Nov 26 Out of Argentina and back to Chile on the day long bus from Salta to San Pedro: Just tourists! Tourists (especially older French couples…) are quite annoying, so fussy. I prefer a bus full of locals who never complain and know what´s up. It took us ages to go through the exit and enter border stations. Otherwise a great ride for the scenery! Starting off with the craziest rainstorm in Jujuy: the streets were actually rivers and two girls and a guy were putting shampoo in each other´s hair and pushing the others into the torrents of water. Incredible, and then a half later, after passing through thick fog we were in the desert. Passed through dry valleys and beautiful multi-coloured mountains before climbing up and up a crazy dirt road through the Paso de Jama where I suffered a tiny bit of altitude sickness. Finally arrived in San Pedro de Atacama and hunted down Simone in the nice hostel she had found (so nice to be re-united!!) That evening we walked around the town a bit (such a tiny and odd place, more tourists than locals, all one-story mud brick buildings forming a solid wall down the streets so it´s like a maze, cold nights and hot days) and booked tours for the next day.
Nov 27 Up at 3:30 to head off on the 4am tour to see the geysers at dawn… after the bumpiest 2-hour minibus ride to the park! Absolutely worth it though… the barren landscape spewing steam in the freezing cold. Hot water bubbling up periodically. Like nothing on earth (which is how I could describe most things we saw the last couple days!)… breakfast heated in the hot pools and much nicer ride back which included vicuña sightings (desert deer(?) gorgeous delicate animals that graze in small herds in the most harsh environment) Tagua birds and bright green moss plant that is being used to cure diabetes. Plus a stop in an indigenous village where I even tried llama meat on a skewer! (have to say if was delicious, like a mix of beef and lamb and perfectly seasoned) After running some errands it was off on our evening tour out into the atacama desert which is apparently the driest, it rains less than 2 hours a year and the water that´s there just bubbles up from the geysers. Valle de la muerte and valle de la luna. Incredible volcanic rock formations and a huge sand dune from the top of which we watched the sunset… exhausted, back to town to get rid our last few Chilean pesos and pack!
Nov 28 Off at 8am in a minibus for the Bolivian border with our tour group that we would spend the next 3 days packed in a Land cruiser with… Me, Simone, Jay and Paul from England, Alfonso and his daughter Kathi from Austria and her Spanish boyfriend, Josemi. Really lucked out, wonderful travel companions. The Bolivian border was the most desolate yet, just a shack way high up in the mountains of the desert with a flag. File in, pay a tiny bit and get your 30-day stamp no questions asked and definitely no customs there either. Some people started feeling the altitude here (later in the day we reached 4830m!) but surprisingly seeing as I´d had problems before, I never felt anything except a bit short of breath. Had breakfast out of the back of our minibus while waiting for the 4x4 that would be our home for the next 3 days. Add our Bolivian guide and driver, Alberto, and our international group was complete. Speeding across the barren but ever-changing colourful landscape squished in with 7 other people (listening to ricky martin…) unforgettable experience. The first day we passed the laguna blanca, laguna verde and the most spectacular of all (perhaps the most spectacular thing I have ever seen) Laguna colorada. A red and white and blue lagoon, mostly red, from the minerals in the water, constantly changing colours and filled with gorgeous pick flamingoes. Amazing birds! It took us nearly the whole 3 days to be tired of taking pictures of them… All to a backdrop of pastel coloured volcanoes and mountains. Indescribable, I don´t even know why I´m trying! Hopefully will get some pictures up but not even those will do it justice. Stayed in a really basic hostel place which the dorm rooms and communal washroom and group tables reminded me of summer camp. Snoring and all! But it really wasn´t as bad as we were told to expect, never very cold, the food was decent and no intense exercise, everything was planned to it was pretty relaxnig really. A few people got altitude sickness (but the coca tea was plentiful so cured that) and I was completely fine.
Nov 29 Another day of bumpy 4x4-ing across more mazing landscapes. Stopped at the arbol de piedra, for the me the one rock that looked like a tree was the least of the attraction, better yet were the huge smoothed lava rocks you could climb (or play the drums on...), and such wonderful silence. true middle of nowhere. And then on to a view of the volcano (more rock climbing). I spent that entire day wrapped in my scarf from the intense sun. headscarves are truly the most practical. We passed 4 more small lagoons, pink lagoons packed with pink flamigoes. like out of some fantasy book... and near the end of the day reached a small salt flat, our first taste of what the next day held! Jay and Paul (the Brits) had the brilliant idea of packing an aerobee (hollow frisbee) and so there were numerous games of aerobee, I think I improved, gradually? great fun anyway! And through a small village (llamas and civilisation) and out again. Just before we made it to the edge of the salt flat, our land cruiser broke down... (it had to happen!) but not for long, one coming the other way helped us and we got in another great game of aerobee =) Finally arrived at the salt hotel (like the ice hotel but, you guessed it.... made out of salt!) Tables, beds, stool, walls floors, everywhere the tourist can see! (the kitchen behind was not) Still neat experience. and that put us right on the edge of the salt flat and ready to take off before dawn.
Nov30 Up at 3:30 to be ready before 4.... but then our driver disappeared... My only complaint about him. We even went for a short walk to try and find him since we thought he was sleeping in the house next door, so we got a nice walk in the black with the brightest milky way over the salt flat but no Alberto... Finally, he shows up and we load up the 7 huge bags and all for the last time, and only get out of there an hour late. Then we`re cruising across perfectly flat white ground that streches for miles and miles as the sky slowly gets lighter and stars disappear, all of us in a lack of sleep stupor. Totally surreal experience. Just believe me that you stop trying to absord it since it is so incredible. Arrived at the cactus island at dawn, and I was sooo tired and with the altitude only Paul and Jay made it to the summit just as the sun rose, the rest of us missed it. Urgh. But caught it half way up and that was still just as cool. Sat taking pictures on the top of thiscold bizarre rocky cactus island until the sun was up over the plain of pure white salt. Priceless. (or actually about US$130 for 3 days, plus camera, plus getting down to Uyuni... everything adds up, except my bank account, it just goes down) From there is was hot breakfast (packed pancakes, yogurt and granola!!) on a rock table at the bottom, off to play a bit more aerobee, marvel at the scenery and pile back in the jeep. Flying once again towards the horizon with one quick stop to take some fun salt flat pics, endless possiblities playing with size! a lunch stop in a small town on the edge of the flat where they have salt mines and where the contrast between the one street with the tourist souvenirs and then rest of the barren village of workers is terrible. One more stop by the train cemetery and we arrived at our destination early afternoon: Uyuni. Actually a fairly major bolivian town but really not much. With the worst public washrooms ever, but I won´t go into the ugly details, I´m sure you only want to know how great a time I´m having! (but truly nothing´s as peachy as the blog makes it sound!) Pop by the internet and bank for the first time in a few days and we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in a restaurant on the main plaza (all bolivian towns have amazingly nice central plazas. The infrastructure here is the possibly the worst I´ve seen, but they certainly don´t skimp when it comes to the manicured plazas, gorgeous, so great to have a piece of peace in every town). Oh and to mention the not-so-peachy bits, I got shat on by birds 3 times in Uyuni. Just me, and for the first time in my life. Ridiculous, and then yesterday it happened again! I love Bolivia but apparently the birds here don´t like me!!! Anyway, Uyuni, after some debate we ended up heading straight to Sucre on the night bus and skipping Potosi. Or at least, we tried to skip Potosi, but after the hour´s stop there at 1am, the bus driver told everyone to get off and get on the other bus (saving going to whole way I guess) but there were´nt enough seats on the other bus and there was no way we were going to stand at night for 4 hours when we had paid for semi-cama (which it turns out the other bus was even) so finally the other bus was like are you 4 (Paul and Jay were still with us) coming or not? and took off. So we hurried back to the first bus and whined at a lot and the lady magically found another bus (a real semi-cama one!! up grade!!) that had room and even a bathroom. Score for us, not so for Dutch guy who got the last seat on the other bus crammed in the back, hahaha. Speaking spanish pays off once again, but that was a bit sketchy.
Dec 1 and we arrive ok in Sucre, which I will leave to the next post!