We saved ourselves the 24 hour bus ride from Santiago up to the Atacama desert in the North of Chile and instead decided to fly (because it wasn’t too dissimilar cost-wise). We flew to Calama, the closest airport to San Pedro and then took a shared minivan an hour and a half to the town. Landing in Calama had to be one of the strangest flights we’ve done, we looked out the window and there was just desert for miles and we couldn’t even see the tarmac to land on. The drive to San Pedro as well was very surreal as we just kept driving on and on through this one straight road surrounded by cracked earth, sand, rocks and dust. A desert landscape is one that neither of us have ever seen before (other than the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, though that was quite different). The Atacama desert is considered the driest place on earth and the landscape is truly jaw-dropping.
We chose a great place to stay, Hostel Ayni, and we arrived too late in the afternoon to do anything properly so we just enjoyed the sun from the hostel’s garden and had a poke around the town which is basically one big strip with all the tour agencies and restaurants. All the tour companies offer similar trips and try and compete for your custom by discounting if you book multiple tours. The tours are all a bit pricey, and though there are loads of things to see and do, we narrowed it down to just one tour which included our top attraction; the flamingos on Lake Chaxa. We opted for the Piedras Rojas tour through the Flamingo Travel Agency (the most legit looking one on the strip). It was initially priced at $45,000 pesos with an additional $5500 pesos entrance fee to the parks but we got it for $35,000 each and entrance was only $2500 pesos; making it about £50pp for a full day (7am -6pm) including breakfast and lunch, a trilingual geologist tour guide and 400km worth of driving to altitudes of 4000m! Not bad really.
Our first stop on the tour was to Lake Chaxa, a salt lake where three types of flamingos live; the Andean flamingo, Chilean flamingo & James flamingo. The lake is surrounded by the salt flats (Salar de Atacama); the third largest salt flats in the world! Lake Chaxa sits at 2300 metres above sea level. We had an amazing geologist tour guide who gave in depth explanations in Spanish, English and French, so it was quite good language practice for me too. He explained that the salt comes from the volcanoes underground and mixes with the underground currents. Though there are multiple volcanoes in the Andes; the Atacama plain only has one active volcano; Lascar and we could see the steam rising from it. As the Atacama basin is surrounded by different mountain ranges, the water has no drainage outlets and is continually evaporating to create the natural salt crystal phenomenon. We absolutely loved seeing the flamingos and that was without a doubt, the highlight for us. Seeing them in person, they are such bizarre creatures with their stilt-like legs. They basically stand in the water and constantly do shuffling 360 degree turns eating the food that they disturb. We weren’t sure whether we’d see any close up but we were thrilled to see a few who were only about 20 metres away. And we did see a huge flock (the collective noun is actually a flamboyance of flamingos) in the distance moving as one and we caught sight of a few actually flying against the backdrop of the Andes. We also saw an Andean Avocet, a white and brown bird with the craziest pointed beak (see below!).
Next up was the main attraction of the tour; las Piedras Rojas or the Red Stones. Situated at 4000m above sea level, there’s lake Miscanti (altiplanicas) which is only 30-40cm deep and was covered in strong ice that you can walk on. Around the lake, there are red rocks that are actually lava stones flung kilometres from the neighbouring volcano Aventura! The reason they are red is due to the oxidised iron within them. I started to get my first ever taste of altitude sickness though, I had such a bad headache it felt like my brain was going to explode out of my head. Also throughout the time in San Pedro, I seem to have started to get a bloody nose which I never normally never have and apparently its a symptom of altitude sickness too. To give you a comparison of how high we were, Machu Pichu is only 2430m! Only 10km further along, we stopped at Laguna Tuyajto, also at 4000m above sea level. It was another salt lake and the aqua colouring reminded us of the glacial lakes of New Zealand.
Throughout the tour, the guide pointed out some wild, desert animals to us. We saw a couple of Vischachas who belong to the chinchilla family except they look like rabbits with long tails and very long whiskers! We also saw quite a few Vicunas which are similar to llamas and alpacas but they are the proper, wild, mountainous versions. Finally, we even saw a Gray fox, native to South America (all photos below!)
We then pulled up to the place that marks the Tropic of Capricorn; the imaginary line parallel to the equator on the Southern Hemisphere. It’s also the start of the Inca trail which goes all the way North to Cusco in Peru. I suppose it was a fun photo op in the middle of the desert that denotes such renowned co-ordinates, but not much else to say on it really. Our last stop was Toconao, a small village where ancient traditions and crafts are kept alive. The town is built with Liparita which is volcanic stone. The town is tiny so there isn’t much to do, we just got an ice cream there and looked at the Bell Tower built in 1750. There were also some giant, phallic cactuses. Apparently the inside of the cactus is used as a type of wood-like material and was used to build the door of the local church.
The next day we had a fairly slow morning after the day before’s jam-packed day. We headed to the town’s French bakery for some great croissants for breakfast. Mine had Manjar in it which is another food that is really popular in Chile. It’s made from condensed milk and it sort of tastes like salted caramel and it is heavenly. We had a few admin bits to do like book our onwards bus journey to Argentina for the following morning and then we went to rent bikes. You can get them for around 3000 pesos for 6 hours or 5000 for a full day. We chose one that cost 4000 for the 6 hours just because it was conveniently located near our hostel. They are supposedly ‘mountain bikes’ though there is no suspension on the back. We planned to cycle to Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) but it was a bit of a disaster really. I’m not the most athletic person anyway, but with the altitude, the mid-day sun of the desert, and crap bikes, it was awful. We followed a view point on our map and ended up pushing our bikes up a gravel/rock/dirt track hill. At the top, there was a giant cross which gave a tiny bit of shade, the only shade for miles – we’ve never been so grateful for a religious structure. Despite the horrific push-bike-up-a-hill-fiasco, the view was amazing and so iconic to Atacama. We then went back down the same disastrous hill and actually cycled through the valley and then back in to town. The loop wasn’t far at all but my god, our arses were so bruised by the end of it.
In the evening, we did perhaps the stupidest thing we’ve done this trip. Atacama is notorious for star gazing and though there are astrology tours that take you out safely in the night with telescopes etc, we decided we’d try and walk out of town where there are no lights to try and see the stars ourselves. We basically took a very dodgy route and were walking in some very sketchy backstreets, not even streets really, just back dirt roads. Just as we were both starting to feel properly on edge, there was this blood-curdling, high pitched yelp from right next to us which was a dog behind a fence. We absolutely shat ourselves. Fortunately, all was ok, but we decided to walk back on the main road instead. Oh, and in terms of stars, we did managed to see them a lot better without the town lights but there still weren’t that many/ that bright. There is a photo below, though not very impressive given that it was taken hand-held without a tripod. We hope we’ll get a couple more chances at stargazing in other parts of South America.
Thanks for reading, join us in Argentina next time!
Sophie & Dave
Andean Avocet with a crazy beak!
Flamingo on lake Chaxa
Viscacha (type of chinchilla but looks like a rabbit!)
Standing on the frozen lake
The red stones
Piedras Rojas, Chile
Valle de la Muerta
Stars of San Pedro de Atacama