Flamingos in the Salar de AtacamaLike a bevy of pink ballerinas, the flamingos tip-toed across the salty lagoon, sweeping their wide bills through the shallow water in search of food. Then, with a burst of wide wings they launched themselves into the sky, and became silhouetted against the sunset and the towering mountains of northern Chile. We were in the Atacama desert, a land of stark beauty and surprising wildlife. With less than an inch of rainfall each year, the Atacama is the driest desert in the world. And yet, it has been home to people and wildlife for thousands of years.
At the Foot of the Andes
To get to the Atacama, we had flown north from Santiago to the mining town of Calama. As the plane descended into the airport we circled over a giant hole in the earth, the largest open pit copper mine in the world. Trucks loaded with copper ore looked like toys as they wound their way up its steep sides. At the airport we were met by Juan, our driver from the Tierra Atacama, our hotel in San Pedro de Atacama, the oasis town 75 miles away that would be our base. It was December, early summer in the southern hemisphere. Technically we were in the tropics, but the altitude, about 8,500 feet, meant that the temperatures were comfortable.
View of the volcano Licancabur from our room at the Tierra Atacama
At the hotel we were escorted through a garden of newly planted flowers and fig trees to our spacious room. We had a direct view of the volcano Licancabur, which at 19,400 feet high dominates the skyline and has been imbued with religious significance since ancient times.
Our all inclusive plan meant that everything for our stay was taken care of–meals, transportation, guides, entertainment. So, before relaxing with our pisco sours (the classic Chilean cocktail), we met with the trip planner who wanted to make sure that our three days would be filled with the activities we desired.
San Pedro and Toconao, Oases in the Desert
For day one, we chose a morning trip to the Valley of the Moon, spectacular rock formations just to the north of San Pedro.
View of the Valley of the MoonAfter lunch, on bicycles provided by the hotel, we rode over the bumpy dirt road about a mile into the center of town. Fed by water flowing down from the mountains, San Pedro de Atacama has long been an agricultural center and was a stopping place for Pedro de Valdivia, one of the founders of Chile, as he made his way south from Peru in 1540. Near the main plaza there is a church and small museum containing ancient artifacts. A covered arcade nearby has souvenir stalls with blankets, pottery, jewelry, and other crafts, mostly from Peru (to the north) or Bolivia (a few miles to the east, on the back side of Licancabur.)
At 5:00 we met our guide and fellow travelers for a trip to the National Flamingo Reserve. En route we stopped at the small oasis town of Toconao where we toured terraced gardens filled with apricot, quince, fig, and other fruit trees. We also went into the historic church to see an elaborate Christmas manger scene, complete with llamas, a volcano, and tiny glass flamingos.
Flamingos and Giant Salt Flats
We then climbed back into the van and drove along a road of finely crushed salt through the sea of jagged crystals that form the giant salt flat of the Salar de Atacama, once an ancient inland sea. Before following the walkway to the lagoons, we toured the small visitor center to see exhibits of the flamingo life cycle. Three species of flamingos can be seen feeding in the lagoons, the Chilean, Andean and James flamingos. Periodically the birds launch themselves into the air, flapping their wide wings and honking like geese as they rearrange themselves for the night. As we watched the birds, the sun slowly sank in the west, turning the hills first orange, then pink, and finally the sky grew dark, revealing the unfamiliar southern constellations, sparkling in the clear, dry air. It was a spectacular end to our first day.
Sunset and Flamingos
Part II will cover our visits to ancient petroglyphs and the Tatio Geysers.
Getting there: After flying from the U.S. to Santiago, the capitol of Chile, we took a local flight on Sky Airlines to Calama. Lan Chile also flies there. (Calama is 1225 kilometers from Santiago.) Our ground transportation to and around San Pedro was provided by our hotel, the Tierra Atacama, but it is possible to rent a car and drive yourself. (The main road is paved but most other roads are dirt.) Click here for a MAP of Chile. (Calama and San Pedro de Atacama are east of Antofagasta near the Bolivia border.)
Did we need to speak Spanish? Although we can get along in basic Spanish, almost everyone at the hotel spoke English. English was the international language for us and the other international tourists, many from Brazil and Europe. Except for one person, there were no other Americans at our hotel.
When did we go to Chile? Art and I made this trip to the Atacama in December 2009. We also spent time in Santiago, Rancagua, and the beach town of Iloca (later greatly damaged by the earthquake and tsunami.)