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The Atacama Desert

Day 49-54: 31 January – 5 February 2016

I knew I was going to fall in love with this place – got that strange gut feeling right after I crossed the border from Bolivia to Chile. It seemed like a whole new world was hidden beyond the Andean volcanoes splitting the Bolivian salt flats and the Atacama Desert. The landscape changed within just a few minutes of drive, opening green valleys and volcano slopes stretching along with rough, arid areas of huge scale. Welcome to the driest non-polar desert of the world – the stunning Atacama Desert!

Otherworldly natural wonder

This place is very unique from geological and biological perspectives. It faced extreme hyper-aridity for over 3 million years, which makes it the oldest desert of our planet: some weather stations in Atacama never received a raindrop, the scientists failed to detect life in soil in Yungay areas of Atacama, which makes this spot to an absolutely unique place of our planet.

The dried mineral lakes covered the desert with a white crust reminding snow, the winds and other geological processes shaped for thousands of years the otherworldly appearance of Atacama.

The Moon Valley – the tiny piece of Mars on Earth

This valley is often compared with Mars and Moon and serves as test field for space scientists: NASA tested here the Mars landers Viking1 and Viking2, as well as other instruments for future space missions. Also filmmakers feel attracted to this place. BBC, for instance, used this location for filming the Mars scenes TV-series Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets.

A look into the endless Universe

The Atacama Desert is one of worlds best spots for astronomical observations because of its high altitude, cloudless sky, extreme dry air, zero light pollution and lack of radio interference due to its remoteness from widely populated towns. Atacama hosts few huge observatories, including the one called ALMA, built on 2011 by Europe, Japan, the United States, Canada and Chile. There are numerous observatory tours from San Pedro de Atacama, however for a visit of the larger ones requires a reservation months in advance.

I visited a small private observatory run by a very passionate guy Rodrigo. Basically the tour took place at his home, where he gave us (a small group of 6-8 people) a very interesting introduction to the universe. Afterwards we moved to the garden where his telescope was. He showed and explained some star constellations, galaxies, clouds, nebulas, etc. Amazing!

That night I saw the Milky Way for the first time in my life – the most beautiful and mind-blowing thing I’ve ever seen. Can’t imagine it is there every single night and I was never able to see it. Absolutely stunned I couldn’t take my eyes off the sky that night in the desert. It felt like I missed that view all my life.

Meeting Ivan

It was my fifth day in San Pedro de Atacama (my home base), so far the longest stop of my journey – time to get going.. so I went to the bus terminal to check the travel options for Iquique. Not that Iquique is a must-see town in Chile, actually there is not much to do, but it is famous for paragliding in Atacama – the aerial desert views was a MUST for me! It would cost me extra 3-5 days of traveling, as the journey to Iquique would bring me further north for over 400km, after which I would need to go back to south to reach Santiago (the 24 hour journey would be even longer then). Detour or not, flying over Atacama was a clear priority for me.

It was early in the morning, most of the shops in the village San Pedro d.A. were still closed, the visual noise of tour shops with their ads was at minimum. Just by chance I noticed somewhere a little poster saying something like “only for few days..paragliding in San Pedro de Atacama”. What? Am I lucky or what? I waited for the shop to open and immediately reserved a flight for the next morning. The guy at the tour shop couldn’t tell me much about the pilot, but I decided to take a risk. Actually an absolutely weird decision: when flying in a tandem it is in your interests to know whom you are trusting your life.

Next morning at 6am my pilot Ivan picked me up at the meeting point. Soon enough I found out, that he is actually from Venezuela (at that point of time I was still hoping, that it would be someone from Iquique, any references to my researches). Ivan was forced to leave his home once the economical situation there became unbearable. His last savings were invested to restore a caravan from scratch, in which he packed his flying equipment and headed the road toward south. In past few months he cruised with his girlfriend (sorry forgot her name) all the way from Venezuela across Brazil and Peru to Chile, exploring the continent, enjoying freedom and making their living with tandem-flights, which is basically his most favourite occupation. Kind of a fun life, if you ask me!

We waited the sun to warm up the air a bit in order to be able to take off. In meanwhile Ivan told me about his passion for paragliding, and how he modified and engineered his own flying equipment. That made me feel a bit more insecure. In fact I asked myself for a moment “WTF am I doing here? Even if I trust this guy, can I trust his equipment?” I’m not sure if I was too polite to leave or just wanting this flight no matter what, but I decided to stay. On the other hand, Ivan sounded like a very passionate nerd, in caravan interior I could spot a bunch of love for detail and smart solutions. My gut feeling told me with a loving voice

“You can trust the nerds passionately loving their job!”

We took off 10 minutes later. As you can judge from the pics, I survived, Ivan too, the views were breathtaking, the experience was absolutely worth the risk, it was just fantastic!

I used the opportunity to question Ivan about his life in Venezuela. He gave me insider perspectives of what happened in Venezuela in past few years, as well as about the current political and economical situation (I’ll skip the details here). I was happy to find out that Ivans home is actually in Canaima, a region bordering with Brazil, which is commonly famous for the Lost World, Salto Angel (worlds highest uninterrupted fall), Tepuis (tabletop mountains) with the pearl among them, the Roraima Mountain. I couldn’t miss the chance to question him more about how to get there and if it is safe to travel to Canaima National Park. Good news: traveling there is absolutely safe and easy, provided you reach the area from Brazilian side, traveling from Caracas is not recommended due to unreliable infrastructure across the country. Ivan promised to provide me with trustful contacts if I decide to go there trekking. How cool is that? Roraima is petty much in top lines of my bucket list!

A day after this flight I left the desert. After a 24-hour bus ride I reached Santiago de Chile.


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