There are places we travel that call to us long before we’ll ever set foot on the local soil. It’s a deep-rooted gut instinct that whispers to us in our dreams. For Lorraine Blancher spending two weeks in Atacama was like stepping into a photograph that had been burned into her mind for years.
Atacama. The word rolls off the tongue as easily as nature’s palette moves across the surface of the Mars-like vistas. Home to the driest non-polar desert in the world, Atacama is at once a geological phenomenon and a place of deep history of copper and salt mining. Located on the Pacific Ocean in the northern third of Chile, the Atacama Desert stretches nearly 1,600 km north to south. For Blancher, it’s been a place of wonder ever since she picked up a copy of National Geographic when she was younger. She read about the unique geological features of the most arid desert on earth, which also has massive mountains skirting its borders that sometimes saw snow, in spite of receiving an average annual precipitation of 15mm per year. “It’s been a destination that’s intrigued me for years, long before I ever thought that my mountain bike could be used to explore its rugged terrain,” she said. This past June, Blancher and filmer Robin Munshaw finally made the trek south of the equator to experience the mystical terrain for themselves.
There’s something to be said about the colors that stick with us long after we leave a place. According to Blancher Atacama was a rainbow of warmth during the day, and a massive star-laden planetarium at night. “Red, orange, and vivid sky blue were the constant colour theme,” she said. “Then, during sunrise and sunset, my favorite times of day, the golden glow would illuminate everything in a way that made the experience seem even more surreal.” Pink sunsets, Purple night skies. Golden hours that seemed to last forever. The real treat came in the form of fresh snow falling on the Andes Mountains. “The alpenglow light always feels special to experience. It’s like mother nature is putting on her blush to look her best for those outside enjoying her natural playground,” Blancher described.
Navigating the terrain wasn’t as simple as pulling up a map on a phone. Deep out of cell range and in a place that’s rarely been explored on two-wheels they relied on research, Google maps, local knowledge, and some good fortune along the way. “There is a very small mountain bike culture in the nearby town of San Pedro De Atacama. Local rider Guilherme Hoshino took us to the drop through the river bed we filmed. Serendipitously we met one of the local bike packing gurus. He had valuable insight into non-touristy areas and took us to El Tatio, an area full of geysers where we filmed,” she remarked. Locals always know best, and the terrain was as unique as the location was desolate. With fully exposed ridgelines and deep canyons as far as the eye could see, the possibilities for exploration grew with each moment.
With most adventures comes some sense of profound discovery. For Blancher, this trip was about two things: answering the years-old call to explore this stunning region, as well as the efficiencies of exploration allowed by modern technology. Looking back as little as 10 years ago, this type of trip would have been extremely difficult to achieve. “Challenge is an important component for me to feel like I am on a legitimate adventure. I like to have to think, adapt, and overcome,” she said. “We are living during one of the coolest times of human existence. The modern luxuries we chose to bring with us (bikes, sleeping bags, GPS) allowed us to experience this harsh terrain in with some relative comfort.”
As for the riding, it was nothing short of spectacular. “There’s just this feeling that you get when riding these vast, wide open places,” she said emphatically. “There is so much potential. You can see forever and the riding was surprisingly fast and flowy.” Dried up river beds provided a basic outline of ‘the way,’ and endless ridges meant there were challenging options in every direction, meaning every day was packed from pink sunrise to golden sunset. Atacama may be one of the driest places on earth, but the adventure and riding possibilities are nothing short of bountiful.
Video and Photo Credits: Wildland Media | Text: Lacy Kemp