In northern Chile, in the driest desert in the world, we sleep in a 200-year-old building where llamas were once kept. The roof is thatched and the walls are adobe and the floor is dusty. The center of San Pedro de Atacama is nearby. The plaza is sunny, and there are big trees in the courtyard and huge dogs lying in the shade. People dressed as flamingos walk around on stilts as we stand under the shade of a pepper tree.
We drive south to the high-altitude, salty lagoons: Miscanti y Miñiques. There are mountains to the east and shimmering salt flats to the west. Scrublike vegetation and yellow-green tufts of grass grow in pale and rocky soil. The road is mostly straight through the pastel desert until we climb higher in altitude; the road curves around hills and trenches as altitude sickness sets in.
We walk downhill to Laguna Miscanti on a dusty, rock-lined path. In the distance are mountains with snow on their peaks, and between us and the mountains is the salty lagoon of dark blue water. A few yards from the path are four vicuñas, not terribly shy but not very interested in coming closer. They watch us, and one lies down in the sand, yawning. Andean coots bob on the water, and three species of flamingos, tall, bend their necks to the water in search of food. An Andean gull lands beside us in the sand.
Laguna Miñiques is uphill from here. The ground becomes rockier and the tufts of grass are more numerous, and small birds chirp and flit among the rocks. The lagoon is in a depression surrounded by mountains, and the sky and water both seem bluer. There are more flamingos and coots, and a pair of Andean geese.
Valle de la Luna is closed, so we drive down a desert road and park in the sand. The sun sets over the mountains in the west while the volcano to our backs turns purple in the light. The sky darkens and the first stars appear. A pitbull from the nearby village lies down with us, on the lookout, our protector, and we relax and watch the stars—through binoculars, they are an infinite sparkly spattering. The constellations move above us. A few shooting stars pass by as the night gets colder, but the ground stays warm.
Rainbow Valley, to the north, is more mountainous, with funny poofs of cactus dotting the landscape. We turn onto a dirt road, which takes us through empty territory to Yerba Buenas, a petroglyph site dating back to 1400 BCE. We walk in the hot sun around rock formations, red against blue sky. Throughout, creatures are carved into the rocks—foxes and flamingos, llamas and cats and men. A herd of llamas passes by, shaking dust from their coats.
We drive alongside a small river up windy mountain roads to the oasis town of Rio Grande. It’s a step back in time, and donkeys bleat amidst lush green vegetation while the river gurgles by. Large cacti stand on the mountain slopes and the valleys bring more of those desert pastels to life. We watch the sunset again at Coyote Lookout, this time over rocky red valleys. The wind blows at our faces.
There are two green holes in the ground, one on either side of the road, with no life but a few bright blue dragonflies. In the distance: desert, mountains, salt flats, nothing. We continue on to a huge salt flat where some of the first life on earth was discovered, where the rocks are alive, built up by bacteria and minerals. The salt flat looks like an icy lake, covered in snow, but the heat and sunlight make the whiteness hazy. The salt crackles like the popping sounds of a frozen lake. The rocky ground around us is covered in salt, and the sun beats down. We see flamingos at the edge of the water, and I catch one flying in my binoculars, the black edges of its wings visible.
Laguna Cejar is surrounded by bunches of prairie grass, with cottony flowers and insects buzzing and a few more flamingos visible between the blue and the salt. I love the way the grass smells beneath the sunlight. We walk across the salt, beneath the sun, to another lagoon, where flamingos and plovers and other birds feed in the salty water. On the edges of Laguna Piedra, the salt is mucky. We enter the water, which is cool and deep. The sky is blue and the purple-pastel volcano is mirrored in the water. We float, looking at the mountainscape beyond us. When we dry in the sun, we try to wipe the salt from our bodies.
Northwest of town, we go to Pukará de Quitor. We pass by the ancient ruins—stone walls and building foundations—in favor of a hike to the top of the mountain. We walk gradually upward, switchbacking, as our view of the volcano gets better. We see more and more of the surrounding area—a lush riverbed, green San Pedro, the red desert leading up to the volcano, canyon-like rock formations, great sand dunes. The temperature and the lighting, an hour or so before sunset, is perfect.
Down a semi-steep driveway into the canyon, a thermal stream runs through lush grasses, forming pools in layers. A splintery boardwalk winds alongside the stream. We head to the hottest pool, steamy in the cold morning air. We swim down a narrow gully lined by grasses to the place where the hot water pounds down.
Up steep and winding roads, the canyon walls are covered with boulders and cacti. At the top of the mountain, the road levels out and we reach a lagoon speckled with at least two hundred flamingos. We sit in the sand on the side of the dusty road and watch them through binoculars as they bend their long necks and dip their pink faces to the water. A few fly, landing in the water after leaving rippled footprints on the surface.
We drive through a lush green area, where a farmer herds llamas and sheep. At another lagoon, we identify coots and ducks that swim on the algae-flecked water. There are vast, sandy hills in the distance, where vicuñas graze on sparse vegetation. The Andes rise tall to the east, changing color and shape as we view them from new angles; the clouds leave dark splotches of shadow on them.
It takes an hour and forty minutes to make it to El Tatio, the third largest geyser field in the world, since we stop so many times. It is cold at 15,000 feet, so we bundle up to walk around the geyser field. The geysers steam and spray and bubble and gurgle. They leave mineral deposits behind, puddles of earthy colors, and my feet are warm from the heat of the ground. We get into the hot murky water at the thermal pool and watch the Andes.
On our last night in San Pedro, we head east on Route 27 toward the volcano we’ve been looking at all week to watch the sunset. We listen to Fleet Foxes and drink red wine as we watch the sky change color; the sun goes down and the volcano glows and the salt flats in the distance shine like mirrors.