Well another tour highlight down and it didn´t disappoint. Our 4 by 4 tour of the Salar de Uyuni and Bolivian desert this morning came to an end as they dropped us off at an isolated Bolivian migration control point high up in the mountains. Bolivia and Chile don´t get along and as such the Bolivian vehicles were not allowed to enter Chile, so we had to wait 1.5 hours in the freezing wind for a private bus to pick us up and escort us 1600m and 47km down to the touristic Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama, where the Chilean border control was located, and where we are spending the next 2 nights. Having been between 3400m (11,100ft) and 5000m (16,400ft) for the last few days, I´m now merely at an altitude of 2600m (8,500ft), and at our next destination, La Serena, I will finally be back at sea level!
Uyuni town was a former military base and a bit of a dead hole. I can´t imagine what it would have been like without all the tourists there to give it an economic boost. We only had a few hours and 1 night to kill there before the 3 Toyota Landcruisers arrived in the morning to take us on our salt flats tour. With our stuff loaded on the roof we set off in formation order (my 4 by 4 was driven by the slowest of the 3 drivers and thus we always were at the back!) to a small village on the edge of the salt flats, and then finally onto the flats themselves at one of the few points where the salt is mined. The scene was unbelievable and you couldn´t not wear sunglasses as it was so bright. White as far as you could see. We drove a further 45 minutes into the heart of the salt flats, which are the world´s largest, to a spectacular island filled with cactuses, which we walked around before having lunch. You could see the island from miles away but it never seemed to get any closer. There is no sense of perspective when on the flats, which are an area of 4,085 square miles (25 times the size of the Bonneville salt flats in America and 7-8 times the size of London). With some skillfuil direction, it is possible to take crazy photos using toys and other props, which we spent a good 1.5 hours doing after lunch before leaving the sea of white for our salt hotel, 1 hour west just off the salt flats.
Like our lodge on the 2nd night, there was no heating, dorm accommodation, and only electricity between 7 and 9 at night. We also had to bring chefs with us to cook as the lodges are practically unmanned, but do have kitchens. The food, like on the inca trail, was surprisingly good. We went to bed fairly early as with no light there was little else you could do.
Day 2 involved a lot more driving. First past a rock which someone had pained Che Guevarra on to, to another dead end military town (the prevelance of barracks is due to the proximity to arch enemy Chile), and then high up into the Altiplano to some rock formations. The drive was very bumpy even though our driver went slow and looked for the smoothest route. It was fun to see the totally different directions the 3 drivers would take, and there were 4 by 4 tracks everywhere. By lunchtime we had arrived at the 2nd of a series of flamingo ridden lagoons, set at the foot of active or inactive volcanoes. The wind was howling and it was really chilly, but we were never out of the cars long enough to get properly cold thankfully. The scenery was pretty stunning if a little barren. Not a tree for miles!
In fact the only tree was the so called "fossil tree", which I think is just a rock formation which looked like a tree high up in the desert. It has become a symbol of the region and all the tourists had stopped for photos. After queuing for my photo I got the opportunity to clamber up a couple of the bigger red rocks nearby, which reminded me of being a kid! The last stop of the day was the Laguna Colorada, a beautiful red lagoon, again with plenty of flamingo´s in, and again set against a spectacular mountain backdrop. Our lodge was located just a few kilometres from this lagoon, which was located over 4,200m (13,500ft) high in the altiplano. With no heating it was absolutely freezing at night when the temperatures dropped and we all slept in full clothing. Still, this has done my cold no favours, and it has unsurprisingly come back with a vengence. I don´t think this mornings excursions did it any good either.
We were awoken at 4.50am for some reason, when it was still dark, and the sky was still littered with stars (I never knew there were so many!). We were told it would be at least -10C but I think it was closer to freezing, though taking into account the wind chill in certain places it may have been -20C. I don't think I´ve ever felt so cold! The first stop as the sun was coming up was a field full of steaming geysers and bubbling mud pools, which made really interesting noises of various pitches. The smell was horrific but it was the first time I´d seen a geyser and they didn't disappoint. From there we went onto breakfast at some hot springs, which a few people were brave enough to go in. Knowing you would have to get out again into the sub zero temperatures I declined the opportunity and stayed in the breakfast room. It was then a short drive even higher into the altiplano, past a spectacular green lagoon, and some beautiful coloured cliffs, to the Bolivian border control. The 1.5 hour wait in the freezing cold was not pleasant at 9am this morning. I just hope my cold disappears in time to do 1 of the many activities here tomorrow. Its a lot warmer down here in San Pedro and we are in the heart of the driest desert in the world, so here´s hoping that´ll help cure it!