Dawn is nosing above the Andes, casting the salt plains and dunes rose-gold, but for once no one here is looking at the sunrise.
It’s another light up ahead that has captured our attention: a roaring flame that shoots straight up into the still, milky sky. Nearby a large heap of red silk lies on the sand like a beached whale, and from it snake ropes that lead to a wicker basket that’s currently resting on its side. This is what’s going to carry me 2,000ft above earth – or 10,000ft above sea level if you count the ground altitude as well.
Surreal, hauntingly beautiful panoramas come thick and fast in the Atacama desert, a two-hour flight north of Santiago: rainbow cliffs streaked green, red and white by different minerals, lava-sculpted gorges, steaming geyser fields and salt-glazed plains. Now it’s possible to get an entirely different perspective of the driest place on Earth, since hot air balloon excursions launched last autumn.
My inaugural ascent is shockingly smooth; my eyes are squeezed tightly shut for take off but when taking a peek to check what’s going on I find the minibus that brought us to this desert spot is already reduced to toy car scale.
A hissing blast of heat occasionally breaks the silence as the pilot takes us higher still. From this vantage point, the plain opens up like the palm of a great hand, irrigation canals and roads no more than faint lines threading across rust-red earth. Those streaks of silver over there are 60-mile salt flats where flamingos gather, that bloom of green is a grove of fig or carob trees, the lines of purple smoke along the horizon are vast volcanic mountain ranges.
Our tear-shaped shadow is reflected below, slowly looming larger as we start to descend. Before landing the balloon skims over the ground for some time at 4km per hour, cruising so low I can make out individual pebbles and twigs on the sand, and somehow this part is just as moving as the lofty heights.
Fast-forward 12 hours, and my perspective is neatly inverted. Now I’m standing on terra firma with my neck aching from craning upwards. Stargazing.
Atacama is the best place in the world for it, as the high altitude, arid atmosphere and lack of light pollution equal unbeatable clarity. Accustomed to murky purple night skies above London, where you might catch a glimpse of Orion’s Belt or Venus through the clouds, Atacama’s pitch-black diamond-studded display is astonishing.
Guided by a laser pen wielded by one of the observatory’s astronomers, for the first time I could distinguish the coppery shade of Mars from bluish Venus, the rings of Saturn and the craters of the moon.
Most of the high-tech observatories in the area run tours at least once a week and the most impressive of them all is ALMA (meaning ‘soul’ in Spanish), the largest land-based observatory ever built and home to a telescope that’s at least ten times more powerful than the Hubble. Effectively an international ‘earpiece’ on the universe, it observes invisible radiation from distant stars and galaxies.
As well as appearing upside-down to me, viewed here in the southern hemisphere, the constellations go by other names borne of their desert setting: the Poncho and Llama replace Orion and Scorpio, the Southern Cross is known as the head of a snake.
These pin-sharp lights are joined by glowing smudges of nebulae (stellar nurseries formed of massive dust, hydrogen and helium gas) and the wide pale arch of the Milky Way. Indigenous atacameños knew this as the ‘soul river’, through which a person’s spirit ventured during dreams and after death.
Such mysticism is easy to hold with when standing under this brilliant canopy, even today with a high-tech telescope beside me.
Storytelling and myth must have helped Atacama’s ancient inhabitants fill and humanise this yawning, forbidding landscape – one that’s so alien that NASA tested its Mars Rovers here. Entering the aptly-named Moon Valley the following day, I’m greeted by a carved stone Chakana, the stepped Andean cross that signifies different spheres of life: Hanan Pacha, the celsestial world; Kay Pacha, the perceptible world of plants and animals; and Ukku Pacha, the underworld.
After scaling the sand dunes I’m told about a love triangle between the mountain Quimal and volcanoes Licancabur and Juriques, who vied for her affection. In short, it didn’t end well.
Juriques was decapitated, hence why today this volcano sits with a blasted-off top in contrast with Lican’s towering conical form, while Quimal was exiled to stand way off across the Alto Plano on her own. There’s an empty space between the volcanoes where, as legend has it, she once stood.
Need to know
Rainbow Tours can tailor-make a week-long trip to Chile including four nights at Tierra Atacama from £3,695 per person. Price includes return flights from London to Santiago with British Airways, all transfers, all included excursions in Atacama offered at Tierra Atacama and three additional nights in Santiago. Book with Rainbow Tours. rainbowtours.co.uk
Tierra Hotels offers a two night adventure spa experience at Tierra Atacama From £1,145 per person for two nights in a double room. Price is based on two people sharing a double en-suite room with a view towards the Licancabur volcano, private terrace and outdoor shower, on an all-inclusive basis, and includes transfers, all meals, an open bar, a full daily excursion programme and use of the hotel spa (treatments are charged separately). Two night minimum booking. tierrahotels.com
Balloon flights with Balloons Over Atacama start from £241 per person, balloonsoveratacama.com. LATAM operates regular flights between Santiago and Calama (Atacama), latam.com. For more information on visiting Chile go to chile.travel
Facing off across the plains, these formations become omnipresent characters when staying in San Pedro de Atacama – which invariably everyone visiting the area does. Just a few streets of adobe-walled single-storey buildings, the town manages to retain its charm despite being a tourist hub.
Tierra Atacama has a quieter position just outside the village, a former cattle corral turned high-end lodge, with only a row of pampas grass separating its infinity pool and fire pits from views of volcano and sand dunes. Its spa pairs outdoorsy excursions with complementary treatments. Moon Valley is matched with a crystal massage and Reiki, for example, while a hot stone massage welcomed me back after a dawn trip to the El Tatio geysers, where columns of steam rush into the icy air at an eye-watering (or rather, breath-shortening) altitude of 14,000ft above sea level. After all that gawping up at stars or peering down at valleys who doesn’t need a bit of a neck rub?
By day, the sky over Atacama is vast and gas-flame blue. Life appears miraculously from time to time: a herd of grazing llamas, a row of pointed stones stacked to invoke some mysterious force, and the thousand-year-old rock carvings of flamingos and pumas at Yerbas Buenas.
I pass through a still and silent village where a woman is knitting scarves using cactus wood needles and a llama chews grass in the back yard, but everyone else seems to be having siesta. Mostly, however, nothing stirs out there in the desert save the slow dance of a few wind turbines and our car’s stark shadow.
It makes me pay unnatural attention to the land – its contours and colours. How it shifts from copper to pale pink to ash grey. Where it forms warped curving layers, or cascades in rubbly slopes, even rises in ridges like a stegosaurus’ spiked back. In the driest, barest place prepare to feel very small, intoxicated and awed.