Salar de Atacama, the Atacama Salt flats are over 3,000 sq km and the biggest salt flats in Chile. In fact they are only rivalled by neighbouring Bolivia, home to Salar de Uyuni (or Tunupa) which is a whopping 10,500 sq km.
Surrounded by the Andes to the east and the Domeyko range to the west, it’s edges crinkled by volcanoes – Lascar and Lincancabur at a few metres shy of 6,000m and only a few km away – quietly active – or so they say! The scenery that surrounds the flats is impressive, without even taking a single step on the crunchy hardened salt or ragged and crusty grey-white surface of the core area; the result of evaporation and no rain.
First up was a trip to Laguna Cejar and nearby Tebinquinche… We were going swimming. Well actually floating to be more precise, as the salt concentration is close to 28% (the sea has around 3-4%). Having learnt an invaluable and painful lesson in the Dead Sea many moons ago, we checked for any surface scratches and cuts before we donned our cosies. And jumped/dived in. It was cold and our eyes stung momentarily. Much colder than we had bargained for but still very refreshing and loads of fun. Our fellow guest, Siobhan, came with us and we tried (in vain) to have a race to the middle of the lake and gave up. Instead we searched for small pockets of warm-ish water and tried our best to float serenely and gracefully. Instead, listing and rolling like bloated fish…
We were glad Marketa, our host, came with us – aside from her good company and perfect timing – we beat the ‘tourista crowds’ at every place we went – without her insider knowledge we would have committed a serious schoolboy error and not brought the gallon barrels of fresh water we needed to douse ourselves off with after!
Next stop was Lugana Tebinquinche in all it’s glory; chocolate box perfect whiter-than-white salt flat with its endless horizon and crystal waters of the lagoons, reflecting the Andes range and Licancabur plus a strip of vegetated desert that glowed a weird yellow in the late afternoon. We ran across the white expanse, flung a few shadow shapes and checked out the mini lagoons that spring up from the outcrop of water below the earth’s surface.
Whilst we were busy playing around and getting ready to capture the sunset, Marketa got together our “well-earned” snacks and, in the absence of a bottle opener, Matt used the back of the truck to open beers… Cheers!
The next afternoon with flamingos on our our wish list of things we really wanted to see, we headed to Laguna Chaxa, stopping off for a quick peek at one of the nearby villages, Toconao. All of the houses are built using volcanic brick, sillar, even it’s pretty towered church that dates back to 1750, complete with a cactus and leather hinged door.
Although a lot of the village work in the mines (lithium, from the salt flats accounts for 27% of the world’s reserve and is considered to be the largest and purest source), we wanted to have a quick peek at Quebrada de Jerez, a wide gorge that is supported by an underground spring; an oasis for the band of village growers. Quince – the principle crop, apricots, cactus fruit and pomegranates grow in abundance. As we munched on a fresh quince, that stripped the moisture from our mouths, our jaws nearly dropped when we were told the pomegranates are pretty much left to the birds! You can imagine the look on the guide’s face we told him what they cost in England!!
Salar de Atacama also boasts one of the most important flamingo reserves, Reserva Nacional Los Flamencosand is home to three different species; Andean, Chilean and the rarely spotted James. We were oh-so-lucky when we visited as we managed to see all of them. Some standing solitarily and feeding on the brine shrimp, others moving in unison across the salty lakes.
We crunched along the paths that led us to each of the mini lakes that make up Lugana Chaxa; if you can imagine the ragged clay based rocky earth in this area as huge scabs across the surface of the plateau, then the small exposed lagoons are like small open wounds that don’t heal because they are teeming with life. Works for me!! The brine shrimp that are found in the lagoons are an essential and incredible part of the Eco-system; not only do they manage to survive in the viscous salty water, they provide food for the flamingos and other migratory birds. oh, they apparently clean up the waters by ridding them of nitrogen and phosphorous, too.
With minutes to spare before the sun disappeared, we returned to one of the middle lakes and found to our amazement that all three species were hanging out, quite nonchalantly together… totally oblivious to the small group of snapping tourists. Matt, Cezar and our guide, where doing our best to get a photo in the glow of the sunset.