Like Nowhere Else on Earth ~ Atacama Desert, Chile

22 April – 26 April, 2018

The Atacama wasn’t on our agenda. We had lived in a desert environment for over 25 years and I have not so fond memories of symptoms I’ve experienced at higher altitudes, so we filled our South American itinerary with other adventures. I did have some wildlife ‘must-sees’, however, and as we approached the middle of April, I had yet to see flamingos in the wild, except from afar. I couldn’t fathom returning home if there was still a chance to see them, and since we were ahead of schedule, thanks to the wild Patagonia weather, I looked to Terry and said, “I want to go north to the Atacama” and, without further discussion, he agreed.

First, a few facts about the Atacama, one of the oldest deserts in the world:

Photo courtesy of Google maps.
  • It covers a 1,000 kilometer (621 miles) strip of land near the Pacific coast, west of the Andes, primarily in Chile.
  • It is the driest, non-polar place in the world, according to NASA, barely registering more than one millimeter of annual rainfall, although that has begun to change. It is 50 times drier than Death Valley National Park.
  • The extreme dryness is due to two mountain chains, the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range, each tall enough to prevent moisture from reaching the desert floor. Many of the region’s mountains taller than 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) are completely free of glaciers.
  • Some of the weather stations in the Atacama have never registered any rainfall!
  • Every 10-15 years a rare phenomenon called desierto florito, when the desert bursts into prolific bloom, is a result of the El Niño effect. Rainfall is such a rare event that knowledge of some of the flora is relatively unknown. This is now happening more often due to an increase in annual rainfall.

So, why come to such a desolate region? I was drawn by the compelling brazenness of wind and relentless sun to sculpt a landscape like no other, and of course, the allure of wild flamingos was never far from my mind.

San Pedro de Atacama is the place to position yourself if you want to experience this otherworldly landscape. Tourism has a foothold in this small town of 2,500 residents, as evidenced by the tour companies advertising on every block. Although San Pedro’s population continues to expand, only two pharmacies exist, a telling sign that the local indigenous community still uses medicine found in nature to heal, a concept that resonates with me.

After settling into our hostel, we walked down the main street, Caracoles, to find CosmoAndino Expediciones, the tour company I had chosen after much reading. The detail they provided and the warmth of their staff told me I had made the right decision. After settling up with them, we walked down to the town square where music and dancing could be heard. What a wonderful way to begin our San Pedro stay!

At 6:30 the next morning the van picked me up to begin the ‘Salar y Lagunas’ tour. Terry had decided to stay back and piece together a new route to get us back home after learning that our flight had been canceled because of an airline strike. I was bummed but he insisted, which was probably for the best, as it took him most of the day to piece together a new flight plan.

This tour (I believe a must-see) begins with a stop within the National Reserve “Los Flamencos”, at Laguna Chaxa, the salt flats where migrating birds can be found, most notably pink flamingos. Although not as expansive as the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia, I knew I was going to get my flamingo fix! We arrived before any of the other tour companies, which is one of the reasons to use CosmoAndino. The solitude allowed for viewing and taking photos before the crowds arrived, and before the birds took flight.

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Three species of flamingos migrate to Laguna Chaxa – James, Chilean, and Andean, although the James are only seen here in the winter. The Andean, one of the rarest flamingos in the world, are larger than the Chilean, have yellow legs, and a large black swath on their wings. The Chilean have bright pink knees and feet, and eat by digging in the mud while turning in circles. The Andean flamingo also dig in the mud for food but walk in a straight line…interesting.

Flamingos mate for life, laying one egg per year during December and January, in cone-shaped nests they build in the mud. Babies are white-gray, then turn pink after they begin eating brine shrimp, which are prevalent in the salt flats. They live 30-40 years and have few predators.

The Puna plover and Andean avocet, who also love saltwater marshes, can be found at Laguna Chaxa.

Andean avocet

These salt flats, created by water that flowed from the Andes, were the site and much of the cause of the War of the Pacific, also called the Saltpeter War. The result was that Chile obtained most of this valuable, mineral-rich territory that was desired by both Bolivia and Peru.

Beneath this salt (the largest deposit in all of Chile), lies a massive salt lake, and beneath this huge lake lies 27% of the world’s lithium reserves, the purest active source of lithium available. As lithium is the key ingredient in rechargeable batteries, it is a much coveted resource. Our tour guide, Pablo, told us it is a delicate balance to remove lithium and not disrupt the salt flats and the wildlife that is drawn to them.

To learn more about lithium mining, two interesting articles can be found here and here.

After spending time with the flamingos, we were served a yummy breakfast of fresh fruits, guacamole, ham, and cheeses. Coffee, hot chocolate, and tea helped to take off the chill, and coca leaf tea was available for those of us challenged by high altitude. As we would be spending 4-5 hours of our day at elevations in excess of 13,000 feet, I was thankful for the tea. This, along with staying hydrated, provided me a symptom-free day. 🙂

After leaving the salt flats, we stopped at the small village of Socaire, where we visited an 18th-century church and enjoyed seeing some of the creations made by local artisans before continuing our ascent to the highlands.

We stopped at various viewpoints and saw the smallest and rarest of the camelids, the shy vicuña, from our van window. They prefer higher elevations and are found mostly in northern Chile. Its wool has been prized since Inca times.

Our final stop of the day was to Lakes Miscanti and Miñiques, named after their namesake volcanos. These lakes formed about 1,000 years ago when the eruption of the Miñiques Volcano, 5,910 meters above sea level, blocked the waters that once flowed freely in front of these volcanos. Due to geomorphological changes in the area, natural dams were created, resulting in the lakes we see today.

Lake Miscanti, ringed by volcanos.

A great lunch was served before we headed back to San Pedro, wrapping up a fabulous day.

Over our 5-day stay in San Pedro we took three tours, two with CosmoAndino Expediciones. I cannot say enough about the quality of this tour, our tour guide Pablo, and the professionalism of this company.

Next Up: Valley of the Moon and the night sky.