San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

by on 23rd October, 2015

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Andean Trails’ Tom updates us on his South American voyage of exploration.


He writes:

Atacama is the driest place on the planet, where rain has hardly fallen in 40 years in some places and some villages are now without water.

And yet people and animals survive. There are pampa grasses here. People grow alfalfa to feed llamas and vicunas, flamingoes sift for food in salt lakes and geese breed.

I stayed at the luxury Alto Atacama hotel for four days (I wish it could have been longer!). This is a hotel designed to blend in with its surroundings, which it does beautifully, and the fantastic guides educated me about the changing eco-system of Atacama.


Dry, dry desert

At first sight, this is a bone-dry place, so much so that NASA tests its Mars probes in the Valley of the Moon, an odd but beautiful place, bereft of green and barren.

And yet there is water. Water everywhere, once you know where to look.

There are many rivers: Rio Grande, Rio Putana, Rio Purifica and Rio San Pedro, which tunnels underground eventually and feeds the Salar de Atacama.

These waters flow from the sacred Licancabur volcano and the surrounding Andean Range, down into the Salar de Atacama. From this basin, they cannot escape through the impermeable Cordillera de Domeyko, thus creating the salty Salar.


moon valley san pedro chile

Moon Valley, San Pedro, Chile


Water born

I saw gurgling geysers at Tatio, spurting water metres into the air. Water escaping, water under pressure.

I walked the beautiful Quebrada de los Cardones. Cardones are a cactus that grow 1cm every year, and some reach 700-years-old. Here, exotic pampa grasses grow alongside the cacti.

Then I bathed in hot springs, pummeling my back via fast flowing waterfalls, relaxing in deep, clear pools.

But this pressurised and precious water is itself under pressure.


Tatio geysers

Tatio geysers, Atacama


Water drawn

San Pedro de Atacama has gone from a town of 2,000 to now more than 8,000, plus tourists. At night the town often closes down the water supply.

Lithium mines use a lot of the water supply to extract the chemical, pumping water into the lithium-rich areas and then using electrolysis to extract it.

As these companies use the water, some areas are now going without. I asked many people what the government was doing, and most answered with a shrug, or laughed.


Place to visit

Alto Atacama and San Pedro de Atacama exist for a reason. This is a starkly beautiful place, air so dry that you wake up with a tongue like wood, yet leaving you thirsty to stay longer, see more.

Your skin will dry out and your lips will crack like the surfaces of the rough rocks of this land.

But such a deep sky stretches overhead. The few altus cirrus clouds I saw hung beautifully like Arabic writing, drawn wispy white into the blue, blue canvas.

Life hangs on here, in the driest and most beautiful places on the planet, and will surely continue to do so.

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