Essentials to Seeing the Atacama Desert

To explore the Atacama Desert in depth, Nicolás Melo, an explora guides instructor, chose the four objects you need to discover Atacama in its multifaceted glory, from seeing the microscopic crystals in the Salt Mountains to the stars of the Magellanic Clouds.

1. Binoculars

I remember the first time I saw a wildcat was when I was on an excursion to the altiplano, or the highlands. We stopped on a descent, right before getting to the salt flat. I knew that a colony of vizcacha rodents lived there that we could photograph. But not a single one came out that morning, it was just windy. We continued our hike with binoculars and cameras in hand, and all of a sudden, just 10 meters away, we came across a small crouching cat. It had a long tail, with dark rings, and a penetrating and indifferent stare. He continued to climb uphill, and because there are no trees in the altiplano, we could follow his path for quite some time through the binoculars. From afar, we saw the cat sit down under a rock overhang and take a rest. It was undoubtedly an Andean mountain cat: black nose, gray fur with copper patches, and a penetrating stare. It was such an exciting moment for me because it confirmed my feeling that the desert only seems to be empty, when in reality, it is teeming with singular life forms. You just have to know how to look.

Seeing these miniature formations up close is like peering into a kaleidoscope world…

2. Magnifying Glass

After we came down from the dune, we were able to see how big the texture of the flat surface we had seen at the beginning of the hike really was. From above, it just looked like a piece of chocolate sponge cake sprinkled with powdered sugar. Once we got down there, we saw that the effect was made by the evaporites, a strange type of rock that forms in this part of the desert, whose crackly surface is sheathed in a fragile white layer that crunches when you walk on it. Beyond, along the trail, you can see several sparkles. A magnifying glass will help you see the structure of the crystals, some made of gypsum, and others of salt. Seeing these miniature formations up close is like peering into a kaleidoscope world, just like when you use a magnifying glass to look at a plant. These are the details that transform the desert.

3. Window

When you reach the summit of the Licancabur volcano, the first thing you do after catching your breath is to hug your fellow climbers and give thanks. It is an extremely emotional moment, and well-deserved, too, after reaching this nearly six-thousand-meter-high peak, so venerated and respected by the Atacama people, known as the Likanantay people in the Kunza language. If you’ve got time or energy to spare, a walk around the crater will put you at ease. There are Incan-built platforms where they used to make their offerings to Mother Earth. At the center is a lagoon about the size of a soccer field with stories worthy of science fiction that any guide will be happy to recount for you. The view of the surroundings is breathtaking, with Bolivia to the east with the Blanca and Verde Lagoons. To the north and south is a line of dormant volcanoes, and to the west, blending in with the Atacama Salt Flat, a dark stain betrays the Ayllú de Laracha, the traditional way the Atacama communities were organized. There, nestled in the vegetation found in this oasis, you’ll find the Explora hotel and that precious shower of abundant hot water with a view to Licancabur.

4. Observatory

It never ceases to amaze me that stargazing is like time travel. When I was walking from the hotel to the observatory on the pathway, getting ready for an astronomy session, the starry sky was above me. Next to the Southern Cross loomed the farthest-away object visible to the naked eye, the Magellanic Cloud, over 160,000 light-years away… And I was standing there, on this open-air walkway, looking at light that was 160,000 years old, from the days when the Neanderthals had only just begun to walk the Earth.

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