Landscapes of Atacama Desert
Northern region of Chile is famous for surreal landscapes created by nature. It takes a few long days of driving to reach northern part of the world’s longest country. Finally, together with Dorota and Światek we all arrive to San Pedro de Atacama, a desert town located next to the Bolivian border. It is perfect base camp for exploring local must-see attractions. I just realized that it’s been almost 3 years since my last trip in the Altiplano and again I’m enthusiastic to discover more natural wonders, this time on the Chilean side.
Our adventure begins with Laguna Miñiques and Laguna Miscanti. These are two high-altitude brackish lakes, once a single big lake, currently separated by lava flowing from the eruption of volcano Miñiques. The landscape of entire area has been shaped over the centuries by Chiliques, Cerro Miscanti and other surrounding volcanoes.
A high altitude lake Tuyajto (located at 3800m above sea level) is our next stop. The Atacama Desert is widely known for being one of the driest places on earth. Therefore the evaporation by far exceeds precipitation. Thus, just as in the case of Salar de Uyuni, the minerals dissolved in water become saturated solution at some point. As the temperature changes in pair with evaporation, some of the salt and other minerals crystallize. It leaves spectacular and unique mosaic polygons made of salt.
The environmental conditions also influence culture and tradition of local people. For example, in the Toconao village there is a small church with roof made of cactus wood. It is quite special species of cactus. Not only because it grows as little as 1 meter per 100 years. The plant is considered sacred and for that reason it cannot be cut. Instead the final stage of roof construction has to be put on hold until the cactus naturally dies. According to recent estimates, it may take another 500 years.
Another place we visit is called Piedras Rojas (Spanish for: Red Stones). This is a blue lake surrounded by red rocks – the color is due to high iron content.
In search of some wildlife we explore the Los Flamencos National Reserve, a national park with an area of 740km^2. Its section Soncor including lake Laguna Chaxa is particularly interesting. This area is situated at 2300 meters. The surface is mostly covered with salt crust and saturated solution of minerals. Apparently it seems to be favorite spot for flamingos to hang out.
Here we observe all varieties of flamingos having their habitat in Chile: Chilean flamingos, Andean flamingos and James flamingos. The birds spend entire days watching the tourists, in the meantime frivolously and gracefully wading in alkaline brines in search of food.
Crossing the desert, you can see the small shrubs and mosses. It is food for vicuña, herbivorous animals (eating only vegetarian food) resembling small camels, that have adapted to local conditions. Vicuña are closely related to the guanaco or llama and it takes some practice to be able to distinguish them each time. Just as in the case of flamingos.
We encounter some other inhabitants of the desert. Vizcacha is kind of rodent, quite similar to grey rabbit with curly tail. We also met a few times zorro culpeo, times an Andean fox.
Evenings in San Pedro de Atacama are also fun. After long-awaited one liter bottle of Escudo beer and a glass of wine, we decide to go beyond the city limits and search for the stars. It’s an opportunity to make a few pictures of the sky, because the atmosphere over the Atacama Desert is considered the most clear in the world.
At 4:30 in the morning we set off to the Tatio Geysers. El Tatio is the highest geyser field in the world. At an altitude of 4320 meters, there are over 80 active geysers, giving the site another status of the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere. I enjoy those numbers and statistics! Let’s come up with another one. The average eruptions have a height of about 75 centimeters and it is not uncommon to see 6 meter high geyser eruptions.
We arrive in good time before the first rays of sun. The temperature is about minus 5 degees Celsius and considering the humidity, feels like much colder. The cold air in contact with hot steam gets warmer. Walking just between the geysers can get you a bit warmer, but you need to be careful. An accidental fall into one of 85-90 degree almost boiling-hot ponds is not desirable.
Shortly after dawn the air temperature rises and frozen mud begins to melt. We head towards natural hot springs. To walk on a muddy bottom we take off shoes and quickly find that you have to be extremely careful not to burn your feet while walking along bubbly bottom. That’s where the cold water is mixed with 80 degree hot underground water. Despite the efforts I got my foot burned so the pain lasts for another two days. It is not too bad on the average, for example, one German girl in our group had to be escorted to the doctor. I would say the right temperature for relaxation is about 37-40 C, anything beyond is too hot.
On the way back we stop for a stroll along the Cactus Valle, a full of cacti canyon formed by river. I did not expect to see a river in supposedly driest place in the world, but here it is.
Late afternoon we set off to see the sunset in the Valle de la Luna. We’re going there for a long walk along the edge of precipice. We observe shadows getting longer, listen to the wind and wait until the sun finally disappears behind the mountains.
The night sets in and it is about time to prepare for the nighttime meeting with astronomer and stars. We are waiting at the appointed site and shortly a SUV comes by. It turns out that the driver is not the most experienced one. He accidentally rams a gate to someone’s possession and then tries hard to drive up the driveway using handbrake. He fails four times. Something seems to be strange also with the eye-sight of our driver. Fortunately, the astronomer realizes something goes not according to the plan and he personally comes to pick up our group.
So begins an amusing evening with telescopes and Chilean wine. Maybe second impression is more important? Astronomer is a specific and quite hilarious person. His blinking red LED-light on forehead makes him look like a character from a comic book telling unheard-of anecdotes about the solar system and the universe.
Mistakenly I expected the stars to appear bigger when seen through the telescope, but in reality it is still different magnitude of distances as opposed to Milky Way which can be seen very well on a perfectly clear sky. We are also able to see myriad of stars, otherwise invisible to the naked eye. Watch more stars, drink more red wine and continue listening the astronomer’s stories. So goes our astronomical evening.
In the morning we start our return trip through the desert. We arrive to Calama. This is a vibrant city, whose economic power is mainly contributed to - no surprise – copper mining. We take a casual walk across the city center and realize that there are even monuments of miners, made of – you guess it – copper.
We also make a stop at Sierra Gorda. This is an appealing little town. There are a few shops, a town square and plenty of mine workers, leaving the impression as if they worked on a four shift basis. It is here that Polish copper giant KGHM made big investments in copper mining. To tell the truth, the whole area reminds one big copper mine!
Heading south we aslo stop at Copiapo. It was on 5th August 2010 in San Jose, the nearby copper and gold mine, where the accident in which 33 miners were cut off from the world deeply underground. Miners, colloquially referred to as “The Thirty Three” (“Los 33”), were trapped at a depth of 700 meters underground and as much as 5 km from the entrance to the mine. The rescue operation lasted 69 days – luckily everyone survived.
The Chinese built a 40 ton heavy and 12 meters high monument to commemorate the events and dedicated it to the peace in the world. It is good to see the monument, for at least two reasons. It has been raised to commemorate historical events and the fact that it was not made of copper.