San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: High Andean Landscapes of the Lagunas Altiplánicas Tour


Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa, Chile

Visiting San Pedro de Atacama was a dream come true for me, right after my trip to Rapa Nui (Easter Island).  After wandering through the Valle de la Muerte and watching sunset fall over the Valle de la Luna, I was ready for the Lagunas Altiplánicas tour, where you visit salt flats and high-altitude lakes and lagoons set among the mountains and volcanos of the Chilean highlands.  As a lover of photography, blue skies, and deep teal lakes, I decided to take the tour with CosmoAndino Expediciones because they promise ample time to really see, experience, and photograph this region.  And they delivered.


Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa, Chile

This tour is long and cold;  you get picked up sometime around 6:30 in the morning, shivering as you wait for the tour van to pull up in front of your hostal.  Luckily, I was able to wait inside the reception office where there was a space heater!  I was excited to find out that David, our guide from the previous day’s tour, was leading us on the Lagunas Altiplánicas tour.  David is a very special tour guide because of his true passion for the Atacama region, his engaging sense of humor and his straightforward, honest attitude; also, he’s truly bilingual as he spent a significant part of his childhood in Canada!  On top of that, many of my buddies from the tour the day before were also in this tour group: when you spend that much time in a tour van, you want to like your companions!


Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa, Chile

We set out from San Pedro de Atacama when the sun was still waking up, arriving bright and early to the Salar de Atacama (Atacama salt flat) and Laguna Chaxa.  For many people, this is the main reason they visit San Pedro, but in my opinion, this is just the tip of the iceberg.  As you can see from the photos above, every direction yields a new view of the gorgeous landscape with mountains towering in the distance, clouds reflected in a peaceful lake, and the crumbly brown field of salt, so different than the brilliant white salt flats in other parts of the Andes.

Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa, Chile

On top of that, various species of flamingos flock to Laguna Chaxa.  In the summer, there are flamingos everywhere, but in the winter, when I visited, there were only a few and they kept their distance.  (To be honest, it was the only time I wished I had brought my zoom lens, which I had left behind in the US!)



Views from Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa, Chile

I took my time wandering the salt pathway and admiring the different vistas in the early morning sun.


Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa, Chile

Finally, I wandered away from the pretty lagoon to join the tour group for breakfast.  To save time, the tour agency includes a breakfast spread of bread, cheese, cookies, and other breakfast snacks along with hot tea, coffee, and hot chocolate to warm you up.  It’s nothing gourmet, but it does the trick!


From there, we continued along the wide expanse of the Atacama Desert, spotting the decrepit monument marking the Tropic of Capricorn.  Apparently its dilapidated state is a reflection of the government’s hands-off attitude to tourism!

Next, we stopped in Socaire, a small village which lives from agriculture and tourists passing through the area.  The church is small and quaint, and it was nice to imagine what it would be like to live in this distant community surrounded by an amazing landscape.


Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, Chile

Further down the road towards Paso de Sico, one of Chile’s border crossings with Argentina, we arrived at our first view of the Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, which was, for me, the highlight of this trip because of the interesting, varied colors of the landscape.  Most tour agencies do not take visitors to the Salar de Talar and Salar Aguas Calientes because they are far away and make the trip a full day tour.  According to David, the only tourists that visit this amazing location are guests at five star resorts with private guides and CosmoAndino clients.  Worth every extra penny.


View near Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, Chile

We stopped at the top of the hill leading down to the salt flat and gorgeous ice green lake.  While everyone shot pictures of the colorful landscape below, I looked backwards and felt dwarfed by this snow-covered peak towering above us.


Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, Chile

We had plenty of time to wander around the Salar de Talar and Salar Aguas Calientes on these red rocks among the colorful mountains.  The rolling peaks and soft colors reminded me of my first impression of the Andes in 2002 in Mendoza, Argentina; I kept saying that the Andes looked like they were pintado a mano (hand-painted).


Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, Chile

Here, the salt flats were a different shade, crunching beneath our feet.  We wandered around at will, getting close to the lake and its mint green waters.  The wind was strong here at this high altitude.


Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, Chile

When you stand alone in this landscape, it reminds you of just how tiny you are, and just how lucky you are to be able to visit this amazing place.

 
Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, Chile

The salt almost looked like a luxurious white sand beach! The water was crystal clear, but at this altitude, there are no fish!

 
Posing at Salar de Talar / Salar Aguas Calientes, Chile

Of course, this kind of landscape requires posing to really prove that I’d been there!


Laguna Miscanti, Chile

After plenty of time to wander around, we backtracked to the road that took us to Laguna Miscanti, the photogenic blue lagoon surrounded by volcanoes.  This location is protected by the Chilean national park service, and we could only walk along a pre-determined path to preserve the landscape.


Laguna Miscanti, Chile

On one side of the lagoon, you have the towering snow-covered peaks; on the other, rolling red hills.  It’s hard to know which way to look!


Laguna Miscanti, Chile

Even the sky cooperated, bringing in ever-changing clouds to complement the vista.

 
Approaching Laguna Miñiques, Chile

After following the pathway back to the main road, we continued on foot to Laguna Miñiques, located just around the bend.  I couldn’t believe how many high-altitude blue lagoons I was able to see on this one day!  Being able to walk around is so much better than being cooped up in a tour bus all day; you really get to appreciate the wide expanses of this region.  You also feel the high altitude and notice how your body responds to the change in oxygen!


Laguna Miñiques, Chile

Here, we had our picnic lunch, giving us a chance to pause and take it all in.  This was our highest altitude stop of the day, and it was freezing cold.  The colors seemed unreal; I had to keep asking myself, “Am I really here?”


Laguna Miñiques, Chile

The region had been hit by a lot of snow in the week before my arrival, which closed both of the border crossings to Argentina for a couple of weeks.  You see some of the remaining snow in this photo.

After lunch, we headed back towards San Pedro de Atacama, making the requisite stop in Tocanao, another small town with a picturesque church. This church is noteworthy because its bell tower sits in the main plaza, and the doorway honors the country’s indigenous and Spanish heritage with stone carvings of both a llama and a horse. In this town, you also have an opportunity to buy souvenirs, even though the Atacama doesn’t really have a local artisanal tradition. I ended up buying a lovely alpaca shawl from a family which weaves some of its own products.


Sunset in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

From there, we headed back to San Pedro, many of us falling asleep as we descended in altitude.  We arrived just in time to see yet another gorgeous sunset, and I wandered over to the edge of town to take in the golden colors.

 
Sunset in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Before heading back to town, I appreciated the changing colors of the sunset reflecting on the mountains I’d just visited.  When you’re inside the tourist district of San Pedro, it’s easy to forget how close you are to the beautiful landscape.  It’s really all around you!

After a long day, I decided to take it easy and cook dinner at the hostel and socialize with the other guests.  I had an early, active day planned the next day: mountain biking to the Pukará de Quitor with my travel buddy Sam!

Recommendations for San Pedro de Atacama:

  • Take the Lagunas Altiplánicas tour with CosmoAndino Expediciones.  Yes, it’s almost twice as expensive as the other tours (42.500CLP in 2013), but that’s because you visit the Salar de Talar and Salar Aguas Calientes in addition to the Salar de Atacama, Laguna Chaxa, Socaire, Laguna Miscanti, Laguna Miñiques, and Tocanao.  The tour lets you take your time photographing the gorgeous landscape.  In my opinion, that’s priceless.
  • In addition to your tour, you pay must pay 2.500CLP each to visit the two sites monitored by the Chilean national park service, Salar de Atacama and Laguna Miscanti.
  • For this tour, bring lots of water, sunscreen, layers upon layers, and additional snacks.
  • Many backpackers visit San Pedro de Atacama directly after the four-day Salar de Uyuni tour in Bolivia, and they are sometimes underwhelmed by the Atacama desert.  I visited Uyuni in 2007, so it wasn’t fresh in my mind.  That said, in my opinion, there can never be too many salt flats and high-altitude lakes!  I think I enjoyed this tour more because I had a fresh perspective; if you’re coming from Bolivia, you may need a break from this kind of scenery.
  • I took over 1000 pictures on this tour, which means that most of them did not make the cut for this post; see more here!
[July 7, 2013: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile]

 

 

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