Salt everywhere, now where's the fish and chips?
Trip Start Sep 02, 2008
30Trip End Dec 14, 2008
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Where I stayed
We spent a couple of days in San Pedro de Atacama, which was a very chilled little town in the middle of the Atacama Desert. There were very few streets, most were pedestrianised, with the obligatory main plaza in the middle with a gorgeous white-washed church. The main raison d'etre for San P is to cater for all the tourists who want to experience the crazy desert landscapes by bus tour, bike or hike. Our reason for being there was to find a tour to Bolivia via the Salar de Uyuni and check out the desert along the way.
On arrival in our (fairly basic) hostel we met a lovely English couple, Lou and Ben, with whom we hit it off straight away, and who, it turned out, were also planning to leave San P on a salt plains tour the same day as us. It didn't take long for us to agree to all book on the same tour so we all went our separate ways to research our options. We spent a couple of very chilled days wandering the streets of San P, eating in the fantastic restaurants, going on the obligatory tour into the desert (We chose a sunset tour to the Valle de la Luna - a crazy badlands-style area with fabulous rock formations and a wonderful 360 degree sunset view of desert, volcanoes and rocks from the top of a sand dune), and booking our Salar de Uyuni trip with a very friendly guy from Estrella del Sur called Leonel (Richie!).
On Monday at 8am we all piled into a minivan for the trip to the Bolivian border, a climb of over 2000m in about an hour and a half! On getting out of the van to get our entry stamp we soon realised that life at 4500m above sea level involves walking very slowly and wearing a lot of warm clothes!! At the border we transferred into a 6-seater jeep with our buddies for the next 3 days, Lou and Ben, plus a Brazilian couple from Sao Paulo, Marco and Tais, and our Bolivian driver/guide, Javier.
The rest of the day was an amazing drive through stunning desert and mountain scenery. It was indescribably beautiful and in spite of the several other 4WD tours heading in the same direction, the landscape was so huge, and the drivers could make their own route across the desert, we barely saw a soul. We stopped at several differently brightly coloured lakes - white, green and red - and had a quick soak in a thermal pool where we saw our first flamingoes!!
We had been warned our accomodation on the 1st night would be very basic so when we arrived and discovered we had flushing toilets and 3 blankets each, we were quite chuffed - expectations are everything! We had a relaxing evening chatting with our group, eating our fairly basic but tasty dinner, cooked by a couple of local women - our first sight of the traditional Bolivian bowler hat! - and gradually putting on all our thermals as the temperature dropped. After all the excitement of the day we were all well ready to take our altitude headaches to bed when the lights went out at 9pm. A restless night followed as we struggled to keep warm under all our blankets - we found out the next day that the temperature dropped to -10 degrees c!!
The following day was another fabulous drive through more spectacular desert scenery, including some bizarre rock formations, some more lakes with hundreds of flamingoes, a volcano with steam coming out of the top, and a salt lake - not the main one, just a baby! The 2nd night we spent in a 'salt hotel' i.e. built from salt!! We were the only guests which made it feel a bit 'Shining'-esque, but we had a fun night drinking wine and being entertained by a couple of local wee boys who came to show off their pan-pipe expertise!
The final day of the trip was the big one - a drive over the Salar de Uyuni - the biggest salt flat in the world at 2500 square kms! And in spite of the massive expectations we all had, we were still blown away by all that white!!! We drove right through the middle of the salar, so at some points the whiteness stretched all the way to the horizon! It was stunning, and very hard to describe so you'll all have to check out our photos once we get them up on Facebook!! We stopped off at an island in the middle of the salar, which was a small hill covered with crazy cacti - we spent nearly 2 hours taking cool photos of the cacti, and of the salt all around, and then we headed off towards Uyuni across the salt, stopping again in the middle of nowhere to take more salt photos, arriving in Uyuni about 2pm. We finished off the tour with a visit to the Cementario del trens - a very photogenic spot outside Uyuni where loads of old trains (Thomas the Tank Engine style) have been left to rust away!
After skulling a few Paceņa's in the plaza, we then went for an amusing pizza at Minuteman in Uyuni, said our goodbye's, hopefully to see them all again sometime - we have an offer of a place to stay in Sao Paulo if we end up there.
We waited around in a bar before catching our midnight train from Uyuni headed for La Paz...