The first Atacama tour that I booked was to the altiplanic lagoons. It was pretty much a full day tour (early start and includes lunch). I thought I should do those tours that were longer first, to give myself more flexibility on later days.
Indicative tour price in 2017: CLP35,000 + CLP5,500 entry fee to Los Flamencos National Reserve.
I booked the tour through my hostel, because that way I would be picked up and didn’t need to go to a pick-up point. Otherwise, I’d have to be prepared to shop around at San Pedro town centre and compare tours. Plus, they offered it in English, which is a crucial detail in Atacama, unless you’re fluent in Spanish.
- Feeling the altitude in San Pedro
- The altiplanic lagoons are a must-do
- Laguna Chaxa: The flamingo lagoon
- The Lagoon of Piedras Rojas: The most otherworldly
- Aguas Calientes: The salt marsh lagoon
- Laguna Miscanti & Miñiques: The highest altiplanic lagoons
- Geeking out at the Tropic of Capricorn
- The charming Atacama town of Toconao
- Carbon offset information to Atacama Desert, Chile
Feeling the altitude in San Pedro
I was out of sorts and grumpy after my arrival the previous day. San Pedro hadn’t felt promising. It was hot and dusty and bare, and I had a headache. I wasn’t sure if it was from caffeine withdrawal or altitude or heat – or all three. But the mountains in the distance promised the sights I’d come here for.
In hindsight, perhaps that’s why I took the high lagoons for my first tour. But in hindsight, the headache is probably why I should have put it to later.
The hostel caretaker, a sweet little middle-aged man, brewed me some rica-rica tea – a kind of Andean shrub that I later encountered on the tour. With signs and simple Spanish, he made me understand that it was good for stomachaches. It didn’t help the headache. Smelled nice, though.
He also offered some coca leaves, to help me adjust to the altitude. After all, I had come up to 2000+ m ASL right after being at sea level for a week on Easter Island.
At the time, I was not entirely sure how different the effect of the coca leaves would be from, you know, cocaine, so I declined. I slept the whole afternoon, and felt better.
The altiplanic lagoons are a must-do
The general consensus among the other travellers at Chill Hostel, was that the lagunas altiplanicas tour is a must-do.
I had already seen some images from various travel blogs, but I could not quite figure out what all of the sights were relative to each other, and where on the Atacama landscape. The other travellers’ photos helped me group at least the lagoons together.
These are the salt lagoons (salares) of the Andean high plains. It is the same region of the Andean plateau, the Altiplano, that has Bolivia’s famous Salar del Uyuni. In fact, you could actually take a tour by road to Uyuni from San Pedro.
Not that this was strictly necessary, for Chile’s side had its own salares. The most popular tour takes you to the nearer subset of these altiplanic lagoons in Los Flamencos National Reserve, along the road south from San Pedro.
Salar de Atacama
The guide double-checked his roster, counted us all out, and briefed us on the day. We were on our way to the first lagoon.
Our first stop was Salar de Atacama. The craggy field of rock and mineralised salt was interesting, but was not immediately arresting. Stretching out into the distance, the salar was flat and rocky at Laguna Chaxa. I could imagine it as the bed of the paleolake that had once existed in the Ice Age.
As we walked along the path, I examined the shallow outcrops of rock by the path. Encrustations of salt covered parts of it. I was tempted to pick some off and lick it.
But my group was far ahead, and as I hurried after them, the lagoon came into view.
Laguna Chaxa: The flamingo lagoon
My footsteps slowed. My mind went blank. Before me was a wide, wide vista of lilac mountains seemingly stretched incongruously flat, as though touched by a bit of Dali, atop a line of pink rock, atop the blue lagoon, with the beige salt flat in the foreground.
It was the most alien sight I’d ever seen. Were it not for the flamingoes dotting the lagoon, their pink-hued feathers reflecting white by the incredibly brilliant morning sun, I would have wondered if this was on Earth at all.
To be honest, I don’t know why I remember this lagoon as ‘the pink one’. The lagoon itself wasn’t pink. It was quite blue, actually, reflecting the clear blue sky. There was just a narrow strip of pink along the horizon. The flamingoes’ pinkness was actually quite pale in the bright sun. But that’s how my brain remembers it – the pink one.
Take a photo, fool. My brain finally kicked in.
I’d never been anywhere so beautiful before, that I forgot everything. In a daze, I tried my best to capture the images, knowing that I would deeply regret it if I didn’t. If it weren’t for Rachel, suggesting we take each other’s photos, I wouldn’t have remembered at all.
The constantly-breeding shrimp in Laguna Chaxa
There are usually decent amenities in Chile’s national parks, but not too much, such that it encourages people to forget what they’re really supposed to be coming for. Laguna Chaxa had a visitor’s centre, and I remember it because of the aquarium.
Of course, the flamingoes were looking for food in the lagoon, and part of their diet is a kind of shrimp. I remember this, because the shrimp is what’s supposed to give the pink to their feathers; otherwise they would just be white.
Our guide brought us to a narrow aquarium, which contained scores of wiggly many-legged creatures. Some of them looked oddly-shaped, so I looked closer. Oh, there are two attached to each other! Oh…. they’re um… mating.
I’ve forgotten most of what the guide explained, but something he said stuck in my mind. Actually, I forgot his exact words, but I remembered my math. The life cycle of the shrimp in the lagoons is so short, that they would really need to be mating all the time!
Laguna Chaxa must be experienced in person
There was a stillness at Laguna Chaxa. A kind of deadening in the air, that’s difficult to describe and a thing you could not experience from photos and videos. Rather, it’s something you feel from your ears and the hairs on your skin.
The flamingoes moved carefully, one leg at a time, nosing in the water. The footsteps of the tourists crunch against the rock. But the sound seemed ‘short’, like in a fog. Except there can’t be fog in the driest place on earth.
Or perhaps it was just my brain’s numbness, dialing down all other senses to take in the sight. This lagoon, of all the altiplanic lagoons, just defied my photography. It gave me some of my best landscape photos, and yet the photos – even the panoramic ones – don’t quite capture the spatial sense of its beauty.
But it was not the most beautiful altiplanic lagoon.
The Lagoon of Piedras Rojas: The most otherworldly
If anyone has the actual name of this lagoon, can you tell me so that I can stop calling it ‘the one at Piedras Rojas’?
Like all good fairytales, the fairest maiden is sighted, captivates, and leaves you wondering – what was her name?
I was never completely clear what this lagoon was called, since the stop was always referred to as the Red Rocks, i.e. Piedras Rojas. But, coming from Laguna Chaxa, I did not expect to be wowed a second time.
But when we arrived to Piedras Rojas, to be honest, the red boulders were not at all the main attraction for me. For the line of grey mountains beyond commanded attention, appearing completely un-mountainlike, impossibly soft and pastel, as if touched up like an impressionist painting.
At its feet lay a delicately mint-green lagoon, its water’s edge lapping against fine pale sand, playing at being an ocean around an atoll. There was an alien simplicity to the scene, and I was completely charmed.
Our guide spoke about the minerals that gave the mountains its unusual colouring, but I was too mesmerised to remember it, even though this is the sort of thing that I usually like to learn. All I could remember was that the white powdery brush-strokes at the base of the dreamy hills was borax, blown up the slopes by the winds of the high plains.
Windchill on the high plains of Atacama
I would gladly have stayed by the water’s edge throughout all the time allotted for this stop. However, the chill mountain winds gusting constantly across the lagoon was much colder than I expected.
I knew that I’d have to carry some kind of warm clothing, going up to the altiplanic lagoons. But when you’re in San Pedro, feeling its daytime desert heat, it’s hard to gauge just how warm you should aim for. I had a solid windbreaker, after all. Surely it was enough to, you know, break the windchill?
No, it was not.
I thought forlornly of the winter cardigan back at the hostel, for I had begun my round the world journey in the Netherlands. I had my backup scarf with me, but unfortunately I had only packed the silk one – not the cashmere that I acquired from my host in Pokhara, which would have been really handy.
It was no good. I retreated into the van, and continued gazing at the alien lagoon from within.
Aguas Calientes: The salt marsh lagoon
The third lagoon on the tour was not far from the fairy-alien one, yet it was decidedly an earthly lagoon. As the name implied, a hot spring welled up here.
Since the water was sufficiently non-toxic (i.e. without the borax and whatnot), a marsh ecology was able to grow around the lagoon. Our guide motioned for us to come to where he was squatting, at the hot water spring. Different from pretty much all other places thus far in Atacama desert, the ground was actually muddy. Algae made for slippery footing, and reeds grew thick around.
At his invitation, we touched the water. It wasn’t actually very hot – more lukewarm, to be honest.
This lagoon was different yet again from the first two, even without considering the yellow salt marsh. Its blues were cobalt and aqua, perhaps indicating different depths, interspersed with fingers of land criss-crossing the landscape like an estuary. Except that it was far inland, and at altitude.
The far hills were tinged red, giving a slight mauve tone to the mountain background. The air was different, more moist. There was just a whiff of organic scent, of submerged biomass decaying, of soil and the breathing rushes.
And I realised something very strange, and deeply profound, as I stared longer at the beautiful, earthbound lagoon of gold and blue. It was not as otherworldly as the gorgeous fantasy lagoon at Piedras Rojas.
But I realised, the most beautiful lagoon was not my favourite lagoon. Inexplicably, this lukewarm salt marsh lagoon, was my favourite.
Another of His signs is this: you see the earth lying desolate, but when We send water down to it, it stirs and grows. ~41:39
Laguna Miscanti & Miñiques: The highest altiplanic lagoons
We headed to the final stop on the lagoon tour, which actually had two lagoons – twins, you might say. By this time my headache, which had returned sometime at Piedras Rojas, grew steadily worse. To heck with it. I dipped into the stash of coca leaves in the van, tentatively chewing on three, hoping it would help.
Laguna Miscanti could be seen from afar, although it was quite a walk to actually get close. Unlike the previous two lagoons, but similar to Laguna Chaxa, you cannot get right up to the water’s edge. The designated path maintains a viewing distance, but even then you can’t really fit all of the lake in frame.
That’s not to say it was a big lake, though. The final two altiplanic lagoons were the only two with distinct boundaries, fully visible when you’re looking at it in person.
Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques were too simple to challenge the other lagoons in beauty. The colour of the water was their most special attribute – a deep sapphire blue, with a slightly teal cast. The mountain peaks around them had traces of snow even in December. At the right angle, you could see Lascar volcano far beyond in the distance.
Yet, it somehow seemed the most alien, in the sense of the ‘most sci-fi’. Something to it feels like it’s straight out of the old space alien landing movies. I wouldn’t bat an eyelash if a UFO were to land here.
At >4000m ASL, its entire surroundings were almost completely bare. But astonishingly, there was life up here, and I don’t mean the grass clumps. A tiny bird flitted about on the ground amongst the rocks and onto the path.
You can get altitude sickness in the altiplano
It was halfway around Miscanti that I realised I was experiencing altitude sickness. The headache had not only gotten worse, but my heart was also working a lot harder. I was beginning to doubt that I could remain conscious.
I had not really thought much about altitude, because I felt so much better after my nap the previous day. Besides, I had been up to 4000m ASL before, and hadn’t really needed my altitude sickness pills then.
But there by the teal-blue lake, I belatedly realised an important distinction. In Annapurna, I ascended from ~2000m to 4000 over 7 days of acclimatisation. Here, I had just done the same ascent in a van in less than half a day. Not to mention, in an arid landscape too. My Nepali guide Devi had constantly nagged me about hydration, since it supposedly protects against altitude sickness.
The van was far away at this point. Inconveniently, I was exactly halfway along the walk. Whether I turned back or continued to Miñiques, it would be the same distance. Rachel doubled back to see why I lagged, and I managed to tell her the problem. Not that she could do anything about it; but at least if I passed out, someone knows.
Well, let’s get on with it then. Thinking back to all of Devi’s reminders, the best thing I could do was to pause, wait until my heart rate returned closer to normal, and then go super slow. And just breathe. Breathe.
Geeking out at the Tropic of Capricorn
We stopped for lunch an hour later near Socaire, after which I felt better. On the way back down from the high lagoons, I lost all concerns of potential cocaine addiction, and chewed freely on the coca leaves. Disappointingly, I didn’t feel any different, and concluded that the leaves are not at all the same as the drug. (Though that didn’t stop me from scandalising my mother with tales of munching on coca).
The final stop of the tour was the village of Toconao, but there was one special quick stop before that. The van pulled over at a seemingly random spot on the road, but as we got out, I saw the sign and squealed!
For real? We’re at the tropic of Capricorn?
It had not crossed my mind at all that the tropic line would cross Atacama desert. (Although it probably should have, given that the tropic of Cancer in the other hemisphere tends to be ‘deserty’). Rachel asked me what the tropic of Capricorn was, but at the time I couldn’t remember enough astronomy to explain.
But here goes. Basically, it’s the southernmost latitude where it’s possible for the sun to be directly overhead, and this occurs on the December solstice. (Flip it for the tropic of Cancer).
The charming Atacama town of Toconao
When you arrive in Toconao, you immediately understand why it’s a tourist stop. It was the cutest little South American town – downright stereotypical, in fact! The moment I saw it, I immediately thought, ‘pueblo’! (Admittedly, this association may have been shaped by studio depictions of Mexican towns in daytime series of Zorro watched in childhood, whereas Chile is super far south of that).
There was the paved stone street, and the stone buildings. The whitewashed church tower with its cactus wood door. The colourful knitted quilt oddly wrapped around the trees. The vibrant woollen ponchos with Andean motifs hanging outside the stone souvenir shops.
It was adorable. I wish I hadn’t been so tired. I wasn’t even in the mood for ice cream.
We reached San Pedro while it was still light. The summer moon had already risen in the sky, and it was nearly full.
Carbon offset information to Atacama Desert, Chile
I went to Atacama Desert as part of a longer journey around the world. Visiting Atacama Desert specifically, assuming return flights from Kuala Lumpur to Calama via Sydney and Santiago, produces carbon emissions of approximately 15,383 lbs CO2e. It costs about $77 to offset this.
Keen to see the drop-dead gorgeous high lagoons of Atacama for yourself? Learn from my mistakes!