I went to the Atacama Desert to get a taste for what life is like on Mars. Really. I had heard that it was so high, harsh, and dry—in some areas it hasn't rained in 15 years—that NASA tested its Nomad solo space explorer there. Its 50,000 square miles are marked by desert flats, volcanoes, and Chile's largest salt bed. I planned to test a few of the higher trails to acclimatize for the steep scree slopes of Mount Licancabur, a 19,455-foot volcano that's long been held sacred by the region's indigenous Atacameñan people. The launching point for me and my Chilean guides, Luis Lopez Choque, 26, and Andy Marangunic, 31, of Santiago-based outfitter Azimut 360, was San Pedro de Atacama, a small hippie-flavored tourist stop with rental mountain bikes propped up against 400-year-old adobe walls, located 700 miles north of Santiago. Azimut 360 operates 150 climbing, biking, horseback riding, and hiking expeditions in Chile each year, five of which are in the Atacama.
Luis, Andy, and I set out on a series of trips, crisscrossing the desert in the heat of day (temperatures remain in the high seventies/low eighties year-round) and camping in the frigid cold at night (a makeshift hot water bottle and a Gore-Tex bivy sack saved me when it was five below). Though much of the area can be explored without a guide, you'd be wise to hire one for more ambitious volcano treks. We went to Valle de la Luna, eight miles west of town, and hiked up a 300-foot ash dune to watch the sunset glow off the volcanoes in the east, and we saw pink flamingoes wading in the sulfury, crystallized sand bottoms of Laguna Chaxa, a salt lake 34 miles southwest of San Pedro. Always, Licancabur loomed, visible from practically everywhere within a 200-mile radius of San Pedro de Atacama.
By the end of the week we had logged more than 700 miles in the aforementioned Toyota, and it was clearly on its last legs. We ran out of time for Licancabur—the ascent of which involves crossing into Bolivia—but it almost didn't matter.