Day five in Chile
31.10.2016 - 31.10.2016
Lagoons of the Atacama
Salar de Atacama
The Salar de Atacama lies at an altitude of 2,305 metres above sea level. It is the largest salt flat in Chile and the third largest in the world – roughly 100 km long by 80 km wide, and covering an area of 3,000 square kilometres which is 1,200 square miles. The only way to properly appreciate its vastness would be to fly over it, but a visit at ground level offers a spectacular sight of the varied colours of this unworldly landscape.
There are various places where you can visit the salt flats. We went to the area around the Laguna Chaxa (see next tip) which is one of the most scenic and photogenic areas, but consequently of course one of the most visited – coming earlier in the day is recommended both to avoid the crowds and also for the best light for photography. My photos here were taken around 10.00 AM. There is a small stone shelter near the parking lot, with toilets if needed, a terrace overlooking the view and information boards. From here an interpretation trail (about 400 metres long) leads out across the salt flats towards the lagoon, with more information boards at key viewpoints.
The salt flats lie in a depression surrounded by mountains, many of which are volcanoes, including Quimal, Licancábur and Láscar (the most active). These form a colourful backdrop to the contorted crystalline formations. It was while we were here that Daniel told us a local legend about the volcanoes that I repeat below. Within the depression are some even deeper parts, where water collects (surprisingly in this driest of deserts) and forms saline lagoons such as Chaxa where these photos were taken.
Before you visit the Atacama you will no doubt read or be told that it is the driest non-polar desert in the world, with no significant rainfall for 400 years. It is surprising then to arrive at the Laguna Chaxa and see so much water! Heavily salinated, and shallow, the lagoon (and others like it in the Salar de Atacama) is fed by the snow run-off from the surrounding Andes Mountains, which absorbs the natural salts of the land and then evaporates in the hot dry desert sun leaving the salt crust and crystalline formations that surround it.
Chaxa is a breeding site for the flamingos that give the reserve its name, the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos, as well as for many other water birds. They are drawn here by the many microscopic organisms such as algae and invertebrates which thrive in this brackish environment and provide food for the birds. It is somewhat bizarre to see so much wildlife in such a barren landscape as well as to see water in the desert! The shallowness and stillness of the water also makes for perfect reflections and I took more photos in the space of the 30 minutes or so we spent here than in the same time frame anywhere else in Chile!
There are several places in the Atacama Desert where you can see flamingos, and the numbers can vary, but for us it was the Laguna Chaxa that provided the greatest concentration and the best photo opportunities. When we first arrived at the lagoon I started to take a few photos of the birds I could see in the distance, with my zoom lens set to its highest magnification, but I quickly learned that this wasn’t needed, as from several points along the trail we could get close enough to get nicely detailed and composed shots with only a medium zoom setting – and even with a standard lens I think you would be pleased with the shots you get here. I even managed to get several shots of the birds in flight.
There are three types of flamingo that breed here: the Andean, the Chilean and the James flamingo. The ones in my photos are I think all Andean which have this distinctive yellow and black bill – the Chilean (which we were to see later in our trip in the Torres del Paine NP) look similar but have an all black bill, while the James share the multi-coloured bill of the Andean but have less black plumage. The Andean flamingo, which stands about 102-110 centimetres, is also the only one in the species to have yellow legs (the others have pink or greyish ones) and feet (the others all have pink). Yes, the right-hand bird in the left-hand photo below does appear to have black feet, but if you look closely you will see that this is sediment from the floor of the lagoon, rich in the algae that the flamingos come here to feed on. But it does look a bit as if he is wearing wellington boots to wade in!
You may not think of a desert as a natural place to go bird-watching, but there are plenty to be seen here. The sediment-rich lagoons of the Atacama attract more than just flamingos, and at the Laguna Chaxa we also saw a Puna Plover (on the left below), Andean Avocets, a Baird’s Sandpiper (on the right) and a few others that Daniel couldn’t identify and which were too far away for me to photograph. Obviously the flamingos were the main attraction but I enjoyed seeing and photographing the others too.
The legend of the volcanoes
Chile lies on the Pacific Ring of Fire and because of its long thin shape, with the Andes running the length of the country, has more volcanoes than any country in the world apart from Indonesia – 2,000 in total, although the majority are dormant or extinct. About 500 volcanoes are considered potentially active, 36 are currently active and 44 have erupted at least once in the last 2,000 years and are therefore rated as dormant. The Atacama is home to several of these volcanoes, including Tatio, Licancábur, Juriques, Láscar, Puntas Negras, Quimal, Miniques, Sairecabur, Putana. The ancient cultures of the desert, both Inca and Atacameño, naturally revered the volcanoes and other high peaks of the Andes, and many legends grew up around them, of which the most often told is the one Daniel told us by the Laguna Chaxa:
“Licancábur was a prince, nearby Juriques his faithful companion, Quimal a princess and Láscar her father. Licancábur and Quimal fell in love, and so the prince sought her hand in marriage, But then Juriques also fell for Quimal and tried to seduce her away from his prince. She wavered between her two suitors and called off the marriage to Licancábur. Furious, her father Láscar erupted and in his rage blew off the top of Juriques and banished Quimal to the far side of the Salar de Atacama. Too late, Quimal realised that she had loved Licancábur all along. She begged her father’s forgiveness but in vain – the punishment stood and Quimal remains isolated from her prince by the expanse of the salt flats. At sunrise on a certain day each year however, Licancábur’s shadow stretches out across the desert to touch Quimal.”
This story is told by many, but there appears to be some confusion though as regards the date on which this happens however. Daniel told us 29th June (St Peter's day, hence San Pedro, in the shadow of Licancábur, being so named) while Paula the next day said 21st December, and Wikipedia says some time in April.
Despite those anomalies, looking at the volcanoes it is easy to see how the legend arose. Láscar is the most active in the region, Juriques has a distinctive flat top which contrasts with the perfect cone of neighbouring Licancábur, and the latter has a small lake in its crater said to be formed by the tears shed at the loss of his love.
Miñiques and Miscanti
From the Laguna Chaxa we drove further, to reach a pair of very different lagoons, Laguna Miñiques and neighbouring Laguna Miscanti. The road to the lagoons is stunning – a long steady climb (they lie between 4,100 and 4,350 metres above sea level) through an ever-changing and beautifully coloured landscape. Tufts of yellow grasses dominate the lower slopes and blue-grey mountains streaked with snow loom above these. We were blessed too with deep blue skies to provide the perfect backdrop to this amazing scenery.
The road to Miñiques and Miscanti
Be aware that because you are so high up, you could feel the effects of the altitude – headaches, nausea and dizziness. We were lucky and had no problems (I have been affected in the past), apart from a little natural shortness of breath. One thing we did notice though was how much colder it was here than at the Salar de Atacama where we had been earlier in the morning – those 2,000 extra metres really make a difference! I was very glad of the windproof jacket I had brought along.
These lagoons were once one lake, formed by ice melting from the Andes, but were separated by lava flowing from Miñiques volcano. Miñiques is the more southerly and smaller of the two. Its deep blue waters lie in a hollow surrounded by mountains, several of them volcanic, including Puntas Negras which dominates the landscape beyond the lake. The best views are to be had from a mirador just a short walk from the parking area. From here we got some great photos of the landscape and also saw several vicuñas at the water’s edge.
From Laguna Miñiques you can walk or make the short drive to another parking lot by Laguna Miscanti, from where a path leads down to the water’s edge. It is larger than its neighbour but its waters are of a similar deep blue shade and look stunning against the backdrop of mountains which include Miñiques volcano and Cerro Miscanti. Although it isn’t obvious from beside the lake, aerial views show that it is roughly heart-shaped, with the point towards Laguna Miscanti. As with the latter, the views here are stunningly beautiful, with rich colours in all directions – deep blue lake, tufts of bright yellow scattered across the land, looming slate-grey mountains streaked with white, and more deep blue in the sky above. I am used to enjoying deserts for their vast and mesmerizing monotony, but this was an altogether different sight, and an absolutely amazing one.
Because of the much higher altitude here, we saw some different birds from those at the salt flats, including Andean or Slate-coloured Coots, who make their nests on towers of stone and vegetation which they build in the lagoons. We also saw a Grey Gull (still with the black head of its winter plumage), and several Greater Yellow Finches.
We saw a number of vicuñas in this area, grazing on the bright yellow tufts of festuca, a species of grass that grows on the higher slopes of the Andes and is their favourite food here in the Atacama. We were to see more, and closer, the next day on our return from the El Tatio geysers, at a similar height above sea level. These higher level brackish lagoons suit them well as they also like to lick rocks and stones with a high salt content and to drink salt water. But you don’t see them in the lower parts, such as around the Salar de Atacama, as they live only at altitudes of 3,200 to 4,800 metres above sea level.
Vicuñas are camelids, related to the llama, alpaca and guanaco. Like the latter, they are wild animals, whereas the llama and alpaca are
domesticated. They live mainly in the central Andes and in Chile that means they are found only in the north of the country (we were to see guanaco in the south later in our trip). They are quite shy – I needed a zoom to get these photos and, as you can see, I was stretching the capabilities of the lens a bit too much and the quality suffered.
Vicuña wool is exceptionally soft, and therefore much prized, so in some parts of South America (e.g. Peru) the wild animals are caught annually and shorn, but I don’t believe that happens so much (if at all) in Chile – however there have I believe been some attempts to farm them here. In 1974 the vicuña was considered to be at risk of becoming extinct, with only about 6,000 of them left. Thanks to conservation efforts however, their numbers have increased since then, to about 350,000 across South America as a whole, and it is no longer thought to be threatened although laws are still needed to deter poaching for the wool.
We had one other exciting wildlife sighting near here. On the road up to Lagunas Miñiques and Miscanti Daniel’s sharp eyes spotted this fox. There are two species of fox that live in this region, the Gray or Patagonian and the Culpeo or Andean, and I believe this is one of the latter – the larger of the two by far (95 to 132 centimetres in length as opposed to 65 to 110). Neither are considered true foxes but are from the family known as Lycalopex, the South American “false” foxes. The foxes mostly live off small animals (rodents and reptiles) and birds, but sometimes eat carrion or resort to plants if needed. We were lucky to see this one and to have it pose so nicely, if briefly, for our cameras.
After our morning at the lagoons it was time to head off for lunch in nearby Socaire, but I will save that for my next entry …