Getting in to San Pedro de Atacama felt like arriving at an outpost at the end of the world. The modest sized town is an oasis in the middle of the driest place on earth, surrounded on all sides by sand and brown mountains that would swallow up anyone who walked in to them. With sweltering heat and fierce sun during the day, the nights can see temperatures drop well below freezing. Stepping out of the bus felt like walking in to a wild west film set. On Mars.
Fortunately, once you get to the centre of the town, the tourist trappings (and subsequent luxuries) make themselves known, and it all becomes rather civilised again. San Pedro is the premier spot for those wanting to travel north via the Salar De Uyuni, or Uyuni Salt Flats, the largest in the world at 10,500 km². Before that though, we had plenty of time in town to relax, see the local sites (of which there are several worthy of note) and take part in the surprisingly excellent restaurants in town. The first thing to note is that this town is expensive. Each meal is similar to an equivalent splurge in any European city, and the drinks also take a sizeable bite from the wallet. This didn’t stop the first night from being a pisco fuelled dancing event of the first order.
The area surrounding San Pedro is awash with beautiful scenery and is often incredibly alien; Sci-Fi film makers could do worse than filming nearby. One day trip is to the nearby Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley, so called because of its resemblance to the surface of the moon. NASA tests its lunar (and one assumes, its martian) rovers here as it is the closest to the real thing we have on earth. Watching sunset over it was quite the experience.
There is also plenty of (easy) biking to be done nearby. The “Gargantua del Diablo” (Devil’s Throat) is a canyon made through mud, the sides rising seemingly from nothing, and a bizarre route to cycle through. It’s roughly nine kilometres of meandering paths on soft but not difficult ground, and what seems unaccountably strange becomes clear after a while of journeying in to the unknown: it’s utterly, utterly silent. Not a sound to be heard. No wind. No birds. Nothing but your breathing and the sound of the pedals. It’s very strange and a little eerie.
Pleasant though this all was, it wasn’t the reason we were here (not the royal “we” – I was with a small group of friends… just want to clarify that!), and so it came to be that we left on our Salar trip, early in the morning, directly to the Bolivian border. Well, the border crossing made it clear we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Where the crossings between Chile and Argentina had, at their worst, been lonely buildings on the high plateaus, this place was literally a mud hut.
Bolivia. We had arrived.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that the Salar Uyuni tourist industry is a complicated beast, especially coming from Chile. The agency in Chile is the same as its corresponding company in Bolivia in name only, as the companies that run in the salt flats themselves have to, by law, be run and owned by Boliians. This means there is a risk of a disconnect between the two agencies so if something goes wrong, getting your money back or any help at all can be a difficult or impossible task, so it was with some trepidation that we met our drivers and saw out vehicles that we would be spending much of the next three days in.
Fortunately our driver was great! He spoke not a word of english (par for the course in much of Bolivia), but that didn’t matter a jot. He drove well and he cooked well (lunch was on the road, and he did a good job of putting everything together) and he appeared sober at all times. Anyone who partakes in this trip will likely hear of (or even experience) horror stories of drivers for these companies; Bolivia is notorious for appalling driving and drunkeness behind the wheel. Incredibly, in 2010, after the Bolivian government passed legislation stating that drunk drivers would have their licenses revoked after a first offence, public transport operators went on a mass strike in defence of driving while drinking! You couldn’t make it up. I have since encountered a person whose driver on his tour was completely drunk, and the passengers forced him to get out of the driving seat while one of them drove in his stead. But wait, it gets worse. During the night, he (or possibly another driver – I forget the details) got drunk (obviously) and went in to a room where several girls were sleeping and went through bags and generally behaved like an ass. And then got in to a jeep to drive around in circles. But wait. It gets even worse. During the following day, the aforementioned jeep, because of the nocturnal driving, ran out of fuel in the middle of the salt flats while way off the course of the normal track. It took hours before another tour vehicle came by to help them out. Astonishing stuff. If you find yourself in the area, you should absolutely do the tour, but choose your company carefully. Tripadvisor is your friend. Use it, and listen to others’ experiences. Don’t just go with whomever your hostel goes with – remember that they get a cut of your money. Shop around carefully.
What surprised me most about the tour is just how beautiful the area up to the salar also is. The Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve is a vast natural reserve in the south west of Bolivia that is home to boundless desert, towering volcanoes, geysers and cauldrons of boiling mud, countless lakes and the most visible inhabitants, Flamingoes.
While they are not as numerous as other places on earth where they gather, it is still a wonder that they exist here at all. These lakes are very high and remote, and when the sun goes down it gets seriously cold. During our time in the area, the temperature fell to nearly minus 15 at night and yet these guys seem perfectly fine here.
They certainly do far better than most of the gringo tourists that visit them. As stated, the region is high – the whole park is part of the altiplano (meaning “High Plains”) which generally sits above 4,200 metres (13,800 feet) and often rises to above 5,000 metres. This means a shortness of breath for everyone, and for those unfortunate few, full altitude sickness as well. A short walk can easily leave you winded, especially when you are going up even the simplest of inclines. One member of our group was up all night vomiting due to the altitude sickness, and you won’t want to eat or drink if you have it. Stay at altitude without it getting better? You die. It’s serious business. Locals drink coca tea to stave off the effects – I luckily never suffered, so I can’t say it works or not, but it tastes nice! Chewing the leaves is less pleasant. The height also affects your sleep. Without acclimatisation you breathe at a normal pace when you sleep, but this is simply not enough for your body, so you wake up gasping for breath, often several times a night. Teaching yourself to breathe more than normal is a tough assignment.
After two days driving through this beautiful, bleak wilderness, we arrived at our final stop off, the salt flats themselves. It’s difficult to describe how huge this place is, so I shall allow pictures to do it for me.