We arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, the driest desert in the world, just as it started raining:/ San Pedro is situated in Northern Chile, on the border to Bolivia. Like so many other backpackers we were planning on entering Bolivia on a four day 4x4 trip that would take us to the famous salt flats in Uyuni.
We weren't planning on spending too much time in San Pedro, just enough to acclimatize to the altitude and find a tour company. San Pedro is at 2407 meters (7900 ft.) above sea level and the trip to Bolivia would take us to 4800 m (15840 ft.), which is a big change from the beach. We didn't really notice the altitude in San Pedro, probably because it had taken us all night by bus to get there and we had a fairly slow climb.
After doing some research online and talking to a couple of tour agency we booked with Estrella del Sur Travels, and were ready to go the next day
Waiting to get picked up
After driving for about half an hour we hit the Chile-Bolivia border. It was an easy crossing:
Here we got introduced to our drivers, and divided into different groups. Randomly we had met up with an English couple we knew from Rio, and had requested to go with them. En route to the border we made friends with two other Canadians, and little did we know at the time that this would be our travel group through-out Bolivia.
Our first stop was at a high altitude lagoon. We were climbing pretty fast, but none of us felt sick, yet. As a measure to avoid altitude sickness we had invested in a bag of coca leaves.
Team coca leaf. Jason with Stu and Tom.
Climbing even higher we made it to some hot springs at about 4500m. The air was cold, but the water hot
After warming up in the pools we got back in the car,it was time to observe some geysers. When we stopped we were at 4800m (15840 ft.), and I for one could definitely feel it. Shortness of breath, nausea and headaches, all symptoms of altitude sickness, kept me siting down for most of the time. Jason didn't seem to feel it, he was running around taking pictures.
After relaxing for a bit, and chewing a substantial amount of coca leaves, I eventually felt better, although the smell of sulphur being released from the geysers didn't help the nausea:/
At our next stop we arrived at our "hostel" for the night. Here we had lunch before we headed back out to the cold see yet another lagoon and thousands of pink flamingos
Home for the night
Lagoon Colorada. Named after the different colours of the lake.
The water is red due to red sedimentation and pigmented algae.
I thought flamingos were tropical birds, I was wrong.
Power went off 9 p.m. at the hostel, which kind of set the bed time. It was fine by us as we were all pretty tired after a long day.
The next day started at 6 a.m. and after breakfast we all piled back in the cars. This day would mostly just be transport, as we were getting into Uyuni that afternoon. Still, we made a couple of stops on the way.
First was the Salvador Dali desert, an extremely barren valley characterized by landscape resembling the surrealistic paintings of namely; Salvador Dali. To be honest I thought it looked like any other desert we'd seen so far, but I'm no expert.
Yet another desert we got to see up close was the Siloli desert, famous for this strange volcanic rock formation;
This is "El Arbol de Piedra", Stone Tree.
The were lots of random rocks that looked like they had been thrown around by a giant. Of course the guys had to climb some.
After a quick lunch we headed back to civilization. Before visiting the "train cemetery" we made a stop in a small traditional village.
Stocking up on coca leaves
All the locals ladies wear their hair like this. I'm sure its never been cut.
At the train cemetery. I would call it a train dump site. Jason had some fun pushing old wheels around,so I guess it was worth it.
We arrived in Uyuni that afternoon, and checked into our hostel. After 3 days with no hot water everyone was ready for a shower. There were a total of three bathrooms, we were about 15 people. Luckily we got in early and were the winners of hot water and water pressure.
The afternoon and evening were pretty uneventful. Uyuni is not a very happening place, and between buying some alpakka gear and having dinner, there wasn't much to do . Just as well as we were getting picked up at 5 a.m. the next morning to see the sunrise on the salt flats.
The Salar de Uyuni is the world's biggest salt flat at 4086 square meters. The salar was formed when a prehistoric lake dried up creating two smaller lakes and two slat flats, the biggest one being Salar de Uyuni. The salt crust of the Salar is composed of varying layers of salt and water, and underneath the salt surface there is a lake of brine.
En route to the salt flats.
Waiting for sunrise
This entire building is made out of salt and used to be a hotel. But because the sewage from hotel was polluting the salt flats it has now been shut down.
After the sun had finally come up and we weren't freezing cold anymore it was time for some picture taking. The salt flats are extraordinarily flat with an average altitude variation of only 1 m over the whole salar. This makes for some pretty good photo options. Jason was excited, he had been planning photos in his head for days.
The Salar de Uyuni is a huge tourist attraction, but of course tourism isn't the only thing that goes down here. The Salar contains large amounts of sodium, potassium, lithium and magnesium, of these lithium is considered the most important as it is a vital component of electric batteries. The brine underneath the salt crust is extremely rich in this mineral, it contains 50-70% of the worlds lithium reserves, which is in the process of being extracted.
Furthermore 25.000 tonnes of salt are extracted from the salar every year.
After playing around taking picture for a while we had only one stop left of the tour. Our driver explained to us that this wasn't normally part of the trip, but he just happened to know about some mummies in the area that he wanted to show us.
Flat tire, only accident on the trip, and very undramatic.
Stone huts containing mysterious mummies
Puma mummy hanging above the door...
None of us could really make out were these mummies came from and why they were there, our driver wasn't the most talkative man, and our Spanish just didn't cut it. Creepy.
After the mummy encounter we were driven back to Uyuni and pretty much got right on the bus to Potosi along with our English and Canadian crew. The trip from from Chile to Bolivia was amazing, and the Salar a definite highlight! Although there might have been a few too many lagoon stops, I'd most definitely recommend it