We were heading into the Altiplano or the High Plains going up to 13,000 feet to check out the Altiplano Lakes, Salt Flats and Red Rocks. Our first stop was at Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks) an intense landscape of red stones that was formed by oxidized iron. After a couple of hours and few wrong turns later (thanks google) we came upon a light green lake backed by colorful layered mountains. With the surrounding Salar de Talar providing a beautiful contrast to the aqua blue hue we couldn’t help but to stop to get a closer look. We tried walking to the water’s edge looking for the red rocks landscape but turned back when we realized we weren’t in the right area. Once we returned to the car we spotted vans/cars off in the distance on what looked like an overlook. So we drove to the general area wondering what those people knew that we didn’t. There was no sign directing us to an overlook but we spotted a narrow road that took us down towards the lake. It was a bumpy ride with lots of dips and pits that we bumped the bottom of the car a couple times. Ooops!! It wasn’t until we parked and got out of the car that we realized that we were actually driving on the red rocks landscape all along.
The fanciful swirls of red and white rock formation against the aqua blue water surrounded by crimson colored mountains was truly spectacular. We could have hung out here all day just to take in the scenery but the relentless wind and chill drove us away too soon.
So we continued further down the main roadway (highway 23) and passed more lagoons and salt flats, as well as some wild donkeys and vicunas, the local wild camelids. As we approached the Argentina border, we turned around and headed back towards Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miniques. Both required a steep windy drive uphill on a gravel road to our highest points for the day above 14,000 feet. Access to the lake is limited to a road that skirts the lakeshore and a very short walking trail to minimize the environmental impact on the area. At the end of road we reached an overlook of Laguna Miniques where we saw flamingoes, rheas and vicunas hanging out at lakeside. It was at this point that we started to feel the effects of the altitude. We were feeling sluggish and a headache was forming warning us it was time to head down to lower altitude.
Driving back toward San Pedro, we spotted a culpeo (also known as the Andean fox)) hunting in the grass near the road. We also passed Socaire and Toconao villages and lots of random walls in the fields that are reputed to date back to Inca times. We took a detour to Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa, the largest salt flat in Chile and third largest in the world. The ground was covered in a thick layer crust of salt crystals much like the Bad Waters area of Death Valley that crackled when we walked over it.
There is an interpretive trail that meanders through different points of interest in the salt flats. The lagoons were were full of flamingoes, especially Andean flamingoes, but there were also Chilean and James flamingoes.
After walking the trail we headed back to town for our last night in Chile before flying to Santiago to catch our flight back to the US.
Of course we couldn’t leave Chile without having some sort of mishap to end our trip. We were scheduled to fly out of Calama airport around 6:30pm flight about an hour and half drive from San Pedro de Atacama. We spent most of the morning hanging out in the center of San Pedro de Atacama. As we were getting ready to make the trip down to Calama we needed to gas up before returning the car. Unfortunately, the gas station in town was having it’s tanks filled so we figured we could get gas in Calama. How hard could it be find a gas station in a city? So we began our drive with plenty of time to find a gas station, return the car and catch our flight to Santiago. Well it turned out that finding gas stations in Calama wasn’t as easy as we thought. It didn’t help that we had no internet which added to our frustration. After circling the same streets for half an hour, D spotted a sliver of a sign for a gas station a block away on a side street. We navigated towards the gas station almost missing the entrance and let our the collective breath we were holding. We were about a minute away from saying F-it and returning the car without filling it up. Even the excruciatingly slow service at the gas station didn’t keep us from getting to the airport in time to grab a bite (are hot dogs in Chile called Chile dogs?) before our flight.
We were heading back to our real life and uncertain future after a year of traveling. Whether that future will include going back to the careers we left behind or explore other adventures was something we needed to figure out. Our finances will have all the answers, we are sure. One thing we know for sure is that our future would include more travel and cats.