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Flamingos and high altitude

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Woke up in time for breakfast to catch the pick-up at 8.30am and the full-day tour today went to Atacama Salt Flat and the Miscanti and Miñiques lakes. I was in time for my pick-up but when nobody had showed up at 8.45am I asked the staff in the hotel reception if I had missed the pick-up somehow but she answered me that pick-ups are always late… so typical. I had been stressing to be on time just to find out that the transfer probably even won’t be there until later anyway. A few minutes later my pick-up arrived and the guide, Tote, greeted me. Today I was the only English-speaking person riding along but that was no problem for Tote who happily translated everything he said in Spanish into English, just for me.


We drove for 20 minutes to Toconao where we made our first stop. The town was inhabited already in 11000 BC and has today a population of 700 people. Toconao is characterized by being built up of only Liparita, a volcano rock. We had half an hour to wonder around in the town and those who needed to buy water or some kind of snack had to do it here, since we weren’t eating lunch until 2pm. Then we kept on going for another 25 minutes until we arrived at Salar de Atacama (Atacama Salt Flat).


Atacama Salt Flat is the largest saltwater basin in Chile and has an average altitude of 2300 meters. The basin has no outlet thanks to the surrounding Andes Mountain Range in east and Cordillera de Domeyko as well as Cordillera de La Sal (two secondary mountain ranges to the Andes) in west. The landscape in Atacama Salt Flat is dominated by volcanoes as Licancabur, Acamarachi and Láscar whereof the latter reaches 5592 altitude meters and is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile. These mountain ranges are dangerous because a lot of volcanic activities are captured inside and can explode any day, any time. Chile is not only rich of copper but also lithium. Close to 30% of the world’s lithium reserves exists in Atacama Salt Flat and counts as the biggest and most pure active source to lithium carbonate. Atacama Salt Flat divides into two subunits; Soncor and Quelana. Soncor in turn covers Chaxa, Puilar and Barros Negros-lakes which are all included in Los Flamencos National Reserve. You can find three out of six species of Flamingos here in Atacama Salt Flat; Andean, Chilean and James Flamingos. A distinct difference between the Andean and Chilean Flamingo is the legs; Andean has pink legs while Chilean has black legs.

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We disembarked the bus and started to walk in the barren landscape. Tote took the lead and the rest of us followed in his footsteps. There was a narrow path to hike and it was lined with sharp mineral stones that you definitely didn’t want to fall on, they looked like sharp knives. Tote told us the flamingo spend up to 16 hours a day looking for shrimps in the water and it’s not any shrimp but a special Brine Shrimp.


The shrimp is less than 1 centimeter long and has adopted themselves to live in the salty environment, sustain high temperatures and survive in extremely oxygen deficient nature. Before we started walking on this path Tote had showed me an aquarium full of Brine Shrimps and they were really small creatures, barely visible. Brine Shrimps also contain beta-carotene which gives the characteristic pink color to the flamingos. On top of that the shrimps contain a lot of protein giving migrating birds energy. The Flamingo chooses to sleep in the water (standing on one leg) so their main enemy, the fox, won’t be able to reach them. They also build their nests out on islands in lakes for the same reason. After walking the short path around, we had 20 minutes on our own to go around and take pictures.


I snapped a few panorama photos and then headed back to the main building and sat down in the shadow. Even though it was winter/spring here now it was really warm, the sun was broiling at the altitude of 2300 meters and the effect was thereafter – in other words high.

After that we embarked the bus again and Tote now announced that we would be going for another hour and a half to the highland and stop at Puna de Atacama (Atacama Plateau) at altitude 4200 meters. First part of the road was asphalted and the nature around full of volcanoes, mountains and wilderness. Then we turned off on a more narrow dirt road partially so bad it was painful sitting in the bus. It was a bumpy road meandering through the volcanic landscape and sometimes the road almost knotted itself. And up here you started to suffer from the high altitude and no wonder since we eventually stopped at 4200 meters above sea level.


We stopped at Laguna Miscanti (Lake Miscanti). As soon as I got out of the bus I immediately felt the wind blew like polar winds even though it was +15 °C! So freezing cold and the air was thin and difficult to breathe while moving around. But we got out there walking the path along Lake Miscanti for about 100 meters. Piece of cake! We all thought, but boy was it heavy to walk or what? It was barely enough oxygen in the air and the freezing cold wind didn’t make it easier though the scenery was amazing up there. Next to Lake Miscanti was the Volcano Miscanti and the clear blue color in the water against the surrounding barren nature were beautiful, and those 100 meters took like 15 minutes to walk.


The bus was waiting for us at the end of the path and we rode to the next lake, Miñiques, with its volcano Miñiques next to it. This lake was not as big as the first one but had just as impressive landscape around it. After that we turned around and started to traveli the same way back. We made a short stop just outside Socaire and Tote showed us a bush growing next to the road. My first thought was “Uuuuhm, just a regular bush, or?” He wanted us to smell it.


It was a distinct smell, hard to describe, but according to Tote this was a Rica-Rica bush that they make stomach medicine out of and the seeds are one of the ingredients in the drink Pisco Sour. We all went back to the bus and continued to the small village Socaire (only 250 inhabitants) to the longed-for lunch. We were starving and the hot vegetable soup warmed us all up and I had ordered chicken with rice as main dish. Great food after such long and strenuous day at high altitude and when we all had finished our meals we got back on the bus and kept on going back to San Pedro de Atacama. It took over an hour until we arrived and I think most of us on the bus fell asleep for a while, at least I did.

When I got back at my hotel I had no energy to do anything else that day, the air had run out so to speak. In my suite there was a gas radiator you could use during the evening and nights. To me everything that runs with gas (radiators, stoves etc.) is kind of scary in general, maybe because I’m not used to it… But it was necessarily here in the desert during nights when the outside temperature crawled down to like zero degrees Celsius, and then I was glad I had that source of heat to use. But it wasn’t easy to fire it up so I had to get help by the hotel janitor. He was a nice guy, even though he didn’t spoke a single word of English he appeared to be very nice but modest and almost didn’t dare to approach or interrupt us guests.

Posted by bejjan 16:00 Archived in Chile Tagged mountains volcanos traveling atacama_desert

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