With Chile and Argentina not being as cheap as we had hoped for, we had to try and close our ears to all the other amazing things to do and head straight up to the north to have one last Chilean experience before passing into Bolivia. Pucon being in the lower half of what is a very long country it was going to be a journey and a half.
We left Pucon with farewells from people we know we'll see again either because they are travelling north and therefore taking a similar route, or because they were great people and we will make sure we meet up again. Either way it was back to just us chickens on another night bus. The bus rolled into chaotic Santiago a mere 14 hours later. With intentions of finding an actual bed for the night to recover we got out the Lonely Planet. Seeing the hussle and bussle, grime, traffic and noise we had a 'sod it' moment and went straight to the ticket counter to get onto the next overnight bus that would take us all the way to the driest place in earth - The Atacama Desert. And so it came to be that we had ANOTHER 20 hours on a bus followed by another 4 hour wait for yet another 3 hour journey to finally get to San Pedro. A grand total of 43 hours on the go. No shower, no bed and ankles the size of walruses and a frozen shoulder. Luckily I suffer with bus narcolepsy and as such within 10 minutes of the bus film finishing I was drooling elegantly onto Simon's shoulder.
Disembarking the bus in San Pedro was odd. Firstly we both had 'bus legs', suddenly the world seemed very large and came without a frame and frilly curtains obscuring the view. Also to go from glamorous, green and watery Pucon to a thriving conurbation and then to adobe huts in the middle of nothing was a little disconcerting.
Our hostel owners kindly picked us up which was handy as I couldn't get my watermelon feet into my flip flops. Our home for the next few nights was a single story collection of buildings, some for humans and some for the menagerie. The entire place smelt like the inside of a RSPCA rescue centre with a tangible aroma of cat wee and unwashed dog that was particularly pungent (almost edible) in the bathroom. Nevertheless, we had a pleasant enough room and as long as we avoided breathing through our noses it was quite charming.
There are things you should do in the Atacama desert. So, we did what we were told by tourists/ guidebooks/ trip advisor and concluded that whilst it is indeed interesting there is only so much sand you can see and feel excited about. However, the geysers (that our guide told us were not really geysers) were good at warming the milk for a breakfast hot chocolate, the sand dunes were excellent exfoliation for the feet, and the desert villages were good for a llama kebab. The best part of being in this area is knowing you are walking on living, breathing earth. The whole town is set in a vast flat plain, once a lake bed. It is encompassed by steaming volcanoes, bubbling geysers, bath-hot springs like the very land is angry and about to explode which in reality is very possible. It's almost like the plants and animals already know it's an unpredictable place and fled leaving a baron and monochrome landscape. Just us arrogant humans defying what is the inevitable; be it earthquake, eruption or both.
The real highlight for us was hilariously and embarrassingly bobbing about on a salty lake. Simon attempted to look cool whilst I struggled to keep my milky white bikini clad body in the water so as to not blind the other people who were themselves also struggling to stop various bits of their body bouncing around on the surface. The poor gents had terrible (and often highly amusing) battles to float on their backs without compromising their modesty (and there was a sliding scale of 'modesties', well you couldn't help but notice).
San Pedro as a town is full of really beautiful restaurants hidden behind large heavy wooden doors set in white-washed one storey buildings lining small cobbled streets. Being the desert, there is not much in the way of either wildlife or plant life. It is dusty and dry and saps your energy but yet there is something charming and atmospheric about this oasis in the middle of sand and volcanoes, and despite the attack on the nostrils back at the hostel we both became fond of the place. That was until I caught Chilean Bum Wee (CBW) and I had to spend 2 days either in our room, or in the toilet. Poor Simon had to deal with moans and groans that come with the CBW tummy cramps and took himself off for respite to the local swimming pool, the markets, and the chicken and chip shop; bringing supplies of water and sympathy on his return. It is true that travelling with the one you love is a maker or breaker. If he can still be here after such atrocities I know we are looking pretty good....!
The plan from here is to head into Bolivia. Rather than a flight or bus we did what some had said was dodgy. A 4x4 with 3 strangers, a spanish speaking guide for 2 nights and 3 days out in the wilderness, through desert, rock valleys, lagoons, flocks of llamas and of course the famous salt plains of Uyuni...