The flamingos in Chile's Atacama Desert

flamingos in atacama Desert, Chile
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I wasn’t sure what to expect  from Atacama in Chile. I knew it was the highest and driest desert on Earth, with stark sand and rock formations. I knew there was a high elevation, the clearest skies and great for star gazing. What I didn’t expect was the amount of diversity here.
 
One of my favorite excursions was to a salt flat at the same elevation as our hotel, around 7,500 feet. We drove through the Valley of the Moon which was ringed by volcanic mountains, some of which were still active with white steam coming up from the tips in the distance. We passed by some ponds, which were quite popular with the local goat herds - we had to stop our van to let them trot across the road, back and forth to the water source. There were trees, not indigenous, but flourishing, entire orchards of them. 
 
We came to a village and stopped to explore. Church, bell tower, central square, local villagers in the park with their kids, a charming scene of daily life.  One of the local shopkeepers kept her llama in the back yard of her little dusty store. She sold products made from the shorn wool of the llama: sweaters, hats, gloves, and toy llamas. Happy to support the locals, I ended up leaving with 3 toy llamas. 
 
 
Continuing for miles out into the desert, we finally reached our destination, Los Flamencos National Reserve, a protected area for flamingoesThe salt flat in this area is not flat. Since there is very little rain, the salt never gets “flattened.” The ground is covered for miles with salt crystal formations, intricate and filled with spaces where flamingoes lay their eggs. There are a few paths for visitors to walk closer to the flamingoes, which fly overhead to the various shallow ponds. You cannot get close, but with binoculars or a zoom lens, the birds are amazing to see. They are almost ungainly in the air - long necks stretching out in front, long legs trailing behind, big wings keeping them going. 
 
I could have watched them for hours - they were so odd, graceful yet awkward. Our guide explained everything - the eco system, the life of the birds, the salt, the predators, the need to protect these lovely creatures. Flamingoes feed on small crustaceans and algae which gives them their pink color. 
 
We were there at sunset, which added to the natural beauty of the area, watching the colors of the sunset over the wetlands and salt flats, with the flamingoes feeding, then flying to a different spot or joining the rest of the flock, social birds that they are. I stood in awe, just watching, as darkness began to fall.