Its has taken some time to get around to writing about my trip to the Atacama, as the ‘Antarctica’ exhibition opened in the few days after arriving back in Melbourne, followed directly by the Epson Pano awards, sickness, preparation for the BIFB Fringe Festival and the APPAs. So, finally, here it is!
The trip began with my wife and me flying from Melbourne to Sydney to Santiago to Calama, then hiring a ute/truck (depending on where you come from) and heading finally to our base, San Pedro de Atacama. The scenery on our flights had been spectacular, with the Southern Aurora streaking across the night sky as we skirted Antarctic waters, and the Andes were of course breath-takingly spectacular as we landed among the mountains in Calama. But we were totally unprepared for the flat and barren landscape that unfolded before us as we left Calama. However, as we approached San Pedro, the ground suddenly sprang up into mountains and formations of such different shapes to anything we had seen before, wild guanacos stood by the side of the road, and salt scattered across the earth as if some recent snow-fall had just dusted the landscape.
San Pedro itself, is a strange a mix of twisting dusty roads, back packer digs and an overpopulation of stray dogs alongside numerous restaurants, tourist goods stores and luxury spa resorts. Just to the east of the town are the mountains and volcanoes that lead into Bolivia and Argentina, and to the south a great many salt flats and salt lakes. We started with a visit to Luguna Chaxa, where a population of flamingos is in permanent residence. Their gorgeous feeding shuffle and amusing honk and the surrounding scenery is a spectacle to see. However, the Andes were calling to us and so the allure was too strong and we rushed towards the top. Quickly, however, we realised why people acclimatise themselves to the height before making these trips, as we began to feel out of breath, dizzy and the headaches started. On the bright side, we used this opportunity to further explore areas which we might never have otherwise come across such as the wonderful and aptly named ‘Valle del Arcoiris’ (vally of rainbows). The rock formations are rainbow coloured, with vivid reds, browns, whites and green. As an enthusiast of all aspects of the natural world, I was also very much looking forward to seeing the wildlife of Chile – the type we just don’t see I Australia. And it didn’t take long for us to happen across llamas, guanaco and desert foxes, but the vicuña and viscacha seemed to allude us to this point. With further research and local knowledge, we learned that we needed to head up the mountains again to see the vicuna, as they prefer the higher altitude. We made the long and tricky trip to Piedras Rojas (red stones) which was beautiful (but perhaps best left for warmer months when the stones aren’t covered in snow) when the highlight of our trip occurred – we came across a large herd of vicuña, and unexpectedly, a rhea as well! The next few days were spent happily travelling through the mountains (now that we had properly acclimatised), the salt lagoons bordering Argentina, and exploring the semi-active volcanoes. But still, no viscacha, and it was nearly the end of the trip. Further inquiries with locals led us, on our last day, to heading up the mountains again to the greater altitude - this time to rocky cliffs where they are able to hide in crevices. Upon finding a suitable location to pull over, it didn’t take more than ten minutes of waiting (silently) and slowly looking around to see a greyish fluffy shape sunning itself, followed by two more. It was a great way to spend our last day, yet it was a very sad day as we prepared to leave a place that had become so special to us. The Atacama, Chile or even this small region cannot possibly be fully explored in two weeks, and thus a return visit must be made - though next time in the warmer months where we hope to see a greater number of flamingos and the landscape with less snow covering.