Crazy cacti, flamboyant calceolarias and outrageous alstroemerias, all set amidst pastel coloured deserts and the incredible colours of the high Andes and its stunning high latitude salt lakes. Chile's northern lands are a fabulous treasure trove of extraordinary plants. The pre-tour option takes us to the geyser fields of San Pedro, flamingo-filled lakes and other interesting desert areas with large cacti populations.
Day 1 Arrive Santiago and to Socos (4 November)
On arrival we’ll begin our drive north stopping to look at the stunning pink Alstroemeria peregrina, thriving along the rocky coast with superb stands of Cistanthe grandiflora. Another rich area has the sumptuously coloured Puya venusta, a localised endemic and its much larger cousin Puya chilensis forms huge spiny plants of Puya chilensis that dominate the coastal matorral. Near Mina Talca, if the year is right, we may see some spectacular yellow-green flower spikes and around the puyas grow more Alstroemeria magnifica, Leucocoryne purpurea and Chloraea bletioides, whilst a remarkable population of coastal Echinopsis chiloensis subsp. skottsbergiana are smothered in orange lichen. Overnight at the sleepy spa resort of Socos.
Day 2 Fray Jorge Los Flamencos
This remarkable national park protects a fragment of laurel forest that survives because of the frequent coastal fogs. It is more typical of forest far to the south and hints at former wetter times. On the forest edge are Alstroemeria magnifica and Calceolaria georgina, whilst surrounding areas have plenty of Alstroemeria diluta and some fine Eriosyce aurata barrels. Overnight Socos.
Day 3 Hurtado
Areas of sand flats have Alstromeria diluta and Rhodophiala bagnoldii and then we head into the dramatic rocky hills to see Alstroemeria leporina, scarlet Mutisia cana, Malesherbia linearifolia and some magnificent gold-spined barrels of Eriosyce aurata. Overnight in the vineyards of Pisco Elqui
Day 4 Paso Laguna Negra
One of the best flower valleys in the north beckons. A spectacular and colourful valley leads past a succession of exciting new plants including Calceolaria flavovirens, lovely Malesherbia lirana, Menonvillea cuneata, Argylia potentillifolia and as we gain height and enter the vividly coloured Valle Colorado, screes have Oreopolus macrantha and the beautiful rosettes of Chaetanthera flabellifolia. Overnight Pisco Elqui.
Day 5 Chungungo Pass
The dry hinterland south of Vallenar has stands of Miquelopuntia miquelii, pretty Alstroemeria diluta and hidden in rock sheets is the diminutive Eriosyce heinrichiana. The fog shrouded Chungungo Pass has lichen encrusted Eulychnia breviflora on the beautiful Alstroemeria magnifica and its smaller relative A. crispata. Overnight Vallenar.
Day 6 Llanos de Challe
Impressive cacti displays await at Llanos de Challe with incredible multi-headed domes of Copiapoa dealbata. The sands are also coloured with bright yellow Rhodophiala bagnoldii, mats of Frankenia chilensis and the tall showy Cistanthe grandiflora. Roadside flowers include bushes of powder blue Nolana rostrata and showy Cistanthe longiscapa. If there has been rain this area has some of the best desert displays in the Atacama. Overnight Copiapo.
Day 7 Laguna Santa Rosa
Our first taste of the spectacular salt lakes of the Atacama. This area is surprisingly rich in beautiful flowers too. Creamy spikes of Malesherbia lanceolata burst from bare slopes, domes of Cruckshanksia hymenodon pepper the rocks with yellow Argylia checoensis and on the screes are the delightful woolly rosettes of Chaetanthera lanata beset with white stars. Higher still around the stunning Laguna Santa Rosa are mats of golden Calceolaria pinifolia. Expect amazing landscapes all day long. Overnight Copiapo.
Day 8 Pan de Azucar & Paposo
Today is a travel day but there are distractions along the way. There are superb populations of Copiapoa cinerascens and C. cinerea subsp. alba at Pan de Azucar and if we search carefully the pale yellow flowers of Eriosyce oederi may be poking out of the sand, the plants themselves almost growing underground. The barren desert coast hugs the Pacific Ocean and the frequent fogs which sweep in nurture a surprising array of plants. The cacti rich coastal mountains of Paposo, which harbour some superb cacti including multi-headed domes of Copiapoa hasseltoniana and C. solaris. If there has been spring rain then expect a colourful landscape, with Alstroemeria violacea, pink Rhodophiala laeta, Argylia radiata and cistanthes. A long day. Overnight Antofagasta.
Day 9 To San Pedro de Atacama
We'll drive inland to the touristic centre of San Pedro de Atacama. This is one of the few Chilean localities for the distinctive and statuesque Echinopsis atacamensis, a tall columnar cactus. Spectacular landscapes abound. Overnight San Pedro de Atacama.
Day 10 Los Flamencos
We’ll tour the other parts of the Parque Nacional Los Flamencos to see its spectacular landscapes and abundant flamingos. If there has been rain then we might find interesting species such as golden-yellow Trichocline caulescens. Overnight San Pedro de Atacama.
Day 11 To Arica
A long but unavoidable travel day that gets us to the very far north of Chile. Along the way we'll see the El Portado coastal rock arch and pass though austere but interesting desert national parks of Tamarugal with its remarkable salt pans. At Cerro Pintado is the largest collection of petroglifs in the region with many different designs spread across the hillside. Arica is the end of the line in Chile and we'll stay at a pleasant seaside hotel. Overnight Arica.
Day 12 To Putre
We awake on the bird-filled coast of Arica. Bird life thrives in the rich fisheries but the incredibly dry landscapes around Arica suggest nothing could possibly grow here. Indeed, it doesn’t except in the oasis valleys that carve a green wedge between immense sand dunes. As we gain height plants start to appear as moisture from Bolivia to the north is able to penetrate this far. King among them is the magnificent Brownringia candellaria an extraordinary cactus with tan stems and big spreading umbrellas of thick ‘arms’, some pendant with age. Vegetation continues to increase and around Putre is pre-puna scrub. The town itself lies at 3500 metres and we have to minimise our effort for the first day or so here to acclimatise. Overnight Putre.
Day 13 Putre area
We’ll today getting used to the altitude and driving the roads near Putre to try and find the showy Mutisia acuminata the flowers looking like exploding fireworks. Other flora includes big bushes of Lupinus oreophilus, Solanum pulchellum and the deep purple tubes of Dunalia spinosa. Closer to town we can find Mutisia hamata. Overnight Putre.
Day 14 Parque Nacional Lauca
Amazing volcanic landscapes are with us from start to finish with the twin snow-capped peaks of 6348 metre Volcan Parinacota and 6282 metre Volcan Pomerape, as well as huge cushions of Azorella compacta and the little village of Parinacota with its’ quaint little church. There are many superb viewpoints and high Andean lakes with giant coots. Closer to Bolivia there are great volcano reflections on the lakes and lots more flamingos. Our maximum elevation today is 4500 metres, but we will only be this high for a few hours. Overnight Putre.
Day 15 Salar de Surire
Another big landscape day, and this area is more remote so we need to be better acclimatised. Similar in elevation to yesterday we drive right up to the Bolivian border and then turn east via the smoking fumaroles of 5105 metre Volcan Guillatire, (the highest active volcano in the world) for a constant diet of great views. And even more amazing Azorella compacta cushions, as well as mats of Werneria aretoides with pink or white stars and big spiny domes of Cumulopuntia boliviana with scarlet flowers. Around the Salar de Surire salt pan are lots of vicunas (slender llama-like mammals), flamingos galore, maybe condors and the peculiar forests of Polylepis, the worlds’ highest altitude tree genus. The gnarled old trunks with flaking bark are fascinating. A long but rewarding day. Overnight Putre
Day 16 To Arica and Santiago
We will drive back to Arica for our flights south to Santiago. Overnight Santiago Airport.
Day 17 Flights home (20 November)