On the Trail of Chasquis: Running the Atacama

Jan 11, 2011
Outside Magazine

Photo Courtesy of Ray Zahab                             Photo courtesy of Ray Zahab
Stretching over 1000 kilometers south from Chile’s northern border is the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert. It's a high lifeless plateau with areas so arid that rain hasn’t been recorded since record keeping began.

Defined by meteorologists as an absolute desert, the Atacama sits in the rain shadow of both the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range and is uniquely affected by coastal inversions to make it the driest, most sterile place on the planet.

This daunting landscape, a place so devoid of life that NASA deems it a terrestrial-double for a Martian world, is the backdrop for our upcoming i2P 2011 “On the Trail of the Chasquis” expedition.

On January 19th, 2011 Ray Zahab and I will attempt to run the length of Chile’s “rainless” Atacama Desert - a distance of over 1100kms (680 miles) – averaging over 2 full-length marathons per day. We will be following in the footsteps of ancient Incan ultra-running messengers, known as the Chasquis, who navigated the paths and trails of this unforgiving landscape some 500 years ago.

In the early 13th century the Inca civilization began its rise in the highlands of Peru and for the next 100 years would control much of western South America including the Atacama. One of the primary reasons for the Incan dominance was their ability to maintain an effective communication system throughout the thousands of kilometers of their empire. They did this by using highly trained ultra-running athletes called Chasquis who would relay messages throughout the realm at a seemingly unbelievable pace of up to 400kms per day (250 miles). The runners were faster and more reliable than all other forms of transport and became so essential to the region that the conquering Spaniards would still use the Chasquis system into the 1800s.

Over the coming weeks Ray and I will be running countless kilometers through the Atacama Desert exploring the mysterious lost world of the Chasquis. We will be making regular blog postings with photos and video to Outside as make our journey across the Atacama.

--Kevin Vallely

Filed To: Adventure, Travel

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