Climbing a Chilean volcano

Earlier this week a volcano erupted along the border of Chile and Argentina, sending ash and smoke into the sky, and disrupting air travel throughout the region. The images that we’ve seen from that eruption have been both beautiful and terrifying in their displays of raw natural power, reminding us that the Earth ultimately still controls our fate. That sentiment hit home particularly for me, as less than a week before the mountain blew its top, I was climbing a similar volcano not far to the north.

At the time, I was visiting the Atacama Desert, an amazingly diverse destination with a number of fantastic landscapes to explore. The region is one one of the driest on the planet, thanks to a natural rain shield from the Andes on the east and the Domeyko Range on the west. But amongst those surrounding peaks are a number of volcanoes, both active and extinct. Having a bit of a pre-disposition toward high altitude adventures, I had made a goal for myself to climb one of those volcanoes while in the area, selecting the 18,645 foot El Toco as my challenge.

Fortunately, El Toco is an extinct volcano, having blown its top thousands of years in the past. Because of this, its summit profile is flatter and not so imposing as some of the more jagged, pointy peaks that ring the Atacama. The approach along its south ridge is also a non-technical route, meaning I wouldn’t need any special skills or gear to reach the top, just a good pair of boots and a decent level of conditioning.

The biggest obstacle in the climb would be the altitude, but after spending several days acclimatizing throughout the Atacama, I felt that I should be ready to give it a go. I’ve been at high altitude before, and seldom have any real issues, although the day before I was to climb I was feeling a bit under the weather, which put serious doubts into whether or not I should even make the attempt. Luckily, I felt much better on the morning of the climb, and while I wasn’t at 100%, I also didn’t want to give up an opportunity to scale Toco. After all, when would I be back in the Atacama again?Later in the day I met up with my guide, an accomplished young climber by the name of Gustavo, and he and I hit the road for the mountain. It turned out that no one else was interested in climbing with us that day, which meant that not only could we go at our own pace, we would likely be the only two people going to the summit that day. Both of those factors made me feel even better about my chances of topping out.

About an hour into the drive from San Pedro, the unofficial capitol of the Atacama, to El Toco, we suddenly veered off the smooth, well-paved highway, and onto a bumpy, narrow dirt road. We has been steadily climbing for some time, and my ears had already popped on more than one occasion, but we still had some distance to go before we started our trek. San Pedro is located at 8035 feet above sea level, but we were driving up to 16,500 feet, where we would find the trail that would take us to the top of the volcano. That would be a significant altitude gain before we ever started to hike, and I would know very quickly if I had recovered from how poorly I had been feeling the day before.

Eventually our truck rolled to a stop, and we jumped out to finish preparing for the climb. After slathering our faces and necks in sunscreen, and pulling on an extra layer for warmth, Gustavo and I organized our backpacks, grabbed our trekking poles, and hit the trail. As we began our ascent, he advised me that we should go at a slow but steady pace and that it would take roughly 2 – 2.5 hours to reach the top.

Once we started moving, I immediately realized that I was feeling good and the sluggishness of the day before was long gone. I followed behind Gustavo, and kept going at a measured pace, breathing in and out slowly and working to maintain my breath. The thin air was definitely noticeable, and there were times when I felt like I couldn’t get a deep enough breath to keep going, but those moments soon passed, and we made very sure and steady progress towards our goal.

In my previous high altitude excursions I learned several valuable lessons. In addition to keeping a measured pace, I also discovered it was best to avoid looking up towards the summit too often. It can be quite discouraging to see how far away your goal is when you are struggling to make progress and catch your breath. With that in mind, I concentrated on using my trekking poles to cross the loose rock scree and navigate the patches of snow and ice that were common along our route. On occasion, we would stop for a moment or two, and I’d glance up to see how we were doing, but for the most part, I kept my head down and stayed focused on the ascent.

About two-thirds of the way up the mountain, we broke clear of a sheltering ridge, and the full force of the winds started to buffet us. Not only were they strong and constant, they were also quite cold. It seemed that the final leg of the trip would be a chilly one. But we were making great progress and the views around Toco were spectacular to say the least. While I might not let my eyes stray up to the summit, I definitely was drinking in all the sights unfolding below us.

Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, Gustavo and I found ourselves on the trail to the top of the peak. I glanced at my watch and was surprised to find that we had only been climbing for about an hour and fifteen minutes. We had actually reached the summit, located at 18,645 feet, in about half the time that it typically takes, which was a sure sign that we were feeling good and moving more quickly than I had thought. It was a great feeling to walk out onto the summit and look down into Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina simultaneously, with a bright clear, blue sky surrounding us in all directions. The horizon was dominated with mountains in all directions, and more than one had a plume of dark smoke rising from the top. Active volcanoes, biding their time.

Gustavo and I shook hands and took out our cameras. Snapping a few photos from the summit and laughing at how quickly we had managed to bag the peak. Dropping our backpacks, we settled in behind the shelter of a large rock, and enjoyed a cup of tea, well protected from the howling winds. We stayed there for 35 minutes, chatting, relaxing, and just enjoying the view, before we decided we had better head back down. As the day goes on, the winds would continue to pick up, and temperatures would drop even further. Having completed what we had set out to do, we turned back down El Toco and for home.

Now, any mountaineer will tell you that climbing to the summit is only halfway to the finish line. While the descent was a quick one, taking just 20 minutes to return to our vehicle, it still offered up its challenges. Sliding down across the ice and rocks makes it more difficult to keep your footing than when you’re moving up, and the winds were conspiring against us even as we retreated away from the summit. But for the most part, it was a relatively routine descent, and we were soon on our way back to San Pedro for a much deserved cerveza.

All in all, climbing Toco was easily one of my most enjoyable days in the Atacama. It was a wonderful experience that fulfilled the promise of great views and an overwhelming sense of satisfaction at the top. If you’re traveling in the region, and have the time to both acclimatize and make the climb, I highly recommend that you do so. And for the more experienced mountaineers, there are plenty of fantastic routes and mountains to enjoy as well.

Who knew that I’d come to the desert and discover great mountains as well?

The Atacama Desert’s Valle de la Luna

Yesterday we introduced you to the Atacama Desert, a dry, yet strikingly beautiful destination, located in Chile‘s northern region along that country’s borders with Bolivia and Argentina. Protected on its east and west sides by towering mountain ranges, the Atacama seldom sees rainfall of any kind and as a result, it is amongst the driest places on the planet. Those dry conditions, combined with centuries of carving winds, have created landscapes that appear otherworldly at times, while still maintaining their ability to take your breath away.

One example of this is the famed Valle de la Luna or the Valley of the Moon, which is so named because of its eerie resemblance to the surface of our closest celestial neighbor. Its towering dunes, strange rock formations, and twisting canyons have made it one of the desert’s most popular destinations, drawing adventurous travelers from across the globe. The valley has even served as a testing ground for NASA scientists, who visited the place to put the Mars rover through its paces before shipping it off to the Red Planet nearly a decade ago.While located just a short drive from San Pedro, the town that serves as base camp for most adventures in the Atacama, the Valle de la Luna never-the-less feels like a completely different world. Its surface is covered in some of the finest and softest sands you’ll find anywhere on the planet, and the larger dunes tower as much as 40 meters into the sky. Rock outcroppings almost appear to have been sculpted by man rather than the natural forces of the Earth, and the maze-like web of canyons just beg to be explored on foot.

When entering the valley for the first time, there are two things that will immediately strike you. First, there is an amazing array of colors that mark the landscape, including plenty of reds, oranges, and browns of course. But there are also a surprising number of greens, pinks, yellows, and whites to be seen as well. This rainbow of colors is often the result of the mineral deposits that are so plentiful in the area, including copper, salt, and many more. The surprisingly colorful landscape is augmented even further when viewed during the rising –and especially the setting sun. During those magical hours, the entire valley is bathed in a soft light that only further enhances the otherworldly feel, and presents a vision that will almost certainly become a lasting highlight for any visitor.

The second thing you’ll notice about the Valle de la Luna is just how quiet is is there. Sounds seem to be absorbed and muffled by the sand and rocks, and when you stop for a moment to listen, you’ll pick up only the whisper of the wind and the ever so slight popping of salt deposits buried inside the rock walls themselves. The silence only helps to further enhance the feeling that you’ve left the Earth behind, and are instead exploring an alien world that couldn’t exist back home. Some travelers will no doubt find the quiet a bit unnerving, while others will enjoy the peacefulness of it all.

Any visitor to the Atacama will want to have the Valle de la Luna on their “must visit” list for sure. But I’d recommend making that visit in the early evening so you can enjoy the setting of the sun over the tranquil landscape. And once the sun has dropped below the horizon for another day, linger a bit longer and enjoy the night skies, which are an amazing sight in their own right. If you’re lucky enough to have a full moon, the pale light will making the valley all the more unique and wonderful.

It is locations like this one that make the Atacama so unique, and while the desert remains a bit of a hidden travel gem at the moment, it is definitely a destination that every adventure traveler will want to make plans to visit in the future. The Valle de la Luna is just one of any number of attractions in the desert, and the others are just as amazing to see.

Endurance athlete to run across Chile’s Atacama Desert

Canadian endurance athlete and adventurer Ray Zahab is in Chile this week where he has just launched an epic long distance run across the Atacama Desert, a place that is renowned as the driest environment on the planet. Zahab is making the attempt as a challenge to his own abilities, but also as part of an educational outreach program with the hopes of delivering an ongoing message to students about the importance of biodiversity to the health of the planet.

All told, the run will cover approximately 750 miles, starting in the northern part of the desert and heading south. Ray hopes to complete the expedition in a little over two weeks and will average more than 43 miles per day on foot. (That’s a marathon + 17 miles each and every day for those keeping track at home!) All of his gear will be carried in a backpack, along with the 8 to 10 liters of water that will be necessary for each day. A support team will make strategic water drops along the route, so that Zahab can count on a fresh supply when needed.

Along the way, Zahab will use satellite communications technology to interact with school children in classrooms all over the world. As part of the impossible2Possible program, a non-profit organization that seeks to educate and inspire young people through adventure, he’ll reach more than 16,000 children to deliver a message about threats to the environment. The desert will make for a stark contrast to a similar expedition that he conducted last year in the Amazon Jungle.

Zahab is no stranger to these kinds of challenging adventures. He has already run across the Sahara Desert, traveled to the South Pole, and set a speed record for traveling the length of Russia’s Lake Baikal on foot, a distance of nearly 400 miles. On each of those journeys he was joined by his partner Kevin Vallely, who was to be included on this expedition as well. But just days before the start an illness in the family forced Vallely to pull out, leaving Zahab to run the desert solo.

Caught in the rain shadow of both the Andes Mountains and the Chilean Coastal Range, the Atacama Desert is considered the driest place on Earth. The region averages just 1mm (.04 inches) of rain per year, and many areas have not seen rain throughout recorded history. One study suggests that river beds in the Atacama have been dry for more than 120,000 year, which gives you an indication of what Ray will be up against over the next few weeks.

You can follow his progress at where he’ll be posting daily progress reports and updates from the field.

Adventure and luxury in Chile’s Atacama Desert

Yesterday we told you about options for taking a luxury expedition to the heart of Antarctica, one of the wildest, most remote places on the planet. It turns out there are plenty of other wild places that you can visit on your adventure vacations without giving up the finer things in life too.

Case in point, the Atacama Desert in Chile, a relatively narrow strip of land that stretches for 600 miles along the Pacific Coast of South America. The Atacama is nestled between Chile’s Coastal Mountain Range and the Andes, with this unique topography creating a rain shadow that has prevented any significant precipitation from falling in the region for the span of recorded history.

The Atacama has long had an undeniable allure for the adventure traveler, after all, it is considered the driest place on Earth. A number of trekkers come to the region each year to explore its fabled salt flats, visit small, sparsely populated villages, and take in the starkly beautiful landscapes, featuring high mountains and volcanoes in all directions. The place is also surprisingly full of life, with pink flamingos, llamas, Vicuñas, and other animals all sharing the extreme landscapes.

But over the past few years adventure travelers making the pilgrimage to the desert have often been surprised to find an award winning luxury resort located right in San Pedro de Atacama, the largest town in the area. The Tierra Atacama opened in 2008 and was immediately named to Conde Nast Traveler’s “Hot List”, as well as Travel + Leisure’s top 30 new hotels. It was also recently awarded a Juli B Style award as 2010’s Best International Resort as well, and has quickly earned itself a reputation as a spectacular place to rest and relax between excursions into the desert.
The Tierra Atacama even offers some great options for visitors who want to see the wild and untamed Atacma. They offer day trips into the desert that allow travelers to explore in a 4×4, on horseback or bike, or even on foot. They can organize treks up nearby volcanoes or cultural and wildlife expeditions that expose guests to the wonderful wildlife that call the desert home. Archeological escapes show off the local ruins and petroglyophs left behind by ancient settlers. These day trips will take adventurous travelers through wind swept canyons, up tall mountains, and across the most arid open plains on Earth.

And when you are done explore, you can return to the resort where you’ll be treated to a full spa treatment, including massages, comfortable poolside beds, or a quiet escape to the resort’s library. The comfortable rooms offer spectacular views of the nearby Licancabur Volcano, while gourmet chefs prepare tasty dishes in the resort’s top rated restaurant.

Of course, this kind of luxury adventure doesn’t come cheap. All-inclusive rates start at $970 per person for a two nights stay, based on double occupancy. But the Tierra Atacama is currently running a seven night special that includes five nights at the resort itself, as well as one free night at the Ritz Carlton in Santiago and another free night La Casona at Matetic Vineyards, which is an architectural marvel located in its own 27,000-acre private valley. The promotion runs through the end of October and includes free transfers. You can find out more information by going to or e-mailing You can also call 1-800-829-5325 to make your booking as well.

This looks like an amazing mix of adventure travel to a spectacular, remote location, nicely mixed with a luxury resort experience that is amongst the best in the world. What a combination!

[Photo credit: Tierra Atacama Resort]

Exploring the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert is a land of extremes. Located along Chile’s Pacific Coast, the 600 mile stretch of land is one of the driest places on the planet. It is so dry in fact, that much of the region has not seen rain of any kind in hundreds of years of recorded history. And the places that do see rain, average just 1 millimeter of precipitation per year.

This remote, seldom visited region, is found west of the Andes Mountains, and in recent years it has become a popular destination for adventure travelers who are drawn to the extreme conditions. The desert is located at high altitude, and there are very few permanent settlements there, which adds to the solitude of the setting. Some of the surrounding mountains actually reach above 20,000 feet, but because of the lack of moisture, they remain free of snow and glaciers.

The solitude and silence of the Atacama is exactly what impressed travel writer Sankha Guha, of the U.K.’s Independent, the most on a recent visit to the desert. While touring the Atacama, Guha found that it was a place that continually challenged your notions of what you know about it. For instance, upon arriving there, it immediately began to rain, which was completely unexpected in a place often described as the “driest desert on Earth.” But even more surprising to Guha was the silence found there, something that is compared to a sensory deprivation chamber, as the place is empty and still. There is little life to be found in this Atacama, but the writer did find plenty of beauty in the bold colors and rock formations that cover the area.

If you’re an adventurous traveler looking for an off the beaten path destination, then perhaps the Atacama should be on your list. If you do go, you’ll find a land of stark beauty and quiet calm, that will stay with you long after you have returned home.