Published: June 11th 2011June 10th 2011
Argentina - Chile
The mountain pass from Salta, Argentina to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Thursday 5th May - Tuesday 10th May
We departed Salta early in the morning and it didn't take long before the bus started climbing the Andes once more, zig-zagging its way up the mountain pass. The views were spectacular but the sheer drops outside the window and the lack of safety barriers were a cause for concern, as were the two overturned lorries we passed! However, of more concern was how we would cope with the effects of altitude (there had already been too much of this chat with other nervous travellers...), having heard many horror stories of people passing out, vomiting, migraines, you name it. Without altitude pills there was only one option available to us....manning up!
We waved goodbye to Argentina at 4,200m, a little light-headed and breathless (it could have been the remants of the previous night's pena antics) but no worries for Mr and Mrs E as we managed to hold strong, unlike one sorry gringo who required oxygen!
Our destination, San Pedro de Atacama, is as its name suggests, slap bang in the middle of the Atacama desert. A really different place to any we have experienced so far on our travels –
very basic houses built of mud bricks, red dusty unpaved roads (just the beginning.....), undrinkable water and locals walking the streets with llamas in tow - but also a really fascinating place.
We were now travelling as a group of six along with Sophie and Tim, an English couple who we had met in Mendoza, and Freek and Bente, who we'd kept bumping into by chance, since Torres del Paine in the south of Chile (until now we’d simply referred to them as “the Dutchies”).
It was the perfect sized group for our trip into Bolivia by 4x4 across the salt flats, so we booked it up for a few days later and set about enjoying the best that San Pedro had to offer.
Despite the heat (so good to don the shorts again after weeks in the cold), we hired bikes and took off in search of the twelfth century Inca ruins of Pukara de Quitor and the much talked about “Devil's Gorge”, a network of canyons in the red stone rocks surrounding the town. The objective was a nice circular route starting and finishing in San Pedro, but fully fuelled up on coca leaves (Quick
fact: chewing the leaves helps cope with altitude but they are also full of vitamins and provide a natural energy boost – Bolivian miners used to work for 48 hours non-stop with only coca leaves as their source of food!) and enjoying the river crossings too much, we missed the turn home (there aren't any signs) and powered on for a further half an hour until we reached a remote village, where we realised the error of our ways.....doh! Needless to say the sunset heading back into town really showed the glory of the red sandstone cliffs and the desert sand that surrounded us.
The next morning, we dusted ourselves off (literally) and limbered up ready to fall down some sand dunes whilst strapped to a board.....the pros call it sandboarding! After one ride down it became apparent that we have different styles. Keri, the slow, controlled wiggle and Chris, the full speed, out of control approach....the picture of Chris looking like a cinnamon doughnut says it all! Our action packed day continued with a visit to Valle de la Luna (moon valley) to sip pisco sours as the sun went down over the lunar-like landscape surrounding us (it's
Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia
Crossing the border into Bolivia
in the name....) and to walk through some nearby salt caves (Keri couldn't resist a lick of the walls....mmmmm) in the dark.
The night was not over yet, at 11pm that evening we visited an observatory for a tour of the southern night sky. Seeing Saturn through a telescope was pretty cool but I'm still convinced they had just put a glow in the dark sticker on the end!
Before we knew it, our action packed time in San Pedro was up and it was time to begin our long awaited Bolivian salt flats tour!!!...We headed for the Bolivian border where we met our jeep and driver (a quiet guy called Paul who, as it turned out, had an unhealthy obsession for Bolivian electro music – it was only a matter of time before the ipod was introduced) who was responsible for our safe passage to Uyuni, in 3 days’ time.
High in the alti-plano of Bolivia we visited a number of lakes including the spectacular red Laguna Colorado full of flamingos, the seven coloured mountain (all different shades of red.....), we stripped off to our swimmers in the cold and jumped quickly into hot springs at
4,200m (I could have stayed in there for hours if given the chance, so magical!)… and later in the day, we visited an area with a host of geysers and bubbling mud pools that we were free to roam, complete with the usual South American safety advice - “don't go too close, the mud is very hot”!!!
A spectacular adventure, a whole heap of fun with our friends during the long and bumpy jeep trips, and not a spot of altitude sickness in sight (coca rocks). We even dealt with the bare bones accommodation and cold nights with consummate ease, but let’s face it… six in a bed is always going to be warm! ;o)
The highlight of the trip was on the last day when we visited the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. It is simply white in every direction for as far as you can see. With just the blue sky above, you lose a sense of perspective – a cool place to experiment with weird and whacky photos – and that we did!!
So now the “western” countries of Argentina and Chile are behind us and also the relative
level of comfort we have gotten used to.......As we sip a beer in the last of the afternoon sun in Uyuni we ponder / fear the upcoming overnight bus journey to La Paz and the Bolivian adventures that lie ahead.
Chris & Keri xx
There are more photos below