The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is famous for its lack of precipitation [and recently, 33 trapped miners]. However, it is brimming over with desolate beauty and fascinating sites, as Nick Elvin discovers

The sun filters through the side of the tent, warming my cold nose and waking me. It's going to be another 30-degree day in the Atacama Desert, in contrast to the eight Celsius overnight – which is all the more noticeable under canvas.

We eat breakfast beneath thorny trees, practically the only things growing here. It’s easy to appreciate we’re in the middle of nowhere, the only sounds being the buzz of excited conversation among my tour group, and the occasional distant vehicle out on the highway.

Calling itself “Chile’s outdoor hotel”, El Huarango brings a semblance of luxury camping to the country's far north. Its owners, husband and wife Marco Fernandez-Concha and Coca Coello, give us a tour of their land. They have made sustainability a key feature here; as Marco puts it: “It’s 90 per cent nature. We do the rest.”

Their house is built from the salt of the earth – the campsite is located on an ancient salt lake. Beneath the evaporite-laden crust Marco has dug what he calls an “Inca fridge” – centuries ago such places were used to store food. He has other plans.

“When it’s finished it’ll be the best wine cellar in Chile,” he explains with the enthusiasm of a mad professor. “I’ll use it for beer.”

Marco explains that when the couple moved here from Lima, Peru, there was nothing. For most of this area, that is still the case. Leaving the campsite behind, we head out into absolute desert. It never rains here, but the occasional line of vegetation cuts across the dusty landscape, from where seeds have come into contact with the condensation that forms on underground water pipelines. The high Andes form a hazy backdrop, dust devils dance across the land and mirages play their little tricks on the eye.

We stop at the small community of Pica, home to hot springs that are doing good business today, and visitors are being entertained by local couples dancing the national dance, the cueca. Pica is a green oasis, and the area produces lemons of such intense flavour it’s difficult to taste the brandy in the Pisco Sours we sip in the sunshine.

Back in the desert, we pass large dinosaur statues; dinosaur footprints were found 75km from here in 1958. Then we call in at a tourist attraction with a difference. Aldo Rojas has built a museum dedicated to his love of Jesus, and there are displays depicting various stages of Christ's life, from his birth in the stable through to a Roman soldier whipping his bloody, cross-bearing form (the whip even moves). In the gardens, doves fly back and forth. It’s a strange experience.

Back on the road we climb gradually higher into the Andes, leaving the desert plain behind. The air gets thinner. Numbered stakes by the roadside mark out plots of land I’m told have been reserved in the hope that this will one day be a green and fertile place. It’s difficult to envisage; the tough paja brava grass, and little else, thrives here.

At almost 4,000m above sea level, we stop to look down over the valley where we’ll be spending the night. Salar del Huasco is a 13,000-acre salt lake populated by three types of flamingos: the James, Andino and Chilean.

Outside the Taypi Samañan Uta hostel, the Chilean and Aymara flags fly. This area used to be part of Peru, but while international boundaries may have shifted over the years, the people here retain an identity that pre-dates the Spanish conquest. The Aymara have existed in Bolivia, Peru and Chile for more than 2,000 years.

We are treated to a show of music and dance in a small amphitheatre with one of the best views any theatre could have. Just over the mountains on the far side of the valley is Bolivia.

There is no chance of getting a mobile signal out here, which is not a bad thing at all.

Run by Pedro Lucas and his family, the hostel is part of a project that has brought together nearby communities to develop tourism in the area. Tonight, people have come here to sell handicrafts, as well as clothing made from alpaca wool.

Then after dinner, which includes toasted corn, quinoa, potatoes, beef and that ubiquitous Chilean accompaniment, chilli sauce, I head to bed, feeling slightly light-headed. The moon reflects off the salt lake, and is just that little bit closer up here.

Sunrise is magical, but the plumbing isn’t. There’s no running water, but standards of cleanliness must be upheld. I take a bar of soap and a two small bottles of cold water into the shower and narrowly escape hypothermia.

Leaving the remote salt lake behind, we head to a lower altitude. Back on the plains of the Atacama we visit Humberstone, a nitrate processing town - or rather it was. Humberstone is one of many nitrate ghost towns that are dotted throughout the Atacama. Nitrate mined in this area was used as fertiliser and in the explosives industry, and the demand was huge. In the 19th century this area was likened to a “new California”, and workers came from all over the world.

However, the development of synthetic nitrates, as well as the Great Depression led to the decline of Humberstone, and the processing works eventually closed in 1960. Everyone in Humberstone simply upped and left, many leaving their possessions, expecting to return.

Today there’s everything you’d expect to find in a small town: a hospital, school, church, theatre, homes; but they are all abandoned. Rusty old trains sit on rusting tracks, the swimming pool is empty and corroded, and the hoops have bent to the ground inside the crumbling basketball stadium. These relics of a once important, bustling town have been left to bake in a fierce sun, through 50 years of constantly clear skies.

Our guide, Juan sums up what the old movie posters, clock-in cards, photos and cigarette boxes hint at: “People walked around, had families and talked of the future.”

Yet this desert is home to even older remnants of lost civilisations: geoglyphs, large figures carved on hillsides. They include the Gigante de Atacama, the Giant of the Atacama, which looks out over the desert like an otherworldly, sunburnt version of the Cerne Abbas Giant.

Next day, I’m enjoying a hilltop view of my own. The slopes overlooking the nearby coastal town of Iquique enjoy some of the best conditions in the world for paragliding, and I’m strapped to an instructor, waiting to join the gulls in the grey sky.

After a quick briefing, and a few nerves, it’s time to go. With our canopy sufficiently filled with breeze, we sprint off the side of the hill and are lifted smoothly above the highway. This is the moment you wish for in all those childhood games of aeroplanes, when one day you run and actually do take off.

The view is not spoilt by Iquique’s characteristic coastal cloud cover. The town’s houses and tower blocks stretch along the coast, where the white surf of the Pacific crashes onto sweeping beaches. We drift over a massive sand dune that seems to threaten the outskirts of town with burial. There’s an almost constant supply of wind coming in off the ocean here, so we can stay up for as long as we want.

It’s very relaxing; all I have to do is sit in a harness seat in front of my instructor. The only downside is a slight seasickness, but a plastic bag is provided in a convenient pocket in my jumpsuit, just in case.

With our slow aerial tour nearing its end, we descend out over the seagull-covered rocks and the Pacific breakers and make our final turn. I move forward out of my seat, so we can both hit the ground running. We make a smooth landing in the deep sand and wait for the rest of the group to touch down on this soft runway.

How appropriate to end this desert adventure with boots full of sand.

Travel information

Tourist information: Servicio Nacional de Turismo (SERNATUR)
Tours: Travelstar Chile tour operators
Flights: Flights to Iquique, via Santiago, with LAN Chile