Atacama Desert: Lakes, Llamas, and Flamingos

I’m struggling a little bit to describe our time in the Atacama Desert. It’s breathtaking, beautiful, extreme, and vibrant. Our daylong excursion to visit high plain lakes and low lying salt flats did not disappoint. The Atacama Desert was far and away the best place we visited during our time in Chile.

It was another early morning for us in San Pedro de Atacama as we waited in the dark for our tour operator to pick us up. Ahead of us was a roughly 170 mile ride with stops at incredible sights along the way. The drive in and of itself was breathtaking. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen so many colors across such a diversity of landscapes.

Piedras Rojasred rocks and blue lagoon at piedras rojas chile

We stopped to eat breakfast and learn a bit about the geology at Piedras Rojas.  Altitude does such weird things to my body. I don’t have an appetite and I have to force myself to eat. Our travel doctor prescribed Acetazolamide, for me, which has made a huge difference. I can actually hike without searing headaches and fatigue. Woo!

At Piedras Rojas we had broad views of the surrounding volcanoes, a pale blue lagoon, and we spotted our first flamingos. A pair flew over the lagoon as we were walking by ourselves taking photographs and enjoying the landscape. It wasn’t even 10:00 a.m. and my day was made!

Lake Miscanti and Lake Meniquesflamingos in lake meniques chile

From Piedras Rojas we climbed higher to visit two altiplano lakes. Altiplano essentially means “high plain.” We also had our second flamingo sighting of the day at Lake Meniques, a deep blue lake ringed by yellow brush and towering volcanoes.

Lake Miscanti and Lake Meniques are fairly close together and were separated by a lava flow from nearby Miscanti Volcano. From the high plain, we could see at least five different volcanoes, one of which is still active. Chris and I’ve already talked about coming back to hike a dormant one someday.

Chaxa Lagoon (and Flamingoes)close up of flamingo in atacama salt flats chile

Viewing flamingoes in the salt flats was the number one thing I wanted to experience in the Atacama Desert. Three different species of flamingoes live in this totally bizarre climate and I had to see them for myself. According to our guide, flamingos can live more than 30 years. The birds we found at Chaxa are pretty used to being photographed. So, we were able to get up pretty close while they were feeding in the lagoon. It was a day filled with National Geographic moments.

Who Let the Llamas in?man pets llama on head

Finally, on our way back to San Pedro, we stopped in the small village of Toconao to stretch our legs and visit a church with a roof built out of cactus wood. (This is a big deal because the species of cactus used only grows one centimeter per year).

Anyways, while we were sitting outside the village square debating whether or not to buy some ice cream, we saw two llamas dash inside a local market.We both started laughing as the shopkeeper did his best to shoo them outside.

Our tour guide was completely unphased. He walked right up to them and gave them each a pat on the head. A few minutes later, the shopkeeper came outside with two large buckets of food. So, apparently they just popped their llama heads into the store to let everyone know it was time to eat. Does anyone else feel like they need a pet llama in their life?

It was sort of the perfect end to a brilliant day in the high desert. Have you visited the Atacama Desert? Where did you go? Where should we go when we go back?

Atacama Desert: Moon Valley and The Highest Geysers on Earth

We landed mid-afternoon in Calama and hopped on a shuttle for the 90 minute drive to San Pedro de Atacama. This is a small mainly tourist town located in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert on the planet. The Atacama only gets 1 millimeter of rain on average per year. In some places, rainfall has never been recorded.

We booked multiple excursions to various places in the desert, including Valle de La Luna and Geysers del Tatio.

Valle de La Luna

On our second day in San Pedro de Atacama, we took the Valle de La Luna tour. We signed up with Desert Adventure and wound up using them for all three tours we took in the Atacama Desert.

Our first stop the Valle de la Luna tour was Muerte Valley, which means “Death Valley”. This is not the correct name. The original name was Marte Valley, which is French for Mars Valley. The name given was based on its resemblance to Mars by a Belgian Priest that had settled in the area.  The locals mispronounced the name, and thus Death Valley stuck. The local parks group is trying to correct this mistake, even posting a “Marte Valley” sign right at the entrance.

From there, we went out to an area in the Salar de Atacama, or Atacama salt flats. We got to climb up right next to one of the biggest sand dunes, saw an example of what the old salt mines looked like, as well as the type of accommodation where the miners lived. All I can say is I am glad I never had to mine salt for work in such a harsh climate.

One of the more intriguing parts of this trip was that we noticed the desert looked a little wet. As it is an El Nino year, the Atacama had a little rain each day for 10 days straight. This is very rare, and had occurred only a few days before we arrived, which is why you could still see remnants of the rain.  

After seeing the old mines and workers accommodations, we went up to a look out over the Valley de la Luna to watch the sunset. It was a pretty nice sunset that we shared with a few hundred new friends.

Geysers del Tatiosteaming geysers in the atacama desert

The final tour with Desert Adventures required us to get up well before the sun. We were picked up at 4:30am for the 80 minute drive to the highest geyser field in the world, El Tatio.  Most folks slept on the way up, but I have never been one that does well sleeping sitting up. I tried to observe the surroundings as much as one can before sunrise.

We arrived at the Geyser fields and had a quick Chilean breakfast (white bread, ham, cheese, cookies), and then we were set to watch the sunrise. Unfortunately with the temperature being a bit cold, and Geysers containing water at ~86oC, which at that altitude is the boiling point of water, there was too much steam to really get to see the sunrise. The steam production was a pretty cool sight to behold.

We continued to explore the rest of the Geyser field, and for the more insane souls, there was an opportunity to take a dip in a thermal bath. We had heard the day before that the pool wasn’t that warm and that a lot of the tourists take advantage of this opportunity. Emily and I had much more fun walking around and checking out the other Geysers.

Llama Kebabsman eating llama kebab

On our way back to San Pedro, we stopped in a small village called Machuca. The town is supported via tourism alone, so they were ready for all the tourist busses. We had a chance to try a Llama kebab. One word: delicious. Of course, it didn’t make eating it easy for Emily when not 30 feet away from the BBQ, there was a baby Llama that you could pet and take photos with for a small fee!   

We ended up back at our hostel around noon and took a nap.  We proceeded to get our last lunch in San Pedro after we woke up. As we discussed the past few days, Em and I agreed that this location has been our favorite thus far. I think we would both come back here, and encourage you all to check it out if you can.

South America, Here We Come

Okay, everyone. We’re one week out. To say things are a little chaotic around our house would be an understatement. We’re squeezing in time to say goodbye to our friends and family, packing up for our new life in Australia, and loading up our packs for fifty days in South America. To kick-off our blog, here’s where we’re traveling over the next seven weeks:

Chileatacama desert

A historic and bustling capital city, funky beach towns, lush wine growing regions, and the driest place in the world – Chile is where we’re starting our South American adventure. I’m most excited to explore the Atacama Desert and Atacama Highlands. The appeal of this region is its total weirdness. There are places in the desert that haven’t seen rainfall since humans have been recording rainfall. The soil and landscape have been compared to Mars. NASA is even testing soil life-detection equipment in the Atacama that might be used on future missions to Mars. Crazy, right?!? This post from A Brit and a Broad beautifully captures the dramatic landscape and the flamingos who inhabit the highland lagoons.

PeruMachu Picchu

Visiting Machu Picchu is one of those bucket-list places for both Chris and I, but its not the only place we’ll visit. We’re spending a few days in foodie-heaven Lima, where I’m dying to nosh on some amazing ceviche. Chris and I both love to hike and so we’ve carved out time to explore the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Finally, we’ve splurged on a private tour of Manu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Check out the Crees Foundation for a sneak peek at some of the wildlife we might encounter in the Peruvian Amazon.

Ecuador and the Galapagos Islandsgalapagos sea lion

The Galapagos Islands are must-do for both of us and we wanted to take our time visiting one of the most ecologically and geologically unique places in the world. We’re splitting our time between a cruise with Adventure Life as well as hotels on Islas Isabela and Santa Cruz. In total, we’ll set foot on five different islands across the archipelago. I’m geeked out about the idea of swimming with sea lions, finding birds with bright blue feet, and iguanas that swim in the ocean (what?!?!). We have a little bit of time in Quito and Guayaquil, but that’s about it for mainland Ecuador. I wish we had more time and were able to explore all that Ecuador has to offer.

I still doesn’t feel quite real that we’re about to do this, but we’re ready to soak up every minute. If you’ve been to any of the places on our list, we want to hear from you. What restaurants must not be missed? Where should we hike? Tips for taxis or other transport?

Leave a comment below or contact us with your advice and ideas!