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Chile's Atacama Desert
Volcanoes, vicunas, and very ancient cultures
by David Yeadon

I called her Little Linda. There was something in the delicate elongated shape of her face, her narrow, bony shoulders, and long dark tresses of hair, that suggested virginal vulnerability mixed with coquettish charm and youthful mischief. I felt she was possibly shy, but fun to flirt with. There was just one problem: she'd been dead for over 8000 years. Very dead. Thoroughly eviscerated, folded, and packed gently into an earthen pit in a waterless desert claimed to be the driest desert in the world from which she emerged this century, a little thinner and bonier but with her hair still neatly plaited and her mouth curled in a toothy half smile.

And there she was, perky as ever, sitting in a prominent display case in one of Chile's most intriguing museums the Archeological Museum of Father Gustave Le Paige in the remote oasis village of San Pedro, deep in the Atacama desert, at the foot of the perfect cone of the 19,520' high Licancabur volcano.

I had first seen her photograph in an airline magazine article and had promised that, should I ever venture to Chile, she would be high on my list of people to visit. And here I was in Chile, keeping my promise, and intrigued by the vast collection of artifacts in the Jesuit Priest's museum which told the 10,000 year history of the Atacameno culture and its incorporation into the Inca empire in the 15th century as it gobbled southward from Peru along the famed Inca Road. Subsequent decimation of the culture by Pedro de Valdivia and the Spanish conquistadors in the mid 1500's led to the destruction of the Atacamenos' fortified villages the pukaras and the establishment of a strict serfdom system controlled from such ancient communities as San Pedro.

The 20th century discovery of vast nitrate and copper deposits in the desert region closer to the coast brought a brief boomtown era here as it became a major stop on the lucrative cattle trail from the Argentinean borderlands to the burgeoning new mining towns. Today things are a little quieter although its growing reputation as a waystation on the "gringo trail" (over the Andes to Bolivia, Peru and Argentina) suggests that its ancient Atacameno origins will see yet one more reincarnation. I'd like to think that coquettish Little Linda immortalized in her display case would be pleased by all the unexpected attention.

Beyond the compact little community of sun-bleached adobe walls, narrow shadowy streets, and a plaza that invites you to sit for hours under the pepper trees by the old whitewashed Spanish church, the desert eases out in a broad, treeless vastness. The towering Andean spine of snowcapped mountains and Fuji-like volcanic cones (one still smoking) rise as a huge hazy wall in the east beautiful, dramatic, but oddly aloof.

"They look so wise," whispered a young Danish girl I'd met in the plaza, "like a line of gurus." She was sitting cross-legged among the burly roots of a pepper tree leaning against an enormous backpack. Her jeans were stained and torn and her long blonde hair hung tumultuously down her back. She seemed strangely familiar a time-warp reminder of sixties' world-wanderers who once roamed the remote regions of the globe seeking for themselves, for exotic and forbidden thrills, for cheap highs, and enervating enlightenment. Their numbers are vastly diminished nowadays but San Pedro is still one of their favored hangouts in this empty part of the globe.

"Over there is Bolivia," she said pointing to a series of sawtooth peaks sheened with ice and snow. "We're going tomorrow, ten of us."

A part of me wanted to join them, to become once again part of a small band of travelers, reinventing our lives every day, open to whatever comes our way, always moving slowly across the immensities.

But deserts are best experienced alone. I love their aura of infinite nowhereness. I rejoice in their colors the rich morning blendings of orange with beige, gold with brilliant silver, brick red against white, sienna with primrose, burnished gold streaked with amber. After noon comes the flat-time when colors merge into a sun-hammered dun-ness and the land is leached of form and edges. Eyes ache in the scouring light and the spirit longs for evening when shapes emerge again from the haze, bathed in an iridescent scarlet-gold reservoir of light, before the creeping grayness and chill breezes of dusk and the oncoming star-filled, velvet-blackness of night.

The desert and its slow daily round of moods turns you inward to the infinities of your own spirit. You experience a sense of utter timelessness; your mind becomes divorced from your body in the heat-stunned stillness. Whatever you notice, a brittle needle of eroded rock, a sudden shattered scarp, a few bleached bones among the pebbles, your spirit is free to play with like a kitten with a ball of twine. And you can fly too! I remember sitting with closed eyes on a sandy rise by the cemetery on the edge of San Pedro, and sensing my body skimming weightlessly across the vastness: all I had to do was tip my arms one way or the other and I cut through the air clean as a knife. I felt I could fly forever in the silence, circling effortlessly, across a desert that seemed endless . . . .

A nuzzle from the cold nose of a llama brought me abruptly back down to earth in the plaza. This odd creature, a freaky combination of sheep and giraffe, was obviously hungry so I shared a limply melting bar of chocolate. We chewed slowly together. The Danish girl laughed and took a photograph of our mutual munching. "Crazy!" she giggled.

And she was right. This part of the Atacama is kind of crazy a desert in which no rainfall has been recorded for over 50 years and yet which bursts into a sudden flowery bloom every spring; strange salt lakes one of them, the Salar de Aguas Calientes, a brilliant emerald green and populated by hundreds of pink flamingoes; ancient stone and adobe Indian villages that suddenly pop out of the shimmering vastness or huddle deep in almost-invisible canyons around verdant green oases; a dry eroded valley aptly named The Valley of the Moon that offers an unearthly array of monster-like mountains, bizarre-rock formations, and huge black-sand dunes sheened to silky smoothness by the hot desert winds.

And then the craziest place of all the Tatio geysers 60 miles or so north of San Pedro. This geological anomaly had been one of the main reasons for my visit here. Only no one told me that I'd have to leave my comfortable lodging at the bone-chilling hour of 3 a.m. I'd become rather fond of this little town with its 800 or so hardy residents and its funky backpackers and tiny restaurants offering inexpensive platters of steak, chicken-filled empanadas (wonderful crisp pastry delights served with "pebre" salsa), hearty Spanish cazuela stews, and pastel de choclo (a corn, raisin, and chicken pie). But it was essential so I'd been told to reach the geysers before dawn to experience their strange charms. Which explains why I bid a reluctant farewell to this enticing oasis on a freezing pre-dawn morning (can you believe it a ghostly coating of frost on the palm fronds after a 95 day!) and clattered off across the desert in a rented jeep, switchbacking over ridges on a rough corrugated track that seemed determined to shake every tooth out of my head and pummel my brain into gooey mush. Twice I almost rolled off the track on sneaky hairpin bends over the 13,000' Las Vizcachas pass but finally, in brilliant moonlight, I coasted down to an eerie mountain bowl surrounded by soaring snowcapped Andean peaks. Curling wraiths of steam rose in some cases hundreds of feet from dozens of active blowholes in the mile-wide fumarole field. Slowly I eased the jeep across steaming runoff streams to a vantage point on the edge of the bowl. Frost glinted on the coarse high desert scrub. Despite the lack of wind it was amazingly cold and four layers of clothing still left me shivering at this high altitude where the slightest exertion required great gulps of lung-chilling air. Walking was treacherous in the half-light; some of the boiling pools were barely more than a yard across and hardly visible in the steam clouds. I had no desire for scalded legs or worse so I kept to the fringes of the field, listening to its seething and bubbling. Some of the larger geysers burst in great sprays from altar-sized encrustations of lime and minerals; others were more insidious burping mudholes spuming chocolate orgasms from deep dark recesses edged by mossy borders.

For a half hour or so the whole place was all mine. But as the stars began to disappear in a slowly-lightening sky, I saw a few other jeeps and trucks arriving with handfuls of hardy trekkers come to celebrate the dawn in this strange and lonely place.

The first sear of light came from between two huge mountains and transformed the gray lumpish hillside behind me into a golden cascade of eroded scarps and crevices covered in brush-stroke flecks of "paja brava" grasses. The billowing steam columns glowed and sparkled. Cameras clicked all around me and a cheer went up as the sun itself broke through a cleft and warmth began to permeate the bowl. On the far side I heard shrieks of delight and scampered between the blowholes to see six young backpackers gaily throwing off their clothes and leaping naked into a natural hot pool by the highest geyser of all that hurled its boiling fury into a steam column over 300' high. Other travelers ran over and were so enticed by the frolicking that, with varying degrees of modesty, they too discarded layers of parkas, sweaters and shirts and flung themselves into the spray. It had all the makings of a rollicking orgy and I was so entranced by the scene that I slipped on the edge of a pernicious little blowhole and almost had my left foot boiled like a lobster for breakfast.

As the sun rose the steam lost much of its condensation fury in the warming air and the columns diminished under an increasingly brilliant blue sky. It was time to move on in search of the elusive Indian villages I'd heard were hidden somewhere in the vast desert plains below.

The track became even worse than before as I negotiated my jeep down the long scrub-covered slopes dotted with occasional herds of wild llama-like vicu–a to a seemingly endless plateau of gravel and broken stones. There can't possibly be a village anywhere around here, I thought, as I scoured the desolation. But I was wrong. An hour or so after leaving the geysers the desert suddenly broke open revealing the deep gash of a canyon. I stood on the rim and peered down. There, way below me, was a winding stream glinting silver in the sun, long brilliant green strips of terraced fields and clusters of flame-like lombardy poplars, golden with early fall colors. On top of a sheer-walled bluff I could see a tiny white church and a village of thick-walled stone houses clustered along the stream. I had found the elusive and ancient community of Caspana, set like some Chilean Brigadoon deep in its hidden green canyon and revealing remnants of the rich Atacamenian culture.

Enchantment grew as I explored the village, admiring the enormity of its stone walls and terraces, smiling (and being smiled back at) by stony-faced women in long skirts and bowler-type hats, and climbing the steep stone-paved streets to the pueblo viejo the old village perched on top of steep cliffs in the traditional manner of ancient Chilean pukaras or fortress-villages. From my high vantage point by the church I peered down on the tiny thatch and mud-roofed cottages each topped with a small cross and neatly-terraced fields watching women wash clothes in the stream beside tall clumps of pampas grass and the men pull fat scarlet carrots from plots of rich black earth. Sacks of carrots were piled nearby waiting transport to the markets of Calama, the bustling city 40 miles to the west boasting the largest open-pit copper mine in the world. Llamas wandered the winding paths; two boys played by a waterfall below the village museum, recently opened to display vignettes of the region's long history; bowler-hatted women chatted together by the tiny store overlooking the stream.

I strolled down among the terraced fields and followed the stream as it meandered through llama- grazed meadows up into the pueblo nuevo the new village ("new" in this part of the world usually seems to refer to anything built after the 16th century Spanish conquest!). The sun was blazing now and shade was scarce among the thick, rock-walled and almost windowless cottages. Except for the people out in the fields the village had lapsed into a siesta-time hush. A couple of skinny dogs lay prostrate under a flurry of bushes; butterflies blue, emerald and gold-winged beauties seemed to be the only sign of life.

Then I heard the gentle clacking of wood on wood the slow rhythm of a loom somewhere ahead. Peering into a cool courtyard where an old pepper tree provided shadowy relief, I saw an elderly woman weaving on a creaking contraption in the corner. Balls of naturally-colored llama wool beiges ,creams and dark browns lay by her feet. She was humming softly and her small body moved easily with the shuttle. I was reluctant to disturb her but she turned, smiled and beckoned me over. The rug she was making in rich patternings of wool seemed to contain all the basic elements of this hidden village a line of dark mountains, two llamas, items that looked like clay pots, and a huddle of small houses just like the one she lived in. I told her how beautiful her work looked and she smiled even more, her deep copper face crinkling in a hundred lines.

"It's for the market in Calama," she said slowly, assuming correctly that my grasp of the local Spanish dialect was hazy at best. "They like the things of our village our vegetables, our flowers, our rugs." The slow clacking continued and the soft hiss of the shuttle on the woolen strands.

"They should like this village," I said. "It's a lovely place."

"And very old," she added.

"Very old", I agreed.

"Before the conquistadors," she said with what seemed like a trace of sadness. "We have been here a long, long time."

I nodded. Eleven thousand years of Atacameno history seemed capsuled in this cool courtyard as the old woman performed one of civilization's most ancient skills with a grace that was truly timeless.

I could feel the peace and slow rhythms of this secretive place seducing me. You could live here awhile, said the temptress in my brain. Find a small thatched-roofed cottage, plant a garden, maybe write a book, sketch the villagers, record the daily rounds of life in this small community... The sensations were familiar. I've been enticed this way many times in my travels. On a couple of occasions I've actually succumbed, put aside my life for a while, and allowed myself to become part of a different culture, a different way of seeing and existing. Would I do it again here, I wondered . . . .

Apparently not. Within a few hours I was back in the jeep and careering once more on corrugated desert tracks in search of a second, equally elusive, village set in its own hidden canyon 20 miles or so to the west near the confluence of the Salado and Loa rivers. Founded by the Spanish conquistadors, Chiu Chiu is set on the ancient Inca Road near one of the Atacama's oddest anomolies, a half mile wide lagoon of crystaline water more than 450' deep. Previous settlements in the area were once inhabited by the largest concentrations of native Atacamenos in the region. Stone and adobe houses lined the main street and narrow alleys and at the center, bounded by the Loa river on one side and a recently restored plaza on the other, sat one of Chile's most beloved native monuments Chiu Chiu's Church of San Francisco. This ponderous massive whitewashed adobe structure, supported by numerous huge buttresses, was built in 1675 and boasts walls more than 5' thick in places. Outside the sun beat furiously on the pebble-paved street but the church's dark and incense-wafted interior was cool and silent. Easter was approaching and dramatic statues of a gashed and bleeding Christ, a black-cloaked madonna, and other distraughtly-postured saints clustered around the main altar. Nearby was a rare double- sided painting showing the tortured face and chest of Christ on the front panel and his lashed back and bleeding head, cut by a vicious crown of thorns, on the rear. High above, the huge chanas wood rafters were tied together by ancient leather straps and the ceiling consisted of rare "cactus tablets" lined with a thick layer of mud and straw. I'd noticed clumps of huge cacti on my way across the desert. Apparently the core of the plant is a woody ring which can be flattened out when wet and cut into panels for use in ceiling and doors.

An elderly man, stooped but wearing a jaunty beret on his bald head, approached me out of the gloom.

"You like our little church?" he asked in a gravelly dialect.

I tried to explain in my stumbling Spanish that this was perhaps the finest indigenous church I'd seen in Chile. "It is very famous," he said proudly. "In Calama there is a park where they have built a replica of this church almost the same size showing every detail including our doors of cactus wood. You must see it."

I promised him I would as we strolled outside into the searing sun. "You must also see Lasana. It's just up the valley the ruins of a very ancient pukara fortress-village. That will show you how people once lived here. A strange place." Some of the dialect words he used originated from the ancient "cunza" language of the Atacamenos, rarely used nowadays.

I took his advice and followed a winding track up a deep canyon to the north of Chiu Chiu. The Loa river sinewed between tiny lush fields of spinach, carrots, corn, and alfalfa. Among the broken walls of the canyon I spotted petroglyph-like etchings on the rocks. I have no idea if they were genuine but they added to the sense that these remote corners of the vast Atacama desert had been lovingly nurtured by ancient peoples for thousands of years (true petroglyphs found in the northern reaches of the Atacama near the Peruvian border are said to date back more than 11,000 thousand years).

After a few winding miles I spotted the ruins of the pukara, a flurry of massive 12th century stone walls perched on a rocky crag above the river. Here the tribal chieftains and other high-ranking individuals had lived in tight knit quarters, guarded by round defense towers. I climbed up the steep path of this invinsible bastion and wandered the narrow alleys, barely wide enough for donkeys, past the remains of octagonal granaries where harvests from the valley below were once jealously protected. The physical power and intensity of the structures seemed oddly out of harmony with the vast open endlessness of the desert beyond the canyon. Yet in the days when fierce inter-tribal wars were commonplace, such places were vital for the preservation of cultural footholds in this bleak and fierce land.

Later in the day I knew I'd be back in Calama, nestled in air-conditioned comfort at my hotel and tucking into some lavish dinner washed down with marguarita-like pisco sours and elegant Chilean wines but, for the moment, I preferred to remain in this sturdy hilltop eyrie, watching the vulture-like jotes circle in a mediterranean blue sky, the llamas snoozing by the river below, and enjoying the aroma of baking bread from a domed adobe oven set beside a tiny farmstead nestled at the base of the high canyon walls. The seductions of civilization could wait. I sat quietly on a rock ledge, listening to the ghosts of ancient tribes and feeling the warm desert wind on my face . . . .

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