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Published: December 25th 2017
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Geo: -22.9058, -68.1951

Oruro to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile - 2nd to 9th November

We left Oruro by train and it was a lovely journey, partly due to the standard of comfort of the train itself but also to the scenery. The train leaves Oruro twice a week and is quite an event. We checked our luggage in, as on an aeroplane, and did not see it again until it arrived in the luggage office in Uyuni. People were allowed on the train an hour before departure time so it was very relaxed with many Bolivian people having their families on board to settle them in, buy them drinks, papers etc then make their farewells when the train was due to depart. The train was in excellent condition, comfortable and clean, and the meal we ate was individually cooked and tasted superb. How they produced it on a train is quite amazing.

As we pulled out of the station the first few minutes involved rolling along the Oruro streets alongside cars and stalls. Then we approached the outskirts where sadly, as with every settlement we saw in Bolivia, rubbish surrounded the town for half a kilometre from the edge of the housing. Then as we left the town behind we were surprised to find the lake we had viewed on the map was in reality a huge wetland area where there were more flamingos than we have seen anywhere previously. It was very a pleasant area to ride through as the train goes slowly enough to watch the scenery unfold and observe the birdlife.

After the wetland the terrain gradually grew drier as we crossed the high antiplano, watching llamas and vicunas from the window. Llamas and alpacas are domesticated but vicunas are wild. They are smaller and more elegant in appearance than their llama cousins. Their numbers had fallen dangerously low as a result of hunters killing them for their very fine wool but thankfully they are now protected and their numbers are increasing. Along the way a dust storm blew up for half an hour or so and everything disappeared from view but it soon passed over.

We checked into our hotel in Uyuni (elevation 3,600 metres) and went to bed. At the end of the last blog I said the altitude had not affected our sleep. I spoke too soon! The first night in Uyuni I fell asleep easily but woke up at 5am and found that I could not get back to sleep even though I was still tired. The second night I awoke at 3am with the same result. Jim slept through but found it was a disturbed and restless sleep. We had still not fully recovered from when we had felt very ill in Oruro because of the altitude.

The whole purpose of the last four days of travel was to reach Uyuni and take a trip from there across the Salar de Uyuni (Salt flats) to San Pedro de Atacama in the Chilean desert. By the time we reached Uyuni we were seriously concerned about the wisdom of our plan. It is a popular trip especially with backpackers but it is tough. The Salar is at an elevation of 3,600 metres but then as you travel south it is necessary to climb to over 5,000 metres. On the backpacker trips the conditions are stark as the accommodation, which is mostly in dormitories, is cold as they are without heat and the temperatures fall at night (as low as -20 in the coldest part of the year), they do not have hot water, and the food is so poor you are recommended to take food and water with you to supplement what is provided. We were still feeling unwell and increasingly suffering from the altitude so we discussed changing our plans and returning north. Jim was concerned that the extra elevation would be too much and I sympathised with that view, especially as my nights were becoming more and more difficult, but after our effort in reaching Uyuni I was reluctant to give up.

So we decided to consult an upmarket agency, Fremen Travel, to see what they offered. As I said, around the Salar there is little accommodation and it is very poor, the exception being a group of small hotels, the Tayka Hotels, which are community built and managed and are 'ecological' which in this case means they use solar power for heating and sanitation and have as little impact on the environment as possible. They are small so even the label 'hotel' seems out of place. Frontier Refuge would be more appropriate as they are situated in very physically hostile areas but provide a high degree of comfort. They have been built in traditional styles with traditional materials reflecting their location, there is Hotel de Sal (made of salt), Hotel de Piedra (local stone) and Hotel de Desierto which is modern as there are no traditional buildings at all in the desert region and it uses materials which help cope with the extreme temperatures.

We discussed their programme and despite the cost, which has blown our budget for the next 2 months, we decided to go with them. They only allow 4 guests per Toyota 4x4, (most companies send 6 or even 7 in the same size vehicles), they always take a satellite telephone, they use the Tayka Hotels with hot showers and heating and best of all oxygen is available in the hotels and in the car. The oxygen was the deal clincher! If I was going to travel in isolated areas at 5,000 metres plus I wanted to be sure oxygen was available for peace of mind.

So the next day we were collected at 10am and set off. In fact Jim and I were the only passengers so we had plenty of space and settled down to cross onto the Salar with driver/guide Marcos.. It is such a unique environment it is hard to describe. It has an area approximately 2,200 square kilometres. Millions of
The original salt hotel closed nowThe original salt hotel closed nowThe original salt hotel closed now

It had no sanitation and was on the Salar itself
years ago it was under the sea. Now it is a high (3,600 metres) flat area which does not drain outwards. This means the salts and minerals which leach from the surrounding mountains are deposited on the Salar. Each year in January to March the rain from the mountains drains down onto the Salar flooding it to a depth of between a few centimetres and a metre depending upon local surface variations. This soon dries out again refreshing and re-flattening the surface.

All this added together means the Salar is a vast expanse of whiteness where nothing lives, which at times, depending upon the light, can look like a sea. To add to the sea imagery, there are hundreds of small 'islands' in the Salar. These consist mostly of huge coral outcrops left over from when it was all under the sea. These islands are often covered in cacti and are also populated with a number of bird varieties which seems strange in the middle of the empty Salar. In the heat of the day the islands appear to float above the land.

Driving across the salt is easy. It provides a good gripping surface and it is flat so produces a smooth ride. The whole surface is patterned because of the crystalline nature of the salt and from a distance or low perspective this can look like loose snow. The only difficulty is that the combination of brightness and lack of features make it easy to nod off. Marcos had a few micro sleeps according to Jim who was sitting next to him. But as Jim said, "there is nothing to hit or bump into and no road to stay on so it really didn't matter if he goes absent occasionally"! Thankfully this did not happen on the short stretch of real road from Uyuni onto the Salar, and it could not happen when we left the salt as the terrain was such a challenge it kept us all wide awake. From entering the Salar to crossing the border into Chile there were no roads, it was all cross country driving which in places was very exciting.

Along the way there is a variety of things to see, the train 'cemetery', the islands, the original hotel of salt which is now a small museum, a salt production area, a cave with stalactites and mites unlike any I have seen previously, and a couple of villages on the edge of the salt where one has a museum and the other a Chulpa or funerary cave. Sometimes Chulpas are stone buildings like large traditional beehives but we went to one set in a cave where the mummified bodies remain together with possessions to accompany them into the next life. The people who built them were wiped out by the Aymara at the start of the 13th Century.

Marcos surprised us by producing a table and chairs and presenting a lovely pre-cooked lunch. There seems to be no expectation in Boliviar that food should be hot so a meal of meat, vegetables, potatoes and rice - all cold - is quite normal and in fact very enjoyable.

We reached our first Tayka hotel, built completely of salt, except of course for the plumbing fittings. Inside, as with all the Taykas, it is very comfortable but unfortunately their oxygen had run out and they had not been able to replace it as there seems to be a shortage. The elevation was around 4,500 metres. I did not ask Marcos for the supply from the car as I knew we were going to go higher still so did not want to risk using it up. One person was already confined to bed with Soroche.

As heating is only provided in bedrooms and the dining room, the sense of being on the frontier is heightened by the choice of clothing worn by staff. Apart from the waitresses who have standard uniforms, but I suppose are only on duty for short periods, everyone walks around dressed in trousers, woolly hats, hoodies and jackets. Quite bizarre when you first see them but it was repeated at all the hotels because of the cold. During the day it warms up outside and the sun is scorchingly fierce but inside and as sunset approaches the chill sets in.

That night the altitude had an even worse affect on my sleep. I will explain the pattern as many people experience it in the same way. I find it easy to go to sleep but then breathing becomes more shallow so blood oxygen levels fall even lower. At some point it is so low the body takes over and jolts you awake, wide-eyed, to breathe more deeply. Once this has happened it is difficult to get back to sleep however exhausted you are because the blood oxygen level is so low. It feels like torture. You drift off, breathe 8 or 9 times then the 10th breathe produces the 'jolt' affect and you wake up unable to catch your breath. A few minutes deep breathing and you drift again, only to have the same pattern repeat itself some 30 seconds later. In the Hotel de Sal I woke up at 1am after about 2 1/2 hours and that was it for the night.

Rather than lie there fighting the urge to drift off I tried to do Sudokus. Unfortunately I think the lack of oxygen and/or sleep also affected my brain as I never managed to complete one. I could only do the easy part at the start and then had to give up and move onto a new one. It was a relief when dawn broke.

We travelled on the next day, viewing more of the Salar and it's features, stopping at the Tayka Hotel de Piedra for lunch then travelling further south until we reached the edge of the Atacama desert. On checking in at the Tayka El Desierto (Elevation 5,000 metres) Marcos arranged for me to have oxygen that night. I was unsure whether it would happen as again there was someone confined to bed with altitude sickness and I thought their need might be greater than mine. I was not ill just desperate for sleep. However it arrived at 10pm with instructions to use it for 5 minutes every hour at level 4. It felt scary using it alone as I know nothing about it and had to trust the instructions given. The first use made it easier to breathe whilst wearing the face mask but the effect reduced immediately once the five minutes was up. It was so tempting to keep on using it but I had to discipline myself. Jim was trying to sleep while all this movement in semi darkness was going on.

The next session an hour later had a slightly longer lasting effect although I could still not breathe well enough to sleep but by the midnight session I realised it was cumulative and lasting longer each time. At 1am I had my final dose as after that I fell into a lovely welcome sleep until the alarm awoke me at 5.45am. My lips were usually an unbecoming purple colour when it was time to get up giving me a Goth-like appearance. An unexpected benefit from the oxygen was that the feeling came back in my lips. I had not realised it had gone until it returned! They also returned to the normal colour.

Set for the day after almost 5 hours sleep we started off across the desert stopping at numerous lakes, or lagunas, all of which had unique features and many supported huge numbers of flamingos. Their beauty was as breathtaking as the altitude. I wanted to stand there and absorb the views so I could hold their tranquility and magnificence inside. I think it is the combination of vastness, contrasting colours of blue, green or red water, the blue sky and multicoloured rock that makes the scenery so spellbinding. Unfortunately photographs do not do it justice because of the scale so I took a number of videos. This always gets me into trouble with Jim as it exhausts the camera battery more quickly. So when I was expecting to be told off I asked Jim if he had used his video to which he replied, "Yes, once, or perhaps twice, in fact it might have been three times". That made my 9 videos look much more reasonable! As if all that was not enough we reached a more volcanic area where one volcano issued a steady stream of gases and numerous hot springs and mudholes covered the ground. We did not get out to take photographs as we were about 5,200 metres high so we sat still! Jim felt worse than I. Generally he suffered more from dry mouth and nose, difficulty breathing during the day etc than I did but he was able to sleep.

The 2016 Dakar Motorcycle rally is to be held on the Salar in January next year and everyone is very excited about it.

Eventually the trip came to an end at the Bolivian/Chile border. We checked out of Bolivia at a small stone hut and waited in the vehicle with Marcos for our Chilean driver to arrive and take us down into San Pedro de Atacama. The Bolivian driver/guides do not cross. It was so windy outside (5,000 metres) that it was unpleasant to be out of the car. We could see vehicles approaching across the desert from about 5 minutes drive away. When our driver arrived we were handed over. It felt very like the handover of spies across Soviet borders. Then we were quickly across into Chile and soon on a lovely smooth straight tarmac road which dropped straight down into San Pedro, some 2 kilometres downhill. There were safety run off lanes every kilometre but we were down in 20 minutes or so. It felt wonderful to breathe more easily although we were still 2,500 metres high. The Chilean immigration and customs processes are carried out on the edge of town. They were quick and efficient.

We are resting here for 3 nights and will probably go for a night time star viewing trip in the desert with telescopes, but apart from that we will lounge around and enjoy the bars and restaurants of this small but lively little town in the desert with it's adobe walls and houses and stunning views of snow topped peaks to the south and plan our next moves.

The Uyuni experience was amazing and we are so glad we did not miss it. It is not an easy trip because of the terrain, climate, isolation and of course the altitude but it is spectacular. There was one family with boys aged probably about nine and eleven. They really suffered and looked exhausted. Despite enjoying the sights they looked as if they did not have the energy to move.

A few final words about Bolivia. It was never colonised and this is evident in the strength of indigenous cultures and general approach to life. The different indigenous groups retain their identity but until recently have developed separate areas so there is not the communication networks found in other countries. The paved roads only extend a short way across from east to west and only a little more in a roughly north south direction, thanks mainly to the Panamerican highway.

The people of the Antiplano are in general very glum. They rarely smile and do not communicate much even with each other. It may be the effects of the geography of their land, I don't know. I am not sure I would smile much if I lived on the Altiplano. Some, but not all, of the people involved with tourists are more genial.

The country is defined by the lack of good transport and it's geography, as well as it's appalling public bathrooms. The range of climate and altitude determine the agriculture, land use and ease of life. The people in the lowland Amazon area seemed much more cheerful and easy going.

We have loved seeing the contrasting areas, the ruins, wildlife, birds, indigenous peoples etc but are looking forward to a little more comfort.

Chile is very different if our experience in San Pedro is enough to judge from. It is more expensive, better organised and much more European even in this desert area. However we are going to head north next towards Peru and try to work out how we can see what we want to there but at the same time minimise our exposure to high altitude. We will let you know how it goes.




Additional photos below
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Eye of the SalarEye of the Salar
Eye of the Salar

Most of the Salar is dry underneath at present


8th November 2015

Amazing scenery. We look forward to seeing the videos.
8th November 2015

I love the colour contrast in that picture.
8th November 2015

Amazing picture
9th November 2015

Hi you two - glad to see you survived the altitude - keeps enjoying x

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