Salt of the Earth

Discover the surreal song of the planet’s driest desert in vast, enchanting Chile. By Elizabeth Frels

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It only takes one day to fall in love with the Atacama Desert, a plateau on South America’s Pacific coast that meets the Andes on its descending slopes. Its rugged, ever-shifting landscape, astronomic clarity and five-star amenities are enough for you to feel like you could stay there for weeks. 

The Kari Gorge is one of the lesser known regions of the Atacama, yet it comes highly recommended by some of the most experienced guides in Chile. 

Not only is an afternoon outing to Kari Gorge hyper-personalized to your interests, but the few guides who lead the excursion are some of only a handful certified to protect the environment. In fact, only two properties in all of Atacama have access to the Kari Gorge, Explora Atacama and Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa. 

Nothing can quite prepare you for the gorge’s otherworldly setting, a location often used in movies as a representation of Mars. Situated along the edge of the protected Moon Valley, the scenery is filled with rugged, jagged rocks. Following the ridgeline to the gorge, you receive an uninterrupted view of the area’s iconic sand dunes and volcanoes. 

While the terrain is certainly mesmerizing, equally fascinating is the story of how this environment, considered one of the world’s oldest deserts, came to be.  

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You are going beyond the demarcated pathways to set foot on the pristine dunes of the Atacama Desert — something very few are allowed to do.

It’s result of a phenomenon owing to massive high-pressure systems over the Pacific, cold Antarctic currents and a barrier created by the towering Andean mountain range which prevents moisture from reaching these parched lands. Remnants of millions of years of geological activity are on vibrant display. Formations and striations reveal where tectonic movements shifted and where top layers were settled from volcanic ash. The most surprising facet to witness, however, is the salt.

Salt saturates the landscape. Snowy white in appearance, the salt mountains, salt lakes, salt waterfalls and salt rivers surrounding you can easily trick you into thinking snow has fallen in the desert. In reality, the rains have simply evaporated, draping the land in a crystalline blanket.

Next, descend down the face of a sand dune toward the valley floor of the Kari Gorge. This steep slide down is significant. You are 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 your arrival is a raging river that looks to be flash frozen with its waves and crevices perfectly preserved in the ice. Your eyes might deceive you into thinking it is a glacier, but it is actually just more salt. In fact, this is what the whole gorge would look like if people did not walk through it. 

While exploring this natural wonder, trek inside the gorge’s many naturally-formed caves, where salt crystals embed themselves in the rock face within. The lack of foot traffic and natural erosion inside the caves means that the salt deposits inside are so concentrated that they are prone to glowing when exposed to light — a phenomenon easily illuminated by your cell phone flash. 

Perhaps the most memorable experience amid this land of sand and salt is toward the end of the three-hour trek when you are encouraged to pause for a moment of silence while standing in the gorge. All of a sudden, the swelling of sound reaches your ears as the salt crystals crack, expand and contract with the changing temperatures of the desert. 

It is an orchestra of crystals, harmonious and full of soaring moments. Nature’s composition reminding you of its undeniable beauty. Even in this remotest of settings, while celebrating with a refreshing drink amid the salt flats of the Moon Valley, it is difficult not to be reminded of how severely impactful your presence is on such a unique corner of it. 

Thankfully, the few guides who venture into this region have an undeniable respect for the land. Not only do they take great care of your every step, but they also expose you to aspects of the Atacama otherwise hidden to the common eye — whether it is the geological markers that illustrate the history of the environment; or the owl regurgitations that divulge how an animal can survive in such a harsh habitat; or the prime photo spots, exposures and settings to snap the best images, even on your iPhone.

They will also introduce you to the phenomenon that is the symphony of salt, a composition you are not likely to forget.