Jorge López Orozco
Twilight falls in the most arid place on earth. The conical summit of Licancabur Volcano, venerated by ancient native American cultures, rises majestically 5,920 meters (19,420 feet) above sea level. The colors of the Andean massif change from ochre to reddish tones as the sun fades to the west. The view of the vast surrounding country, with the towering mountains as a backdrop, make whoever witnesses them feel moments of overwhelming awe.
We head for Chaxa Lagoon, 56 kilometers (34.8 miles) south of San Pedro, one of the major vantage points for observing the hidden natural wealth of the famous Salar de Atacama. However bizarre it may seem, even – to some – mysterious, the fact is that there is life in the world’s driest desert.
After almost an hour´s journey by car and after crossing the beautiful town of Toconao and its church, San Lucas, with its solitary white bell tower, the desert’s smooth surface suddenly starts to change. Salt crusts appear, scattered all over the landscape as far as the eye can see, forming pastel-colored rock salt formations. It all looks quite similar to a dried-out reef or to images of Mars’ planetary surface. The visitor is engulfed by the silence, broken by the cry of a bird in flight beneath the cloudless Atacama sky. The neighboring mountains have intriguing formations. How was it all formed?
In the midst of this vast solitude, the Chaxa Lagoon guard post comes into view, part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve, which consists of 73,986 protected hectares. The Atacama Salt Flat is one of the must-see sites in this region, not just for its peculiar geography but because it is a major bird reserve of the Atacama Desert.
A group of small lagoons containing water with high concentrations of salt, making it undrinkable for humans, attracts birds from many different lands.
It is windless here and one’s skin feels dry. The surface of Chaxa’s waters becomes a mirror that perfectly reflects the Andes.
To visit the reserve, an entrance fee is charged by the Atacameño commoners ($2,000 pesos or US$ 3.6). The commoners are members of an indigenous Chilean people who, together with Conaf, have created an association to protect the Atacama Desert’s nature heritage with the local inhabitants as the reserve’s guards.
The atacameños or “Likan Antai” have an ancestral tradition that binds them to the desert, and at this point in time they have become the desert’s sole inhabitants. The first human traces found here date back to some 10,000 years ago. The inhabitants managed to survive thanks to the fresh water runoff from the mountain range that formed the region’s oases. Today the Atacameño culture, born between 900 and 1536 C.E., has fewer than 100,000 heirs. There are chiefly engaged in small-scale agriculture, grazing camelids such as llamas and alpacas, and tourism activities.
We are in good hands. All our guides are Atacama born and bred, they know what each mountain is called and their faces are deeply tanned by the sun. They clearly love the land.
“The beginnings of this place go back in time more than 20 million years. According to some, it was a great lake and not a sea. The Salt Lake extends for almost 3,000 square kilometers (1,864 square miles) and it’s the largest one in Chile,” explains our young, smiling-faced Atacameña hostess. A narrow road almost four kilometers long leads us through the reserve’s most important visitor areas.
Not all of them are located inside the reserve’s boundaries. Any sites unprotected by Conaf are exploited by mining consortiums such as Soquimich. The world’s largest lithium deposits are found in this salt flat. Lithium’s many uses move the technological world. It is vital for fabricating the batteries used in cell phones and computers and is useful as medication for treating depression.
The Sound of Flight
Because of its salt lagoons, Salar de Atacama is a paradise for birds such as the Andean, Chilean and James flamingoes, Baird’s sandpiper, the Andean avocet and the Andean gull. Here they nest, feed and socialize. This habitat is one of the best places for watching wild species.
The question comes to mind of what do these birds feed on? Why do they come to these waters that humans would be hard-pressed to drink? Our guide’s explanation answers all of our questions. She invites us to peer into some ponds in which we begin to make out miniscule signs of life.
They are the micro-crustacean called Artemisa franciscana, the vital ingredient of the birds’ diet, together with algae. The wonderful thing about Artemisa is that it is rich in beta carotene, a vegetable pigment that is mainly responsible for the color of the flamingoes’ plumage.
“That rosy-orange color that the birds have is an indication of their age. They are born white and as they get older they acquire more color,” she explains.
As the afternoon wanes, most of the visitors leave. The cold announces the onset of night. If it’s possible, we recommend you stay a bit longer. When the people leave is when the birds do something amazing.
A flock of about 20 flamingoes suddenly takes flight in perfect formation, passing swiftly above the visitors’ heads, in search of where they will sleep. The sound of their flapping wings in the immensity of the desert fills our ears.
The lagoons reflect another world when the sun fades in the horizon. Before the imminent darkness, the birds’ silhouettes are sharply traced against the backdrop of the desert. Their cries and flight are transformed into a soundtrack of farewell. It is one of those moments we will always remember.
Protection from the Sun: Using a high-factor sunblock is essential because of the solar radiation that the body is exposed to in the desert. Wearing a hat, sun shades and carrying water are also recommended. The Conaf guard posts are equipped with emergency supplies and bathrooms. You will need warm clothing at night, when the temperature plummets.
Altitude: The locations in the vicinity of San Pedro are at an altitude of over 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) above sea level and visitors are advised to allow for half a day to get acclimated. Avoid strenuous physical exercise and take plenty of time to rest. If you feel discomfort, try drinking Chachacoma herb tea (a plant that grows in the altiplano), chewing coca leaves or getting a medical prescription for “puna” or altitude sickness.