Typical, isn’t it? You wait 2 and a half weeks for a llama, then a whole bunch comes at once. I was on my first all day excursion out of San Pedro de Atacama. It was still early and the sun had only just come up as we skirted the base of Volcan Licancabur. A group of llamas were grazing by the road with the volcano behind them, almost as if they knew they looked more photogenic with a good backdrop.
I was in a group with six others, all Chilean, to visit the Salar de Tara. A Salar is the Spanish for salt lake or salt flat and there are many to be found in this area. They are formed as water runs off the Andes carrying with it minerals. It is then trapped on the altiplano with nowhere to go and so it evaporates in the blistering sun leaving behind salt.
Renan, our guide with a good and apparently filthy sense of humour, tested my Spanish to the full as he embarked on lengthy stories which were full of double-entendres. We drove up to the Salar past astonishing rock formations to an altitude of almost 4900m. Vicuñas ran skittishly as we approached, but there was little other sign of life. We were on the borders with Bolivia and Argentina, surrounded by volcanoes. It felt like a set for a science-fiction movie, remote, forbidding but exhilarating.
The following day I was booked on another tour, this time to see the Tatio geysers. The unfortunate thing is they are only active around dawn, so this meant getting up at 3.45am! They also stand over 4000m above sea level and at that time of the morning, it’s perishingly cold. As you are are herded around in a tour bus with countless other shivering, bleary-eyed tourists, you start to wonder if it was all worthwhile. However, the sight of these gushing geysers spouting as the sun rose was quite breathtaking.
The last day was spent on another excursion which took in the Piedras Rojas, the lagoons of Miscanti and Miniques and the stunning Chaxa lagoon in the Salar de Atacama where you can see flamingoes feeding.
I stayed in the small town of San Pedro de Atacama, or rather on the edge of it with great views of Volcan Licancabur. The quaint centre of town was for me a little too touristy, a victim of its own success. You know the kind of place – every building is a tour agency, restaurant or hostel. Luckily, the surrounding area is what you really come for, but pretty much all of the attractions are too far afield to explore on your own, so you have no choice but to take expensive and over-priced tours. I like to be able to get out and visit places on my own steam, but this wasn’t an option here.
San Pedro is Northern Chile’s top attraction and justly so, but you have to come prepared for what that entails, ie. crowds and higher prices. I’m just glad I was here before the high season starts. If you’re coming from Bolivia, as many people do, you might find it an anticlimax, but as my first taste of the High Andes on this trip, I was not disappointed.