atacama desert hiking

Atacama Desert in Chile: salt flats, hot springs and geysers, and flamingos

The Valle de La Luna (Valley of the Moon), part of la Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos (National Flamingo Reserve), is a desolate and unforgiving land, in the most arid desert in the world. Nary a blade of grass met the eye. The only an occasional sign of plant life is the brittle, ocher-colored scrub. Strange outcroppings of rock mottle the starkl landscape. At the entrance to la Reserva, the ground itself was so parched from lack of rain that shards of cracked earth peeled up like pieces of broken pottery crunching loudly underfoot.

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Atacama is a Desert Wasteland Awash with Color

Yet, this seemingly wasteland held a special magic that plays out late every afternoon, as the waning light of day fades across the desert floor. It bathes the drought-stricken high plains in hues of red and amber and signalsthe onset of another cold, crisp, starry night.

Where I stood, halfway up la Gran Duna, I was surrounded by a myriad of virgin sand dunes in varying heights. They stretched in front of me, fanning out across a steep plateau. Unique, pillar-shaped geologic strata, formed more than a million years ago from clay, quartz and gravel, stood as silent sentinels at the edge of the Salt Mountain Range enduring the timeless blustering of the winter winds.

Onset of Sunset Casts Haunting Shadows in the Atacama Outback

As sun began to set it cast haunting shadows across the miles and miles of seared terrain shrouding the rocky spires of saltpeter, edging toward the purplish peaks of the Cordillera. And still I climbed. "I'm coming," I cried out, in case anyone was interested.

I took another swallow of water from my thermos and snapped a photo of my husband, who had stopped to strike up a conversation with an elderly man, likewise bent on scrabbling to the summit. He waved. Through the image finder of my camera, nebulous clouds in a brilliant blue sky moved into focus, melding into the muted landscape of the desert floor. Quickly replacing the lens cap to buffet the ever-invasive particulates of sand, I clambered up the narrowing trail.

After an-hour-and-a-half grueling ascent, we flopped without ceremony onto a ledge leading, it appeared, into a cavern. It was time to click the switch on our headlamps; the fading hours of daylight radiated a golden glow across the dunes, creating eerie silhouettes in the umbrage of night.

I relaxed for a second, soaking up the raw beauty of this barren land. I couldn't imagine a better place to unwind and recharge my batteries. And catch my breath.

While the retreating tourists traipsed purposely back down the sandy path back towards the waiting shuttle buses, we caught our breath and watched. We had rented our own car back in Calama; therefore, we didn't have a schedule to keep. Besides, we were only minutes from the oasis town of San Pedro, here in the Atacama outback, in one of the world's last great frontiers.

About 1000 miles from Santiago, on the road to Arica near the border with Peru, the Chilean desert was one of the few remaining places on the planet still vastly undiscovered by the civilized world. We were free to enjoy the twilight of the Atacama.

Flourishing Jeria Ravine and the town of Toconao

The next morning, we headed out for a different adventure. We were going to explore the verdant canyons of Toconao, an oasis town famous for its quarries of liparite stone used in building the homes in the tiny pueblo. We passed a stonecutter as we headed down the trail leading to the Jeria Ravine, hand-hewing enormous blocks of stone.

We walked on and began a steady descent into the ravine. In front of us, the barren, lifeless ridge yawned in all directions; only wasteland and Volcan Licancabur sprawled on the distant horizon. Soon we were eye-level with desert scrub, then intermittent patches of jade-colored vegetation burrowing their roots deep into the sandy loam. In the midst of the desert, the flora flourished, fed by melting snow run-off from the Andes Mountain Range. Thickets of brown undergrowth and brushwood gave way to flowering greenery as we approached the canyon floor. Deciduous trees grew alongside a narrow stream, twisted and contorted.

After walking back up the ravine, we headed back to town to explore Toconao's main attraction -- its church, Iglesia de San Lucas, with the famous whitewashed bell tower. Separate from the cathedral itself, the belfry proved to be an interesting dome constructed of cactus wood. Besides the historic basilica, the small community was also renowned for its prize-winning sheep and artisan craftsmanship. Store after store boasted the latest trinkets of sculpted volcanic stone, but I preferred the brightly-decorated chess sets whose game pieces were fashioned like Spanish conquistadores and indigenous warriors with their llamas.

As we browsed for souvenirs, the shopkeeper next door was busy sweeping the last granules of finely ground liparite dust from her otherwise-spotless welcome mat.

The Salt Flat (El Salar) -- Birder's Paradise and Aviary

Next, we were to el Salar and the Chaxa lagoon, the salt flats that extended all the way to Bolivia and nurtured an immense population of flamingos.

Atacama Geyser in El Tatio and birding
At the Salt Flat the three of us strolled along a man-made trail through the saltpans. In all directions patches of salty quartz blanketed the arid terrain. Layer upon layer of this crust camouflaged the topsoil, creating an eerie lunar landscape, scarcely different than the Mars-like topography we'd witnessed yesterday afternoon at Valley of the Moon.

In spite of its desiccation, El Salar is a salty lagoon, a genuine aviary, a haven for its feathered friends, and a birder's paradise. Three species of flamingos -- James, Chilean and Andean -- came here to nest. It's also home to curlews, avocets, gulls and sandpipers, a society of chattering birds.

Across the lagoon we could see the ebony beak of a Andean flamingo as it plunged deep into the saline brine foraging for shrimp. Another Andean flamingo momentarily shuddered, sending a shower of stinging spray from his feathers. Then, like a jetliner preparing for takeoff, the bird tucked his head, hoisted his wings straight up in the air, and began taxiing down the watery runway. The flamingo's spindly legs danced from side to side, agitating the silt on the bottom of the pond, and then, with a solitary honk, the statuesque bird soared toward the clouds.

The setting sun created a violet haze over the towering peaks of the mountains, casting a strange refraction across the mirrored surface of the lagoon. It was another memorable moment in this country of my husband's birth

Lounging in the Thermal Waters of El Tatio

Our final day found us en route to el Tatio, the third largest geyser field on the planet, second only to Yellowstone and the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. The pungent smell of sulfur signaled our approach: turquoise pools of bubbling heat hissed and gurgled, gaseous fumaroles vented their spume high into the air, while spouts of scalding water doused the thirsty landscape in mist.

We huddled near the thermal pool before shucking off our clothes, down to our swimsuits underneath. It was winter and the early-morning temperatures hovered a few degrees above freezing. But the water warmed us and we soaked until we resembled a trio of prunes, delighting in the mystique of the Atacama, way off-the-beaten-path, in the rugged northern Chile outback.

If You Go

For more information on visiting the Atacama Desert.

Photos courtesy of Servicio Nacional de Turismo Chile - Sernatur and Vickie Lillo

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Vickie Lillo is a Florida-based travel writer, multi-lingual, and an avid adventure traveler who appreciates meeting new people and experiencing new cultures from around the world. She is proud to say that she has already given the gift of the love for travel to her son.

Photos courtesy of Servicio Nacional de Turismo Chile - Sernatur and Vickie Lillo

Published: June 26th, 2013

Updated: August 23, 2016

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