So here I am flying from Edinburgh to Paris, about to touch down and meet client and friend Kath to get on our next flight to Santiago, Chile. From there we fly internally to Calama in Chile to meet our guides who will take us into the wonder that is the Atacama Desert.
What do I know so far about this desert? It’s dry, the driest place on earth in fact – but that said, on account of rainfall earlier in the year, for the first time in seven years some of it has burst into bloom. It was reported last week that the desert floor which is usually sand is now a sea of purple flowers. I don’t think we’ll see it though, as we will be riding in a different area.
I also know there’s a place called Moon Valley, because it looks like the moon. It’s actually used to test-drive lunar vehicles and there’s been lots of movies shot there, like Bond’s “Quantum of Solace” and “Spy Kids”!
There’s also a place called Death Valley, I’m guessing because nothing much lives there and it will be very hot and dry.
We should bump into llamas with the odd shepherd in tow to look after them, and we’ll see some Inca ruins, possibly some wall etchings carved by travellers some 1,000 years ago, and we’ll swim/float in a salt lagoon, with a density close to that of the Dead Sea.
We’ll also be riding up high above sea level, to over 4,000 metres – the same height as Ben Nevis. We’ve been warned about altitude sickness. We’re not likely to suffer but if we do, then Jessy, one of our guides, has promised we will descend slowly and get to chew on Coca leaves – not sure what that means, is that like taking an illegal drug??? I’ve no idea, but shall feign illness to test anyway!!!
What I do know and what I’m sure of is that we’ll get to enjoy the Atacama Desert in its true form. We’ll get close to the real people and animals that live there, and by doing that we’ll enjoy a full cultural experience the way most people don’t on a normal holiday. Why? We’re doing it on horseback. If ever there is a way to travel to really get to know the soul of a place, it’s on horseback, as you get to places and meet people you would never get the opportunity to if go mass-market.
Back to real time – I get a message from my client/friend that her flight is delayed – ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! I text her back and tell her not to worry, we have Zara on standby and should she need office-based assistance to get the flight checked or booked onto a new on, we can get it done. That’s the beauty of booking with an agent and a small company – always on call 24 hours a day, and real people to deal with.
While I’m waiting for her arrival I head to the bar for a snack and a lovely bottle of Merlot! I get a call form a lovely Irish woman, she’s interested in buying my son’s pony, which is for sale – a quick text goes to my sister to ask her to give her a call and let her know I’m away for 12 days and will get back to her on my return.
Soon after, I get the message Kath’s landed and two minutes later she’s at my table and I’m ordering her a beer. Kath and I have only met once, at Blair Horse Trials, but she’s been travelling on our riding holidays for the last few years, sometimes three in a year, so I feel like I know her well. It was actually her idea to visit the Atacama – that just shows we listen to our clients! But then I’m not one that’s hard to persuade when it comes to horses and travel. The conversation went like this:
“Jill, have you been to the Atacama desert?”
“I’ve heard from one of my adventurer friends there’s a great ride there run by a Chilean/French partnership.”
“Oh right, sounds like I should check it out”.
“Yes, shall we go?”
“Okay, let’s go!”
And that’s how it went! Needless to say, we hit it off, I think there’s 20 years between us, but you’d never know. After 40, who cares anyway, right!
I’m really happy to see her, and straight away we’re smiling and excited about our adventure. We catch up and Kath congratulates me on our 8th place at Horse of the Year Show with my son and his pony – I go on about it just a wee bit too much but she lets me she knows how much it means – as friends do!
We talk more about horses and our history. She tells me she rode as a child on her parents’ farm in Norfolk, pony clubbed and hunted, but by the age of 15 gave up only to return to riding at the age of 50. I’m not surprised; it’s often the case with our clients that they have ridden as kids, then in adulthood, life takes over, with work, marriage, kids, etc. Then, when careers settle and the kids are have flown the nest, there’s more time, and often thoughts come back to how much fun it was to ride and a great way to get back into it is to book a riding holiday!
The flight from Paris to Santiago is a long one, 14 hours, but with an overnight flight, dinner, breakfast and movies in between, it goes well. As we descend, the views over the Andes down into Chile are outrageous, absolutely breath-taking! And then it’s onto Calama, just two hours away. Unfortunately, Kath’s bag has been lost in transit but she has had the foresight to pack a holdall for the flight which has at least her joddies, hat and a few things, plus she’s wearing her riding boots. (Her baggage arrives a few days later, not ideal, but she manages and we agree Air France will be served with a complaint about the service).
As I look down from the plane, I can see the green fields of Santiago fade as we head further north up to Calama, and soon there is nothing but yellow below.
We land and are met at this small airport by Jessy, our guide and owner of the ride. Jessy comes from a horsey family and as a birthday present to her and her sister, her parents took them on a riding holiday in the Pyrenées. It was here the fire was lit, it then followed that when she visited and rode in the Atacama and met and fell in love with Juan, she made the decision to stay.
We are driven to San Pedro. It’s a really lively little town on the fringes of the desert, a gateway to what it offers, and here we stay on the first and last night of the adventure in a little local hostel. It’s basic, but clean and friendly and right next to the main street. We meet some of the other riders, including Vicki, another of our clients, who loves adventure and likes to join ‘test’ rides. Vicki has a fantastic job in London, in travel actually, and she uses that position to get great flight options, but prefers to book her more outward bound and niche holidays with us! Zara’s ridden with Vicki before, but it’s our first meet – and like Kath, we hit it off straight away!
We settle in, get changed and pick up a few beers to drink before Jessy heads back to gather us up and head to the ranch to meet the rest of the group. The ranch sits right on the edge of San Pedro. It has a lovely ranch house, a small cottage with a tack room, a huge sandy paddock and stables. As we drive in, Juan greets us, all dressed up in his smart Chilean attire, and there’s an asado on the go. We all say hello to him and his team: two wonderful volunteers (Angie from Switzerland, and Maud from the Netherlands) and Alexis and Manyanis, who are both full-time employees and from San Pedro. We also meet our fellow riders, and it’s a great mix: another two riders from the UK, a rider from Germany, three from France and of course, would you believe, a woman from Scotland who works in Panama – and how funny, it turns out she went to school with my brother-in-law! Small world! It’s a lovely evening, we all get on great and look forward to the next day when we head out on our adventure…!
Horses assigned, everyone looks happy. We head out of the ranch and out of San Pedro, where it’s dirt roads, and all the horses seem calm and are marching on. We leave the town and start to ride over scrubby looking land, interspersed with trees. We stop for lunch at one of these trees and take cover in the shade. The horses are happy to be tied up and we sit on branches, tucking into our rolls, along with a yummy Trail Mix and an apple for dessert. There’s also juice which is a great addition to the 2 x 1 litre water bottles we all carry individually in our saddle bags. It’s important to keep drinking throughout the day, as even though it’s hot, no-one’s sweating. The desert dries up any liquid quickly, so we have to replace it regularly.
We march on and in the afternoon, we get our first gallop. It’s relaxed, everyone’s in control, we all spread out and the horses are very well behaved, none of them fizz up.
We’re in the basin of the desert and the going is weird. It’s sand with a salt crust on the top, it seems quite hard going for the horses, but they don’t tire. It’s late afternoon, maybe about 4 p.m., by the time we hit our first camp at the edge of the salt lakes. We see to our horses while the team set up a table with drinks, salsa, bread and crisps – it’s all pretty civilised really. While we get started on them, they go off and set up our tents.
The camping is basic, with two-person dome tents, and some single ones too if you don’t want to share. They come with good mats and you bring your own sleeping bag. I’d recommend a good four- or five-season, as temperatures here drop below freezing when you get up to 4,000 metres and there’s nothing worse than being cold! There are no loo facilities, bar two nights, so you have to be ready for all that caper, but everyone’s in same boat and we all look out for one another!
After a couple of beers, we all decide it’s time to swim, a quick change and we head down to the salt and by this time, some other tourists have joined us. It’s actually really busy, and it’s great fun, it’s 40% salt density, so we all giggle at the feeling of floating in the water!
Dinner that night is great. Each day, vehicle back-up brings in supplies for us and the horses. They all get fresh water and half a bale of alfalfa and we get big pots of home-cooked food. Tonight is vegetable soup and spaghetti bolognese followed by banana with honey. It’s accompanied with some really good bottles of Chilean red wine.
The temperature’s dropping and it’s getting cold, so after some tea and a sit by the fire, we all head to our tents for our first night in the desert.
Camp wakens about 6.30 a.m., I’ve not had the best of sleeps, but that’s to be expected, and it gets better as the nights go by. The horses get water and some more alfalfa and we sit down to breakfast: hot rolls, ham, cheese, jam, honey, yoghurts, tea, coffee and fruit juices. It’s roughly the same each day, with just a couple of changes; it’s filling and we’re all happy.
After breakfast, we groom our horses, tack up, and as the team dismantle the camp, we head in the direction of the dunes for our secon day in the desert.
Ooof, it’s hot, but the riding’s great. We have a couple of canters and we are mostly riding up and down the most beautiful and dunes. We also visit some settlements. One of them is the first Spanish settlement and covered by sand, we can just see the walls and some chimneys and the second by the indigenous people of Chile. It’s covered by sand too, but we can see the outline of their round houses which are interconnected.
Tonight’s camp is like a bush camp, it’s unbelievable, like a little oasis, and there are some water irrigation channels that we’re allowed to sit in and get a wash, so it’s really refreshing. Pre-dinner, we all decide to run up a HUGE sand dune, with the prize being a drink of some of the Glayva I’ve brought with me (Glayva is a gorgeous blend of sweet whiskey, a bit like Drambuie)
We head out of the sand dunes across the open plain and head up in to the hills. We sweep into Moon Valley, it’s awesome there, and we meander over even bigger sand dunes and through crevices in the rocks which then bring us up to higher ground, where we start to push on up further into the desert. Today our lunch stop has no shade, but the views out over the desert basin below are wonderful.
Camp tonight is on a cliff edge. It’s really stark, but beautiful all the same. Vicki breaks open her rum and we all tuck in, the fire’s roaring, and after dinner, we all stand by it to keep warm before it’s time to turn in. Kath and I are sharing a tent and tonight we decide to leave the door flap open, so we can stare at the night sky as we fall asleep – it’s wonderful and we’re warm on account of our thermals!
Today we keep climbing higher. The threat of altitudes sickness starts to worry us, but nothing as yet, so we all decide to push it to the back of our minds. Jessy tells us we might get to see some wild donkeys: I’m super excited, this is turning out to be not only an adventure, but a possible safari too! Sadly we only see one, which is so far in the distance and down the mountain, we can’t see it properly, and no-one wants to head back down as the climb has been up has been hard on the horses.
We arrive at a really steep part of the route up. I can’t see a path through – and that’s because it seems we actually go up the steep hill in front of us, but how? Jessy talks to all of us, she says we need to keep motivating our horses and follow one another, keeping a horse space between us – no-one is allowed to stop – gulp! And off we go. The track is two hoof widths apart and we start snaking our way up. The terrain is like a sort of shingle stone so as we march upwards, the stones fall away below us. We’re all focused and our heads are down, and at any sign of slowing down, Juan starts whistling and immediately all the horses speed up – he has them well trained. At last we get to the top and there’s lots of laughing and smiles, for what a ride this is turning out to be!
We hit camp and another lovely site. This time there are big rocks, all terracotta in colour, and once we settle the horses and have a quick refreshment (beer!), Jessy takes us to a pathway that is reminiscent of the landscape of the first Star Wars movie. She shows us the petroglyths that travellers had etched in the stone walls around 800AD. It’s pretty amazing stuff and we feel privileged to see them.
The stars are outrageous tonight – we can see the Milky Way!
Today we will hit our highest camp. No-one except Fabien is experiencing any altitude sickness, and we hope it stays that way. It’s also going to be the longest day of our trek, so we brace ourselves for what will follow.
It all starts out very civilised, as we ride along a road for some way, before heading off along a country track. We see some more wildlife: a viscacha that looks like a hare and at last we clap eyes on a wild herd of donkeys. There are loads of them – I count about 15 in total. We can’t get too close to them as like zebra, they are very skittish, but I am absolutely thrilled.
We ride into an Andean village and Jessy and Juan ask us not to take photos, so that’s cool. We ride out of the village and start to ride over long forgotten terraces and before we know it, we hit an abandoned village. We have lunch there and check out the buildings, it’s all mud walls and there’s this great clay oven outside, great for making pizzas I bet!
And then we head off climbing higher and higher, following a stream upwards – this is where it gets really technical and it’s hard work, it’s all on stoney ground and the horses are magnificent, picking their onwards, up and up.
At times we lose the route and Jessy and Juan go on ahead to suss out where we need to go. We also have to get on and off several times, as it’s too difficult for the horses to manoeuvre with us on their backs. It’s best left to them to negotiate, they know best. And because we’re getting higher, we’re losing our breaths quickly, and some of us have to stop to regain momentum, but everyone is encouraging and we eventually we make it to the top. At this point, we’re met by some fog, everyone is going through fine, until Yvonne loses the track and Gaucho her horse gets stuck, so she sits still lets him take a breather and with huge effort, he pulls himself up and free – but where do I go, I’m next! Juan directs me to the left and I get through unscathed, phew – my little Margarito looks after me so well, love my little pony!
We ride into our highest camp past a flock of llamas, very cute, and hear that at this stop there is the offer of a hot shower, so muchos excitement! Just beside us is another Andean village which is a tourist attraction and has some welcome facilities.
As the sun drops, it gets really cold, so we’re all in our gloves, hats and jackets as we enjoy another great dinner. But tonight, it’s an early retire, as it’s been a long day and we all want to get warm. Next morning we wake and the stream beside us is frozen. It’s incredible the difference in temperatures between night and day.
Two more camp nights and then we’re home, we’re all really enjoying the ride and thoughts all turn to home, but no-one is ready yet to leave!
This is my favourite day of all. We are so high and we can see everything, we are riding over huge open highland plateaus with mountains and a bubbling volcano to our left and sweeping views down into the basin of the desert below. I am completely happy and breathing in the fresh air and beholding the sights, hoping I will keep them in my memory forever.
As we march into our penultimate camp, Jessy tells us there is a hidden waterfall where we can bathe late that afternoon. Horses settled and after our beers, we all head down and pick our way through the sand dunes and over the rocks to find this gem. We all jump in and Vicki, who has suffered slightly from a sore back, gets right under the falls and enjoys an natural massage, which helps.
At dinner tonight, we have a visitor: a Swedish chap, who is studying the flora in the area. He encourages us all to pick some of the bush flowers in our camp and with it we add some boiling water to make this wonderful floral tea.
It’s much warmer tonight, so we have normal bed clothes attire and an open tent flap to enjoy the night sky.
Our second last day riding and we trek on down, aiming for the desert below us. The views keep coming, we follow a cliff edge, we’re heading down to a river oasis which we can see. Today as we ride into camp, the horses start to fidget, there seems to be flies biting them, it’s such a shame. We jump off and as soon as we hit the ground and some before they get their tack off and start to roll! It’s a bit chaotic, but eventually, they’re all tied up and we wait a bit of time before taking them to the water to wash them down and to a have a drink. We don’t want then to colic as they have had little water today. The idea is we get them clean then they roll in the dust, which turns to a muddy coverage and helps them combat the biting flies. It works pretty well and most of them settle and as the sun drops, the flies go and the horses are happy. We start early the next morning, so we can get out of camp before the flies start up again.
It’s our last camp night – we have a great meal, vegetable pancakes with lots of different salads, and then sweet pancakes for desert and of course some great Chilean wine.
Our last day riding, and what a day! We ride down and through Devil’s Canyon, it’s incredible, we can it see and then we hit it, the downward trek there is unbelievable, a really small track on the side of a mountain which we snake down. I have to concentrate for fear of slipping off the edge! And as we hit the bottom, we then take a track through the canyon, sometimes having to jump off to let the horses jump through narrow sections and also avoid hitting our heads. It’s gotten really hot again too, but the horses as usual march on and before we know it we hit San Pedro town. I thought the horses would light up here, surely they know they are nearly home, but no, as always, they remain calm and well behaved.
Finally, there it is, the ranch, we walk in, I jump off, pat and cuddle Magarito and swallow back a lump in my throat and blink away a tear in my eye, the reality of the end of our adventure hits and that I will most probably never see Magarito again!
The Atacama Desert Ride runs from the 10th to the 19th of each month, starting in February 2016. Click ‘More’ button below for more details about this ride or to book.
The Atacama Desert on first glance may seem rugged and inhospitable, but on closer inspection it is packed full of exciting places to explore. There really is nowhere else like it in the world and some of the vistas you’ll enjoy along the way will be extraordinary ... Experience Level