First Tour: Salar de Atacama

Trip Start Jan 08, 2014
1
9
18
Trip End Jan 25, 2014


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Where I stayed
EcoExplor Hostal
What I did
Salar de Atacama Antofagasta
Read my review - 5/5 stars
Laguna Chaxa
Salar de Talar
Lagunas Micantiy y Miniques
Toconao
Socaire

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Today we took our first tour here - to Salar de Atacama - generally speaking - but we visited 3 specific places and then 2 villages on the way back to San Pedro: Salar de Chaxa,  lagunas Micantiy y Miniques, Salar de Talar, Toconao, and Socaire.

I don't remember sleeping much at all, but Astrid described a lot of noise in the middle of the night that I am not sure I heard so I probably did sleep, but not nearly enough for my 6:10 alarm for our 7 am pickup.  It is really nice to get a pick-up.  We expected it between 7 and 7:20 but we waited for awhile after 7 AND we were the first to be picked up.  It was a full tour of 18 people of many different nationalities including over half from South America I think.  English was the first language and Spanish the second so that was good in that I could understand what our guide Daniel was saying and I could also ask questions.

Our first stop was Salar de Chaxa - it has its own National Park entrance fee paid to the indigenous people - or maybe just local people.  Astrid was quite excited to be able to get as close to the Andean Flamingos as we were able to get as they waded in the salt lake pools.  They were the only ones of the three types of flamingos to be here:  the others were the Chilean and the more rare James.  (I seem to have some photos of the Chilean as well that I placed here but maybe I mixed them up from somewhere else...or misidentified them.)  The Andes flamingos have black tails.  They were doing a little dance shuffling their legs in the water - presumably to gather either the algae or the very small shrimp that Daniel said they eat here.  There was a tank in the education center that had some of the shrimp.  Astrid overheard a woman saying that the shrimp were hermaphroditic and would change from male to female if more females were needed.  We also saw some cute little brown birds with yellow underneath and what Astrid identified as Andean avocets - black and white duck-like water birds.

I forgot to mention that we had several sightings of vicuna along the road.  Some were definitely spotted before the salar but some may have been after.  At the first vicuna stop, a whole bunch of vehicles were stopped and there was a fox on one side of the road and several vicuna on the other.  There may also have been vicuna on the fox's side - I don't remember.  Later Daniel showed us a diagram with the various South American camelids.  He said they originated in the North America and then later appeared in Africa as camels....something like that.  First there were vicuna - the smallest of all - and guanacos.  The vicuna are wild now and always have been but somehow the people managed to mix the breeds and come up with llamas maybe and then they mixed some more and got the fourth kind - I know what they are but have forgotten what they are called.  Ah, alpacas - I can't remember which came first but they are different sizes and shapes.  Two have been domesticated and the other two are still wild.

I think we had our breakfast here - we had instant coffee and some guacamole or cheese or other stuff with bread.  It was quite welcome by this time - I think it may have been after 9 am.
Our next stop was two lagunas, salt lakes: Lagunas Micantiy y Miniques.  There was a herd of vicuna walking around the edge of the first lake.  Or was it the second lake.  In any case, they were quite far away and walking along the edge of the lake.  I think it was the second lake.  The first we walked around a small viewing area and that was kind of it but the second we could walk down to a hut and watch from there - still far away but the vicuna are probably happier that way.  I was noticing several types of plants.  I asked Daniel and he told me the grassy tufts were called paja brava; the mossy tuft that the vicunas eat because it holds a lot of water is called llareta.  I also asked about the little plants with yellow dandelion-like flowers but he didn't know and said he would research it.  It was a tough walk back up the hill for me - I was really feeling winded.  All the scenery here has been absolutely stunning!  I love it!

There was about an hour's drive in between the places but it was an hour and a half until our last stop - the Salar de Talar.  I will have to get the map of San Pedro that Astrid has.  So we got to this stop and the lake, or salt flat, was a broad panorama.  We stopped first to get our panorama shots and then drove down closer so we could actually walk to the water's edge.  We only had 30 minutes to explore before lunch so Daniel cautioned us to use our judgment on how far we walked and that we should not walk too close to the water because it is very muddy.  So I did manage to get fairly near the water and then headed back.  The landscapes were really striking with the reflections, the volcano rising above the flats, and the clouds.  Daniel said that all these volcanoes are extinct.  The biggest one is 6k meters.  Then we had lunch which was really quite nice - my favorites were the pickles, olives and especially the palm hearts.  Sometime around now, I started getting a headache.

On the way back we stopped at 2 villages - Toconao with its church and plaza and gift shops and a smaller one farther out - Socaire.  This one I especially liked because it had a cute little church that had cactus eaves and Daniel pointed out the terraces with corn, broad beans and quinoa.  This was the first time I had seen quinoa growing and it looks a lot like a weed back home but the leaves are bigger.  Daniel said that the terraces were at least 500 years old and that people had been planting in that fashion for at least that long.  He did also say that in 20 years the place will probably be abandoned as people move away and stop farming.  This is an ongoing trend here - just as I had heard it was happening in China when I was on the tour with Marie some years ago.

Once we returned to San Pedro after 6 pm, we got dropped off at our hostel.  I took some aspirins for my headache and lay down.  I couldn't sleep so I tried to pack and then got up, had a snack of leftover food, paid Victor and calculated the exchange rate and now am finishing this blog - because I really had a hard time on the internet.  all for now.


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