America /

Northern Chile – Deserts and volcanoes

On our big trip to Chile in 2008 Basak and I spent the first ten days in the north, driving through the incredible multicoloured Atacama landscapes. They provided the backdrop for some great wildlife with graceful vicunas and elegant flamingos on the placid turquoise lakes alongside seedsnipes, horned coots and andean geese. Down on the coast we visited the cacti-rich Pan de Azucar national park and took a boat trip to a small island packed with peruvian pelicans, red-legged cormorants, southern sea lions and comical humboldt penguins. Cacti came in all shapes and sizes from the tree like Trichocereus chiloensis and domes of Copiapoa cinerascens to amazing barrels of Eriosyce aurata decorated with whorls of ‘marshmallow’ flowers. I saw the latter in 2011 near Fray Jorge an enclave of cloud forest in the desert surviving on sea fogs. However, this was a year of good rains which also meant the ravishing Alstromeria magnifica was in flower. Alstroemeria pulchra I’ve found is more reliable and appears whatever the weather. The magnificent spikes of Puya chilensis and bertroniana are another highlight. They are pollinated by various birds that emerge with orange pollen-covered heads looking like ‘new’ species. The bulky giant hummingbirds seemed to prefer the more slender deep blue Puya venusta. On my second trip north in 2009 I explored the Andean valleys and despite it being a dry year there were many superb plants such as Malesherbia lirana, Calceolaria polifolia, Tropaeolum polyphyllum and Oreopolus palmae, whilst the last remaining stands of Chilean palms privded dramatic silhouettes in La Campana national park which resonated with the best birdsong I’ve experienced in Chile.
Chris & Basak Gardner