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The Altiplano, or high plateau, lies at an altitude of over 4,000 meters(13,000 feet) to the east of San Pedro de Atacama, in the remote border region shared by Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. It is a stark landscape of visual feasts created by extreme conditions; of volcanoes, salt flats and shallow lakes; where high winds, low temperatures and erosion create a colorful panorama. The nights are crisp and clear: the Milky Way stretches across the black sky and millions of stars gaze down upon weary but content hikers.

By day, temperatures rarely rise above 6° C, despite the almost constant clear, blue skies. Intrepid travelers who venture here need warm clothes, sunglasses, sunblock and plenty of water. The area has an annual rainfall of only 65 to 70 millimeters (2.5 inches). December to March is the “rainy” season, but unseasonal snowfalls can block the solitary road for days, adding crisp white to the startling palette of nature’s colors. This remote landscape was wrought in fire over four million years ago when a huge volcanic dome collapsed, spreading around 1600 cubic kilometers of volcanic debris over thousands of hectares. Dotted across the caldera floor and surrounded by rust-colored hills, the weird shapes and isolated formations called Pakana’s Sentinels rise up six meters (20 feet) or more into the sky—the solitary remains of volcanic rocks that have been densely welded together by extreme heat. Up close, their surfaces 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, in Reserva Nacional de los Flamencos, the light blue waters of the Tara lagoon and the expansive Tara salt flats are a popular playground for flamingos and vicuña. The vicuña is the smallest, most delicate of the camelids, 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 four to five females and their young. Early in the morning, you might even catch a glimpse of a grey vizcacha (a large, nocturnal rodent) 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 Altiplano is a magnificent natural landscape, with plenty to enthrall 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 4x4. Use San Pedro de Atacama as your base and come lose yourself in this unforgettable wilderness.

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