Alien worlds

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Apr 30, 2011

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Where I stayed
In very basic lodgings!

Flag of Chile  ,
Sunday, October 3, 2010

From Sucre we took a 10 hour bus, passing through the silver mining town of Potosi and then on through scrubby desert until we reached Uyuni, a small desert town in the middle of nowhere with an icy wind that whips through the wide dusty streets. We checked into a cheap and basic hostel for two nights and then set off on a 3 day tour of Salar de Uyuni and Reserva Eduardo Avaroa to end in San Pedro de Atacama over the border in Chile. It is hard to describe the otherworldliness and desolate beauty of this harsh and unforgiving landscape (hopefully the photos will do it some justice). It felt like we were on the set of a science fiction film, travelling through strange alien landscapes from another planet. Joining our tour were a lovely couple from Holland, and two funny German medical students.

A few minutes out of Uyuni we visited a train cemetery, where old steam trains lay rusting on the sand. Then we passed through Colchani, a salt processing village, before crossing onto the Salar de Uyuni itself. Situated at 3650 metres above sea level in the remote Andes of far south-west Bolivia, the Salar de Uyuni is the remains of an ancient sea and the world's largest salt flat stretching over 10,000 square kilometres. It is blindingly white and perfectly flat and looks more like ice and snow glinting in the sun. The surface is patterned with hexagons of raised salt crystals and in the shimmering distance mountains and volcanoes look like they are floating above the flats. We stopped at the surreal Isla de Pescado also known as Inca Wasi, a small island made of fossilised coral whose entire surface is covered in giant cacti. From the top of the island we could look out at the vast expanse of the Salar stretching off in every direction.

After a tasty lunch, we continued on our journey and the landscape changed from salt pan to desert. We stopped at Cuevas de las Galaxias, a magical cave discovered only a few years ago and decorated with fossilised corals and algae. A few metres away another cave, Cuevas del Diablo, contained a number of pre-Incan tombs complete with a few skulls and bones. In the late afternoon, as we were driving to our accommodation for the night, the driver discovered a problem with the jeep which wouldn't go into third gear. We spent a worrying 30 minutes with the bonnet up but a bit of Tom's adhesive tape wrapped around two wires fixed the problem (!) and we made it to our home for the night, a basic but adequate adobe building.

It was freezing cold when we set off the next morning, climbing to about 4500 metres and passing through an incredible landscape of outcrops of volcanic rock, lava fields and cone-shaped volcanoes flecked with snow, one of which was active and had steam pouring out of the top. We then came to the first of several colourful lakes, across whose surface hundreds of pink flamingos were busy feeding on a planktonic soup. Each lake was stunningly beautiful and surrounded by a backdrop of desolate mountains and volcanoes. It was bitterly cold and the wind was incredibly strong and we wondered in amazement at how the flamingos survive in these icy conditions.

In the afternoon, we drove across a high altitude desert of volcanic ash and gravel covered with rocky outcrops that have been scoured into strange shapes by the constant howling wind, the most well-known of which is the Arbol de Piedra or Stone Tree, a giant boulder balancing on a narrow stem. We then entered the Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, and drove to the Laguna Colorada, a huge lake with bizarre red coloured water due to the presence of algae. The lake was incredibly and surrealy beautiful but we didn't stop for long because it was bitterly cold and the wind was like nothing we have ever experienced. Again we wondered how any wildlife survives in this environment, including the delicate looking vicunas, smaller and more elegant relatives of llamas that roam across these bleak expanses.

That night we stayed in even more basic lodgings with stone walls and floors. The temperature dropped to around minus ten that night and we didn't sleep for more than half an hour. We set off at 5am the next morning and reached the Sol de Manana geyers just as the sun was rising over the horizon. At 5000 metres amid boiling pools of sulphur, high pressure jets of steam shoot out from the ground. We then drove onto another lake where the crazy German guys went for a dip in the hot springs. It looked invitingly warm but the thought of getting undressed and then dressed again afterwards was too much for the rest of us! After another 30km we reached the stunning Laguna Verde, a green lake coloured by the presence of arsenic and other minerals and backed by the imposing and perfectly symmetrical form of Volcan Lincacabur. From here we drove a short distance to the remote Bolivian border post. Here we said goodbye to the German guys and our wonderful driver and cook before transfering onto a bus which drove us 2000 metres down off the altiplano to the Chilean border post and the town of San Pedro de Atacama.

San Pedro de Atacama used to be a tiny oasis village on the edge of the Atacama but in recent years has developed into gringo central! Its small streets contain hundreds of restaurants all selling the same food at crazy prices, tourist agencies and handicraft shops. It is a pretty little place though and we spent a couple of days here staying at the oddly named Hostal Florida along with Suzanna and Martijn from Holland. On our second day we took a late afternoon/evening trip to visit the Valle de la Muerte and Valle de la Luna, a weird and wonderful wind-eroded landscape that resembles the surface of the moon. We climbed to the top of a giant sand dune and watched the sun-set while drinking large quantities of Chilean wine.

Tonight we leave on a 24 hour (gulp) bus journey all the way to Santiago. Fortunately the buses here are seriously luxurious (and seriously expensive) which will make a nice change after Bolivia. From Santiago we fly to Bangkok on the 8th to begin our Asian adventure. Can't wait!

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Susan on

Wow, what an amazing place, great pics x

mogandfrog on

thanks Sue, it was stunning. Never seen anything like that place before!

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