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.
This was our last full day in San Pedro de Atacama (SPdA) and our last full day of vacation. We wanted to do something fun but relaxing at the same time. We didn’t want to go on any strenuous hike or do anything too tiring. We decided to go on a drive, stopping wherever we felt like along the way. We also wanted to stay on paved roads only. Driving on unpaved, dirt road is doable with a 2 wheel car but it’s always easier to drive on paved roads. We decided to take a picnic lunch with us so we got bread to make sandwiches.
The best bread we’ve had in Chile was for breakfast during the El Tatio Geyser tour. Franchuieria bakery near the town square sells freshly baked bread. We picked up a loaf and some veggies before we started our drive. I wanted to go to the Flamingo Reserve but we couldn’t find the entrance online so we just drove on Ruta 27 hoping to see signs of Flamingo Reserve entrance. Even if we didn’t see a sign, Atacama desert is gorgeous so the drive would still be beautiful.
The first stop we made was around kilometer 30 on Ruta 27 across from Mount Licancabur. This impressive looking, active volcanic mountain is seen from just about everywhere in SPdA. There was a pull off on the side of the road so we took a leisurely break. There were lots of llamas and vicunas grazing. The entire time we were there, we didn’t see a cloud in the sky. The moon was low in the sky, we were at high altitude and the air is so dry that the moon looked HUGE.
I just couldn’t get enough of the llamas and vicunas at the stop. Vicuna wool was very precious to the Inca and only royalty were allowed to have it. It is very expensive because the wool can only be cut off every 3 years. For some reason I always thought vicunas and guanaco were similar to deer but I learned that they are in camel family. After a while, we continued our drive but within a few minutes the landscape changed and we stopped again at kilometer 33. More pictures of Vicunas.
Within a few kilometers we saw a mountain in the distance that looked like rainbow mountain in Peru. Vicunas and llamas in a field of cacti in the foreground and a few colorful mountains in the the distance. We pulled over again and were amazed to see the change in scenery so quickly. There was a small pull off point so we took advantage. After another short break we continued on. Soon after, we saw a family of Vicunas crossing the road. It’s a good thing I wasn’t driving very fast.
Next, we stopped on the side of the road at kilometer 65. This wasn’t an actual pull off. We just put the hazards signal on and got out of the car. Again, in a few minutes the landscape changed again. This was the constant theme presented by Route 27. The drive is uphill so as we gained elevation, we saw snow on the side of the road. Not a lot, but patches of snow was starting to be visible. The mountains were red and brown in color, snow on the ground and bright blue sky. The view was breath taking.
We were starting to get a little hungry so when we saw a big pull off point at kilometer 75, we made it our picnic lunch spot. Snow was increasing and I noticed my breathing was getting heavier even though I was just standing. We didn’t go on a walk or a hike but my breathing got heavier. The drive was all uphill but not too steep. The moon also looked so much closer. I’ve never seen the moon look so close and big! I could tell we were definitely higher than 14,000 feet. I didn’t feel out of breath just standing around at El Tatio Geysers.
Once we started looking more carefully, we noticed a Vicuna. Soon, we spotted about a dozen or so more in the vicinity. They were very well camouflaged. I only noticed one after staring for a few seconds. A male Vicuna lives with about a dozen females and their young. It’s also the reason why if you see one, there are a few more near by. Since they have to drink water every day, they are usually seen near a water source.
After lunch, we continued to drive uphill on route 27. Around kilometer 80 we saw a small stream with another family of Vicunas. There was no pull off point and the landscape was similar so we continued driving. Around kilometer 83 was a frozen oasis that looked like something out of a novel. I wanted to pull over but there was no safe place to do it so we kept driving.
We saw a big pull out/parking lot at kilometer 99 so we pulled in. Again, the landscape was completely different. This parking lot over looks two lakes that look light blue with a monolith in the front and red mountains behind the lakes. It didn’t look like any vegetation was growing on top of the mountains. The parking lot is the start of the Salar de Tara hike. The views all along Route 27 were absolutely amazing.
We drove a little further and saw a car closer to the lake. There was a small sign for Salar Aquas Calientes and we noticed a dirt path on the left that lead to the car so we drove there, parked and got out. We walked towards the lake but altitude sickness slowed me down a lot. This was the only part of the drive that wasn’t paved but it was totally worth it.
Once we got down to Salar Aguas Calientes, we saw lots of Vicunas grazing, flamingos in the water, yellow-red-orange Mount Aguas Calientes, and a blue lake. Mixture of salt and snow surrounded by desert shrubs looked amazing. We felt like we were on another planet. SPdA has very unique landscape and geological formations. We walked around for a few minutes and we noticed there was something else in the distance that looked black but shined in the sunlight. We walked towards it but realized it’s too far.
We got back in our car and drove further down until we came closer to it and what we saw made our jaws drop. It was a lake that looked black. Completely BLACK! The minerals and deposits gave the lake its distinctive color. It was aptly called Laguna Negra. And it was right next to a lake that looked blue. We were at almost 16,000 feet elevation and there are two lakes right next to each other. One blue and one black. I couldn’t believe it. Nature is unbelievable.
After a longish break, we continued our drive. Our next and last stop before we turned around was at kilometer 130, Mirador Salar de Loyoques. On maps.me it was listed as Laguna Quisquiro. There is a big paring lot over looking a salt flat. We were about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from Argentina border. We considered going to Argentina to see Laguna Verde but decided against it. We didn’t have our passports on us. It was very nice but nothing could beat Laguna Aguas Calientes and Negra.
It was very windy at Mirador Salar de Loyoques so we didn’t stop there for too long. On our way back we stopped again at Lagunas Aquas Calientes and Negra one last time. How often does one get a chance to see two such beautiful and distinct lakes right next to each other. The drive back was faster because we didn’t make too many stops.
We watched our last sunset in Atacama Desert. I’m surprised this drive isn’t advertised at all. It’s definitely one of the best tourist attraction in the region. We visited during the end of winter so we expected snow or road closures but the roads are very well maintained. There was no snow on the roads and the drive was one of the most memorable. We came across maybe a few dozen cars and trucks all together. This was the perfect end to a 3 week long vacation. If you visit San Pedro de Atacama, this drive is a must!