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  Field Notes From
Atacama Desert

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From Author

Priit J. Vesilind

Atacama Desert On Assignment

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From Photographer

Joel Sartore

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Jodi Cobb (top) and Dennis Dimick


Atacama Desert

Field Notes From Author
Priit J. Vesilind
Best Worst Quirkiest

    One morning we decided to paraglide over the city of Iquique. The winds that whip off the sea draft up the hillsides fairly consistently, and that morning the conditions were perfect. We motored up a steep hill, and Raul, the pilot who would carry me as a passenger, unwrapped a neat bundle of canvas that would take us into the air over the abyss.
    After giving me a short list of orders, Raul strapped me in front of him. The sheer drop was only feet away. I set my stance as instructed, and Frank, one of the guides, held me back as the wind partially filled the chute. It still took an act of faith to make the leap. Raul yelled "Now! Run!" and I pushed my old legs toward the cliff. One, two steps, and…and…we were lifted magically into the updraft. We were soaring! In wide spirals, like the eagles, suspended in a black halter in the wind.
    Raul kept the parasail steady, and we drifted across the hillsides, reveling in the updrafts. It was the ultimate carnival ride. For nearly an hour we floated on the wind, my legs dangling over nothing, until finally we swept down to the beach for a soft, running landing.

    We arrived in the altiplano village of Parinacota just in time for the celebration of its third feast day, when suddenly six buses roared in. Out poured hundreds of teenage college girls on a study trip from Santiago. They were in high altitude for the first time, seeing how the other half of Chile lived. "I like it very much," one said. "But we have to drink coca tea for the altitude, and some of us still get sick."
    That should have been a warning. We left the village and were tooling our four-wheel drive through foot-deep water that had flooded the back roads when altitude sickness struck. I was exhausted to the point of immobility, and my head throbbed as if a herd of alpacas was thundering through it. It was a four-hour drive back to the coast, and the road was clogged with slow-moving borax trucks, all exercising their air brakes as they lumbered 15,000 feet (4,600 meters) from the altiplano down to the plant. I was nauseated, just hanging on, and missed a lot of wonderful scenery. Lesson: Don't try to reach altitude and work, all in one day.

    I decided to visit the thermal baths at a small oasis town called Mamiña. It is set in the middle of the lifeless desert, where many have reputedly been cured of afflictions. The main bath is called Barros Chinos, named for a Chinese man who was cured of leprosy here. People come cheerfully to sit in the hot thermal pool, but first they have to cover themselves with healing mud.
    When my guide, Sergio Ballivian, and I walked into a men's room—no more than four roofless adobe walls—we came upon a half-dozen naked bodies, completely caked and lying flat in a wallow of mud. After we got over the shock, we crawled in, abandoning modesty and caution, and rolled around like pigs, free to do the forbidden for once. It was glorious!

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