Watch flamingos take flight over the eerie landscapes of the Atacama Desert
CHILE IS A SLENDER RIBBON of land, 2,653 miles long but only averaging 110 miles in width. Seen on a map it can appear less like a country, and more like a cross-section of climates. Its territory spans sub-polar steppe, dense rainforests, snowy mountains and hills that bask in Mediterranean temperatures. At its lower latitudes are fishing villages lashed by hail, sleet and snow. And at the top is the vast expanse of the Atacama, a place where some weather stations have never known a single drop of rain. ‘In a place like this, you must sit down and listen to the silence,’ explains park ranger Manuel Eric Silvestre Gómez, looking out over Laguna Chaxa. ‘You must contemplate the mountain range, hills and volcanoes, observe the skies and the moon. You’ll realise how small we are in this world.’ There are many forbidding deserts in the world, though the one surrounding Manuel manages to look forbidding in a great many ways. To his east, sullengrey volcanoes rise along the Bolivian border, periodically raining lava on the surrounding landscape. To his north and west are burnt-red cliffs and canyons, beyond which geysers send plumes of steam into a cloudless sky. And, here, at the centre of it all is an expanse of emptiness, a swathe of landscape where the creation gods seemed to take a break. Featureless salt flats the colour of freshly fallen snow stretch as far as the eye can see.
Featureless, that is, but for the addition of flamingos – creatures whose presence here seems strangely incongruous. A softly-spoken ranger with a mane of jet black hair, Manuel is charged with protecting the three flamingo species that inhabit the Atacama desert: birds that spend their days stalking through saline pools, gobbling tiny crustaceans. In Laguna Chaxa, the flamingos appear as bursts of pink in the midst of the whiteness. ‘Flamingos are sacred to the indigenous Andean peoples,’ Manuel says, squinting through binoculars. ‘They carry a special symbolism: their feathers are used to perform certain rituals and tributes to Pachamama, the Earth Mother. We must protect them, because they are our siblings.’
Flamingos are among the few species to have adapted to life in this desert – a habitat unique on the planet. The Atacama is part of a highland plateau, sandwiched between the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range. These two ranges act as a barrier to weather systems, helping make the Atacama the driest place on Earth outside the polar regions. It is also the highest hot desert on Earth, all the while managing to look like a place that doesn’t belong on Earth at all. It is no coincidence that Mars rovers are tested here before being blasted into outer space. Indigenous Atacameño people tell many legends explaining the formation of these landscapes: jealous kings whose rage caused volcanoes to explode, and the 40 days of torrential rain that washed away all the life in the desert (ending only when there was no rain left in the sky). And yet somehow, gazing out at the salt flats, this feels like a planet in the very first moments of creation.
Five miles west of San Pedro de Atacama is the Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon, so called because the colours and textures of the sand resemble the surface of the moon. TOP RIGHT A flamingo feeds in the waters of Laguna Chaxa