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Chile, Travel

Journey to the driest place on Earth: Atacama Desert, Chile

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The surreal lunar scape and sand dunes of Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) in the Atacama desert in Northern Chile, the driest place on Earth
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The sun setting on Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile
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Graceful flamingos enjoying the algae in the Salar de Atacama at sunset against the beautiful Andes in the backgroundAndes_Reflection_Chile_Sun_Salar_de_Atacama_salt_flat_2
The beautiful Andes reflected onto the salt flat, waiting to change hues at sunset

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Atacama desert
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ɑːtəkəmə dɪˈzəːt

The most beautiful plain on Earth also happens to be the driest place in the world. Located in Northern Chile, occupying 66,000 kilometres (41,000 miles) of terrain, one can identify this desert with surreal lunar landscapes used by NASA to test Mars rovers, vast sand dunes available for sand surfing, salt flats dotted with graceful flamingoes and the colour-changing Andes in the back drop. One comes here to respect the treasured wonders of Mother Nature.

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I haven’t been to all the countries in South America, but Chile will likely remain one of my favourite countries here. The amazing landscapes across the long and narrow territories are elegant and powerful. Mother Nature at her best.

This was our first time here and we did not have nearly enough time, as per usual. So, we picked the Atacama Desert in the North and Patagonia in the South – a sample of two extremes Chile has to offer. We were blown away by both.

First, the Atacama Desert in the North.

The Atacama Desert is simply out of this world (almost literally). The lunar landscape in the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), a Nature Sanctuary, has stones and sand formations that are shaped by wind and water, looking similar to that of the moon. Many come here for sunsets where the Andes change colours but we were here to slide down the (very hot) sand dunes and carry on to the Salar de Atacama (salt flat) for some flamingo watching at sunset.

At Chile’s largest salt flat, Salar de Atacama, the clear water forms a mirror for the Andes and flamingos to display their beauty all around.

Filled with algae, the Andean flamingoes (watch for the yellow legs), the Chilean flamingoes (watch for the half black beak) and the James flamingoes (watch for the smaller body size, bright yellow / black beak and red legs – easiest to identify but fewer of them around) feed here. Interesting fact: flamingoes actually have grey fur and only turn pink from eating crustaceans containing carotenoids. Similar to why shrimp change colour when cooked, the carotenoids (blue or green initially) change into orange or pink once dissolved in fats after being digested and are deposited in the flamingo’s feathers.

The salt here is unfortunately not for human consumption because it contains high concentrates of lithium. The Salar de Atacama is actually the world’s largest and purest active source of lithium though Salar de Uyuni next door in Bolivia has a larger lithium reserve base (they don’t do as much lithium production apparently because of a lower evaporation rate).

After the fun facts and many shutters later, we watched the sunset as the Andes change hues from pinkish to purple and the full moon rose. The only unfortunate thing was the brightness of the full moon meant we couldn’t go star gazing. I guess we will just have to come back cause the astronomical set up here is meant to be one of the best.

Either way, this is the place where you can live in the moment and fully appreciate the Earth in full. We will all find our curiosity for nature again, wondering how the strange landscape formed, how the colours of the volcanic mountains change, how did the flamingoes find their home, how did the galaxy come to be, and the list goes on.

This is also the place you find some of the warmest people. On our trip, we met the most interesting Chilean family, everyone with a deep love and appreciation for the environment, adventure, knowledge, and fun. They say Chile is like the Canada of South America. As a Canadian, that makes me smile. Because Chile is beautiful and the people are amazing. But much better than Canada, they have a lot of avocados.

If you have been to Chile, share in the comments below! And if you haven’t been, go! It is absolutely an enriching country with lots to offer.

We will share our Patagonia experience soon!

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Top tip: Because of the high altitude in the Atacama Desert – ~2,400 meters (~8,000 feet) – make sure you stay for a few days to allow some time to adjust and a chance to hike one of the volcanoes around. We didn’t have altitude sickness luckily, but we were recommended against the volcanic hike because the altitude will reach ~5,600 meters (~18,000 feet) at the summit and the hike itself will require some acclimatisation. So stay for at least 3 days to get the most out of your trip.

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