We booked our jeep trip into the Atacama desert and on to the Bolivian salt plains. As usual we went with a company recommended in Lonely Planet. A bit more expensive (I mean 1 or 2 pounds) but a company with a good reputation. Unfortunately tales of overcrowded vehicles, bad drivers' even drunk drivers are many. Cordillera are a family business who do one tour and that's it. San Pedro is an oasis town. In recent years it has boomed with the tourists using it as the base for the desert tours. It is a dust bowl but has lots of tour operators and restaurants to service the growing number of tourists.
We had picked a hostel off hostelworld web site. It was a 5 minute walk out of the main area but it was fab. We had a room in the corner of a courtyard. It was clean, quiet and had a hot shower. The lady owner was great and couldn't do enough for you. We had to book an extra day as by now my sore throat had gone to headaches, runny nose etc etc. I was also suffering with the altitude. I had experienced it when we went to Peru but not like this. It gave me a blinding headache and left me short of breath. Jill seemed pretty immune to it as she had done in Peru. On top of this I had got sand in my eye and looked like I had been punched. All very unpleasant.
We had managed to watch the Champions league final which Jill's beloved Chelsea won. On the Monday before our departure on the Tuesday we went to the only ATM to stock up with Chilean pesos which we planned to convert to Bolivian Bolivianos. Unfortunately no one had mentioned it was a public holiday and so the bank was shut and the ATM empty. A recurring theme it seems. This holiday was due to Chile having kicked Peru's arse in a war a few hundred years ago. I assume that Peru has a holiday for the return match.
Anyway I got a good rest here and things improved so I was fit to start the trip just a day late. San Pedro itself was dead during the day as most people were out doing things. It was hot and dusty. At night everyone returned and it livened up. In the evening however it was bloody cold. The restaurants had no heating apart from a bonfire in the middle. It was quite odd being served by a waiter in full arctic kit.
The day to start our tour arrived. We had set the alarm for 6.45am for a 7.45am pick up. It seemed a bit dark when we got up. We knew there were 4 German girls doing a tour at the same time and they weren't about. At 7.45am Vic and Jill time one of them emerged. Hurry up we said or you will be late. I don't think so she said with German authority it's only 6.45am. Agghhhhhhhhh a time change and we hadn't noticed for 4 days. It wasn't helped by the clock in the hostel reception being an hour out. The hostel owner said the President often just decreed the clocks would change for no apparent reason so they didn't bother to change it. Oh well at least we had a leisurely brekkie.
Our mini bus arrived on time (their time not ours). Our host Matilda gave us a big hug and presented us with a present to say thank you for staying with her. Jill got a locally made make up case and I got a woolly hat (see the pics).
We did a couple of pickups then headed to where the bus had dropped us on arrival to get stamped out of Chile. After about an hours' drive through some fab mountain scenery we arrived at the Bolivian border. A mud hut in the middle of nowhere with one guard. No computer just a sour faced chap (can't blame him really) with a rubber stamp. Goodbye Chile hello Bolivia. Bolivia is the size of France and Spain together but has only 9 million inhabitants.
We met our driver for the next few days and the 4 others who would share the 4X4. Toyota Land Cruisers are the vehicle of choice here. Our travelling companions were a South Korean chap and 3 Brazilians (Mum, Dad and 25ish son). The driver didn't speak English and none of us spoke great Spanish. So off we went. We had another jeep for company with six others on board.
The Atacama Desert (Spanish: Desierto de Atacama) is a plateau in South America, covering a 600-mile (1,000 km) strip of land on the Pacific coast, west of the Andes mountains. It is, according to NASA, National Geographic and many other publications, the driest desert in the world The Atacama occupies 40,600 square miles (105,000 km2) in northern Chile, composed mostly of salt basins (salares), sand, and felsic lava flows towards the Andes.
The average rainfall in the Chilean region of Antofagasta is just 1 millimetre (0.04 in) per year. Some weather stations in the Atacama have never received rain. Evidence suggests that the Atacama may not have had any significant rainfall from 1570 to 1971. It is so arid that mountains that reach as high as 6,885 metres (22,589 ft) are completely free of glaciers
Day one took us through ever more amazing scenery. It's at times like this that I wish I had paid more attention in English Literature class at school. Maybe then I would have the words to describe what I see more eloquently. Dozy Upshon my English teacher should have thrown the board rubber at me with more vigour. So let's blame him.
The big highlight of the first day was visiting the geysers. A huge expanse of them belching sulphur steam high into the air with pools of bubbling liquid scattered around. It was a little like Rotorua in New Zealand but no fence around it and no pay desk. Same smell though !!!
After a further drive we stopped at the hot spring bath. It is basically a small pool in the middle of nowhere. It was freezing cold outside but we stripped off with several other tour jeeps and jumped in the water. It was like a bath. Slightly surreal sat in a big hot bath with a dozen strangers and just a huge expanse of desert around us. Getting out was fun. Hot bath, cold desert brrrrrrrrrrrr.
Around 3 pm we reached our base for the night. It is a refugio. We had been warned it would be cold and there were no showers or hot water. Sleeping was in a six bed dorm with our travelling companions. We rented a sleeping bag for the night and inspected our beds. They had about four blankets on already. Off we went to have hot drinks and a light bite of frankfurters and mashed potato with salad. Doesn't sound great but it was actually very nice.
Around 4 pm we went back out into the desert to see some rock formations and lakes with flamingos. Very beautiful.
Back at the refugio we had dinner. We had some hot soup to start. Jill had told the cook that she didn't eat red meat. I'm not sure if this influenced her but dinner was Spagbol but with no meat. Everyone looked a little puzzled. Jill said nothing.
After dinner everyone was at a loss. It was absolutely freezing. We were all sat with our winter kit on in half light playing cards. About 7.30pm people started going to bed. We knew all the lights were going to go out so about 8pm so we went off too. One thing you do get here is an absolutely clear sky. When you look up at night the sky is astonishing. There is no light pollution and the sky is full of bright stars. One of the largest telescopes in the world is situated on a mountain top here.
Off we went and got into our sleeping bags and under 4 layers of blankets. Trust me it was still cold. We weren't tired and just lay there in the dark hoping for sleep to come.
Is it racist to just think some nations are a bit odd? Our South Korean lad was fine. Into bed not a peep. Even our Brazilian son was ok. His parents however were just odd. They were both suffering with some altitude sickness. Headaches and the like. So was I.
Just as I was dropping off to sleep the husband would put on his torch lighting up the room and start a conversation with his wife. You are having a laugh mate. Ten minutes of chit chat and then light off and he started snoring. No way could I sleep. An hour later and it's light on and another conversation. Trust me if I didn't have to spend the next two days in a jeep with them I would have done him some serious harm.
This ritual went on for a few hours. His snoring lasted all night. If Jill and I got a half hours sleep I'd be surprised. My sleeping bag was attacking me like a hungry anaconda so it had to be ditched. Now I was cold, awake, with a headache listening to Brazilian man snoring and occasionally snorting snot into his throat yuk. Not a great night.
Morning came and it was still cold. Most of the people had been up all night with headaches so it was a quiet brekkie. On the jeeps and back out into the desert. More stunning scenery. We had lunch out of the back of the jeep prepared by the drivers. Later in the day we stopped at a shanty town in the middle of nowhere for a break. Next was a drive across a huge salt plain to reach our stop for the night. We were staying in one of the salt hotels. There are 3 or 4 scattered around the area. They are built entirely from salt. Walls, tables, floors, bed base, all salt. Fortunately they had hot showers albeit only 2 for about 20 people. Jill and I threw our bags in the room and headed straight for the shower.
There was still no heating except a clay oven in the dining room. I got it alight with some wood but when it went out that was it. We sat eating dinner in our coats again. Fortunately one of the guys in the other jeep had brought a bottle of rum along so that helped. It wasn't as cold as the previous night and we had a private room so got a much better nights sleep.
After brekkie we headed out and were soon on the salt flats. It is easy to see why world land speed records are done on salt flats. They are vast and flat. It was just white as far as the eye could see. A fabulous 'other world' landscape. We had lots of time for photos but must have driven solidly for an hour or so before we cleared the flats.
At the end was our destination Uyuni. The outskirts were basically a shanty town in the middle of what looked like a landfill site. Not very pretty. Also on the outskirts are the remains of a once thriving rail system. A steam train graveyard. These magnificent machines had once taken the silver and gold from the area to be sold. A sad sight.
Uyuni itself is a stop off town for us tourists. It has the usual bars and restaurants but not much else. We booked one night here in a pleasant hostel. We had agreed to meet up with our travel companions for a meal and a few beers later. First we had to find the ATM and hope it worked as we were skint. Fortunately it was up and running. We soon had wads of Bolivianos (yet another currency and exchange rate) 11 to the pound if you're interested.....nope thought not.
With money in pocket we headed off to book our bus out for the following day. We had decided to go back on ourselves slightly and visit Tupiza for some hiking and domestics. The 6 hour bus trip was an extortionate 5 pounds each. Nice. However it left at 6am, not nice. This meant our planned party was going to be seriously curtailed. We were also a bit disappointed that the front seats had already been booked. We had however been warned about night travel in Bolivia so this was the only option.
That evening we met up and had our meal and a few beers. We sat at dinner with a 34 year old South Korean accountant, a 31 year old Danish architect, a 32 year old Irish chemist, a 26 year old Swiss school teacher and her civil engineer boyfriend. Making up the rest were two Dutch brothers in their 20's. One had just got masters in Politics and the other just finished his degree as an astro physicist.
It was a great evening with some super people.
5am came too soon and we got our bags together and walked in the cold and dark to the bus company office. As we rounded the corner we were met by a guy dressed in a thermal once piece suit with the hood up and wearing a black ski mask. I was just about to introduce him to a Glasgow kiss when Jill said 'Oh I read about this. The bus workers dress like this to keep out the cold'. Stand down stand down. Another international incident averted.
5.45am and the bus arrived. On we got together with 4 other backpackers and about 30 Bolivians mostly dressed in their traditional clothing but carrying huge blankets and bags.
Off we went. The bus had no heating and it was freezing. Ice was forming on the inside of the windows and a draft was running the length of the bus. The Bolivian lady behind me was clearly not affected as she opened the window. I snuggled down inside my puffa jacket and tried to sleep. By 8am the sun was up and the bus was like a sweat box.
The trip was six hours through mountains on a single track dirt road. Periodically it would stop for no apparent reason then move off again. We eventually reached a small shanty town where it stopped for an hour for some running repairs. Everything you've ever imagined about the Bolivian transport system is true.
The hour rather dragged. There was no toilet on the bus or in the town. It was a case of wandering on to some waste land strewn with rubbish and go there. Packs of dogs and a few donkeys kept a watchful eye as they picked through the rubbish.
Back on the road again and we climbed further into the mountains. Huge cliff faces on one side and 1000 foot drops into ravines on the other. I was looking out the window marvelling as usual at the scenery when I saw a 'no overtaking' sign. What a waste of money I thought how could anything overtake? At which point another bus pushed its way past us. I have no idea how it didn't go over the edge.
On we went round hair pin bends up then down. I was deep in thought staring into the distance when I heard the unmistakable sound of a big bus skidding on dirt. I looked up and forward just as the inevitable BANG brought us to a sudden stop. The large glass windows at the front shattered covering two girls in glass. Bloody lucky we hadn't been able to book those seats. Yep you've guessed it; we've just had a head on crash with another bus. Thankfully we weren't going fast and both drivers had braked instead of swerving. Off we all got.
I stood by the roadside watching total chaos. People walking about, glass being tossed from the top deck and nobody with much idea what to do. I could have sorted it in 10 minutes but with no language skills and no idea of local procedures I sat back and watched.
I had got myself prepared for a long wait. A chap said they had to wait for the Police who could be several hours. After much arm waving the drivers moved the buses to allow some other traffic past. As luck would have it a half empty bus on its way to Tupiza was amongst it. We off loaded our bags and gratefully jumped on that one. Two hours later we were safely in Tupiza.
What can I say about Tupiza? It's a small town surrounded by beautiful countryside. It's still at altitude as I found out when I was awoken by the most blinding headache ever. The following day it was off to the farmacia for some altitude tablets which seem to work.
The town itself is another dust bowl. The younger residents wear more western style clothing. The middle aged and older residents wear traditional clothes. For men this is not too bad apart from trilby style hats that are two sizes too small and are even worn on top of woolly hats. The women are a different matter. In the 1700's the King of Spain decreed that the women in South America would centre part their hair and grow two long pony tails. It has never gone away. To complement it they wear brightly coloured knee length Ra-Ra style skirts. It looks as though they have a hoop underneath or they all have big hips. Underneath they wear Nora Batty tights. On the top they wear a large smock top with pockets. This is covered with a blanket or poncho. On their head they wear a hat that looks just like a bowler hat but again two sizes too small. All in all, not a great look.
Tupiza has one claim to fame. Near to here legend says that this is where Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longbaugh met their end. They are better known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The legend says they came here to escape the Pinkerton Agency in the USA. Having held up a payroll they were shopped by the owner of the boarding house and involved in a shoot out with the Bolivian army and some locals. Unlike the film where they burst out all guns blazing it seems one was seriously wounded and was shot by the other who then shot himself. Order unknown.
Allegedly they were buried in a local cemetery in unmarked graves. Excavations have as yet failed to match DNA of surviving relatives to any of the bodies buried there. Butch Cassidy's sister who lived into the 1900's maintained that both men left Bolivia alive and lived out their lives in anonymity in the USA. I guess you believe which ever version you want.
Clearly in this part of the world they just accept it is hot during the day and cold at night. There is no heating anywhere including our hostel although it's not too cold. We've spent a couple of days chilling and doing the washing etc. Today we decided to do a hike into the surrounding countryside. Lonely Planet says if ever there is a place that makes you want to throw a saddle on a horse and ride into the sunset, this is it. How very true.
The hike took us along a dry river bed into a gorge surrounded by huge red mountains. We had spent a lot of time looking at this land from vehicles but we believe to truly experience it you have to be on foot where you can smell, feel and even taste it. Along the way we watched a local woman herding her goats. She left them to graze for a while then climbed up onto a high point and whistled and called her dog to round them up ust like a fell farmer back home. We had a fabulous day.
Tomorrow we are catching the 10am bus to Potosi. Another 6 hours. Hopefully uneventful. Toposi is predominantly a mining town but apparently has some beautiful buildings. It is also the highest city in the world at around 4500 metres above sea level. The advice is, move slowly, eat little and sleep alone.
Jill had a shower at the hostel and then it stopped working. I had to go to reception in just a towel. The owner had to get on the roof to fix the problem. Jill and showers !!
I also have to say that the film grain pics in the album are Jill's'. Clearly my stardust is rubbing off. Ouch, I've just been punched.