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Published: October 28th 2015
In Chile, with Cuba less than a day behind me, I am almost lulled to sleep on a bus (a first for me.) The road hypnotically smooth, the bus seat one that would put the Spanish Inquisition´s ´Comfy Chair´to shame. Heading for the deserts of Northern Chile, the scenery would show subtle shifts over the 23 hour trip. Eventually, dusky pink morning sun reveals planes of crumbling, rusty earth more suited to Mars, and even cacti are reluctant to punctuate the landscape. The little moisture permitted here I see as snow ícing´on the perfect cones of almost 6000m high volcanoes nearby.
My base was to be the tiny village of San Pedro de Atacama. At 2,400m in altitude, it has become a major tourist hub, with the Lonely Planet guide book describing a ´Highland adobe disneyland´ - gulp. Fears were not realised, however, as I found the narrow streets of red dust and rendered brick walls charming. Especially when punctuated with mosaic reflecting the impossibly deep blue of the desert sky.
San Pedros main attractions are, however, outside the village walls, and before long I would be in line to walk the ´Valle de la Luna´ (valley of the moon). Well, again it was more reminiscent of a martian experience. Trudging ever up, lungs slightly gaspingaltitude over 3000m now), failing miserably to avoid inhaling the rust-red dust. We tourists are suddenly rewarded with views of folds and folds of crinkled canyon, red clashing with steel-grey dunes, and in places liberal dustings of salt catch the sun like ice crystals.
A big reason for my San Pedro visit, however, was a few hours and yet another planet away in Bolivia. The'Salar de Uyuni'are the high altitude salt flats that sit on the Bolivian altiplano, and stubbornly appear in so many ´highlights´ they surely had to be checked out. WELL, there were reservations. No, not the sudden jump in elevation (though at almost 5000m altitude sickness is a real possibility). Not the (admittedly remote) possibility of appearing in the latest TV initiative - 'Border Security - Bolivian edition´. Simply a Lonely Planet quote: ´For every 5 travellers that gush, there is one declaring it a walking nightmare´ Common complaints include frigid accommodation, poor food, and (more alarming) drivers intoxicated while negotiating the potentially dangerous high altitude passes. Reputedly, no agencies have consistently positive reviews, so would I be playing Russian Roulette?
Fortunately no, as my research paid off. I found myself and 5 south american tourists whisked away in a slightly battered but well-maintained Landcruiser by 'Davee
d.' 50-something, he lives just 30 km from the salt flats, and has served many presumably weary-ing years as a guide. His wrinkles serve, however, only to punctuate his cheeky grin as he shares nothing but enthusiasm for the privilege of showing us his ´backyard'. No backyards I know of, however, have near 6000m high volcanoes perched ominously above them with their obligatory snow ìcing´ There are not usually hills parading 7 distinct colours of soil, which plunge down to lagoons, some white, some green, all in constant flux. No backyard should reasonably have an iridescent red (and flamingo-punctuated) lagoon, with vast white salt drifts in perfect iceberg imitation. If there was some 'designer'of Salar de Uyuni, I believe there must have also been some potent hallucinogenic substances involved in its creation!
Our last and teeth-chattering stop 3 days later is pre-dawn on the salt flats themselves. Here, to our groups astonishment, a perfect full moon sunk like a balloon with so much lead, just as the sun crept pinky-red on the opposite side to soon reveal almost endless planes of blinding white. With hexagonal ridges of salt overlying the flats, they quickly cause all perspective to be lost. This is taken advantage of by the Chileans in our group, who proceed to create more and more ridiculous ´perspective´photos. I play along until our guide decides to aid their photographic stunts by producing a box of plastic dinosaurs - eeeek!
Fond farewells are said to Daveed as he deposits us back at the Bolivian border safe and very content (the only thing he appeared to be more attentive to if possible was his 4 x 4) Them coming back from a quick loo stop, I discover the tour company has suddenly forfeited my 5 star review. Their bus back to Chile has left without me!
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