The Atacama desert is the driest place on Earth with only 15mm of rainfall per year. Scientists actually use this barren landscape to test drive prototype versions of Mars Rovers.
The desert was one of the first natural places we visited on our trip and I was very taken by its rugged beauty. It felt very dreamlike and wonderful with salt flats, flamingos and turquoise lakes flanked by blue mountains surrounded by tufts of yellow grass. It was bizarrely colourful for a desert, like a mirage drawn in bright ink.
Apparently, the high quantities of quartz and copper give the town of San Pedro a ‘positive energy’. I think that the Chileans don’t always feel that as they must certainly get sick of the tourists that outnumber them most days.
We booked a tour in Spanish to save money but to be honest it would have better to spend an extra £1 on an English tour that we could understand. We visited the El Tatio geysers, Salar de Atacama, Chaxas Lagoon which is part of Los Flamencos National Reserve, Laguna Miscanti, and Valle de la Luna. It gets very cold in the altiplano desert at night so we wrapped up warm and gradually stripped as the day went on.
The geysers are the first port of call at sunrise as that is when they look the most impressive due to the combination of heat and cold. There are also hot springs that you can bathe in but there was no way I was getting into them. The tour guide served us hot chocolate which was lovely.
There are over 80 geysers in the El Tatio fields and they are the third highest in the world surrounded by over 100 fumaroles. They are named after the Quechua word for oven.
The highest observed height reached by an eruption was six metres. A Belgian tourist, unfortunately, fell into one of the geysers and died in 2015.
The next stop was the Salar de Atacama (salt flats) which is the third largest in the world. It is a bit more rough and ready that the undulating smoothness of the Bolivian salt flats but equally beautiful. It contains 30% of the world’s lithium supply. The concentration vs evaporation rate means that it is cheaper for Chile to supply this compound than Bolivia. Unfortunately, this is another resource where Bolivia finishes last.
In the Atacama there are crystallised labyrinths of salt stretching out over the landscape so it looks like a coral reef that has been frozen. I found a lizard hiding in the salt and I had the most respect for this creature that had found a way to live in this dry wilderness.
We carried on to the Chaxas Lagoon which is full of flamingos, hence why it is part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve. The flamingoes found here include the Chilean flamingo, James flamingo, and the Andean flamingo. There were also lots of grebes who were busy building nests, their outlines made the twigs look like bizarre whiskers but in such a strange landscape they fitted in just fine.
What struck me about the lagoon was the incredible colours, the landscape was red, the water was blue and the grass was yellow. All of the primary colours. It was like an oil painting come to life and I imagine totally inspiring for artists. I don’t wish to be wanky but there was definitely something special about it.
When researching flamingos I discovered that one escaped from a zoo in Salt Lake City and became known as ‘Pink Floyd the Flamingo’ and for 17 years was the star of the state. I love a rebel escapee.
The James or Puna flamingo has a fantastic yellow beak and was thought to be extinct until being rediscovered in the 1950s. Perhaps we should just keep secret reserves of all of our species in remote locations to slow down our insane extinction rate. The Chilean and James flamingos are now classified as near threatened. Egg stealing, habitat destruction, and unusually heavy rainfall are their biggest threats.
The Andean flamingo is particularly under threat from mining and the poisonous Borax that is unearthed from this practice. Even the name sounds alarming. Borax luckily does not affect humans but the effect on animals is a disaster. The birds are affected in their skeletal, reproductive and cardiovascular systems. A deadly threesome.
Sadly, demand for their eggs and therefore poaching has also increased making it a vulnerable species. Because of these threats flamingo protection is something that is currently being examined around the world. The infrastructure required for the increase in tourism is also affecting wildlife and ecosystems.
Another awesome character in the Andean landscape is the viscacha and we saw two wandering amongst the grasses on a hillside. Specifically, the Northern viscacha which is a cute, rabbit-like creature that eats grasses and gets preyed on by the Andean mountain cat. Make sure you take your binoculars to spot one as they are incredibly small.
After visiting the incredible lagoons we took a stroll around the Valle de la Luna (valley of the moon). It really felt like we were on the surface of the moon. By this point, a German guy had started translating for us as we clearly didn’t understand our guide whatsoever.
Our guide had been chatting with me about a volcano and I just nodded and said ‘si’ whilst Steph sat on the bus and pissed herself laughing. Now that we had our own translator we ran the risk of actually learning something.
The Valle is a land carved by the elements which has deep trenches made by wind and water that you can walk through. I always think its fun to find rock outcrops that look like penises.
We also went out at night, it’s definitely bizarre to be drinking in a desert and it gets cold. San Pedro de Atacama remains one of the most intriguing places I have ever been and I would love to return.