Welcome to the middle of nowhere

It's dry and isolated, but the Atacama desert offers an unforgettable kind of untamed wilderness for the more intrepid traveller
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The Independent Travel

Breathing: we all do it, all the time, but do we really know what it sounds like? You will, once you visit the driest place on earth. With no water, no vegetation can survive, so there are no birds or insects either. The whole area has an unfamiliar silence about it, which is broken only by the eerie sound of a human gasp.

Breathing: we all do it, all the time, but do we really know what it sounds like? You will, once you visit the driest place on earth. With no water, no vegetation can survive, so there are no birds or insects either. The whole area has an unfamiliar silence about it, which is broken only by the eerie sound of a human gasp.

According to NASA, which tested its robots there, Chile's Atacama desert is the closest terrain on earth to the surface of the moon. The landscape is vast, with flat expanses of sand, punctuated by dunes or salt mountains which rise up unexpectedly. With no recognisable landmarks, everything looks the same, although, paradoxically, the vista changes constantly in the shifting light as the sun moves across the sky.

The ground is sometimes soft, like walking along a sandy beach, sometimes crunchy, as the strange crusty rock surface collapses under the pressure of a footstep. The lunar-like terrain is formed from the minerals produced by volcanic eruptions, and the dark shadows that stain the sides of the mountains are lava flows. Crystals of salt and gypsum sparkle in the sun, and patches of red in the soil indicate iron deposits. Thankfully, this is not the moon; the atmosphere, though rare, is breathable, and the Atacama is considerably easier to reach.

For such a long, thin country, Chile surrenders a lot of its territory to the Atacama desert. It stretches down for nearly 600 miles from Chile's northern frontier, and extends eastward as far as the Argentine border. The snow-covered volcanic peaks of the Andes provide orientation: Toco, Juriques, and the flat-topped Licancabur, a sacred mountain which the Atacamanian people used to climb, offering sacrifices when they reached the summit. There are five active volcanoes in the area, too, including Lascar and Putana, both more than 17,000 feet above sea-level. Although they erupt infrequently, they belch out a stream of smoke as a warning to climbers who get too close. In the centre of the region is the Salar de Atacama, an extensive salt flat fringed by mountains of salt.

The gateway to the Atacama is the town of Calama, a two-and-a half hour flight from Santiago. But the centre of the region is San Pedro de Atacama, some 60 miles to the south-east, an hour's drive in a hotel minivan or on one of the frequent local bus services. A road has been gouged through the desert to link the two towns, across a landscape painted entirely in shades of brown. The endless flat terrain is punctuated by clumps of low-growing shrubs. Makeshift shrines have been constructed from the dark rocks, the words "Jesus" and "Dios" picked out in white pebbles that must have been imported for the purpose. Even the guanacos - llama-like animals that inhabit this part of the landscape - are brown, but they are a sign at least that there is life in the desert.

San Pedro itself is a colourful place, an oasis of white adobe houses that has grown up at the northern end of the salt flats. The area has been inhabited for 12,000 years; despite incursions from the Tiwanaku people from Bolivia, the Incas from Peru and the Spanish conquistadores, the Atacamanian people have managed to retain much of their indigenous culture. These days, San Pedro has nearly 5,000 inhabitants, according to the welcome sign at the entrance to the village, but their numbers are swelled by the visitors who use it as a base for exploring the desert.

At the centre of the village is the main square, a leafy plaza built in the Spanish colonial style, around which all the important buildings are clustered: the priest's house, the municipal headquarters, and an attractive white-washed church. The local bank is a van, complete with ATM machine, which is permanently parked opposite the church's main gate. Village residents congregate in the square, sitting on benches or standing around chatting to their friends.

The tourists are more likely to be found along the main street, Caracoles, meaning "snails" - possibly a reference to the pace of life here. Along the single-storey street, cafés, shops and tour operators who do a flourishing trade in bicycle hire and excursions into the desert.

Although San Pedro is a magnet for independent travellers, exploring the countryside around is difficult to do alone. While the volcanoes act as compass points, there are few landmarks, almost no paths, and the light can make distances deceptive, to the point that no serious 21st-century explorer would venture out alone without GPS navigation. There is no shortage of places to discover, and plenty of 4x4s and their drivers waiting in San Pedro to take visitors to see them.

One of the most popular expeditions is to the Valley of the Moon, a hauntingly barren expanse of desert where the sunset can be spectacular. Equally visited are the geysers of El Tatio, the highest geo-thermal field in the world at more than 12,000 feet above sea level. Water bubbles at a temperature well below boiling point at sea level, and in the early morning, before the sun warms the air around them, fumaroles, or clouds of steam, are visible above the water holes.

Most trippers look at the geysers and get back into their 4x4s for the return trip to San Pedro. Hardier explorers can experience something of the wildness of the desert on a challenging walk across scrubland, up and down steep gorges, and through a lush river valley to the hot springs of Puritama, some three hours away.

Experiencing lo remoto - remoteness, and all that that implies - is not always easy for visitors in an area where weather conditions can be harsh or unpredictable and maps almost non-existent. But making this possible is one of the main intentions at Explora, on the edge of San Pedro and the smartest place in the area. To describe Explora as a hotel would be missing the point: the manager aims to provide a "five-star experience" rather than five-star luxury, although the accommodation is both luxurious and relaxing. A single-storey structure has been designed to blend into the surroundings, with bedrooms built around three spacious courtyards.

The concept is that visitors can have the opportunity to explore their surroundings, to make discoveries about the landscape without putting too much importance on the final destination, and to follow in the footsteps of the great explorers, knowing that there will be a hot shower, a decent meal and a comfortable bed at the end of it.

Each evening, in the conviviality of the bar, the next day's expeditions are discussed; guided hikes, mountain bike rides and excursions on horseback are on offer. Itineraries include the Quebrada del Diablo, a magnificent ravine with a path that winds downhill between towering rock faces; the cornisas, or ledges, of the Salt Mountain range; or, for those who are fit and fully acclimatised, the slopes of the nearby volcanoes. Each small group is accompanied by a guide who is familiar with the territory and who can be in immediate radio contact with his colleagues if any emergency should arise.

The guests at Explora can be confident that they are keeping away from the beaten track. But the beauty of the Atacama is that, wherever you stay, the whole desert is one of the most remote, least explored areas on earth. So it is hardly going to matter if there are a few other visitors to share it with.

TRAVELLERS' GUIDE

Cathy Packe travelled as a guest of Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk), which organises tailor-made holidays to Chile; quoted prices are based on two people sharing, and include all flights and transfers. The stays at Explora hotels include all meals (plus wine), guided excursions and use of bicycles and horses.

A seven-night package taking in Santiago and the Atacama starts at £2,275 per person. This includes three nights in the Plaza San Francisco in Santiago with breakfast and four nights at Explora en Atacama.

An 11-night package taking in Santiago, the Atacama and Patagonia starts at £3,095 per person. This includes all flights and transfers, three nights' bed and breakfast in Santiago, one night in Punta Arenas, three nights at Explora en Atacama and three nights at Explora en Patagonia. Both hotels are featured on Journey Latin America's hotels website www.jlaselect.com.

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