Trekking along the Rio Grande in Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert is akin to taking a peek at a cross section of the area’s history, serving up pre-Colombian rock art, volcanoes thought sacred by the Incans and Spanish colonial villages with adobe churches.
The Rio Grande flows north to south from the village of Machuca at 4,000 meters to San Pedro and beyond passing between the Andean Altiplano and the Domeyko mountain range. This three-day trek takes hikers through the settlements of San Bartolo as well as Rio Grande and ends in Machuca. In stark contrast to San Pedro de Atacama’s tour offerings, a trek up the Rio Grande river valley makes paying to sit in a bus for multiple hours an absurd display of self inflicted torture.
Indeed, every day hundreds of tourists line up and down San Pedro’s main street trying on ponchos, buying post cards and drinking at the pueblo’s only bar. Tour companies peek out of adobe entrances and compete for their dollars on every level: from the massive McTour bus whizzing bleary-eyed young adults to the geysers at 4am to Explorer –Chile’s most exclusive hotel and operator– cruising through the desert in swanky Ford Expeditions.
Given San Pedro’s location as the final outpost into the heart of the “driest desert on earth”, choosing a tour guide and operator could be the main factor deciding whether you take advantage of the desert or the desert takes advantage of you.
Working with expedition leader Hans Martin, I “discovered” the Altiplano in the hands of Spondylus, one of the most capable and personalized tour outfitters in Chile. Following Spondylus guide and South African native, Adrian Germishuizen, we trek up the Rio Grande river valley. The adventure through the area’s natural history also happens to be an excellent way to acclimate the body in order to attack Volcano Pili (6051m) –also known as Acamarachi– and one of the countless 6000m volcanoes in the Altiplano.
Along the Rio Grande river valley, we pass abandoned copper mines, XIX century impromptu cemeteries full of dead miners, as well as pre-Colombia petro glyphs depicting ancient llama caravans.
“This trail is not only pre-Colombian, but pre-Incan. The original Atacameños traveled the same route with teams of llamas, the animal largely responsible for subsistence in the Atacama desert even today,” Germishuizen tells us.
Llamas before Corn
Unlike ancient civilizations in Europe, Asia and Africa, an estimated 3,500 years ago the people of the Atacama first domesticated the wild animals the vicuña and the guanaco –the alpaca and the llama respectively – and some 500 years later, domesticated corn, quinoa and adopted the art of agriculture and a sedentary lifestyle. Archeological discoveries tell us that the Atacameño people used every part of the llama for survival: from the wool, shelter; from the bones, tools; meat for food and llama excrement for fuel.
Though the people living in the area of San Pedro de Atacama have always considered themselves Atacameños, their ancestors have been governed by a variety of groups, from the Bolivia-based Tiwanaku culture to the Inca to the Spanish to the modern day Chilean.
“The lack of evidence of conflict tells us that the Incan conquest of the area was probably diplomatic,” tour guide Carla Mello of San Pedro’s Museum says. “the Spanish conquest, on the other hand, was very violent, banishing local religion and language.”
Today, the assiduous visitor enjoys a blend of the ancient and the modern beliefs in the form of catholic and Altiplano syncretism. For example, the Atacameño lifestyle continues to honor and propagate the llama for its plentiful bounty. Once we reach Machuca we run into a local woman, nursing a baby llama by hand. In fact, in the Atacama baby llamas, known as crias, must be hand fed for the first six months to ensure survival of their main predator: the Altiplano fox and condor.
On another day, while walking through Rio Grande’s cemetery, colorfully decorated graves and crosses remind us that the Catholic church had reached some of the most inhospitable parts of Chile for the day of the dead had recently passed.
Visitors who want to gain altitude as quickly as possible could plausibly drive their car up to 5000m and summit Cerro Toco (5604m) the same day. On your first day in the Atacama, these altitudes present high risks of altitude sickness. Better, would be to spend a few days at various altitudes, hopefully above 3000 meters and then attack Toco’s neighbor, Volcano Licancabur (5920m). We decide to take our adventure to a rarely climbed volcano a few hours southeast of San Pedro, Volcano Pili.
Licancabur as well as Pili were once considered to be sacred mountains by the Incan people that inhabited the area after the expansion of their culture from Cuzco in the middle of the XV century. Wherever crater lakes were floating on the volcano summits near the heavens, Incans honored their gods by dragging sacrificial ornaments, pyres and even children who were mummified and left as offerings on the icy peaks.
Most famous of these sacrificial sites lies south of San Pedro on the Volcano Llullaillaco (6739m), also known as the world’s highest archeological site. In 1999 an expedition discovered the perfectly preserved bodies of three Inca children sacrificed some 500 year before.
Because of the conditions for preservation, archeologists were given a never-before-seen insight into Incan custom and ritual. The mummified children’s mouths were stuffed with coca leaves and “they believe that these children were killed before being left on the summit, possibly by strangling or hitting on the head,” he recounts. But evidence of this extinct culture persists outside the realm of mummies.
“On Licancabur you used to find wood on the summit, not anymore due to all the climbers. But on Pili Volcano you can still find wood carried up to there by the Incans over 500 years ago,” our guide Germishuizen explains.
The Atacama Desert, which covers parts of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, boasts the highest concentration of 6,000 meter peaks in all of the Andes, giving it the nickname: the Roof of the Andes. Due to strange weather patterns such as the “Altiplano Winter”, the Atacama Desert is one of the few places in the world where snow falls in both summer and winter.
After the three day-trek and a visit to the Tatio geyser field, we drive up to 4900 meters to prepare for the summit push on Volcano Pili. We wake up at 3am, consume oatmeal, tea and mate, and head towards the top of the volcano. With only 50 meters to go, we reach the fabled crater lake for which the mountain was considered sacred by the Inca.
A set of scuba diving weights sits inharmoniously at the lake’s edge. It seems Volcano Pili has been immortalized yet again, only this time by the Guinness Book of World Records. Germishuizen tells me that the Pili crater lake is the site of world’s highest known scuba dive as well as kayak.
“Wow. How deep is the crater lake,” I ask.
“Only two meters” is the disappointing response.
On the summit of the peak, we spend 45 minutes, drinking mate and snapping photos of Atacama’s vastness. The horizon is dotted with 6000 meter volcanoes, each with its own distinct color scheme and shape. The high altitude headache lets up slightly before I turn around and take the first step of the 5-hour descent back to base camp. The pain and suffering however pays off, for to walk in the steps of the Incans is like traveling in a high altitude time machine.
Spondylus : www.spondylus-chile.com
Contact: Hans Martin