Walking solo into the driest desert in the world feels like a suicide mission. As our tour guide in Valparaiso pointed out, Chileans are not especially inventive with names and the Valle de la Muerte in the Atacama Desert is named The Valley of Death for a reason.
There is no water and, from about 9:30am, no shade either. The sun slips between the gaps in the bizarre rock formations and beats down on the unwitting desert wanderer. Barely any life survives here. In all my hours of walking, my only living companion was a lonely beetle scuttling across the path. And the only sound as I trudged barefoot through the gritty sand, was that of my altitude-suffering lungs gasping for oxygen.
San Pedro de Atacama is a small, red mud town near the dry riverbed in the wondrous Atacama desert. It is largely a tourist village and, consequently, pricey. But the tourists flock because it offers access to the surrounding stunning scenery of northern Chile.
When the first and only tour I’ve booked was cancelled, I joined a group to cycle to the Valle de la Luna. It was four in the afternoon but the sun continued to bake everybody from on high. Laden with several litres of water each, we set off in the dust towards the highway.
The desert is different in every direction: cracked grey plates of mud give way to deep red stone, which in turn collapse into golden sand. It is like looking at the sea; one cannot grow bored of its ancient inconstance. Despite the altitude, I enjoyed the breathy cycle and the sunset was spectacular. The deathly dark, potholed journey back less so.
In the deliciously chill nights, I was treated to personal guided tours of space. The desert offers the clearest skies in the world; the lack of moisture and mountains prevent clouds forming so it is possible to see tens of thousands stars.
With days spent eating fruit in hammocks and nights spent gazing at galaxies, it is hard not to fall in love with Atacama.