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Atacama & Altiplano, Chile
http://Dantravel.com/articles/22/1/Atacama-amp-Altiplano-Chile/Page1.html
By Dan Travel
Published on 07/17/2007
 
Northern Chile is a land of extreme contrasts, where two uniquely Andean environments, the Altiplano and the Atacama Desert, combine with unpredictable and overwhelmingly beautiful results. The vast and colorful Atacama Desert is said to be the driest desert in the world. In some parts of this desert, no precipitation has ever been recorded.

Atacama & Altiplano, Chile
Composed of consolidated ash from hundreds of volcanoes along the Chile-Bolivia border, the Altiplano averages over 11,000 feet high and is home to a traditional community of Aymara llama and alpaca herders. This unique environment - site of massive salt flats and high-altitude lakes, home to American camels and hundreds of bird species -- separates the Atacama Desert from the Amazon Basin. The most commonly visited sectors of the Chilean Altiplano are Parque Nacional Lauca, near Arica, and the area east of San Pedro de Atacama. Continuously inhabited for some 10,000 years, San Pedro de Atacama was coveted by the Tihuanaco and Inca empires for its mineral wealth and importance as a crossroads of desert commerce. Today, dozens of archaeological sites, and excellent museum, and nearby access to the Altiplano, massive salt flats, the Valle de la Luna, and pre-Hispanic communities of the río Loa make San Pedro northern Chile's top tourist destination. Continuously inhabited for some 10,000 years, San Pedro de Atacama was coveted by the Tihuanaco and Inca empires for its mineral wealth and importance as a crossroads of desert commerce. Today, dozens of archaeological sites, and excellent museum, and nearby access to the Altiplano, massive salt flats, the Valle de la Luna, and pre-Hispanic communities of the río Loa make San Pedro northern Chile's top tourist destination. Scattered throughout the Altiplano and Inter-Andean Depression, salt flats such as the Salar de Atacama near San Pedro de Atacama are one of Northern Chile's most singular geographic features. Perfectly flat and apparently endless, these shimmering white salares provide habitat for dozens of bird species, including three varieties of flamingos. At 14,1696 ft above sea level, this is the world's highest geysers field. Tours from San Pedro de Atacama depart at 4:00 in the morning in order to arrive at El Tatio at sunrise, when changing atmospheric pressure causes the geothermic vents to expel clouds of steam up to 35 ft in the air. Formed of uplifted lake sediments, the peaks of the Salt Range (Cordillera de la Sal) have been shaped by wind into a variety of unusual formations. Just outside of San Pedro de Atacama, the Valle de la Luna is best visited at sunset or under a full moon.