A Pinch of Salt

Trip Start Jan 16, 2008
Trip End Apr 27, 2008

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Friday, April 4, 2008

It was one of those moments where you are hoping for the best, but already resigned to the fact that its not going to happen. We had just arrived in Santiago airport and had been waiting for our bags for 45 minutes, watching the carousel go round and round - watching new bags from new flights being but out for collection and with each new load, the hope of our bags arriving diminished. Most of the people from our plane had long gone, and so we trudged over to the baggage services desk to report the missing luggage. The lady at the desk radio-ed a few people and, minutes later, our two backpacks were coming down the reclaim towards us. They'd been left on the plane. "Welcome to South America", we thought...

The flight over had been pretty uneventful. The 11 hour flight from Auckland to Chile on Lan Airlines crossed the date line and so we took off at 5pm on 27th March and landed in Santiago at 11am on the same day. It's taken us the best part of a week to get over the jet lag which comes from completely reversing your body clock, but we've hardly spend up the process by napping at every opportunity and then lying wide awake until the early hours every night. In Santiago we were staying at Hostal Forestal, named by the Lonely Planet as one of the top five hippest hostels in the World. We didn't really get the opportunity to find out why, collapsing into bed as soon as we arrived and then waking up again at 4am, once the hostel had gone to sleep.

We did, however, manage to stay awake to have a walk around the city the following day and take in all the sights. Santiago had the feel of a big Spanish city, very cosmopolitan and busy with big open plazas and narrow alleys. It's picture-postcard face is that of a modern city backed by the snowy peaks of the Andes, but we couldn't see them for all the smog. The metro system was the most impressive thing, linking everywhere in the city with trains every minute, and a single fare of 30p for any journey. As soon as each train pulled out of the station, the next one was already pulling in.

That evening we tried to find a ncie place to eat and, after walking through some less than comfortable streets, find the tourist drag, and a lively American-style music restaurant where we drank cocktails and had huge meals at tiny prices, feeling safe that there was a bouncer on the door.

The following day we prepared ourselves for what was we fully expected going to be one of the worst experiences of travelling - a 24 hour bus journey North to the Atacama desert. We decided to splash out and bought 'semi-cama' seats, which means that they recline pretty far back, but not quite beds. The ticket set us back 27 pounds - expensive by South American standards, although Chile is the most expensive country on the continent.

Our worst fears were realised when just 5 minutes into the journey, the ten year old boy sitting next to us got out his mobile and starting playing tinny RnB music as loud as his phone would allow. Luckily, his stop was only an hour into our one day marathon and the journey turned out to be more than bearable. We were given food and drinks every few hours, there were TVs playing music videos and some Spanish films, and we were given blankets and pillows too. Every hour or so we would pick up a local food vendor who would come onboard to sell food - first up was the big, sweaty baker who came on with a basket brimming with stale rolls, which we gave a miss. Later on though, a lady came on selling empanadas, a traditional South American delicacy like greasy cornish pasties. It was like a gift from heaven.

24 hours and 5 minutes later we arrived at San Pedro de Atacama, at 2pm in the afternoon, and trudged to our hostel through the baking desert heat. We tried to stay up as late as we could, but at 10pm went to bed, feeling shattered. Sure enough, jet lag kicked in and we lay wide awake for around 2 hours until a big Spanish guy came back from drinking in town and got into bed. Minutes later he was snoring - not just the little snuffly kind but proper 'shaking the walls' snoring, relentlessly.

Needless to say, the next day I slept in until the afternoon after finally drifting off to sleep in the wee hours (and by doing so further delayed the effects of jet lag), and then we took a stroll around the tourist-town of San Pedro de Atacama. We booked onto a three day tour that we'd be starting the next day and went to an Empanadium which offered over 220 types of empanada.

That evening we booked onto a stargazing tour, with San Pedro offering some of the clearest skies in the World. We had of course heard all that before, and with two previous star tours being cancelled in Ayers Rock and Lake Tekapo in New Zealand, we didn't hold out much hope of the tour going ahead, especially as clouds brewed on the horizon. However, the sky cleared up and we were soon driving into the desert to see what the stars could offer. The French astronomer who had moved out here was passionate about his subject, and brought the night sky to life. After explaining a little history and pointing out many of the constellations in the Southern Hemisphere we got the opportunity to look through telescopes and many of the features in the sky. The most impressive was Saturn, which look unbelievably real, with clearly defined rings - it looked like a picture out of a textbook and Lotte and I will still need a little convincing that it wasn't a sticker stuck on the end.

The next day we set off on a three day jeep tour to Bolivia. From the outset we weren't expecting luxury - the tour price included 2 nights accommodation, all of our meals, entry to the national parks, departure and entry taxes to Chile and Bolivia respectively and our transport - the grand total was just under fifty pounds, and we forked out for a more expensive tour.

The two hour drive out of San Pedro was steep and climbed over 2000m to the border which was situated at 4800m - well within the boundaries of altitude sickness which can strike upwards of 2500m. We were lucky to survive the three days with only a few headaches, as some of the members of the group came off much worse. There were six people in our jeep and after completing border customs, our spanish-speaking driver took us to some of the sights of the altiplano. The difference in temperature from San Pedro was incredible, and the climate was much more harsh. We were soon putting on trousers and jumpers to protect us from the cold, although there would be places where the temperature was much warmer and we would be slapping on the suncream.

On the first day we visited thermal pools, Laguna Verde which was a bright green colour and full of flamingoes, and Laguna Colorada which was multi-coloured due to all of the minerals, including a blood red colour at the edges. We arrived at our hostel early afternoon and it had to be seen to be believed - it was a concrete shell with a corrugated plastic roof held on by rocks. The beds too, were made of concrete, and covered in blankets made of llama wool. After dinner we settled down into bed for one of the most uncomfortable nights of the trip, with temperatures diving down to minus 20 degrees celcius.

The next morning, with temperatures still freezing, we left for the second day of the tour. By now the tape of bolivian music which the driver played was starting to wear thin as it looped every ten minutes, playing the same songs of wailing bolivian men and women backed by an electronic keyboard. The dust tracks were teeth-chatteringly bumpy and we drove through alien landscapes not seeing anyone for hours. We stopped to take pictures of a tree made of a rock, several active volcanoes, geysers and hot pools and rocks which had been the inspiration for many of Dali's paintings when he once visited the area.

We were close to breaking point but luckily the hotel that night was much better. It was a hotel made of salt from many of the salares (salt plains) that lay around everywhere. The floor, walls, chairs, tables and even beds were made out of blocks of salt and, even though it was cold, the temperature didn't nearly get as cold as the previous night. We also took advantage of hot showers - the first for a long time. Everything was great and that evening we sat down to dinner with everyone and discussed whether the the tape that our driver had now been playing for two days was broken, or that was actually how it was meant to sound.

The next day, our final day of the tour, we headed into what the area that the whole experience had been for - the Salar de Uyuni.

The Salar de Uyuni defies description. Its a salt flat 12,000 square kilometres in area, made up of the whitest salt imaginable, up to 6m deep in places. We drove accross it for hours, arriving at a solitary island in the middle of the Salar which was full of giant comic-like cacti. We climbed up to the top of the island and in every direction you looked, white salt stretched out as far as the horizon, perfectly flat. We took the opportunity to take plenty of pictures of the unbelievable landscape, the most incredible thing that I've seen on the entire trip so far.

From the island we continued driving for another two hours to the edge of the salt plain to the town of Uyuni, stopping many times along the way to take pictures, even though the landscape barely changed. 2km South of the town we stopped at another surreal site - a train cemetry where defunct locomotives had been dumped 50 years ago and left to rust. After checking that we'd had our tetanus jabs, we had a bit of time to explore the graveyard, climbing over the trains and looking through the carriages.

The last few days have probably been the hardest but most rewarding travelling. Seeing the Salar is unforgettable and despite the rough tour which you inevitably have to go through to get there on a backpackers' budget, its well worth it.
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Where I stayed
Hostal Forestal
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