I am about to leave the desert, and I have to admit that I am pretty okay with that. Desert life works for thousands of pampinos and sun-worshipers, but I don’t think it is for me. I need plants, trees, grass, and WATER. Being surrounded by a vast ocean of brown composed of dirt and rock is not for me. And though I’ve managed to avoid any serious burns in my time here, I could do without constantly worrying about how to protect my skin from the extra-powerful UV rays here. Not to mention making sure I pack lip balm, bottles of water, and a cardigan or scarf (for chilly mornings and evenings). I basically have to carry around a suitcase every day.
But there have been some moments where I am truly blown away by the otherworldly beauty and truly mindboggling diversity in the desert landscape. There’s sandy desert, near Iquique. There’s higher altitude desert with some low vegetation – the kind of desert near San Pedro de Atacama. Right around Maria Elena, there is the parched earth nothing-but-brown desert, which is unfortunately my least favorite type of desert. There is even a forest in the middle of the desert that pops out of nowhere, at the Tamarugal National Reserve.
There are parts of the desert where it rains or even snows. One of my first weekends here, I saw it snow and hail up in the high desert near Calama, and that was certainly wild. Turns out, it isn’t just scorching sun beating down all day, as one might imagine. It can be super chilly and is often quite windy. That wind creates one of the most exciting things to see in the desert (other than all the abandoned towns and the “river”), which are the dust devils. Sometimes you can look into the distance and see multiple dust devils rising up into the air like columns of smoke.
Pocahontas famously sang about the colors of the wind, and I find that upon closer inspection I could sing a song about the colors in the desert. It’s more than just brown!! (Also, do you know how many shades of brown there are? I do.) There is gray, and black, and red, and green. Driving through the high desert near San Pedro de Atacama reminded me of driving through the painted desert in Arizona/New Mexico – where all the colors are soft and muted.
The desert is most beautiful in the evenings and at night. As the sun goes down, the colors really start to get dramatic as yellow, orange, pink, and purple enter the mix. As the light leaves the sky, it’s hard not to have your breath taken away by the eerie moonlit landscape, shadows of mountains looming in the distance. When I first arrived to Maria Elena, crossing the mountains from Tocopilla, it was dark and foggy and so ominous feeling. I’ll never forget it, and don’t think I could ever get used to it.
And as I have mentioned before, with nary a cloud in view, the Atacama desert is famous for it’s clear night-sky viewing. It is amazing how many stars you can see. The vastness of it all can make you feel so small. Life in the desert has certainly been one of peace and tranquility. But I do miss the lights, noise, and activity of bigger cities. While such a quiet…deserted… place can be nice for a vacation, I am constantly reminded that I am definitely a city girl.
Well this city girl leaves Maria Elena at the end of the week to fly first to Santiago and then TWO WEEKS in Patagonia. I’ll prepare a couple posts for the coming weeks, and then next you’ll hear from me will be when I’m back in the States for Christmas. See you then 🙂