From San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni Salt Flat

Atacama Salt Flat

Atacama Salt Flat

I’m writing this from La Paz, Bolivia, and we’ve had a quite a journey from Chile in the past week to get here. Strap yourselves in as I recount the ups, downs and in-betweens of your journey.
Our journey begins in Calama, in the middle of the Atacama Desert. The airport we landed at didn’t even have a proper runway, it’s a simply a dirt path indelibly marked into the earth. The airport was not an international airport by any means, consisting of a single little building, in which arrivals and departures all bunched together trying to get things done. From here we hopped on a bus for a trip to San Pedro, resting at an altitude of 2,400m, also in the middle of this massive desert, one of the driest places on Earth. San Pedro had gone a full 52 years without rain until early in 2008, when they got soaked for a whole 20 minutes. The town and environment is very much like Tatooine for all you Star Wars fans. Nothing but dirt wherever you look. The altitude also took some getting used to as well.
We spent two days here, taking a couple of bus trips to the notable landmarks in the area, the Valley of Death and the Valley of the Moon. We caught a brilliant sunset at the Valley of the Moon, as most people in the area try to do at least once. Even more fascinating for me was looking up at the stars after that sunset and seeing some of the constellations in the sky which we don’t see in the Northern Hemisphere. As an avid astronomer this was a real treat for me. We could even see the Milky Way with the naked eye, which was awe inspiring.

Stronger in San Pedro

Stronger in San Pedro

In San Pedro, we stayed at Tulor Hotel because they are specialists in archeological tours and they are also in the middle of San Pedro. Our main reason for coming to San Pedro though was to take a tour of the Salar de Uyuni in a jeep, the world’s largest salt flats. We had booked a 3 day tour of the area through a company called Estrellas del Sur, whom we had heard very good things about from other travellers. In fact we even got the same driver and guide that we had heard specifically mentioned in blog posts, so we were very excited. 2 jeeps went out, with our group and driver, as well as a second group consisting of two Belgian ladies, 2 Brits, a Spaniard and a Scot. We enjoyed some empanadas before we left, which we had also heard great things about. I got creative and threw in some llama and quinoa with my order, while the others stuck with cheese and tomato empanadas, probably getting the better of me, as I ended up quite sick that night and the next day.

Regardless the show had to go on, so I was ready for departure at 8 AM the next day, still sick as a dog. Some of the others were nice enough to help get my bags to the tour company, as I could barely stand up straight at this point. It was going to be an interesting day, and I just hoped the sickness would pass so I could fully enjoy it.
That first day was rough though, and while the others all got out of the jeeps at the various stopping points along the way, including lagoons and salt lakes, I sat hunched over in the jeep most of the time. I’m glad they took plenty of pictures so I could relive this first day later.

San Pedro Church

San Pedro Church

Not only was I still ill that night, but the increasing altitude wasn’t helping, as we were now at nearly 5000m. Many of the others were also feeling the effects of just the altitude alone. Especially for the ones who have never experienced altitude sickness before, it’s a terrible feeling. I was used to it, as I had been to Ecuador and other high altitudes before, so it didn’t have quite the effect on me as it did on some of the others. We stopped at a refugio that night, where many of us took Diamox for the altitude sickness, which had helped most of us by the next morning.

On the second day as everyone improved in health, myself included, we had a great time. We saw some great tree rock formations that I could now get out of the jeep to go see up close, some strange mountain colorations, and more lagoons, with many flamingos huddled around them. That night we stayed in a Salt Hotel, where as you might guess, everything was made from salt, very much like the Ice Hotel in Quebec City in the winters (though much warmer). Floors, walls, furniture, everything was made of salt. We sat on salt chairs at salt tables that night, drinking wine (not salt wine mind you), until bed time.

Uyuni Salt Flat

Uyuni Salt Flat

The last day of our trip got off to an early start, at 5 AM to be exact. We were heading out to see the break of dawn across the flats. At least that was the plan, except our driver was sick or so we had been told. It turned out the driver which had been so recommended to us by others was roaring drunk, and had been up all night drinking. With no other options, we let him drive us out there despite his condition. After all if there’s anywhere a drunk driver can safely drive, it’s in barren salt lands. No risk of hitting a traffic pole or pedestrian out here. We ended missing the ideal area to see the sunrise, and were forced to keep nagging our driver with questions to make sure he didn’t pass out on us, but I guess it could’ve been worse. Eventually his condition improved, and we spent the rest of the day exploring some of the other sites, and taking many pictures of the flats. The trip certainly had its ups and downs, but I guess that’s what makes them so interesting. It’s certainly one we won’t forget anytime soon.