There are a few places in the world that I have always heard about, but never really thought about visiting. Not for lack of interest, but more for there being too many places to go to. Northern Chile, especially the Atacama desert, was amongst those. After traveling for 10 days through that wonderful area, I have to say that I did it great injustice for not putting it on the “Must-Go” list.
This trip materialized after a serendipitous coincidence of both me and my always adventurous mother being on the same continent at the same time. Rather than going to some fancy dinner, we decided to rent a car and drive through the Atacama desert and the northern chilean Puna.
We chose two base cities, San Pedro de Atacama and Putre, to stay overnight and do day trips to the sites of interest. Altitudes range up to 5,000 m (16,000 ft) with peaks above that. As such the first two days were a bit rough oxygen-wise, but it is amazing how quickly the body adapts. After a couple days I learned one other important lesson: There is not much atmosphere to filter out UV light there. Even though I was wearing long sleeves, a hat and a shemagh (a Palestinian head scarf) along with factor 50 sun-block, I got a really nice suntan bordering burn.
It started with flying into the small airport of Calama, picking up our car and making our way to San Pedro de Atacama. That city is remarkable only in it that it is the tourist hub for the region. Every other shop is either a tourist agency or bar. It is very popular with young backpackers. That is were the own car comes in handy. As you had east and up (and up and up), you get away from folks and to the gorgeous landscapes. The one advantage of San Pedro is there are plenty of stores and restaurants. Of the latter, Sol Inti and Las Delicias De Carmen were our favorites. Also, at about 2,500 m (8,200 ft) it is a good height to start to get acclimated to the higher altitudes while still being very comfortable.
We decided to start the trip of nice and slow and visit the nearby attractions. The Atacama desert is one of the most arid places in the world and so I found it rather odd to see lakes. I thought it even more odd to find these lakes full of flamingoes. But they are there and seem perfectly happy. The easiest place to see them is at Laguna Chaxa. It is a protected area with a educational path to show the brine shrimp that live in the shallow lakes and feed the birds, the lakes themselves and finally the flamingoes.
After spending some time admiring the birds, we drove on to two of the most famous lakes, Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques. They are at about 4,200 m (13,800 ft) and thus became my first encounter with the somewhat lacking oxygen. I suppose it affects people differently, but for me it was like having run a sprint even though I was only carrying my camera backpack for 100 m. This was a vacation after all and so it was time to slow down, take a deep breath and enjoy the majestic views.
On the second and smaller lake we finally saw some Vincuñas, a relative of the Llama. Those being my first ones, I spend all the time photographing them in the distance. Little did I know that they are all over the place. Still, it was beautiful seeing them. The return trip had one more surprise for us as we came across one of the local foxes (Zorro culpeo).
There are a couple places that are on every guidebook’s highly recommended list. The Salar de Tara is one of them. However, in order to get there one needs a 4×4 capable vehicle. Ours was not and so we decided to become a bit more sociable and participate in a tour.
It starts off with a long uphill road with a scenic stop at the volcanoes Licancabur and Juriques. After some more climbing we reached another small lake with more flamingoes. This is about as high as we would get topping out at 4,800 m (15,800 ft). From there the off-roading starts. First stop after leaving the road was the Monjes de La Pacana, which are remains of past volcanic eruptions. They now make for a nice sculpture garden. Just go nice and slow as oxygen is still quite scarce around there.
The tour then ended at the Salar de Tara. The area that is accessible is at the deeper end, which is more of a lake than a salt flat and dotted with abundant numbers of flamingoes. While enjoying those, I noticed some dirt being thrown around nearby. On closer investigation the culprit revealed itself. It was a Cholulo, essentially a guinea pig with a small tail, during spring remodeling of his burrow.
There is one more thing for which the Atacama desert is famous for. That is the night sky. After a day in the thin air it is easy to want tug in at night, but that would be huge mistake. The night sky is just as impressive as the sights at day. Not to be missed for sure. There is a reason why some of the largest telescopes are built in this desert. All that is needed is to drive out of the city with its pesty lights and look up. There are not a lot of places in this world where one can see two galaxies with the bare eye, our own Milky Way and the Great Magellanic Cloud (the cloud on the right in the photo below). If really interested, there are plenty of tours that take people out at night and bring along small telescopes.
For the last day in San Pedro we decided to venture out farther away from the tourist hot-spots and drove almost all the way to the border with Argentina. The first stop was Piedras Rojas, a shallow lake with red volcanic rocks. All the other lakes we saw were that deep crystal clear blue. This one was a gorgeous turquoise which contrasted beautifully with the red rocks. I think this is a great time to note that none of these landscape photos do the reality any justice. The shades and hues of colors with the deep blue sky are incredible. Add to that the quietness of only the wind. To me it is the very definition of serenity.
We them drove on a bit more to Laguna Tuyacto (also spelled Tujajto) were we just sat down and took in the scene for a very (!) long time.
Days 5 and 6
Per our original plan, San Pedro de Atacama was only to be the first act of this trip. Everyone we asked mentioned that we should really go to Putre to see all the animals and none of the tourists. There are two ways to get there. Return the car in Calama and then spend a day in planes to go to Arica, or drive the 800 km (500 mi) north across the lower desert. Of course we chose the latter and were well rewarded for it.
A bit west of Calama are the geoglyphs of Chug-Chug. Essentially like petroglyphs on steroids. Unfortunately the SD Card in my camera decided to give up and freeze up the camera along with it. So, no good photos. You will have to go and see for yourself. There is a small group of archeologists living at the site who were more than happy to show us around and patiently answer any questions we had. There are 100’s of geolyphs at the site. Some are geometrical forms while others are humans and animals.
About at the halfway point, near the city of Iquique, lies another treasure. The UNESCO world heritage sites of Oficinas salitreras de Humberstone y Santa Laura (Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works). Chile was the world’s largest producer of saltpeter for a time and lots of abandoned works are strewn about. What makes this site (two sites actually) stand out is the state of preservation.
In order to mine the saltpeter and iodine, they build an entire city next to the extraction plants. Houses, shops, a marketplace, churches and a hospital are all there and owing to the lack of rain, very much intact. They even build a swimming pool out of train cars and a theater. A lot of the mining buildings and machines are still visible as well. I am an engineer and scientist, so this was all especially exciting.
We also got there pretty late and were for the most part the last people around. The abandoned buildings with all the dust and bits and pieces of metal clanging around gave it that post-apocalyptic feel. It does help that in order to mine the saltpeter, the ground is blown up with explosives and then carted off to the plant.
The Atacama desert and the Puna could not be more different. At the end of the long drive through absolutely bone dry desert, the roads winds itself up the Andes to about 4,000 m (13,100 ft). Along the way the dryness gives way to green grass and shrubs. However, where there is green, there is rain and we got treated to lots of it upon our arrival in Putre.
The first morning the sun came out and we set out to visit the sights along the main route to Bolivia. First stop was Lago Chungará. Another big difference between here and the Atacama is that there is no salt flats here. Besides lots of Taguas (the local coots) we found another curious animal. I am not sure what to describe it as, but it belongs to the chinchilla family and is called Viscacha. It really looks like a cross of rabbit with chinchilla.
The next stop was the mostly deserted village of Parinacota. We were told that there are only 2 or 3 families left. It is known for its beautiful little church which we got to visit after tracking down the one last person with a key. As promised we found plenty of the animals around and virtually no humans. Pretty much the only people living in this region are people hearding Llamas and Alpacas. One interesting detail about the animals is how they are marked. Unlike cows or horses that are branded, the owners put colorful wool strings on their animals. I guess that is the smart thing to do as a branding would be invisible under all the wool. Besides, I never liked the idea of putting a hot iron to an animal.
This day started off with a beautiful clear sky and so we decided to take our little car off-pavement to see some of the more remote areas. I really wanted to see the abandonded sulfur mine next the Tacora volcano, but I was told not to. First, our car would not be able to handle the terrain. I was willing to challenge that, but the second reason did convince me. The mine is right next to the border with Peru and the area still has landmines from the Pinochet regime.
Instead we drove a long loop around the tri-corner region between Chile, Peru and Bolivia. It was very much worth while. Besides the beautiful landscapes, we saw the last of the four camelids living here, the Guanacos (the other being Vicuña, Llama and Alpaca). On a side note: If anyone is wondering where Chewbacca vacations when not with Han Solo, I got a photo of him right here.
There is one more area I tried to get to, but had to abort because of terrain. The plateau called Suriplaza has some amazing colors from the erosion products of the volcano around it. But getting there requires driving up a curvy little road that had turned to clay with the recent rains. Very slippery and not much to stop you on your way down. We still got a nice view of it. On the way down we then encountered one more odd bird. It is a flightless large bird like the Emu and is called Suri (or Rhea in English).
At about this time, the sky started to take on an ominous dark color and we were about 80 km (50 mi) from the next main road. Rather than retreating the way we came we decided to complete the originally planned loop. Mostly we wanted to see the very impressive Quebrada de Allane, a deep gorge with a wide river crossing. After a couple detours and a very helpful, albeit somewhat surprised, police officer we found our way. On the very last miles before the road the clouds opened up with lighting and a heavy downpour.
All good things have to come to an end and this vacation was regrettably no different. Last night’s rain turned into snow and so we went back up the mountain to see a whole different landscape. It goes to show how adaptable the local animals are. Only days before we had Vicuñas in the arid desert. Now they were happily grazing in the snow.
We concluded the trip at the northern port town of Arica. There is not much to see or do there besides the Cuevas De Anzota. Those caves used to be a guano mine (and still smells like one) right next to the ocean. Today it is a small park and seems to be the local romantic hangout.
This region is a great treasure trove of flora and fauna, with incredibly friendly people and unforgettable landscapes. It should be on every bucket list out there.
The airports of Calama and Arica are easily reached via Santiago and rental cars are readily available. On that topic, I do recommend to splurge a bit and rent one of the 4×4 pickup trucks. Many areas can be accessed by normal car with some light off-roading, some really require a more capable vehicle.
And just to do a bit of advertising: In San Pedro de Atacama, stay out of the city centre in the quiet, nice little Hostal Rincon de Quitor. In Putre, I can recommend the Terrace Lodge. One word about Putre, though. There is no gas station anywhere. The only source is either to drive all the way to Arica or buy it from the hotel at a 75% surcharge.