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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?