Following Valeria’s suggested itinerary, we were now acclimatising to the altitude so it was time to leave the salt flats and head into the mountains. Our first foray was to the twin lakes of Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques. The Hilux made short work of the desert road and at 4120 mtrs (13,520 feet) we reached these beautiful lakes. Cerro Miscanti and Miniques Volcano tower above the lakes. In this rarified atmosphere the waters are of such an intense blue that it almost hurts your eye. There are Flamingo and waterbirds on the water and Vicuna grazing at the side of the lake.
We met a couple of interesting Swiss guys at Miniques. They had set a camera up on a tripod and were trying to take selfies of themselves doing rock guitarist jumps in front of the scenery using a time delay. But they were obviously not timing their jumps right so I took pity on them and offered to press the shutter release whilst they did their leaping. They seemed pretty pleased with the results and we soon fell to talking about travel and photography, swapping web addresses and travel stories.
One of the must do trips in the Atacama is a visit to El Tatio Geysers, the highest geyser field in the world at 4320 mtrs. If you book a tour with one of the outfits in town they’ll pick you up about 4.30 am so that you can get to the geyser field at dawn. This is supposed to be the best time to see all the steam rising as the sun edges over the horizon. Unfortunately, it also means that you’ll share the view with hundreds of other tourists each vying to get the best shot and that you’ll have to get up in the middle of the night, wait in the cold for the van to come and pick you up from your hotel, endure a bumpy ride in the dark and then stamp your feet at the geysers waiting for the sun to do its bit.
The truth of the matter is that the geysers and bubbling pools of scalding water at El Tatio are not as spectacular as others we have seen, whether in dawn light or the full light of day. So, contrary as ever, we got up at our normal time, had a leisurely breakfast and drove out in bright morning light, stopping to admire some lovely cactus along the way.
A guy at the tourist information office had shown us some interesting lagoons on the map which he said were good for birding. And so our journey was even more delayed by stopping to look at birds, Vicuna and even Llama, though the latter were domesticated (we did see wild Llama on the following day).
By the time we had finished looking at the wildlife the tour buses were coming back down the mountain so when we eventually rocked up at El Tatio we had the place virtually to ourselves. As I say, these are not the finest geysers in the world but the surrounding mountains are pretty spectacular, especially when we drove up a track going high into those mountains. It would eventually take you into Bolivia but we obviously stopped well short of the border as we had no permit to drive across. Throughout Chile it is quite easy to stray into a neighbouring country without knowing, especially if you are hiking the mountains.
There was one final suggestion on Valeria’s itinerary which even she hesitated about writing down – The Salar de Tara. Set high in the Andes, the only way to get to this lake is by an almost trackless desert crossing. Valeria told us that people had got lost out there and there’s no mobile signal so you can’t call for help. She said the only safe way to do it yourself was to wait at kilometre 100, just before the turning to Salar de Tara, wait for a tour van to arrive and hang on to their tail lights. She made us promise her that in no circumstances would we attempt the crossing alone.
We quietly decided that we would just do a driving tour along Route 27, going over the flanks of the extinct Licanabur Volcano, passing the border post between Chile and Bolivia and carry on down to the border with Argentina. There are a number of lagoons along the way including a lovely one at Quepiaco. Here we saw the usual gathering of Flamingo, ducks and other aquatic birds and also the largest fox in Chile (there are three species) which was stalking some of the birds.
We got talking to one of the minibus drivers who was taking a tour to Tara and who explained the route to us in Spanish. I asked if we could do it in our ute. He said yes, but it was easy to get lost. So could I follow you? I asked. Yes, he answered. So when his van pulled out we were close behind and before too long we swung off the main road, heading for some amazing rock columns that just stand up out of all the desert rocks and soil which surround them. Geologists explain that in the long distant past some magma springs would have been here and the lava stream would have emerged slowly to eventually solidify into these columns.
As soon as the group had stopped snapping one another pretending to hold one of the leaning columns up, they jumped into their van, we raced to our Hilux and we were off again, at first on a discernible track, albeit with the odd manoeuvre to avoid some hidden (from me) obstacle. We were following a rocky canyon but when that ran out we swung to the right and upwards into a vast featureless plain. There were a multitude of tyre tracks here but they meandered about and went in different directions. It was all too clear that it would be oh so easy to wander off into the middle of nowhere.
We had reached dizzying heights now, some 4,800 metres, nearly 16,000 ft, the highest Jane and I have been on terra firma. Or should that be ‘terror infirma’ because now our guide was doing his Dakar Rally bit and racing away at 80 – 100 klms per hour, bouncing over the gravelly ground and all I could do was hang on to his dust cloud for dear life. I knew that if I lost him we would be in serious trouble. And there were times when he seemed to be getting away from me so I would floor the gas and hang on to the steering wheel, praying not to take a slide. Then the minibus would disappear over a rise and we would just head for where we’d last seen him hoping beyond hope that his dust trail would still be visible when we reached the top.
After a seemingly endless time, but in reality less than half an hour, we could see before us the Catedrales de Tara, a chain of rock formations eroded by the extreme weather of the high Andes. The van parked up and we drew to a dusty but very grateful halt beside it to gaze down into the beautiful Salar de Tara. It’s quite incredible that this oasis can exist amongst this harsh terrain but it does and it harbours a whole host of animals and birds, wild Llama, flamingo, vizcachas, a type of mountain rabbit.
We and our guide van were soon joined by about a dozen other tours, their passengers getting out and, like us, looking rather shaken and in need of their lunch. We would never have contemplated taking Valerie’s advice following a tour if we had known that they cross the desert at such reckless speed. I think the drivers do it because they love the idea of rallying and of giving their passengers a ‘thrilling’ ride. Unfortunately, this does mean that you miss much of the wonderful desert scenery which just passes in a blur.
For the ride back I had to select another van as ours had disappeared to visit some other place on their madcap tour. We made sure that our new van was actually going back to San Pedro and started following. If van number one was fast this new guy was even faster and I found the needle touching 120 kmph at points as I desperately hung on. At one point the van got so far ahead that I really did think I had lost him but, to my amazement and in all fairness to him, he pulled up in the distance and checked that I was still in his tracks before setting off when he was certain I hadn’t got lost on the way. I shall be eternally grateful to him.
Was it worth seeing the high desert and the Sala de Tara? Yes, it was an incredible experience. Was it worth risking our necks to do so? Probably not and yet the Salar de Tara is an incredibly beautiful unique place so there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing that we made the trip.
We finished our trip by watching the sun go down over the mountains. We had a wonderful time in Atacama and it is certainly a place like no other and is incredibly diverse despite being a desert.