The early morning was cold and still dark at four as we got into the car. In front of us waited a wavy mountain dirt road that would lead us to the 4,200 meter high plateau where the geysers of El Tatio are located. Winter nights can be cold in Atacama we knew, but we were utterly unprepared to what we encountered on the way.
The Atacama desert, and its nights are no stranger to me. You could say we both go back long time together. As an astrophysicist in charge of developing what would become the science archive system for ESO's Paranal Observatory, I traveled often to the mountains to deliver or configure software for the telescopes and their instruments. We worked sometimes during the day, but mostly really during the night —following the normal life in astronomical observatories. Being one of the driest places on Earth (average 3% of relative humidity), Atacama offers night skies of exceptional clarity and stable atmospheric conditions throughout the year. The mountains and plateaus have become the home for powerful and modern astronomical facilities, including the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA).
San Pedro de Atacama
This time, however, I was not worried about software or telescopes. I had always wanted to take some time to explore the many landmarks of Atacama, and now was the time to do it. We settled in San Pedro, with the intention to make it our base camp. The evenings in the busy tour operator's home town gave us the opportunity to get some first grade information about the tours, main locations and conditions of the roads.
El Tatio Geysers
"If you want to go up to the geysers, you have to be there at sunrise, when the crystals in the air seem to simmer with light" read the unison advice from everybody. But, first we had to get up there, and that turned out to be an experience in itself. We were not the only ones, there was a caravan of buses, cars and motorbikes all going up, all starting at 4am from the center of the town. Yes, this is San Pedro de Atacama! Soon, the dust raised by the forerunners would reduce visibility to almost zero, but the worst was yet to come when, crossing a creek, the thermometer plunged to -26°C and our wind screen froze from the inside. And that happened suddenly, while we were fully immersed in negotiating curves. Well, our pickup truck did have air conditioning —our savior, you wouldn't have thought. See, A/C will suck out the moisture in the air, that was all we needed to get a clear windshield again. We arrived to El Tatio just in time for the sunrise magic, when the tepid sun rays barely illuminate the mineral rich waters ejected by the geysers and the air seems to scintillate in a frozen dance —creating a unique moment of extraterrestrial beauty.
Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)
Bare 13 Km west of San Pedro lies the Moon Valley ("Valle de la Luna"), called like that probably because of the mixture of rock and fine sand landscapes that resemble what we have seen in pictures of the moon. Visiting the Valle is a good start for a tour of the region, both because it is close to San Pedro, but also because its rock and sand formations and its dried salt lakes, rich in colours and textures give a glimpse of what is to come later. But, the Valle can also be quite crowded and you realize that it is Atacama's most beaten track. It is so much so, that the guardians of the Reserva Nacional de Los Flamencos have a tough task at keeping tourists on the foreseen paths. These guardians, almost all women, belong to the various indigenous associations and communities that manage the parks and natural reserves in Atacama.
Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons
The salted lakes of Miñiques and Miscanti, located about 130 Km south-east of San Pedro and situated at an altitude of 4,500m represent one of the most striking features of the area. Passing by the small settlement of Socaire, a wide dirt road leads up the mountains towards the feet of the Miñiques volcano. Deep blue skies are the consequence of the high altitude and lack of humidity in the air. Entering the compound, one is awestruck by the beauty of the scenery. The salt rimmed lagoons, with their deep blue waters and orange colored surrounding vegetation (puna) is one the most stunning and pristine landscapes I have ever seen.
Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa
Salar de Atacama is the name of a wide area about 50 kilometers long set to the south of San Pedro and west of Toconao. It is the largest salt flat in Chile and also the largest producer of Lithium world-wide, mostly due to its high evaporation rate which eases the extraction of the mineral. You get to see little of the mining, however, unless you really look for it —very much unlike Chuquicamata (the world's largest open pit copper mine, north of Calama) where the smog from the blasting gets so thick that is visible more than 30Km away.
We focused instead on the Chaxa lagoon, a salt crusted, shallow lake surprisingly populated by flamingos and other birds. On the way to the Salar, we met the occasional vicuña or lama and made us wonder, what kind of intricate food chain nature has devised here. In fact, in strong contrast to salt flat places like the Dead Sea, the fauna of this area is visibly active and very much alive and kicking.
Salt flates at the Argentinian border
South again, towards the Argentinian border, we find the Salar de Tara and Salar de Aguas Calientes. After about 100 Km south of San Pedro, the road turns east in direction of the Jama pass and starts a serpentine pathway into the Andes. We have another 35 Km to go before we reach 4,000 meters and the mountain road suddenly opens onto a mountain lake landscape and a stunning display of colours fill the scene in front of us. The mountains seem to be painted with textures of white, blue and red, the marsh is bright orange, the lake waters shine in blue and green.
Aguas Calientes actually means "hot waters", probably hinting at thermal underground activity. It is striking, however, to see an ice cover along most of the lake's border.