Life in the Past Tense: Chile's Atacama Desert
By Shelley Seale

Visiting the driest place on Earth, a writer is captivated by the alien landscape but longs to look deeper into the lives and traditions of the hardy people who inhabit it.

Atacama landscape

It is still dark when the Colque family makes its way up the volcano, climbing steadily in the early morning hours. The air is cool and arid here in the Atacama, the world's highest and driest desert in the far northern reaches of Chile, along the Andes mountain range at the borders of Bolivia and Argentina.

The small group of indigenous Atacameños reaches the peak just before sunrise on this winter solstice, June 21—the New Year for the Atacameño people. The eldest male, the grandfather, leads the animal they have brought along to the edge of the volcanic crest. Perhaps it is a llama, perhaps a sheep or a goat. All have been used in previous years.

As the sun begins its climb over the horizon the elder pulls out a knife and, with great respect and reverence, cuts open the animal's chest. He reaches inside and pulls out the still-beating heart.

He holds the heart up toward the rising sun, an offering to the gods and to the power of nature in this harsh, forbidding land where very little grows and some places have never seen a drop of rain in recorded history. The entire family watches intently, in silence, for however many times the heart continues to beat will reveal how much prosperity and good fortune the family will have in the coming year.

After the ceremony, which has been a part of many Atacameño for thousands of years, the Colque family returns to the valley and goes to church—a Spanish Catholic church in the village of Machuca, where they live.

"It is very, very important to do this," says Joel Colque, one of the younger adult members of the family at 24 years old. "With it we receive blessings, and a good year."

This blending of cultures and beliefs may seem incongruous, until you realize that in this desert region at the northern tip of Chile is home to an incredibly hardy people with a long lineage in human history. Some mummified remains in Father Le Paige's Museum at San Pedro de Atacama are the oldest in the world, pre-dating Egyptian relics by thousands of years.

The Atacameño people were invaded by the Inca, colonized and relentlessly persecuted by the Spanish, and at times under the control of Bolivia and Peru. Their religion, culture and language have been under attack for centuries, yet somehow they have preserved a way of life that is little changed, and very welcoming to visitors.

Chile travel

"My people have made rituals at the top of volcanoes for 600 years before the Spanish," Joel tells me. "We make animal sacrifices, though when the Incas came to this area they were known to make human sacrifices. Many of their constructions are still up there, in the Andes."

The Atacama Desert presents a geography that is almost like another planet. Its otherworldly appearance and terrain have been likened to Mars; so much so that it has been the location for many movies filming Mars scenes, and NASA tests instruments for future Mars missions here. The lack of rain — an average of only .04 inches per year in the entire region—has created riverbeds that scientists believe have been dry for 120,000 years.

The immensity of the landscape is breathtaking, as you pass copper and lithium mines made famous by Che Guevara and the 2010 incident that trapped 33 miners for two months, with smoking 35 million-year-old Andes volcanoes of up to 22,000 feet looming over it all. And at six to nine thousand feet of elevation, altitude sickness is common; visitors are cautioned for the possibility of some initial lethargy, headaches or insomnia.

Into the Salt Flats
For a real look at the history of the Atacameño people, hike up the Pukara de Quitor, a fort just outside San Pedro de Atacama that was built around 900 B.C., until the Spanish overtook it centuries later. As I approach the entrance I hear guitar music; the ticket seller is sitting languidly in the corner playing music. As I pay my $2 entry fee, I attempt a conversation in very broken Spanish.

adobe door

The man's name is Luis Salva, I learn; he has worked at Pukara de Quitor for two years. He plays five instruments, and performs another song before I start my climb into the fort. "Atacama es muy bonita," Luis says.

I must agree. The fort is dotted with signs explaining its history of invasion upon the peaceful people, in both English and Spanish, and my arrival at the top yields a magnificent view of the desert gorge below. After my exploration, I hop on a loaner bike from the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge to explore the surrounding valleys and villages.

After a traditional asado (barbeque) lunch, Joel Colque arrives to take me to the Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile and third-largest in the world. Joel is a guide working for Alto Atacama, and he represents the straddling of two worlds that many of the region's younger generation undertake. Until you hear the story of his family's annual animal sacrifice, you would think he was any adrenaline-junkie adventurer in his twenties. He's big into sandboarding, but also attempts to ride his board down the snowcapped volcanoes. Joel guides not only for the hotel but also his aunt's adventure tour company. He's young, cocky and brash; if he threw in a few "dudes," he could be a California surfer.

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