Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Glimpse of Northern Chile

Atliplano. eastern Chile
Altiplano, Chile
Northern Chile can be "down" in the Atacama Desert at 7,900', or on the Altiplano, averaging 12,000' above sea level, or higher, in the surrounding mountains. This is the second part of my description of a trip to northwestern Argentina and northern Chile, begun in last week's post (link).

Chile's Route 27 crosses the Altiplano, a long strip of good highway running east-west in the middle of very dry plains and periodic salt flats.

Route 27, eastern Chile

We drove to San Pedro de Atacama, a city of almost 5,000 people and a major tourist town in the Atacama Desert. The Atacama, a high and so reasonably cool desert, is the driest desert in the world. In some places rain has never been recorded, in others 4-5 years elapse between rainfall events. But it is huge, 41,000 to 49,000 square miles, so there are also oases. San Pedro de Atacama is at one, and it is a very ancient settlement, visited by people crossing the Atacama, and a few who stayed, for at least 2,000 years.
San Pedro de Atacama
A view of San Pedro de Atacama
From San Pedro de Atacama we visited surrounding sites. I will write another day specifically about those sites and the plants. But the diversity of the area was a surprise, although it should not have been. Photos of the region often emphasize the bleakness, and it can be bleak:

Atacama Desert, Chile

Or the photos feature the shiny white salt flats

salt flats, Atacama Desert

Other places had spectacularly-colored rocks. The top of the hill is greener than it looks in the photo, but from minerals, not plants.

Atacama desert

But there were wetlands, with flamingos, geese and other water birds, and plants from algae to mosses to grasses
flamingos, Atacama Desert

or with llamas or vicuñas or guanacos. These are llamas.

llamas, Atacama Desert

And lots of diverse plant communities--note all the shades of color and texture. Those are different plants.

Atacama Desrt, Chile

And below, a funny-looking, very spiny mound cactus in the middle of the picture, probably Cumulopunita ignescens (link) and around it saltbushes (Atriplex sp.) and just outside the shade of the cactus on its lower left, a cluster of spring flowers of Cistanthe sp. (link).  Plus a half dozen plants I can't name.

plants, Atacama Desert

It was a marvelous place!

This trip taken with Mountain Sobek, led by Brian Weirum. Links: Mountain Sobek,  Brian Weirum (link). Mountain Sobek is planning this itinerary is planned again in 2018 link

Comments and corrections welcome

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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