The staff at Alto Atacama provide the best service I think I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. All of them over-the-top friendly and personable. So yesterday the excursion leader convinced Ger and I to take on the full day walk hike to the Soncor & Chaxa Lagoon. An 8:30 am departure and we were off with one other, Brazilian couple with ample hiking experience (they have been to base camp at Everest). We had a 180 km drive to the trailhead (mostly pavement with maybe 30 minutes of pretty decent gravel with the occasional section washed away by the rains).
We passed the Observatorio Alma, the highest astronomic observatory of the world at 5,000 meters above sea level, an astronomical interferometer of radio telescopes. ALMA is an international partnership among Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Chile. Costing about US$1.4 billion, it is the most expensive ground-based telescope in operation. Yay Canada! In Greenall terms, they are analyzing very tiny waves of the universe, trying to study the formation of the sun and stars (in a nutshell looking for scientific proof of Big Bang Theory, Sheldon and his crew would love this shit!).
We had a brief pit stop in Tocoano (Greenall Travel Tip – never pass up the opportunity to use a clean bathroom, even if you don’t have to really go), a small village that is actually an oasis in the middle of the moonscape (the landscape here is odd beyond description).
Finally we arrived at our destination, off the beaten track (literally) the 4 of us unloaded at 4,000 m above sea hiked down to (3,800 m) the most amazing lagoon and salt flat with the snow peaked Andes in the background for a surreal hike along it’s shore. We ended with a gradual climb back up to 4,200 m. I get that 400 m doesn’t sound like much but at ~12,000 feet (Calgary is 3,400 feet for those who were wondering) it is a slow and steady walk.
The pièce de résistance was once back up at 4,200 m (~14,00 feet) we looked out over the most picturesque salt flat, a vast salt plain covering around 8,000km2 in the heart of the Atacama Desert, not only a salt plain but also a salt hot spring (more tomorrow on the geothermal activity here and sulphur (in a nutshell Chile has lots of sulphur and used to mine for it but that has ceased (considering Alberta has it stacked like hay and is free to a good home may be a reason))). Breathtaking. The pictures don’t do it justice.
We were able to see the little bit of wildlife the region has to offer including the vicuña, a lama looking animal (related to the camel) that live at high altitudes (3,200 – 4,800 m or above). Vicuñas produce small amounts of extremely fine wool, which is very expensive because the animal can only be shorn every three years, and has to be caught from the wild. They were almost extinct from the over hunting (population down to 6,000 according to Wikipedia (which is my number one source of information)) but now number 350,000. In addition to the vicuña we also had the privilege of seeing two different species of flamingos in the lagoon on the salt flat. We saw both the Chilean Flamingo (all pink) and the Andean Flamingo (has a black tail and is supposed to be one of the rarest in the world (again Wikipedia)).
We returned via the same route back to our lovely hotel, the skies have cleared a little so hopefully tonight some stars. Either way this place has already surpassed any and all of my expectations.
Stopped by the bar on our way to our room for a cold one and met our doppelganger bartender (oil & gas CEO I know in Calgary) and a steam in the spa before heading for another round at the trough (the food here has been outstanding, Betty Ford and Jenny Craig put me on your waiting list).
Until next time,
PS – the reason the post is called the Tropic of Capricorn is we crossed it both on the way to the hike and back. The Tropic of Capricorn is the circle of latitude that contains the subsolar point on the December solstice. The Tropic of Capricorn is one of the five major circles of latitude that mark maps of the Earth. As of 27 February 2017, its latitude is 23°26′13.4″ (or 23.43706°) south of the equator, but it is very gradually moving northward, currently at the rate of 0.47 arcseconds, or 15 metres, per year. The Tropic of Capricorn is so named because, when it was named about 2,000 years ago, the sun was also in the direction of the constellation Capricornus (capricorn is Latin for goat horn) at the December solstice.