The Driest Desert in the World
Updated: May 28
You know when you’ve heard of a place and everyone says the same thing “It’s amazing; it’s spectacular! You have to go” and then you make plans to go and wonder if you’ll have the same experience or if their views were tainted? Well, San Pedro de Atacama is the place that everyone talks about in Chile. It’s the driest desert in the world known for stunning volcanos, mountains, salt flats, flamingos, and an observatory to see the stars.
I made plans to go but couldn’t help wondering if it would be as spectacular as others told me. The first day I arrived, I made my way downtown which was one long street called Caracoles. I saw another tour agency every ten steps. I saw pictures of mountains, volcanoes, salt flats, and flamingos. But it wasn’t until I went on a trip to Puripobre, a lesser-known hot spring in Atacama, that I saw the breathtaking beauty everyone was talking about. A group of tourists emerged from a small van and looked at a massive valley below us. Between two dry mountains that scraped the sky was a valley of green. I could hardly identify the various types of plans but the colors green and blue and white ran together. We descended into the Valley and pushed back the tall grass that reached well above the tops of our heads. I looked up at the blue sky framed by the plants around me and then looked down as I crossed a log placed over a rushing river.
We continued our hike up and down the sides of the Valley and I admired how plants to luscious and green could be juxtaposed by steep cliffs so dry and jagged. I followed the guide until we came across a beautiful little waterfall. He invited us to touch the water. I slipped my fingertip below the surface of the water and was surprised to feel that it was warm. I proceeded to change into my bathing suit and step into the water, farther and farther until the water reached my shoulders. I moved backward until the waterfall crashed down on my shoulders. A smile spread across my face and I felt the warmth of the water around me, I saw the bright blue cloudless sky above me, I heard the trickle of water downstream combined with the powerful crash of water. At that moment, I knew why everyone talked about Atacama.
The next day we planned a trip to the Geysers del Tatio - geysers of water high up 5,000 meters above sea level. At the hostel, Mama Tierra, and the wonderful manager, Nayra, instructed us to not drink alcohol or consume red meats or stay up too late in order to avoid altitude sickness. So we heeded her warning and had a delicious fish dinner at Aura Marina, specifically Reineta a la mantequilla, on our first night. Reineta is Chilean sea bass and when it’s perfectly grilled and then sautéed with butter it falls apart in your mouth and opens a feeling of warmth in your stomach. With a full and happy stomach, we went to bed early and woke up at 4 AM for our tour of the Geysers del Tatio.
I have historically had bad luck with altitude sickness. When I was 11 years old, and I went to Cuzco, Peru with my mom, I vomited in the middle of the street. Some tourists nearby shouted, “Don’t worry! It happens to everyone!!” I returned to the hotel feeling weak from my toes to the top of my head. The hotel staff sat me down and forced me to drink 4 cups of mate de coca tea. Nine years later when I crossed the border from Chile to Bolivia, I felt my heartbeat rise from my chest to my throat. My breath felt labored and a knot of discomfort replaced my stomach. I descended the steps of the bus to go through customs on the border but instead ran behind the bus to vomit on my hiking boots.
So now, when I’m told that people that go to Geysers el Tatio often get altitude sick, I was determined to beat it. At 4 AM I drank two cups of mate de coca tea, drank a liter of water, and ate a small snack. I also said a little prayer that this would be the first time I didn’t get altitude sick. The tour bus picked us up at 4:30 AM and we fell in and out of sleep as the van drove on the bumpy roads through the black night in the desert. As the van climbed higher and higher I noticed my breath becoming shorter, but I fought it by trying deep breathing. I looked out the window and continued to breathe. Soon the light of the sun peaked out behind the towering mountains and the guide announced “Casí hemos llegado a los geysers” or we’ve almost arrived at the geysers. My breath was still a bit short but I was not light-headed nor nauseous! A win in my book!
We emerged from the van to witness white smoke coming from the ground. All around us there was white mist and water spraying from the dirt on the ground. The air around us felt like ice. We were told it was 10 degrees below zero, but the numbers didn’t matter. I couldn’t feel my toes, my nose, or my fingertips. I focused on the stunning geysers of scalding water around me. We were told the water spraying from the geysers is a whopping 80-90 degrees Celsius. I was tempted to touch it with my frozen fingertips, but I thought better of it. We huddled around the guide as I tried my go at scientific vocabulary in Spanish. He discussed water pressure and fissures and other big words I’m not sure I know in English. He also share with us that these little ridges of orangish-yellow dirt under the water were actually the first forms of life on earth - they’re live bacteria that we came from. That thought alone gave me a headache instead of the altitude sickness.
We wandered around the geysers and soon after remounted the van to explore other stunning views. We saw volcanoes, and salt flats with beautiful pink flamingos standing in them, and we withstood the freezing wind to get a glimpse of the stunning life thousands of feet above sea level. There was a llama crossing and we also learned about Vicuñas who appears sweet but are actually quite violent with others in their species.
With each stop that went by my fear of vomiting lessened and I just focused on walking slowly and not going down any hills because then I’d have to come back up. The high levels of altitude cause your body to receive less oxygen and thus after only a few steps you can find yourself huffing. By the Grace of God, I returned back to the Hostal Mama Tierra only tired and not troubled by any other symptoms of altitude sickness.
We had a nice dinner out that night and went back to Santiago the next day. I was grateful to be back on sea level.