Day 10 — Welcome to Laguna de Chaxa (Chaxa Lake) and the National Reserve of Flamingoes that is about an hour from St. Pedro, Chile from where we’re staying at the lovely 32-room Tierra Atacama (www.tierraatacama.com). General Manager Chris Purcell says the two year old hotel is designed to be modern, hip—a bit retro and eco friendly incorporating local traditions (note the woven blankets on the couches and animal hide throws on the benches) there are orchards and vegetable gardens with everything from grapes, apples, apricots, almonds, fava beans, melons zucchini and more, which later will be served to the guests.
On our way to Chaxa Lake and the salt flats, we stop at the tiny village of Toconao (800 people), a dusty place with dirt roads that truly is an oasis in the desert where the water coming down from the Andes nurtures every variety of fruit we see apricot trees and figs, grapes and pears, plums and oranges…. The first inhabitants lived here as far back as 1100 BC and today the villagers also practice traditional ways—we see two elderly women scrubbing clothes in the outdoor stream. They pride themselves on their tiny fruits that are grown only with local water spilling down from the Andes to this oasis—no pesticides or fertilizers. The entire town is built of volcanic stone and the Bell Tower was built in 1750 of stone and mud in the town square. Tonight, little boys are playing soccer in front of the famous tower; We stop in one local shop where we see the family’s llamas decorated with green, yellow and red ribbons. That is a tradition here, our guide explains, typically done in the summer months and a way to differentiate the healthy llamas from those with injuries and to count them.
“I don’t think Atacama has hit the U.S. market yet,” Chris Purcell suggests, adding that the hotel caters to families and will entertain the kids if they are too young for some of the more strenuous excursions. Indeed, at our late—and delicious dinner (king crab salad followed by filet with mushroom risotto) there are several families with kids laughing and joking. We’d seen them earlier in the expansive hot tub in the spa too. I hope I have time to try it.
Meanwhile, we’re at Atacama Salt Lake, about 40 miles from San Pedro. It is huge — 3200 sq km and other worldly — you think it should be water but it is just rock and salt as far as you can see. The last time there was a lake here was 10,000 years ago, our affable German guide Hilko Meime tells us. There is some water where we see the amazing flamingoes. Three of the world’s six species summer here, our guide tells us, and we see the Andean, Chilean and James flamingoes — differentiated by the color of their legs and wings.
They eat shrimp from the salty water which is responsible for their salty color. They are so fun to watch as we walk around a path where we see the salt crusts—caused by the accumulation of crystals produced by underground water evaporation. Isn’t nature great! We look up at the ring of mountains and can even see steam coming from one of the volcanoes. Chile has 150 active volcanoes—10 per cent of those in the world and 250 hot springs. One of them is next on our agenda.