4. Ata­cama

Watch flamin­gos take flight over the eerie land­scapes of the Ata­cama Desert

Lonely Planet (UK) - - Chile -

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

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