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Visiting the Atacama Desert and meeting its ancestral inhabitants: the Lickan Antay people

Responsible Tourism


Atacama: few words sound so mystic and appealing. The idea of deserts has always blown humans’ minds because of the openness, the toughness and the challenging conditions for life. When it comes to the Atacama Desert, it is no wonder that this enigmatic place has been one of the main destinations for explorers of South America in the last 40 years. A long time has passed and tourism is now a well established activity, yet the Atacama Desert is just starting to let us experience all of its wonders and mysteries. Indeed, there are some people who know it much better than us, those who have wandered through it for millennia and learned its language, secret places and codes of behaviour: the Lickan Antay people.

The people of the land

The ancestral inhabitants of the Atacama Desert conform the Lickan Antay nation, the “people of the land”, who acknowledge the “Pata Hoiri” (Mother Earth) as their creator and the true giver of everything they have. They also praise the enormous mountains and volcanoes of Atacama, the “Malkus”, as their protectors and fathers.

There are simply no better guides in the Atacama Desert. The knowledge they will teach you has been passed from uncountable generations and matches perfectly with the desert and oasis that are their beloved home. I witnessed it myself while living in Atacama years ago. During those years, I walked through never-ending plains and learned to understand the messages carved in the rocks, and the secret messages of an otherwise meaningless landscape. The Lickan Antay taught me to find and appreciate life even in its smaller expressions, since it is so scarce and fragile where water is not available, temperatures oscillate between 27°C during the day and -15°C at night, and where the UV rays level is almost like being in the outer space.

The Atacama lifestyle

Nothing is easy here. Life conditions and the hostile environment push your brain to new limits. When I met Wildo, a Lickan Antay member, he taught me about agriculture. Irrigation is sacred: water is distributed among all those who have land, just a couple of hours per week. You take what you are allowed to use with atomic precision: not a minute less, not a minute more, because you respect your neighbours’ rights. And with that little amount, you try to get the most of your land. Life comes through corn, spring onions, broad beans, potatoes and fruits like pears, quince and the most important: white carob tree (prosopis alba) and chañar (geoffroea decorticans), which are the nutritional basis for the Lickan Antay people.

When visiting the Atacama Desert, try to experience the lifestyle of the Lickan Antay; they will show you life beyond what your eyes can see. They will teach you what no other guides can: to understand the desert, to speak its language and to learn to live with it in harmony, with joy and thankfulness.

This post was a contribution by Juan, our local travel expert in Chile. To learn more about the activities and adventures available with the Likan Antay people and in the desert, you can visit our Atacama Desert Tours page. Stay tuned for more travel adventures and do not forget to subscribe to our quarterly newsletter to make sure you never miss content like this!

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