San Pedro de Atacama reflected the vibe of this desert -desolate yet vibrant. We started here and finally ended on the coast in a national park.
Das höchstgelegene Geysir Feld El Tatio war etwas mühsam zu erreichen -aber doch beeindruckend. Wir setzten unsere Reise durch die Atacama fort und wurden immer wieder von einsamen, tollen Landschaften begrüsst. Alles andere als langweilig, wenn man Wüsten liebt. Ansonsten kann die Einsamkeit bedrohlich verlassen wirken.
As the last musician drifted back home from the evenings party, we left at 4:15am to beat the traffic on the atrocious road to the El Tatio geysirs, almost 2 hours away. We arrived in bitter cold conditions just before sunrise together with some bikers who had left even before us and who seemed frozen stiff. The temperature had dropped from 13° at San Pedro to -3° C at the 4300m altitude.
El Tatio is the highest field of geysirs in the world and the best time is to see them is early in the morning as the steam is more prominent. Although some visitors took a steam bath in the natural pool, we decided against it, but it was tempting.
Only while we drove back did we see the beauty of the area, the vulcanos, the vicuñas and flamingos (including the rare James Flamingo with its bright red tail feathers) as well as Moorhens, Andean Avocets and Andean geese.
We left San Pedro at midday and continued to the Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques only to find that they closed 18:30 and camping is not permitted anylonger in the reserve. This prompted us to drive on in the direction of the border towards Argentina where we found a wonderful riverbed 6km away (at 3850m altitude) and suitable to camp in between rock faces and not visible from the road. Again, it paid off to be under way in a 4×4 ( S23°44.9879, W067°50.4649). Here we were lucky to observe a South American Gray Fox (Chilla Zorro), some vizcacha hares and different bird species.
After a cold and clear 4°C night we returned next morning to the reserve at the foot of Cerro Miscanti and Cerro Minques, where we spent some relaxed hours at the equally named lagunas – pity there were no flamingos to be seen during this time of the year.
From here we decided on a detour via the little town of Peine on the edge of the Salar de Atacama, a huge, dry salt lake. Lots of Lithium mining takes place here and the crust is hard and rough – nowhere to be compared to the beauty of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.
The road we took is the main track to Antofagasta from here, but we decided to turn off to the B55 southwards towards Estacion Pan de Azucar. This dirt road is deserted, no traffic and we got pleasantly surprised that at deserted Estacion Imilac , directly on a dry salt lake, a spring delivers cold, clear and sweet water and made this remote station a good place to replenish our drinking water and obey the demand to leave some behind.
Further on we traversed two huge mines, Minas Escondida and Zaldivar (watch the huge ore haulers – simply massive vehicles), then had some tarred road to Oficina Oriente where we continued on gravel road. Desert landscapes mesmerized us along the way – not a person in sight for the rest of the day; we passed eerie graves and towards late afternoon decided to camp before Yungay at a lonely spot with a view, reachable by 4×4 on a ridge. The earth around us was a salty crust devoid of any life at 1003m (S24°02.3695, W069°47.1399)
Although the night was clear the morning presented a thick blanket of fog with everything being dripping wet. We pushed on to Paradeiro Barazarte on the Pan Americana Ruta 5 and continued southwards with a stop at the well-frequented Mano de Desierto –the large concrete hand sticking out of the desert sand along the route, sculptured by Mario Irarrázabal in 1992 in honor of the victims of injustice by the then regime. (the hand at Punta del Este in Uruguay is by the same artist).
Along the PanAm we regularly saw decorated graves, complete in some cases with the vehicles in which the occupants died as well as paraphernalia like hard hats, caps or other items associated with those who perished. In cases where children are involved, often the toys are also left at these memorials.
It should be noted that service stations along this stretch are infrequent – however,it did not pose any problems for us with a tank reach of around 1200km. We filled up at Aqua Verde and continued to Chañaral through the Sierra Colorada, again with beautiful vistas of the Atacama. From Chañaral we turned northwards along the coast to reach the Parc Naçional Pan de Azúcar where we camped at the Lodge Pan de Azúcar with many camping spots and a kitchen lapa and warm showers.
After an early walk into the sleepy fishing village we drove back via Charñaral along the Ruta 5 PanAm to Cadera, an endless stretch of desert again illustrating the enormity of this desert expanse to us (more than 1000km long straddling Peru, Bolivia and Chile). Here the Pan Americana changes into a dual lane double highway, allowed us to make good headway to Copiapó and southwards where we turned back to the coast at Algorrabal, had tarred road to Canto del Agua, then via Punta Carrizal into PN Llanos de Challe known for its cactus landscapes. We found a quiet camping spot behind a rock amidst all the holiday activity prevailing.
Before sunset we went for a walk and tried the cold, crystal clear Pacific ocean. At this campsite various animals could be observed, including zorros chilla (false fox) and some owlets early the next morning.
Read more about the Atacama desert.
This post covers 3rd to 7th January 2017