Today was my last scheduled tour, this time to Salar de Tara (Tara Salt-flat). It had also been my first choice when I was picking which tours I wanted to do, and even so, it exceeded my expectations manyfold.
The tour met me at the front door of my hostel. I seem to be methodically downsizing my tour vehicles: from Tatio Geysers’ giant bus, to Laguna Cejar’s large van, and now, a four-wheel drive, with room only for myself, the guide, and a group of three Chileans. (Following this pattern, if I had done another tour, it doubtless would have been on the back of a motorbike.) The guide asked me if I spoke Spanish, or if I’d like him to repeat his explanations in English; I told him that Spanish would be fine (and it largely was!).
After a brief stop for chewy fruit caramels, we were on our way. I started chatting with the other people on my tour, who were immensely friendly and pleasant. Our first stop was somewhere along the Jama Pass, a mountain pass between Chile and Argentina. The air was bitingly cold, which was compensated for by the sheer beauty of the place: a shallow lagoon, shaped like the continents and oceans of a miniature earth, all bloomed over with ice.
Those who know me may also know that I abound with gloves. I usually have one pair stowed in every jacket, as well as several in every bag I own. Despite this, I was thwarted in my attempts to dress warmly enough, once again — for I had been so cold at the Tatio Geysers that I had put on all the pairs of gloves I had had with me, and then, upon my return, I had stowed them somewhere sensible. Thus, on our first stop, I discovered that I had cleaned myself out of gloves. Darn. But my legs and arms and other elements were sufficiently warm, so it was a noble attempt.
Soon after, we drove off the paved road and out into the sandy gravel landscape of the Andes. This is where the real adventuresome portion of our day began. In the flats, the ground seemed like a giant Japanese rock garden, with altiplanic gravel for sand and looping tire tracks as Zen rake-marks. When we reached the edges of the Zen garden, we bumped up and down hills and around rocks and ditches. Occasionally, we would hit a patch of sand so soft that we would get stuck, at which point the guide would roll back a few feet, and systematically alternate braking and accelerating until we were past the rough spot. At times, we would reach the top of a hill and find the way down to be especially steep. I would think, “We can’t possibly drive down that. It’s far too steep… oh, but we are. Whooo-eee!” — leaning back in my seat as our vehicle’s nose wove its way down the Andean curves.
Our second stop was at the Pakana Monks: giant obelisks made of volcanic rock, spiking up in clusters from the vast Pujsa Salt Flat. We were consistently above 4,300m (14,100ft) in altitude, so we had to be cautious about running around too quickly. Of course, we galloped a little nonetheless. The Monks were incredible: towering, and traced with volcanic-ash lacework.
This stop would set the pattern for the rest of the trip: our wonderful guide dropped us at the first Monk, and told us to explore and then to meet him a short walk away. We were able to hike around at our own pace, before catching up with him again. My tourmates and I sported about, taking posed pictures with the obelisks and asking about each other’s lives.
We caught up with our guide, and drove a few kilometers further. Midway through this leg, we spotted vicuñas out the window, off in the distance. Our guide stopped the car and let us take pictures, as long as we stayed on the opposite side of the car from the animals. Chilean guides are (rightfully) very protective of their wildlife, and aim to minimize the disturbance the tours create in the animals’ lives.
Further on, we paused at a rocky hilltop, which offered a grand vista of the surrounding areas. The rocks of this hillside were of such shape, material, and arrangement that as you walked across them, they clunked against one another with harmonious chimes.
One of my favorite pursuits throughout the day was flower-hunting. The ground was so flat and bare that one might not think there were any living plants, but if you looked very carefully, there were quite a few (one of the things I love about the desert). They were mostly miniscule, wedged in beside rocks or anchored with tough little basal rosettes. I regretted not having a macro lens to work with, but managed a few fair pictures even with my little point-and-shoot camera.
We drove down the edge of the vista hill, and then our guide dropped us on a path that adjoined a wall of upright, jagged rock formations. Here, we had a few hours to explore and walk; we would meet him down near the salt-flat for lunch. We walked at an easy pace, laughing and taking endless photographs of our surroundings. Eventually, we all started getting hungry, but since our hunger levels were well-matched with one another’s, we still felt quite merry.
The Tara Salt-flat finally came into view, surrounded by mauve mountains and shrub-spotted flatlands. We also passed the Cathedral of Tara, a large pale rock formation whose shape is indeed vaguely reminiscent of a cathedral (or perhaps a termite mound, or a tiara, or something).
On the salt-flat lake, there were flamingos! They were just hangin’ out in the water, doing the waterbird equivalent of “grazing.” There were also a variety of small songbirds flitting back and forth amongst the yellow-flowered shrubs that grew all over the area.
We saw our loyal vehicle next to a little stone shelter in the distance, and hungrily hastened our pace. When we reached the shelter, the guide (thankfully) had a huge lunch all ready for us: roast chicken, pasta salad, fresh bread, sliced avocados, tomatoes, peach juice, cookies… oh my. We ate until we felt revived, and then, upon the guide’s advice that there were chinchillas in the nearby rocks, we set off to explore a little more.
Chinchillas, you guys, chinchillas! Technically, they are called viscachas (genus Lagidium), but they are in the Chinchillidae family, and the guide’s Spanish for them was chinchilla. They look like a cross between a domestic chinchilla and a rabbit: mid-length elongated ears and longish fluffy tails. As I approached the rocks, I immediately noticed one sunning itself atop a pile of rocks. As I continued looking, I kept seeing more and more; they blended in very well. When they noticed my approach, they would occasionally turn and scamper further away, with their long plume tails bouncing behind them.
Once I had marveled sufficiently at the chinchillas/viscachas, I climbed up to the top of a large rock, along with one of my tourmates. We sat and relaxed, with a light breeze and yet another stunning vista (stunning vistas coming out our ears!). Perfect peace.
Eventually, our guide motioned to us that it was time to move on. Well-fed and tranquil, we piled back into the vehicle and drove a roundabout route back towards the paved road. At one point, we attempted to drive up a sandy hill, but this one finally defeated our poor 4WD. After revving futilely against the sand for a few minutes, our guide rolled us back down the hill and took an alternate route. We made one final stop once we reached the paved road, at a mostly-dry salt lagoon.
After the few hours’ drive back to San Pedro, I exchanged contact information with my tourmates (now friends), and we parted ways. This was my favorite tour by far, in every respect: the adventure, the company, the scenery, and the independence.