The Alta Puna, Altiplano, or high plateau, lies at an altitude of over 4,000 metres to the east of San Pedro de Atacama, in the remote border area between Northern Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. It is a landscape of visual feasts created by extreme conditions; of volcanoes, salt fields and shallow lakes; where high winds, low temperatures and erosion create a colourful panorama. In sub-zero temperatures the stars of the Milky Way fill the night sky, almost as if someone has painted them there. By day, temperatures rarely rise above 6°C, despite the almost constant clear, blue skies. Intrepid travellers who venture here need warm clothes, sunglasses, sun block and plenty of water. An annual rainfall of 65-70 millimetres normally occurs from December to March, but unseasonable snowfalls can block the solitary road for days, adding crisp white to the startling palette of nature’s colours.
This remote landscape was wrought in fire over 4 million years ago when a huge volcanic dome collapsed, sending 1600 cubic kilometres of volcanic debris over thousands of hectares. Dotted across the caldera floor and surrounded by rust coloured hills, the weird shapes and isolated formations called Pakana’s Sentinels rise up 6 metres or more into the sky – the solitary remains of volcanic rocks that have been densely welded together by extreme heat. Up close, their surface layers are pitted with holes caused by the constant peppering of windblown sand, until they shatter into fragments to join the accumulated debris on the ground below.
This may be a stark, even desolate landscape, but it is not empty. There are places where small, scrubby plants and mosses grow, tinting the hillsides with greens, reds and yellows.
Towards the Argentinean border, the light blue waters of the Tara lagoon are home to flamingos and vicuña. The vicuña is the smallest, most delicate of the auquenids (the same family as llamas, alpacas and guanacos) with soft fine wool, almost as thin as a thread of silk. It’s not unusual to see a small group foraging in the shallow waters, with the single male leading his harem of 4-5 females and their young. Early in the morning, you might even catch a glimpse of a grey vizcacha on the side of the road, or sitting on a rock, warming itself in the sun to bring its lowered, night-time metabolic rate back to normal.
The Alta Puna is a magnificent natural landscape, with plenty to enthral those with a passion for trekking, hiking, horseback riding, cycling or volcano climbing, as well as those who prefer to explore from the comfort of a 4×4. Use San Pedro de Atacama as your base and come lose yourself in this unforgettable wilderness.
This story was first published in ‘Viva List Latin America’ in 2007 (check out http://www.vivatravelguides.com/). ISBN: 978 0 9791264 0 0