A flight over still more spectacular Chilean landscapes took us to the Calama Airport near San Pedro de Atacama in the north of the country. The Atacama Desert, which extends over parts of Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, is considered the driest (or at least the driest non-polar) desert in the world. In parts of its central “absolute desert” region, rain has never been recorded since human record-keeping began. But unlike stereotypical imagery of deserts like the Sahara, with vast expanses of featureless sand dunes, the Atacama is spectacular, and the Chilean section has a great variety of wonders.
Along the busy unpaved streets of San Pedro de Atacama, the regional tourist hub, you can stay in an expensive resort or a cheap hostel, eat in a variety of decent restaurants, and, if you have days to spare (which we didn’t), acclimate to the altitude.
At 7,900 feet above sea level, the town is high enough to induce headaches and nausea in some people, and some of the must-see excursions take you up to around 14,000 feet. Coca leaves to chew (and coca gum, and coca candy) are plentiful in the local shops, but we found them only slightly helpful. If, like us, you have only enough days to see the sights, you’ll just have to expect some sickness and discomfort.
We had booked our excursions ahead of time, which is advisable. The first was to the lagunas (lakes) of Los Flamencos National Reserve. On the way the tour stopped at a spot where the ancient north-south Inca Trail crosses the Tropic of Capricorn. It was our first opportunity to step out into the vastness of the desert.
To the eye at least, this Moon-like area is devoid of life. There’s nothing here to sustain animals like the guanaco we’d seen from the windows of the taxi from the airport the day before, no scrubby brush or grasses – nothing except the small cairns piled up, we were told, for traditional reasons by local people.
The laguna area, by contrast, supports enough hardy greenery for those wild South American camelids known as guanacos and vicuñas (their relatives, the llamas and alpacas, are domesticated species).
When we reached the lakes, sure enough we spotted a couple of graceful vicuñas in the distance.
Photos can’t fully capture how distinctive the light here is, and the blue of the water as well.
A lava flow from the Miñiques volcano separated Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques some time ago.
Both lakes are protected habitats; humans are allowed to approach only so close.
The flamingoes that congregate here weren’t in evidence, though on another day in another part of the park we found flamingoes aplenty (see below). But first, the tour took us to a village where we saw the kind of terraced farms some of the region’s natives use to eke out crops in oasis areas. We were told that the residents of these villages are involved in the maintenance of the park too.
The Salar de Atacama, the salt flats, are another spectacular and unique landscape. The featureless, wretchedly dry ground looks like the surface of another planet:
But then, lo and behold: water! flamingoes!
Here at the shallow Laguna Chaxa, flamingos and other birds feed peacefully on tiny brine shrimp, unconcerned about the busloads of tourists taking brief, crunchy treks through their habitat.
We made a final stop at another sunbaked village, and peeked into its church, whose Christmas creche included, of course, flamingoes. The streets, though, included just about nothing in the heat of the late afternoon in the driest desert in the world.
On the way back to San Pedro de Atacama we passed the entrance to ALMA, the world-famous observatory where so many important astronomical discoveries are made (entrance building pictured at right).
Then, back in town, we rested in the courtyard of the Hostal Sonchek before going out to a well-deserved dinner.
To be more specific: a well-deserved alcohol-free dinner. I think we would have needed quite a few more days of altitude acclimation before we felt like imbibing, which isn’t recommended anyway for the unacclimated. That’s something of a silver lining, actually: while it’s expensive to get here, once here, you’ll save money on meals if you don’t feel quite yourself enough to order any potent potables.
Altitude sickness is strange and unpredictable, we found. While it hit Elisa in a mild way almost as soon as we got to San Pedro de Atacama, it didn’t hit me till a few days later at one of the much higher elevations. But in one way, it hit me a whole lot harder.
To get back to the reasons we traveled to this dramatic corner of the world: Next up was the Valle della Luna (Valley of the Moon), another setting that looks like the surface of a dead planet.
Well, not entirely dead. There were signs of life underfoot, droppings from tour groups that arrive by horse.
Unlike Los Flamencos National Reserve (the vast park we’d visited the day before), the Valle della Luna is free to visit and essentially unregulated. Our guide expressed hope that it would come under some sort of protection.
Our next stop was at a clifftop with a dramatic overlook.
Next up, a little caving and a little climbing.
We moved on to the Tres Marias, an eye-catching if rather overdone tourist attraction. You have to keep your distance. The stumpy shape of the Maria on the left, we were told, is a result of a bumbling tourist climbing on her and breaking her.
As the day drew to a close, we hiked up an enormous dune to a prime sunset-viewing spot. Dry as most of it is, the Atacama Desert offers an endless variety of breathtaking landscapes.
The longest climb of our trip, it felt a good deal longer than it would have at a lower altitude. Knowing how to dress is tricky in this environment too. It can be very hot in the sun, and much colder at night – also very cold in the early morning in some spots (see the geyser excursion described below.)
As the sun dropped lower and the breeze picked up we wrapped ourselves in additional layers and waited for the payoff. Sunsets happen so fast at the shore, but up here it seemed to take forever for the sun to drop below the mountainous horizon. Finally, though, the inevitable happened.
Walking back down, different colors greeted us.
Our final daytime excursion actually began in the dead of night. Travelers’ accounts of visiting the El Tatio Geysers abound with warnings and even discouragement. The site is very high, around 14,000 feet. You don’t get much sleep the night before, because the geysers are a good distance from San Pedro de Atacama and you have to set out at 4 AM to get there at daybreak when they erupt. Back when we were planning the trip, we even entertained thoughts of skipping this excursion.
But when it came down to it, how could we miss one of the best-known, most spectacular experiences to be had in this distant region we’d likely never get to again? Never mind the exhaustion, the lightheadness from altitude sickness compounded by lack of sleep. Never mind the freezing temperatures, for which we’d dragged our down jackets all over the Chilean summer.
Some of the geysers spray periodically, every so many seconds or minutes. Others appeared to be spraying continuously. Getting into the spray for a minute now and then was a relief from the cold, dry air. Certain ancient life forms took advantage of this moist environment as well.
Some hardy souls took dips in the thermal pool, which is warm where the flow of geothermally heated water feeds it and colder at the other end. Our bathing suits stayed in our packs. Neither of us felt well enough to do much more than wander slowly across the dry ground and sit on a rock waiting to be summoned back to the bus.
Back on that warm vehicle, we headed to a watery spot to observe some local birds. On the way we drove by a group of slender vicuñas.
Still dogged by the altitude, we dragged every step along the mini-hike at our next stop. But it was worth it. Wildlife aside, the wet, mossy terrain makes a colorful world of its own.
The guide gave us only the local names for the birds. This one is known in English as a giant coot.
I’m not sure about these next two, though I think the second one may be a kind of sierra finch.
The excursion ended with a stop at a village that sold barbecued llama and photo ops with a non-barbecued llama. Feeling nauseous from the altitude, I had no interest in the former, and the latter was just plain sad, especially having seen the poor beast’s wild relatives grazing peacefully in their natural habitat. The village did offer one pretty hillside view, though.
I don’t know if it was this excursion’s duration, or an accumulated effect over several days, but after feeling queasy the whole ride back, as soon as we got to our room at the hostel I was violently ill, followed by my second splitting headache of the trip. Resting didn’t help, but finally getting up and taking a slow walk around town did.
I’ll close with a mention of our one night-time excursion, through San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations to a spot just outside of town where various countries and organizations maintain a mushroom patch of observatories. In a field near these domed eyes on the sky, a small forest of naked telescopes of various sizes awaited us. After an introductory talk by our guide, a Canadian astronomer who had moved here for the clear skies, we were loosed upon the telescopes which he had trained on a variety of interesting astronomical sights: the Pleiades, a double star, a nebula, Jupiter, and the Moon among others. One telescope aimed at the moon was set up so you could take a picture through the eyepiece with your own camera.
With all these excursions (most booked with Desert Adventure), we did have a little extra time to wander around San Pedro de Atacama.
The Archeological Museum is very interesting and nicely laid out and can be seen in an hour or two.
We shopped for souvenirs and gifts at the big indoor market, finding really nice alpaca scarves for very reasonable prices (made in Peru, but close enough); tiny llamas, stone ones and soft ones; and of course, coca tea. For ourselves, we went to an artisan workshop and bought a handmade replica of a tray used by one of the native cultures of centuries ago for hallucinogenic substances. (Exactly what substances, and how they were consumed, the museum didn’t make clear.)
We walked around the homey town plaza.
And we pursued my personal mission, ultimately successful, of finding a store where we could buy a padded envelope, locating the tiny post office, and mailing the hotel keys, which I’d forgotten to return, back to the Hotel Da Vinci in Valparaiso.
On our last day, a tour hawker solicited us on the street outside her office.
“No,” I said definitively. “We’re done.”
Our new slogan: “Vacation’s over when somebody throws up.”
And the next day it was back to Santiago. New Year’s Eve. Checked back into the Hotel Orly, and this time given a surprise: a suite with a kitchen instead of just a room. Had a drink and a snack outdoors at a nearby bar, walked around the neighborhood, discovered that no restaurants would be open for dinner, and zipped into the supermarket just before it closed to buy a microwave dinner. The gods of expedience had smiled on us in giving us that suite.
At midnight the sound of fireworks woke us. A new year had begun.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0778707172][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1426201257][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1741795834][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0374280606][amazon template=iframe image&asin=8857213862]