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Stretching 2653 miles from north to south and averaging 110 miles in width, Chile seen on a map can appear less like a country and more like a cross section of South American climates. Its territory spans subpolar steppe, dense rainforests, snowy mountains and hills that bask in Mediterranean temperatures. At its lower latitudes are fishing villages lashed by hail, sleet and snow. And at the top is the vast expanse of the Atacama, a place where some weather stations have never known a single drop of rain.

‘In a place like this, you must sit down and listen to the silence,’ says park ranger Manuel Eric Silvestre Gómez, looking out over Laguna Chaxa, a salt lake in Los Flamencos National Reserve. ‘You must contemplate the mountain range, hills and volcanoes, observe the skies and the moon. You’ll realize how small we are in this world.’

There are many forbidding deserts in the world, though the one around us manages to look forbidding in a great many ways. To the east, sullen-gray volcanoes rise along the Bolivian border, periodically raining lava on the surrounding landscape. To the north and west are burnt-red cliffs and canyons, beyond which geysers send plumes of steam into a cloudless sky. And here, at the center of it all, is an expanse of emptiness, a swathe of landscape where the creation gods seem to have taken a break. Featureless salt flats the color of freshly fallen snow stretch as far as the eye can see.

The Atacama is part of a highland plateau, sandwiched between the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range. These two ranges act as a barrier to weather systems, helping make the Atacama the driest place on earth outside the polar regions. It is also the highest hot desert on earth, all the while managing to look like a place that doesn’t belong on the planet at all. It is no coincidence that Mars rovers are tested here before being blasted into outer space.
Indigenous Atacameño people tell many legends explaining the formation of these varied landscapes: jealous kings whose rage caused volcanoes to explode, and the 40 days of torrential rain that washed away all life in the desert (ending only when there was no rain left in the sky). And yet somehow, gazing out at the salt flats, this feels like a planet in the very first moments of creation.

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