Dry Run

By Joost Polak
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 6, 2002

THE SIGN OUTSIDE northern Chile's Valley of the Moon said the road to the right led to the ruins of the 600 B.C. village of Tulor. It lied. The gravel track became hard Atacama Desert sand, then softer sand. It was time to turn around.

The last time my wife and I got stuck was in Costa Rica, where a map showing a road along the coast neglected to mention that it turned into a tire-sucking swamp. Luckily, two horsemen in full caballero gear wandered by, roped our front bumper, wrapped the ropes around their saddle pommels and pulled us out.

In the Atacama Desert there are no horses -- with or without names. It is too dry and lifeless.

Joan started walking out toward the road, hoping to flag down someone with four-wheel drive and a rope. I started building a road. Dig out in front of the wheels. Collect fist-size stones and pound them into the sand. Move three feet. Repeat. Add rubber floor mats from the car. Aim toward a small pan of hard white salt crusting the endless sand and pebbles. Repeat. After about an hour, the car broke free into the salt pan. I got a running start and it slued and bounced back to firmer track.

And here came Joan, with a Chilean park service truck filled with guys with shovels and ropes.

We had seen deserts before, but none like the Atacama. Geologists call it an "absolute desert." For long stretches there is no water and no life -- vegetable or animal -- from horizon to horizon. In its middle it is as flat as a Dutch polder, covered with pebbles and red rocks the size of footballs. It is so extraterrestrial that NASA picked it as the test ground for its Nomad Mars rover in 1997. Nomad did not get stuck in the sand.

The Pan-American Highway bisects the desert for about 500 miles north to south, running down from Peru to Chile's CopaipĆ³ -- the "Cup of Gold" valley where the first serious river in hundreds of miles begins turning the desert into the rich fruit-growing valleys of Chile's "small north." There are a few towns along the highway. Most are dusty, with one street of storefronts, a church and occasional bands of pilgrims begging their way to or from religious festivals that often mix rites brought in by the Spanish conquistadors with dances that predate the Incas. Tricked out -- and souped up -- pickup trucks with long buggy whip aerials are the favored means of transportation; the towns feel like a cross between "Mad Max" and a Sergio Leone spaghetti western.

The Atacama sounds forbidding. But our Chilean friends had told us it was beautiful -- and very different. And Chile's winters, generally mild until you get pretty high up in the mountains, are a refreshing contrast to Washington summers. To the desert's west, a ridge of 3,000-foot-high sand dunes blocks the desert from the sea. On the east, the snow-capped volcanoes of the Andes are always in sight. In some places there is a little water deep underground, and clumps of mesquite-like tamarugal trees huddle around the broken walls of deserted stone huts. In a very few, the water is sweet and closer to the surface and the desert blooms with oasis villages.

In Pica, a tiny hotel called Los Emilios put us up in a room, for about $35, with a balcony overlooking lemon, lime and mango trees heavy with fruit. Hummingbirds flitted through blue and red lantana blossoms, and mourning doves cooed behind garden walls while a gray tortoise-shell cat stalked them.

The Los Emilios staff was deeply proud of the cocktails they made from the local pisco grape brandy and limes from their own trees. "Go anywhere in Chile," the owner told us, "and they will tell you the best limes come from Pica."

And sure enough, the waitress who brought us drinks a week later in a seaside restaurant 800 miles to the south bragged that their pisco sours were the best in town, "because our limes come from Pica."

Outside another oasis, San Pedro de Atacama, we found tumbledown stone fortifications left over from its days as an outpost on the Inca road from Peru. The Incas have been replaced by tourists -- many of them kids mixing European and American summer vacations with Chilean winter school breaks. Inside the thick adobe block walls of the village, there are now restaurants, small hotels and Internet cafes.

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