When we arrived at our 7900 feet altitude, acclimation was necessary and we did not start our first excursion until the following afternoon. We drove to the Valley of the Moon with our guide and were surprised to see the great red cliffs and towers with a thin white covering, looking like snowy frost, but actually called “evaporiti” as it is due to evaporation of the rain bringing with it minerals washed down from the mountains. This stark landscape included wind-carved monuments and canyons created by eons of geological change. But mankind industriously inhabited it as well as it was a major salt mining area where rocks were blasted by explosives to reveal the slabs of salt buried inside.
Before tourism, the main occupation was salt mining, needed for the refining of the copper being extracted around its neighbor Calama.
Our scheduled evening astronomical tour for our first night had been cancelled due to cloud covering and we were advised that we should go the next night as more clouds were predicted the following day. So at 11 pm we were escorted by minibus to an open space where a small observatory had been built as well as a platform with strong telescopes. The detailed astronomical explanation was interesting, what I could follow of it, but what was spectacular was just looking up at the sky. I have never seen so many stars, from horizon to horizon, and as we first stood there a very bright shooting star lit up the sky, falling in a great arc into the darkness. And of course there were different configurations in the Southern Hemisphere, with Orion standing out in a different position than that seen by the early European astronomers. The Milky Way was a bring band across the top of the sky and I could strongly sense that we were just a tiny drop within that great multitude of shining light.
The next morning some of our group left for high altitude hot springs while the others of us explored several archeological sites with our guide, visiting a plain where the foundation of ancient dwellings have been excavated out of the mud. Then a site where the indigenous people had built a fort, first used to protect against invading tribes and then later for protection against the Spanish, which battle they lost. Rocks are no defense against firearms. We walked up to the second of several panoramic viewpoints, with the fort and the small green valley below.
Our last organized tour after saying goodbye to Angela and Julie was to a startling landscape of pumice boulders strewn over a great salt flat punctuated with salt lakes. And then on those lakes were groups of magnificent flamingoes, with red crested feathers. As we stood there, a group flew over us to land and stand on their one leg as they rooted in the water for their brine shrimp meal. We were transfixed and stood there for a long time watching these tall birds, as well as plovers and sand pipers.
The village of Tocanao was on our way back and we walked to the oldest known bell tower in the Americas and a church made with cactus wood roof and doors. We walked around the green belt of fruit trees to cross the stream which is regulated to allow people to grow their own crops throughout
The high desert of Atacama in Chile has become a major tourist hub growing from a population of 1000 in the early 1990’s to a population of 10000 by about 2012, reduced by Covid to 6,000 inhabitants, mostly working in tourism. And we are so glad we had an opportunity to visit it when we did, with good weather and good friends. An amazing part of the world where flamingos and blazing stars are part of the landscape.
We leave to return to the urban world of Santiago for one more day of visits to museums, city markets and government buildings which are all wonderful but we already long again for the quiet and intense landscapes of Atacama. Another trip, another time, until then.