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ALERT: Turn off the filter on your camera phone. Do not boost the colour on your pictures: the sky of the Atacama desert is already this intense blue. The rocky canyon is that red. Your microphone will never pick up the gentle swishing of the dawn breeze across the pale desert grasses.

Just sit.

If you've gone to see the flamingos on the salt flats reserve, and now your excursion group is enjoying a picnic out in the desert, just walk away a little and sit to watch the last of the setting sun sliding up the Andes.


If you're hiking the Purilakti route to discover rock pictures carved into ancient valley walls, just take a couple of minutes to sit and listen for the total silence, bare of bird sound or any wildlife movement in the quivering midday sunshine. 

If you're heading off to the local observatory for an evening's astronomical exploration of the constellations, don't forget to wrap up warmly and just lie back and drink in the hugeness of the night sky peppered with stars.  

I didn't think I was really a desert person. It's something to do with being a paleskin: too used to slathering up with SPF30, and walking on the shady side of any sunny street. 

What had lured me across the world for a mother-daughter trip to Santiago and Chile was those magical mountains way south in Patagonia. I go well in a cashmere jumper and a walking boot. "The driest place on earth" (outside of the Dry Valleys of Antarctica where it's just too damn cold to be precipitous) sounds a bit too hot for me. 

There again, Patagonia is going to be extraordinarily windy, we're told. And wet. And cold. A quick flight north from Santiago to sunshine would be only two hours, and we were assured that we could get a desert experience just in three short days. (Shameful, I know, but you either do something or nothing.) 

Plus there was the lure of the Tierra Atacama's pool deck with the desert and the Andes in the background. 

We hopped on a plane to Calama. 

It's an unlovely mining service-town with low-slung hyper