Chile to Bolivia
After finishing up in Patagonia I caught a 4000km flight north from Punta Arenas to Calama on the 20th of December. I flew with Sky Airlines and luckily I had no problems with the strikes that were going on with airport workers in Chile.
Arriving in Calama the sun was baking the ground and the change in landscape was dramatic. I had a transfer organised to take me straight to San Pedro De Atacama where I hoped to get on a tour to Bolivia via the Uyuni Salt flats. Before I got to San Pedro I didn’t really have a plan as I had mixed information about getting tours on the Salt flats during Christmas. The internet was full of horror stories of drunken guides and businesses closing for Christmas.
However I had nothing to worry about, as San Pedro was open for business and the streets were full of people shopping for tours. San Pedro is a crazy little place. Set in the middle of the driest desert on earth the streets are lined with tour agencies, restaurants and money exchanges. You can take tours from a few hours to 4 days across the desert, star gaze or go biking in the baking sun. I was here to take to famous 3 day tour across the high desert antiplano to the biggest salt flats in the world – Salar De Uyuni.
As soon as I arrived in San Pedro I took a walk around to see what was on offer. There must be fifty tour agents all selling the same tours at similar prices, reviews online are very mixed and the choice is overwhelming. I eventually went with Estrell Del Sur as I heard some good reports from people staying at my hostel. It was a good choice. Our driver was very professional and helpful.
I had one day to relax in San Pedro and soak up the 30 degree sun. Of course I over done it like a typical paddy and got sunburned! Next morning the 22nd I was picked up by the transfer bus and headed towards the border between Chile and Bolivia. San Pedro is at 2400m and we started climbing as soon as we left the town until we reached the boarder at 4000m after about an hour.
The landscape is incredible on the climb, as you pass a huge volcano and a taste of what is to come. Formalities over we were treated to a delicious breakfast and then got in to the jeeps we would be spending the next 3 days in. It was also the first time I met the rest of the group. There were two couples in their twenties, from Brazil and Netherlands, a retired German man and myself. A random crew but we got on well.
The first day you go to a head frying 4900m to see fuming geysers. The air at this altitude has half the oxygen of that at sea level. Move to quickly and you will know about it! It makes for a slightly weird, dreamy experience. I chewed on coca leaves to offset the symtoms but Im not convinced they do anything.
We had a few stops at Lagunas also on day one where we got our first sight of the elegant Flamingos wading in the parched lakes. We also met a cyclist going the opposite direction at 4000m. He had been cycling for the past 2 and half years starting in Alaska!
Our accommodation on the first night was described as basic by the tour operator, but we were all pretty happy with the shared room and good dinner. I had been feeling fine until I went to bed. I hadn’t had many symptoms from the altitude all day until my head hit the pillow and the throbbing headaches started.
I thought the night would never end. Sucking coca sweets and dreaming of sea level, I managed to get a few hours very uncomfortable sleep and eventually morning came. I took some Ibuprofen and the symptoms started to ease.
Day 2 we visited the “Stone Tree” and the semi active Ollague volcano. Lots of Flamingos again on the various lakes we passed before arriving at our hotel accommodation for night 2. Double rooms with en-suits, big beds and slightly lower altitude made for a great nights sleep.
Day 3 started early – 4am. We had to be up early to get to the Uyuni Salt flats for sunrise at about 6am. As we drove towards the vast salt flats an electrical storm filled the sky in the distance with explosions of lightening. As the darkness faded the vast Salt Flats started to reveal themselves. After driving for about 30 minutes we pulled up to watch the sun rise.
After sunrise we went to the Island of the giant Cactus and had breakfast in the glorious morning sunshine. Around 9 am we started to head towards Uyuni. Along the way we stopped at different locations to take pictures and take in the vast landscape that surrounded us.
The tour finished in the town of Uyuni on Christmas Eve. There is not much to do here bar tours of the Salt Flats so I stayed the night and managed to get a cheap flight to La Paz the following morning.
Kayak instructor, athlete, business owner and outdoor enthusiast from the west coast of Ireland.
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