26-Nov-2004 -- Nearing the conclusion of a month-long holiday in Chile and Argentina, on my last day in San Pedro de Atacama--a pre-Hispanic village at an elevation of 2,450 metres that is now totally dependent upon tourism--I decided to attempt this unvisited confluence just 23 kilometres to the ESE. It is located in the Atacama Desert, in the widest part of Chile (still only 350 kilometres wide), not far from the 5,916-metre Licancabur Volcano that lies on the border with Bolivia. This confluence was particularly enticing for me because I had already visited its antipode in China at 23°N 112°E.
I set off on my rented bicycle at 5:45 a.m., the stars still visible overhead, and rode SSE for an hour on a dead straight road until I reached the turnoff to the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) project. The confluence was 13.4 kilometres ENE from this turnoff.
According to a large sign, ALMA "is the largest ground based astronomical project of the next decade. It will [be] comprised of 64 antennas of 12 meters in diameter each, of submillimeter quality, that will allow us to study parts of the Universe that cannot be observed today."
There was a guard post at the ALMA project turnoff, and it was necessary to obtain permission before proceeding. After a short wait, I was put in telephone contact with someone in the ALMA project operations centre, to whom I explained the goal of the Degree Confluence Project and the purpose of my visit. Once he established that I would not be visiting the ALMA site itself, which is situated at very high altitude (his only real concern), he readily agreed to my request to pass.
At first I tried following a promising looking vehicle track that ran from behind the guard post directly towards the confluence, but the track petered out after only a kilometre, and I was left marooned on a vast expanse of "meringue"-like sand: a thin brittle surface that collapsed under the slightest pressure--impossible to ride a bike on.
So I walked the bike across to the ALMA project road, a nice wide smooth gravel road that ran in a straight line due east at a latitude of 23° 3' until it reached the base of the mountain range, whereupon it veered to the right and started snaking its way up into the mountains. Where the road began to veer to the right the confluence was at its closest point, 7.95 kilometres northeast, in a direct line with Licancabur Volcano. I stopped here at 8 a.m., parked my bike behind a big rock, and set off on foot.
I had hoped to have been able to get a bit closer by bike, because I didn't have all that much time; I had to catch a flight back to the capital Santiago that same afternoon. Nevertheless, if all went well, I calculated that I could still just make it to the confluence and back in time.
Everything did go well for the first half hour or so. Progress was extremely easy as I walked across the arid, rock-strewn sandy desert directly towards the confluence, able to use the volcano as a reference rather than the GPS pointer. It was a very gentle slope, climbing almost imperceptibly, and posing no problems at all except for a couple of dry creek beds that I was able to negotiate without too much trouble.
But then, with the confluence still 6.13 kilometres away, I came upon the "Grand Canyon"! Truthfully speaking, this obstacle was really not all that insurmountable, given sufficient time and a little perseverance, but time was what I did not have. Unsure how many more grand canyons still lay between me and the confluence, I decided the prudent thing to do was to call it quits here, and head back to San Pedro in a leisurely fashion.
Before departing, I took a few photos: one looking northeast towards the confluence and Licancabur Volcano; one looking southwest, back the way I'd come, with the Atacama Salt Flat in the distance; one showing a typical form of vegetation in the area, known by locals as "mother-in-law's pillow"; and one of a curious circular arrangement of stones, indicating that I was not the first sentient life form to have visited this desolate spot in the middle of the desert.
A future visitor should find this confluence relatively easy to reach, given more time. Just take plenty of water, and be prepared to walk across the desert under the hot sun for roughly five hours. I've included a (beautifully coloured) NASA satellite image of the area with my track plotted on it for reference.