“Four deaf Israelis, an Englishman and a German walk get into a 4×4…” An over-simplification possibly, but at least the demographic details are bob on. How had we found ourselves together on this cold Chilean morning?
Whilst I’ve been trying to get North as quickly as possible, one thing that I definitely didn’t want to miss was the four day safari through the stunning Altiplano from San Pedro to Uyuni, Bolivia and back. So, when I arrived in San P I asked around a few agencies. All sell basically the same tour, with variations in quality and accommodation. The price range is between £90-£120 with no apparent correlation with quality, it’s all a bit random. We all paid different prices for the same tour!
I booked with White and Green tours. I asked who was already on the trip, because I really, really didn’t want to be gooseberry No 1 with couples or a big, annoying group… They told me that it was a lady from Holland and 4 Israeli businessmen. This was wrong. I think they understood my slight reticence and wanted to reassure me it wasn’t a group of fresh from the Army muppets. (This is a bit of a young Israeli thing… groups finish their military service and go wild abroad. It gets everyone a bad reputation, sadly)
So, at the crack of dawn I was picked up from the hostel, meeting my first tourmate Anne from Germany (Not a million miles off!). We then picked up the Israeli guys. They got in without a word. How rude, thought I. Then I saw the sign language… Got it. I won’t lie, my initial thoughts were along the uncharitable lines of “This is going to be a realllly awkward trip” but actually it soon became clear that they were absolute diamonds.
One of the group, Daniel, had lived in England for a while so spoke good English and had a little hearing, and was very good at lipreading… Great, we were good to communicate! I sometimes felt for Daniel after the multiple translations needed. Our driver Gilmar would tell us something in Spanish, Anne or I would translate into English and then Daniel would not only have to translate it to Hebrew but then sign it to his friends- Hard, hard work!
So, up to the Chilean border, not far from San P, in time for its 0800am opening. And some chat over a rare proper coffee served out of the top/side of a VW. I confirmed with the freezing staff that they only stayed there for a couple of hours, thank goodness.
Stamped out of Chile, and on the way up to the draughty Bolivian border post 20km or so up the road. Higher, higher, colder, colder…
The border post is well over 4000m, and with the wind up there you really know about it. Bitter doesn’t come close. Over the past few months I’ve repeatedly come close to binning most of my warm clothing, but then I always seem to come back to places like this and really thank my lucky stars that I’ve still got it. Oh, how I yearn for my lovely big warm Timberland down jacket from home!
So, after a bit of brrr.rrrr…eakfast we got ready to change vehicles for the entry into the park proper. Stuff on top, lashed down, good to go. V8 Toyota Landcruiser loveliness. I so badly want one of these. Bloody amazing. Will go anywhere, with 7 adults inside in perfect leather clad comfort. And a lovely petrol V8 wuffle to boot.
First stop after the Bolivian border formalities (Israelis, like Americans, pay a stinging $100 to get in!) was the two lakes Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde, in the shadow of Volcan Licancabur. Dormant, I think/hope. Immense open space… And needless to say, very, very cold.
Moving on past more incredible scenery… Up to the Dali Desert, so called due to the crazy random rocks in the middle of it. 4,320m ASL and you can really feel it.
Add in a few wilting clocks and you’re completely in one of his paintings. I took the opportunity to crack out some strong poses. The pace at which the scenery just changes up here is completely unbelievable, massive contrasts in a matter of kilometres.
Next followed possibly the most welcome stop of the day, natural springs, heating the pool to a balmy 30+ degrees and really helping to thaw out most of my extremities. And naturally, providing the venue for yet another dose of Blue Steel. Most of the group took the opportunity for a dip. Don’t have nightmares, children.
This also was the venue for our lunch stop. The food was consistently brilliant throughout the tour, very tasty and lots of it, which was good to see. I do need my food. Onto the next stop… The Sol de Manana geysers. Infinitely more entertaining than the ones I’d paid for a tour to see. Health and Safety taking a back seat as you’re kind of free to roam wherever, with vague warnings not to fall into the steaming mud holes!
Onwards. One of the criticisms of the Uyuni tours is that there’s a lot of driving between places, hopping out for photos, hopping back in, driving on… Whilst this is true to a certain extent you are at least seeing some really cool stuff. Our final stop of the day was the Laguna Colorada, a lake with a truly impressive flamingo population who, unfortunately, were resolutely avoiding us…
By now the group was a bit frazzled, so everyone seemed pretty relieved to pull up at our stop for the night. One definite advantage of our tour was the choice of accommodation, we heard tales of some truly bleak digs and most of the tour companies stay several hundred metres above where we were on the first night. With the symptoms of altitude sickness, this really doesn’t make for a comfortable night. Chen from our group was having some problems with the height throughout the day and had to visit the village clinic at night when the symptoms worsened, so it was lucky we were in a slightly friendlier location!
It’s a harsh place to live- The main industry is quinoa farming on the slopes above the village. Quinoa is absolutely everywhere here, a staple crop rather than the high-end superfood at home. Prices are apparently pretty good at the moment. Happy days for the quinoa gang.
After some food and a shower hot enough to melt tungsten (A well-recommended extra £1!), time for bed. Nobody seems to sleep particularly well up here, altitude and dryness conspire to make it an uncomfortable breathing experience… You yearn for some decent snot.
A fairly respectably late start the next day, and off to view a nearby cluster of amazing rock formations. And a good clamber up them. Daniel had taken his brave pills but I was all out, so had to settle for slightly less impressive photos on top of the rocks. Fairly near the top of my mind was the fact that falling off would, at best, result in a 5hr ride to the nearest hospital. Helicopters are not available. In short, you’re on your own out here.
Next up, the vertigo highlight of the trip, the incredible canyon whose name escapes me. A definite crawl to the edge deal here!
After that, a chance to try to get up close and personal with the local llamas. Despite Daniel’s and my excellent herding skills we failed miserably in the bid to ride one. At least it amused the girls.
Luckily our tour took a slightly different routing to the others, so it never felt like we were just in a conga line of 4x4s. Almost never. A technical failure on one of the other wagons (Gearbox, bang etc) meant we picked up another passenger for a while. This turned the car from comfy to decidedly snug, and I invoked my tall person’s veto to not sit in the very back…
Well alright, that’s a bit of a conga line, I admit. We trundled into the nearby village to check out the limited sights and to stock up on essentials. For poor Anne in the midst of a mammoth cold, essentials meant lots and lots of tissues. And I took the chance to try some coca beer. Not bad, on balance…
Out of the village, a long schlep towards our home for the night in the salt hotel. Past the incredible mineral train track from Calama to Uyuni- Sadly not taking passengers as of a couple of years ago as I really wanted to give it a spin.
The Salt Hotel does exactly what it says on the tin. Made completely out of salt, including everything. Walls, tables, beds, the whole shebang. It was also really, really cold- Unfortunately Bolivian toughness forbids use of heating if it’s not 20 below…
After a surprisingly decent night’s sleep we had a pre-dawn start to get out onto the salt plains proper. Dark at the start, and then dozens of kilometres of salty emptiness.
Breakfast stop was in the middle of the salt flats, on one of the largest ‘islands’. Home to some of the slowest-growing cacti in the world, gaining a centimetre a year! The island isn’t home to much else other than a one-room ‘museum’ and some souvenir tat purveyors. Still, breakfast was definitely welcome.
One of the key activities on the salinas is silly photo time- Given the completely featureless flatness of them, you can get some interesting effects, if they work. Hours of setting up photos whilst being fast-baked by the immensely strong late morning sun wasn’t entirely wasted though.
So then, fully satisfied that we’d exhausted the photo opportunities (and there were a lot!) it was back across the vast salinas to one of the original salt hotels with a strong connection to the Dakar Rally.
From here things started to get a bit interesting. Localised protests against power bills and water availability had led to a number of blockades of the roads. A few enterprising 4x4ers started driving down the mineral railway tracks, then those too were blocked. Our off road attempts were thwarted by giant patches of mud….
In the end our driver ended up approaching one of the blockades and paying off the head guy in order that we could take another side route, off road towards the town. Eventually we reached Uyuni… A lot of these trips really do depend on the drivers’ local nous and initiative.
Uyuni: A dusty Bolivian tourist town, not much more to say. A good hopping off point for desert tours, and indeed a bit cheaper than those originating in San Pedro. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have just hopped on a bus from Jujuy to here rather than hanging around in Northern Argentina for so loooong! This means you just do a one-way trip to San Pedro and don’t backtrack. There are more horror stories about drunken Bolivian drivers, but most of the companies and drivers are based in Bolivia anyway so I don’t think it makes much difference.
Our driver was trying valiantly to escape Uyuni despite the tightening blockades. He scooted off to get fuel and supplies whilst we hung around at the tour company office and I taught the lovely older lady there some English. All that was left to do was to bid a sad farewell to our Israeli friends…
Anne and I then had a somewhat solid journey to get back to San Pedro de Atacama. 4 hours past the blockades, off road and along tracks to reach our first night’s accommodation. With a food stop though, which was ace. I can’t think of the exact name, but this filthy concoction is called something like Pikapaka and is every bit as unhealthy/delicious as it looks.
After arriving around 10pm, we then had to leave the guesthouse at a distinctly unfriendly 0430hrs the next morning. Ouch. Breakfast at the seriously draughty border again, albeit inside a shelter with a kitten, and back into San P… To possibly my most successful bit of blagging on the trip so far.
A very posh hotel which I shall not name. The Dutch couple had tipped me off about it, basically you just need to walk in like you belong, and grab a sun lounger. Lovely. After a few days of limited sleep a chill out by the pool and then a very calming rainfall shower really did the trick. Bags dropped at the bus station and the day to kill. Ace.
Next instalment: The big push Northwards.