Last weekend, I traveled to San Pedro de Atacama for four days which wasn’t nearly enough time to have spent in such an absolutely magical place. Although, I’m not sure if any amount of time could be considered “enough” to truly absorb that kind of natural beauty. San Pedro de Atacama is a small town in the middle of the Atacama Desert made up of short, adobe buildings whose deceivingly humble exteriors give way to lavish resorts, hostels and tourism companies. The dirt roads of the town lead into the massive expanse of the surrounding desert allowing for an enchanting view of the snowy mountain peaks in the distance. My journey had a bit of a rocky start early last Friday morning when I missed my flight and had to wait in the Santiago airport for six hours until I could catch the next flight at 1 p.m. For this reason, when I finally arrived in San Pedro to meet up with a friend of mine who has been studying in Lima, Peru, I was anxious to make up for lost time.
That night, we watched the sun set fire to the mountains and paint the sky into a million hues of purple and blue as it sank behind the distant peaks. It was quite astonishing how quickly the heat of the afternoon dissipated in the darkness and left us shivering in our thin jackets. I had heard from my Chilean mom that the desert climate is made up of harsh extremes, but I suppose I didn’t fully realize what she meant until we went out that night to look at the stars. Without the strength of the desert sun, the breeze that comes down through the valleys around San Pedro de Atacama bites much more than one would think.
The trip hit a few more rough patches the next day when my friend and I set out to bike a trail to the North of the town in an area known as Catarpe. We had talked to an absurdly exuberant Chilean who worked at the hostel we were staying in who told us that the trail was very scenic and could be done in five to six hours, six if we were planning on stopping to take pictures (which, let me tell you, we did plenty of). However, we apparently had a miscommunication with him somewhere down the line because the trail took us much longer than we were led to believe. We ended up getting very lost in the valley of the Altos de Catarpe (the farthest point from civilization on the whole trail) for about three hours after the sun went down because we couldn’t find the trail to get back to the main road.
I know, such a typical ignorant tourist move right? But we swear, it really wasn’t entirely our fault. Just hear me out. Sure, we stopped to take about a million pictures and my friend spent twenty minutes trying to climb into some random ravine and I may or may not have walked my bike up a steeper area of the trail, but we really didn’t take long enough to justify getting stuck at the farthest point of the trail as the sun went down. We had been led to believe that, after reaching the end of the Altos de Catarpe, the trail would curve to lead us to an old church and then back to main road on which we could return safely to the town. However, as it turns out, the trail did not lead back to the road as the enthusiastic hostel employee had told us. Instead, we had to double back on the trail to find the road which was considerably more distance than we had been expecting. By the time we gave up our search for the non-existent continuation of the trail, it was already beginning to get dark and we didn’t have any source of light besides the flashlights of our iPhones.
As the sun disappeared and the stars (and with them, the cold) came out, our situation grew increasingly less comical and more worrisome. As we were just beginning to retrace our path through the cavern to find the tunnel that led out to the main road, I realized that my phone only had four percent of battery left because the extreme cold of the night had drained the battery abnormally quickly. At the same time that my phone died, my friend’s phone mysteriously turned off and wouldn’t turn back on, leaving us in complete darkness under the desert stars. Which, although breathtaking, did not help much to illuminate the way out.
During the next three hours of wandering the valley trying to find our way out, we went through all the emotional stages of getting lost in the desert (or at least what I am guessing that would look like, I have to admit that it was my first time) denial, panic, a little bit of hopelessness, and, eventually, acceptance of the possibility that we would have to spend the night in the valley. But through it all I was extremely grateful to have been with someone so positive because we never stopped laughing what we had gotten ourselves into which kept me from panicking more than I did. My friend also made sure that we stopped about every twenty minutes to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the beautiful jumble of the Milky Way spread out above us. It’s funny how sometimes the people you’re with can change your outlook on an entire situation. There was something kind of thrilling about being so lost amongst those towering rocks, hearing nothing but the sound of our own voices in the dark. It ended up being quite a serendipitous experience. I think that, if I could go back in time, I would gladly go get lost again.
We eventually found our way back to the tunnel leading out of the valley by doing some seriously sophisticated detective work using the times on photos that my friend had taken while we were riding through the valley to retrace our steps and find exactly where we went off the trail onto the stream bed. From there, he harnessed his inner boy scout to find bike tracks leading out of the stream bed and before we knew it we were back on the trail. After taking a brief “descansito” to pat ourselves on the back, take some pics of the stars and eat some peanuts (we hadn’t eaten since breakfast and it was about 10 p.m. at the time), we got on our bikes and headed back to town. Thankfully, we didn’t end up having to make a fire out of arid plants or do jumping jacks all night to fight off hypothermia like we had planned.
There are plenty more stories that I could tell about my wonderful weekend in Atacama, but they only give me 1,000 words and I figured the fan base would probably want to hear the one about the time we almost had to spend the night stranded in a valley in the middle of the desert. Overall, the entire experience was breathtaking and I would say that the natural rock formations, salt flats and lagoons of the region are sights that absolutely cannot be missed if you happen to find yourself in Chile.