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There's a Really Good Reason Not to Hike Alone in the Atacama Desert

August 28, 2014 at 2:57 PM | by | ()

View from the top of Toco Mountain at 18,385 feet on the border of Chile and Bolivia

Beautiful, isn't it? The Atacama offers an awe-inspiring combination of desert landscape, towering peaks, and refreshing lagoons, and travelers should spend as much time as they possibly can exploring these incredible outdoor opportunities. Just make sure you don't do it alone.

Hiking alone, or in a group that lacks someone with knowledge of the area, is never a good idea. It's a pretty basic rule of thumb when it comes to the wilderness. But it's even more true in Atacama. One wrong step, and you could find yourself missing half your leg. No, it's not the monsters from the movie Tremors. The real reason is perhaps even more peculiar: There are thousands of active landmines stashed throughout the region.

During the 1970s, rising tensions and anticipated war with Bolivia, Argentina, and Peru prompted the Chilean government to plant landmines along its borders between the countries. According to reports, more than 120,000 landmines are still buried throughout the country, including the Atacama and the tourist town of San Pedro, whose surrounding Andes mountains - one of the prime areas of recreation - sit right along the Bolivian border.

In case you're wondering, yes, people do step on them. Chile has set a goal of clearing all the mines by 2020, but that date is in doubt due to the fact that many mines are located at high altitude on mountainous terrain. Rain and earthquakes have also moved the mines, so while they know generally where they are, many have shifted positions over the past 40 years.

This information is not being presented as a scare tactic. Think of it as a giant FYI, as well as interesting context to add to your trip. As an adventure traveler, this writer realizes that solo exploration can be incredibly rewarding, but this is one place you might want to put your pride to the side. We recommend to always stay on designated trails and hire a guide. At the very least, have a detailed discussion with a local expert about the area you intend to hike.

Then, from the safety of the proper route, you can think about how crazy it is that so many landmines were buried from the Atacama all the way down to Patagonia.

[Photo: Will McGough]

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