Gemsbok (Oryx)
Gemsbok (Oryx)

Before heading north to Bolivia we wanted to make one last stop in Argentina to explore the northwest.  Buses from San Pedro de Atacama to Salta, Argentina go via the Jama pass.  The road is relatively new (constructed in the 1990′s) and climbs east from San Pedro to a maximum altitude of 4,400m (14,432ft).  The total trip takes about 12 hours but the scenery along the way is absolutely incredible so it is hard to be bored.

Vicuñas
Vicuñas

After clearing the Chilean border formalities in San Pedro, the bus started its slow crawl out of the San Pedro basin.  Being an Argentine bus, we were able to enjoy a delightful selection of films including direct-to-DVD favorites such as “Blood and Bone” on the climb out of San Pedro.

We reached border about three hours into the ride and then got to unload (people and bags) for the usual border antics.  An exceptionally lazy working dog made a humerous attempt at sniffing all of our bags before he went back to sleeping along the road.  All in all, we were stopped at the border for about an hour.

Once we were on the Argentine side of the border drove for a few hours more across desolate terrain and salt flats.  We passed through Salinas Grandes (Argentina’s baby version of Bolivia’s Salar) and then down through dozens of switchbacks into the Quebrada de Humahuaca.  We pulled into Salta about 9PM and made our way to the hostel.

Paso Jama
Volcán Licáncabur
Volcán Licáncabur
Vicuñas
Vicuñas
Altitude!
Altitude!
Argentine customs facility just after the pass.  The Chilean equivalent is located in San Pedro.
Argentine customs facility just after the pass. The Chilean equivalent is located in San Pedro.
Pulling in to Salinas Grandes
Pulling in to Salinas Grandes
Starting the descent into the Quebrada de Humahuaca
Starting the descent into the Quebrada de Humahuaca

Day 3 in San Pedro was another early morning for us.  We had booked a tour to the lagunas altiplanicas and the flamingo reserve through Cosmo Andino tours.  They picked us up around 7AM and we drove about an hour to Los Flamencos National Reserve.  The reserve is divided into a number of different sections but the first encompasses Laguna Chaxa and the surrounding salt flat (Salar de Atacama).

Salar de Atacama - the third largest salt flat in the world
Salar de Atacama – the third largest salt flat in the world

It wasn’t long before we spotted some flamingos from a pretty long distance (good thing I had my telephoto lens).  As a Floridian, I always knew that the idea of flamingos in the tropics was pure hogwash.  That said, seeing a flock of them feeding in a lake at 7,500ft above sea level really drove the point home!  Another interesting fact about the Salar de Atacama is that it is the world’s largest reserve of lithium.  Something like 30% of the world’s supply of the metal comes from the salar so, if you are reading this blog on laptop or phone, there is a good chance your batteries have material from the salar!

Chilean Flamingo
Chilean Flamingo

After a light breakfast at the reserve we headed to the village of Socaire to have a look around.  The quiet village survives on farming and has a couple of nice churches made of adobe.

Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques were the next stop after Socaire.  These brackish lakes lie at 4,300m (14,000ft) and have a mirror-like surface most days.  The lakes are home to a number of different bird species so it is not possible to approach the shoreline.  I was impressed by the fact that there were actually park rangers present to enforce these rules.

Laguna Miscanti
Laguna Miscanti

The final laguna on the tour was the Salar de Aguas Calientes which has a nice blue lake flanked by some strange red rocks.  We had a nice lunch (vegetarian friendly as well!) at this spot and did our best to capture the other-worldly colors of the terrain.

Lunch provided on the tour
Lunch provided on the tour

On the way back to San Pedro we stopped at the village of Toconao.  This was a welcome stop as it took over 2 hours from our lunch stop.  The village is situated along a river which makes it the wettest place in the driest desert in the world.  There are many farms in Toconao but unfortunately we didn’t get to see much as most of them were swept away by a flood earlier in the year.

All in all, we were very happy with Cosmo Andino the operator of all three of our tours (Tatio Geysers, Valle de la Luna, and Lagunas Altiplánicas).  The guides were knowledgeable and spoke fluent English, the food was plentiful and the vehicles were in good condition.  We paid 67,500 CLP (about $135) per person for all three tours together.  This price was a slight discount over the posted prices because we booked all three tours at the same time.  Another tip for other travelers would be to book late in the day as the tour companies are keen to fill the remaining seats in their vehicles.

Lagunas Altiplánicas
Flamingos at Laguna Chaxa
Flamingos at Laguna Chaxa
Salar de Atacama - the third largest salt flat in the world
Salar de Atacama – the third largest salt flat in the world
Three of the world's five species of flamingo
Three of the world’s five species of flamingo
Andean Flamingo
Andean Flamingo
A little bird on short final to Laguna Chaxa
A little bird on short final to Laguna Chaxa
Chilean Flamingo
Chilean Flamingo
Buildings in Socaire
Buildings in Socaire
Laguna Miscanti
Laguna Miscanti
Cerro Miñiques, topping out at 19,400ft
Cerro Miñiques, topping out at 19,400ft
Amy running (she tends to do that from time to time)
Amy running (she tends to do that from time to time)
Laguna Miñiques
Laguna Miñiques
Laguna de Aguas Calientes (it was actually frigid)
Laguna de Aguas Calientes (it was actually frigid)
Lunch provided on the tour
Lunch provided on the tour
Toconao, Chile
Toconao, Chile
Toconao, Chile
Toconao, Chile
A pisco sour to end the day.
A pisco sour to end the day.

We enjoyed sleeping in on our second day in San Pedro.  The only tour we had lined up for the day was an evening excursion to some of the nearby rock formations.

Valle de la Muerte
Valle de la Muerte

The first stop on the tour was to Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) to see some nice canyons and sand dunes.  Some of the large sand dunes are formed against the stone cliffs.  We hiked a little ways along one of the stone cliffs and then walked/ran down the dunes barefoot.  The pictures don’t really convey the size of these dunes but I would say that they were close to 200ft tall!

After the dunes we walked down a narrow rock canyon and explored a small cave.  The rocks along the canyon walls make an eerie popping noise due to thermal expansion/contraction.  Another interesting spectacle in the canyon was the salt crystals that coat the walls.

The final stop on the tour was the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) for sunset.  We hiked along a ridgeline to get a nice view of the mountains and the crazy colors made by the setting sun.

Valle de la Luna
Valle de la Muerte
Valle de la Muerte
Walking/running/jumping down the dunes
Walking/running/jumping down the dunes
Not as clean as they were when the trip started!
Not as clean as they were when the trip started!

Shortly after arrival at Tatio.  It is 6:20am and -15C.
Shortly after arrival at Tatio. It is 6:20am and -15C.

We had to wake up at the crack of dawn to get picked up for our tour of the Tatio Geysers, the third largest geyser field in the world. It was dark and cold and we drove for an hour and a half to get the to geyser field.  Our guide and driver prepared breakfast while took photos and waited for the sun to rise.  The geyers sit at 4,321m (14,176.5 ft) so we were both a little winded due to the thin air.  The main reason all the tours visit the geyseys for sunrise is because you can see the steam the best.

After the sun had come up we departed for our second stop, a hot stream fed by water from the geysers. I was too cold to get in the water. Instead, Amy and I dipped our frozen tootsies in the water. It was hot!  Our guide said it was about 35 degrees Celsius.

One of the warm rivers near the geyser field where swimming is possible.
One of the warm rivers near the geyser field where swimming is possible.

We drove some more and got out to walk along the Río Putana. There we saw several types of birds. We also had a great view of Volcano Licancabur.

Our final stop was a hillside covered in cacti. We learned that due to the extreme climate in the Atacama, they only grow about 1cm per year.  That puts the 5m high cacti that we saw at 500 years old!  We hiked into a canyon to see plenty more cacti and a small waterfall.

Our tour ended at 2pm and we were dead tired. We went back to our guesthouse to rest up for another tour we had that night.  A French astronomer has setup a small observatory just outside of San Pedro (in Solor) and he hosts star tours.  The only picture we have from that night was one that Amy took of Saturn through one of the telescopes.  Due to the high altitude and thin dry air, the view of the stars was stunning.

The only picture we have from our star tour.  Saturn!
The only picture we have from our star tour. Saturn!
Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama
Just after takeoff from Santiago.  Sunrise over the Andes
Just after takeoff from Santiago. Sunrise over the Andes
Sandy cliffs on final into Antofagasta
Sandy cliffs on final into Antofagasta
The humorously short A320 variant...the A318
The humorously short A320 variant…the A318
Predeparture snack.  Pancho con ketchup, mustaza y palta (avocado)
Predeparture snack. Pancho con ketchup, mustaza y palta (avocado)
Quite a nice bus terminal in Antofagasta
Quite a nice bus terminal in Antofagasta
Those are some big tires!  Mining is big in this area.
Those are some big tires! Mining is big in this area.
Desolation
Desolation
The ruins of some town.
The ruins of some town.
The last stretch of road into San Pedro de Atacama.
The last stretch of road into San Pedro de Atacama.
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Documenting San Pedro de Atacama
Documenting San Pedro de Atacama
Enjoying a delicious mote in San Pedro
Enjoying a delicious mote in San Pedro

Just after takeoff from Santiago.  Sunrise over the Andes
Just after takeoff from Santiago. Sunrise over the Andes

On April 23 we finally squeezed the last segment out of our LAN award ticket that carried us all over Chile.  The final flight was from Santiago to Antofagasta in the north.  It was a pleasant early morning flight on a cute little Airbus A318 (first time on that aircraft for me).  Service was the usual drink and snackbox affair and arrival into Antofagasta was a little ahead of schedule.

Desolation
Desolation

We bought tickets for a shared taxivan to the center and were dropped off at Antofagasta’s bus terminal a short while later.  We had tickets to take us from Antofagasta to San Pedro de Atacama high in the Chilean Altiplano.  The drive took us across some spectacularly desolate landscape.

The last stretch of road into San Pedro de Atacama.
The last stretch of road into San Pedro de Atacama.

San Pedro de Atacama is a nice little desert town that thrives off tourism.  We stayed at Hostal Sonchek, run by a Slovenia/Chilean couple.  Like most of the buildings in San Pedro, our hostal was built of adobe and had a great open air courtyard in the middle.  We stayed a total of five nights and saw some amazing things out in the desert.  Stay tuned!

Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama
Just after takeoff from Santiago.  Sunrise over the Andes
Just after takeoff from Santiago. Sunrise over the Andes
Sandy cliffs on final into Antofagasta
Sandy cliffs on final into Antofagasta
The humorously short A320 variant...the A318
The humorously short A320 variant…the A318
Predeparture snack.  Pancho con ketchup, mustaza y palta (avocado)
Predeparture snack. Pancho con ketchup, mustaza y palta (avocado)
Quite a nice bus terminal in Antofagasta
Quite a nice bus terminal in Antofagasta
Those are some big tires!  Mining is big in this area.
Those are some big tires! Mining is big in this area.
Desolation
Desolation
The ruins of some town.
The ruins of some town.
The last stretch of road into San Pedro de Atacama.
The last stretch of road into San Pedro de Atacama.
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Documenting San Pedro de Atacama
Documenting San Pedro de Atacama
Enjoying a delicious mote in San Pedro
Enjoying a delicious mote in San Pedro

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