San Pedro de Atacama and Salar de Uyuni

Trip Start Feb 14, 2005
Trip End Jun 14, 2005

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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

We arrived into San Pedro late in the afternoon on Tuesday after a long evening on the bus thanks to a crying newborn in the seat next to us. San Pedro was not exactly what we were expecting, the bus dropped us off on a dirt road in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. As it turns out, town was just around the corner but we had no idea. It was no problem though, because we were swarmed immediately after exiting the bus by folks offering up lodging. We weren´t thrilled with the hard sale tactics but not knowing which way town was, we took Jaime up on his offer of cheap lodging.
Chile is a bit more expensive than Argentina, so we were thinking right away that we wouldn´t be spending too much time in San Pedro. The town was very cute, adobe houses and dirt roads but was a bit too touristy for us and we were anxious to keep moving. Our goal from San Pedro was to book a 4x4 tour through the salt flats of Bolivia ending in the town of Uyuni. There are countless companies offering this tour so we starting checking in to see what each offered. They all seemed comparable, which is not to say good, so our choice was made based on having met someone taking the same tour and that there was space for us the next day. The trip to Uyuni is a 3 day journey which includes lodging and food all for $70. Great deal but remember, you get what you pay for.
Early the following morning, we joined 4 others from our hostel and got picked up by our tour company for the trip to the Bolivian border. In total, there were 10 travellers in our group; 4 Americans (two of us plus Josh and Scot), 2 English (Viv and Guy), 2 Germans (Chris and Oli) and 2 Austrians (Claudia and Manuel). It was a very easy group to get comfortable with and we were very happy to be joining them on this tour. Once we arrived at the Bolivian border, we got our passports stamped for entry and waited for our 4wd vehicles to show up. All the other tour groups from different tour companies were at the border as well and one by one they started to take off for the Bolivian desert. Eventually, our drivers appeared and they started to get the trucks ready - 2 Toyota´s for our group of ten. As we would later find out, our drivers weren´t the most timely fellows.
Getting underway, the first stop was not far from the border. We saw Laguna Blanco and Laguna Verde and then headed off for the geysers. After our fill of steam vents and the smell of rotten eggs, we headed to our lunch spot near some thermal springs. This turned out to be a small, shallow pool filled with travellers from the many tour groups making this trek along with us. Some travellers took the full plunge but I opted to just dip my feet. Our first taste of the food had come and I wasn´t sure what to expect. Considering the tour only cost $70, I was expecting the food to be rather limited and bland. Luckily, I was wrong and the food turned out to be some of the best meals we had eaten in awhile. With sandwiches in our bellies, we left the hot springs and headed out over the rough terrain for Laguna Colorado and our first night´s lodging.
The rooms for the first night were quite primitive, all six of us in the same room with beds that felt like planks and toilet facilities that stopped your bowels in their tracks. We arrived in the afternoon which gave us time to explore the Lake with it´s amazing reddish color as well as the flamingoes and llamas. After a wonderfully filling dinner, we all set off for bed tired from the days travel.
Waking up the next morning, we discovered we weren´t the only ones that had a miserable night´s sleep. Between the cold air and uncomfortable beds, most of us only managed a few hours sleep. After a quick breakfast, we were back in the Landcruisers and off for more stunning scenery. The Bolivian desert has an otherworldly feel to it, parts of it make you feel as if you could be on Mars or on the Moon. This day was rough on the shocks as we passed through some extremely rocky terrain. It was a bit scary at times because our driver must have been training for the Indy 500. The nice thing about going over the rocks was that it forced our driver to slow down. We lunched on the rocks looking up at Volcano Ollague. Then we crossed Salar de Chiguana, stopped in at the town of San Juan where we saw pre-Incan grave sites, and headed to a salt hotel that would be our second night´s lodging. The hotel was pretty cool, built of bricks of salt with salt on the floors. We were told that we would have private accommodations but that turned out to be a lie so the 6 of us again shacked up in our cozy dorm. Fortunately, the beds were a 100% improvement from the night before, the toilet had a seat, it flushed without having to pour water in the bowl and hot showers were available.
The next morning, we decided to wake up in time to see the sunrise over the Salar de Uyuni, which we could see from our hotel. Sunrise came at 6:30 and then we were to have breakfast and be loaded up and on the flats around 8:00. Our drivers must have had a rough night because we didn´t get underway till 9:30. Don´t know if it was partying that kept them up or having to work on the trucks that are constantly breaking down thanks to the unforgiving nature of this journey. No matter, by 10:00 we were down on the salar which this time of year has several inches of water covering it. This creates a dramatic effect as the sky and mountains are reflected in the water and you could look to the horizon and not distinguish where land stopped and sky began. Absolutely amazing, something we will probably never see again. We cruised across the watery flats till we hit dry salt. Now it was a field of blinding white that seemed to stretch forever. We along with throngs of other visitors hiked around Isle Pescado, an island seemingly floating among the salt. Then we cruised toward another salt hotel, dodging holes in the ice like we were test driving the steering on a brand new sports car. We exited the salt flats, had lunch at a small village and headed to Uyuni. Our 3 days of adventure had come to an end but our Bolivian journey was just beginning.
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