A visit to the ‘Lagunas altiplanicas’ – Lagunas Chaxa, Miscanti, and Miñiques – is a tour commonly offered in San Pedro de Atacama. All three lakes are within the widely dispersed Los Flamencos National Reserve, which covers over 740 square kilometres and seven different regions of the high desert puna. ‘Altiplano’ refers to the high plain region of the Andes which stretches from Peru down through Bolivia to Chile and Argentina. Visiting Lagunas Altiplanicas is one of many day trips available from San Pedro de Atacama – others include Laguna Cejar, Ojos de Salar, and Laguna Tebinquinche, Volcan Lascar, Valle de la Luna, and a visit to the ALMA observatory.
In the pre-dawn drive from San Pedro we were gradually able to make out the surrounding volcanoes of Licancabur (which seems to be always visible from anywhere around San Pedro), Aguas Calientes, and Lascar, as the sun rose majestically behind them, bathing the salt flat in golden light.
The first stop of the tour was Laguna Chaxa in the Salar de Atacama. This salt flat extends from just south of San Pedro for virtually 100 kilometres and features several small lakes, including Laguna Cejar, Ojos de Salar, and Laguna Tebinquiche. In the winter (June and July) flamingoes migrate from other (even less hospitable) areas of the Atacama to these lakes. As we were visiting early in the morning, immediately after sunrise, we were lucky enough to view the flamingos reflected in the mirror-like surface of the lake, offering fantastic photographic opportunities. Laguna Chaxa alone was reason to make me grateful that I brought the Canon 70-300 L lens to South America.
In the lake we were able to spot three distinct species of flamingo, including the rare Andean flamingo (Phoenicopterus andinus), identifyable by its black wing tips; the Chilean flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis) with its bright red knees; and the smaller James’s flamingo or Puna flamingo (Phoenicoparrus jamesi), with its characteristic yellow beak. Our guide was extremely helpful here and provided clear descriptions of each species before we left the bus.
Other bird species we spotted in the lake included the Puna Plover (Charadrius alticola) and the Andean Avocet (Recurvirostra andina), with its curved black beak.
The next stop, after a long drive to almost 4000 metres, was Piedras Rojas (‘Red Rocks’). This is an area deep in the desert, less than 30 kilometres from the Bolivian border, where – you guessed it – the rocks are red. To be honest they are more brown than red and I am not 100% sure why this area earned the name more than any other, but they are nevertheless another example of barren but stunning natural beauty. The rocks are on the shoreline of another highly saline desert lake, overlooked by beautiful snow capped volcanoes. Despite the desert environment and the high salinity, the high altitude and the time of year meant that the water was almost frozen over when we visited, and it was possible to walk a few feet out onto the surface. Even with the harsh daylight sun the ice does not get a chance to thaw before the next freezing cold night sets in.
The final stop on the tour was the dual lakes of Miscanti and Miñiques, overlooked by their respective namesake volcanoes. The two lakes apparently used to be one until a lava flow from an eruption of the Miñiques volcano separated them. Miscanti, hearted shaped, is the bigger of the two. Both were brilliant blue in colour and we were able to spot herds of llama and vicuña on their shore lines.
Here Cosmo Andino really outdid themselves, offering us a fantastic lunch on the shore of Miñiques. The fresh avocado (or palta as it is called in Chile), fish, salad, juice, and much more was a great, filling lunch perfectly suited for a high altitude trip.
Finally, on the way back to San Pedro our bus made a quick stop at Toconao, a small colonial town typical of many out here in the Atacama. We took a brief walk around the town plaza and church (with its separate church building and tower – and oddity which seems unique to this region) before heading back to San Pedro.
The Lagunas Altiplanicas tour is offered by almost all tour operators in San Pedro de Atacama and to be honest, there is probably little to choose between them. I went with Cosmo Andino partly because of their reputation and partly because their tour also includes a visit to Piedras Rojas (at least some other tours I saw did not). Cosmo Andino also included excellent food and a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, so I would definitely recommend them. Despite involving very limited physical activity, these tours should not be underestimated as the highest lakes are at over 4100 metres altitude.