3.5 billion years ago, in volcanic geysers under the ocean, while huge geysers erupted all around us in the freezing dawn air. We were at the El Tatio geyser field in Chile’s Atacama Desert, at 4320 metres above sea level. It felt appropriate to think about the beginning of existence in a place where the boundary between life and death is so fragile. The Atacama is one of the driest places in the world – some regions have not received rain for thousands of years. It’s very high, very sunny and very cold, and is surrounded by volcanoes that occasionally erupt. It’s a harsh place to survive.

It’s also surreally, spectacularly beautiful. When you think of a desert you probably imagine a vast monotonously sandy landscape that looks pretty much the same. The Atacama is startling in its variety, and the geysers are just one of the scenic highlights. Smoking volcanoes loom on the horizon, rippled sand dunes melt into the rocky steep sides of the Andes mountains, tiny green oases of villages with pomegranate and fig trees dot the terracotta blanket of sand, turquoise salt lagoons and deep navy thermal pools proved cooling relief from the intense dryness and a salt flat that looks like a huge bed of dead coral is home to flocks of candy-pink flamingoes. And then there’s Moon Valley, an apricot-coloured canyon covered in crunchy salt crystals, with rocks that crackle in the late afternoon like the sound of rain on a tin roof. I could have spent weeks there, but only had four days of immersion into this desert world, which I spent hiking, mountain biking, swimming in cold lagoons and hot springs, horse riding over dunes and star gazing – the Atacama’s night skies are awash with stars.

I’d never been anywhere like the Atacama before, but the other-worldly landscapes looked so strangely familiar. A quick Google search revealed that the desert has been used as a location for filming scenes on Mars. So it wasn’t just me who made lunar comparisons.

The Atacama’s connection with outer space doesn’t just extend to acting as a backdrop for movies, however.  One hundred and fifty kilometres to the south of where we stood under the steam of El Tatio’s geysers is the world’s biggest radio telescope. ALMA has been fully operational for just over a year as an international partnership between the US, Canada, East Asia, Europe and Chile. On a high, remote plateau sixty-six radio antennas are pointed up at the heavens to capture radio waves from the dark parts of the universe, to allow researchers to see where the first galaxies were formed, but more excitingly, to find out whether there are other solar systems that have the conditions to support life.

As we contemplated the beginnings of Earth’s organisms, astrophysicists and astronomers were searching for life on other planets. There, in the Atacama, the circle of life felt complete.


Moon Valley, Atacama Desert, ChileAtacama Desert, ChileSarah Duff Atacama-4 Sarah Duff Atacama-5 Sarah Duff Atacama-7 Sarah Duff Atacama-8 Sarah Duff Atacama-10 Sarah Duff Atacama-11 Sarah Duff Atacama-13 Sarah Duff Atacama-14 Sarah Duff Atacama-18

Llama and Licancabur Volcano

How to get to the Atacama Desert

Most people fly to Calama in Chile from Santiago, and drive 174 kilometres to stay in San Pedro de Atacama, the main tourist village in the desert, which is a great base for all the hiking, geyser-spotting and volcano climbing in the area.

I’d been in Argentina for two months, and was in the northwestern city of Salta, so I travelled overland to the Atacama from there. Salta is Argentina’s new emerging destination – a charming colonial town where the empanada was invented, traditional folklore music is played in bars every night, and the main tourist sight is the preserved bodies of three children sacrificed by the Incans on top of a volcano 500 years ago. I stayed at the lovely boutique hotel Kkala, where the 10 rooms are named after national parks around Salta, balconies overlook the city and a sunny pool deck beckons in the afternoons.

From Salta I took an 11-hour overnight Andesmar bus to San Pedro de Atacama. I’d read that it was one of South America’s most beautiful and scenic bus trips, but there was only the overnight option on the day I wanted to travel, so I settled for watching Argentina’s dramatic mountains by silvery moonlight instead. Waking up at dawn to the spectacular vista of the Atacama Desert unfurling outside – terracotta sand, volcanoes, the occasional lake and salt flat – made up for missing out on the nighttime views. I did the highest border crossing of my life – 4300 metres – where my hands and feet tingled, I felt woozy and Chilean border policeman told me not to wait in the immigration queue and go and lie down in the bus instead.

Kkala boutique hotel, Salta

Kkala boutique hotel in Salta

The view from the Salta-San Pedro bus ride in the early morning.

The view from the Salta-San Pedro bus ride in the early morning.

Where to stay in the Atacama Desert

I stayed at explora Atacama, an amazing lodge located just outside the village of San Pedro de Atacama. I loved the ultra-modern architecture, the healthy food (I could have eaten the ceviche every day), the fabulous swimming pools to cool off in during hot afternoons, and the friendly staff but the highlight was definitely the focus on activities. The lodge has a philosophy that you should spend more time out of your hotel room than in it (which makes sense, seeing as you don’t travel all the way to the Atacama to lie on your bed all day), so they have 50 different activities to choose from. You either pick a full day activity or two half-day ones. It was hard to choose what to do, but the guides recommended the best choices based on your fitness and acclimatisation level (some activities, like climbing to the tops of volcanoes, require that you spend several days getting used to San Pedro’s height of 2500 metres above sea level). My activities included a mountain bike ride to Laguna Cejar, a hike through Moon Valley, riding the lodge’s beautiful Anglo-Arabian horses, sunset on the salt flat and the dawn drive up to the geysers (and the swim in the hot springs afterwards). The lodge even has its own observatory, where you can stargaze with an astronomer.

You can book explora Atacama through the Mantis Collection.

Explora AtacamaExplora Atacama

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3 Responses to Life on the edge in the Atacama Desert

  1. Sid November 20, 2014 at 8:24 am #

    Love your pictures. Are you planning to head to Ecuador? It’s my ultimate dream destination.

    • Sarah Duff November 20, 2014 at 10:42 am #

      Thank you! Yes, I’m heading to Ecuador in December to visit the Galapagos, a cloud forest and climb some volcanoes. I’ve always wanted to go to the Galapagos so it’s a dream for me too!


  1. Four months of South America in photos - Duff's Suitcase - March 1, 2015

    […] getting soaked under the spray of Iguazu Falls, hiking the otherworldly landscape of Chile’s Atacama Desert, where I stood under huge steaming geysers and floated in salt lagoons, 4x4ing through the desert […]

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