Important note about my frequent travel: these are my experiences and observations I share eagerly and enthusiastically. I receive no compensation in cash/kind/discounts, etc. of any kind from any business/locations I’ve visited. None of the businesses paid for my travel expenses or offered any free services.
We woke up very late because we had spent all night star gazing with Alain. From everything I’d read, it takes a few days to completely acclimatize to high altitude. On our second day in San Pedro de Atacama (SPdA) I woke up with a mild headache. Drinking plenty of water helps with altitude sickness so that’s what I did. As we were getting ready, we lost power and internet at San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations (SPACE) lodge. The view from SPACE was so beautiful that I didn’t care. I just sat on the porch, enjoyed the view, and drank almost a gallon of water. It was so quiet. There was no sounds, no wind, no noise of any kind. I’ve never experienced this level of peacefulness anywhere else.
Since I still had a mild headache, we decided to go on easily accessible locations that didn’t involve a strenuous hike. We first drove to a place called Valle de Jere (aka Quebrada de Jere) in a small town called Toconao. Its about 40 km from SPACE. All the buildings in the town are made from volcanic stones. The town center is beautiful. The drive is very easy and mostly on Ruta 23.
There were clean bathrooms at the entrance of Valle de Jere. Because of altitude sickness, I’d been drinking so much water that I was looking for a bathroom every 3 minutes. I was also constantly eating the coca candy. Entry fee was only 1,500 CLP (about $2.25 USD). There was a small room with information about the valley, geology, local flora and fauna, petroglyphs, and how ancient people lived. All the information was in Spanish so we didn’t spend too much time there.
We parked our car in one of the lots and walked around. It’s a beautiful valley with an oasis at the bottom. Toconao river runs through at the bottom of the valley and everything around the river is green. Walk a few feet up the valley and it’s the desert. It’s brown with no vegetation. The difference is stark.
It’s a unique blend of green Oasis and dessert. There are a few short and easy trails and we did most of them. Lickanantay people used the stones (see picture below) to observe the stars and to grind grains and medicine. They used the astronomical information for agriculture and to develop a community. The 360 degree view is just unbelievable, surrounded by desert, snow covered mountains, and a small little oasis.
Another short hike takes you to a replica of the home of the Lickanantay community. The square or circular home is made from stone, mud, vegetable fibers, parts of cactus, and llama leather. The home can be surprisingly strong. Also, if you have a nice camera, be careful in the desert. Sand can get in the lens and make it unusable.
We continued walking down the valley and noticed two small caves next to each other. They were used as food storage or to shelter the animals, I think. There wasn’t too much information about the use of these caves.
We kept waking down the valley towards the river. The landscape suddenly changes after a short walk. There’s an oasis with green trees and a river. There was a short walk with shade and it felt cooler. The change is so sudden. The water was so clear and not deep. We could have walked across but we weren’t sure if that’s allowed.
By this point both of us were getting tired and needed a break. There are some picnic tables in the shade not far from the river. We had a snack and drank water to stay hydrated. I tried to “fix” my camera lens after it got sand in it but unfortunately I could hear the sand as the focus changed. After a short break, we wanted to see the petroglyphs.
The petroglyphs at Valle de Jere are centuries old, from Inca civilization, but again, there was very little information available. There are a total of about 5-6 hikes and we did all but one. They are all very short but make sure to wear comfortable shoes and take lots of water and snacks. There is no food or water available here.
On our walk back to the car there was a short incline, maybe 100 feet or less, and we had to take a break twice because we were out of breath. A 9 hour long hike in the snow was not a problem but we struggled going up a small hill at almost 8,000 feet elevation. Altitude can really affect lung capacity and it’s a little scary. At least my headache was almost gone by this point. After about an hour at Valle de Jere, we drove to Laguna Chaxa which was another half an hour drive away.
Last 10 km were on gravel road but easily manageable with a 2 wheel drive. We didn’t drive very fast on the gravel road but it never felt like we needed a 4 wheel drive. The entry fee to Laguna Chaxa was 2,500 Chilean Pesos (just under $4 USD) per person and for some reason, they asked for our passport numbers. It’s part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve created in 1990 to protect high-Andean biological diversity. There is a small room with information about the three different kinds of flamingos and other wildlife found in the region. The information was in both Spanish and English.
We walked along the path created toward the salt flat and the first thing we noticed the path was covered in a few inch thick layer of salt. We could see salt everywhere on the ground. Add to it huge snow capped mountains in the background and bright blue sky. The landscape was stunning. We were amazed at the contrast and the scenery that surrounded us. As if that wasn’t enough, we saw a small lagoon with dozens of Chilean and Andean flamingos in the distance. The reflection we saw of the mountains, clouds, and flamingos was just incredible. It’s something I expect out of a fairy tale.
Chile has the most seismic and volcanic activity in the world. There are over 150 active volcanoes are in this region, about 10% of the world’s total. The great “Lascar” active volcanic complex is almost 6,000 meters (~19,700 feet) high has had about 30 eruptions in the last 30 years making it the most active volcano in northern Chile. Many times you can see sulfur dioxide gases being emitted. Last big eruption was in 1993.
Flamingos are the oldest birds still in existence. They eat small crustaceans, mollusks, insects and microalgea found in salt lagoons. They can only open their upper jaw about half a centimeter making it difficult for them to eat. I guess that’s why they are always eating. Their preferred choice of food is brine shrimp which is less than 1 centimeter long. Beta Carotene in brine shrimp is what gives flamingos their characteristic pink color. We spent a good 5-10 minutes trying to spot even 1 brine shrimp in the water but couldn’t. They do have a tank full of them near the bathrooms.
Flamingos form monogamous, long-lasting couples. Females lay one egg each year and incubation period is about a month. Both males and females share the work of incubation and chick raising responsibilities. The chicks learn to fly 4 months after birth and their feathers start to turn pink at about 6 months of age. Once we started to look around more carefully, we also saw a few other birds and lots of lizards.
The trail can be done easily in about 45 minutes but we ended up staying for a few hours. It was just so beautiful we couldn’t leave. This would be a perfect place to watch sunset but we had a 20 inch Dobsonian telescope waiting for us at SPACE. We had rented it all night and wanted to make use of it as much as possible. The temperature in daytime was perfect. It wasn’t cold and it wasn’t hot but as soon as the sun goes down, the temperature drops drastically. It gets VERY COLD. We spent the rest of the night looking through a telescope and me wishing I had taken my foot warmers.