Into the Atacama Desert

San Pedro de Atacama is a small dusty town that serves as the base for exploring the Chilean portion of the Atacama Desert. To get there we took a flight from Santiago to Calama, rented a truck, then made the drive through the desert to San Pedro.

SPdA drive

The town sort of reminded us of an old western, with dirt streets lined with buildings of different shades of white and brown. The week before our arrival the area had received a huge amount of rainfall which caused damage to many local roads and homes.

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The attractions around San Pedro include salt flats, geysers, wildlife watching, mountain biking, sand boarding, hiking in colorful canyons, and visiting high elevation lakes. The town has many tour operators that take visitors to the various sites (but we usually like to drive ourselves when possible).

Some of the attractions, including the popular Tatio Geysers, are at high elevation. Since one of our kids is prone to altitude sickness we had to rule out a trip to the Geysers and the other sites that require a longer stay at high elevation.

Laguna Chaxa

On our first full day in the Atacama we decided to make the drive to Laguna Chaxa, a brine lake where flamingos are frequently spotted.

The drive to the lake takes around two hours and is a treat in itself. We saw snow-capped volcanoes rising above the arid landscape. Some of the volcanoes in the range have erupted as recently as the mid 1990s.

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As we drove we came across several Alpaca prides* (thanks for the correction Jared!).

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And the occasional donkey.

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When we finally reached the gate to Chaxa Lagoon we were disappointed to find that the entrance gate was locked. We’d gotten conflicting information as to the status of the park given the recent rains and sadly it had not reopened. Still, we enjoyed walking around the salt flat and observing the interesting salt crystals.

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Salt, salt and more salt.

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On the way back we stopped just outside of the town of Toconao to see this canyon, the bottom of which was an oasis in the desert.

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Our rental truck was a 4 X 4 Toyota Hilux kitted out with roll bars, a flag, wheel chocks and other accessories. These red trucks are all over the Calama area because they are the preferred vehicle by the big mining company and the many associated service companies. In several spots the highway bridges were washed out so it was nice to have a capable truck.

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Valle De La Luna

Just outside San Pedro, the Valley of the Moon is one of the must-see sites in the area. Because of the recent flooding we were required to visit the site as part of a tour.

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The Valley of the Moon is so named because of the white colored salt deposits that are nearly everywhere in the valley.

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Large salt domes protrude above the valley floor. At one time there was a salt mining operation here.

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The park has several pristine sand dunes where visitors are not allowed to walk. It was neat to see how the wind shaped the sand dunes and left squiggly patterns along the surface.

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Just before sunset we were taken to the top of the canyon where we could watch the whole valley below changing colors as the sun dipped below the horizon.

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Altiplano Lakes & Piedras Rojas

On our last day in the Atacama we decided to make a drive to the Altiplano Lakes. These lakes are above 4000 meters so we were concerned about the possibility of altitude sickness, but we figured we could just turn around if anyone started showing symptoms.

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As we drove south from San Pedro we passed the Tropic of Capricorn.

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After a couple hours of driving we reached Piedras Rojas where we were treated to an expansive view. In the lake below we spotted flamingos and other birds feeding.

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Along the drive there were large numbers of guanaco, a relative of the llama with a face that looks like a camel.

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Our next stop was the Altiplano Lakes, Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miniques. Here we walked along the marked trails and marveled at the landscape punctuated by volcanoes.

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Summing Up

San Pedro de Atacama provided a great change of pace and good opportunities to learn about geology and desert flora and fauna. We’d like to come back when the kids are older so that we can make a visit to some more of the high altitude sites, including the Salar de Uyuni in neighboring Bolivia.

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Next time we make our way south to the Lake District and cross into Argentina!

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