Flying in South America is quite affordable given that there are many small budget airlines. We found a cheap flight from Montevideo back to Santiago Chile so we could complete our Chilean itinerary, our final week, before we fly back to Mexico City.
Flying into Santiago on a clear day means great views of the beautiful snow-capped Andes and spending another night in Santiago before flying north to Antofagasta and the Atacama desert was a treat. Our hotel was in the Nunoa neighbourhood, a busy area close to City Hall and not far from a subway stop. A good location for enjoying a late supper, getting an early night and catching an eight AM flight to Antofagasta in Northern Chile.
Antofagasta Chile is a striking place with a rugged coastline. For us, with limited time, it was the gateway to the Atacama desert. After deplaning and a quick stop in a taxi to see the famous sea arch “La Portado” and the beautiful ocean and dune cliffs that drop steeply to the sea, we were on our way to the bus station to catch a bus to Calama.
We had a choice of whether to stay in the city of Calama or the town of San Pedro which was closer to the sights we wanted to see in the desert. We opted for Calama. Calama is a mining town and is located close to the biggest open pit mine in the world, Chuquicamata. The town itself is not that pretty, but we stayed in a lovely hotel with a nice little pool that was a ways out of town which for us was not a problem. In Calama we located a private tour company and made arrangements to visit the area around San Pedro, about a hour and a half from our hotel in Calama.
We opted not to stay in San Pedro, the tourist hub of the Atacama, and we were glad too have avoided what would have been a very touristy experience. Although we enjoyed our day visit there it was very crowded. It’s the kind of place that caters to adventurists who want to do high altitude climbing, sand-boarding and mountain climbing. For sight-seers like us the attraction is the volcano-lined horizons, the blue salt lakes and their resident flamingos, other birds and steaming geysers. There were far more tour companies than attractions and the town itself is a buzzing little place for artisans, chefs, travellers and hoteliers.
Our tour took us out into the desert where we were rewarded with “otherworldly” landscapes. Our first stop on our tour was the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos located in the middle of one of the largest salt flats in the world. The flamingos differ from Mexican flamingos and all three types have a black band on the bottom edge of their wings that their Mexican counterparts don’t share. The salt flats stretch on past the lagoons disappearing in the horizon with the volcanos behind. In the Reserva there are three lakes that are at more than 13000 ft above sea level.
Second stop on the tour was the Valle de la Luna. A really eerie landscape where we spent several hours climbing up and down the pathways of the salt mountains to see such sights as abandoned nitrate mines from the late 1800’s to around 1925 which made Chile the king of production of the fertilizer sodium nitrate. Similar to the production of Henequen rope in the Yucatan which died our with the invention of nylon, sodium nitrate mining came to an end with the invention of synthetic nitrates. Close to the old “mines” are the townsites where the miners lived and in some places there is still machinery rusting and disintegrating in the desert weather.
Three days to take tours to the Atacama was sufficient to get a sense of the beauty of this once-in-a-life-time destination. I haven’t been to any place quite Iike it, the driest desert in the world. A place where the landscape changes with the tilt of the sun, a kaleidoscope of shapes and colours. Deserts are funny places, at first glance they can seem dull and lifeless, but stand still long enough and you can see the tenacious life forms and the brilliant pallet of colours that accentuate the contours that make up the Atacama. In a place where change seems implausible, you can even imagine the different seasons and the beauty of the bloom that must come with the rains.
We bookended our time in the Atacama with a final night in Santiago, returning to our lovely little Hotel Nunoa in time for dinner in our favourite restaurant and we even had a full day to spend in Santiago before we caught our red-eye to Mexico City.