Chilly in Chile

Our writer travels to the Atacama to test the hypothesis – do deserts get really cold at night? tl;dr = Yes!

Feature by Ally Brown | 03 Aug 2015
  • Chile

All I can hear is the sound of my teeth chattering. It’s pitch black. It’s 6.08am. Then I see a light, six feet up, dancing in the dark: it’s a headlamp, worn by my guide Diego. "Alistar?" he says. Alistar is a verb in Spanish, meaning 'to get ready'; it’s also my name, more or less. Yes, I am. "Vamos."

Two hours later I awake with the light of the dawn, no longer chattering, and look around me. By both sides of the road are great big circular grey rocks dotted with cracks and collapses, like giant meringues pressed by a firm thumb. Behind them a wide open expanse, and behind that, snow-topped volcanoes. Actually, as I look around, there are volcanoes everywhere. "Good morning chicos," Diego says. We’re about 4000m above sea level, he tells us, just a few miles from the Chilean border with Argentina.

Chile is very easy to draw: it’s the western slopes of the Andes, to the sea, from where Peru’s Pacific jut comes back in, all the way to the bottom of South America. On the other side of the mountains – which are forever giving you directions – is Argentina. From the capital Santiago – roughly halfway down – it’s either two hours into the mountains or two hours away from them to the sea. In the south, winter brings heavy rains and freezing temperatures. In the north, where Chile meets the tropics, it almost never rains, and the desert can be stiflingly hot. But not where I am. I’m based in San Pedro de Atacama, a popular stop-off for backpackers heading north to Peru or Bolivia, or south to the rest of Chile, that is both desert and mountain. Its height above sea level means the air of the night can’t hold the heat of the day, and neither are there clouds to do likewise, so it gets very, very cold after dark.

The arrival of the sun brings with it alleviation, but four kilometres above sea level, it takes a while to reach us. So, shivering, we are led to admire a lagoon backed by four volcanoes, each nearly 6000m high, that from here look merely hills. As my shadow appears, ten metres long, the bright sunlight highlights the yellow tufts of grass around us, turning them into a field of brilliant gold. Still unconvinced of the worth of the trip, we briskly walk through a short winding valley, and are rewarded with the most glorious sight.

Laguna Miniques is an otherworldly vision, a postcard-perfect view at this time of day, when the low sun throws shadows across the 6000m Cerro Miniques, the perfectly still lake reflecting it all beautifully. On the far side, a valley shape, and the yellow grass subtly adding a golden touch. Vale la pena, finally: it’s worth the pain. Diego lays out a huge breakfast on the shoreline, including grilled sandwiches and treasured coffee and coca tea, and we sit, mostly in silence, in awe of the view. It’s a breakfast none will forget, and not for the sandwiches.

"At least three tourists have died in the geysers here, presumably lost in the fantasy that they are in fact natural Jacuzzis"

It’s 4.45am when my alarm rings again. Am I really paying for this privilege? I put on a long-sleeved t-shirt, a t-shirt, a shirt, a jumper, another jumper, and my jacket; jeans over my pyjama trousers; two pairs of socks; gloves, a scarf, and a woolly hat; and I step outside. It’s not enough. I get in the van and it’s not enough, and when we arrive, almost three hours later, and the driver slides the door open – my god it’s not enough! We’re at 4320m altitude before sunrise, and in the dark, over an area covering several football pitches, it looks like I can see dozens of frozen white trees. "They’re frozen!" others in the van exclaim. "They’re ice!" I can imagine anything turning to ice here.

The geysers at El Tatio, close to the border with Bolivia, are a little underwhelming in the full light of day. They are geysers in a technical sense, but they do not project or explode water, as the word usually suggests. They are pools of boiling water: when the superheated 180 degree water underground meets the very low atmospheric pressure outside, it instantly boils, and pillars of steam build up to 30m high above them. The landscape, a huge dusty field with up to 80 steam pillars, is somewhat interesting: ghostly, ethereal; but up-close, these 'geysers' aren’t much more than bubbling puddles. A nearby thermal pool invites tourists to bathe, but the gas rising from it is not steam, and the brave-or-stupid tourists who take the plunge are clearly shivering in the tepid water. "It gets to minus 25, minus 30 here in July and August," says Jorge, today’s guide. "And people still get in the pool."

These people, who can’t identify steam, have a vote in general elections too. But here they’re overcome by wishful thinking. At least three tourists have died in the geysers here, presumably lost in the fantasy that they are in fact natural Jacuzzis. Nowhere needs a Jacuzzi more than here.

Later we spend 20 minutes looking at the shadow of a mountain rabbit from 50 metres away, before commencing the long drive home, in many ways the highlight of this trip – and not just because every minute of it took me closer to the heavenly warmth of my dorm bed. The Atacama is a region of extremes: extreme aridity, extreme heat in the summer, extreme cold in the winter, dozens of the tallest volcanoes in the world. As we wind our way through dramatic desert valleys, past snowless peaks above and ducks skating across frozen lakes below, it is the scenery of the area, not the gimmickry of the geysers, that most impresses.

What travellers need to know:
* San Pedro is a tiny town that now revolves entirely around the backpacker industry. As such it’s more expensive than other parts of Chile, and certainly of nearby Bolivia. It’s also in the middle of the driest desert in the world, so in this area of extreme conditions, don’t expect high quality accommodation or reliable showers. Sometimes the ATMs run out of money, so bring more than you expect to need.

* Meals can be found in the restaurants in the touristic centre of the village for between £4-8, but if you go to the football pitch (look for the floodlights) just a block or two from the plaza, you’ll find several restaurants offering fantastic two-course lunch menus for £3.50. Ally's lunches there were among the best he had in a month in Chile.

* The weather can be extremely hot in summer and extremely cold in winter. Try to go in spring or autumn. Summer is also high-season, so accommodation should be booked in advance, and tours will cost more too.

*There is almost nothing to do in the town itself, so it’s worth visiting only for tours, or en route to Bolivia. In low-season, tours cost between £10-25 for half-day or full-day respectively. There are dozens of tour agencies offering essentially the same itineraries. Ally would recommend Grado 10, and would not recommend Turismo Kaulles.