Our morning started with a visit into the heart of the Salar de Atacama, or the Atacama salt flat. Salt flat is a bit of a misnomer as the area gets almost no rain in the year and as a result, the salt crystals grow upward and look more like sharp spikes in some places. The flat areas are where underground water has created a lagoon and flattened the salt out, but in most of the Salar, the area is very rough and spiky. The lagoons in the area are home to Flamingoes, we visited the Los Flamencos National Reserve and there are 2 different types of Flamingoes there. When we were there, most had migrated, so we only saw a few. In winter is when they are in the area. The Salar de Atacama is the 3rd largest salt flat in the world, second only to Salt Lake city in the USA, the biggest is literally over the hill in Bolivia, call Uyuni Salt Flats. Salar de Atacama is 3000 square km in size, it is MASSIVE, and you cant quite comprehend it until you see it from the hills in the Andes. It is in a depression in the Andes and it is quite a site to behold.
As you look out from the salt flats, you can see the big volcanoes in the area. As I did this, I saw that there was some smoke coming from one of the volcanoes on the horizon. Casually I asked our guide (almost jokingly) if the smoke was coming from the volcano or if it was a fire. “Aaaah” he remarked, “that’s Lascar Volcano , it erupts every 2 years or so, and it smokes often from the crater” He assured us not to worry, Lascar Volcano wasn’t about to erupt, it was just letting off some steam. “You must only worry when the smoke is going straight up, then it’s a problem.” So glad we cleared that up!!! Sheesh, so Lascar smokes quite regularly and erupts every 2 years, in fact it is the most active volcano in the Andes. When did she last erupt you ask, in 2008, almost time again….
We then moved on to the High Altitude Lagoons, Miscanti and Miniques, these lagoons are situated at 4300m above sea level and are really spectacular in their setting. The surrounding mountains seem to hold them there and the area is rugged and beautiful. There are two lagoons up there, Miscanti and Minques and we were fortunate to see both of them..
After that we went into the town of Tocanao and the nearby oasis of the Jere Ravine. It is amazing to see how life proliferates with dome fresh water, this was a true oasis in a desert and for a little while you forgot you were in the driest place on Earth.
Our next expedition took us to the Laguna Ceja and then the salt flats. We took a dip (or rather a float) in the actual salt lagoons. The lagoon has a 40% concentration of salt and so you can float without any effort at all. We floated a bit and then had a mud bath, which was so salty that it stung our skin. It was amazing, the one thing is that once you get out of the lagoon, you have to wash off with fresh water to get the salt off and there is a lot of it. It gets dry and powdery on your skin, but it really is an amazing experience. After that we moved off to the salt pan for sundowners, at the end of the pan is a lake which is evaporating but it is blue and clear, simply beautiful.
Our next excursion was to the Tatio Geysers. This is a geothermal zone high in the Andes at 4320m above sea level. The geysers are active at between 6am to 8am in the morning so we had an early start by waking up at 03:15 and being picked up at our hostel at 4am. We then drove for an hour and a half to get to the geysers. As we left San Pedro, our guide told us that we can sleep on the way (it was still pitch dark outside) but that for half the journey the road was good and for the other half the road was bad. I am not sure which half was which, the road went from bad to VERY bad, not sure which was the good part though. So we bounced and lurched our way to the Tatio Geysers, high in the mountains. We were told to dress warmly as it was really cold in the higher altitude in the early morning. When we arrived, the temperature was – 1.5 C. As I stepped off the bus into the inky darkness, I felt the cold bite my legs (I was wearing shorts, knowing that later would be really hot) It was quite an experience to be in the middle of a desert and experiencing such cold.
We were then taken to the geysers in the valley and they were just starting to splutter to life. The sounds were amazing, it sounded like there were kettles bubbling and boiling all around us, some of the geyser had a sulfuric smell too, some stronger than others. As the sun began to come up the geysers became more and more active and the real show began, pretty soon, most of them were bubbling away happily at 85 degrees celcius, and you had to be careful where you stood, visitors to the geysers have been horribly burned by these steam plumes and 3 people have died at the geysers. Fortunately on our trip everything went smoothly and with the sun now over the ridge we saw some beautiful sights of the geysers in full steam, we were standing near one of the big ones and out guide looked at the sun and told us that within a few minutes this one would blow. Almost on cue it began to splutter and within a minute began spraying high into the air, quite an amazing sight indeed, no sooner had it done that and it died down to a splutter again, perfect timing.!
We then moved onto the thermal pools where some people took a dunk in the warm sulfuric water. The Tatio Geysers are simply spectacular and in many ways other worldly. It again felt as if we had landed on another planet and that this was some kind of wasteland that had been forgotten. We loved it, it was amazing to see this place and to realize we were at the highest altitude we had been so far on this trip, 4320m above sea level and so deep into the Andes that we were only 7km away from the Bolivian border, we were literally in the middle of nowhere.
Remember to click on the images, especially the Pano shots, they look much better when you they are in full size!!
Our first excursion into the Atacama Desert was into an area known as Valle de la Luna or the Moon Valley. It is called this because of the absolute starkness of the place. There is nothing here except rocks, sand and salt crystals. Nothing grows here, NOTHING! So it resembles the surface of the moon. It was a somewhat strange place, being in an area where there is no life at all, there are no bushes, trees or shrubs of any kind and so there are no birds or small animals to be seen, the place is pretty much sterile and has a stark beauty that is captivating. Also, the area gets pretty much no rain (approx 1mm per annum) so things are VERY dry. It is so dry that your nose and throat begin to dry out, it is a really unusual place. For those Star Wars fans out there, it felt as if we had landed on Tatooine (Luke Skywalker’s home planet) and I was almost expecting one of the Sandpeople to come over one of the ridges at any moment. It would not have surprised me at all to bump into any one of the Star Wars characters.
We visited the Moon Valley in the late afternoon and watched the sunset from one of the ridges, the colours were incredible. The stark rocky valleys changed from a warm golden colour, to a rich reddish orange tone and just after the sun had set, the sky became a magnificent magenta that reflected off the volcanic sculptures and rocks, it was an incredible light display. The Moon Valley was fantastic, it was our first experience in the Desert and one that we will not easily forget.
We left the veritable lushness and beauty of being at the coast at Vina del Mar and traveled by bus (for 24 hours by the way!) to the dusty town of San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro (as it is often called) is a rural adobe village in the North of Chile. It is 2436 metres above sea level and is located pretty much in the middle of the Atacama desert. It is the hub for all the excursions and activities in and around the desert and there are plenty. If you want to go into the desert on horseback, sandboard down the dunes, visit the salt flats, view Death Valley and Moon Valley, this is the place to do it all from. We decided that we would rest for a day or two, after the bus ride and then put lots of time into exploring the nearby desert and salt flats etc. So we booked our excursions up front and were flatout for the next 3 days (blogs and photos coming) but now, back to San Pedro.
It is a really quaint little village with just on 2000 inhabitants. It has pretty much all dirt road streets and almost all the buildings in the village are made of straw and mud, adobe in other words. The Church of San Pedro de Atacama is the centre of attraction in town and was declared a national monument in 1951. Instead of nails being used in its contruction, leather strips were used and the buildings walls were made of Adobe and the roof of Chanar and Algarrobo. The ceiling is covered with cactus and mixed with mud and straw. It is an impressive building and it has been amazing to see how mud homes can stand for such a long time. Of course it works pretty well here in the Atacama because the Atacama only has approx 1 mm of rain per annum…
Oh, one other thing, did I mention that there is a Volcano, a few kms from San Pedro called Licancabur? Well, there is and it is 5920m above sea level (that is a little taller than Mt Kilimanjaro) but not very active. The really dangerous volcano is literally just down the road called Lascar Volcano and that one IS active, it is the most active volcano in the whole Andean mountain range. In fact when were on one of our excursion I saw smoke rising from its summit and the tour guide confirmed that indeed it was steam from the volcano, but not to worry as the plume was not vertical, if it is then its a problem. According to all the stats, Lascar is due to have another BIG eruption this year….fantastic!
On our first night here we did an astronomy tour. We went out to an astronomers house in the desert and for about 1 and a half hours he told us about the night sky. The sky out here is amazing because of 3 reasons. First, there is almost no light pollution from any big city and secondly, there is very little to no cloud cover ever and thirdly there is no air pollution. So the stars seem so bright and near you feel like you can almost touch them. After his talk we then went out into the garden and he has about 8 big telescopes set up to view different part of the sky, so we got a really close up view of Saturn, Mars, the Tarantula Nebula in the Magellenic Galaxy, Omega Centauri and a portion of the Milky way. It was an amazing evening and we came back with a renewed respect of our magnificent galaxy and we realized just how small we really are when we look at the scale an size of the universe that God has created, simply astounding.
The next day we went off to the Moon Valley, that post will follow soon!