East of Copiapó, the Andes divide into two separate ranges – the Cordillera de Domeyko and the Cordillera de Claudio Gay – joined by a high basin, or plateau, that stretches all the way north to Bolivia. The waters trapped in this basin form vast salt flats and lakes towered over by enormous, snowcapped volcanoes, and wild vicuña and guanaco roam the sparsely vegetated hills. This is a truly awe-inspiring landscape, conveying an acute sense of wilderness and space. It’s easier to fully appreciate it here than around San Pedro de Atacama, for instance, thanks to the general absence of tourists. The number of visitors has started to increase, however, following the creation in 1994 of the PARQUE NACIONAL NEVADO DE TRES CRUCES, which takes in a dazzling white salt flat, the Salar de Maricunga; two beautiful lakes, the Laguna Santa Rosa and Laguna del Negro Francisco; and the 6753m volcano Tres Cruces.
The bumpy road up to Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces takes you through a brief stretch of desert before twisting up narrow canyons flanked by mineral-stained rocks. As you climb higher, the colours of the scoured, bare mountains become increasingly vibrant, ranging from oranges and golds to greens and violets. Some 165km from Copiapó, at an altitude of around 3700m, the road (following the signs to Mina Marta) reaches the first sector of the park, skirting the pale-blue Laguna Santa Rosa, home to dozens of pink flamingos.
Immediately adjacent, the gleaming white Salar de Maricunga is Chile’s most southerly salt flat, covering an area of over 80 square kilometres. A two- to three-hour drive south from here, past Mina Marta, the park’s second sector is based around the large, deep-blue Laguna del Negro Francisco, some 4200m above sea level and home to abundant birdlife, including wild ducks and flamingos. Towering over the lake, the 6080-metre Volcán Copiapó was the site of an Inca sacrificial altar.