Uyuni Salt Flats

Day 1

I’m anxiously waiting for the bus, they said they’d be here by 7.30 and it’s almost 8. Two of the other girls that were waiting around have since been picked up and I’m starting to wonder if I gave the wrong hostel name. One of the ladies at the hostel is about to ring the tour agency when the bus comes round the corner and I breathe a heavy sigh of relief. We spend a couple hours going through the Chilean and Bolivian side of immigration control. Our tour group consists of a German couple, a Spanish girl and yours truly. We wait around for half an hour or so, as all the other jeeps speed off over the horizon, but are finally greeted by Mario, our guide for the next few days.

Our first stop is the “Laguna Verde”, which when we pull up, appears to be a normal blue lake. I’m about to ask Mario if he’s taken a wrong turn somewhere, when he tells us all to just watch the lake for 10 minutes. As we stand there curious, a turquoise colour starts emanating from the back of the lake, creeping slowly but surely towards us, enveloping the entire area. The change is happening right in front of our eyes and yet I cant’t perceive how the colour is changing, only that it is. Mario explains that the wind causes the lake to change colour and after a bit more research, I find there are a number of minerals stored within the lake and many others within the national park, that can appear in different colours when the sediment is disturbed by the wind. As we’re about to head to the next destination, a fox appears out of nowhere, staring at our Jeep in hopes of food, long enough for us to get a picture or two. His modelling work goes unpaid and we say goodbye to our new furry acquaintance.

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We pass some cyclists and I feel very grateful to be in a 4×4, as we’re travelling through desert like terrain, with no shade and with the sun furiously beating down from above. I do admire their tenacity in this harsh climate, but can’t imagine it being the most of pleasant of journeys. A few twists and turns later we emerge in the Siloli Desert, a vast expanse of sand and coloured mountains, made more beautiful by the minerals buried within, such as copper and borax.

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We take a quick stop by a thermal bath and although we don’t indulge ourselves, the scenery nearby more than makes up for it. We’re on the move again, this time stopping at some geysers, with an almost overwhelming stench of rotten eggs, thanks to the sulphur they’re spewing out. I manage to get in close enough for a few quick pictures, but we’re now 4900 meters above sea level and I don’t want my brain getting scrambled, I’ve had enough of eggs for today.

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When we arrive at the hotel we’ll be staying the night, I’m pleasantly surprised by the quality of the rooms, although they’re very basic, consisting solely of beds, they’re at least clean. After lunch we’re on the way to the last attraction of the day, a huge reddish lake, filled with flamingos, the most I’ve seen so far this trip. We walk around of the perimeter and I get very lucky when one of them comes very close to the shore, within about 10 metres. When we’d seen the fox before this encounter I had wondered how it ever manages to catch the flamingos, but now observing how long they keep their heads underwater, the fox has time to sneak up on them.

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In the evening, after a hearty dinner, we stroll a couple minutes away from the little town we’re staying in to get a good view of the night’s sky and it’s spectacular, the clearest I’ve ever seen it, even better than what I’d seen in La Serena. I try again to get a good snap of the stars and thankfully it comes out better than my previous attempt.

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Day 2

We wake up early and have got a lot of driving ahead of us. Our first stop is the “Stone Tree”, an aptly named rock structure in the form of a tree. It seems like a bit of a gimmick so I’m glad when we’re back on the “road” again, passing by seemingly endless mountains, deserts and rocky outcrops. We enter a valley and Mario tells us that there are lots of viscachas (hare-like animals) that live in the area. We go deeper down the trail, until a group of these animals suddenly come into view, hopping around near the rocks. Mario baits one of them out with a tomato and the little furball sits there nonchalantly chewing as we all gather round, trying to get as close as we can without frightening him. He seems to not mind our peering eyes and I manage to take a few snaps before he scurries away to his pals.

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We stop by a couple more flamingo laden lakes and a few random pit stops as we continue on our long journey towards the hotel we’ll be staying at this evening, made of salt. I’m hoping the beds wont be made of salt, unless they’ve made salt bean bags or something, that’d be cool. The evening is drawing in and the clouds above are starting to look angry, the perfect time for a puncture! I look on nervously as Mario goes about replacing the tyre, all calm and collected. I offer a hand but feel like one of the spare tools he’s not using. One of the nuts on the original tyre is putting up a hell of a fight as Mario lashes out at the lug wrench with his foot, to no avail. I give a quick wide eyes glance to the other guys in the group, trying to push away the thoughts of having to walk to find help. Mario goes at the tyre once again, this time the nut yields and we all breathe a heavy sigh of relief. With the new tyre fitted, we head on to the salty hotel. It’s a pretty cool set up, the walls, tables, floors, bases of the beds, all made from salt. Again I’m impressed with how clean and well set up it is, considering that it’s in quite a remote location.

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Day 3

Mario tell us he’s saved the best till last and I begin to believe him as the Jeep powers onto the Uyuni salt flats. It rained the night before and so the ground’s still wet, with a thin layer of water covering the land as far as the eye can see. The clouds are still hovering overhead, so the mood is quite dull as we head to one of the many islands that are found here, this one happens to be chock full of cactuses. The island seems to not get any closer as we drive towards it, constantly just on the horizon. Mario tells us a reassuring story about a family with young children that decided to go out on the salt flats by themselves, only to get lost and not reach help in time. With our spirits heightened, we stroll around the island, which also resembles a fish (it’s called Isla del Pescado) when viewed from a distance if there’s water on the flats. The views as we walk around are really stunning, with the flats stretching out far beyond the horizon in all directions, it feels like we’ve come to another world, where cactuses rule and humans are the prey. The clouds begin to clear as we join back up with Mario at the Jeep and he tells us that now would be a good time to do some perspective photography! We try out a few different poses and one suggestion is to get each of us doing a press up on the person below. I draw the short straw of being closest to the camera, meaning I have to get very low to the ground, face touching the dirt low. My physical endurance isn’t what it once was, so trying to hold a press up centimetres off the ground for a minute or so just isn’t possible. I end up getting my front side completely soaked and the picture doesn’t work at all, suffering for our art I suppose.

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We drive for many miles more, to another salt hotel, but this one is unique as it’s the only one to exist in the middle of the salt flat. The hotel was made in the early 90s and was the first of its kind, although no longer functioning, it still serves as a popular tourist destination. The Dakar rally recently passed through the salt flats and a huge salt statue was made to welcome them, which also helped increase tourism to Bolivia, so everyone wins.

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You can see the dried salt on my legs from the press up I mentioned earlier

The hotel is our last real stop before heading to the city of Uyuni, where the tour ends and we all say our farewells. Mario tells me that the day after he’ll be heading back towards Chile, to do the tour but in reverse. After all the horror stories I’d heard before booking the tour, relating to drivers getting drunk and sometimes crashing their vehicles, I couldn’t have been happier with how Mario guided us and I’m really glad I did it.

 

San Pedro de Atacama

I slept for most of the way towards San Pedro, but when I woke up the scenery had completely changed into an arid desert with strange rock formations, with volcanoes and mountains on both sides. I got off the bus at around 11am and quickly found a hostel for 12000 pesos, which seemed like a bargain after the money I’d paid so far in Chile.

I went hunting for tours I could do and ended up booking 5 in total, all with the same company. That afternoon we went to The Valley of the Moon, named as such due to the land resembling the moon’s surface in its texture and colour. The tour worked out very well, as it had a combination of stunning scenery, a friendly and fun tour guide, as well as some cool people I met on the bus. The first stop was The Three Marys, that looked slightly like 3 figures praying, although it was now 2 1/2 as some idiot tourist had decided to try and get a picture of him hugging one, at which point it crumbled and was sliced in two. We visited an old salt mine, walked near some more sheerly carved mountains and then headed to a sand dune which was really beautiful, with the wind occasionally scattering the sand across the valley and creating a picturesque scene. The last stop was the coyote valley where we joined about 300 hundred other people to watch the sunset, it was a little crowded, with 2 lines being formed to get a new Facebook cover photo with the valley behind. I didn’t join the queue as they were facing their cameras directly into the sun, so I got a shot from a different angle and got on with my life. It was a lovely sunset and on the other side of the valley we could see the colour of the mountains deepening their colours and becoming more vibrant. An afternoon very well spent.

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We left at 7.30 next morning to the high planes, mirror like lakes with volcanoes surrounding the horizon. As we got close to the reserve the bus transformed itself into a pneumatic drill for 10 minutes as we felt each and every bump in the road and got thrown about.mirror-lake

We then went to see some flamingos that like hanging out near a sulphur rich lake, where they eat algae that grows under the water, which in turn they poop out and then the algae eat the poop, and so the cycle continues. We saw a couple fly past us and they looked very elegant as they flew overhead, reaching the pool on the other side of the trail.

We stopped in at a couple of churches and were told that they were constructed with the bell tower outside as it was easier for the natives to adjust to, as in their culture, they built little stone piles (cairns) in the shapes of mountains as a shrine to their gods. The tower was built with 3 layers, symbolising what would be in Christianity, the father, the son and the holy spirit, but to the natives signified, the mountains, the earth and water (condor, puma and snake).

In the afternoon we took a tour to some more salt lakes, but this time we were allowed to bathe in them, which turned out to be more fun than I’d expected. Being able to just effortlessly glide around in the water was a real novelty which me giggle like a little girl. By the time I came out I was 50% salt and my hair felt like I’d poured out an entire bottle of gel on top of my head. We were quickly whisked away to our next destination, named the “eyes of salt”, craters in the desert big enough for people to jump into and swim around in. I opted to stay dry this time around.

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Last stop was some more lakes and some sunset nibbles, combined with a small glass of pisco sour. Unfortunately the trail was quite a long way from the lake, the reason for which I overheard when one of the guides said that a couple years ago, scientists discovered that bacteria living near the lake produces oxygen and that the same bacteria has also been found on Mars, so now they’re trying to protect it. I’m assuming our guide would have told us the same thing, but all he did was point us at the trail and tell us to meet him back at the bus in half an hour.

I had to be up for around 3.30 the next day to see the geysers of Tatio, which kept reminding me of Star Wars and the planet Tatooine. The geysers definitely seemed other worldly, as we walked amongst them, frothing up and spitting water a few metres into the air. Some parts of the ground underneath our feet were hot enough to fry an egg on and were perfect for warming our hands up, as it was around -2 when we got there. The sun peeked out and that signalled it was time for a dip in the thermal bath. The water was a lovely temperature and you could sink your feet into the heated sandy floor which felt amazing. The only problem was the heat was patchy and sometimes could burn you if you weren’t careful, but this just added to the natural vibe of the place.

The last tour I’d booked was a full day, in the Salar de Tara, the highest altitude of all the trips I’d done thus far (4900 meters above sea level). On the road to get there we stopped to take a few pictures of llamas that were grazing next to the road. As we headed back to the van, the llamas’ shepherd showed up and it was obvious he didn’t like the fact we’d taken photos without his permission. We all jumped back in the van, with the tour guide holding his hands up and apologising to the man. As we sped off, the llama man whipped our van a few times with a bit of straw, but it didn’t leave any lasting damage. The majority of the tour was offroad and we travelled for quite some time on sand dune like terrain, climbing higher into the arid wilderness. We saw a few vicuña roaming around, which were the only large animal we saw at this altitude, in this otherwise barren land. They’re a llama-like animal, which are currently protected because they were pushed to the edge of extinction, due to their wool being the finest in the world. We saw some epic rocks, towering above the desert like landscape, an indication of how difficult it would be to live in this unforgiving area of the world.

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Our last stop on the tour was a lake filled with flamingos and bird life. All of the people are on tour were very respectful of the serene landscape we found ourselves in, so we just sat their observing life on the lake for about 45 minutes. On the way back I was drifting in and out of sleep, as the high altitude makes you feel very tired. In my half dream like state I thought there was a guy drumming behind us, but it was actually just the rattling of the van as we went over bumpy terrain.

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La Serena

I hadn’t learnt from my previous mistakes of writing down the addresses of hostels before arriving, so once again I was roaming the streets knocking on hostel doors, but most were full. It took me about an hour of searching around and cursing myself under my breath to find a place, by which time I was willing to pay anything to get the bag off my back. You’d have thought after 4 months of travelling I’d have this kind of thing sussed, but I surprise even myself sometimes.

My sole reason for going to La Serena was for stargazing. I was told that Chile was one of the best suited countries for doing it and some of the photos I’d seen were awesome. The tour I booked took place at Mamalluca Observatory in Elqui Valley, where a lot of the observatories are based.

I opted for the tour in English as I wasn’t clued up on my Spanish astronomy vocabulary. This turned out to be a very good choice, as there were only 5 of us including me, whereas the Spanish speaking tour had around 50. We first got to look at a few different stars and gas clouds, as well as see the moon at 200x zoom. The tour guide did a great job of explaining the constellations and stars we were seeing, but it did emphasise how clueless I am about astronomy and how much there is to learn. It had been a full moon the night before, which wasn’t good for getting a clear view of the night sky, but we could still see Jupiter and many signs of the zodiac. It was quite amazing when looking at what appeared to be one star to the naked eye, but through the telescope turned into 6 or more at times. I couldn’t get the same kind of images I’d seen on the internet of the stars, but I did get a very nice shot of the moon by taking a picture with my phone through the telescope.

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The next day I had no clue what my next move would be, so I whipped out the map and weighed up my options. After some research, I decided San Pedro de Atacama would be the next destination on my list, but that left me with a day to roam around the city. I strolled on down to the beach and found a cute little lighthouse peering out across the sea, sat down with a huge jug of juice and relaxed the day away.

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