The Atacama Desert in northern Chile was our last stop in Chile before we crossed the border into Bolivia. The Atacama is the driest non-polar desert in the world and it’s reported that some places in the desert have not received any rain in a hundred years or more. After a long 15 hour bus ride from Chiloe Island up to Santiago, we hopped a quick flight to Calama to start exploring the desert. We had the option of taking a bus all the way from Chiloe to Calama but that was going to be an additional 22 hours, so needless to say we chose the flight from Santiago. The town of San Pedro de Atacama is about an hour outside of Calama and where all of the tourists stay who wish to tour the desert. It is a tiny little town with dirt streets that seems to exist solely for tourism. There are plenty of restaurants and a little market or two.
We initially thought we would rent a car and drive around the desert ourselves as opposed to booking the organized tours. The one car rental agency that was in town had no cars available so we had no choice but to book some tours. After having done the tours, I am so glad we didn’t rent a car. Some of the best spots in the desert are incredibly remote so having a guide to get you safely in and out was key. Plus, we had some excellent guides who were both passionate about the desert and incredibly knowledgable. We booked three tours with the same agency, Cosmo Andina, and they were all excellent. A word of warning though, the tours, like everything else in San Pedro de Atacama, are not cheap. We paid around $400 USD for three tours for the two of us.
Our first tour was through the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). The scenery here is striking with lots of carved rock formations that have been eroded by the wind over thousands of years. The Valle de la Luna is said to resemble the surface of Mars; in fact, the Mars Rover was tested in this area because of its resemblance to the real thing. The white stuff is salt, not snow.
The highlight of this tour was ending up at the Valle de la Luna for sunset. We took a short hike up one of the rock formations so we could get a view down into the valley below. It was spectacular as you can see from Jaime’s pics.
Our second day in Atacama we did an all day tour to the the Altiplanic lagoons Miscanti and Miñique. This was our favorite day in Atacama because of the sharp contrast in scenery. The weather and altitude are pretty extreme on this day, as we got to over 13,000 feet in some spots. It was incredibly windy and cold but well worth it for the views. I of course had about 3 layers of clothes on the whole time. The first stop of the day was the Salar de Atacama, where we watched flamingos and other birds eating in the salt lakes. I had never seen flamingos in the wild before so it was quite spectacular to watch them fly around.
On the way from the Salar de Atacama to the lagoons we saw this adorable fox. He apparently is so used to the tour groups that he waits on the side of the road for the vans to come in the morning. All the guides know him and talk to him when they see him. After leaving the friendly little fox behind we made stops at Piedras Rojas (red rocks) to see a truly spectacular white/green lagoon and then finally Miscanti and Miñique.
Our last tour the following day was an all day affair to the Tara Salt Flats (Salar de Tara). This is home to the second largest caldera (volcanic crater) in the world (Yellowstone being the first). Tara is also home to the Flamingos Natural Preserve, another protected area for the James flamingo. Our van broke down about an hour outside of town, which apparently is not unusual because the high altitude tends to do a number on automobiles. Thankfully our van had a satellite phone and had someone from the tour company there in an hour with a spare one of whatever was broken by the altitude. After that little setback we were on our way to the caldera. We were basically hiking across a super volcano that is expected to blow again sometime in in the future. Pretty cool but scary to think about. The James flamingos were pretty spectacular. Jaime got an awesome shot of a vicuna running across one of the lakes in front of the flamingos.
After three straight days of tours in some pretty extreme conditions we were pretty exhausted. Our next adventure would be a three day tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia, what many consider to be the most spectacular natural area in all of South America. Stay tuned for our next post on the Salt Flats.