A journey through the Atacama Desert as told by Ker & Downey’s Lisa Chapman.
It only took a day for me to fall in love with Atacama. Its rugged, ever-shifting landscape, astronomic clarity, and five-star amenities were enough for me to feel like I could stay there for weeks.
It wasn’t until my third day, however, that I embarked upon what would be my favorite excursion during my time in the world’s driest desert.
I didn’t know anything about the Kari Gorge when I selected it as my afternoon activity that day. All I knew was that it came highly recommended by my guides, some of the most experienced in the region.
Not only was the excursion hyper-personalized to my interests, but my guide was also one of the few certified in the entire region to protect the environment on which I was about to trod. In fact, only two properties in all of Atacama have access to the Kari Gorge. I just so happened to be staying at one of them.
Nothing could prepare me for the setting of the Kari Gorge.
Situated along the edge of the protected Moon Valley, the scenery was filled with rugged, jagged rocks. The ridgeline we followed gave us an uninterrupted view of the area’s iconic sand dunes and volcanoes.
It is here where I learn about and embrace how this environment came to be. Remnants of millions of years of geological activity were on vibrant display. Formations and striations revealed where tectonic movements shifted and where top layers were settled from volcanic ash.
The most surprising facet to witness, however, was the salt.
The salt saturates the landscape. Snowy white in appearance, the salt mountains, salt lakes, salt waterfalls, and salt rivers surrounded me on all sides and tricked me into thinking snow had fallen in the desert. In reality, the rains had simply evaporated, leaving the land blanketed in fragile salts.
Next, I found myself scurrying down the face of a sand dune toward the valley floor of the Kari Gorge. The significance of this steep slide down the sand was not lost on me. We were going beyond the demarcated pathways to set foot on the pristine dunes of the Atacama Desert—something very few are allowed to do.
The gorge itself is about 15 feet wide, with salt rock walls towering 30 to 40 feet high on either side. One of the first surprises upon our arrival was a raging river that looked to be flash frozen with its waves and crevices perfectly preserved in the ice. My eyes told me it was a glacier, but my guide told me it was actually just more salt. In fact, this is what the whole gorge would look like if people like me did not walk through it.
As we explored the Kari Gorge, we found ourselves trekking inside several of the gorge’s naturally formed caves. Inside we witnessed salt crystals embedded in the rock face within the caves. The lack of foot traffic and natural erosion meant that the salt deposits inside were so concentrated that they would glow when exposed to light—a phenomenon illuminated by my guide’s cell phone flash.
Perhaps the most memorable moment amid this land of sand and salt was toward the end of our three-hour trek. My guide encouraged me to pause for a moment of silence while standing in the gorge. I don’t know if it had been happening all along, but all of a sudden I found myself listening to a swelling of sound as the salt crystals cracked, expanding and contracting with the changing temperatures of the desert.
It was an orchestra of crystals. A symphony of salt. Nature’s composition reminding us of its undeniable beauty.
As we celebrated this beauty with a sundowner amid the salt flats of the Moon Valley, I found myself reflecting on the significance of this single afternoon excursion.
I have traveled all over the world, yet even in the remotest of settings, I was reminded of how severely impactful my presence is on such a unique corner of it.
I was also indebted to my guide whose respect for the land was undeniable. Not only did he take great care of our every step while here, he also exposed aspects of the Atacama I would not have been privy to otherwise—whether it was the geological markers that illustrated the history of the setting; or the owl regurgitations that divulged how an animal could survive in such a harsh environment; or the prime photo spots, exposures, and settings to obtain the best images, even on my iPhone.
He also introduced me to my first symphony of salt, a composition I am not likely to forget.
Contact a Ker & Downey travel designer to start planning your personalized stay in Chile’s Atacama Desert. For the full Kari Gorge experience, we recommend staying at Explora Atacama and taking advantage of their many discounts available between April and September 2018 in celebration of Explora’s 25th anniversary.