In the Atacama Desert the food is terrible, showers are confined to luke-warm trickles, the weather is constantly fluctuating between uncomfortable extremes and the tours are ridiculously expensive. So why bother going, you may ask? Push all those fickle things to the wayside and you have the opportunity to enjoy one of the greatest natural wonders of the world, filled with impeccable stargazing, incredible activities and other-worldly geological formations.
I began my adventure in the Atacama Desert by flying into the neighbouring airport of Calama. In the hour long bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama I befriended a few German travellers, whom I would meet again later in my trip.
Upon arrival at my hostel two and a half kilometres from the centre of the town, the extremity of the desert gripped me. I was surrounded by nothing but extinct volcanoes, arid humidity and an expanse of sand as far as the eye could see. I dumped my bags in my crowded hostel room and made my way to the centre of the town.
A few hours later I found myself hiking up the steep sand dunes in Valley de la Luna, or the Valley of the Moon. The incredible landscape has been carved by wind and water over millions of years, resulting in a spectacular view from any angle. The 2400m altitude took a little getting used to, making breathing laboured and dehydration constant.
I hung my legs over the crumbling rocks of the valley as I watched the mountains on the horizon engulf the setting sun. I could get used to this place, I thought to myself as I breathed in the majesty (and a little oxygen too).
Sand is whipping across my face, my glasses barely protecting my eyes from the ferocity of the powerful wind. Secured to my feet is a cumbersome sandboard that I am struggling to maintain my balance on, as I peruse the steep incline ahead of me in the Valle de la Muerte. I have never snowboarded before, never skied and could barely paddle on a surfboard. So on my second day in the Atacama Desert I thought, why not give sandboarding a try?
At the top of the dune I could see over the wide expanse of desert. Mountains guarded the skyline as all sorts of mystical rock formations sat in-between huge natural sand sculptures.
I shifted my bodyweight forward, listening to the brief instructions from my guide, gaining momentum as I slowly cruised down the dune. Speed increased quickly and before I knew it the simple braking instruction was well out of my memory. Halfway down the dune my first sandboarding experience ended abruptly with a face full of sand, a sore tailbone and a little less pride than I had before climbing the sand mountain. After a few more ascents and descents I managed another tick off my list - sandboarding in the Atacama Desert well and truly completed.
It’s 4am. My hostel's paper thin walls have generously shared the conversations, drinking games and presumable war-cries of other travellers with me, resulting in a few hours sleep. On the third day in Atacama I am getting ready to explore the geysers and hot springs of San Pedro. I have not had coffee. I have not had food. I am not currently enjoying anything.
I jumped on the tour bus, head to toe in cold-defiant clothing as the weather tried it’s best to infiltrate the weaker spots of my armour. Joining me were my German friends, as well as a group of Americans who I would later realise cooked a fantastic asado with me in Mendoza a few weeks earlier.
I’m in the coldest weather I’ve ever been in, a teeth-chattering -13 degrees. Standing in front of a mass of colossal, boiling-water-spewing monoliths, I was in awe at the geysers steaming in the freezing temperature. A grand display of nature’s diversity and power. They were fascinating to see, but I was much rather looking forward to the hot springs promised, given the lack of sensation in my toes. Slipping into the hot springs was one of the best feelings after braving the previous weather. 30 degree heat quickly melted away most of my problems as I relaxed before enjoying some delicious llama meat and heading home.
The one thing I was looking forward to the most in San Pedro was the stargazing. A big lover of stars and the universe, I jumped at the chance to be able to view the Milky Way with the naked eye and the ability to view planets with telescopes. On my third day I searched through many tour operators with my German friends to find the best stargazing experience and settled with one that involved a unique trekking component. We organised the stargazing for my last night in San Pedro – a great way to end my experience in the Atacama Desert. We sat around hugging hot cups of coca tea waiting for our tour to start that evening.
Disappointed, upset and irritated, I walked out of the tour office just after being told the tour had been cancelled due to bad weather. I wasn’t going on any stargazing in Atacama, as it was my last night in the Desert. I trudged back to my friend’s hostel, where we shared a few beers before parting ways. I sat waiting in the dark cold on the edge of the city for the last shuttle bus from my hostel that never turned up. I glanced at my watch and decided to walk the two and a half kilometres back to my hostel in complete darkness.
The thing about San Pedro is that stargazing is so feasible because there are no street lights outside of the city. Which was where the path led back to my hostel. Fantastic. In pitch black I intermittently used my phone to illuminate the path, my only accompaniment the occasional growl of a stray dog or passing of a vehicle with unknown intentions. In the midst of my self-pity and anger, I looked upward at the unfolding miracle above me.
A literal sky full of stars. Like nothing I had ever seen before, the entire night sky was visible, speckled like a handful of sand thrown against a black canvas. I made out a few constellations I knew, but took the time to enjoy the entire brevity of what I was seeing. I could visibly see the rest of the Milky Way and as I continued walking, my fears and worries subsided.
The universe had found its own way to give me my stargazing experience. Brandishing a wide smile, I tucked my cold hands deep into my pockets and said goodnight to the Atacama Desert, as I slowly continued the dark and chilly walk home.