When we first booked our Chile trip, we included a few days in San Pedro de Atacama as it was recommended as a great base from which to explore and visit a number of natural wonders. We had planned a busy itinerary over about four weeks and as this was around the middle of the trip, we had scheduled a rest day whilst in San Pedro to recharge. However, while we were still in Arica our guide, Hein, recommended that when we get there we should look to add another day tour as there was plenty to see and not that much to do in the town itself. That turned out to be excellent advice and the impromptu additional tour that we booked turned out to be an unforgettable experience.
Leaving San Pedro early in the morning on a small minibus loaded with us and a dozen or so others, we took the mountain road higher up into the Andes once again, this time taking us close to the border with Argentina. Along the way, we touched on our highest altitude of our entire Chilean trip, reaching the dizzying altitude of 4,850m, almost 16,000ft. However, the rewards for ascending to such heights are worth the oxygen starvation.
One of the great things about this trip was its sheer remoteness, far from any roads. After about an hour and a half driving along the mountain road, our driver turned off at ninety degrees at what appeared to be a random point, straight into an Andean wilderness. At this point, I realised why this is not a tour you could (or would want to) do on your own. There are simply no landmarks to navigate by. Once we left the road we drove on for over an hour with not even a dirt track for guidance. All we would see for some time was endless desert sweeping miles ahead of us in all directions.
As an aside, one of the things that has stuck in my mind from that trip was, of all things, our driver’s iPod playlist. It’s funny how the oddest sensory experiences trigger memories. We had been musically accompanied on the journey thus far by some middle-of-the-road Chilean music and talk radio playing quietly in the background. After a while of driving across the barren desert of course, the radio stations gradually crackled and faded to nothing. It was at that point the burly bearded driver plugged his iPod into the music system and subjected us to a curious and quirky blend of 70’s and 80’s love songs. Now I’m a reasonably friendly chap on the whole, but it did seem a bit of an odd choice for a bus load of tourists cooped up in close proximity to each other in the middle of nowhere. Bonding perhaps? Interestingly, after the trip when I recalled all this to my wife, she had no recollection of it. Yet to me it was the soundtrack of our movie.
Even now, when I think of that long drive across miles of flat sands with blue skies fanning out to the horizon, it immediately conjures up an unfortunate musical score of Kool and the Gang’s “Cherish” and bizarrely, Air Supply’s “Even the Nights Are Better” (you might need to Google that one) – a song that I don’t think I have heard in 25 years. Now that that particular synapse has established itself in my mind, I fear the two will remain inextricably linked forever.
Anyway, I digress. After another hour of making dust tracks, we could see what looked like some small rock formations in the desert. We stopped off to have a wander around what were, now that we were up close, very large indeed and randomly sited in the middle of nowhere. Apparently, they are formed from lava that was thrown into the air and was petrified as it hit the ground. One particularly enormous structure is known as El Indio (the Indian), a name it has clearly acquired from its shape that resembles a native Indian chief’s headdress.
More driving brought us to more rock formations locally nicknamed what roughly translates as the White Monks (I can’t remember the exact Spanish name). Again, these were enormous but much lighter in colour. They seemed out of place in the otherwise flat landscape and before we stopped to have a wander around and take some photos we heard more about how they acquired their nicknames. Apparently, the reason these rocks are referred to as Monks is down to folklore that they stand in protection of some huge rock formations that we were yet to discover. Back on the bus for another fifteen minutes, and we came to the edge of a hill where we perched overlooking a huge valley below. From this vantage point the full extent of the rocks now became clear. Off in the distance to the right, lay the Salar de Tara salt lakes shining bright blue against the desert. To the left, the grandeur of a cathedral sized rock structure pushed up from the ground, towering alongside the Salar. I say cathedral sized not only because it’s difficult to describe any other way, but also it is what it is known as locally. And so the full story is that El Indio guards the passage to the White Monks and the Monks sit in protection of the rock cathedral. Nice story! The views across the desert from here was simply incredible.
From the view point, we drove down past the cathedral, eventually ending up at Salar de Tara. The area is vast and is formed in the cauldron of a super volcano (super volcanos apparently don’t have craters) in an area called Los Flamencos National Reserve at around 4,500m.
The views and colours were as breathtaking as the altitude! As well as the deep blue sky and parched ochre sand, there is vibrant teal water, white salts, bright green algae and orange brush plants.
To top off the day, we stayed at the Salar to have a picnic lunch and a glass of decent Chilean vino tinto – my first high altitude alcohol. I’ll call it my ‘toast to nature’.
Picnic done, it was back on the bus for the long drive back to humanity with our expert driver re-tracing his journey into the wilderness. Accompanied for the first hour at least, by Air Supply (very appropriate at this altitude!), Kool & The Gang, George Michael et al.
You can see some great photos of the Monks, the rock cathedral and the Salar in he gallery. Just click here.