Enchanting Atacama - a desert of surprises!
<p>All deserts have a certain charm to them and due to their dryness and sheer vastness, crossing them is always a challenge. On this trip so far, we have crossed the endlessly flat Gobi in Mongolia, the sand dunes of Taklimaka in China and now, last but not least, the world's driest place; the Atacama in northern Chile. <br /> <br />I didn't have great expectations when it came to Atacama, I was anticipating sand and salt and little else. I was in for a real surprise! I had no idea how varied and colourful a desert could be. What makes the scenery here so unique, is the row of volcanic mountains surrounding the area , their snowy peaks reaching up to 6km high. Volcanic properties in the landscape really are the defining characteristic of Atacama, which is largely made of sandy plains and lava plateaus. As we walk on the coral-like pieces of hardened sand and salt, the view makes me wish I could stare at it forever! I'm taking it all in, hoping to store this beautiful harmony of colours in my mind; the brown sand, the gentle green of the grass, the ochre of the straw, the terracotta of the cliffs and the shades of purple on the mountains.</p> <p>One of Atacama’s curiosities is it's salt pools. Due to the high salt content of the water, floating in the pools is easy. At lake Cejar, Pekka gives floating a go, but after a cold night in the desert the water is way too chilly for me to join him. I use the time taking photos of the beautiful Andes reflected off the lake surface instead. The salty lakes also attract flamingos, and there are several conservations for them in Atacama. We spend hours at lake Chaxa, following the mesmerising “flamenco” of pink flamingoes, as they dig for nourishment from the mud. I observe this particular Chilean flamingo with pink edged wingsnfor a time, as it lifts its head up and admires its own reflection on the lake surface for a moment. We spend the night in the desert and get to witness the sun setting and rising again, as well as the millions of stars above Atacama at night. Thrilled by the chance to photograph the moon, I take a few shots and am amazed to notice that the 65x zoom can even capture some of the shape of the moons surface.</p> <p>We spend the next few days on the edge of the desert, in the small town of San Pedro de Atacama, which despite its size, is considered to be the archeological capital of the country. It's pretty exhilarating to think that people have lived here since 2000 BC. We climb on the Quitor Pukara hill to have a look around the ruins of a fort that was built by the Quechua Indians for their protection in the 13th century. We also have a peek inside the village church, where mass has been held since four centuries ago! We're astounded by the architecture of the building, which was constructed without a single nail! The wooden frame is all held in place by strips of lama hide. The church gate is also pretty original, since it's made off cactus.</p> <p>Upon arrival at Valle de Muerte, only a few kilometres away, I feel as if I've been transported to a whole new world. The scenery here in “death valley” is rugged and dead, a bit like on Mars perhaps. We drive through a deep canyon and arrive at the valley, where red cones made off sand, salt, and volcanic rock, rise from the ground one after another, creating a dense formation. This landscape is like from another planet and would probably work brilliantly as a set for a sci-fi film.</p> <p>The sunset at Valle de Luna, or “Moon valley”, is magical and we get an opportunity to watch it on a narrow cliff between two canyons. Rays of sunshine cover the cliffs in gold and paint the surrounding mountains in gorgeous pastels, creating a stunning and enchanting wonder world, it's the stuff of dreams! Unfortunately, we've got to return to reality and get driving, we need to get down the hill to the bottom of the windy road before it gets dark.</p> <p>After a weeks worth of sight seeing around Atacama, our journey continues west, from the mountains down to the shores of the Pacific Ocean , nearly 3km below.</p>