Suitcase and World: The Surreal Landscape of the Atacama Desert.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Surreal Landscape of the Atacama Desert.

Salar de Atacama. Licancabur volcano in the background.
(Photo by Francesco Mocellin.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0  via Wikimedia Commons.)

Desierto de Atacama aka the Atacama Desert is a plateau in South America, covering a 1,000 km (600 mi) strip of land on the Pacific coast, west of the Andes mountains. Most of the desert is composed of stony terrain, salt lakes, sand, and felsic lava that flows towards the Andes. It is the driest non-polar desert in the world.

Map from National Geographic

Geographically, the aridity of the Atacama is a result of its location between the ocean and the Andes. A high-pressure cell over the Pacific holds back moisture from the west, while the mountains block storms from the east. On average only half an inch of rain falls each year, and in some mid-desert spots it has never been recorded, creating vast wastelands.  We'll be spending 5 and a half days in the region - we'll be based in San Pedro de Atacama.  We should have enough ttime to see most, if not all, of the highlights.  Whatever free time we have, we'll try and fill it with non sightseeing type activities e.g., horseback riding.

I love stark desert landscapes and when we decided to come to Chile, there was no doubt that we would come to the Atacama Desert.  I gladly gave up a coastal drive for it.  There's going to be a lot of stunning scenery here.  I'm going to have to up my photography game as I'm not much of a landscape photographer and I want to capture it all!!  I'm looking forward, fingers crossed, to bright blue skies and fluffy white favorite backdrop for landscapes.

For our time in Atacama, I have arranged 5 days of tours through denomades.  Here are a few of the places we'll be visiting.

Salar de Atacama.  Our time in Atacama will begin with the largest salt flat in Chile.  Located 55 km (34 mi) south of San Pedro de Atacama,  Salar de Atacama is surrounded by mountains, and has no drainage outlets. The salt flat encompasses 3,000 km2 (1,200 sq mi) and  is about 100 km (62 mi) long and 80 km (50 mi) wide, making it the third largest in the world, after Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and Salinas Grandes in Argentina.

Salar de Atacama is sandwiched between two mountain ranges - the Andes to the east and a secondary mountain range of the Andes called Cordillera de Domeyko to the west.  Large volcanoes dominate the landscape, including the Licancabur, Acamarachi, Aguas Calientes and the Láscar. The last is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile.

Piedras Rojas. (Red Rocks) is also on our itinerary.   The name speaks for what we will see.  I think the rocks will look magnificent against the bright blue sky.  For some really nice photos of Piedras Rojas  - check out the ones posted on the Dream Travel Girl blog.

Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks)
(Photo by (Diego Delso. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Lagunas Altiplanicas. (Altiplanic Lagoons or Plateau Lagoons) are a pair of neighboring lagoons -Laguna Miscanti (Miscanti Lagoon) and Laguna Miñiques (Miñiques Lagoon).  The two lakes apparently used to be one until a lava flow from an eruption of the Miñiques volcano separated them. Miscanti, hearted shaped, is the bigger of the two.  Hopefully, we'll get to see some native animals (e.g., llama and vicuña) grazing in the wild.

Laguna Miscanti
(Photo by (Diego Delso. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

The lagoons are situated at an altitude of 4,200 metes (13,500 ft) above sea level.  I think this will be the highest elevation that Bro has ever been to and I know he was concerned about that.  Luckily, we won't be at this elevation but for a few hours so he should be okay.  I anticipate that since we are doing this on our first full day in Atacama, we'll not have had much chance to acclimate.  His high altitude symptoms seem to be similar to mine - a low grade headache and a bit of nausea.

Toconao, Socaire, and Machuca.  On our first day's tour, we'll also get to stop in a couple of villages - Toconao which is located 38 km (24 mi) south of San Pedro de Atacama and Socaire which is located 100 km (62 mi) south of San Pedro de Atacama.   Towards the end of our stay in Atacama, we'll drop by the small village of Machuca.  It'll be interesting to see how people make their lives in this most inhospitable part of the country.

Church in Machuca.
(Photo by Till Niermann.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0  via Wikimedia Commons.)

Valle Acoiris (Rainbow Valley).  Mineral deposits have left vibrant reds, browns, purples, greens and yellows on the rocks in this area over the course of thousands of years, and in addition, the wind and very occasional rain have carved interesting shapes, rocky spires and small canyons into the valley.  This should be a really pretty area.

Valle Acoiris (Rainbow Valley)
(Photo by (Diego Delso. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Yerbas Buenas.  The Atacama Desert is a harsh landscape.  It's hard to believe that people actually live here but petroglyphs, drawings carved into the red rock face are evidence of a civilization from long ago. The petrogylphs at Yerbas Buenas are attributed to the Atacameños people and date back thousands of years.  The shallow carvings mostly depict ancient religious ceremonies and local fauna such as llamas, rabbits, foxes and flamingos.

Petroglyph at Hierbas Buenas aka Yerbas Buenas
(Photo by (Diego Delso. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Laguna Cejar is a saltwater lagoon.  Water in this lagoon is ~14% salt; for comparison, sea water is ~3% salt, and the Dead Sea is ~33%.   Usually, tourists are allowed to enter the water and float in it but just last week, I got an email from the tour company ( informing me that the Chile government has now banned swimming in the lagoon due to the high level of dangerous metals in the water.

Laguna Cejar
(Photo by Johan Bilien. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

So, we'll just get to have a look at it from a distance as you need to be some ways back to admire its turquoise blue waters.

Ojos del Salar.  Located nearby Laguna Cejar, bathing is still permitted here so Bro can take a dip if he wants to.

Ojos del Salar
(Photo by (Diego Delso. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Ojos means *eyes* in Spanish so this is a pair of saltwater lagoons, that when viewed from high up in the sky, are positioned side by side with a gap between them so that they look like a pair of eyes.  Unfortunately, I don't think that Ojos del Salar is not as pretty a backdrop for a dip in a saltwater lagoon but we'll see.

Laguna Tebinquinche.  This will be the third saltwater lagoon that we will visit in one day.  I don't think bathing is allowed here.  We can just enjoy walking around the terrain - checking out the salt deposits.  I wonder if you can buy Atacama salt for the table.  I'll have to check that out when I'm there - it'll be a nice item to all to my salt collection from around the world.

Laguna Tebinquinche.
(Photo by Toticienta.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0  via Wikimedia Commons.)

Towards the end of our stay in Atacama, we'll be making a trip out to see another salt flat - Salar de Talar, the Tara Salt Flats.  Considerably smaller in size than Salar de Atacama, it should still be a very interesting to see.

Salar de Talar
(Photo by (Diego Delso. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Monjes de la Pacana (Pecan Monks) is the name that was given to gigantic rock formations which supposed resemble monks.  The rocks were the result of volcanic eruptions that once took place in the region.  They've been formed through millenia of wind and erosion.

Monjes de la Pacana (Pecan Monks)
(Photo by (Diego Delso. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

El Tatio is a geyser field.  Its name comes from the Quechua word for oven.  Situated at an elevation of 4,320 meters ( 14,173 feet), it is among the highest-elevation geyser fields in the world. El Tatio has over 80 active geysers, making it the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world. For our trip to El Tatio, we have to be ready to leave our hotel at 4a.  The reason being that the tours arrive at the site around sunrise not so you can see the sun rise but so you can actually see the smoke of water as it shoots up - the hot water will automatically condense as it hits the cold air so while you can see the geyser field at any time of the day, you'll appreciate the view better in the chill of the early morning.

Geyser at El Tatio
(Photo by (Diego Delso. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) is located just 13 kilometres (8 mi) west of San Pedro de Atacama.  Like the rest of the surreal desert landscape here, it has various stone and sand formations which have been carved by wind and water.  There are also dry lakes where the salt dusts the ground.  I think most tour itineraries suggest you start your visit to Atacama with a trip to Valle de la Luna but timing wise, that did not work for us so this will actually be the last place that we see before we head out of Atacama.  Given all the other spectacular places we'll have been to, a visit here might just be a bit anticlimatic.  We'll keep an open mind.

Valle de la Luna
(Photo by Luca Galuzzi. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Lost Flamenco National Reserve.  When I was planning this trip, I reached out to my cousin Yim for suggestions on places to visit.  She put the reserve on her must see list.  I never found a trip explicity going to the reserve and it wasn't until I started reading up on the places that we would be going to that I realized that several of the places described above actually fall into the boundaries of this reserve, so named for the flamingos that call it home.  Incredible to believe that flamingos can actually survive in this harsh environment here - there's not even any fresh water!

Flamingos in Salar de Talar.  (Photo by Yim Chan)

The reserve was established in 1990 and consists of seven sections, each of which has a different geography, flora, fauna and hydrography.  For us, the Salar de Talar (Tara Salt Flat), Lagunas Altiplanics i.e., Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques, the Salar de Atacama and  Valle de la Luna are all part of the reserve.  I'm sure we'll see plenty of flamingos and the occasional llama or two; I will be ready with my camera!

Lastly, and I'm really excited about this!  After reading this article in on The Guardian website, I realized that not all there is to see in the Atacama Desert is on the ground.  We have the opportunity to look up at the nightsky as well so I've signed us up for a stargazing tour. By all accounts that I've read, stargazing in Atacama is exceptional because the region experiences very little rainfall, has crystal-clear skies, high altitudes of 2410 to 4270m and low-to-zero light pollution. Both Bro and I live in US suburbs so there's pretty much zero chance of seeing the stars with the exception of really bright ones or planets.
I rarely get to see the stars so this should be fun!

More reading to do but the countdown to departure to South America has begun!