The Atacama desert is the driest place on the planet. Hemmed in by the Andes to the east and coastal mountains to the west, some parts of the region have never recorded a single drop of rain. Spanish explorers referred to it as the “despoblado de Atacama,” suggesting it was uninhabitable. Charles Darwin described it simply as “a complete and utter desert” in the Voyage of the Beagle. Traversing the landscape, he reported, “I saw only one other vegetable production, and that was a most minute yellow lichen, growing on the bones of the dead mules. This was the first true desert which I had seen.”
Every evening shortly before sunset, a caravan of tour vans arrives at the foot of an enormous sand dune in the Valle de la Luna. A column of tourists trudge up the path to the top to take pictures as, for a brief time, the surrounding pale rocks glow a deep red. I returned at sunrise the following morning (and the morning after that) and had the entire park to myself.