Trip Number: 12775A
Price: $5,645 (9-11)
$6,175 ( or fewer)
Staff: Kern Hildebrand
- Hike through stream-filled desert canyons
- Cross horizon filling salt flats beside high Andean peaks
- View vicuna, llama, alpaca, and flamingo
- All in-country transportation
- All meals, lodging, admissions, tents
- Guides/interpreters and gratuities
Photo: Kern Hildebrand
One-third of Chile is covered by the towering ranges of the Andes and the north
of the country is home of the driest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert. The
Altiplano (high tableland) that extends from southern Peru to southwest Bolivia,
comprises a series of sediment-filled intermountain basins. These regions have
huge salt flats, stunning landscapes, red, green and turquoise-watered lakes,
healthy populations of vicuna, and 40-foot tall cactus, all watched over by
very high mountains. This trip offers entrance to each of these offerings, partly
on foot and partly by 4-wheel drive vehicle.
In early spring, this desert region offers comfortable days and cold nights
assuring sun-lit vistas of grand landscapes and dazzling starlight displays.
We hike through canyon lands just north of San Pedro de Atacama, along plateau
edges looking down on small fields tended by indigenous people, and watch llamas
meandering through large meadows of bunch grasses. Flamingos will "fish"
along mineral-laden lakes with their quirky, head-upside-down swishing motion.
Small groups of vicuna will graze where we don’t see any vegetation. Warm
mineral-colored soil and rock will roll by from valley to pass to the next valley.
Day 1: Arrive Calama Airport (7,874 ft), and transfer to San
Pedro de Atacama (8,038 ft). After hotel check-in and a group orientation we
set off on an afternoon excursion to Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley, for a
walk over sand dunes and a warm sunset view. Overnight: hotel.
Photo: Kern Hildebrand
Day 2: From near the 12th-century ruin of the Fortress of
Pukara, with its pre-Inca architecture, we start our trek along San Pedro River
to the ghost town of San Bartolo (8,858 ft). After dark, gaze at the amazing
starry nights of Atacama. Overnight: camp.
Day 3: Continue trekking, now away from the river up onto
the plateau level to see giant cactus, arriving finally at Rio Grande (10,826
ft). This small village is one of the few original indigenous communities of
Atacameno people that still remain. Overnight: camp.
Day 4: Trek upward along the course of small streams that
give form to narrow and beautiful valleys inhabited by native people and their
domestic llamas. Toward the end of today’s trek we come to an area of
bofedales, high-altitude peatlands of the central Andes. Camp near Machuca village
(13,451 ft). Overnight: camp.
Day 5: After only 500 ft more elevation gain we begin our
descent over plateaus and across a narrow verdant canyon that slices the terrain.
Our trek ends at Puritama hot springs (11,482 ft) with a soothing soak, followed
by a vehicle transfer back to San Pedro de Atacama (back at 8,038 ft). Overnight:
Day 6: Traveling by van, we start today by visiting the amazing
Salar de Atacama, home of astonishing birds like the Chilean Pink Flamingo.
These flats present salt crusts generated by accumulation of crystals produced
by the evaporation of underground saline waters. Then we continue driving, at
one point as high as 14,271 ft, toward the marvelous Miscanti and Miñiques
Lagoons (13,799 ft). Surrounded by high volcanic Andean peaks, the turquoise
waters of the lakes contrast beautifully with the yellows of the surrounding
Altiplanic lands. Over dinner, back in San Pedro de Atacama, we say farewell
to our Chilean guide staff. Overnight: hotel.
Photo: Kern Hildebrand
Day 7: We drive from San Pedro de Atacama to the Bolivian
border, Hito Cajones (14,435 ft). Once we cross the line we transfer to 4x4
vehicles for our journey through the rare scenery offered by this part of Bolivia.
In an area dominated by the Licancabur Volcano (17,717 ft) today includes one
of the jewels of the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve, the Green Lagoon, followed
by the Sol de Mañana Geysers. From there we are off to the Red Lagoon,
an important home for different species of flamingos. Active algae produce the
red color of the lagoon. The pink color of the feet and feathers of the flamingos
is also produced by the same algae. These fabulous deserts own a great variety
of colors, including red, orange, ochre, brass, browns, and beige. In the midst
of this landscape we stop for the day at an isolated, and comfortable, desert
hotel (14,839 ft). Along the way we will have driven to our highest point in
Bolivia at approximately 15,420 ft. Overnight: hotel.
Day 8: Today we visit various lagoons, many with large numbers
of Andean, James. and Chilean flamingoes, who share the volcanoes and their
eternal snow and green sides with other species of birds, like Andean Seagulls
and Wild Ducks. Other colors emerge from impressive formations of sand and rock,
shaped by the winds and deposits of borax and sulfur minerals. In the afternoon,
after arriving at the village of San Pedro de Quemez (12,139 ft), we can optionally
explore the area by foot. In this area we see ancient stonewalls protecting
quinoa fields tended by local villagers. Overnight: hotel
Day 9: The day’s first stop is the Galaxy Cave, a cactus
sanctuary. The cave has a very strange geological sub-aquatic structure from
the time of the Michín and Tauca lakes, dating from approx. 35,000 years
ago. We continue our exploration going to the Isla Pescado, which is located
at the center of the Uyuni Salt Flat, the world’s largest at over 4,600
square miles. At the top of the island we find an extraordinary 360-degree salt
flat view, almost horizon to horizon. During the afternoon we continue toward
Tahua to spend the night at a unique hotel constructed from blocks of salt (11,811
ft). Overnight: hotel.
Day 10: After our last passage across a Bolivian salt flat
and a stop to visit a salt production enterprise, we cross back into Chile.
By van we work our way through beautiful valleys guarded by more Andean peaks,
travelling northward and roughly paralleling the Bolivian boarder. Our destination
is a national park refugio at Salar de Surire, a facility often used by park
staff and academics who study the geology, geography, and natural history of
this region. The refugio has several small bedrooms equipped with beds or bunks,
a cozy sit-down dining area, and bathrooms. Here we once again need our sleeping
bags -- most of us will spread them on the bunks inside the refugio, and perhaps
a few of us will camp outside. Overnight: refugio/camp.
Photo: Kern Hildebrand
Day 11: Looking up at peaks over 20,000 ft., we continue northward.
We top a pass at 15,748 ft, our highest point for our whole two-country journey.
We pass small villages, interesting vegetation, more lakes, and vicuna. After
a visit to Parinacota village and its 17th-century church we drive down to Putre
(11,482 ft), a town of approximately 2,000 people. Before the last night of
the trip we have our group farewell dinner. Overnight: hotel.
Day 12: Our last drive is down, down, down, all the way to
the ocean at Arica, a ride taking us into an even dryer region (if that is possible),
where rainfall is very rarely measurable. Stops include the small village of
Socoroma and its Andean/colonial architecture and its pre-Hispanic farm terraces,
the Cardones Canyon with its large oddly shaped cacti and Poconchile village.
We will have views of large geoglyphs and stop for a final lunch, of local empanadas,
before the trip’s end at the Arica airport in time for the departing afternoon
The city of Calama, at the beginning of the trip, and Arica, at the end, can
both be easily reached by regularly scheduled jet flights from Santiago, Chile.
You will be met at the Calama airport upon your arrival and delivered to the
Arica airport at trip’s end. United States citizens entering both Chile
and Bolivia must have a valid passport and visa. The current entry fee for Chile
is $140, and for Bolivia is $135. The trip starts with dinner and lodging on
September 10 and ends with lunch on September 21.
Accommodations and Food
Photo: Kern Hildebrand
All meals are provided -- the first is dinner on September 10, and the last
is lunch on September 21. Vegetarians can be accommodated, though you may find
that your choices at some restaurants during the trip are somewhat limited.
Hotel accommodation, in twin-shared rooms, is provided on September 10, 14-18,
and 20. The nights of September 11-13 are spent camping in shared two-person
tents, which are provided. September 19 will be in sleeping bags on bunks or
possibly camping outside in tents. Limited single supplement accommodations
may be available for all but the refugio stay.
All but the last few hours of this trip is at high elevation, from approximately
8,000 to 15,000 feet. Our hiking is over rugged, rocky, and sometimes slippery
terrain for each of our four days of hiking. Though our gear will be transported
for us this high altitude trek should not be underestimated. You will need to
carry your own day pack (not a full backpack), with a minimum of two liters
of water each day. Even though, with time, all participants can expect to acclimatize
to the altitude, all trip participants must come already experienced at high
elevation, be in good health and excellent physical condition, and be prepared
to hike up to 10 miles each day over rough terrain. One day has a hiking elevation
gain of just over 2,600 feet and another has descent of approximately 2,500
feet. Pre-trip physical preparation is very important for your enjoyment of
the trip and for your personal safety, as well as for the safety of the group.
For those who are well prepared, this will be a journey during which you will
have the time and energy to drink in all of your spectacular natural surroundings
and be enriched by your experience. Talk with the leader if you have any questions
about your abilities.
We anticipate warm days of 50-75 degrees while hiking, and nighttime temperatures
may go down to as low as 20 degrees. This time of year, the early Austral Spring,
has been chosen to maximize our long-distance mountain views. The nights are
clear, with spectacular stellar views, and cold. There is no chance of precipitation.
No rain gear is needed. The air throughout this trip is very dry.
Equipment and Clothing
Photo: Kern Hildebrand
In addition to normal camp clothing, including layers for warmth and wind
protection, you will need your own warm sleeping bag, pad, and well-broken-in-hiking
boots. The leader will provide a detailed packing list.
An Internet search produces many titles covering topics for Chile and Bolivia
ranging from natural history and sociology to politics, and much more. Examples
- Foote, Elly and Nathan, Hidalgo: The Desert Diaries, 100 Days Across
the Atacama, 2004.
- Lait, Julie J., Deserts and Desert Environments, 2008. Desert geomorphology
for the seriously interested.
Maps covering the route of the trip are available in Chile.
Despite Chile’s outstanding and internationally recognized environmental
and cultural values, the country faces a number of threats from trans-national
companies intending to implement huge industrial projects: large-scale salmon
farming, mega-hydroelectric facilities, mining, plantations, and others. Not
far from the areas we will visit, Bolivia is preparing to develop the extraction,
processing and export of lithium, a key demand of the world’s increasing
appetite for batteries. In Chile and Bolivia, we will see large-scale mining
projects and witness a small town threatened by take over by mining-related
business at the expense of other sectors of the economy. Many of the mining
products are exported to the United States.
Photo: Kern Hildebrand
In one of the small Bolivian villages where we stay there is a mobile metal
recycling operation. Close by the volume of discarded plastic bags that blow
in the wind and then get caught on small shrubs (not an uncommon sight in this
country) have earned the nickname label of "Bolivian wildflowers."
Chile and Bolivia are no different from other countries, including the United
States. Population and short-term economic concerns often come ahead of environmental
protection. We will talk among ourselves and with our local guides to help understand
local environmental perspectives. Contrasts and similarities to our environmental
issues and concerns at home will be on display.
This trip requires a $200 per-person deposit. An additional payment of $300 per person is due six months prior to trip departure. International trip prices are subject to change and are based on double-occupancy or group accommodations as described above. Single rooms may not be available or may cost more than the listed price. If you have any questions regarding double occupancy, please contact the trip leader.
See the How to Apply for an Outing
section for more details on registering for this trip and details
about our Reservation and Cancellation
The payment of a deposit does not confirm you as a member on the
trip. Participants must be approved by the trip leader. After signing
up for this trip, you will be sent a confirmation packet containing
approval materials (Participant Approval Questionnaire, Medical
Form, Liability Release Form). Each applicant (including those on
the waitlist) must fill out these forms and promptly mail them to
the trip leader. The leader will review the approval materials and
notify you of your acceptance in a timely manner.
The Sierra Club accurately and fairly budgets and prices our trips. However, unforeseen costs such as devaluation of the dollar compared to other currencies and fuel surcharges assessed by our international providers may necessitate adjustment in trip price. We will make every effort to mitigate and absorb these fees. If a price increase is necessary, however, you will have 14 days after announcement to cancel without penalty.
Kern Hildebrand has led international trips on every continent, including travel four times previously in Chile and once in Bolivia. According to Kern, "I especially look forward to introducing Sierra Club travelers to these vast, stark and beautiful regions of Chile and Bolivia. The landscapes will be big and spectacular!" His conditioning for the trail includes lots of hiking, gym workouts, and tending his five-acre California foothills woodland.
General Notes About Sierra Club Trips