For the benefit of those who haven’t read the previous post we’ll give you a quick update on our situation. We are in the Atacama Desert and Lauren has had been taken down by a really nasty sickness bug that had plagued our hostel. This resulted in us spending an extra night in the desert to give her time to recover.
Our original plan was to get the coach back to the airport, stay the night then get a coach to Uyuni, Bolivia, the following day. However, after looking at the costs of this option and speaking to other backpackers who had faced the same situation, we decided to take the plunge and book a 3 day expedition through the Andes by 4×4 to Uyuni. This turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve made on our trip so far.
On the morning of our trip we awoke at 6:30am, ready to be picked up at 7am. In all honesty, this being South America, we expected it’d be closer to 8 (the word punctual doesn’t appear in their dictionary) but to our surprise, at bang on 7am, the minibus arrived. However, we weren’t allowed to get ahead of ourselves. In true South American style the driver of the minibus had a long list of hostels on his pickup list… and had no idea where any of them were. Subsequently the 1st hour of our adventure was spent with us listening to the driver shout hostel names into his google maps followed by a series of Spanish swear words when the map failed to show the location of the hostels. It was looking like £100 well spent..
So not a great start but I’m glad to say it was all uphill from here. Before long the van was full and we were dropped of at the Bolivian border where the usual passport checks and immigration procedures took place. While queuing we got chatting to some of the people that would be joining us on our trip. There was a group of 3 Chileans from Santiago who we immediately got on well with. Turns out they were all siblings and were some of the most fun and friendly people we’ve met so far. There was also a French girl and a Dutch guy, both travelling alone who we got on really well with.
After passing through immigration we were taken into the mountains where we found the 4x4s that would take us on our expedition. Here we were split into groups of 5 – a tense moment as before leaving we were told that the quality of the trip was heavily dependent on the people you were put with. We got really lucky. We were put with a French couple (John and Pauline) and an Italian guy (Rudolpho). They were all incredibly friendly and, to our relief, spoke near perfect English (apart from John but it didn’t stop him trying). Our driver was also brilliant – Juan Carlos (couldn’t get a more Spanish name if he tried) didn’t speak a word of English but ended up being one of the best personalities of our trip. His high energy, bubbly personality meant that somehow he always managed to get his jokes across to us. A real character.
So, with new acquaintances made, we set off into the mountains. The first thing to note about this trip is that before leaving we were given a long list of all the individual natural attractions that we’d be stopping at along the way. This was a pretty big selling point however, as it turned out, the journey itself was just as special. Simply gazing out the window, you’re eyes are met with the most incredible landscapes. Volcanoes, deserts, fields of wild flowers, crystal clear lagoons – this part of the world has everything. It was the best in-journey entertainment we could possibly ask for.
Our first stop was at a salt water lagoon that sat at the base of a snow covered, active volcano. With water almost artificially blue and clear, it was an awesome sight.
After that we stopped at lagoons with flamingos in, natural fresh water hot pools and and high altitude geysers at 4900m. I could go on forever describing each in turn but I think the pictures tell a much better story.
That night we stayed in a basic but very comfortable refuge at 4200m. Despite the fact that we were only travelling with 3 others in our 4×4, you quickly got to know plenty of other people as you all stop at the same places. For this reason there was a great atmosphere in the refuge. The evening was spent with us all sat around a long table swapping travel stories and eating good, wholesome Bolivian food. Our inability to speak another language was pretty embarrassing as many members of the group rapidly changed their language from Spanish, to English to Italian. It made the conversation slightly difficult to follow at times but it was a good experience all the same. We hit the sack at the crazy hour of 10pm (travelling around in a 4×4 all day is surprisingly tiring!)
That night we made the rookie’s error of not realising that the previous day we had passed into the Bolivian time zone (1 hour behind Chile). We therefore awoke at 7:30 (6:30 Bolivian time) ready for our breakfast at 8. The hour and a half wait informed us of our error. Luckily we weren’t the only ones as most of the refuge were up with us!
At 9am (Bolivian time), having been awake for more than 2 and a half hours we departed on the second day of our adventure. Almost immediately, the road leading away from the refuge was filled with llamas. As it turned out, the refuge was next to an active llama farm and they were being herded to the next field. There were 3 children and their mother doing this (the men work in the fields growing the local favourite – quinoa).
Once the llamas had cleared we proceeded to one of the many volcanic rock formations that we would visit that day. Here we climbed the shear rock faces to see the 400 year old incan paintings at the top. The view from the summit was also incredible.
That night we spent the evening in a private room (bliss) in a hostel constructed entirely out of salt (we were pretty close to the Bolivian salt flat by this time). And we mean entirely! Everything from the chairs, to the floor to the walls was salt. Very cool.
Before dinner we made the quick trip across the salt flat to an incan burial site. Here we learnt about the incan traditions and also saw actual skeletons in the burial sites ( they were all open). This was a pretty nerve jangling experience, especially at dusk!
We then returned to the hostel for dinner! By this time, we’d become really close with the others accompanying us on the trip. It’s amazing how much you get to know people when you’re thrust into a car with them for 12 hours a day! This, combined with the fact that wine was available from a shop 2 minutes from the hostel,meant that this night turned into a really good one. Good food, quality Chilean wine and great company. It’s nights like this that travelling is all about. We hit the sack around 11:30 keen to get a few hours kip before the main event that would follow the next day – the salt flats at sunrise.
We awoke at 4am the next day.. yes 4am. We quickly scrambled around getting our things together and by 4:15 we were in the 4×4 on our way. We’ve already talked about the stars in our last post but I think they deserve another mention here. They’re like nothing we’ve ever seen. It’s something no description or photo will ever do justice – you need to see them. If it wasn’t for the sub zero evening temperatures we’d have sat out all of the previous night gazing at them.
Most of the car took the 45 minute journey as an opportunity to get some sleep but upon reaching the salt flat everyone was wide awake. And for good reason. It’s one of the most incredible sights you will ever see, the best of our travels so far by a country mile.
Think, 10,500km squared of perfectly level, pure white salt flats as far as the eye can see at an altitude of 3700m. Add to that a shallow layer of water on the surface and the most beautiful sunrise. To quote Forrest Gump: ‘it’s impossible to see where the earth finishes and heaven begins’. It was indescribably beautiful. Something that everyone should see in their lives. If it’s not on your bucket list, put it on.
After around half an hour we moved onto a small island filled with cacti in the middle of the salt flat. Here we had breakfast gazing our over the never ending white planes. Not a bad spot for a bit of toast and coffee!
After a while we moved onto our final stop: slap bang in the middle of the salt flat. Whereas before there were mountains on the horizon, now there was nothing. The salt flats extended in every direction as far as the eye could see. It’s a daunting but beautiful sight. Here we had a bit of fun with the perspective shots!
That was our final stop. We jumped back in the 4x4s and before long the odd house started appearing on the previously baron horizon. The landscape became more and more cluttered until after another few hours we arrived in Uyuni, a mega touristy, somewhat underwhelming town on the edge of the salt flat.
Our incredible 3 day adventure had come to an end and it was time to say goodbye to the people who we’d met along the way. We’d spent 12 hours a day together for the past 3 days, we’d shared stories, swapped tips and most of all, we’d become friends. It made saying goodbye a genuinely difficult task. A few decided to continue on together, whilst the rest went their separate ways, each with their own plans and ambitions for travelling.
Here lies a pretty strong message – whilst on the surface, travelling seems to be a series of incredible experiences; The salt flats, the flamingos, the volcanoes, the incredible scenery, etc.. the heart of any trip is in the people that you share those experiences with. The characters you meet along the way and the friendships you forge.
It is this side that is never captured in photographs and that is lost when you re-tell your travel stories upon arriving home. It’s the human side. The blend of cultures, the collage of personalities, the range of backgrounds that have led to you all to this moment. Our trip was a classic example – with ages ranging from 18 to 45 we all sat around the table each night as equals. Each individual with a story to tell, giving you a glimpse into a life or culture that you would otherwise be oblivious to.
All in all, our 3 days spent crammed in the back of a 4×4 will be some of the best and most memorable of our trip. We were incredibly lucky; we had a fantastic group and a few days previously the salt flat was inaccessible due to the fact that it was under 1 ft of water. But all the same, it was an experience that transcends age groups and personalities, something we would recommend to anyone.
Next stop… Sucre, Bolivia