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    South by South America Tour – Chile Part 25

    Saturday, September 14, 2019
    San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

    Stay on the path at the Salar de Atacama, Chile.
    Stay on the path at the Salar de Atacama, Chile.

    Flamingos in the Laguna Chaxa at the Salar de Atacama, Chile.
    Flamingos in the Laguna Chaxa at the Salar de Atacama, Chile.

    Another early morning start, another tour. This time, it was an all day affair, getting underway with a hostel pickup at 7:00 am by the Maxim Tour van. Once again, the tour was supposed to be with Lithium Aventura, who apparently didn’t get enough people to fill a van, so they combined passengers with Maxim. Our first stop was at the Salar de Atacama, which is about 30 miles from San Pedro out in the desert. Unlike the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the Salar de Atacama’s surface is more chunky than a chocolate chip cookie. Like its counterparts in other countries, the Salar de Atacama gives off an eerie, otherworldly vibe—complete with Laguna Chaxa, which is covered with muted psychedelic colors. Surrounded by various mountain ranges off in the distance, the Salar de Atacama is basically a really big bowl of contemplative minimalism, perfect to absorb any hour of the day.

    The rough, thick surface of the salt flats at the Salar de Atacama, Chile.
    The rough, thick surface of the salt flats at the Salar de Atacama, Chile.

    Breakfast at the Salar de Atacama, Chile.
    Breakfast at the Salar de Atacama, Chile.

    “The Salar de Atacama is the largest salt flat in Chile. It is located 34 miles south of San Pedro de Atacama, is surrounded by mountains, and has no drainage outlets. In the east, it is enclosed by the main chain of the Andes, while to the west lies a secondary mountain range of the Andes called Cordillera de Domeyko. Large volcanoes dominate the landscape, including the Licancabur, Acamarachi, Aguas Calientes and the Láscar.

    Laguna Tuyajto, an emerald green salt lake in the Andes mountains, Chile.
    Laguna Tuyajto, an emerald green salt lake in the Andes mountains, Chile.

    Mountains and a muted psychedelic lake at Piedras Rohas, Chile.
    Mountains and a muted psychedelic lake at Piedras Rohas, Chile.

    “The salt flats, which encompasses 1,200 square miles, is about 62 miles long and 50 miles wide, which makes it the third largest in the world, after Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia (4,086 square miles) and Salinas Grandes in Argentina (2,300 square miles) Its average elevation is about 2,300 meters above sea level. The surface of the main portion of the salar is very rough, the result of evaporation and ephemeral surface water, unlike most other salt flats—for example the Salar de Uyuni, which is periodically covered with shallow water.”—Wikipedia

    A tiny snowman at a roadside pullout in the Andes mountains, Chile.
    A tiny snowman at a roadside pullout in the Andes mountains, Chile.

    A snowy wonderland in the Andes mountains, Chile.
    A snowy wonderland in the Andes mountains, Chile.

    After 45 minutes of exploring the area, which included observing some lovely flamingos in the Laguna Chaxa, we all met back at the van at 9:30 am for breakfast, which in addition to the usual fruit and cookies, featured cheese and cold cuts with the freshest and most delicious baguette bread I’ve tasted in forever and a day. The guide told me it was baked by a French guy who moved to San Pedro and started a bakery. Fat surprise. Our second stop was at Laguna Tuyajto, a salt lake way up in the mountains. There. we witnessed an emerald green body of water situated next to a snowy mountain wonderland.

    A snow angel in the Andes mountains, Chile.
    A snow angel in the Andes mountains, Chile.

    Lunchtime in the village of Socaire, Chile.
    Lunchtime in the village of Socaire, Chile.

    After that, we made an unofficial stop at a roadside pullout, where we shot a few pics of some majestic, snow-covered peaks. At this spot, some super uptight Italian guy hassled our van driver for parking behind some other vehicles instead of pulling in alongside them. He kept stressing super hard, arguing with our driver, and took a bunch of photos of the van from different angles, while threatening to report our driver.

    Entering the Jerez Valley, Chile.
    Entering the Jerez Valley, Chile.

    Crossing a creek in the Jerez Valley, Chile.
    Crossing a creek in the Jerez Valley, Chile.

    Third up was the awesome-looking Piedras Rohas, which is much more visually impressive, boasting a lake swathed in muted psychedelic colors set amidst majestic snow-capped peaks. It’s a shame that the red rock formations there are closed to tourists thanks to some idiot foreigner who vandalized them a few years back. As we reached the bottom of the mountains, our driver stopped for some llamas to cross the road. One made it across, but then the Italian guy blazed by us at 70 mph and came within a hair of slamming into the second one, which shocked everyone in our van. The Italian guy stopped, backed up, got out, then took photos of the llamas that were by then walking away in the field. What a bizarre incident!

    A creek and rock formation in the Jerez Valley, Chile.
    A creek and rock formation in the Jerez Valley, Chile.

    The bell tower in Toconao, Chile.
    The bell tower in Toconao, Chile.

    Next up, we made a brief stop at the sign calling out the Tropic of Capricorn, where photo ops ensued at the sign and on the long, straight road itself. Then we had a yummy lunch at a restaurant in a small village called Socaire. It was funny to see a bunch of tourists chowing down at tables in a big, semi-dark room. One of the main features of Socaire is its ancient agricultural terraces.

    A rustic door on the bell tower in Toconao, Chile.
    A rustic door on the bell tower in Toconao, Chile.

    Sunset in the lanes of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
    Sunset in the lanes of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

    Following that was a one-hour visit to Jerez Valley, where we climbed some rock formations and explored an ancient miniature “cave” that was used for various purposes over the centuries by indigenous people. By this time of day, it was quite warm, so we soaked our feet in the cool water of a creek. Our last stop of the day was at Toconao, a small village with a stately bell tower, where we had some snacks among the usual myriad souvenir shops before heading back to San Pedro. All in all, it was a long and tiring yet totally worthwhile tour of the awe-inspiring vistas of the greater San Pedro de Atacama area.

    Words and photos ©2019 Arcane Candy.

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