There is something unsettling in deserts. We can see colors and enjoy watching them in their full glory. Yet, the first sight of a desert is shocking, at least to lovers of greenery: emptiness and desolation; faded earthly colors and a worryingly void of greens and vivacious flowers. Our capability to see colors becomes almost wasted in the desert. There, earth is downscaled to ocher hues; shapes become more important than colors. But even these shapes are often of very limited variety. Cloudless skies transmit such a strong light that at noon even the small difference between the ochre fade away; a scorching yellow dominates all.
Whole civilizations flourished in deserts – especially caravan traders, yet, it is obviously not a natural environment for humans. You can trek in the Himalayas while carrying very little equipment. A friendly village, or a cozy teashop, is always at walking distance. In the worst case, purifying water is easy. The desert is different. You must carry around all you need until you reach the often distant next town.
Then, why? Why go and visit such a place? The answer is complex. I probably would never make a dedicated trip to the Sahara Desert; it’s too yellow for me. Yet, sometimes avoiding the desert is difficult.
Sometimes, you just fly over them. A few years ago I traveled from Hong Kong to Sao Paulo via Johannesburg. During the last flight I got spectacular views of the South African and Namibian deserts. Sometimes, you are forced to travel through them. Recently, I wrote Planning Spanish Speaking Southern South America after touring that continent from east to west on its central part. It was difficult not to reach the conclusion that South America is a weird part of the world. That’s maybe why NASA treats some of it as a Mars-analogue terrain. Climatic areas in it seem to be arranged randomly. Oruro - not so far from the Equator Line – features temperatures of minus twenty Celsius during its winter nights. Chaco is an almost desert trapped among the two main river systems – both colossal in size - of the continent. And then, the desert Pacific coast – featuring the driest desert on Earth - is just across a mountain range – the Andes – from the Amazonian Basin, one of the wettest spots on the planet.
If touring such a crazed mosaic, avoiding deserts is almost impossible. The best is seeing them as a "yapa" (Aymara "to add," a gratuity added to purchases in Bolivian markets). Seeing their arid, infertile, often sterile, vastness teaches the traveler to appreciate better the greens.
Other times, special justifications exist. At the time of my visit to Kashgar, its center resembled very much the town visited by Marco Polo; apparently the Italian ravioli originated at that very spot. Sadly, it has been recently demolished. Turpan – near Urumqi - features an unusual oasis; nearby, snowed dunes can be enjoyed during the winter. Atacama is within this category. The driest desert on Earth provides a once in a lifetime opportunity to look into an absolute desert. No matter how much do you search for life, it isn’t there. Tests similar to those performed in Mars, failed to detect any signs of life; the place is sterile. Even Antarctica and the Everest show life. What has created this truly unearthly landscape? At the desert’s eastern side, the Andes Mountains block moisture of arriving; several parallel layers of high mountains make it impenetrable no matter how much moisture the air from the South American tropics brought. Moreover, it specific location next to the cold Humboldt Current and the Pacific’s Anticyclone keeps the adjacent ocean’s water colder than it should be at this latitude. The combination creates an almost waterless enclosure of land. Yet, this desert is so large (over 100 thousand square kilometers) that exceptions are to be expected. "Camanchaca" is the local name of a marine fog that reaches some of the desert coastal zones; it provides enough humidity to sustain lichens, some algae, and small succulents. However, above the level reached by this fog, the dryness is absolute. The yearly rain average in some parts of the desert is 0; near Antofagasta things get wet with an astounding 1 mm (roughly 1/25 of an inch) of rain per year. Studies show that vast areas of this desert have not seen rain for longer time than the entire registered human history. Ochre, ochre, ochre. An absolute ochre emptiness that helps reevaluating the joy of our daily green salad.