Travels in Northern Chile
In late October of 2011 we rented a 4x4 pickup truck in Antofagasta and spent two weeks driving through remote regions of northern Chile including San Pedro de Atacama and the Atacama desert, Lauca National Park, Salar de Surire, and more. Here is my running photo journal written during our travels through this desolate and fascinating region.
October 10, 2011
We’re currently in the beach town of La Serena, north of Santiago, Chile. And we’re practicing “ping-pong” traveling at its best. This is a phrase coined by a friend of mine, to describe what happens when your travel plans change drastically based on factors beyond your control.
Long story short, we’ve spent the last couple weeks spinning our wheels, trying to figure out what to do in the Andes during the month of October with so much snow still in the mountains. Our initial idea was to slowly head south anyways, doing snow hikes and generally killing time until enough snow melts for the trekking season to get underway. We made it to Talca, south of Santiago, where we met Franz – mountaineer, guide, and owner at the beautiful Casa Chueca. With his extensive knowledge of the Andes, he quickly convinced us that our best strategy for October would be to instead head north to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. This is a region I’ve been wanting to visit for many years, but we were thinking that it was just too far to go on this trip. But with Franz’s encouragement we’re beelining it north on buses to spend three weeks in the Atacama.
The rough plan is to rent a 4×4 pickup truck in Antofagasta, stock up on supplies, then head over to the area around San Pedro de Atacama. We’ll spend a week or so around there, mostly camping around high lakes and hiking up small volcanoes. Then we’ll head even more north, to Lauca National Park – more beautiful lakes and volcanoes surrounded by desolate desert landscapes.
A Week in and around San Pedro de Atacama
October 19, 2011
After renting a 4×4 truck in Antofagasta, we’ve spent the last week camping and touring in the Atacama desert, based around the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama.
Our first stop was the famous Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), an interesting geological area full of weird salt-rock formations. The highlight of our afternoon visit here was a fantastic little hike through a strange slot-canyon-cave-tunnel. The rock here is really interesting – it looks like mud, but it’s really super hard salt-infused rock.
We forgot to bring our headlamps on this hike, but pressed ahead in the darkness of the cave anyways using Claudia’s camera light to guide the way. Luckily the cave/tunnel wasn’t too terribly long and we popped out the other end pretty soon.
The next day we drove up and up and up above the desert to the Salar de Aguas Calientes, a high lake and salt flat at about 13,000 ft. elevation with a series of hot springs along the edge (not great for bathing, unfortunately, due to lots of green muck and bitterly cold winds).
The water in the salar is an amazing turquoise color, with surreal barren mountains rising above – a photographer’s paradise!
At this high elevation, it was super windy and terribly cold – in fact it even snowed a bit and the entire salty lake froze over during the night. Fortunately we found a pretty good shelter from the wind beneath a leeward-facing cliff. There’s me above in our caveman kitchen, hiding from the wind.
Next, we headed to Laguna Lejia, another high remote lake accessed via a series of rough, high passes. Here’s our rented HiLux truck amongst some penitentes at around the 15,000-foot mark.
One of the most interesting things about the Andes around the Atacama is the sheer number of volcanoes – they’re lined up one after another as far as the eye can see. Laguna Lejia is situated in a particularly nice spot to view a number of these volcanoes, and I was stoked to catch a nice sunset and sunrise during our brief stay there.
This lake is at a lofty height of 4500m (almost 14,800 ft.) elevation, and was even colder and windier than the night before! Even worse, there was no shelter whatsoever, so we decided that our only choice was to sleep in the truck. Sleeping in a car is usually a sign of desperation, but this actually turned out quite nice – the truck was warmer than the tent and the fully reclined seats were surprisingly comfortable!
Though we had wanted to hike up Vulcan Lascar, it was simply too windy and cold to even think about attempting that!
One night at Laguna Lejia was enough suffering for us, so we headed back down to the town of San Pedro de Atacama for a nice dinner and a real bed for a change.
The adobe town of San Pedro de Atacama is super touristy, but easily seduced us with its lazy relaxed atmosphere and tasty food options. We ended up staying for a couple nights so that we could have more time to chill out and soak in the atmosphere of this cozy desert town.
The next day, we heard a report that the wind was dying down. That was great news, since we were thinking that it was just always totally windy around here. So in the afternoon we spontaneously decided to go for a hike up Cerro Toco, which is regarded as a “novice” hike around here, even though it rises to 18,504 ft.! Well, it was actually a pretty easy hike, especially since we were able to drive up to 16,400 ft.!
Of course, being the nutjob photographer that I am, I had to stay up on the summit for sunset! Well, although I was getting a bit chilly by then, it was worth it. I made it back down to the truck by dusk, and we were back in town by dinnertime.
A short drive from San Pedro are the Termas de Puritama, a hot spring river set in a deep canyon in the middle of the driest desert in the world. There’s a series of eight or so pools with clear hot water flowing through them all. A true oasis paradise! This was one of the most amazing and memorable hot springs I’ve ever visited, and we stayed there for hours until they finally kicked us out at closing time. Definite a highlight of the trip so far.
That evening we camped again in our favorite spot just outside of town – the Valle de la Muerte. A canyon winds its way through surreal eroded formations until you get to a martian landscape of sand dunes amongst more eerie salt-rock formations.
Why not hang out in San Pedro some more? Here I am playing Rummy at a coffeeshop.
Our next stop: Laguna Chaxa, in Los Flamencos National Reserve, in the center of the Salar de Atacama, the huge salt flat south of town. Three species of flamingos live here year-round.
We stayed at Laguna Chaxa until sunset, scoring some unexpectedly fantastic sunset and dusk photos there.
Another night camping at Valle de la Muerte, and now we’re hanging out again in San Pedro de Atacama, where I’m typing this from.
Lauca National Park
October 26, 2011
Last week we spent several days in Lauca National Park. This area includes without doubt the most stunning landscapes we’ve seen in northern Chile, with the twin Payachata volcanoes rising above two broad lakes, all surrounded by well watered altiplano full of grazing vicuñas, llamas, and alpacas.
I had one of those special moments of awe late one night when I walked to the shore of Lago Chungará, seeing the volcano’s black silhouette reflected in the calm water, with millions of twinkling stars all around, while listening to the chorus of Andean coots, geese, and flamingos that live at the lake.
Though Lago Chungará is generally considered the gem of the area, I thought that the neighboring Lago Cotacotani is really the most special and unique part of the park. Supposedly about 7,000 years ago, Parinacota erupted and the entire bulge of the volcano collapsed in a massive landslide, leaving all the debris that later eroded into the convoluted maze of hills seen above. Lago Cotacotani is located amongst all these volcanic hills, and its numerous islands, inlets, and lagoons create a highly unique landscape that I would consider to be amongst the most special on the planet.
Unfortunately, not everything is postcard-perfect in Lauca National Park. Since 1962, before the area was designated as a national park, the water of Lago Cotacotani has been drained through the Lauca canal for hydroelectricity and irrigation for the Azapa Valley. This has significantly lowered the water level of the shallow lake, leaving entire lagoons barren and dry, causing irreparable damage to the fragile ecosystem. It is difficult to appreciate the remaining beauty of the lake without feeling a deep sense of shame and disappointment about how it looks now compared to how it might have looked before the plunder. The scale of the tragedy would be like draining Lake Tahoe or Crater Lake in Oregon… unthinkable!
Worse yet, Lago Chungará, the jewel lake of the park, has also been on the chopping block. Plans were made to drain that lake as well, even so far that the giant pumps were already installed. Fortunately in 1985 the supreme court forced the project to be abandoned in a landmark environmental step for Chile. But with the ever increasing thirst of Arica, it sounds like the fate of the lake still remains in a precarious situation, despite its national park protection.
Salar de Surire & Las Vicuñas National Reserve
October 27, 2011
Stocked up with spare tanks of gas and plenty of water, we headed south from Lauca National Park through Las Vicuñas National Reserve, which gets its name from the many herds of wild vicuñas that roam the desolate landscape. Vicuñas are related to guanacos, llamas, and alpacas, though they are smaller and much cuter!
The scenery along the bumpy dirt road through Las Vicuñas National Reserve is constantly exciting, with colorful mountains, steaming volcanoes, isolated sun-baked villages, oasis riverbeds, and the ever present herds of vicuñas everywhere you look.
We drove to the Salar de Surire, a large salt flat sitting in a broad basin surrounded by colorful but barren peaks. The first thing we did was to go straight to the Polloquere hot springs at the far end of the salar. This hot spring is a nearly scalding hot sulfur-smelling turquoise lake, which we enjoyed for as long as we could bear!
Salar de Surire is a wildlife photographer’s paradise, with large herds of vicuñas and huge flocks of flamingos. One thing I realized for sure, however, is that I am not much of a wildlife photographer! First of all, I need a longer lens – 200mm just doesn’t cut it! Secondly, I think I’m too lazy to properly stalk the animals, and I usually just end up scaring them away and then feeling bad about that.
Flamingos are especially difficult to photograph, as they are very wary of humans and must have good eyesight because they fly away when you even begin to approach them hundreds of meters away. I quickly gave up trying that – until the next morning at sunrise when I found them standing with their legs frozen into the lake! Since they were trapped in the ice I finally had a chance to get within suitable photo range from the side of the lake. They must have still been sleepy – or resigned to their predicament – because they didn’t seem to mind my presence then. Once the sun rises higher and the air warms up enough, they are able to kick their legs out of the ice and continue on with their day.
Though the wildlife is surprisingly abundant in this desolate high altitude region, people are hard to find. We passed through a number of old villages along the way, including the village of Isluga which has a particularly photogenic 16th or 17th century iglesia. We stopped for a while to admire it and take some photos, but we didn’t see a soul there. Desolate…
October 27, 2011
To be honest, I expected the drive back from the altiplano highlands of Salar de Surire towards the coastal city of Iquique to be a barren, boring affair. So we were surprised when about 50-100 km west of Colchane we started seeing a plethora of incredible rock formations along the sides of the highway!
Some of more fantastic looking of these eroded geological sites proved to be inaccessible by roads and would have required a backpacking trek, along with leaving our truck unattended on the side of the highway – both of which we weren’t willing to do at the time. But finally we came upon a section of surreal formations that we were able to access with the truck.
After finding a nice spot to hide the truck and camp, we went on a scouting mission on foot through the convoluted canyon network. With lots of fun scrambling around over rock ridges and through little slots, we eventually found a particularly fantastic area full of surreal formations and even a number of arches!
We stayed around there until sunset, having a blast climbing around and photographing the formations. This unknown, unsigned geological wonder would probably be a designated national monument back home in the States, but here it’s just a bunch of rocks and canyons along the highway. I love these kinds of surprises that you sometimes stumble upon when traveling!
October 27, 2011
We’ve spent the last few days relaxing in Iquique, a city in northern Chile. Along with its renowned beaches, Iquique is famous for its perfect paragliding winds, especially this time of year (spring) when the winds blow consistently off the ocean and up the enormous hills that loom above the city. We met a Chilean paraglider in our hostel who a few days before had flown 160 km down the coast from Iquique to Tocopilla!
Driving into Iquique from the east was spectacular. You don’t really realize that you’re driving in along a high plateau until the road gets to the edge, and all of the sudden you see the city and the ocean thousands of feet directly below! If that wasn’t enough, there’s a gigantic dune called Cerro Dragon that totally dwarfs the city. Of course, we had to hike up that dune one evening for sunset! I know I’ve used the word “surreal” way too much on this blog the last few weeks in northern Chile, but how else can you describe a scene like this, with an enormous dune towering over a city?! This planet seems to hold endless surprises.
Speaking of surprises, our plan to spend the next few days camping on the beaches down the coast is probably thwarted since somebody broke into our truck last night! Fortunately the vast majority of our important stuff was in our hostel room, but now we’ll have to try to replace the things we did lose and then probably just go back to Antofagasta and return the truck asap. Anyhow, once this headache passes we’ll catch a night bus back down south past Santiago to continue our journey! We’re excited to see trees again!
October 31, 2011
The last three days were spent along the coastline of northern Chile as we slowly made our way down from Iquique. Along the way we camped a couple times along some of the many rocky bluffs, watched sea lions lounging on the rocks, pelicans skimming the ocean, and big barreling closeout waves pounding the shoreline. Now we are having a layover in the town of Antofagasta today before catching our 18-hour bus down to Santiago tomorrow.
Although the first impression of Antofagasta is not particularly flattering, now that we’ve been forced to spend a day wandering around here it seems like a city that is trying hard to provide entertainment and culture – with its beaches, plazas, pedestrian malls, movie theaters, and the obligatory public outdoor gyms. Nevertheless, we are excited to escape northern Chile and return to greener places! Our next stop is Santiago with a mission to find the mountaineering store there to replace some of our stolen equipment, then down to the mountains in the Chillan area to hopefully climb a volcano and find some more remote hot springs!