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CHILE - ATACAMA

The most colourful landscapes of the world: red, yellow and green mountains, blue lakes and white salt-flats
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CHILE AND ATACAMA DESERT: PHOTOS AND TRIP REPORT

Here below there are many fascinating photos from the Atacama desert and a fun and interesting trip report, full of information and anecdotes, which describes the travel itinerary. If you have not read them yet, have a look at the travel information and the complete map of the itinerary in Chile and Argentina here: www.wildtrips.net/chile-argentina.htm.

Moon Valley, Atacama, Chile
Moon Valley, Atacama, Chile - Near San Pedro de Atacama, the Moon Valley boasts extraordinary views.

CHILE AND THE ATACAMA DESERT: PHOTOS AND TRIP REPORT

(This travel itinerary is the continuation of the one described here, visiting Central Chile).
By driving through deserts slightly different from the previous ones, we reached San Pedro de Atacama in the late afternoon. We enjoyed the view of the Moon Valley from a vantage point, then we entered the town center and we looked for a hostel. We found it quickly: it was slightly expensive (40,000 pesos for a double room), but it was nice and clean, with parking and kitchen available, in a good location along Lincacabur road.
San Pedro lies in a green oasis (very green if compared to the surrounding Atacama Desert) and it deserves a visit for the cobblestone streets and adobe (a kind of clay) houses. It's also very touristy: we saw more foreigners in the little bar where we drank a beer than in the three days of travelling across Chile that brought us to Atacama. The restaurants were good though certainly more expensive than the average Chilean restaurant.
That said, San Pedro de Atacama is the starting point for visiting the breathtaking landscapes of Atacama, so even if it was more touristy than typical, we didn't care :). To save money we could cook dinner in the hostel or follow the "daily menus" in the restaurants, always much cheaper (and usually with the freshest ingredients) then the "a la carte" dishes.
The next morning, with our beloved camioneta, we headed up to the Moon Valley, we paid the ticket entrance and we started to explore those lunar landscapes. A first walk led into a narrow canyon that then became a narrow cavern: it was wonderful. The path then continued between more open and really absurd panoramas that included white and red rocks (fragmented by some huge cataclysm) and large gray sand dunes.
Trekking in the Moon Valley
Trekking in the Moon Valley
After a very short drive, we followed another path that led on top of an enormous gray dune and then, higher up, to the most amazing vantage point of the Moon Valley. We enjoyed a 360 degree view, and each degree was amazing. We spent a couple of hours trekking on this path before continuing by car along the bottom of the valley. We stopped often for sightseeing. When we arrived at the end of the driveway, we visited an interesting and aesthetically absurd abandoned salt mine.
The great thing was that we were alone with the nature. There were almost no tourists because most of the organized tours visited the valley in the afternoon. So we began to understand that avoiding the tours while visiting Atacama was much more exciting.
Moon Valley, Atacama, Cile
The Valley of the Moon was until then the most amazing point of our travel itinerary along Chile, but we suspected that it would soon be surpassed. We returned to San Pedro in the early afternoon and, after a snack, we walked along the streets of downtown. At 7 PM we headed by our "camioneta" to see the sunset from a vantage point along the way to Calama, as some tours did. There was a beautiful view on the Moon Valley, but it was crowded: there was the queue to take a photo on a hanging rock (we returned to the same place one of the following mornings and there was nobody: we took the photos we wanted and with a better light).
Hanging on the Moon Valley, Atacama
On a rock in the Moon Valley
The next day we went to visit the altipianic lagoons. We met some pretty animals.
Llama in Atacama
Alpaca, llamas and guanacos in San Pedro de Atacama
Among beautiful landscapes we drove up to the Laguna Miscanti, a blue lake surrounded by yellow grass and red mountains. Equally impressive was the Laguna Miniques.
Altopiano of Atacama
Laguna Miscanti, Atacama
Miscanti and Miniques lakes are a well-known touristic destination near San Pedro de Atacama
Laguna Miscanti, Atacama
Back on the car, we decided to travel to the Laguna Aguas Calienties, higher in the mountains, where most tours didn't arrive (only those, less frequent and more expensive, to the Piedras Rojas). Needless to say that this lake surrounded by a white salt flat and multicolored mountains was much more stunningly amazing than anything we had seen before. We walked around, very curious to explore that amazing place in all its parts.
Piedras Rojas, Atacama
Piedras Rojas, Atacama
Piedras Rojas, Atacama
Up in the mountains, the altopianic lagoons of Atacama get more and more amazing
Salar e Laguna Aguas Calientes, Atacama
Piedras Rojas, Agua Calientes Lagoon
Then we reached the other side of the lagoon, where we could see guanacos and flamingos, very close to us. No other humans, in front of us the rainbow on earth.
Salar and Laguna Aguas Calientes, Atacama
Salar and Laguna Aguas Calientes, Atacama
Salar and Laguna Aguas Calientes, Atacama
The Salar de Aguas Calientes... wild nature at its best
Salar and Laguna Aguas Calientes, Atacama
We drove up along the dirt road to the next lagoon, which was equally beautiful: a large blue eye in a sparkling white Salar surrounded by multicolored volcanoes (I recommend to have a look at all the photos in the gallery above). We followed a sandy track, driven by eager curiosity. It was late afternoon when we decided to drive back to San Pedro de Atacama.
Salar and Laguna Aguas Calientes, Atacama
More lagoons and salars, we were alone at 4000 metres above sea level... alone, but the guanacos
Salar and Laguna Aguas Calientes, Atacama
Salar and Laguna Aguas Calientes, Atacama
Salar de Atacama
Our stay in San Pedro, initially scheduled for two nights (mostly to remain flexible with our travel itinerary), was eventually extended to 6 days. So we had time to visit some picturesque villages - beautiful but really tiny - and the Quebrada de Jere (a canyon near Toconao). Such verdant valley surrounded by red rock walls was truly unique, in the middle of the driest desert of the world. We walked for three hours, venturing into the canyon, stepping over the vegetation, fording a brook dozens of times and sometimes climbing easily on the rock walls. In the midst of such great beauty, we were surprised to find two elderly locals who picked vegetables in the wilderness for their lunch. Moreover, there were some natural pools in which it was possible to bath.
Quebrada de Jere near Toconao
The Valle de Jere is a very interesting destination, especially when you venture into this canyon near Toconao
Quebrada de Jere near Toconao
Quebrada de Jere near Toconao
Quebrada de Jere near Toconao
Toconao, Atacama
While returning to San Pedro, we stopped at the Laguna Cejar, in the middle of the Salar de Atacama. This is a blue water pond, incredibly deep, where it is possible to have a swim. no risk of drowning because it is very salty, and in thirty strokes you can swim from one side of the lagoon to the other. A few meters away there are other two lagoons, just as beautiful, surrounded by white and gray salt and green bushes, but when you can not swim. The place was really special. We enjoyed it for half an hour, before the tours arrived. Then it became crazy, like a busy beach, and that heaven became shallow. So, I recommend again the rental car against the tours: if shared between two or more persons is cheaper than the organized tours, especially if rented in Santiago, so for those with no orientation problems (and who are not used to falling asleep while driving!) the car is the best solution.
Laguna Cejar, Atacama
Laguna Cejar, in the Salar de Atacama, not far from San Pedro
Laguna Cejar, Atacama
Late in the afternoon, following the GPS Navigator that seemed to indicate other lakes in the middle of the Salar de Atacama, we found three other lagoons that were less crowded. Two of these were really just circular big holes in the ground, with a diameter of about fifty meters. It seemed impossible to find these round craters in that vast flat ground, but... they were there. The water, two or three meters below the level of the Salar, was green and salty, but I didn't think twice about it (five times, in fact), I run and I dove into the lake. It felt pretty good.
Laguna Cejar, Atacama
Un altro laghetto nel Salar di Atacama
In the evening we went to bed early so that the next morning at 4:30 AM we were ready to go to visit the Tatio Geysers, the highest geothermal field in the world (so they say), at an altitude of 4000 meters. It was recommended to visit the geysers at dawn (though, in hindsight, it didn't seem so necessary). We drove for an hour and a half along a bumpy road, with a ford and a few holes, but still viable without 4x4. It was still dark when we arrived at the geysers. In the blue of the night, we could see numerous columns of white smoke. The geysers were not as huge as the one I had seen in Iceland, but that view was still weird and beautiful. The temperature was below zero and the steam that rose from the ground was not enough to warm the air.
Geysir del Tatio, Atacama
Tatio Geysirs, 4000 metres above sea level
The sun was rising and the blue of the night gave way to red mountains and sulfurous white and yellow shades. Once again, we were surrounded by a special and colorful landscape.
Geysir del Tatio, Atacama
We visited the area, we saw some guanacos, we walked around and then we left. At El Tatio there is also a hot water pool in which it is possible to bath, but the best part was still full of tourists.
While driving back to Atacama, we stopped in a photogenic village made of clay and straw. Nearby we found flamingos, foxes, guanacos and beautiful alpacas and llamas, with whom I made a spitting contest, which I lost.
Llama ad Atacama
Llama in Atacama, driving back from Tatio
Village in Atacama
The road that we had covered in the dark was full of wonders. After some research, we found the termal baths of Puritama. These are some hot water pools at the bottom of a very peculiar red canyon. It was good, but the entrance was expensive (15,000 pesos) and the water temperatures not really high, around 30-32 degrees. So consider this if you plan to visit the Puritamo spa.
At 3PM we were back in San Pedro de Atacama. We had some "tablas" and we went back to the hotel. Unfortunately, the early rise, the high altitude and the runs of those days had my girlfriend feel a bit sick. As I am a good boyfriend, I left her alone in the hostel, so that she could relax, and I went walking around San Pedro, trying to get lost in the streets further away from the center. On the way back, I asked in an agency if it was possible to climb one of the Andean mountains over 5000 meters high that rose near San Pedro. In fact, the altitudes reached in those days got me eager to accomplish some climbing endeavour (well, just a little bit of trekking could make me happy anyway).
At the agency they told me that the easiest volcano to climb was the Cerro Toco, 5604 meters above sea level. The excursion with guide and equipment costed 60,000 pesos per person, minimum two people. There was no one else willing to go, so... double price (my girlfriend's health made it impossible for her to climb at such altitudes).
So I started to think: should I go alone or not? My girlfriend was a damn good woman, so in the evening she told me: "Go where you want tomorrow, I will be resting." I replied: "No, I would never do that" and in the meantime I was looking for information on the internet about the climb to Cerro Toco. I found a useful website describing precisely both the access the mountain and the path. Therefore, I made my decision: I liked the idea of going trekking all by myself, and without the guide and I could save several thousand pesos. It was a bit crazy, but it was also special, at least for me.
So, the next morning at 8 AM I was already on the camioneta, driving towards the borders of Chile: Argentina and Bolivia were very close.
Vulcano Licancabur, Atacama
On my way to Cerro Toco, the view over Licancabur Volcano, 6000-metre high, imposing over San Pedro de Atacama
The road was initially paved, straight and very steep: in a few kilometers I got to almost 4000 meters. Just before the turn to the Bolivian border, a sandy track climbed on a red mountain. It was the itinerary described by the website where I got all the info. "Here we are," I thought, "I'll get stuck in the sand and bye bye 5000 meters". I took the wrong track, the car stopped in the sand, but I could slide back to the departure point. Of course the trick was to never stop in a hole. I found the right sandy track and the camioneta and I began to climb the mountain. I had several doubts on the right direction to take and on my wisdom, but when I found a dirt road in better conditions I calmed down. According to my mobile phone, I parked the Nissan at about 5000 meters above sea level.
I got out and I felt dizzy because of the lack of oxygen after that crazy rise of 2600 meters in an hour and a half. I had brought with me a lot of water and two packets of biscuits with dried fruit, so I had breakfast. After 30 minutes I felt ok and I gave it a go. It was windy and a little bit cold, but physically I felt fine. Only problem, the lack of oxygen had the same effect on me as half a bottle of wine with an empty stomach. So I walked slowly, stopping very often to take photos and check the altitude on the mobile phone: I was a routine to check if I was lucid enough.
Vista dal Cerro Toco, Ande
Along the path to Cerro Toco, on the Chilean Andes
At times I wanted to give up because of the shortness of breath: being alone, I did not want to exceed my limits, I knew that excessive ambition is dangerous. However, by resting, drinking and eating I always recovered and was able to continue. At one point I climbed a steep scree and - surprise - there was a fantastic 360 degree panorama. I was on the summit of Cerro Toco! I was more tired than I expected, but I was happy.
Cerro Toco, Ande, Atacama
View from the top of Cerro Toco
Laguna Verde, Bolivia
The view arrives to Bolivia and the spectacular Laguna Verde
I took fifty photos, including some terrible "selfies". The strong and cool wind didn't discourage me, I wanted to enjoy the view as much as possible. I could admire the Laguna Verde and the colorful mountains of Bolivia, the plains of Atacama, themountains red and white and yellow and gray mountains in the Chilean Andes, the volcano Licancabur (which is over 6000 meters high and rises close to San Pedro).
While walking down, I started feeling less drunk and when I got to the car I felt great. I was inebriated only by the adventure I had just lived.
I drove back down the same dirt road. At one point, incredibly, my cell phone had some signal, so I managed to send a message to my girlfriend and tell her I was fine. "Ok," she said, "even though I had already warned the firemen. But don't worry, they will stop in the room with me, you go ahead with your explorations." So, reassured, I continued my adventure.
I met some guanacos along the sandy track, then I was back on the paved road. The camioneta had been very happy in the dirt road, so to console her I drove towards the Argentinian border. She liked that road: it goes from San Pedro to the Passo Jama and passes through unique landscapes. There were blue lakes and white salars, red rocks... the usual rainbow on earth, you might say (yes, as if it were normal). But to live it was something incredible... and also in the photos it is pretty good, have a look.
Altopiano of Atacama
The spectacular road that goes from San Pedro de Atacama to the Argentine border crosses amazing panoramas
Altopiano of Atacama
Unthinkable colors
Happy as a child, I arrived at San Pedro de Atacama in the late afternoon. I found my patient girlfriend waiting, alone. The firemen, like good athletes, had been very fast. Weeeell, I'm kidding of course.
After a big dinner, we prepared the suitcases: it was our last night in San Pedro. The day after we began our long travel itinerary towards Santiago del Chile. We left in the morning, quite early, but we soon stopped to visit the Valle Arcoiris, or Rainbow Valley. The usual set of multi-coloured mountains? Well, yes, but it was impossible to get bored, every place was different and spectacular and made us want to get lost along the dirt roads and the paths, driving or walking.
Valle Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley)
Valle Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley), not far from the road between Calama and San Pedro de Atacama, offers more sensational colors
At 1:30 PM we arrived in Calama, just late for the guided tour of the gigantic Chuquicamata mine. In factm Chuquicamata can only be visited via 3-hour tour that leaves every day from Calama at 1:30 PM and must be booked in advance. Anyway, we didn't give up, we found the tourist office dedicated to this trip and we noticed that the bus was late, and most importantly, that there were some free places. We prepared in a rush and and we were able to attend the tour. I like these improvised trips, they taste of real travel. Booking in advance is always a small defeat, even if sometimes it's necessary.
The tour was very interesting: we visited the abandoned city of "Chuqui", where once lived the miners (before they were forced to move to Calama because of the air pollution). Then the bus took us to a viewpoint on the giant open pit mine. The view was really impressive, the size of the Chuquicamata mine unreal: it is almost 1 km deep and 3 kms wide. Trucks with 4-meter-high wheels could carry a load of 300 tons of material in one go. A recommended trip.
Chuquicamata Mine, Atacama
Chuquicamata mine, near Calama, is about 1 km deep!
Calama is snubbed by the Lonely Planet as a dull town where to stop only if necessary (there is room for criticizing the travel guides then tend to offer always the same old things - Lonely Planet has the reputation of being the tourist guide for the independent traveler, but sometimes it more suitable to the fashionable backpacker. It explains how to save 20 cents taking eight different buses instead of five, but then it offers the most trendy and expensive tours. Well, better for us as we had the camioneta!). Calama, instead, was very lively, with a distinctive market and a bustling pedestrian center: surely nowadays it is much more typical than the touristic San Pedro de Atacama. It was almost Christmas, so of course this contributed to the cheerful atmosphere.
We had dinner in a restaurant-bar that exuded Chile from all the tables: Crystal and Escudo beers, national flags, the TV on showing a typical Christmas movie. We had a gigantic tabla: for ten euro they brought us a plate of meat for two that would have been enough for 4 persons... and the Chilean meat is always good. We slept in a hostel, where a double room with bath costed about 30,000 pesos including breakfast (obviously on the Lonely Planet there was written that accomodation in Calama had to be booked a month in advance and that in any case it was very expensive).
The next morning we were back on the road. As we left Atacama, the driest and most colourful place in the world, the travelogue continues to this page in Central Chile, and then down to Patagonia. I recommend you to have a look, and not just because I am the webmaster!
Salar de Atacama
Greetings from the Salar de Atacama

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