CHILE’S ATACAMA DESERT with wanderluster, NINA KARNIKOWSKI
This South American desert plateau is known as one of the world's driest, yet one of earth's most surreal adventure destinations.
Is it possible to be homesick for a place you were only in for less than a week? I think it must be. Because when my mind drifts back to Chile’s Atacama Desert, I feel a deep longing for this place that helped me shed light on corners of my soul I had forgotten were there.
The driest desert in the world, full of volcanoes, salt flats, hot springs, geysers and exotic wildlife, Atacama sucked me in immediately. And I’m not sure she ever really let me go.
Which is why I wasn’t really surprised when a hiking guide I had there told me that the main town, a Wild West-vibed adobe village filled with markets and cute eateries called San Pedro de Atacama, is nicknamed “San Pedro de Artápame” by locals. A play on words relating to how this stark, elemental and completely otherworldly place catches you and keeps a part of your soul. Apparently visitors often come for a few days, only to end up staying for a few years. I was very nearly one of them. Because if there’s a place that makes you feel close to your essence, Atacama is it.
Pucsa salt flats, where pink flamingos gracefully stepped through the salt lakes, was a place that reminded me about the importance of silence. What a rare and essential thing it is, so absent in most of our everyday lives but so abundant out there in the nothingness.
Pucsa is also the site of the Pacana Monks Stone Pillars, enormous stones that poke upright out of the sand and that were thrown out from volcanoes millions of years ago, like meteorites that came from inside the earth.
There are many tough aspects to being a travel writer, but reviewing luxe accommodation is definitely not one of them! I was lucky enough to call Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa home for my five days in the desert, the most luxurious of launch pads from which to explore.
The lodge is tucked beneath terracotta rock walls, blending seamlessly into the desert with its luxuriously rustic interiors. Alto have their own veggie patch, their own flock of llamas, six sumptuous pools where you can cool off after desert adventures, delectable three-course meals for both lunch and dinner (served with incredible Chilean wine, of course) and the most amazing cranial therapy that you take in the spa’s alfresco Andean baths overlooking the desert. A true oasis.
We had to get up at 4 in the morning to see the El Tatio Geysers in action, but my goodness it was worth every eye-rubbing moment. We arrived just as the sun was peeping over the volcanoes that ring the area, lighting up the smoke that was billowing from the 80-odd bubbling geysers. A totally surreal experience, only enhanced by the fact that you could bathe in hot springs at the end.
Moon Valley, or El Valle de la Luna to locals, has been shaped by the intense winds that have constantly whipped at it for the past 90 million years. The whole valley is dusted with salt, leaving it looking like a lunar landscape. Scientists even tested a prototype for a Mars rover here because of its otherworldly terrains, where we also found the most amazing old abandoned salt mines from the 60s. An incredible afternoon, capped off with a little wine and cheese party on the lip of the valley at sunset.
It sounds like I’m making this up when I retell it. But my trip to Atacama was timed perfectly with the November Supermoon. I was taken out with a group of other travellers for a midnight hike where we meditated and walked through craggy Death Valley under the milky light, then ran down steep sand dunes howling at the moon. Gives me shivers just thinking about it.
Hiking Los Cardone Ravine, I stood in awe of monolithic cacti, some of which were up to 900 years old. They grow only 1cm per year, and so are fiercely protected in the area. It seemed as though they were the custodians of the desert, standing sentinel over it all.
12,000 years old and with a population of 8, Machuca is just one of the incredible Adobe villages smattered throughout the desert. It was like something off a western film set, complete with lone guitarist and ancient church on the hill. I wanted to move in immediately.
CAPUR SALT FLATS
My final day in the desert was spent hiking to Capur salt flats, where wild Vicuña (famous for their extremely expensive wool) roamed the vast plains, along with flamingos and viscacha (like a chubby rabbit). It was just me and two other local girls. As we hiked they taught me about the medicinal plants surrounding us, and left me with a thought that perhaps sums Atacama up best of all. “Because it’s one of the driest places in the world, it gets you very clear on what you want,” they said. This was absolutely the effect it had on me. With all that space and silence surrounding me every day, I left feeling more focused than I had been in a long time, completely refreshed and ready to take on anything life could throw at me.
For more of Nina’s transformative travel tales tune into her station HERE