Being over 2,000km from Sucre, this is probably the biggest physical distance between entries thus far. After a couple more nights in Sucre, we took an overnight bus to a remote town named Uyuni, where we planned to book a ‘salt flats’ tour to check out the massive expanses of sodium chloride that are one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Bolivia.
After doing our due diligence of the many companies offering largely similar trips, we teamed up with a couple of fellow travelers that we’d bumped into at the bus station, having met them previously in Nicaragua, and signed ourselves up with a company named Salty Desert. Unfortunately, the national park that you usually visit on this tour was closed due to extreme levels of snow, so we had to settle for a slightly reduced adventure.
After one delicious pizza and one very chilly night in Uyuni we rose early and piled into a handsome green Lexus 4×4 and drove to the outskirts of the town to check out the ‘train graveyard’ of old steam locomotives that used to transport minerals and cargo to neighbouring Chile, before being replaced by diesel equivalents and left to rust.
From the graveyard we headed out into the massive expanses of salt, stretching as far as the eye can see. Our first stop was a hotel/rest area that featured a impressive salt statue of the Dakar Rally logo* and a collection of flags that wouldn’t have looked out of place at either of the poles or the top of an 8,000m peak.
Similar to Machu Picchu, the salt flats had been hyped up for us both, and it wouldn’t have been a great surprise if they’d failed to live up to subsequently high expectations. Again, though, we were absolutely blown away by them, and, again, instead of waffling on trying to explain the awesome spectacle in words, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
After doing our best to test the patience of our brilliant driver/guide Iber with endless perspective photos, selfies, yoga poses and eventually climbing all over his precious truck, we proceeded on, driving through the seemingly limitless expanses of salt for hours. There’s an odd sense of stillness and isolation that comes from driving at decent speeds in one direction for hours without the scenery changing at all.
Eventually, after pausing briefly to watch the sunset, we reached our destination for the night, a tiny frontier-style town on the edge of the flats.
One extremely cold night in a salt hotel** later, we set off for our second day, which was to take in a series of high-altitude lakes and volcanic rock formations. My inner geography nerd was fired up yet again, and we had a brilliant day gawping at, and walking through some of the most spectacular landscapes that any of us had ever seen.
The next day, after an even colder night, was all about getting into Chile. Rising early, we drove to the border crossing at Ollagüe, which is by far the most remote and spectacular frontera we’ve come across so far. From there, with two of our party returning back to Uyuni in Bolivia, we continued on to our Chilean destination; San Pedro de Atacama.
I was lucky enough to be sitting in the front seat of the minibus for an incredible drive through Reserva Alto Loa, Chile’s largest protected area and home to seemingly endless mountains, volcanoes and jaw-dropping skylines.
San Pedro de Atacama is a small, remote town located, as the name suggests, in the Atacama Desert. The main thing we did here was an expedition to an area named Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). Making the (later to be ever-so-slightly regretted) decision to cycle, we hired mountain bikes and set out on the journey there. By the time we’d limped*** back into town under the cover of darkness, we did have to admit that the sore knees and aching bums were worth an incredible afternoon spent examining a landscape that’s unique on the face of the earth.
Located so remotely, at such a high altitude and in such a dry climate, San Pedro de Atacama is one of the best places in the world for star-gazing and astronomy. Unfortunately, we’d ended up there in the days following a full moon, when star-gazing tours aren’t run due to the subsequent light pollution. Even more unfortunately, on our last night there, when the tours had restarted, there was high-altitude cloud that our Belgian astronomer and guide said would affect things so badly that he returned our money and didn’t run the tour.
However, he was kind enough to take us out to his observatory on the edge of town anyway, and show us a couple of things for free. Even with the cloud, you could see the outline of the Milky Way with the naked eye, which is something I’ve always wanted to do and was very special. Through the telescope we also saw Jupiter and its moons, as well as Saturn and its ring.
Sadly, even with a 30-second exposure, my GoPro couldn’t do any justice to the amazing night sky, so you’ll just have to head to Chile (or Google) if you want to see what I’m on about!
From San Pedro we took our longest bus of the trip so far, a 24-hour affair all the way down to Valparaiso, which is why we’re so far from where I wrote the previous entry. We’ve quickly fallen in love**** with this charming coastal city, with Ben and I particularly liking the ability to get right up close to a working container port and stare at the cool cranes and forklifts. Known as ‘Little San Francisco’, the city has a strong British connection due its naval history, and we’ve had a really enjoyable couple of days so far, taking the attractive, colourful buildings as well as plenty of delicious empanadas.
We’re just about to head out on a walking tour to learn a bit more, so I’ll sign off for now and leave you with a couple of pictures that we’ve already snapped.
*Which has been held in South America since 2009 due to security concerns along the traditional African route.
**Yes, even the beds were made out of salt.
***Or whatever the cycling equivalent of limping is
****OK, maybe the l-word is a bit strong. Fallen in liking-very-much might be better.