We left San Pedro on a 3-day tour to Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world! We each bought our 6 litre bottles of water (necessary to survive the dry climate) and traded in our last Chilean pesos for Bolivianos before hitting the road. A quick stop at the customs office to be “stamped out” of Chile and another on “arrival” in Bolivia, a good half hour drive away – still not entirely sure who owns the land in between!At the Bolivian border we grouped with 4 others, met our driver and piled in to the Toyota Landcruiser, our travel vehicle for the next three days. Joining us in our car were Sander & Niels, the Dutchmen (Sander who we had met back in Salta) along with Lauren from France and Line from Denmark.From our very first stop we were taken aback by the beautiful scenery. Having spent the last four days in the dry Atacama Desert it was quite the contrast suddenly being surrounded by stunning coloured lakes, each unique to the last.We continued on, stopping at some hot thermal springs with yet another incredible backdrop. The water was the perfect temperature however the cold air outside scared a lot of people off.At the highest elevation of our 3-day trip, we visited another geyser field with large pools of bubbling mud so incredibly hot you wouldn’t dare go too close! With the altitude making us all feel slightly dizzy, we watched where we stepped and tried to overcome the fear of the ground collapsing below us and becoming mud monsters.Having had an early start and perhaps with the altitude we were all quite exhausted from our first day. We made it to our accommodation for the evening and cuddled up close in bed that night as it was absolutely freezing! Day Two was what I like to call “Lake Day”, so much so that as amazing as each lake was, by the end of the day, I’d seen enough lakes and flamingoes to last me a lifetime! The lakes we visited were really beautiful though and the flamingoes looked fantastic doing their thing out on the water. We drove and drove, enjoying having our iPods plugged in to the stereo rather than the driver’s pan flute cover CDs. Too bad that my iPod mysteriously “disappeared” from his stereo in the morning…. #%$#@#(*!!!!!!!! Meanwhile, one of the other vehicles picked up some locals and with no room in the car, they settled in on top. We drove through the ‘Dali Desert’ named as the landscape mimics a Salvador Dali painting and also stopped at a set of rock formations created as a result of wind erosion. Will had a quick stop at the bathroom while we took photos of the ‘Tree Rock”. Our lunch stop overlooked another beautiful lake and we harrassed the flamingoes for the perfect photo. With the mountains in the background there were some amazing reflections on the water and we sat back enjoying the view.The terrain changed as we continued and we passed various snow covered mountains before stopping at some train tracks out in the middle of nowhere and being rebels lying on the tracks.After a long day driving, we arrived at our second night’s accommodation which was something slightly different – a hotel made completely out of salt! The walls, roof, chairs, table, bed frames – basically EVERY part of the building, even the floor was covered in salt! Unfortunately, it’s not edible so we couldn’t add it to our llama steaks and fries that night!We were up at 4:00am on our last morning in order to make it to the salt flats by sunrise. Walking outside our hotel, the sky was incredible – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many stars! We drove in the dark and as we reached the salt flats our driver even turned his lights off! With nothing but white salt under us it was incredible how much the reflection allowed us to see. We reached a point on the salt flats and stopped to watch the sunrise. Stepping outside the car it was freezing and with the salt crunching under our feet you could be mistaken for thinking we were at the snow.We warmed up slightly and as the sun continued to rise, we drove on to our breakfast spot – Isla Incahuasi, a bizarrely located island (in the middle of the salt flats) covered in giant cacti, some over 900 years old! We explored the island which is actually the top of the remains of an ancient volcano which was submerged when the area was a huge prehistoric lake (roughly 40,000 years ago). Today it is covered in what appears to be fossilised coral structures along with the incredible cacti which we couldn’t miss the opportunity to give a big hug! One of the things we had been looking forward to on the salt flats was taking various perspective photos where due to the white salt ground you can make things look giant or miniature just by moving away from the camera. Unfortunately for us, no one seemed to be able to use our camera and therefore we didn’t really get any good ones at all! After time spent taking photos we continued on, passing another salt hotel, mounds of salt, a small village along with herds of llamas before we arrived in Uyuni. Driving in to Uyuni we were astonished at the ridiculous amount of garbage around the town. Everywhere you looked there were plastic bags covering the ground and it made us all feel quite uneasy as we approached the main streets.We drove through the town to the outskirts of Uyuni to a train graveyard (Will thought I had typed gravy-yard… hilarious!), a result of the mining industry collapse in the 1940’s. Hundreds of train carriages and pieces of machinery lie rusted and abandoned which is quite eerie to walk through. After a swing or two on the rusted trains we settled in to a $3 room in a local hotel – Welcome to Bolivia!
A quick stop at a customs office just outside San Pedro de Atacama and we were now officially back in Chile. I’m not entirely sure at what moment we officially left Argentina (no signs) but the scenery on the drive from Salta was beautiful. At our highest point we reached close to 4000m before descending back down the mountain range and arriving in San Pedro de Atacama where we were still at 2,438m above sea level.
As we walked the dusty streets of San Pedro de Atacama the air was dry and it took a moment to catch our breath. The Atacama Desert is considered the most arid desert in the world and we guzzled down water like it was going out of fashion. The whole town blends in to its vast surroundings – white and sand-coloured buildings line the streets with roofs made of clay and hay. Stepping inside the storefronts it is quite the contrast with various textiles and souvenirs of the brightest colours filling the buildings.We had a 4:00am start on our second morning with a visit to Tatio Geysers, the highest geyser field in the world at 4320m above sea level. With temperatures below zero at dawn, you can see the flow of vapor from the geysers, reaching as high as 10 metres! We had been warned of how cold it could be and dressed accordingly – I had 3 pairs of pants and about 5 layers on top however as we stepped out of the bus and began walking around the geysers we were all still frozen to the bone!We huddled around the geysers, watching them bubble away and catching just a little relief from the cold as the warm vapors sizzled out. As the sun rose it began to get warmer and we continued exploring the geyser field. At one stage, we decided to jump for a photo only to realize that exerting that kind of energy at over 4000m above sea level makes you all kinds of dizzy and we definitely didn’t try that again! With the darkness fading it was time for breakfast and we enjoyed hard boiled eggs and coffee – heated straight from the geysers! At first no one was eating their eggs, rather using them as a device to thaw out their frozen fingers.We braved the cold and stripped down to our bathers for a quick swim in a geyser fed pool before continuing to Machuca, a small, almost uninhabited town located near the geysers. We had a quick look around and tried some llama kebabs which were surprisingly quite tasty! The town is close to a small wetland area where families of flamingoes, ducks and seagulls live, as well as the odd llama or two who always manage to entertain me (yes, from eating them to watching them)!The Atacama region being a desert, has next to no rainfall (or clouds) making it great conditions for stargazing. We went on a night trip to an observatory located out from the town where our guide showed us various constellations in the sky with his incredibly strong (and illegal) laser. After our introduction to the millions of objects in the sky, we were left with time to view various points through a number of different telescopes. We took photos of the moon through one telescope and through another we could see Saturn which looked amazing with its rings (I tried to get a photo of that but it wasn’t as easy)!Finishing off our time in the Atacama Desert we took a half day trip to another “Valle de la Luna” (Valley of the Moon). The various rock formations date back up to 22 million years and with the absence of any animals or vegetation, it really does feel like you are on another planet. We continued through the valley, stopping to look at rock formations such as the Three Marias and the Dinosaur head (our favourite). We walked past the Amphitheatre rock formation before climbing a hill to watch the rocks change colours as the sun set. We really enjoyed the little town, it’s like no town we’d ever seen before. Not necessarily pretty, but unique – especially when compared to the many colonial cities we had visited so far.
You can see more photos from San Pedro de Atacama here.