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

Salar de Atacama is as otherworldly as the Atacama gets — jagged salt-crusted rocks rising from the ground amid shallow pools of the desert's precious water. The salt lakes also hold the most incongruous, but enchanting, sight: dozens of vivid flamingos. Three species of flamingo live in the Salar, some of the only animal life outside llamas and lizards to exist in the ruthless climate.

But perhaps the most breathtaking sight in the Atacama is sunset at the Valley of the Moon. The rock formations and colorful striated mountainsides are reminiscent of the American Southwest, creating an unforgiving scar of jagged earth in between. With the clearest skies in the southern hemisphere, stargazing after the sun goes down provides an equally magical show.

Atacama lake

Llamas and Chicha
In the bright light of the next morning, my group is met at the Alto Atacama by Wildo Lopez, who runs Turismo Indigena with his wife Lucia. Together this family and other locals bring tourists into their ayllu (local village) to share the indigenous way of life. This is as real as it gets — an antidote to the tourist show put on in far too many previously undiscovered destinations. I am craving a true cultural immersion, and I quickly find that it rarely gets better than this.

The first thing Wildo does is hand me the reins to a llama. I'm not too sure what to do with the creature; they're cute but I've heard tales of their spitting, and this guy appears inordinately interested in my pashmina. After an initial inspection he seems to find me acceptable, so we set off into the desert to walk a kilometer or so to the ayllu. Along the way we pass a small shrine nestled into the desert sand; I have seen many such monuments and I ask Wildo about it.

"It is called an animita," he says—a spirit house for the dead. "This was my uncle," he explains further. "He got drunk and fell asleep in the desert, where he froze to death." I glance at all the nothingness around me, miles of only sand and brush and the ever-present Andes.

Atacama grave

Our first stop is Coyo village, where the chañar berry is made into all kinds of things including syrup, jam and even a natural medicinal remedy. A short distance away is Wildo's home, where his wife and mother, Esparito, are waiting to show us how the local alcoholic drink is made.

The mention of this perks up my ears. Moonshine is one of those things that everyone the world over seems to make, in their own way and with their own native ingredients, and one bizarre thing I like to do when traveling is to seek out the various local ways people invent to get lit.

Atacama woman

Of course, there's more to chicha, the local specialty, than this. It is produced for celebration and drunk mostly for special events, such as National Day. It's made with patasca, a type of corn, that is boiled and softened with ash before being ground down to go into the fermentation process.

"This is a job the women usually do," Wildo jokes as he grinds away with a large stone mortar and pestle. 74-year-old Esparito, his mother, is not as simple as she appears; she is not only an expert in the making of patasca (for both food and chicha), but is also an accomplished sculptor.

The indigenous way of life in this wild land, partially tamed by its scattered inhabitants, is one that any visitor can experience and immerse themselves in as fully as they wish. A homestay has recently been established in Coyo village, run by Mercedes Paniagua Tejarina. In a 100-year-old classic mud-roof house, up to eleven guests can lodge in simple but comfortable rooms that can accommodate from one to four people.

Local village life and Atacameño traditions are available for any guest to participate in. "We want to show tourists the local life and food," says Lucia Lopez, "but we are doing it ourselves. It is our own tourism project, we did not want to go through an outside tour operator."

Somehow, the Atacameño have managed to preserve a way of life amidst the attacks of both marauders and the unrelenting terrain—which in its austerity is still one of the most breathtaking spots I have ever laid eyes on. I'm not sure how available an animal sacrifice on a volcano is, but as Mercedes proudly tells me, you can castrate a sheep if you wish.

Perhaps I will leave that for next time.

If You Go:
Alto Atacama Hotel has eco-friendly, sustainable accommodations that were designed to work with and blend into the environment. Joel Colque and many other qualified tour guides are available to help you see the Atacama Desert. You can arrange indigenous village tours and homestays with Sunway Atacama Tourism. Go here for info on luxury travel tours in Chile.

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Shelley Seale

Shelley Seale is a professional freelance writer, editor, and author based out of Austin, Texas. She has written for National Geographic, USA Today, Globe Pequot Press, CNN, AOL, BootsnAll Travel and Andrew Harper Traveler, among others. She is also the author or a contributing author of six books. See more at

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