There's many things to consider when choosing a tour to cross the Atacama desert in a 4x4. After reading the horror stories online it would've been easy to become disheartened by the whole idea; tales of over-crowded cars, drunk drivers, regular break downs, crumbling hostels with no running water and holes in the ground for toilets. And so with considerable deliberation we set about choosing the one which had the least terrifying reviews and let lady luck run her course!
We had to stay in San Pedro a day longer than intended due to the Dakar Rally; the tour company we chose would not leave until it had passed through Uyuni because it was putting a strain on both the traffic and accommodation in what was already a very busy and chaotic town. We were instructed to be at the office by 8am where we would be transported by bus to a checkpoint just before the border. There we would switch to the 4x4 that would be our transportation for the next 3 days.
At the office we met Arie; a Jewish corporate tax lawyer from New York who would become the first of our desert crossing companions and one of the funniest and most intelligent guys we'd met. Sadly though, he was slightly unprepared for the trip. Apparently no one told him that he would need at least 250 Bolivianos, plus (and even more essential) a good few litres of drinking water to keep himself alive. A short rant then ensued followed by a dash to the shops. The water wouldn't be an issue but trying to find a fair currency exchange at 8am on a Sunday morning - not so likely! Upon his return the inevitable stories of awful exchange rates were told and the first of many belly laughs were had by myself and Faye. A great character and also a lucky one since the bus was running 20 minutes late! On board we met the last of our travel companions. Scott and Angela; a really lovely couple from "Saarf" London who have since became good friends and will feature in more blogs to come. Scott also spoke great Spanish; a gift, as it turned out, to be of vital importance because our guide for the next three days did not speak English!!
We disembarked the bus at the Bolivian border where the necessary checks were done. The English tradition of civilised queueing is definitely not observed in Bolivia (or anywhere else in South America for that matter) as people from all nationalities were pushing and shoving to get ahead! Battered and bruised it was time to choose our 4x4 so we gathered our bags and dumped them next to the shiniest truck we could find. Luckily for us this also belonged to the best driver of the bunch - Silvio. Initially we were not sure he was old enough to drive but we threw caution to the wind and let him take charge of our stuff, and of course our lives!!! Scott got in the front so he could translate any info Silvio cared to divulge and we were on our way. The horror stories we'd heard were now a distant memory because our little Bolivian host was the perfect guide; funny, attentive, full of knowledge and definitely NOT drunk! He immediate let Scott take over the car stereo and in no time we had "banging tunes" filling our eardrums. I think that was Scott's plan all along!
The Atacama Desert may be the driest place on earth but it's not without it's lakes. So many in fact that Arie became somewhat contemptuous by the end of trip. By the time we'd seen our fourth one you would hear him mutter what would soon become his trademark "Oh joy, another lagoon!!" There were big ones, small ones, deep ones, shallow ones, red ones, blue ones, black ones, and many many smelly ones... Well, you get the gist! For such a dry place there is also an abundance of wildlife. We encountered eagles, foxes, lizards, South America ostrich and more flamingoes than you can shake a stick at!! There was also the running joke where Silvio would become overwhelmed with excitement shouting "PUMA, PUMA!!
..... There were no pumas!!
Arriving at our first hostel was a complete delight. There was electricity, running water, flushing toilets. We were also going to be fed dinner and breakfast - What a delight! We got to our room however only to find there was no wifi... we immediately asked for our money back!! Scott and Ang broke out the playing cards for a few games of "s***-head" sucking Arie into an addiction that I'm sure has since ruined his life! If you're not aware of this game then you haven't lived. Be prepared to lose friends whilst playing though as it can get quite nasty. I played a few hands but had to opt out as the altitude was playing havoc with my innards. Unfortunately, the toilet only had two cubicles and were of the "mixed" variety and all that separated me from the outside world was a thin slatted door which anyone over 5ft could peer through without difficulty. My time spend inside was worsened by the queue of females that were gathering outside; where are all the guys when you need them?? Imprisoned, I waited whilst all the ladies were forced to use the other cubicle in the desperate hope that the queue would eventually disperse leaving me alone to vacate without shame or ridicule. A fate I luckily achieved - anonymity can be a wonderful thing!! The rest day was spend eating lovely food, sharing stories of experiences past, and present. With our stomachs full we went to bed early but myself and Faye had no intention of sleeping just yet. We plugged in our headphones and OD'd on Breaking Bad. Sadly though, both sets of headphones never made back in our rucksacks - the price you pay for early starts and rushing around!
Day two saw the first of the car troubles - plumes of steam came from one of the cars, but not ours thankfully (a bit selfish I know... sorry!). At this point we realised that Silvio was definitely head-honcho as he seemed to be involved in everything. Coordinating all the other drivers as to how to fix the problem. A feat he managed in no time. Oh how we praised ourselves on the choice we'd made. Well done us!! More lakes then ensued of course (much to Arie's delight), but the highlight of the day was the weird and wonderful rock formations in the middle of the baron wilderness. Huge rocks which seemed to have been placed there by hand and a perfect site to become a kid again and climb until your heart's content. I restrained myself at first, taking the necessary snaps for the photo album. Some were very strange - one was shaped liked an Ostrich head but others were the size of a small building. Photos done it was time to climb. Faye took charge of the SLR whilst Scott and Arie and me acted like delinquents and morphed into what we thought were pro rock climbers. We reached the summit and commanded the girls to take the necessary snaps, but soon realised the hard part was yet to come as getting down was going to be much more difficult. We spent an age working out the best route, one which I gained a groin strain and Arie ripped a huge hole in his trousers. A small price the pay for our amazing achievement! The girls were not so impressed!!
One problem with being in the desert is the logistics of having a wee. Not so much for us guys of course, but for the girlies this can be quite an issue. When there's nothing but flat sand for miles and miles then maybe the only solution would be to hold it until you reached civilisation. Well Ang had other ideas. Her desperation was such that she decided to just simply walk in the opposite direction to us travellers and stop at a distance that she considered "far enough." Far enough from what I'm not sure? From the naked eye maybe, but for all those zoom lenses that pointed her way I'm really not so hopeful. But as the old saying goes - what you don't know won't hurt you! Unless she reads this blog of course. Let's hope not!! Lunchtime came and we stopped at what can only be described as a very pretty swamp which was home to a substantial amount of llamas. Silvio unpacked a lunch of tuna fish, rice and salad whilst we tried to somehow coerce the llamas closer for some prize snaps. They didn't oblige! One more rock formation to go (next to another lake of course - I think Arie died temporarily) then we were off to our second hostel. This one was "slightly" unfinished but charming nonetheless. The cards came out again and friendships formed were soon forgotten as each person fought to avoid becoming the dreaded s***-head! Myself and Scott downed a small bottle of lethal fluid that to this day remains unidentified, but tasted a bit like brandy so was good enough for us! Llama steaks followed and more rounds of s***-head, plus lots of free wine (happy days) then another early night, but no Breaking Bad - headphones lost and all!!
Early o'clock came and we were up and out for our last adventure - A day on the salt flats in Uyuni. We had to make another stop at a very small town where the locals were not overly pleased to see us. There was also a strange occurrence where boys in balaclavas ran round the town for no apparent reason! An oil change later and we were on our way. Just outside the town is what's known as the "Train Graveyard" which is nothing other than an adventure playground for adults! We spent half an hour larking around and taking more snaps and then back in the car to our final destination. You can see the never ending horizon and the heat-haze long before you see the salt so our excitement grew to epic proportions before we finally arrived. We weren't disappointed! Driving out on to the salt was amazing. There had been a torrent of rain over recent days so we drove carefully through small ponds for the first half mile until the rain water dried up which is where we made the first of two stops. With endless salt meeting endless sky there is a lot of fun to be had with a bit of imagination and a half-decent camera. I won't spoil the photos by describing them now so please take a look to see what we come up with, suffice to say it was the most fun I'd ever had with a camera that's for sure. After another spectacular lunch, this time chicken instead of tuna (an extra treat for Scott, Arie and me as neither Ang or Faye ate chicken!), we stopped for the second time in just a few centimetres of waters. Here you would get the most spectacular reflections where everyone looked like they were walking on water. More great shots captured!
What a great end to an amazing adventure. Looking back on the trip I really don't think we could have lucked out any more. Our travel companions we perfect and Silvio was a great host - he got a tip that meant he wouldn't need to work for a month. Arie was great company and his stories and humour will be remembered forever. We parted company after that day, but we've been in contact via email on several occasions and look forward to more in the future. Scott and Ang, on the other hand, have been with us ever since... Well, practically. We've become good friends and have enjoyed every minute of their company. Scott loves his music, constantly mixing on his iPhone app and definitely enjoys playing a prank. Nevertheless, he's very kind and can't do enough for you. Ang is so sweet and so up for a laugh (and definitely a chat), but again will bend over backwards to help you. They make a great couple and despite the slight age gap (Scott enjoys winding me up about this) we were like peas in a pod. We certainly look forward to more adventures with those two. The only downside to the entire trip was that the Clarke family motto of "We Never Learn" was well and truly upheld on that final day on the salt flats! Again, Faye forgot to reapply her factor 30 and was burnt to a crisp by the end. More than I'd ever seen in fact. However, I wouldn't dream of describing the horror that unfolded. Faye is much more capable of doing that then I ever will be so over to her for the next instalment. Have fun darling!!