Alone in the Devil’s Cave in Atacama, Chile
Alone and deep in a cave beneath the Pukara de Quitor archeological site in northern Chile’s Atacama desert, I lost sight of the last light from the narrow entrance I’d come through and shuddered in the utter darkness. “Hmm… I wonder why they call this cave La Cueva del Diablo (The Devil’s Cave),” I pondered. Using the feeble flashlight on my iPhone to scan the cave walls for petroglyphs that might provide a clue as to the origin of the cave’s diabolical nomenclature, I noticed the phone’s battery was dwindling and decided this was as good a time as any to head back the way I’d come and return to the daylight. Perhaps I didn’t need to find out how the cave got that evil name. “Some things are best left a mystery,” I supposed.
I retraced my steps out of the cave, passed the two giant Atacameño heads carved into the red rocks of the mountainside, and continued along the dusty path, feeling as though I’d just emerged from a director’s cut scene from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I locked the gate to the trail behind me and, continuing to the main entrance to the archaeological site, returned the key to the friendly Atacameño guard, Cosume. I’d spotted this sendero caverna, cavern trail, after descending from the Pukara de Quitor ruins, and noticing the gate was locked, I’d inquired at the guardhouse about when it would be open. Cosume surprised me by taking a set of keys out of his pocket and handing it right over to me. “The girl who’s in charge of that trail isn’t in yet. Here, use this key. Go ahead.”
Access to this ancient site and its mysterious caverns wasn’t always so easy. The extensive fort that covers the mountainside was first constructed by the ancient Atacameños, who used its strategic location alongside the San Pedro river to resist Spanish colonization for over 20 years before eventually surrendering in 1557. The Spanish, backed by rival Yacan indigenous warriors, promptly beheaded the principal Atacameño warriors and leaders, earning Pukara de Quitor its colonial nickname, “El pueblo de las cabezas,” the town of heads.
Today the fort serves as the de facto entrance to Alto Atacama, a 5-star luxury resort and spa just a few minutes’ walk up the road past Pukara de Quitor. Getting there entails a 2 hour flight from Santiago to Calama, where a bilingual representative of Alto Atacama, Mariela, greets you and escorts you to your vehicle for the 85 minute drive through the Atacama desert toward the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama. Before entering that bustling tourist town, the vehicle veers off onto a dirt road, passing a waving Cosume at the gate to ancient Pukara de Quitor and entering the exclusive enclave of Alto Atacama.
A stay at Alto Atacama includes all the top highlight excursions of the San Pedro de Atacama area: the Tatio Geysers, the Moon Valley, the Altiplanico lagoons, and many more explorations that include long scenic drives through this region’s otherworldly desert landscape. However, if you’re like me, the last thing you want to do after a flight and long drive is get in the van for another long drive. So, here’s a tip if you’re staying at Alto Atacama: Walk 10 minutes down from the hotel to the entrance of the Pukara de Quitor archaeological site, hike 20 minutes to the top of the fortress, and then ask Cosume for the key to the cavern trail. Oh, and one more tip: bring a flashlight. Cosume informs me that his theory as to the naming of the devil’s cave is that when tourists enter the cave late in the afternoon as the sun sets over the world’s driest desert, they return reporting a mysterious dark presence brushing up against them deep in the cave.