How to avoid overtourism and uncover the real Atacama

Chile Copiapo, Altiplano Lagoon – Pura Adventure

With light twinkling through its empty eye sockets, even a dead cow looks ethereal on the Altiplano’s high plateau. Polished brilliant white by an unabating wind, the animal’s spiny vertebrae gleam against the backdrop of a vibrant turquoise lagoon. The carcase has been dropped accidentally by a cargo lorry and it’s hard to tell how long it has been here. But with no one to witness a passing of years, the desert affords everything an opportunity to grow old gracefully.

Time unravels slowly in northern Chile’s Atacama region, a landscape shaped over millennia and seemingly borrowed from another world. Fossils of ancient monsters such as megalodons and giant sloths rest in mineral-streaked rocks and volcanoes rising 2,300ft high. Pink flamingos dare to dance on lakes so salty they suffocate life.

But in the past few years, the region has suffered a graver alien invasion: overtourism. Pre-pandemic, the small town of San Pedro de Atacama received more than 1,000 visitors a day, overrunning popular attractions such as the Moon Valley and El Tatio geysers, with very little money trickling back into local pockets.

Covid gave native Atacameños communities an unexpected opportunity to reflect. Although other national parks in Chile are now open, Los Flamencos Reserve – their ancestral land, encompassing the region’s bucket-list landmarks – remains closed. A similar situation is unfolding with the Rapa Nui on Easter Island, where tourism is unlikely to resume until next year.

Beautiful pink flamingo flying over the surface of Laguna Santa Rosa in the Nevado Tres Cruces National Park – Alamy

Symptomatic of a far greater global problem, the stand-off is forcing tour operators to rethink their approach. Two years ago, Thomas Power, CEO and co-founder of Pura Aventura, and his Chilean director Camilo Silva had the foresight to develop an alternative Atacama tour. Delayed by the pandemic, it’s even more relevant today.

“We’ve always preferred to stay longer and go deeper off the beaten track; it’s in our DNA,” says Power, whose company’s commitments to sustainability include mitigating the carbon emissions of a customer’s holiday (from transport to meals and hotels) by 160 per cent, promoting longer itineraries and ensuring money goes directly into the hands of local communities. Beyond protecting the planet, the benefits include an improved holiday experience. “I know that when our clients go to these places, they’re received like someone’s extended family,” he says.

In keeping with this ethos, Pura’s new tour aims to uncover the real Atacama – the sci-fi colours of Nevado Tres Cruces National Park in the Altiplano; the fishing villages along the coast; and the mineral mines of Copiapo. Prior to the launch, I had an opportunity to try it out.

Chile, Atacama

After arriving in La Serena, a one-hour flight from Santiago, we drive alongside the Chilean Coastal Range towards the Pacific Ocean. Feral donkeys and guanacos forage on a brittle landscape studded with cacti. A mob of grey foxes slump in the bushes, waiting to hijack coachloads of gullible tourists for snacks.

Urbanites from the big smoke frequently travel along these highways for their holidays, heading to Bahia Inglesa, a rugged beach with shacks serving plates of raw, butter-soft scallops shucked straight from the rocks. Several – like us – stop further south at Chanaral de Aceituno, a tiny village where fishermen ferry guests to watch whales in a protected marine area.

In the harbour, gulls squabble for position on the frames of open boats tied up for the night. Discarded locos shells (a type of abalone known as “crazies”) form cairns along the shore and bundles of seaweed sit on the back of a battered pick-up truck ready for export.

Bahia Inglesa, Chile – Sarah Marshall

In the distance, waves crash over volcanic basalt rocks, serrating the coastline into a jaw of rotting teeth. Only one dusty road leads out of the village, winding over the hills and out of sight.

Ten years ago, guest-house owner Amparo Martínez retired and moved here from the capital to open Refugio Nautico, a bright, seaside property ­decorated in pastel colours and weathered woods. “I came here for the light, the waves, the whales,” she tells me when I arrive.

Our whale-watching tour departs early the following morning as a caman­chaca (a fog formed by humidity and Pacific mist) rolls in. Captain Patrizio Ortiz and his daughter-in-law helm our open motorboat Arca da Noé (Noah’s Ark) for the two-and-a-half-hour ride to Chañaral Island, part of the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve.

Sarah eating a raw scallop in Bahia Inglesa – Sarah Marshall

Every year between November and March, fin and humpback whales migrate through these waters and local fishermen like Ortiz have joined forces to establish a self-regulated wildlife-viewing industry. Running through the list of strict protocols, including a maximum of four boats at each sighting and a minimum distance of 65ft, he insists: “We don’t want to stress them, or we’ll lose our work.”

Glimpses of the marine mammals are fleeting during our trip, but we do spend time with boobies and colonies of sea lions, which laze languorously on the rocks, in no hurry to move on.

Cresting waves and shifting currents aren’t restricted to the Pacific. Later that afternoon, we continue inland to the Mar de Dunes, a vast sea of sand. Soft peaks move back and forth with the wind and others sing, Silva explains as we balance on a transient ridge line, sinking away with every step. The friction of coarse mineral fragments causes one dune, El Bramador, to groan and bellow, creating the ancient myth of a fearsome spirit living in the ever-shifting mound.

Mar de Dunes, Atacama – Sarah Marshall

For centuries, communities have revered and harnessed the desert’s powers through stories, legends and extractive industries. Since pre-Inca times, copper mining has characterised the Copiapo region: from small pockmarks made by independent, artisanal pirquineros to large industrial wounds, the scars in the landscape are impossible to ignore.

The area’s most famous mine is Esperanza, where 33 miners were trapped underground in 2010 for 70 days. A story that gripped the world, it spawned a Hollywood film, The 33, starring Antonio Banderas.

Although the mine is now closed, a viewing platform and small museum have been erected above the site. Jorge Galleguillos, the 11th miner to be released, leads tours to poignant points above ground, including a pipe that delivered the first message revealing the miners were still alive. Instructed to write our own notes, we fold them into a capsule and wait for five minutes and 40 seconds as the tube plummets 2,300ft – a chilling indication of how deep the men were stuck.

Mines in Copiapo, Chile, Atacama – Sarah Marshall

A short, stubby man with a white plaited beard, round belly and serious expression, Galleguillos reminds me of an angry garden gnome. Gruffly moving us around the site, he reveals he’s only in touch with a few of the 33 miners. Following the initial elation of being released, many turned to drink and drugs. “Some got fat,” he jokes, reaching around his waist. Nightmares keep all of them awake at night.

Leading tours has been Galleguillos’s therapy, a way to remain relevant. “The people who come here and ask to hear my story, that gives me strength,” he says, tears temporarily diluting his stern temper as we climb a platform where 2,000 international journalists and photographers eagerly waited a decade ago. Once filled with flashes and camera clicks, it’s now silent. In that emptiness, I understand the gnawing depression of being forgotten as yesterday’s news.

Although most are off-limits, a handful of mines in Copiapo can be safely explored at ground level. Pura Aventura has arranged special access, allowing its guests to appreciate how this industry has shaped Atacama’s people. After only two minutes inside a shaft, I’m plunged into darkness. I wait for my eyes to adjust, but they never do. Very soon, the roof of my mouth is covered in dust. The experience demonstrates how many sacrifices have been made in the pursuit of wealth.

Petroglyphs in Copiapo – Sarah Marshall

But it was the promise of natural riches that brought the first settlers to Atacama. Evidence of their presence can be found in petroglyphs at tambos (resting places) along Inca trails where caravans of llamas would trek between the highlands and the coast.

Not far from the mines, we take a short hike to reach a collection of paintings created with a concoction of iron and animal fat. Few studies have been done on the series of squiggles and primitive doodles, thought to represent shamans and rivers, but looking remarkably like space invaders from a 1980s arcade game. All face east, towards the mountains and rain.

With so little information available, they could feasibly be the work of aliens. The fantasy would fit with a place where there are more questions than answers. In the real Atacama, far from crowds and controversy, so much remains irresistibly unknown.

The Atacama region, Chile – Sarah Marshall

How to do it: Pura Aventura (01273 676712; pura-aventura.com) offers a 20-night Atacama & Patagonia Off the Beaten Track holiday from £7,555pp (two sharing), including B&B accommodation, some meals, 4×4 car hire, some guiding and internal flights. Excludes international flights. See our guide to the best hotels in Chile.

Alternative Atacama

Salt Moon, Vallecito

Sculpted by water and wind, the shapes and colours of the Cordillera de la Sal are just as captivating as Atacama’s poster star, the Moon Valley. Hike through hills and cuts in the mountains, admiring sand dunes along the way. The Magic Bus, an abandoned remnant of the salt-mining industry, gives human context to the area.

Guatin Gatchi

Giant cardon cacti are commonly found in this region. Hike through a spiky forest in the Valle de Guatin, arriving at a confluence of two rivers where thermal and mountain meltwaters collide. Small waterfalls and endemic vegetation line a route leading to a panoramic view of the valley.

Cardon cacti at Guatin creek in the Atacama Desert – Getty

The Devil’s Canyon

Hike along a dry riverbed flanked by rocky walls carved into shapes so angry and contorted, they could belong to an underworld. A steady ascent reaches heavenly views of mountain peaks and volcanic cones, continuing to a site where petroglyphs document the path of ancient traders.

Beter

Get to grips with local culture at two archaeological sites marking the first Atacameño settlements in pre-Hispanic and colonial periods. Find smelted metals, ceramics and remains of houses covered in sand. Visit on a bike tour combined with a stop at the first rural desert bookshop in Chile.

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