Let’s take a ride.. Across the desert night. Chile to Bolivia.
After much research and anticipation we were about to set out on the leg of the trip I was most excited for, a 4wd trip between the San Pedro Atacama desert in Chile and Uyuni in Bolivia. The trip takes in spectacular parts of the desert including lagoons, mountain ranges and volcanoes and finishes on the world’s largest salt flats, Salar de Uyuni.
The journey is a backpacker favourite but certainly not for the faint of heart. Throughout we will endure teeth-chattering cold, stifling heat, extreme changes in altitude and less than glamorous sleeping conditions. After a few horror stories we chose White and Green Travel due to their good reviews. On their advice we ate a light meal without red meat to help combat the altitude and got a good nights rest before getting up early to join the rest of our group.
6 of us piled in to a Toyota Landcruiser, two more Aussies, a Belgian (called Tim, he wanted a mention, HI TIM!) and a Brasillian girl with our driver Vladimir to get to know each other since we would be spending the rest of the 3 days and two nights stuck in a car together. We stopped off at a very non-legit looking border office and had a breakast of rolls, avocado, cheese and the all important coca tea. I was very skeptical but was heavily encouraged to force a cup down to help with the adjustment of altitude. For someone who doesn’t even drink coffee or ever touch drugs I had a freak out moment where I had to turn to the guys in a panic because my fingers were tingling. Once I realised it wasn’t just me and the effect soon wore off it really did help to adjust to the sudden incline of 2400m above sea level to 4600m in less than an hour. A big no-no is sudden inclination in areas of altitude, a few of the boys had headaches and racing hearts but thankfully I felt okay. We followed the advice of no strenuous activity like running and jumping and all adjusted ok. We had to because the majority of the country of Bolivia is at above average altitude.
Our first stop was to Lagunas Blanco and Verde (white and green lakes) which were really beautiful and I finally got to tick off a main priority of my trip, seeing wild flamingoes! We continued winding through the mountains and volcanoes, stopping at a desert and a natural hot spring, a soothing 30 degrees in the freezing cold breeze. We splashed around in there and came inside for a yummy lunch. It was such a relief that the food was good with plenty of variety. Next we visited some Geysers, which are sulphur deposits bubbling below the surface of the ground who sometimes get so compressed they shoot steam right up from the earth. Then we reached our final destination for the day, and definitely my favourite, and I did a little girly dance as we pulled up to a gorgeous red/pink colored lake with hundreds of flamingoes. It was simply stunning. After that we headed to our accommodation for the night, still at a high altitude. Poor Brendan got struck down by a terrible bout of altitude sickness whilst the rest of us had dinner and were tucked in bed by 8pm.
The next day we set off through Bolivian mountains, containing a little more vegetation than we were used to in Atacama. We visited some amazing rock formations, a few more lagoons, a canyon with a snaking river shaped like an Anaconda and enjoyed spotting a lot of wildlife. Llamas as frequent as cattle in Australia but still exciting and new enough to satisfy these gringos. We also spied eagles, ostriches, vicunas, donkeys, and more flamingoes. The weather this day was far more forgiving, we were able to ditch our coats and hoods for teeshirts. We enjoyed climbing the bizarre rock formations in the ‘Lost City’, our bodies having adjusted a little better to the altitude. As we continued driving the landscape was constantly varying and there was always something to look at. In between we swapped stories and played our music through the stereo. Thankfully our group was getting along famously in such a confined space.
The second half of that day we had our longest stint in the car. Previously we had not stayed in the car for more than an hour, which makes 3 days in a full 4wd a whole lot more bearable. The desert was starting to get a lot more flat and a little miragey as we headed towards the salt flats. We visited a tiny abandoned town with some ancient train carriages and expected tumbleweed to roll by at any moment. We pushed on to arrive at the nights equally desolate accommodation, a hostel entirely made of salt. The beds, floors and walls were in fact made of salt and we enjoyed the novelty and licking the walls. We sat down to share a meal with some of the other groups before heading to bed for an early start.
We rose at the crack of 4am, all bleary eyed and nursing slightly sore stomachs from the previous nights questionable food. But we were all so excited for what lay ahead. We were finally going to the salt flats. For me and my boyfriend this is our numero uno. One of the main reasons I came to South America. We were doing rain dances hoping to summon the famous ‘mirror effect’, but either way we know we will be in for some spectacular sights today. We awed at the crystal clear sky with the perfect view of millions of stars, which we voted was a better view than on the astronomy tour we paid for in the desert, and set off on the silky smooth salt flats searching for the famous stark white areas. With 10,000sqkm of flats, the aim was to reach a particularly picturesque area by sunrise.
After admiring the sunrise on an ‘island’ entirely covered in strangely wonderful cacti and tucking in to breakfast. We drove some more through the salt flats to find a completely sparse area to take some ‘photos locos’ or the famous warped perspective shots. We found out this was a lot harder than it looked. Especially since the surface of the salt was like gravel. But we still had a lot of fun trying and took a few winners. We then stopped at the original salt hotel, now a museum filled with items carved out of salt, including a life size Toyota Hilux. Next we headed to a market to buy a few small souvenirs and had lunch of quinoa, salad, rice and meat that was most likely llama. Another day of being a vegetarian for me. Next we were back in the 4wd for our final stop, the ‘train cemetery’. This is basically an abandoned train line but the leftover carriages in the middle of the desert make for a mysterious location and some cool photos. This was it, our final farewell, we arrived in the town of Uyuni, and our expectations of being back in civilization were quickly squashed in the almost abandoned town. We tucked in to a stupidly overpriced pizza and got stuck in to about 10 minutes of dodgy wifi connection before we decided that it shouldn’t be goodbye after all and continued on travelling through Bolivia, to Potosi together.