Northern Chile and the Bolivian Salt Flats

Published: March 14th 2013
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Wednesday 13/02/2013 – The weather in Arica last night and today was perfect, that nice temperature where you can walk around in shorts and t-shirt without worrying about getting sun burnt or getting too cool. With grim determination, we left town at about 9am and rode along the coast with the ever present northern Chilean desert and sand dunes surrounding us. Today’s journey was interposed with many lengthy waits at sections of road works. As we have bikes, we normally scoot along the queue all the way to the front so we don’t have to pass the many trucks or buses on the open road following the roadworks. At one section we had to wait a particularly long time so I hopped off the bike and walked over beneath a rocky cliff face to lay in the shade whilst we waited. However the burly truck driver behind us was getting really impatient and would have increasingly heated arguments with the ‘stop sign man’ every 5 or so minutes. I have learnt not to give people with the slightest authority any reason at all to lord their power over you, so I stayed out of it. Eventually we got to ride through and we ended up at a tiny little village in the middle of nowhere for lunch. The only reason the town was there was because of the small mandatory police checkpoint here. Every time a bus would stop, an old lady would climb on with a basket of drinks and snacks to sell to the people waiting for clearance. We stopped and bought some drinks to accompany our incredible stale rolls and dry peanut butter – I doubt we could have swallowed it without the assistance of the drinks.

We then continued on with the daunting task of crossing the Atacama Desert over the next few days. The Atacama is a 1000km strip down the Chilean coast and is considered the driest desert on earth. Some parts have never had rainfall in over 400 years, and some weather stations here have never actually recorded rain! The desert is so dry, it is considered to be similar to the surface of Mars – NASA even tested their Viking Mars landers here before sending them to Mars. The desert mostly consists of sand (obviously), rock, salt flats and ancient lava flows and is susceptible to the usual desert weather of 30+ degree days and -20 degree nights. A perfect place to camp and ride motorcycles!

The riding was typical gruelling desert riding, however at one stage whilst on the desert plateau we were battered by incredibly powerful wind gusts causing us to squirm all over the road. Here there were many tall and thick whirlwinds strewn all over the desert around us – huge vertical vortexes of wind blowing great amounts of sand high into the air (sometimes at least over 100m high!). There were many passing along the side of the road and I was beginning to think I might stop near one and try to run out into the middle of one. However, eventually a whirlwind came to me rather than me to it. I noticed one heading across the plain and towards the road so I sped up for a few kilometres to reach it just as it crossed the road. It was probably about 10m in width and about 100m high, and Kenz said when I entered the whirlwind I totally disappeared from view (she was riding a few hundred metres behind)! It was a little crazy as there was sand blowing around everywhere and I was riding at about 100km/h. As I entered I had to fight the bike from falling over to the left and then instantly from falling over to the right before coming out the other side. It was an interesting experience and one that I was fortunate to experience again just a few kilometres down the road!

In the late afternoon we rode down some amazing steep dunes and finally wound down a large coastal dune and into the large port city of Iquique. As we rode down into the city we got some incredible views of the dunes, ocean and city from above. We rode along the waterfront enviously looking at the locals playing in the waves under the late afternoon sun. We quickly found a small hostel (or more accurately, a lady willing to let us sleep in her house for the night); however it required some very fine motorcycle manoeuvring to get both bikes inside her driveway and then shut her gate. We then made a beeline for the beach where Kenz went in over her head and I went in over my toe.

Thursday 14/02/2013 – Last night we accidently assumed that the nice lady was in charge of the home we were staying at, however at about 1 am when her two young children were screaming and running up and down the hallway, we quickly realised who was actually in control. Even the dog spent much of the night running around inside the house causing a ruckus. The owner of the house and her husband barely noticed and just turned the TV volume up for most of the night.

We decided to quickly swing by the local museum before heading out of the city and back into the desert this morning. The museum here had an amazing number of mummies as the local populations used to mummify every member of their society – not just their religious or royal figures. The museum here held some of the oldest mummies in the world, some mummies from the Atacama Desert have been dated to 7000BC (amazing when you consider that the oldest found in Egypt is from around 3000BC!) and due to the climate, they are in remarkable condition.

We left Iquique by climbing back up the steep dunes and heading back into the Atacama Desert (little did we know that we would be returning back to the city later that night!) We headed south for over an hour and passed through a small village in the desert before continuing on for another 20kms or so. We then came to an extensive section of road works where the road was in very poor condition. We were riding along on the thick gravel here when suddenly my bike seemed to gain a mind of its own and I was criss-crossing all over the road with almost no control of the bike. I immediately realised I had blown my rear tyre and likely shredded the inner tube. I managed to pull the bike over to the side of the road in a thick mix of sand and gravel literally in the middle of nowhere. A quick glance by Kenz showed a large piece of metal (maybe the size of my palm) entering the middle of the rear tyre and exiting at a right-angle through the tyre side wall. With amazing fury induced strength, I yanked it out and threw it into the desert in a blind rage. The inner tube was totally ruined, the tyre was likely unsalvageable and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere in the driest desert in the world! Great! I got the wheel off and then wrestled with it getting grease, sand and small cuts all over me. I eventually got the tyre off and the new inner tube in hoping we could carefully limp back to Iquique, however I tore/pinched the spare inner tube trying to get the bastard tyre back on the rim. It wouldn’t have mattered as the two holes in the tyre were so big you could see through them! With a stiff face, I thumbed down a passing ute and decided to get a lift back to the small town and try to organise something back there. I worryingly left Kenz sitting in the sand by the side of the road in the desert with the only shade being the bikes.

Luckily the guys in the ute were friendly and they took me to the small tyre repair place in the village about 20km down the road which consisted of the tyre man, a petrol station, a small restaurant and about 10 houses. Interestingly there were the ruins of about 30 houses strewn around the village where a giant whirlwind had recently hit and levelled most of the village, so the villagers had just up and left everything. Seeing this site suddenly made the situation of a flat tyre not seem so bad. The man luckily had a spare inner tube; however under my dubious eye he installed and tried to inflate it. Of course the hole in the tyre immediately pinched the inner tube and it blew. He then tried to patch both holes in the tyre and then the hole in the tube just so we could ride back to Iquique – of course this didn’t work and when he inflated it, it began an ear-piercing whistle as it slowly deflated – he was worried it was going to explode in his shop so he threw it out the window in the street until it totally deflated.

I organised (in dodgy Spanish) to use his truck and trailer to bring the bike back to his shop so at least it wasn’t sitting on the side of the road. He did have a small trailer which would fit a bike; however ironically it had a flat tyre. We changed it and about 4 hours after leaving her, we pulled up next to my exasperated, irritable, hot, and thirsty wife. We put the dodgy bike tyre back on, pushed the bike up an incredibly narrow plank and onto the trailer, strapped it down and drove back to tyre-man’s house. We crossed our fingers and trusted Tyreman by leaving my bike and removing Kenz’s panniers and leaving it all in his backyard for the night. We strapped my rear wheel onto the back of her bike and rode two-up for the long night journey back to Iquique and to the crazy lady’s house with the barking dog and the little troglodytes running wild. Tired and frustrated, we ate dinner at a small local restaurant where the man kindly gave Kenz an inflatable love-heart shaped balloon for Valentine’s Day – it was such a hard day we had totally forgotten about it.

Friday 15/02/2013 – How hard could it be to find a 130/90-17 motorcycle tyre (or even an anything/anything-17 tyre) in a small city in the Atacama Desert? Well try tripling your estimated difficulty!

We got up early keen to hit the tyre shops to purchase a new tyre and 2 inner tubes. Upon enquiry, we got pointed in the direction of the duty-free port area and immediately stumbled across around 100 auto/moto shops. We literally spent the next 3½ hours walking around trying to find the right size tyre. I estimate we enquired at over 25 different shops all over town. I even found a shop that was selling my exact motorbike but of course he didn’t have the right size tyre (he shook his head when I suggested the tyre on his KLR would fit perfectly on mine!). We were starting to get desperate and in the 3 hours we had found no tubes and just one tyre which was the right size- but was tubeless and therefore useless on my rim without a tube. We eventually rode past a V-Strom parked on the side of the road (a similar dual-sport motorcycle) so I collared the owner called Herman when he came out of a nearby shop. As I told him our problem in very basic Spanish, I could see his brain working trying to determine how long it would take to help us – luckily I don’t think he had much to do that day. He was a really friendly guy who loved motorbikes and spent the next 3 hours leading us all over town to help us get what we needed. He even hassled closed shops and visited people’s sheds to find us what was required. We eventually found a second hand tyre which we bought for about $60 (!), and we found two inner tubes close to the right size. The first tube we found that was for a 17inch tyre already had 2 patches on it – and the asshole wanted $20 for it. The problem was it was the first tube we had found even close to the right size in over 6 hours of searching. An hour later we found another tube (for a spare) in a bicycle shop (yes we had visited every motorcycle, auto and tyre shop and were now visiting the bicycle shops) and he realised we were desperate and also wanted $20. We then got the new (2nd hand) tyre and the new (with 2 patches) inner tube put on my rim at a local tyre repair man, he took one glance at my old tyre and laughingly threw it in the dumpster. Herman then escorted us out of the city on his V-Strom where we profusely thanked him and left him with a huge grin on his face (I think he enjoyed the whole experience!).

We raced off into the desert and arrived to find our bike and gear exactly as we left it at Tyreman’s house. We quickly got my bike roadworthy again and paid Tyreman for his efforts – he wanted $60 which I thought was reasonable for the 4 hours he spent with us and for the use for his truck and trailer to rescue the bike. We then raced south intent to stop at the first hotel we came to. Well we didn’t find any and as night fell, we took the turn-off to the mining city of Calama and rode the last 80kms under the darkness of night. We visited many hotels before cracking the shits at the prices we were being asked to pay at even the most dingy and dirty places. After 10 pm we found a lady who allowed camping on her property, she even had some lights and electricity points around the property. By midnight we had the tent up, some dodgy Canadian packet soup in our bellies and we were snoring the remainder of the night away.

Saturday 16/02/2013 – This morning we enjoyed a well-deserved sleep in and were both happy to be camping and cooking our meals again. For some reason camping makes us feel more like we’re actually on a holiday than when staying in hotels. After a quick on-again-off-again cold shower we hit the road and headed to the local supermarket for a late breakfast. We immediately regretted buying a chocolate donut which turned out to be more like a donut shaped slab of chocolate with a small piece of donut inside. With stomachs churning and brains buzzing we rode east for a few hours to the small desert town of San Pedro de Atacama. The road passed beneath spectacular snow-capped mountains before winding down into amazing desert landscapes. We then crossed along vast salt flats and then finally through narrow valleys with craggy spires and steep cliffs which again resembled a moonscape - it’s unlike any landscape I have ever encountered before. The town of San Pedro is mostly single story mud brick buildings, sand, dust and tourists wilting beneath the sun. The town is the launching point for many tours to the nearby Bolivian salt flats, and it also has a few other amazing natural phenomenon nearby. Usually Kenz and I are ready to leave these sorts of towns just a few minutes after arriving, however as we wanted to visit the salt flats we had to just to deal with it for the next few days. We found a campsite on the outskirts of town, then walked in and booked a few tours for the next few days. Our evening’s entertainment whilst cooking dinner was watching the tent just a few metres away shaking and rocking around as the inhabitants shared an interpersonal experience. We tried not to laugh too loudly as the tent pegs almost got ripped out of the ground. I respect anyone who can conjure up that much energy in a climate like this…

Sunday 17/02/2013 – Last night there was little sleep had by Kenz and I as we were assaulted by partying hippies, terrible music at an amazing volume, and packs of wild barking dogs running past the tent all night and occasionally stopping to piss on our tent. This morning we walked out of the camp at 4am to be picked up and transported into the mountains and to the El Tatio geysers (the third largest and the highest in the world). The bus took us from 2800m to 4300m and to the geyser fields just as the sun began to rise. It was incredible to see the active geyser vents blowing pillars of steam into the air as the sun rose above the snowy mountains. There were quite a few other tourists milling around here but it was still really cool to see the geysers spewing boiling water and steam into the air (interestingly water boils at just over 85 degrees at this altitude). We then enjoyed a basic breakfast, however our crazy guide dropped a carton of chocolate milk into one of the geyser vents so we could enjoy some hot chocolate for breaky. There was also a thermal pool here which we could swim in, however we declined as it was (literally) freezing once you climbed out of the pool. Instead we just strolled around and visited some of the more deserted geysers in the area. It was strange to see clumps of ice on the stream banks where the stream was steaming and too hot to touch.

On the way back down the mountain we stopped at a lush waterhole and saw many bird species (including wild flamingos) and some wild vicuna. We also spotted a viscacha - strange mammal native to Chile that looks like a chubby rabbit with a long curled up tail similar to a squirrel’s tail.

We also spotted some llamas which inspired the crazy guide to tell us why the local farmers tether many bright coloured tassels to the ears, necks and backs of their llamas. We have heard many different reasons; however this explanation is the best and nicest that we have heard: One day, a long time ago, a hungry llama walked into a field and wanted to eat a beautifully coloured flower. The flower insisted that he shouldn’t be eaten as the flower needed to live and spread his colour all over the land. The llama then insisted that he must eat the flower so he could grow strong, have many children and supply the shepherd with the wool and meat required for the people to survive. However the flower refused to be eaten and a huge argument ensued between the flower and llama. Eventually they called the shepherd over to decide what should happen. Not only did the shepherd love the llama and require the wool and meat that it supplied to his people, but he also enjoyed the beauty of the flower and wanted it to spread its beautiful colours all over the land. When the shepherd couldn’t decide what to do and the flower and llama kept arguing, God heard them and came down to sort out the problem. When God heard from the llama that he needed to eat the flower, and when he heard from the flower that he wished to spread his colour all over the land, God decided that the llama could eat the flower if the shepherd agreed to tether ribbons to the head, neck and back of the llama so the land would indeed be as colourful as the flower wished. I’m not sure why but this simple and ancient story made me stare out the window in silence for the rest of the journey.

Once we were back in San Pedro, we caught up on some sleep which we had been robbed of last night by hippies, shit music and pissing dogs. In the evening we walked into town to be picked up for a trip out to the nearby salt flats, the Ojos de Salar (Eyes of Salt). We shared the incredibly small minivan with 2 Chilean girls and 4 French hippies who were quite unfriendly and absolutely stunk. The first salt flat was punctuated by a large salt pool (probably about 25m in diameter) in the middle of the desert. Amazingly the pool had a huge salt shelf all around the edge which you could walk on, and the pool abruptly dropped off from the ledge (and undercut it) down to a depth of 17m. We walked around this crazy deep blue salt pool and watched a few birds fishing for brine shrimp and a few salty looking white lizards bake on the salt ledge.

We then visited another nearby salt pool (one of the ‘eyes’) which we could go swimming in. The salt content here is incredibly high (approaching that of the Dead Sea) meaning that when swimming, you float like you’re wearing a thick wetsuit. It’s a really weird experience swimming here; there was so much of our body sticking out of the water no matter what we did. It was difficult to stay floating upright, and instead we were forced to float either on our backs or on our front. Due to the high salt content, it isn’t advisable to put your head under water (who would?!) and we noticed many spots on our bodies started stinging (on closer inspection it was areas where we had small cuts or abrasions). When we climbed out the water immediately evaporated under the hot sun and we were left with a thick coating of salt all over us. We walked to the nearby dwelling with our bodies tight with salt and our joints creaking as the dried salt flaked off. Here there was a hose with fresh water to wash all the salt from our bodies. Here there was also a creepy old man who insisted on hosing off all the bikini clad girls with a leering look on his face as they yelped from the cold water and squirmed under his gaze. He wanted to hose the salt off Kenz but I wrestled the hose from him insisting that I was the only creepy old man allowed to hose off my bikini clad wife. He didn’t seem to want to hose me off so Kenz did it and the water was so cold it took my breath away. We walked back to the salt pool and watched the beautiful sunset over the desert landscape. Whilst watching the sunset the tour guide prepared some snacks and gave us some Pisco sour (a drink similar to a light tequila mixed and with sugar and lemon).

On the trip back to San Pedro, we noticed that somehow our minivan companions still managed to stink despite swimming in the incredibly salty water – we also noticed none of them bothered to wash the salt off their bodies…

Monday 18/02/2013 – Tomorrow we would start our 4 day excursion to the Bolivian salt flats. So today we prepared by charging our phones and laptop at a local café in town. After the grumpy owner booted us out, we dropped it all off back at the campsite and then walked into town for our tour to (another) Valley of the Moon. This was a long afternoon tour which visited many of the unique areas of the nearby desert with interesting land formations. Our first visit was to an amazing lookout above a vast desert plain. Just off to the East we could see some sand-boarders riding down the sandy dunes. We then visited a natural amphitheatre and some strange rock formations reaching out from the sand where the earth had eroded away and left these strange sculptures rising above the sand. We then went to a lookout above a huge desert valley where we sat for half an hour and watched the sun set over the desert.

Tuesday-Friday 19-22/02/2013 – Last night was again spent dealing with hippies playing music and fighting dogs pissing on our tent. We woke up, packed up the tent in the dark and rode into town as the sun came up. We then waited outside our tour agent’s office to be picked up for the trip to the Bolivian Salt flats. Outside were some friendly Germans who would be joining us on the tour. One was eating a roll for breakfast, and when she bent down to check her pack, a local dog did a drive-by and snatched a bready mouthful – it obviously wasn’t his first free breakfast. Once the agent arrived we followed the bus around to the boss’ house where we dropped off the bikes and continued onto the Chilean border office in San Pedro. After getting stamped out, we enjoyed a short ride in the minibus to a remote border between Chile and Bolivia which consisted of one building, a shed, and a rock wall which everyone took turns pissing behind.

We got stamped in and then jumped in a Landcruiser with the 4 Germans and a Bolivian driver who spoke no English. Luckily our understanding of Spanish has progressed now so we can usually understand what is being said (but we often struggle to BE understood), and the Germans were happy to fill in the blanks for us – I still envy these people who can speak 3 or 4 languages! We were a little disappointed at our driver as we really had to pry the information out of him. He didn’t want to talk at all and was sometimes obviously making up information when he didn’t know about something. He also limped like a pirate, but thankfully he was a very safe driver which is important as most of the route was off-road, often across vast gravel plains, over sand dunes and even across a few rivers. We had a great time over the next 3 days: the food was good, the accommodation was basic but clean, the rest of the group (there were 3 Landcruisers) were all great and there was even a guitar-wielding Irishman who entertained us for an evening. But of course it was the sights which were truly amazing:

Laguna Verde, Laguna Colorada and the altiplano lagunas:

There were many beautiful lagoons that we visited on the trip. Many were amazing greens, blues and whites; and with the backdrops of sand dunes, mineral rich red or green soils, and snow-topped mountains and volcanoes, they were just spectacular. The most amazing of all were the vast flocks of bright pink flamingos that lived on the lagoons. One lagoon in particular was home to thousands of flamingos walking, feeding and sleeping. As long as the group wasn’t too noisy, they would pay us little attention meaning we could sit and observe them quite closely.

Salvador Dali Desert:

Another amazing desert said to have inspired Salvador Dali’s paintings. ‘Nuff said.

Geyser field:
Here there was a field of geysers spitting mud and steam everywhere. There were many holes, metres deep, all over the plain which were full of gross looking boiling mud and steam. The smell of the sulphur here was almost overpowering, and coupled with the high altitude it made breathing difficult. There was also a small geothermal power plant here (a fancy name for a turbine situated in a rusty and dented shipping container with a chicken wire fence around it) which was used to power the small communities that lived around the lagoons.

Thermal pool:

Near the geyser field there was a warm, natural-looking pool which was heated by thermal springs. The water was amazing. It was about waist-deep with a natural gravel bottom, and the water temperature was just like a freshly filled hot bath! The air outside was very cool meaning there was constantly small wisps of steam rising up into the cool air, plus the shore of a large lagoon was only a few metres away with flamingos feeding nearby. Sitting in this hot pool was one of the most relaxing experiences of my life!

Field of statues:

Here the remains of naturally eroded rock formations were left spiralling out of the sand in strange configurations. The main attraction was a strange pillar of rock rising from the desert which looked like a tree with a narrow trunk and large over hanging branches. More interesting to me were the huge piles of gigantic rocks which looked like a giant had stacked them one atop the other, often seeming to defy gravity or logic. I couldn’t resist climbing up on a couple for a great view of the surroundings and some cool photos. It was surprisingly hard work to scale the pillars at this altitude and getting back down again was a little hairy, especially when you’re out of breath and your muscles are all wobbly.

Cemetario de trenes (cemetery of trains):

Here on the edge of the salt flats and just outside a small town (which I think was the ‘end of the line’) were two long rows of abandoned and rusty trains. It was a strange experience to walk amongst the skeletons of that many trains; I climbed amongst or walked around at least 10 different trains before it started raining, which was a shame as I would have liked to spend more time here. There is a strange melancholy feeling about seeing the skeleton of a train – I think it is similar to seeing a really old tree that has fallen over and is rotting away. Trains are so huge and so powerful that it is a humbling experience to walk amongst one that has been abandoned and rusting away – for some reason it is a sad experience.

Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni salt flats):

The end of the trip (for most) was the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world! Because it is wet season, we had to cross from the regular land onto the salt flats through a wide salt pool. The pool was quite deep and almost reached the bottom of the doors meaning all the underside of the Landcruiser was now covered in salt. Once we were through here we travelled for about 20 minutes out onto the salt flats. It is hard to imagine just how flat and how salty salt flats are until you’re standing in the middle of one: the Uyuni flats are dead flat for 12000 sqkm, and the thickness of the salt ranges from 2 to 8m thick! We drove out to the salt museum which was a structure made entirely of salt except for the tin roof. There were some cool sculptures and even the seats inside were made of salt. We had a basic lunch here and then went outside to take stupid photos outside where the flatness of the landscape allows for some creative shots where the scale is skewed. Just before we left, a huge storm rolled in with some heavy rain and huge thunder claps. We drove back to the small town of Uyuni where we waved goodbye to the majority of the group. We, however, still had 2 days of driving as we would be returning to Chile.

Returning to Chile:

In Uyuni we jumped in a different Landcruiser with a different driver along with another couple from Chile who spoke no English. This didn’t matter though as the driver insisted on playing his favourite CD at a crazy volume for the next 5 hours straight immediately removing any notions of conversation. We did stop a few times for supplies or toilet breaks and during this time the driver was very friendly and chatty. Unfortunately he was a loud talker – the kind that talk so loud it makes your eyes go wide and ruffles your hair. However it was his driving which was truly worrying - he was a maniacal driver. I cannot explain to you the terror I felt over the next 5 hours, and thinking about it now still makes my hands cramp up.

This afternoon’s trip was truly spectacular as we followed a gigantic eroded mountain ridge which abruptly plunged 100s of metres down into the desert sands – totally stunning. We also crossed a number of door-deep rivers here (all at breakneck speeds). Being rainy season, the heavens did open up a few times which I think is why the rivers where so high. There was a period of intense hail for a while and there was constantly water leaking through the dashboard and onto my feet. We arrived late at night at Villa del Mar which was a tiny rural village nowhere near the mar (the sea). The sky was clear and the stars were breathtaking – probably one of the best places to see stars in the world.

We were back on the road by 4:30am under the blanket of incredible stars. The driver insisted on having his music on so he wouldn’t fall asleep (that’s reassuring) but this meant that it was so loud that any creature within a 6km radius of the car was also kept awake. I suppose listening to the same terrible CD at heart-palpitating volume is a small price to pay for the driver staying awake and us staying alive. I literally tried every loud band on my iPod (no matter how bad) on full volume but I still couldn’t hear it over the car stereo – even Slayer couldn’t be heard through my headphones at full volume.

We arrived at the border, got our passports stamped, drove into Chile, got our bags scanned by quarantine at customs and then picked up our bikes and rode into San Pedro. ‘Mea Culpa’ here was trying to ride wearing thongs through deep sand – the inevitable happened and I dropped my bike. We then decided to put our proper gear on, ride back to Calama and return to the nice lady who allows camping on her property.

Additional photos below
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31st March 2013

to much yaffling not enough photos!!!!!

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