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Published: September 14th 2013
Bolivia is an incredible place. When we travelled from Sucre to Uyuni, it was the landscapes that captured my attention. I was surprised at how quickly the scenery changed and how different they felt from each other. It was like we were travelling from planet to planet in a bus like spacecraft - one minute driving through a dry mountain range then, in what seemed like an instant, we were looking at a desert with yellow and green tufts of grass growing out of the black sand and further along the road it changed again, this time to a barren rocky landscape that made me wonder if anything could survive in it. Our time in Bolivia was coming to an end and although we had spent a month in such a small country, I felt an enormous sense of sadness, I was not ready to leave as there was still so much to see. I pushed the thoughts aside as we drove down the smoothest road we had experienced so far in South America and replaced them with thoughts about the dusty town of Uyuni and what we might discover there.
Uyuni is the gateway to Salar de Uyuni (salt
flats) and to one of the most amazing places I have visited in my life. The salt flats were as I expected. I had spent too long on the internet and looked at too many photos for it to be a surprise. The vast expanse of salt stretched into the distance held together only by the cool blue mountains that, in places, disappeared by an illusion spewed up from the salt. The crust had small ridges shaped like hexagons and pentagons and, although there are many four wheel drives that venture out onto the salt every day, there are no roads to speak of. After we finished our hilarious and original perspective photos, we drove to a rocky island on the salt flats filled with giant cacti (ok, maybe that was a surprise) where we hiked to the top which gave us an incredible view of the salt – in EVERY direction, a flat white spread as far as the eye could see. As we drove towards our home for the evening, a salt brick hotel, we watched the sun throw fire into the sky as it moved behind a mountain, the cool air filling our lungs and the beauty
of the place washing over our minds.
Over the next two days we travelled through the south west of Bolivia and through some of the most beautiful places I have seen. Bloodshot desert plains rolled into coloured peaks of yellow, black and white, lakes of turquoise and deep red filled with pink flamingos, the Dali desert, named because of its likeness to the landscapes the surrealist painter immortalised. The place was multi-coloured, windswept and desolate. We crossed the national park past geysers and mirrored lakes to the border crossing to Chile where we said our goodbyes to our tour group and to a country we had grown to love.
The first thing I noticed in San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile was the sheer number of tourists. To be fair, San Pedro exists solely as a base for tourists to visit the Atacama Desert, in particular Valle de la Luna, or the Moon Valley, so of course it would feel like the place was crawling with shants, back packs and bucket hats. It is a small town with mud brick houses, the centre is laid out in a grid which makes it impossible to get lost and
the streets are lined with cafes, tour operators and gift shops. The accommodation her is very expensive but luckily for us we made friends with two English travellers on our tour of Salar de Uyuni so we were able to bunk with them for a couple of nights to make things a little less expensive. A stark contrast from travelling in Bolivia where everything was cheap.
Aside from the tourists there are a couple of other things to note about San Pedro. The first we found out the afternoon we arrived when we were turned away from a restaurant when all we wanted was a beer. You can’t buy an alcoholic drink at a bar or a restaurant without ordering food. Later that evening, we stumbled into a bar after stuffing ourselves with salmon and delicious Chilean wine and were presented with a basket of bread and some cutlery. The waiter told us if the police arrived then the cutlery would indicate that we were waiting for our food. As crazy as that sounds, I at least understood the logic. The second appeared to have no logic at all. It is illegal to dance in the bars. There was
much discussion about why such an absurd rule would exist with absolutely no conclusion. I guess they just got tired of watching a bunch of drunken gringos trying to bust a move to funky Latin music.
We took an afternoon tour of Valle de la Luna so we could watch the sun set over the valley. The valley was named because of its likeness to the surface of the moon, although it was named in the 50’s when they didn’t actually know what the surface of the moon really looked like. Massive sand dunes and rocky cliffs occupied the majority of the park, but it was obvious that the name originated from the layer of salt that settled on the surface of the ground that turned the otherwise brown earth white. I had to have a laugh when the guide told us that many years ago the salt was mined from the area until they found out it was poisonous to humans! Whoops! I wondered if it was after they realised that they could not use the minerals that they decided to turn it into a protected area.
For me, one of the best activities we have done
in South America was also the biggest accident. I wanted to visit the Atacama Desert for Valle de la Luna, what I didn’t realise was, it is a great place for astronomy. Apparently San Pedro is the perfect place to gaze at the night sky because it has enough altitude, doesn’t have humidity and has minimal light pollution. What it also has is Alvaro. Alvaro is a local hotel owner whose hobby is studying astronomy. He has studied at university and has two very large telescopes and one incredible laser pointer at his disposal. He also has an amazing attitude and passion about the universe which draws you in and makes you never want to leave. He talked to us about the creation of the universe, our solar system and about various different stars and galaxies and planets. He showed us the moon, double stars, the rings of Saturn, an emerging galaxy and so much more. Most incredibly, he showed us a galaxy that is 80 million light years away which meant that the light that we were seeing left that galaxy when the dinosaurs were walking the earth. My mind was officially fucked!
The one thing that Alvaro
kept saying was how lucky we were to be here, how so many elements had to be just right for the world to evolve as it did and for him, having knowledge of just how incredible the universe is makes him truly appreciate his life, making him a better person. Meeting people with such a fantastic way of thinking is rare and beautiful thing and we all walked away with a little bit of his enthusiasm. It was the most glorious way to spend an evening.
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