Early one morning a decade or so ago, I stepped outside my hotel in the northern Chilean port of Antofagasta (pictured above) to notice an unexpected scent – during the night, it had rained in the world’s driest desert. It was barely a sprinkle, with traces of moisture on the pavement, but it reinforced for me the rarity of rain in the Atacama Desert (note the utterly barren hills behind downtown).
There was a far more serious reminder of that last week, as unprecedented storms hit the mid-Atacama region in and around the city of Copiapó, where a normally dry river course overflowed its banks and forced thousands to evacuate. In the coastal city of Chañaral, things were even worse and, in total, there have been 25 deaths and another 125 persons unaccounted for.
It’s been too long since I last visited the Atacama but, three years ago, I did have my own encounter with the lower Río Copiapó and vicinity. That wasn’t nearly so severe as the recent floods, but it did remind me that lack of water is not the desert’s only danger – there's little or nothing to stop or even slow the rare rush down the hillsides and through intermittent streams, which overflow their banks and undercut hillsides to create landslides. Flash floods can wash away houses, let alone vehicles and people, in towns like Taltal (pictured below), which also suffered in the recent floods.
I hope to get back to the Atacama later this year but, in the meantime, I learned that the most heavily-touristed area was relatively unaffected. A Dutch friend who owns a travel agency in San Pedro de Atacama tells me that “The first rains fell in our part of the Atacama, roads disappeared as usual, we were all complaining because of lost business and some leaking roofs. But then images started to come through from [farther south], and [it] all became relative again. I guess in the end we were lucky here: the storm could have hit anywhere between Calama and Copiapó...”
For my part, after spending most of the last two months-plus in Patagonia, I boarded a Sunday-night flight from Santiago bound for Lima, Los Angeles and San Francisco. I arrived early enough at Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez to enjoy a farewell pisco sour, a panino, and a glass of old-vine Carignan at Vinum (pictured above), a welcome new wine bar in the departure area.
By the time the flight left, though, it was dark and there was no possibility of viewing the flood area from the air. I also left behind the forest fires and plumes of volcanic ash I had seen in Argentina and Chile, but at least this time there were no earthquakes in this seismically lively area.
Fortunately, I did not have to change planes in Lima and my connection from LAX to SFO was quick enough that I got home in time to watch opening day of the baseball season. That night, though, we had an unexpected rainstorm in the drought-stricken Bay Area – no floods, fortunately, but at least it left our garden refreshed.