The stillness of the arid afternoon was interrupted by a gust of hot air that swept through the Valle De La Luna, causing swirls of red dust to gather at our feet. Earlier, the tour van had picked us up from the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama and sped us through a fascinating landscape of parched earth and volcanoes 2400 metres above sea level. Indeed, the altiplano vista is only broken by the occasional blinding white glimpses of salt flats in the distance. From where we stood outside the Visitor Center, odd-shaped rock formations and red dunes called out to us. This is the Antofagasta region of Chile and we were in the middle of the Atacama Desert, where the land is carved by the wind and sun over millennia, and the feeling is as if one has left Earth for the Moon and Mars.
We began by weaving our way through wind-carved crevasses at the bottom of the valley, bending our bodies like gymnasts. We then worked our way up, scrambling and threading the peaks of shifting dunes. The taste of sand played in our mouths, prompting us to take short sips from our water bottles. In truth, the landscape kept us in physical and mystical thrall till evening. This was a landscape borne by the driest non-polar desert in the world, a desert so arid, there are some areas where rainfall has never been recorded.
A local Andean legend exists to explain the dryness of the place: The Atacameñans used to sing to the water, and the water would irrigate their crops and fill their wells. One day, it rained for forty days and forty nights, so heavily that it destroyed everything. With the devastation, the Atacameñans’ song of water was lost forever, and the place turned barren.
On the other hand, Geography enthusiasts would delight in the scientific explanation for Atacama’s climate. Situated between the Andes and the Cordillera de la Costa, the mountain ranges flanking the desert act as “rain shadows” that prevent moisture and rainfall from the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans reaching the region. This same unique terrain provided the perfect filming site for the planet Mars, as featured in the 2004 documentary Space Odyssey.
As the sun set over the valley, we were treated to an Andean symphony of terracotta, pink and red from the crusted peaks that fired up and the desert floor that glowed. But even as this spectacular show fades into dusk, our space travel was far from over.
We continued to be awed by the Atacama Desert during a stargazing tour that evening. In the darkness, the celestial stage shifted from the earth to the night sky. We quickly saw how the combination of dry air, lack of cloud cover and the sheer remoteness of the Atacama Desert can render it the perfect setting for one of the most beautiful astronomical displays in the world. Surrounded by fellow star-struck travellers gazing into a telescope pointed up to the aptly Jewel Box cluster above, it is little wonder why thousands of travellers flock to the Atacama just to scan the heavens.
Looking out for shooting stars and the light of galaxies in the vast universe, we acutely felt the smallness of our existence and the enormity of what is there to seek and discover. Space may be the final frontier, but the Atacama Desert brings it so much closer to Man.
Trip-bits: One of the cheapest and easiest ways to experience the Desert is by taking a Valle De La Luna Tour offered by almost all tour operators in San Pedro de Atacama. The valley offers spectacular views of the Cordillera de la Sal and the spiritual guardian of the altiplano, Licancabur Volcano. There are also tours for every kind of stargazer, from arranged day visits to the renowned ALMA Observatory, to an intimate exploration with resident astronomers in a telescope park, or even amateur set-ups with Patagonian domes in backyards.