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Published: October 27th 2015
We first heard about the Bolivian salt desert way back at the start of our trip. Azif, whom we met during our Vipassana retreat during Christmas last year, told us of his visit to a plain in the mountains of Bolivia that was unlike anything on Earth. Finally, 10 months on, we got to experience this unworldly location.
After speeding from Cuenca in Ecuador all of the way through Peru, spending nearly 60 hours on buses over 5 days, we arrived at a dusty town called San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Apparently this small desert settlement is in the country's top 3 most visited destinations due to a proximity to numerous adventure sport and ecotourist destinations. Located within the driest desert in the world - the Atacama Desert - San Pedro's small size means the high number of travellers and tourists is evident throughout the town.
We stayed for two nights. E and I chose to give ourselves time to acclimatise to the altitude a little whilst being able to book a tour through the salt desert with plenty of time to prepare. We booked into a small hostal just off the main street and headed out to
find an agency.
This was something of a first for us because to date we haven't actually been on any organised tours. With the semi-exceptions of our poor attempt to leave Delhi and a day trip to the Cañon del Sumidero in Mexico, our adventures have been either self-organised or organised with friends. Half expecting to feel scammed as per our Delhi experience, my time in the World White Tours office turned out to be fine. Twenty minutes and $198,000 Chilean pesos later and we were to follow in Azif's footsteps on a three day trip between San Pedro and Uyuni, Bolivia.
The morning of our departure, we hauled our bags and additionals to the front gate of the hostal and discovered that Marcos, a Brazilian that had been staying in the neighbouring dorm, was going to be on the same tour as us. After getting off the minibus that took us through the Chilean and Bolivian border controls it turned out that he was going to be in the same vehicle as us. Along with three other Brazilians - Karime, Frederico, and Clarissa - the six of us hopped into a Land Cruiser with guide Franco and
set off into the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Nadina Eduardo Avaroa.
The first day, spent entirely within the reserve, was took us to a number of different water features. The Lagunas de Color are lakes scattered across the park that have their own individual colours due to minerals or algae: Laguna Blanca a stunning white due to borax, Laguna Verde green from copper, and Laguna Colorada red with algae. All of these lakes, though Laguna Colorada in particular, were home to thousands of flamingoes that honestly are weirder in life than on photo. Those lanky legs, man. Between these we stopped at an agua termales - a pool with natural hot water - where I managed to get nearly naked despite the bitingly cold winds, as well as a giant hole in the ground giving off loads of steam that they called a geyser. We ended at a basic but more than adequate "refugio" with loads of coffee and food and an early night at 8.30pm.
The next morning took us out of the park and through some almost Mars-like locations of dusty red rocks against a serrated rust-coloured landscape. The Arbol de Piedra (Tree of Stone) is
a collection of top-heavy rock formations that erupt from an otherwise flat stretch of landscape, whilst the distant outcroppings of huge mountains stood nearly motionless in the distance no matter how far we travelled. Eventually we came to another series of coloured lakes, home to many more flamingoes, which are more interesting than they sound in writing because the environment they emerge from is otherwise so wind-driven, sun-beaten, and desolate. We passed at the remains of an old train line that was apparently home to three very friendly dogs that some of the 4x4 drivers gave food and water to before ending at the Hotel de Sal, a hotel that - as the name suggests - is made of salt. We headed to bed early once again because the next morning we would have to wake at...
...3.45am. Still dark, still cold, but necessary to reach the Salar de Uyuni in time for sunrise. Winding our way through the steadily lightening landscape, we eventually hit the salt desert around 5.30am. When Azif had described this place as unlike anything on Earth he was right but it is difficult to convey in words or photos. To suddenly enter a landscape
that is perfectly white, perfectly flat, and astoundingly vast was a moving moment. We sped across the salt for another 25 minutes before coming to a halt some distance into the area, where we were able to appreciate a sunrise across this alien panorama without blemish.
The best part of an hour was spent watching the sun rise out of the white horizon, taking photos, having lone moments of connection to the world, and generally being inside of this unique moment. Eventually we all climbed back into the 4x4 and, with Frederico at the wheel due to Franco's tiredness, headed toward the Isla del Pescador. We stopped for breakfast at this giant rock emerging out of the salt, eating in the shadow of hundreds of giant cacti that reached up to 14 metres in height. Eventually we left and, after a brief stop at the Museo de Sal, headed to a small "gift shop" settlement called Colchani for lunch then to our final destination of Uyuni.
Our jeep crew of Franco and the driver and four Brazilians was top notch. We ate with them, slept in the same room as them, and of course spent hours in the
same cqr as them. People can irritate me easily sometimes but this was not the case in our Land Cruiser. They definitely helped make the whole thing a top dollar experience.
What goes around comes around. We are nearly at the end of our time in Latin America and to end it with something we only learned of at the beginning of the trip felt was a satisfying circle. Normally I am dubious of organised tours but I am - we are - very glad to have undertaken this one. From the epic mountains of the Reserve, to the rocky Martian flats, and ultimately the unreal salt desert, it was something that I will not and cannot forget.
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