Wonders of the Atacama Desert: Lagunas Altiplanicas
The Atacama is known as the driest desert in the world. Arriving at it gives the impression that we are on another planet, because of the beauty and at the same time the rarity of its landscapes and formations, of which the Cordillera de Los Andes is the witness.
But what can you see in this place in northern Chile? This is what we did and what we recommend doing, leaving from San Pedro de Atacama. It was a top experience!
Lagunas Altiplánicas (Miscanti and Miñiques)
It is not by chance that the Altiplanic Lagoons are in the first place of this post. They are really spectacular and that is why we tell you that they are essential in your visit to the Atacama Desert.
There are two lagoons, Laguna Miscanti, and Laguna Miñiques, but in which I wanted to stay a whole day to contemplate its peculiar beauty is Miscanti.
What is it that makes this a place that can not be missed? The composition of the landscape. Look at the photos, they look like they were hand painted or retouched with software, but neither of them.
No photograph or description will honor the beauty, but I can explain that Miscanti Lagoon is a place that generates peace and well-being, by the silence and the cold that is felt when exceeding 4200 meters above sea level. The lagoon is blue and mixes with the yellowish color of the scarce vegetation that exists, the mountains and volcanoes with snowy peaks in the background, the road with rocks and dust from the desert and the blue sky.
Miscanti is a freshwater lagoon, with a maximum depth of 15 meters and an area of 15 kilometers, surrounded by mountains and two volcanoes with the same name as the lagoons, with snowy peaks.
Although it may not seem like it, thousands of years ago it was a glacier. Today, the two lagoons have recharges from the infiltration of rainwater of underground and thermal type, and their discharges are underground and by evaporation.
In winter, the surface of Miscanti Lagoon freezes, thanks to temperatures below zero.
The other lagoon, Miñiques, is about 800 meters, walking, from Miscanti. It is a nice stop to contemplate the high plateau landscape and take pictures, but, being honest, after seeing Miscanti, there is nothing that can be compared.
The Altiplanic Lagoons are within the Los Flamencos National Reserve, so if you are lucky you might see one, although it is not the most common.
Oasis of the Atacama Desert
On the way to the high plateau of Atacama, where the Altiplanic Lagoons are located, tourism companies usually make three stops to visit important sites that remain en route: a lagoon within the Salar de Atacama and two indigenous villages.
As a tourist stop, the lagoon is more interesting, however, the time allocated to the two communities is relatively short (around 20 minutes), so even if you visit the area on your own, it is a pleasant way to know how people live in this region of Chile.
These are the ones that I call oasis of the Atacama Desert:
It is located in the Salar de Atacama and in the Los Flamencos National Reserve and is located about 50 kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama. Try to get to this place early in the morning (9 am) to avoid the crowds. Highly recommended to see the lagoon and, of course, the flamingos.
For those of us who like these big and colorful birds, it is an excellent opportunity to enjoy them in their natural state. We observe two species: Andean and Chilean.
Laguna Chaxa offers a path of at least one kilometer in which, to your right, you will see the lagoon and the birds. During the day, the flamingos spend more than 12 hours with their beaks in the water, looking for small crustaceans that contain the carotenoid pigment, responsible for the pink colors of their feathers.
To catch their tiny prey, the flamingos move their beaks from side to side and use their tongues to absorb the water and then push it out. In that water passage, the small grooves that the beak holds retain the crustaceans.
When you walk through the lagoon you not only see them looking for food but also flying. Clearly, you will not see them nearby because they prefer a place more distant from people, but they are appreciated about 50 meters from the path.
The entrance fee is 2500 pesos for adults and 800 for children and is paid at the entrance to the lagoon. The schedule is from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Salar de Atacama
Precisely, in Laguna Chaxa you will be able to appreciate this salt flat, the largest in Chile and the third largest in the world, after Salar de Uyuni, in Bolivia, and Salinas de Etosha, in Namibia, Africa.
In Chile, this is the largest salt deposit, although salt is commonly covered by sand and stones.
The Salar de Atacama is located in a depression formed by the uplifts of the Andes and Domeyko mountain ranges. What happened was that the central block sank and its relief was covered by a layer of volcanic material.
Throughout many years, in this sunken block, a deposit of salts was formed, originated by the precipitation of salts and minerals dragged from the hills by the water that descends from the Cordillera to this depression.
Extensive surface lagoons were formed in times where there was high humidity. However, when the water evaporated, precipitated salts at the bottom. At present, where we have drier periods, these salts crystallize on the surface due to the evaporation of the brine existing in the salt core.
And what is brine? Well, that’s what looks like whitish stone. The core of the Salar de Atacama is composed mainly of the halite mineral and the brine, that has high contents of sodium, potassium, magnesium, lithium, and boron.
There is no doubt that part of Chile’s natural wealth includes its vast amount of minerals. But that has its consequences if you are not from the area, locals recommend buying and consuming bottled water, due to the tap water can contain so many minerals (despite the filtration) that can be somewhat heavy for the body of those who are not accustomed to minerals.
It is an indigenous town that is en route to the Altiplanic Lagoons. It is at 3500 meters above sea level and is located on a slope that allows you to feel even more in the Andes Mountains.
It is 86 kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama and is the last town before reaching the border with Argentina.
The Church of San Bartolomé is a beautiful old building with adobe walls, wooden beams of the chañar tree and cactus wood. Inside, there are elements typical of the colonial era.
The temple is a historical heritage and every August 24 celebrates with dances and traditional music the day of San Bartolomé.
In the surroundings of the temple, it is common to see indigenous women making wool fabrics of llama or alpaca, an occupation that they learn from girls and they do it using a cactus wood needle, according to one of the women I met.
In addition to their creations with wool, different stones that extract from their community are exposed.
Socaire has a population of approximately 600 inhabitants, who work the agriculture of fruit trees, quinoa, and corn, as well as the extraction of some minerals.
It is the other small indigenous community that has about 700 inhabitants. Its main attraction is the Bell of San Lucas, in the central square of the community, which dates from 1950, and its door is made of cactus wood. The Bell Tower is one of the National Monuments of Chile.
Toconao means “Place of stones”. In its surroundings, there are pulperías (small grocery store), local handicrafts. There is citrus agriculture and wine is produced.
What to take to this tour?
Warm clothes and comfortable shoes. In the desert dawns very cold and from noon it warms up a lot (at least in autumn, time in which we went), that’s why it’s good that you dress with layers so you can go taking out clothes when it’s getting hot.
Blocker, hat or cap. To protect from the sun that hits hard even if it is cold.
Water and snacks. This type of tour includes a breakfast that, in our case, the guide prepared in Laguna Chaxa. But in the rest of the way there are no stops for lunch, so bringing snacks is a good idea. The tour returns to San Pedro at about 2 p.m., and there are many restaurant options for lunch.
A good camera. I insist: although the camera takes good pictures, it is never going to resemble the reality of the place, but it is an excellent memory to take home some photographs of the altiplanic landscapes.
How to get to the Altiplanic Lagoons?
We hired a tour that picked us up in San Pedro de Atacama around 5:30 a.m. We traveled 115 kilometers with stops to Laguna Chaxa and Salar de Atacama, Socaire and Toconao.
You can also rent a car (at the Airport of Calama or San Pedro) and do the tour, however, you will not have the same information on each site as if you hire a guide. Take into consideration that at the airport the rental is cheaper.
And how to get to San Pedro de Atacama?
From Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, in Santiago, capital of Chile, you must take a flight to the city of Calama, which takes just under two hours.
Once at Calama Airport, you can hire a shared minibus that will take you to San Pedro de Atacama, it takes one hour and 15 minutes.
We reserve transportation in advance, but there is no problem if you buy your ticket when leaving the terminal. There are 4 companies that offer this transport, with an overall price of 20,000 Chilean pesos ($ 30) round trip and 12,000 pesos ($ 18) one way.
In the same airport, you can rent vehicles. We recommend renting a Crossover or SUV.
Does it give altitude sickness?
We do not experience altitude sickness since the time that you stay at 4000 meters above sea level is short. In case it happens, the locals recommend drinking water, chewing gum and drinking coca tea several days in advance to prepare the body.
In any case, as some Atacameños say, sometimes altitude sickness is in the mind, so take action but see with a positive mind that nothing will happen.