Flamingoes, coca leaves, and gratitude. These are not the most obvious of images that come to mind when I think about a desert.
But in the Atacama Desert of Chile, they are the foundation.
Known as the driest desert in the world, the Atacama is flanked by volcanoes and mountain ranges between the Pacific and the Andes. It’s borders with Bolivia, Peru and Argentina tell of history, conflict and connection at the same time.
I was in the Atacama Desert for adventure. Or rather, as the prequel to the Adventure Travel World Summit. I’d read about our upcoming adventures in the Chilean desert. Looked at online photographs. But what I found was something completely unexpected.
Yes, there are seas of sand dunes, but this desert rises above others with landscapes ranging from sand to salt to expanses of paja brava – the brittle grass eaten by vicunas as they wander. It is full of rich minerals like copper and lithium and otherworldly vistas like Valle de la Luna or the lagoons of the Altiplano. The plateau delivers countless nights of astronomical wonder and scientific observations at the ALMA observatory, thanks to rare cloud cover, high elevation and lack of light pollution that make even a non-astronomer like me appreciate mythical formations that adorn the sky when the sun goes down.
There are even love stories between volcanoes and mountains– like the legend of Licancabur and Cerro de Quimal. A story of longing when the fatherly volcano – Lascar, exiled Quimal to a place in the desert on the other side of the ocean of salt after Licancabur – his warrior son stole her heart. Licancabur stands over San Pedro de Atacama, as a protector, far away from Quimal – the highest mountain of the Cordillera Domeyko. But once a year when the sun rises on the winter solstice, Lincancabur’s shadow covers Quimal completely – an allowance by Lascar for the couple to be together for one night every year.
And yes, the Atacama Desert is a basecamp for adventure. With canyons with names like Devil’s Throat, the high elevation and natural surroundings are the ultimate outdoor playground for hiking, mountain biking and volcano climbing. Ultra-marathoners even flock to the plateau each year for a 7 day, 250 km desert crossing.
The indigenous Kunza or Atacameño people thank Pachamama and Tata Luna – the region’s two maternal figures –at sunrise and sunset for the earth that gives us life. There is deep gratitude for all that these two mythical figures provide and create – like the domineering volcanoes that appear like a walled fortress on all sides around the plateau. But also? There is an abundance of respect. For the land, people, animals and … for life and for tradition.
Yes, this deep-seeded respect and level of gratitude probably exists in many places around the globe. But the combination of flamingoes, muddy sand, volcanoes and low grasses came together as a holistic Pachamama-Tata Luna constellation in my mind and heart.
Although I’d prepared for the dryness of the desert and strength of the sun with ample sticks of chapstick and TSA approved containers of moisturizer and sunscreen, I’d forgotten to consider the altitude before my arrival. Not that it would have made a big difference, living at sea level as I do. After two days at elevations ranging between 8,000 and 12,000 feet give or take a few steps, the extreme landscapes started to undo the mental and physical strength that assumed I had. The easiest (and flattest) walk felt like an enormous undertaking on my lungs. My body heavy and lethargic, as if the burning sun had radiated my core.
I was in awe of everything around me, but I was overwhelmed by the omnipresent energy that caused the volcanoes to give off gases that look like passing clouds each morning. A part of me wished I could bottle the force for myself – to use when I needed it.
I looked at the summits, standing so proudly in the thin air. We weren’t scheduled to attempt any summit treks, but on any other day I would probably have sat there, yearning for a time that I could feel the clouds over my head from the crown of these royal landforms. But on this day? Instead of envisioning myself standing triumphantly on the snow-capped peaks (which oh by the way, some of which stand at over 18,000 feet), the voices in my head taunted me as I panted and struggled even on flat surfaces.
It was as if the salty sand had swallowed my inner adventurer. Instead of immersing myself in the exquisite petroglyphs carved into canyon walls, many of which still lay unearthed by layers of accumulated rock and sand thanks to earthquakes, my mind was preoccupied wondering how I’d manage the trek back up to the van. A mere jaunt for some, but the steep canyon walls loomed like insurmountable obstacles. Maybe a helicopter would appear to lift me out if I just closed my eyes and made a wish? Wasn’t I about to run my fifth marathon once I returned home in just a few weeks? Even more comical, wasn’t I preparing to summit the Osorno Volcano in Chile’s lake region in just a few days? In that moment, both activities sounded like sketches for a late-night comedy show.
Instead of appreciating Pachamama and Tata Luna and the magenta colored volcanoes that were splayed out in front of me, I felt like they teaching me a lesson. That I was out of my element. That I was a fraud. That despite my best, “fake it till you make it” attempts, I had finally been outed as weak. And the resulting frustration was making it difficult to fully immerse myself in the landscape that I so desperately wanted to be a part of.
Did I really have altitude sickness? Certainly I had some of the symptoms. But effect on my mental spirit was like slow-moving lava bubbling out of the volcanoes that surrounded me. And? Blaming the elevation was a better alternative than my regular self-criticism that accompanied me on most physical adventures.
I was willing to try anything, including trying to learn to chew coca leaves (the raw material for cocaine), imbibed by locals and trekkers across the Andes to fight fatigue and high altitude sickness. If learning to chew a leaf like the indigenous people who have for centuries use the plant’s leaves would help, I was all in.
But on our third day, I saw the impact of adaptation in real life. No, I was not hallucinating from too many coca leaves. I watched the Chilean flamingoes stand in the shallow pools of water not yet evaporated in the Laguna Chaxa. Their elegance reminded me of the delicate nature of life and resiliency amidst extreme conditions. Surely I could pull myself together if these delicate creatures could survive in this environment.
In the shadow of six volcanoes and the Cerro Miscanti, I thought about the ceremony we had witnessed a few days earlier. We’d been witnesses to an unscripted moment at a winery in the middle of this driest desert in the world, paying respect to a family member, friend and community member who had just died. There had been sadness, but also great symbolism and strength. Seeing the community gather for the funeral was a reminder of all that is, all that can be – and all that has been lost.
There are no promises in life, no guarantees. Only choices and opportunities. To live as gracefully and respectfully as possible. To be thankful and compassionate.
Watching the pink-coral-bodied flamingoes, I caught my breath. With necks almost twice as thick as their legs, it was hard to grasp the strength that allowed each to stand so strongly. It was as if they moved in slow motion, each stride precise and intentional. Each step so gentle, as not to create even a ripple in the water when they walked. Every gesture purposeful.
I stared out the window as we drove away, with thoughts of these creatures – who find their food in crustaceans and the algae rich in beta carotene – surviving the effects of lava, salt and massive floods that unprecedented rain had delivered earlier this year. How could I not appreciate the grace, perseverance and inspiration that comes from witnessing the continuation of life in the most extreme conditions?
As we drove southeast on a road that would have led us all the way to Argentina had we continued, I realized that while I’d had the obligatory ooh and awe response to the Atacama desert and all its beauty, I’d forgotten to be thankful for what was around me. As the colors outside the van transformed from salty white to burnt orange, green and yellow toward the Altiplano plateau, I could sense a shift in myself as well.
In a rush to want to take it all in, I’d missed the crucial step that precedes any attempt to understand. To simply be aware. To be grateful. To allow myself the time and space to feel the earth under my feet and breathe deeply. To say thank you to Pachamama in the morning and Tata Luna at night.
Maybe it was the revitalization massage with oxygen therapy the night before that helped me detox the negativity. Maybe it was the large quantity of coca leaves – that I’d imbibed as tea because I could not perfect the art of chewing this medicinal treat. (The whole thick clump of leaves in the side of my mouth was not something that I did very well.) Or maybe it was the paja brava grasses that from a distance looked like a jar of curry powder – or gold dust – sprinkled over the mountain ridges that re-awakened my imagination and fancy. But by the time the doors to our passenger van opened at Aguas Calientes, I could feel a different energy flowing through my veins.
Like a child, I wanted to run with arms wide open through the gritty mix of sand and salt toward the water- a pale lime color. The magenta colored peaks in the distance appeared like the remnants of pastel powders, blending together to form a canvas of their own. It was as if the harsh wind and abrasive sand were exfoliating away the doubt and lethargy, to reveal a layer of pure happiness.
I did the only thing I could do in that moment. I whispered “Gracias Pachamama” as clumps of slush accumulated on my boots and set out – to let the wind, sand and thin air wash over me.
I was a guest of Hotel Cumbres and Turismo Chile during this pre- Adventure Travel World Summit adventure. I am eternally thankful for our excursion guides, Cecilia and Susana, who always coca leaves with them and for the spa which offered a “revitalization with oxygen therapy” massage that I happily paid for myself. Oxygen is my new best friend.