The hidden Red Lagoon of the Atacama desert
When we talk about the desert, it is common for us to imagine an empty space between the green valleys and the sea. The desert, for many people, is a simple pause, for others it’s like an endless movie in which the main character finally dies, thirsty and alone. Awful.
If you ask most Chileans, they will recommend going to the south of Chile, and yes, I understand, the south has huge trees that you may have never seen, blue water lakes, mountains and giant volcanoes. The south is beautiful, a safe bet; but the desert is an acquired taste.
Several years ago I had this idea of going deep into the Atacama desert and knowing what was a secret in the middle of the hills: The Colored Lagoons and especially The Red Lagoon. Some people talked about them and we found some information on the internet from people who had been there, but there were no clear directions. They were just a red dot that could be seen on Google Maps, but with that, at least, we already knew more or less where they were.
The only certainty was that after flying to Iquique, we had to rent a 4X4 car and reach the town of Camiña. It was not long ago, but our cell phones didn’t have access to GPS yet and the area was a big “dead zone” with no reception. That made the trip a real adventure.
The Red Lagoon and its two siblings, Yellow and Green, are about 200 km. away from Iquique and about 65 km. away from Camiña, in the Mulluri area. Its main attraction is that its water is red like blood and according to legend this happened because it was inhabited by the devil. Few studies mention that red algae stains the soil and this creates a visual effect that makes it look like a sea of blood.
Camiña (which in the Aymara language could mean dwelling or resistance) is like a fairy tale town: small houses hidden among red hills, a church, a school and an inn for the few visitors that go there. When we arrived we noticed that a large part of its inhabitants still spoke the Aymara language, ate charqui with potatoes and, weird enough, hadn’t been to the lagoons.
From the town, it is a 3 hours travel to the lagoons, through dusty and winding roads. I was both amused and afraid because we needed to honk all the way, as there was no space for two cars at the same time. Maybe a motorcycle would have been a better choice, but Airkeep still didn’t exist and we didn’t have a place to leave our excess baggage. Luckily, between the town and the lagoons, we didn’t encounter any cars, just an old couple who were hitchhiking to go from a dusty hut on the side of the road to another one, even dustier, a few kilometers ahead.
After getting lost a couple of times, crossing a river (which we now know was the Caritaya) and passing some abandoned houses, we were already there. When you arrive at the lagoons, you feel that strange effect that some magical places in the world cause: to see nothing, nothing, really nothing and then suddenly you bump with something that your brain can’t understand how or when it appeared in front of you. We were alone between the red sea, the yellow one and the green one. With no doubt that was one of the most overwhelming things I’ve ever seen in nature.
The largest lagoon is the red one, followed by the green one and then the yellow one. Nobody knows how deep they are and what’s the temperature at the bottom. Since they ceased to be a secret and the Government learned of their existence in 2009, they have not been studied enough and remain a mystery.
No doubt things have changed a lot since I went there, now you can even hire a tour from Iquique and for about US $130 takes you to these hidden wonders, in addition to the petroglyphs and cave paintings of Chillaiza (a nearby town). You can also go on your own, renting a vehicle in Iquique and going at your own pace through the heart of the Atacama desert. If you have the chance, don’t hesitate, regardless the devil dwells there or not, a part of your soul will remain there forever and a part of the place will remain with you forever.
All the photos of that trip were lost and although I feel sorry, to make myself feel better I like to believe that the desert took them away, in order to preserve at least one more year the “secret” of the Colored Lagoons.