Chile Update – warning, lot’s of pictures :)

Here’s what’s been happening over the past few days

Saturday March 2, 2013 – Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama

I decided it was finally time to leave Santiago. I was able to enjoy many of the city sights, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. However, it is one massive city, and I needed to escape into the wild.

So, I headed to the airport and got myself a flight north to Calama. Calama is the closest airport to San Pedro de Atacama, a desert oasis. It was a nice 2 hour flight (which saved me a 22 hour bus ride…and that’s pretty much non-stop). Upon arrival, I hopped on a shuttle and was off to San Pedro, only an hour or so away. I checked in to my hotel eagerly anticipating the next few days.

Here’s the lowdown on the Atacama Desert. It is one of the driest (if not the driest) desert in the world. It is such a stark difference from anywhere else that I have been so far in Chile. There are some areas in this desert that have never recorded rain! It is chilly at night, and scorching during the day. It is famous for all kinds of reasons, including its huge salt flats.

San Pedro de Atacama is located in the valley between the Andes mountain range to the east, and the much smaller coastal mountains to the west (the Pacific Ocean lies not too much farther west). From the town you can see the active towering volcanoes (with snow!). It’s truly stunning scenery.

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Photo: The view of the Andes from town. Yes, that is an active volcano! The other photo is of one of the irrigation canals.

Sunday March 3, 2013 – San Pedro de Atacama

Upon waking up, I visited the very informative local museum that was full of local artifacts, and got my bearings of the town. One of the great things about this place is it is for the most part all adobe-type structures. It seems very authentic, which is a nice change when you are a tourist. The place is definite crawling with tourists, and there are all kinds of tours and activities to enjoy. As a result the tours are reasonably priced, due to all of the competition. There is a lot of greenery in the town, as there are lot’s of canals that run through it for irrigation. Due to all of the greenery, there are lot’s of the common birds around town. I immediately added PACIFIC DOVE to my list. I also have a few CHIGUANCO THRUSH around my hotel, which is the only place I have seen them.

For the afternoon I booked myself a tour of a local village and the salt flats. I boarded my tour bus with a handful of other visitors (from all over the world), and we were on our way. It was great to visit truly authentic local villages to see their way of life. Very rustic.

We visited a deep canyon where there was a stream (fed by the Andes). Here we saw some old caves as well as an “orchard” where the locals still grow their own fruit. It was a nice little green haven in an otherwise stark landscape. This particular canyon also features petroglyphs, but recent earthquakes have since buried them. I could hear birds, but had a hard time seeing them. There was a new species of CINCLODES (WHITE-WINGED or BAR-WINGED) feeding along the river, but I couldn’t get close enough to confirm. I did see a close-up BLACK-HOODED SIERRA-FINCH, which was a real stunner!

From here we headed to the salt flats, which was the real reason why I was on this particular tour. Here the valley is totally flat, and you can see for miles. It’s all caked in salt that has leached up and evaporated over the years. In places where the water comes to the surface you find some sparse vegetation. The water is very high in salinity, and as a result it’s a very unique ecosystem. The water is teeming with small crustaceans, most notably little brine shrimp.


Photo: Those little brown blurs are bird food. Brine shrimp?

SO, big lakes of saline water FULL of billions of little critters…means…BIRDS! Within minutes of arriving I was staring at 2 different species of flamingo! Both CHILEAN and ANDEAN FLAMINGOS provided excellent views. There was also a small group of ANDEAN AVOCETS. The only other species were several Baird’s Sandpiper. It was nice to see some fellow Canadian’s on the tour (these birds breed in the Canadian arctic, and spend their winter in Chile)! It was spectacular to watch the sunset over the salt flats,  especially with flamingos flying on the horizon.

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Photos (top left to bottom right): Adult ANDEAN FLAMINGOS, ANDEAN AVOCETS, juvenile flamingo, saline lake on the salt flat.

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Photo: Sunset over the salt flats.

Monday March 4, 2013 – San Pedro de Atacama

Another day, another tour. This time I did the one that everyone has to do when they come to San Pedro de Atacama. The geyser tour.

The best part about this tour is the unforgiving hour you have to get up. I had to be ready for 4 am. Then it’s a 2 hour bus ride into the mountains. Once there you have a quick breakfast, in anticipation for sunrise.

The reason people flock here is to witness the geysers and fumaroles that steam and flow out of the ground in the morning (the steam dissipates later in the day after it has warmed up). It’s an eerie sight to see the steam rising in the dark, with people milling about. With mountains as the backdrop, it’s pretty awesome.

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Photos: The geysers, hotsprings, fumaroles.

After walking around, you then head to a hotspring where you can enjoy the warm water while starting at the mountains and steam around you. Such a great experience.


Photo: Best hotspring ever?

Since it is high in the mountains (about 4500 meters!) you have to take things pretty slowly. Even slowly walking tires you out pretty quickly. In the mornings it is also very chilly. Today it was a balmy -2! I thought I escaped the cold! So, it was even more enjoyable to bath in the hot water while it’s freezing around you. It is not so much fun changing clothes, that was a quick ordeal!

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Photos: High altitude altiplano. Such beautiful landscape.

The birds were sparse around the geysers, I only noted a single MOUNTAIN CARACARA, but it was a beauty. It was scavenging some dead creature. It was awesome to have a pair of VICUNA foraging in the background. These are sacred animals in the Andes, and we were fortunate to see 100+ over the course of the morning.

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Photo: I-binned VICUNA! They are extremely cute.


The drive back down through the mountains was when when the birding became awesome/frustrating. Awesome because I saw a bunch of new species, but frustrating because it was not a bird tour, and I couldn’t stop to identify all of them! There were a lot of fleeting glimpses and several lifers that “got away’!

The birds were scattered throughout, often flitting among the rocks and boulders. There was also a nice marshy area that was teeming with waterbirds and landbirds, but we only stopped for 10 minutes.


Photo: So many birds, so little time…I did add GIANT COOT here, among others.

In addition to the birds, I also saw a SOUTH AMERICAN GREY FOX, and  several VISCACHA, which are cool looking mammals that have the tail of a squirrel and the head of a rabbit. They were hopping among the rocks on a steep hillside.

Here are the other birds I saw today, in field guide order:

PUNA TINAMOU, SILVERY GREBE, Chilean Flamingo, Andean Flamingo, ANDEAN GOOSE, CRESTED DUCK, PUNA TEAL, Variable Hawk, GIANT COOT, Greater Yellowlegs, Baird’s Sandpiper, ANDEAN GULL, Pacific Dove, Eared Dove, ANDEAN NEGRITO, Chiguanco Thrush, GREENISH YELLOW-FINCH, Black-hooded Sierra-Finch, ASH-BREASTED SIERRA-FINCH, RED-BACKED SIERRA FINCH, PLUMBEOUS SIERRA-FINCH,  Rufous-collared Sparrow, House Sparrow, BLACK SISKIN.

Tomorrow I leave the desert and head to La Serena for a few days as I make my way back towards Santiago. It will be nice to be back on the Ocean!











About canadabigyear2013

I'm a lifelong birder and naturalist who is undertaking a Canada Big Year in 2013.
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2 Responses to Chile Update – warning, lot’s of pictures :)

  1. Mary says:

    MATT! Mary from GWWA crew 2009 here. So stoked for your Big Year, and it’s lovely to read your voice via blog!

    This place looks incredible– I HAVE to get there someday! Though the eastern Sierra is not quite as remote, high in elevation, or unique ecologically, your pictures recall that area with its hot springs, distant snow-capped mountains, and gorgeous desert. Once you’re back in the states and you ever need a fix that’s a little closer by, you should definitely check out Mammoth/Bishop area out here if you haven’t already 🙂 Also, Greater Sage-grouse and Willow Flycatcher… 😉

  2. Mitch Levenhagen says:

    So beautiful.

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