Today was always going to be a general tourist day, rather than a plant-hunt day. By reaching Hotel El Mirador in Calama the previous evening, we had made up lost time. By leaving Calama soon after breakfast, we approached San Pedro de Atacama in good time and around 10 a.m. found ourselves driving through the Valle de la Luna – the Valley of the Moon (S249). These days, the proper tourist way to see this salt lake is by organised night time coach trip from San Pedro, to watch the impressive southern hemisphere sky at night, without clouds or light pollution, until the laser light show highlights the salt pillars that rise like statues out of the landscape. We were happy to use our imagination and later, were woken up by the other tourists’ 4:00 a.m. departure to this (nightly) event, or did they go to the other San Pedro classic – sun rise and break fast at the geysers of El Tatio?
We had succeeded in leaving the damp grey weather behind us and had to watch out for sunburn as we enjoyed hot spring weather at 2,500 – 3,800 meter (7,500 – 12,000 ft) altitude at approximately 22 degrees south of the equator.
We visited the remains of the Aldea de Tulor (S250), a small settlement based in the oasis-like locations that was populated between 800 BC and 500 AD. Next, we visited the small village of Tocomao (S251) – less commercial than San Pedro de Atacama – where I was able to get most of my souvenirs at less cost than in San Pedro. In one shop, where I bought Angie a scarf made of Alpaca wool, the owner was proud to take me to the small yard behind the shop, where kept the sheep and the small llama (alpaca) that provided the wool for her art work.
We tried to find a flamingo or two in some of the numerous areas shown on the map as belonging to the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos in and around the huge area of Salar de Atacama – the Atacama Salt Lake. We found neither water nor flamingos. Next time we’ll do some research in advance as I presume their presence is seasonal and we were there at the wrong time. Talking to other tourists later who had taken guided tours to the lagoons, we learned that the coach took them to one lake with some 8 birds in total – hardly the thousands of birds that pictures lead one to believe.
So, a day without cacti! Well not really, many of the restaurants, shops and churches have bits made out of cactus wood – Echinopsis (Trichocereus) atacamensis and we did see a couple of miserable looking specimens in the plaza at Tocomao and a slightly healthier one in a private garden, as we left the village.
We’d make up for it tomorrow.