Home schooling is going ever so well. I seized upon our imminent arrival in the Atacama Desert to share with the kids a little piece of my extensive knowledge of geography, all tucked away in the old memory bank from when I sat in the front row of Malcolm Knight’s Environmental Science A-Level class in 1991, sucking it all up like an eager little sponge. “You know, family: the Atacama Desert is the driest place on Earth. It’s so dry that there are hardly any plants and those that do live there are specially adapted, so you can hardly see them. And when there’s the very occasional drop of rain, the whole desert blooms with bright coloured flowers, just for a moment. It’s apparently MAGICAL.”
We left the airport to a barren wilderness. You see! Dry! Then as we drove to the hotel, there was a strange rumbling that couldn’t be explained by the road surface, nor the fact that we’d all only eaten airline snacks for the previous five hours. Thunder. Then lightning. Then rain. Shit loads of rain. The kids were glued to the windows for the explosion of magical flowers. But no flowers appeared. “You just wait!” I said enigmatically, secretly cursing Malcolm Knight for selling me a dummy (exams were obviously easier then: you could say stuff that wasn’t even true as long as you said it over thirteen pages of A4 using multi-syllabic words). Still no flowers.
A few more minutes and the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama hoved into view. It’s one of the vagaries of travelling on the beaten path that what you think is unusual and extreme has been seen and trod by thousands of people before you, most of whom still seemed to be milling the streets of this low-rise mud-built town. This place attracts the backpacker year-off crowd, brightly knitted Andean balaclavas & ‘Guacamole: Ten Ways’ with a zillion varieties of souvenir Llamas thrown in. The combination of a hippy bazaar in rainy season (as we now understood it was) meant that San Pedro ‘high street’ resembled the strip between the Pyramid and the Other Stage at Glastonbury but with more confused dogs.
When the deluge eased and the skies cleared, we explored the hotel, a proper little desert paradise of pomegranate trees set against the backdrop of the Licancabur volcano. As it happened, we’d come to the driest place on Earth at the wettest time of year so a bunch of the normal activities were off limits because of the risk of flash floods. Close by, though, is Valle de la Luna, part of the salt mountain range flanking San Pedro. It’s where 2001: A Space Odyssey was filmed and it’s a series of dunes and craggy caves studded with gypsum crystals.
Next was the Valle de la Muerte, an unpromisingly named excursion which was billed as ‘the only thing you can do which doesn’t carry the risk of accidental drowning’. We drove to the edge of the valley itself and parked up, expecting more caves and perhaps the odd skull or at least a vague sense of impending doom. But instead, the most spectacular view, a vast landscape of red rock formations laid out at the foot of the almost supernaturally beautiful floating Licancabur:
Best of all, though, was the descent. If there’s a better way to spend an afternoon with four kids than running down a mountain-sized sand dune, I’ve yet to find it.
We went back the next day too and the kids would’ve gone back yet again, but the rain had held off long enough that we could finally visit the Chaxa Lagoon which lies in the middle of one of the Atacama desert’s biggest salt flats, an hour from San Pedro. Here we saw Andean flamingoes, one of the rarest kinds on Earth. Lithium mining in the area has massively depleted their lagoon, despite local protests; it’s one of those sights that might not be around for long.
On our last day we drove into the altiplano to see the Yuerbas Buenas petroglyphs carved into the rocks. They’re difficult to date but are believed to have been left by the the first people who drove llama caravans across the Atacama to trade with coastal communities in around 800A.D. This site was a surprise hit with the kids, who loved the natural caves and especially by Alice who turned into a kind of primitive version of a Foxton’s estate agent, giving a running commentary of the attributes of each individual cave-home as they scrambled across the rocks. There was a small local llama population nearby, including a very cute baby llama that stayed still long enough for a shot.
This was our last stop in Chile, a country which far surpassed expectation, in beauty but also in kid-friendliness. The landscape is so varied, the sights so spectacular, it’s difficult to imagine a better way to spend two weeks. And the rain? Where there is rain, there are rainbows. And where there are clouds, there are sunsets. It’s all good, baby.