The landscape of Los Flamencos National Reserve , just outside of San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile, is one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the opportunity to explore. With its high altitude desserts, the many salt flats and smoking volcanoes, this place is out of this world. The area has little vegetation and vast open expanses. I never knew how beautiful a seemingly empty place could be!
Another feature that surprised me was the colors. The area is filled with vibrant green and yellow grasses, multi-shaded reds, yellows and blues of the volcanic rock, and the pink flamingos doing their one legged balancing act against the back drop of deformed salt flats. And then there’s the Valley of the Moon that makes you think you some how ended up on another planet entirely. This reserve has everything and here some of the highlights to check out during your visit.
Valley de la Luna (The Valley of the Moon)
An absolutely incredible landscape that made will make you feel like you’ve landed on the moon! I can see why they used this area to test out the Mars rover.
Located just a few kilometers outside of San Pedro de Atacama, the topography here is very unique and foreign. With giant sand dunes, dried out lake beds creating salt formations and interesting caverns carved out of the rock and salt by extinct water ways, this is definitely a place of exploration. This area is considered to be one of the driest places in the world as certain regions have not received any rainfall in centuries.
Salar de Atacama (Atacama Salt Flats)
The Salar de Atacama salt flats are the largest in Chile, covering approximately 3000 square kms and are the third largest in the world. Located just outside San Pedro, they are a very rough looking salt flat with jagged mounds of salt mixed with dirt rising up off the ground.
Laguna Chaxa is a large salt water laguna located within the salt flat. The laguna is occupied by hundreds of pink flamingo’s as the water is filled with krill and little shrimp that are a staple in their diet.
These breathtaking, high altitude lakes can be found at an elevation of just over 4100 meters. The lakes are surrounded by snow capped volcano’s and yellow/green grasses that wild Guanaco (local deer-like animal) like to munch on.
The most stunning feature of these two lakes are their magnificent colors. Miscanti, the larger of the two, is a deep blue color. Miniques on the other hand, tends to be more green in color. I absolutely loved this place for the wild and isolated feeling. There is no sign of human life or settlements, save for the lonely set of outhouses for the tourists to use.
El Tatio Geysers
Located at a staggering 4300 m above sea level, El Tatio is not only one of the highest geyser fields in the world, but is also the third largest in the world boasting over 80 active sites.
Most tours here pick you up in the early hours of the morning so you are right in the geyser field when the sun rises. You can walk right up to most geysers and watch as they erupt or vent steam from all the geothermal activity located just beneath the surface. There is a public hot pool fed my natural hot springs right on the edge of the geyser field as well. Given the cold early morning temps, soaking in a natural hot spring is a welcome activity!
Laguna Cejar is a natural sink hole lake filled with salt water and is part of the Salar de Atacama. This natural phenomenon is located just a short drive outside San Pedro de Atacama. The salinity in this small body of water is so high that you don’t actually have to know how to swim to go in it!
The salt concentration is similar to that of the Dead Sea so you can float around without worrying about staying afloat, which makes for a nice relaxing experience. When you get out though, you turn completely white from all the salt!
Within the small lakes there are deep swimming holes lined by shallow underwater sandbars. This makes exploring the Laguna a combination of swimming and walking.
Salar de Tara
This was hands down my favorite place in Northern Chile. Situated by the boarders of Argentina and Bolivia, it was the last tour I did in the area and I almost didn’t go. It wasn’t one of the more popular tours (full day, higher cost) but I was thoroughly enjoying my time outdoors, exploring the strange new landscape and wanted to see more. So I signed up at the last minute for this tour and ended up in a jeep with 2 guides and only 4 other tourists. That was it!
During our whole day out exploring this beautiful place we only saw one other jeep. I loved this tour for the remoteness, lack of crowds and the incredible, breathtaking scenery. There was something special about this high altitude, barren landscape. It felt like we were the first people to stumble upon this lost world of flamingo filled laguna’s, strange towering rock formations, and grassy plains complete with wild, wandering lama’s.
I should also mention that there were no roads to direct us where to go once we left the highway. We had to depend on the instincts and navigation skills of our guides to get us in and back out again.
How To Explore This Reserve
The small desert town of San Pedro de Atacama is the best place to begin. Use it as your home base and sign up for day trips to these incredible places. San Pedro is filled with tour agencies, many doing the same day trips almost every day of the week. Shop around first and get some price quotes. Ask fellow travelers which agency they recommend. I spent a few hours checking out a various tour operators until I found the one that suited me best.
Ready To Go?
If you ever have the chance, I highly recommend heading to San Pedro de Atacama and spending a week in this incredible region. Overall I spent about a week and half exploring this wonderful reserve which allowed me to pick and choose my day trips and also have a bit of time off in between. Northern Chile is one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the opportunity to visit and I will definitely be heading back there some day.