San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
San Pedro de Atacama in the Atacama Desert is a tiny little oasis of a town in one of the driest places on the planet. We drove for hours and hours in a bus, finally arriving at this little green patch in amongst all the dry, pinkish brown hills, canyons and plains. The town is built from similar materials and so looks like an ancient mud village which has morphed into a tourist town, but a tourist town with soul. It has a lovely, South American rhythm, a rustic, inviting, super cute restaurant, bar or café every few metres, and of course hundreds of tourist shops selling the same colourful stuff! But really a gorgeous little town you just don’t want to leave, so comfortable with tons of charm and lots of colourful people. And surrounding it more than its fair share of natural and beautiful wonders. We decided to reach Bolivia via a three day overland land cruiser trip across rugged and strange landscapes, so we decided not to do too many of the excursions from San Pedro de Atacama.
The first day we just explored the town, popping in at various curio shops, gawking at the crazy number of tourists doing the same as us, and having a beer of course. The following day we hired bicycles and rode to Valle de la Luna for what was rumoured to be an amazing sunset experience. It was about 18km from town, and relatively flat, but made so much more difficult by the high altitude. So the way there in the hot afternoon was at a very leisurely pace. We reached the first stopping point or attraction in the national park, which was a curving, rugged pathway of caverns and tunnels. There were no tourists ahead of us, so we ventured in feeling like intrepid travellers. At times we weren’t even sure if we could go on in the tunnel it was so dark, narrow and kind of scary. We had our head lamps luckily, parts of it we were crawling on our bellies to get through. There were no markings or signs to say we could go through, just footprints in the dust so knew it was probably ok. It was a pretty cool and crazy experience, especially when we remembered how many earthquakes there were recently and how close the earth was above our heads.
After this we climbed back over the salty rocks we’d just crawled through and pushed our bikes up the hill and over a few more hills and turns to ride into Moon Valley. We parked our bikes again and walked next to this massive black sand dune and up to a long ridge overlooking the valley. We walked all along the ridge right to the end to settle ourselves in for the setting of the sun. It was such a strange and beautiful landscape, really impossible to describe. Totally otherworldly, an epic expanse of bizarreness. A big black sand dune to our right looking like a giant smooth elephants back. Ahead a steep drop down into a canyon full of rugged red hills and slopes of slippery rocks and beyond that hills and mountains growing more opaque till the very horizon. It was a very calming and beautiful experience, until other tourists, seeing our perfect spot starting heading over and even asked us to move so they could take pictures in our exact seats! Oh tourists. We lost our hard found spot but the sunset was magnificent from two metres away too.
Soon after that we had to hoof it back down to the bikes and hit the road before full dark. Ha. Once the sun set darkness came pretty quick, and there were absolutely no lights out there at all. Not one. We had no helmets which was definitely a silly oversight, and our bikes had no reflectors aside from the pedals. We felt invisible and nervous. The busses and cars leaving the site had all eventually passed us and we felt quite alone in the dark expanse. The only illumination we each had was the 40cm or so cast by our headlamps. The occasional car sped past and once an enormous monstrosity of a bus pulled up next to us, all lights and noise, the driver shouted something in Spanish then drove on. Adrenaline pumping we put our legs to work and pedalled ourselves quickly back to town, much faster than the way in. The darkness biting at our ankles.
The next morning we were up bright and early to set off on our Uyuni adventure. A van picked us up and we went through Chilean customs, a half hour or so later we were at the border. The first of many lovely, simple meals was set up on a table outside the van once the officials checked and stamped our passports. After coffee and ‘pan with jamon y queso’ (bread with ham and cheese), and cake we were split into our separate Toyota Landcruisers and groups of six. We seriously lucked out and got four other like minded people who ended up being so much fun and who a week later we’re still travelling with. Tash and David from England, the pretty and witty nurse and her bearded and adorable guy. Hidde and Sanne, brother and sister adventure pair from Belgium, and our oddly named but cutie pie driver/guide, Vladimir. Silent and stoic, but considerate and unobtrusively delightful in his own way.
The first day took us past numerous lakes, and the landscape was once again otherworldly. So beautiful in it’s utter desolate vastness. Laguna verde, or green lake, laguna azul, or blue lake, laguna rocha, or red lake. All coloured by multiple varieties of algae giving them their strange colours and attracting thousands of flamingos. Lots of fantastic photo opportunities, lots of getting in and out of the landcruiser to look at various things. A little walk near a volcano left us completely out of breath, this 5000 or so metres above sea level was probably the highest any of us had ever been and you could really feel it in how breathless you were at the smallest exertion. That evening the six of us shared a room and it literally felt as if we were all a bit high from the altitude sickness, we were quite out of it. Very amusing though, people mixing up words and looking a bit lost, poor Jean felt it the worst, luckily only for a short while.
The food on the trip was surprisingly good, every meal was served to us on the tailgate of the cruiser, starter, main and dessert. Nothing over the top but fresh and tasty. We ended up always looking forward to meal times as Vladimir set up the communal affair. The second day brought more fantastic vistas – Salvador Dali fields of sand and extraordinary rock formations, mountains and so, so, so much desert. Dry and sandy and dusty, that’s how the day was and also how we felt, from our hair to our nostrils to our clothes. At one point a random and cute fox was standing pretty much in the road, sort of looking at the passing vehicles and panting, I’m not sure what his mission was but I felt quite sorry for it. Mostly we just saw llamas and alpacas and flamingos otherwise. Llamas have extremely inquisitive little faces. And lovely soft fluffy looking fur.
The second night we stayed in a hotel made entirely from salt. It was so cool, the walls, the tables we ate off, the bed bases – all salt. I licked one of the walls just to be sure. Jean and I got a double room that night and slept like babies. Until 5am when we had to be up. After unwillingly tearing myself from the covers, the excitement for the day ahead began to seep in. We set off at 5:30 for the salt flats. I was dozy and napping on Jean’s shoulder when I looked up and it was just “wow” – all around was deep, hazy, glowing, ethereal, royal blue which rocked the soul. We had hit the salt, which looked like ice. To the left, salt flat, mountain and sky were beautiful shades of blue, to the right, a sight which left me speechless. Crisp ice blue seemingly endless salt flat, and a sky tinged baby pink, yellow and blue with swashes of deep purple cloud separating the colours. It felt like we were the only dark and solid entity in an expanse of breathlessness. Nothing broke the incredible colours of nature, the immense salt flat beneath and around us, the vast blues and sunrise colours above and beside us. And us cruising along with the crackling, crispy salt under our tyres. We were all quietly in awe. Seeped into the blue colour palette glowing around and in us. We stopped at a place with no one else around, to enjoy the sun rising over the salt flats and take a few photos, not that the camera could quite capture it. Then we drove onwards to Incahuasi island, an island of corals and salt, ruggedly jutting from the endless salt plains around it, with enormous cacti pointing thick spiky fingers into the clear sky. After exploring the tiny island we were treated to breakfast and coffee on salt or stone slabs, prepared out of Vladimir’s Mary Poppins like trunk/boot area of the cruiser. One of the coolest places any of us has had breakfast. We set off again across the flats to the spot where we would take the ‘photos locos’ aptly called as we were to see. Of course we’d all done a little research and put some prior thought into what we would do, and as the day progressed we got a little more creative. It was so much fun playing with distance and perception with the camera, only the pictures can explain it!
After playing with the cameras for a fair amount of time, lying and crawling and jumping on the salt, we were dropped off in Uyuni for the next leg of our adventure. Five of us were heading in the same direction, so we boarded a bus, which included a German shepherd on his own seat, his big ears flopping in the wind from the open window, and headed into Bolivia to discover what magic it held in store for us.
Ahead lies cycling Death Road, Machu Picchu and the jungles, hopefully I’ll be lucky enough to write about lots of lovely wild animals!
You write things out so beautifully, dear!! Thanks for sharing all of the beauty and images. I laughed out loud when the picture of you popped into my head of you licking the salt wall. HAHA! oh timmy, of course. Love you both, Cape Town is still wilted without you but smelling like fall; vineyards have changed from sweating green to shivering bronze. Happy Trails, lovelies!!
Just love reading about your other worldly adventures!! Your posts are so descriptive & paint amazing pictures! Can’t wait to see photos!! Lotsa love!! xxxx
Vlad the lad