The Atacama desert in northern Chile is one of the driest places on earth. There has never been enough rainfall to make a record of the precipitation. This unique place has been on our “to visit” list ever since we started planning our journey. We arrived on a sweltering clear day to San Pedro de Atacama, a quaint little town of cobblestone streets and red abode buildings. It reminded us of Antigua, Guatemala; a place that we fell in love with but forced ourselves to leave, in fear that we would blow a months budget on the tourist prices. The charm of this town lured us in quickly and then promptly spit us back out after our first dinner bill. We were not suited for overpriced mojitos (but oh, so refreshing!) and exuberant campgrounds. This led us in search of other options outside of town. Here we stumbled on one of our best campsites yet, in the Valle de la Luna.
The valley of the moon is famous for its plethora of colors at sunrise and sunset. The barren valley looks like another planet, housing hundreds of pink sandstone spires with layers of white salty crust. We walked around the rim for a while, waiting for the sunset and the tourist buses to leave. To our disappointment, the sky clouded over and the sun began to hide behind the hills. Distracted by some Rambo admirers, we didn’t notice the sky changing and almost missed the array of purple, orange and yellow streaks that had taken over the sky. We stayed until everyone left, soaking in the last of the light until it turned cold enough to cuddle into the van.
We drove to Salar de Atacama the next day to visit the salt flats. At Laguna Chaxa, the smell of sulphur crept into the van before we even got out. The shallow lake was lined with algae and surrounded by a crust of salt.
There were flamingoes wading through the water, in search of brine shrimp, their main source of food. Brine shrimp are high in protein and beta carotene, which gives the flamingoes their pink color. The shrimp can live in high saline and termperature conditions, with low levels of oxygen. The species are able to endure droughts, laying “cyst” eggs with a coating that can withstand extreme conditions and lay dormant for decades in a dried up surface.
There were three types of flamingoes, James, Andean and Chilean. Most of them migrate from Bolivia but they arrive by the thousands at different times of the year. There weren’t many there at that time, they were graceful and calm. If it wasn’t for the putrid smell of the lake, we could have stayed and watched the flamingoes for a long time, the peaceful scene had captured us just like the night before.