Travel & Place / Bright Desert Light

Sara Wheeler looks back on her time in the Atacama, a trip full of adventure and romance.

Through an open tent flap, I watched the sun rise over the Andes. Light cascaded down the slopes and across caramel sands, drawing tall shadows out of cacti and elongating the waxy fruits that bubbled from the tips. I heard José striking a match and making a fire.

The Atacama Desert – the driest on the planet – unfurls for 600 miles down the north of Chile, extending from the Peruvian border to thirty degrees of latitude. Widthwise, it stretches from the Pacific coast through mineral-rich desert flatlands up into the foothills of the Andes and the abbreviated volcanic landscape beyond. José and I were taking a road trip. I had met him on the road: literally. My Jeep got a puncture, I cut my thumb on the jack and he came to the rescue. He had a tent but no vehicle. I had a vehicle but no tent. One thing led to another. It was 1990, and I was 29.

The brown canvas tent was of ancient vintage, and we improvised guy ropes with lengths of plastic cord, lashing each around a rock. On our first night we camped on a beach somewhere between Pisagua and Palca. In the morning, every molecule of air pulsated individually with bright desert light that spangled the sand. The hard ground behind the beach was exploding with cacti. There were hundreds of different types of cacti, taller than us and smaller than our little fingers, unwieldy and delicate, smooth and warty. The sun glazed everything, stunning even the lizards. At a wharf-side shack we ate paila marina, a crabby bouillabaisse served with a ziggurat of tiny lemons. The fishermen gathered around the shack spooned shellfish juice into glasses of cloudy wine. (Sounds vile, but I found myself doing it, too.) José had persuaded one of them to give us a lift over to an islet he had spotted. We slung the tent, cooking pan, bread, wine, and five gallons of water into a small boat, and the other fishermen left off eating to push us out. The horizon wobbled in the heat. It took twenty minutes to reach the smallest island, and the boatman agreed to pick us up on the way back from the following day’s fishing trip. “I hope he remembers,” said José. Our new home was full of cactus fruit, whales’ skulls, and boobies nesting on the ledges of granite cliff faces. I sat on the sand watching a pair of pelicans while José squeezed lemons into a pan. He had caught locos, mollusks that resemble abalone, by diving down to the submerged portion of a cliff, and boiled them in seawater. They tasted sweet and nutty, the soft, warm flesh tearing easily from bands of viscous muscle. The sky turned opal, the sun set, the boobies eyed us suspiciously, and still it was warm enough to lie out. A breeze wrinkled the dark surface of the ocean.

Back in the desert proper – the fisherman remembered – we headed inland. Pale mauve and yellow long-stemmed desert flowers bent in the trembling heat, fragile in the bitter, parched immensity of the land, and suddenly a blanket of tangerine blooms rolled out into the distance. Cinnamon-coloured guanaco (one of the four South American camelids) lowered their ears as we passed. Guanaco live in totally rainless zones, consuming plants that absorb the sea mist that crawls in from the Pacific to obliterate everything with opaque whiteness.

Over the next days we camped among crusty saltpans and swam in green pools where the salty water made hell of the cut on my thumb. In some parts, the salt condensed into solid rivers. The sand was rich: it glittered. The whole of northern Chile is bursting with nitrates, and with hard metals such as copper. We visited the ghost towns of nineteenth-century English nitrate plants and picked our way over rusted railways that once carried minerals to the coast and between gravestones of white-skinned children who perished before they learned to say their names. The extraction business has consolidated, now, around larger lodes and deposits. Who can forget the rescue of Los 33 – the miners trapped underground at the San José copper-gold mine in the heart of the Atacama? Meanwhile my own José showed me the rucked cliffs of the Cordillera de la Sal and we hiked under the clay chimneys and hieroglyphs that shape the valleys, and in the afternoons the desert colors shifted and elided until the moon rose over the cordillera and the sun set over the bleached flats. José was a stylish vagabond: tall, with blue eyes, an olive complexion and an athletic build – he had been an amateur boxer – and he did everything with a touch of understated Latin American panache. He knew a lot about hallucinogenic cactus seeds, was a keen ecologist in those far-off days when only grass was green, and became quietly passionate on the subject of the many depredations of nature for which he held his country responsible. The hard-rock mining multinationals sucking the heart from under the desert sand were among his favorite targets. We talked far into the night in the leaping shadows of firelight – my Spanish improved no end – and he explained how to work out where we were by the position of the Southern Cross. What girl wouldn’t have fallen into his arms?

We grew accustomed to the changing landscapes of the Atacama. Just as we had got used to a textbook desert scene featuring nothing but undulating sand and throbbing air, we entered miles of salt and borax flats, and of phosphorescent escarpments flushed with burnished copper. At Zapar, an oasis village in a concealed valley jagged with prehispanic ruins, I managed to bog the Jeep. By some miracle, a pair of soot-headed boys emerged with branches to wedge under the back wheels. José talked with them, using his few words of the Aymara language. But of course, they spoke fluent Castilian. Then we were off again. Distances between anything except sand are long in that part of the Atacama, and when you do get somewhere, nothing happens. It was curiously agreeable, as if our minds had flattened out like the baked plain. Life began to seem less complex. There was a tension out there on the sand, but it was a subtle one, hinting at the possibility of creative eruptions.

The snow-smeared cone of volcano Isluga stood proud against the sky for many hours before we reached it. Chile has over 2,000 volcanoes, about fifty of them active. High up there, in the puna land above 13,000 feet, we saw vicuña grazing on bunchgrass hard as granite and spiky as hell and viscachas – tailess rabbits – feeding in the swamps. In the village of Isluga, hard by the Bolivian border, thatched adobe cottages formed a semi-circle round a simple church built of volcanic rock and cactus wood and painted white with marsh lime. At the top of the uneven stairway of the bell tower, I rang the angelus on two green copper bells. The chime carried far across the flats and dissolved in the lava flows of the foothills. In the churchyard, the sun cast a long shadow from a solitary pimento tree.

Chungará was only sixty miles away but the trip involved many hours of hard travel, the road little more than a ladder of deep ruts. The landscape changed again, to a harsher, otherworldly space redolent of moon-landings and slow motion. Near Laguna Lejía, someone had marked the Tropic of Capricorn with a pile of volcanic breezeblocks cemented together at odd angles. The lake appeared, and in its shallows stood many hundreds of flamingos. They took off, when they felt like it, great sprays of pink foam crossing the volcanoes and coming down on another part of the fluorescent water.

I lost touch with José – he never had a fixed address, so it was hard to write. But I think of him often, and when I have to speak Spanish, I can hear his idiosyncratic Chilean inflections and bohemian vocabulary. I hope he too looks back fondly from some happy hippy place in the sun. (One has to allow for the possibility that he gave it all up for a career in accountancy in the suburbs.) Last year I took my eldest son to Chile and we rode horses across the desert and up into the Andes, following an old trading route. We camped on the way up, pitching our tent – double-coated polyethylene rather than canvas – in the lee of a cliff and watched the sun set over fraying salt flats. My son fell in love with the country just like I had. How precious is that? I took something away from the knackered tent though; something I keep safe. Every time the horrors of housework and homework threaten to sink me, I retreat to a pearly night on a Pacific shore, when I had no worries beyond the uncertain grip of the tent pegs, and I look back with fondness at the footloose young woman who was once me.

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