May 08, 2004

The desert

Our last stop in Chile was San Pedro de Atacama. The Atacama desert seemed to stretch on and on while we cruised by on our bus north. We had a short stay in San Pedro before continuing on to southwestern Bolivia. Click below to read more.

We were supposed to catch a 10:45 pm night bus to San Pedro from La Serena but it didn't come at 10:45 and we were told around 11 that it had broken down somewhere south of La Serena. We waited until 12:30 before the bus finally showed up. It was a semi-cama, which means the seats don't recline all the way, which was fine for me in Argentina. However, I think that Chileans are shorter than Argentinians and I had a hard time sleeping because my head rolls over the top of the seat.

We arrived in San Pedro around 5pm after passing through the interesting scenery of the Atacama desert. We were swarmed by the usual hostel hawkers but we saw a lady with the flyer for the hostel that the El Punto people recommended. It is a hostel a little out of town and we got a ride out there with her, which was nice because we had just gone from 0m elevation to 2500m and didn't feel like walking anywhere with our packs. We relaxed the first night in San Pedro and started to get used to the cold that comes with altitude. The next day we investigated tours to the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats in Bolivia) and settled with Cordillera instead of Colque, mainly because the guy at the office was better at Cordillera, and we got to stay at the new salt hotel. We also organized a tour to the Valle de Luna near San Pedro for that afternoon.

We had 4 stops on the tour. One was a lookout over the town and small salt lake next to it and a view of the mountains in the background. Then we went to the valley of death which had some interesting scenery and some sandboarders on a sand dune along the way. I never found out why it is called the valley of death but I overheard someone say that there are about 3 different explainations. From there we went to a salt cave where I managed to bang myself up a bit because nobody had a good flashlight and the cave got a bit tight. A swedish guy in our tour started impersonating Golum and that kind of freaked out Sarah which I thought was kind of funny. Then we went to see the 3 Maria's, a set of three pinnical rocks that weren't that impressive. Then we went to a large sand dune where all the gringos watch the sunset from. There must have been about 10 tour vans at the bottom of the dune. The sunset was pretty impressive, although in the opposite direction that you would think. Where the sun actually set wasn't very impressive, but the colour on the Andes in the opposite direction was amazing.

That night we had a tasty dinner at one of the many restraunts in San Pedro, there were way too many restraunts for the number of people in the town when we were there, but that wasn't the busy season. We sat next to a large fire and had a 3 course meal with Derek from South Africa whom we met at the Cordillera office. He is a computer geek too so we had some good dinner conversation. That is until the house band started to play with some questionable audio engineering (way too much reverb, crappy wireless mics and poorly placed speakers), but it was still interesting. The band consisted of one guitar, one charango (small guitar like ukelele), flutist (mostly pan flute), and one drummer. They played some good songs and were entertaining. They wore traditional ponchos over modern clothes, the flutist was wearing some nastily embroidered jeans.

The next day was a rest day after we decided to not go to the El Tatio geysers which would have required getting up at 4am for the tour. We also tried to get organized for the 3 day Salar de Uyuni tour that we would start the next day.

We had heard lots of good things about the Salar de Uyuni tour from other travelers we met and decided that we had to do it, and it just happened to fit into our travel plans. I think that the standard tour is a 4 day trip from Uyuni in Bolivia but we decided to do the 3 day one way tour from San Pedro to Uyuni. We had 6.5 people in our group, a New Zealand couple and their 4.8 year old daughter (the 0.5 person) (Milne, Sonja (sp?) and Petra), and a Swiss couple, Sandro and Yvonne. I was kind of questioning the quality of our group as we left san pedro not having had good experiences with children so far on our trip and the swiss couple arrived at the cordillera office on bikes with plenty of panier packs. But after having done the trip I don't think that we could have had a better group of people for the trip, we had plenty of good conversations and Petra was the most well behaved and sweetest 4.8 year old I have ever met.

The first day involved a shuttle from San Pedro to the Bolivia-Chile border at around 4200m, where we had our passports stamped, had breakfast and switched vehicles to a 1985 Toyota Land Cruiser. From here we went to Laguna Verde which was kind of green, then to a thermal spring for a brief dip and lunch, then onto some nice geysers at just over 5000m. Then downhill to Laguna Colorado (around 4200m again) near which we would spend the night. This lake has a bunch of flamingoes which were weird to see in such a cold and inhospitable place. After taking way too many pictures of the flamingoes we went back to the refugio where we would spend the night. We all slept in the same room on some uncomfortable beds. We had a better than expected dinner of delicious soup and spaghetti and sauce. It was early to bed because it was too cold to do anything else. It took a while for me to fall asleep because the moon was shining in my face for a while.

It was an early morning the next day since we got up with the sunrise and our guide, Javier, told us that we needed to be on the road by 8am because it was going to be a long day. We passed quite a few more lakes this day and saw a lot more flamingoes too, some even on a partially frozen lake. We saw some surreal landscapes as we drove along the mountains defining the Chile-Bolivia border. We saw lots of animals from the Llama familly (mostly llamas and vicunas) and even some chinchilla type things. We stopped to get a look at a smoking, active volcano and continued on to the edge of the Salar de Uyuni where our salt hotel was waiting for us.

The hotel is made of large blocks of salt from the salt lake (which is the largest and highest in the world). Our guide told us that the salt is 6m deep over most of the lake. The salt blocks aren't a blinding white like table salt, but a kind of grey brown with horizontal dark lines through them. It was still spectacular and somewhat luxurious considering where we were. Before dinner we went out for a guided tour to some caves about 20 minutes away where there are mummies from the 1200's which were pretty creepy. The dry air and cool temperatures from altitude (about 3600m) preserve the mummies very well. Then we walked back to the hotel for dinner and were treated to another fantastic sunset with near full moon. After dinner of bbq'd chicken and some more of that tasty soup we showed the swiss couple how to play cribbage, and have a wee dram of Teacher's highland cream scotch whisky while we were at it. We had an extremely close game decided by only 2 or 3 points.

The next day we didn't need to rise as early and we managed to sleep in a bit (8am instead of 6am if I remember correctly). We had a good breakfast of scrambled eggs, bread and coffee (instant of course) and set off to cross the Salar. It took about 10 minutes to get onto the salt lake proper but once we did it didn't end until about 4 in the afternoon. Having never been on a salt lake before I was blown away, there is a lot of salt! The lake bed gets rained on in January and February and dries out into a hexagonal pattern that is mesmerizing. Within each hexagon are large salt crystals that sparkle in the sunlight. We had two destinations on the salt lake, first fisherman's island and the old salt hotel second. On the way to fisherman's island our driver/guide took a bit of a nap while driving, which was slightly scary but once you realize that there is nothing to hit for ages and the ground is perfectly flat I had no problems with it (that and I was sitting in the front passenger seat so I could grab the wheel if needed). Fisherman's island is a park and covered in cacti. We hiked around there for an hour or so taking lots of pictures and got back on the road (well, salt lake that is, no real roads across it). Then it was another hour or two at 90km an hour and more driver napping before coming to the old salt hotel. It is a derelict place and has a sign saying that you have to buy something from the little kiosk in the hotel before you can take pictures or walk around the hotel. This was the end of the salt flats, kind of sad really. Well, at the edge of the salt flats near Uyuni there are mounds of salt that they are mining. Aparently there is water under the salt flats and they drill a hole to get some water onto the surface to make the salt easy to shovel. They shovel it into piles to dry and then snowblower it onto trucks (at least I think that is what those snowblower like machines were for).

Then we drove off the salt flats and towards Uyuni. This was our first real 3rd world small town which you can easily identify by the kilometer or so of garbage strewn land surrounding the town. We cruised by the town to the train cemetary. Uyuni used to be a major train junction, and it seems that once the old trains died they pulled them just out of town and left them there. They were in pretty good condition considering that some of them were from the early 1900's, although they were covered in grafiti. Then we went to town, which brought to an end one of the more memorable experiences of our trip so far.

A geology class from UCLA did a trip to Bolivia in Sept. 2003 and have some good pictures, including a trip across the Salar.

Posted by bforsyth at May 8, 2004 02:51 PM

It sounds like you are having an amaizing journey I can't tell you how much I want to be there right now. I hope to be in Equador before the end of the year and enjoy the south myself. Your journal is so descriptive I can almost feel the atmosphere and mind set the area is giving you. I have to go, enjoy you two be safe. Shannon

Posted by: shannon abbott at May 9, 2004 06:08 PM