Ghost towns, freaky phenomena and a history of getting high in the name of religion – ELISE RANA finds Chile’s Atacama Desert a serious head-trip.

Even if I could somehow have managed to smuggle a hallucinogenic cactus the size of a Pisco bottle through Customs, the experience probably wouldn’t have been the same anywhere else. My travel companions are already worried about the coca-leaf teabags in my hand luggage, so a bottle of Chile’s fiery national drink will have to suffice as a souvenir of this tripped-out place instead.

The Atacama Desert isn’t somewhere you fall in love with on arrival. For most, the attraction of this desolate dazzling landscape, the most parched place on Earth, is the mineral wealth with which it brims – gold, silver, lithium and, above all, copper, Chile’s greatest earner. Signs no longer even exist for Chuquicamata, the world’s largest copper mine, but to the purpose-built mining town of Calama, where its resident workers have since been moved by Codelco. Yet this, too, will one day add to the growing legion of ghost towns like nearby Humberstone and Chacabuco, now Unesco-listed relics of the nitrate boom of 1800s that marked one of the many bloodier chapters in South American history – the war over this lucrative territory is something Chile’s northern neighbours, Peru and Bolivia, have neither forgotten nor forgiven.

Relating these bleak details to us in a surprisingly upbeat manner is 28-year-old Danilo Vidal, whose passion for this region is matched only by his love of tattoos, obscure horror films and AC/DC. The weather report is good, he tells us with a grin – no rain! Not that we should underestimate the weather in these parts, though, judging by his next tale of the ‘white wind’, a freak of Andean winter weather powerful enough to stop a car. Just a few months previously, 34 young soldiers on manoeuvres in the Antuco region froze to death when the warning sign – a sudden change in the wind direction – wasn’t heeded.

Lost souls

As a collective shiver goes through the bus, Danilo gives a solemn wave to what looks like a pile of car parts, stones and water bottles on the roadside. It is the first animita of many we’ll see, ramshackle shrines to lost souls murdered or killed on the road. Without one of these homes, the spirit may become malevolent – or, without a friendly wave, lonely. Nobody should die out here alone,” says Danilo.

Already more than slightly freaked out, it’s reassuring to know we aren’t the only ones crazy enough to come here. Appearing amid the the salt hills of ‘dinosaur valley’, San Pedro de Atacama is a little green oasis built over an underground spring. This sun-bleached hippy outpost is the main jumping-off point for tours to Atacama’s lunar valleys, salt mountains, volcanos, geysers and flamingo-filled lagoons, but also has quite a reputation as ‘mind-opening’ sort of place. In the bars and cafés lining the main street of Caracoles, staff and punters alike sport the tans, tattoos and dreadlocks that suggest they aren’t going home in a hurry.

“People come here for a few days and stay for years – like me,” says Danilo. “Wait until your last day here and you’ll see why.”

Out on a remote cliff-edge, clutching plastic cups of Pisco Sour as we watch the sun set over Moon Valley that evening, the appeal of Danilo’s “80,000km2 office” is already becoming clear. The place is charged, he says, quite literally – the combination of extreme dryness and altitude produce some spectacular electrical storms, the altiplanic winter creating shifting magnetic fields which are powerful enough to feel with your fingers.


We’re unable to test Danilo’s theory that if we wave a hand over the blankets on our beds we’ll see sparks, but there’s certainly something in the air – nothing visible, given the awesome clarity of the emerging stars, but a special sort of energy that’s not just attributable to the Pisco alone. It was here on the mountain that a curious young Danilo experienced the effects of the legendary San Pedrino cactus he found growing outside his friend’s window. I ask, jokingly, if he talked to God. “I talked to a tree that told me the secrets of the universe,” he answers blithely, “but when I woke up, I’d forgotten them.”

Looking around, there isn’t a tree in sight. Must’ve been good shit.

Tripping out in the desert is nothing new, however – people round here have been doing it for centuries. The resilient ancient culture of the Atacamanian people (in their language, Lican-antai) survived Tiahuanaco, Inca and Spanish invasions, and still remains integrated with the Catholicism that was eventually embraced. What looks like desert is actually a vast archaeological goldmine, as a visit to the Gustavo Le Paige museum in San Pedro shows. Among the Stone Age relics and mummies that illustrate the area’s pre-history, by far the most beautiful display is that of drug paraphernalia – an entire art created around the storage, preparation and ingestion of psychotropics. In a culture whose spirits dwelt in the same place as the living, the opening of the mind was an all-important activity.

It certainly remains a priority for some travellers. “San Pedro has a strange energy – it can suck you in,” says Danilo. “I’ve seen people end up begging for money in the corner. The partying is hard and doesn’t stop. There are drugs everywhere.” His job keeps him busy, he says, though he too first came to San Pedro looking for escape, having quit a high-pressure job in the capital Santiago. Being a guide and history student won’t make him rich, but he’s as in love with his lifestyle as anyone you could meet.

Surreal beauty

Even the early mornings don’t get him down. On a pre-dawn excursion to the geysers at El Tatio – three hours of bumpy ‘calamina’ (washboard) roads on which most people try to sleep off their 4am start – Danilo tells me he’s seen UFOs twice on this very road. We could easily be landing on another planet when we eventually arrive, herds of vicuña scattering in the violet dawn light as we wander amid the plumes of sulphurous steam hissing from the earth, boiling eggs for breakfast in one of the bubbling pools.

Our return via ‘el norte grande’ takes us to the altiplanic lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques – luminous turquoise pools backed by snow dusted peaks and bizarre formations of solidified volcanic ash – and finally to the flamingo-filled Salar de Atacama, a surreally beautiful scene of graceful ballerina-pink creatures gliding around the saltscape of grey-white craters and pools. I can’t help wondering if you really need drugs at all with this to look at.

It’s our last day, and Danilo’s prediction has come true. He shows us the San Pedrino growing by his friend’s house, and though sensible advice wins the day, it’s not before the logistics of cactus-smuggling are some given serious consideration. If I can’t break the spell of the desert, maybe I can take it with me?”