Overland miles: 11785 Bus hours: 348.5 Empanadar 73
Crossing the border between Chile and Bolivia has been one of the wildest and most exciting parts yet of our trip. The three day, two night journey in a 4WD jeep takes you through the Atacama desert, past spectacular, alien-like scenery, before arriving in the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world.
After a couple of days exploring San Pedro de Atacama, the Chilean border town which we’d reached after a mammoth 24 hour journey from Santiago, and going on a very interesting Sky at Night-style star gazing trip, we finally chose what seemed like a reputable tour operator for our trip. Our guide book and Trip Advisor were full of horror about drunk drivers careering through the desert, not enough food, poor quality accommodation and jeeps breaking down in the middle of nowhere. The knowledge that 16 people had died since 2008 trying to complete this trip didn’t help to set our minds at ease. Luckily, we had no such problems, Jovian didn’t need to eat all his emergency snacks and we are still alive to tell the tale. So here is an account of our three day adventure …
Our intrepid group of six consisted of two crazy Koreans and two friends from Germany, none of whom spoke more than rudimentary Spanish. We soon realised we’d be doing all the translating on the trip.
The Bolivian border, where we transferred to 4WD jeeps, is a very basic affair, so basic in fact that some people in our group didn’t even realise it was the border post and forgot to get their passports stamped. Our jeep driver patiently had to turn around and drive back, where we had to wake up the guards from their mid-morning nap and act as the group’s interpretors to make sure everyone was in the country legally. However, our companions were left severely out of pocket as the guards concocted a multa (fine) for their minor infraction of $100 each, which after some hurried negotiation on our part, they eventually reduced to $15.
Back on the road, our next stop was Laguna Verde, the first of many alti-planic lakes on the trip. The lake was our first introduction to the other-worldly beauty of a lot of Bolivia with its dark green, spookily still water reflecting the peaks of the Andes.
Back in the jeep, we sped off towards the hot springs, a small pool in the middle of the desert where the locals have channeled water heated by the volcanic rocks. Our guide told us we just had just 30 minutes here so most people didn’t bother getting into the pool. Jovian had a soak though and reported it to be intensely relaxing.
Off we headed again, with a quick stop at some rocks that had allegedly inspired Salvador Dali on a trip to Bolivia, to the geysers. This was our first ever sighting of geysers as we’d eschewed the day trip from San Pedro de Atacama on the grounds that it left at silly o’ clock in the morning. These geysers were pretty impressive. They weren’t the kind that shot up in the air, but just bubbled away menacingly in a variety of muddy hues, whilst letting off some pretty noxious smells. [Sorry, I think much of that was due to my breakfast – Jovian] Looking down into them, you got the impression that the earth was literally erupting beneath your feet. Which I guess it was really? Any readers with scientific knowledge of geysers please feel free to correct me!
So, geysers done, we were all starting to feel pretty tired and it wasn’t even lunchtime. By this point in the trip, we’d reached over 4200 metres above sea level and everyone was starting to feel the affects of the thin air and desert surroundings – headaches, drowsiness and a dry mouth. After another stint in the jeep, we finally arrived at our ‘hotel’ for the night. We’d been warned it was muy basico so luckily we were prepared, but it definitely will go down as one of the most rustic nights of the trip. The owners had prepared a lunch for us, consisting of a veggie soup to start, followed by mashed potato (out of the packet but we were too hungry to care) and sausages. To drink was a 2 litre bottle of Coca Cola to share. We later came to realise this was something of a Bolivian tradition when we saw groups of families quaffing huge bottles of fizzy drinks at every restaurant we went to.
After demolishing our lunch it was back in the jeep again, this time for a short trip to the nearby Laguna Colorada, home to hundreds of flamingoes. We were very excited to see flamingoes in the wild and spent a happy half hour wandering the edge of the lake trying to snap arty looking pictures and realising how patient you have to be to photograph nature, because it won’t stand bloody still and get its head out of the water for a picture.
Back at base, we had a few hours to chill before dinner. Most of us just retired to our beds to sleep off our headaches. The people from each jeep (there were two on our trip) shared a room each where we had single beds, covered with bright and shiny, highly flamable nylon bedspreads and pillows that had seen happier days. Showers were out of the question because there weren’t any, so most people just flopped on their beds.
Dinner was similarly basic: another tasty soup followed by some pasta and packet tomato sauce that was slightly cold. We were even given half a tinned peach for dessert – what luxury! Darkness set across the desert and we played cards until our two hours of electricity was nearly up; then it was time to turn in, to be ready for an early start the next day …