Flamingo Paradise in the Desert: Visiting Laguna Chaxa in Chile
Flamingos in the desert? Yep, you heard me. It was our first full day in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile and we were off to see flamingos.
Although the Atacama Desert’s extreme environment poses distinct challenges for all inhabitants, humans included, the resilient flamingo is one creature who can adapt to even the harshest of them all. They thrive on microscopic elements present in the bottom layer of the lagoons, in particular diatoms and brine shrimp.
Although there are several salt lakes around the Atacama Desert where you can see flamingos, Laguna Chaxa holds the title as the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos’s most easily accessible flamingo-breeding site.
The Flamingos of Laguna Chaxa
There’s an information exhibit in the main entrance building in both Spanish and English that explains the differences between the three and how to spot them out in the wild. To spot a Chilean flamingo who’s not in the process of eating, look for their pink knobby knees. If you’re looking for an Andean flamingo, they’re the only type to have yellow legs. Finally, to identify a James flamingo, look for the dark triangles around their eyes. It almost looks like they’re wearing a little mask.
The main tool I used for differentiated them was how they fed. The Chilean flamingos would stomp around in a small circle like a feathered flamenco dancer to stir up their food from the lake floor, while the Andean flamingos would sort of swing their head a little side to side while they ambled about in a slow line.
A diet rich in the alpha and beta-carotene present in the algae and artemia gives the bird’s feathers their beautiful pink color. The same thing that will turn you orange if you eat too many carrots. While the flamingos here are paler pink in colour than their Caribbean cousins due to their unique diet, they’re just as beautiful, even if they don’t resemble the plastic birds you find on American lawns.
I have a bit of an affinity for flamingos since they remind me a bit of myself in my youth: all long skinny legs, knees and elbows, with a love of pink, and a bit awkward.
While it’s possible to spot these pale pink beauties all year round, your best bet is to visit during the Southern summer (December – February). While you’re there, keep an eye out for lizards and other birds, like sandpipers, puna plovers, and Andean avocets.
How to get to Laguna Chaxa from San Pedro de Atacama
Get on Route 23 out of San Pedro and drive about 41km towards Toconao. Just past the village, keep an eye out for a big green sign with an identical smaller green sign behind it directing you to Salar de Atacama. Almost immediately beyond that you’ll see a little sign for Laguna Chaxa 24. Take this right onto Rte B-355 and follow it for another 11.5km. Keep an eye out for a right turn onto Rte B-373 and 10km later you’ll reach the end of the line, which is the parking lot for Laguna Chaxa. The trip should take about 50 minutes.
Is Laguna Chaxa Worth It?
If you’ve ever wanted to see flamingos up close in the wild, then you’ll definitely find the drive and the entrance fee for Laguna Chaxa worth it. The flamingos are so used to humans they’ll hang out pretty close to the lake edge if there’s food to be found.
I appreciated that they had information boards posted in English as well as Spanish. Be sure to check out the tank of brine shrimp they have in the building.
And since we were free camping, we also liked the bathroom facilities they had on site.
The entrance fee of CLP$ 3.000 is on the low end for Atacama attractions but was a trip highlight so I feel it’s very much worth it.
Tips for Visiting Laguna Chaxa
- Bring a good camera and a decent zoom lens.
- Plot your route to “Laguna Chaxa Park” to avoid backtracking because Google gave you bad advice.
- Time your visit for either sunrise or sunset, when the area’s birds are most active and easiest to photograph.
- What: Laguna Chaxa
- Where: 50 min south of San Pedro de Atacama on Rte 23
- When: 8am-8pm
- Cost: CLP$ 3.000
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