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April 18, 2009

San Pedro de Atacama

Filed under: Chile 2009, Travel — anotherheader @ 10:20 pm

Salar de Atacama

Salar de Atacama

It is hard to characterize Tierra Atacama.  You could call it a spa hotel, which it is, but that would not be entirely correct.  Like Las Torres, much of the appeal of a visit is the excursions led by the hotel’s staff.  But still, it’s a hard place to leave in the morning, as it has a beautiful, peaceful ambience.  And the food is good, too.  Why would you want to leave?  Nevertheless, after some real coffee and breakfast, we headed out for a morning excursion.

Candelaria cacti

Candelaria cacti

Tierra Atacama calls our morning excursion “Guatin and the Inca Highway”.  By van, we transferred to the start of the hike.  Our route paralleled the cliff edge of the cactus dotted Guatin Valley and then dropped to the cool, flowing water and lush pampas grass along the arroyo.  The cacti were worthy of note.  Looking like a cross between the Saguaro and the Barrel cacti of the Sonoran desert of Southern Arizona, the Candelaria cacti stand isolated on the rocky banks of the gorge.  Our route up the canyon scrambled back and forth across the wet rocks and water of the clear stream and followed a migration and trading route used by the ancient peoples.  Eventually the gorge opened up with a view of the symmetrical cones of the Andean volcanoes that dominant the horizon in this area of Chile.  With a short walk across a wash, we were at the waiting van that had moved up to the top of the trail to meet us

Back at the hotel, after a light lunch and a short siesta, we reloaded the van and headed out for the afternoon’s excursion.  This time there were two vans heading out from the hotel’s compound as we were joined by a large group of French travel agents who were along surveying Tierra Atacama for their future clients.  Checking out Tierra Atacama, where do I sign up for that job?

Scenes from the small village of Toconao

Scenes from the small village of Toconao

The van passed through the rustic adobe buildings of San Pedro de Atacama as we headed out on the incongruously smooth dirt roads.  Under the smoking caldera of Lascar, the most active volcano in the northern Chilean Andes, we drove past the entrance to the ALMA radio observatory construction site, stopped at the small village of Toconao, and then headed across the salt flat of Salar de Atacama to a collection of small salt lakes.

This shade of blue is the most common color for doors in the Atacama

This shade of blue is the most common color for doors in the Atacama

Salar de Atacama contains 27% of the world’s lithium reserves.  These reserves are proving to be of substantial economic importance in the era the lithium battery.  Starting at the San Pedro end of the salt lake and passing by our location at the Flamingo Reserve, the water percolates across the lake naturally concentrating the lithium salts.  Perhaps, I thought, the lithium salts nebulizing into the air would calm Becky’s mood swings.  At least I could dream.

It was approaching sunset when we neared the lakes in the Flamingo Reserve.  Occupying low points on the salt flats, the small brine pools were feed by underground springs.  The otherworldly colors of the salt lake and the twisted convoluted, and crusty forms of the rough surface of the salt deposits were accentuated by the low angle of the sunlight.  Wading with backwards-jointed knees, the brightly colored flamingos filter fed on brine shrimp by dipping their specialized bills into the water.  We were told that in different seasons, migrations would bring in much larger numbers and a greater variety species of the flamingos to the Atacama.  They always seem to say that sort of thing, but I suspect it was true in this case.  Large flocks of flamingos must be something to see.

Flamingos in flight

Flamingos in flight

In the twilight, we headed back on the fast dirt roads to Tierra Atacama.  With the parched dry weather and application of a special surface treatment, the dirt roads in this region have a smooth and durable surface.  Rhythmic washboard bumps or “Costillas de vaca” (“cow’s rib”) as the Chileans call them, do not seem to develop on the roads here.

It was dark when we returned to the hotel.  As we left the van, our German guide assured us that he could identify the Southern Cross.  He never actually showed it to us in the sky, so we would have to take his word on this.

The snow is lower on the south side of the volcanoes in the southern hemisphere

The snow is lower on the south side of the volcanoes in the southern hemisphere

Tierra Atacama is elegant at night and Becky was glad that she brought all of her shoes with her.  And who was I to disagree?  Dinner at the hotel was light, fresh, and excellent.  It was one of the best meals we had had so far on our trip.  Becky was no longer distressed about being in the desert though I began to suspect that the lithium in the air at the lake might have calmed her swings.  Sleep came with some challenge for me this night as calculations for how much lithium salts to add to the vaporizer at home to achieve this effect kept circulating through my head.

Pictures:

http://picasaweb.google.com/AnotherHeader/SanPedroDeAtacamaDay1#

Andean volcanoes viewed from Salar de Atacama

Andean volcanoes viewed from Salar de Atacama

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