Northern Chile - Atacama Desert- Salt Flats & Highland Laguna Altiplanicas
Today was my last tour and I saved the longest day with the highest altitude for last in the hope my breathing would be better by then. When I booked this tour, I was told it was the most popular one in San Pedro, hence instead of being picked up in a small mini-bus, this time it was in a large bus, and every seat was taken.
The tour was a very long one, beginning with picking up people at Hotels from 7am, then the tour and back to San Pedro around 7/8pm. Our tour guide informed us to buy some snacks as breakfast and lunch wouldn't be till late in the day, he wasn't wrong there - 11.15am for breakfast and 4.45pm for lunch, I think that was the latest lunch I have ever had in my lifetime.
I was so glad I had a good breakfast at my Hotel before the tour began.
Laguna de Chaxa
Today the tour took us to Laguna de Chaxa in “Los Flamencos National Reserve” to see the Flamingos. Once our national park fee was paid, our guide took us into the building where there was plenty of information about the Flamingos. In a tank were some brine shrimps and blue-green algae which the Flamingos forage in the water, this is what makes their feathers turn pink.
Also on display was a Flamingos nest, very different to how I thought one would look.
We were told usually around 200 Flamingos call Laguna de Chaxa home, only a fortnight before hand, rain had fallen here and wrecked nearly all the Flamingo eggs, once this happened, those Flamingos flew off, so all that were left were a few Flamingos who still had an egg to nuture. A little disappointing, but I still was able to view some Flamingos in the wild.
This is desert country, in-fact the driest area on earth, yet surprisingly we come across a forest of Tamarugo trees on either side of the road. Evidently this was a project from the 1960s, when the government tried to reforest a long stretch if desert between San Pedro and Toconao. It wasn't real successful though.
The town of Toconao whose name means “place of stones” in the indigenous Kunza language is another oasis in the desert. It is very old as evidence of humans living here goes back 10,000 years, making it an area of historical and archaeological significance. The separate bell tower locacted in the park dates back to 1750.
The Jerez river runs through town and as we exited Toconao we passed over the limestone Quebrada de Jerez, a narrow ravine/gorge.
A couple of Llamas were in the main street giving the owner a headache - they didn't want to be caught.
Church at Toconao
Probably the main sights were the church, another with cactus wood, the bell tower, the town park and the markets.
Socaire was a small town we stopped at for a quick breakfast, at the end of the day, we would be returning to the same Restaurant for lunch. Not much here to see, another church and a good view of one of the volcanoes.
Near Laguna Miniques
The further we travel, the better views we have of this volcano, then more snow covered volcanoes appear and a type of tufty yellow grass takes over and adds colour to the barren landscape of the Altiplano plains. Our guide told us this grass (Paja Brava) is very hardy and can withstand all types of weather. As we were travelling along the dirt road, a South American grey fox ran across the road in-front of the bus, then at a safe distance stopped and looked at us. By the end of our tour, we had seen three of these and I still didn't have a photo of one!
We make our next stop at Laguna Miniques where a volcano resides with the same name. The air is very thin as it's located over 4,000 metres above sea level, so it was take it easy for me.
We all made a beeline for the toilets as they are few and far between, then went to the look-out for views over this pretty blue lake where some Flamingos and other birds were feeding.
This was our furthest point on the tour, from here the bus headed back along the road we had just travelled along, stopping at Laguna Miscanti, only divided from Laguna Miniques by a lava flow from an eruption of Volcano Miniques.
This lake didn't have much water, so we had to follow a pathway to the waters edge.
Before heading along there, I noticed some Vicuna feeding on the golden tufts of grass and the salt lake. This was my first sighting of these animals so photos were in order, I did see a large herd on the way back and even a couple of Rheas.
For many tours, this is the end and they head back to San Pedro de Atacama, but I chose my tour as it went to Salar de Talar located on the edge of the Argentina and Chilean border. Going here does make it a very long day but I can tell you it is well worth it, as in my mind, this was the prettiest area of the whole tour, although the whole day had been full of incredibly beautiful scenery.
View over Salar de Talar
As we came down the hill to this 46 square km salt flat, we stopped for the best views of the whole lake and volcanoes. It was fantastic! Salar de Talar is part of a series of salt lakes and salt flats located at the foothills of a chain of volcanoes located in the high puna of the northern Chilean Andes.
At an altitude of 3,950 metres, the air was thin and once again I had to walk slowly to breath. We were given plenty of time to wander around and enjoy the views.
Salar de Talar
One that was particularly nice was the mountain Cerro Medano whose peak is 4665 meters above sea level. The mountain is barren and coloured in shades of grey and brown, colours contrast nicely with the vivid white of the salt flat's surface. This area has a cold desert climate with an average annual temperature of 12 ° C .
It was late and we still hadn't had lunch, but at least we were on the way back to Socaire. At 4.45pm, lunch was served in the Restaurant to a very hungry group of tourists. I did enjoy my meal which was a typical Chilean dish.
Near San Pedro de Atacama
Fed and watered, we were back on the bus again with one more stop, and that was at the small town of Toconao before reaching our final destination, San Pedro de Atacama around 8pm.
Even though a long day, this was one of the best!