Call of the Atacama

The Valley de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) is typical of the arid beauty of northern Chile’s Atacama Desert
Photographer: PHILIP LEE HARVEY

In the north of Chile lies the most barren spot on Earth but, even here, descendants of ancient nomads live a simple, tranquil existence, sustained by myth and tradition

WORDS GABRIEL O’RORKE
PHOTOGRAPHS PHILIP LEE HARVEY

It’s sunrise at Salar de Tara, and the salt lake is aflutter with flamingos. There are thousands of them, long slender legs wading through metallic blue waters. They move in waves, flighty as though an electric current bites when they linger too long. The wind stirs from its slumber, whipping the water into a dance. Alongside the salt lake, hundreds of llamas pick their way through tufty yellow pastures. They look with long-lashed eyes down velvet noses, seemingly haughty, their ears pricking at the crunch of salt underfoot.

Bordered by the barren Altiplanic mountains and bisected by the Tropic of Capricorn, this wetland sits within the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos on the eastern fringe of the Atacama, in a nook between the borders of Bolivia and Argentina. It’s a zone of permanent and seasonal lakes – but extending westwards and covering an area nearly the size of England is a region known as the driest on Earth. Nowhere, save for the icy anomaly of Antarctica, receives less rainfall. Indeed, in great swathes of this desert, rain has never been recorded. Its cracked, dusty landscape is somewhere between lunar and Martian, unable to support plant or animal.

Yet throughout the desert, pockets of life do exist. The llamas around Salar de Tara are owned by shepherds who herd them as the seasons dictate. The shepherds are Atacameños, mainly descended from nomadic pre-Columbian Indians who first settled here more than 3,000 years ago. They live in ayllus – small indigenous communities – on hillsides and in gorges served by ephemeral streams, cultivating crops on terraces dug out by their forbears, and tending goats, sheep and llamas. Folklore still blows through these oases like the Atacama’s gentle Pacific breeze, a rich mythology that connects these people to their nomadic ancestors, and to the extraordinary landscape that they inhabit.

 

A VOLCANIC TEMPERAMENT

“Licancábur is a prince and Quimal is a princess,” says Atacameño guide

Rosa Ramos Colque, speaking slowly and deliberately, and gesturing to each of the mountains in turn. The peaks face off across the Salar de Atacama on which she stands – a vast sea of salt encompassing more than 5,200sqkm, to the west of Salar de Tara. The peaks of Licancábur and Quimal are some 80km apart, but such is the clarity of the air, that they appear closer. Alongside the perfectly pyramidal, snow-splashed volcano of Licancábur is another mountain, conspicuous for its flat top. It looks as though its peak has been removed, possibly severed; mythology asserts exactly that. “Juriques, Prince Licancábur’s companion, was once just as perfect, with a head too,” says Rosa. “That was, until he seduced Princess Quimal.”

The volcano legends are known to all in these parts; versions vary, but any Atacameño will readily recount the steps that followed this betrayal. Quimal’s father, Lascar – an amorphous mountain standing to the east, almost equidistant, beheaded Juriques and exiled Quimal across the salt flat. Such behaviour certainly fits the profile. Lascar is the most active volcano in the Central Andean section of the Pacific’s Ring of Fire – in 1993, it dispatched a gritty cloud of tephra as far as Buenos Aires, 1,450km to the southeast, and it has made its presence known several times already this century. Licancábur was heartbroken at Quimal’s banishment, shedding tears that, over the centuries, accumulated into the lake cradled in its crater.

Such legends are indicative of an unwavering reverence; in the Atacama, volcanoes are both providers and destroyers. The ancient Atacameños built villages from volcanic stone in spots where water runs down their steep slopes, while, over the centuries, dispersed volcanic ash has helped to fertilise parts of this otherwise barren landscape. Forty-five minutes southeast of the regional hub of San Pedro de Atacama, two villages sit below Lascar’s smoking crater. They’re both called Talabre. Rather than a lack of imagination, the duplication stems from another eruption of Lascar in the 1970s. The volcano contaminated the original Talabre’s water, lacing the river with ash. Ever at the mercy of the master above, the Talabrites peeled the grass-thatched roofs from their houses and relocated further down the hillside in a place where fresh water could be channelled. And so, a second Talabre was born.

All that remains of the old village is a cemetery and a scattering of ruins at the bottom of Quebrada Kezala, a steep-sided canyon once used as a resting point – and canvas – for llama caravans. Herders would spend starlit nights engraving the sheer red walls, carving flamingos and jaguars from the Bolivian jungle. “The Atacameños did not write,” says Rosa, “so petroglyphs were one way they could express something special in their life.” But they knew the llamas best and captured their different characters: some irritable with ears flat against their heads, others trotting forth willingly.

At the Salar de Atacama, the sun is beginning its downward arc through a cloudless sky and there’s just a whisper of wind. The legend of the volcanoes is about to reach a tender denouement. “The princess begged for forgiveness,” says Rosa, her eyes trained on the ostracised mountain’s darkening outline. “For she had truly always loved her prince. And so, one day every April, the shadow of Licancábur reaches across the salt flat at sunrise and touches the foothills of Quimal.”

Discover the Atacama, its ancient folklore and its landscape that seems to resonate with mystery with LPMI’s July 2017 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.