April 19, 2009
Your lips fissure first.
Over 600 miles long, the Atacama is the driest desert in the world. It disorients and dizzies poor gringos, rising from sea level to 22,000 ft peaks (somewhere in between was me, wondering if the nausea came from altitude, Peruvian "bottled" water or the seafood special).
I got my friend Bjorn to travel part of it with me. Bjorn is an engineer/scientist, but that didn't help when roadsigns declared "Geology" (minus specifics) next to skyscraping mountains of sand and rock. Or when we had a 6.0 earthquake in Tarapaca (although we both chose top bunks).
Scientists compared soil samples from the Atacama and found them similar to those on Mars. Lifeless. To back up the connection, a sign on Ruta 11 indicates "UFO landing site." Lots was funny here. On km 43 the "magnetic zone" pulls your car backward if you stop. It's on an apparent downhill.
This is a land of conspiracies.
That makes for giddy good road tripping. The Atacama's treasures are not fast apparent, like in deserts everywhere, they take scouting. We found oases. Cactus blooms and borganvilla. In Puconchile, a lush putting nine walled by giant sandtraps, we found Ecotruly, a domed Hare Krishna compound that welcomes visitors for vegetarian feasts (a bargain at $6 US). If you're not up for religious conversion, enjoy the theme park, which includes a giant wooden anaconda which will swallow you whole (but also do you the favor of spitting you out, whole).
That's not to say this is a theme-park destination. On the contrary. I'd say 95% of the Atacama is the land before time.
Only ten families still live in the altiplano village of Parinacota, at 15,700 feet. Silver used to travel this route in burro loads from the mines in Potosi to the Pacific. Commerce now centers around opening the church (one guy has the key) and serving tourists coca tea to mitigate the effects of altitude.
White adobe with a thatched roof, the church at Parinacota is worth beholding. There's a story of a table that roamed on its own (now secured by a rope to the wall). But better are the wall paintings that show the stations of the cross as interpreted by Aymara villagers long ago: they depict the crucifixion as done by the only villains they could possibly imagine--the Spaniards.