Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Atacama Desert

One of the places I always wanted to go.  It is considered the driest desert on earth and as a result my lips were all cracked and my hands dried up too.  It is cold at night and I really did not suffer much from heat in the daytime but sunburned. Surprisingly there is water in the Salares, small salty lakes where birdlife is abundant as well as a few species of rodents.  The terrain is varied with flat rocky areas, volcanoes and as can be expected, lots of sands and salt in the dried-up lakes.  San Pedro de Atacama, a small tourist town was the place from where I departed for the daily adventures; usually left before the sunrise and returned by sunset.  Two weeks before I arrived there was a rare rain period during which the desert was converted into a colorful flowered garden but by the time I got there, they were all gone. There are not trees unless they were planted by humans around the small villages.

Probably the bigger reason to go there is the colorful rough topography among the canyons and rock formations.  These are better photographed in the early and late afternoon. It is difficult to capture a representative set of images to characterize this desert due to the variety of formations caused by erosion throughout thousands of years.  The alluvial fans and the canyons are geological formations resulting from the action of water during eons of years?  Waters shows up as torrential rains in with an average rain fall of less than ½ inch per year and not every year.  There is a Valley of the Moon and a Valley of the Death and interestingly, there are valleys with the same names in the neighboring countries of Argentina and Bolivia. I did not bother to identify most locations where most of the landscapes were taken because the topography as in music, variations in a theme. The rock tower below is at the Salar de Tara.

 El Tatio is a geyser field not as extensive as those found in Yellowstone or Iceland but still a worthwhile visit.  In 2009 there were attempts to develop geothermal energy that failed resulting in abandoned equipment ruins the views.  The geyser field name in Quechuan means oven; several tourist tours brought breakfast to the field and their major attraction was to boil the eggs in the hot pools. It is a good strategy to get there early in the morning before the geyser field gets full of tourist ruining the landscape.  Do not expect to see frequent or very high geyser eruptions. In the road to the geyser field to there were fresh water lakes where several species of birds were nesting. The giant coot was most active making nests and a bit lazy. Below, one coot going to the nest being built by a gull; when the later was gone looking for more materials, the coot will come and steal it; that is why the gull was attacking the coot.  After delivering the stolen material to its nest, the coot exchanged places with the nesting one that in turn went to eat the grass at the bottom of the lake. The church at the closest village of Machuca dates back to 1765 has mud walls and the doors visitors allowed.

At the Laguna Chaxa national park where various species of birds where I photographed the Andean avocet and flamingos. There are also a lizards not found in other areas as well as Darwin’s leaf-eared mice. In the way back I stopped and visited the church in the village of Socaire where the door was open.

 I had never seen a vizcacha before but I was told that these were rare in the area and not easy to find.  I was lucky…saw a friendly couple that were not too active; one sat at the entrance to its cave totally ignoring me, so I got some shots. There were also rodents that lives in colonies called tuco-tucos because the calls they made.  As soon as they saw me they ran into their burrows, I sat on the ground and waited for about 15 minutes.  They came out and just ignored me while grooming and doing their tuco-tuco talk. Any fast movement or bird of prey flying overhead and they dove back into their tunnels; I had a great time with them.

I was adventuresome and flew a South African Aerotrike Delta ultralight with a wing made in Ukranie with engine from Austria. The flight was smooth overall and got the opportunity to take some aerial photography of the Valleys of the Moon and the Death.  The white color is not snow but mostly salt. The helmet was sliding behind my back all the time; I was afraid that it will be dragged by the wind into the propeller behind me. But the pilot assured me that in case of engine failure, we could safely glide and land.  I will do it again.

 It is time to move on to another adventure to the other end of the world, where there also geysers but a frozen environment; stay tuned.