The first day to get out and about around San Pedro is upon us and we’re a little bit excited to say the least. We’re up at 7am for the bus to take us up to 4500m and the Altiplano lakes a little over 100km south-east of San Pedro. The anticipation is heavy in the air, this is one of the things we’ve been looking forward to for a long time and now the day is upon us, we’re like kids before Christmas only a bit more tired. There’s always a bit of trepidation in looking forward to something on a holiday, it so often fails to live up to expectations while spontaneous events so often stand out as favoured memories when the plane touches down at home. Thankfully we don’t really know a lot about what we’re doing today apart from going to see some nice lakes, open eyes means little expectations so an adventure is what we have.
Surprise number one, we are stopping by some salt flats which wasn’t in the brochure. It’s something I’ve never seen before so lets tick that box shall we. As we pull up the first thing that strikes us is the harshness of this place; the sun punishes everything not in shade which is everything and all about a scarred plain of crusty salted scree stretches as far as the eye can see. And it does stretch as far as the eye can see, the north-south dimension of the Salar de Atacama (salt plains) is more than 300km and apparently the curvature of the earth can be seen in the geological lines marking the mountains all around. The plain we are standing on was once under water of course and excepting small undulations the salty deposits are a perfect level surface, a horizon seems a little hard to get your eye on. It seems like the nearest humanity is further away than we could walk creating a sense of isolation that is unavoidable.
A short walk from the entry point we see some shallow water struggling to maintain enough body to call itself a lake. I guess this is all vast bodies of water could hope to be in a place like this, in relative terms it’s an ocean. Highlighting this rare space is a neat trim all around the waters edge of blazing white crust as the rich salt freshly dried punctuating the winding shoreline. The scene here is a complexly interwoven mesh of beauty and oppressiveness with both contrasting elements coexisting in an easy manner that belies their division. The plains here can just as easily kill you as enthral you, conflicting characteristics that are nothing dull or meek, everything here is at full volume.
Just when the balance between fright and wonder seems poised you can throw in flamingos, a perfect animal to convey grace, beauty and elegance. Does it really belong here? It seems it does, flamingos dine on the brine shrimp here along with the rich minerals and algae in the water giving these otherwise white birds their familiar pinkish red tone. And the Chilean flamingo seems to be the one that lends flamenco dancing its name, we see just one elegantly bouncing its pencil thin legs to stir the lake bottom to feed. The imagination doesn’t need to go far as the elegant bird shimmies and shakes its way around in a tight circle, it really is more dancing than feeding. With only 1000 Chilean flamingos in the plains this sight is a bit of a treat, the Andean flamingo is the far more common sighting around here.
And we’re off to the altiplano lakes, the diversion of the salt lakes is a wonder on its own but it seems the day is not done. Passing through a small town we begin to climb through the ever changing landscape, a surprise around every corner. We’d heard that when Hollywood wants to shoot a scene set on Mars they do it here and on the incline to the lakes we pass one of these regions. Burnt dusty red earth devoid of anything but dirt and liberally strewn rocks, rolls and steeples in aggressive formations. Just a few kilometres away the Atacama reveals a completely different flavour of harshness, salt plains or lunar-scape, seems like a game of choose how you want to die.
And the ever present companion here is the sun still beating down, a victorious boxer that will never tire raining down punishment on we the beaten.
Cresting a small hill we’re thankful for the respite of the bus, the metaphorical bell between rounds. And there are the lakes in all their glory. It seems a little too impossible to be true, on the plains the barest puddle clings to survival yet 2000m higher there’s large lakes of glorious blue; is the world upside down here? And they’re beautiful, the genuine vision of an oasis. The surrounding mountains are bereft of trees, only some have a neat consistent mat of hardy grass tufts painting entire slopes in a golden tone, art in bold shapes. The simplicity and smoothness of the mountain shapes combined with the magnitude gives every vista a feeling of minimalist art and architecture, grand abstract shapes with no clutter to mar the grander message.
With two similar lakes beside one another we take a walk around and in between uncertain if we should look at the golden hills, the dark volcanic shapes or the glowing blue lakes, all at once seems to be just too much. The beating sun can just do its worst, there’s no way we’re taking this in from a bus. And to throw in a bit of a bonus there’s a few Vicuńas for good measure, the wild smaller versions of the domesticated Llamas. They wander the white shore of the lake with not a care in the world for our ogling presence; like the flamingos they’re an added touch to an already unreal scene. We could stay here for a lot longer but the bus is going and the boxer is winning, we must farewell and go back to San Pedro.
It’s barely 4pm and our day is already done, we’ve boxed one too many rounds and we didn’t fare as well as the promotional signs had suggested, we’re spent. But we’d do it all again. Visiting the Atacama is a date with death, it’s all around and it stares you in the face challenging you to be the life within it returning the gaze. But great rewards await those who do indeed stare and challenge the desert right back; the Atacama offers scenes of death but all our eyes can see is wonder. Out here there is no victory for us so we relish the bell, another round of staring back at all that is delivered.