Llamas, lagoons and low altitude on the Bolivian Altiplano
The world’s driest desert, the Atacama Desert, lies on the border between Bolivia and Chile exactly between nowhere and nowhere. Why did we go there? I don’t know exactly; I guess my adventurous spirit got to me. Getting to the starting point is a trek in itself; first we flew to a dusty new airport in northern Chile called Calama. The abundance of mining vehicles and lack of taxis in the parking lot told us that we weren’t going to find any wi-fi for a while…
An hour’s drive later, we pulled up to San Pedro de Atacama, a sleepy one-horse town with three streets lined with mud-brick adobe shops and homes. If it weren’t for the Helly Hanson dealer on the corner, we could have been transported back to the mid-1800s. After a few days of activities including stargazing, swimming, mountain-biking and horseback riding, we set out on our prime objective - a three-day 4WD adventure to Bolivia. There were no roads, no hotels, no drinking water, no wi-fi, and definitely no English spoken by our driver, Miguel.
First stop was the laughable Bolivian border station, literally perched on the side of an active volcano. We had coffees and snacks while waiting to get our passports stamped by two staunch fellows who decided to charge our mate Caleb $US100 because they spotted his US passport, even though Australians are entitled to free entry.
Onwards and (very) upwards, we made photo stops at a number of lagoons ranging in color from green to blue to pink. At that point the lack of oxygen became noticeable. Simple motions like buckling a seatbelt was difficult. Movements were made slowly and selectively.
In the late afternoon we arrived at our accommodation for the night. I’ve seen barns that were more kitted out than this place. It was decided that a few drinks would be needed to get a good night's sleep, so a couple of us headed off to 'the shop'. After waking up the dozy shopkeeper, we grabbed a bottle of scotch, some beer and Coke. All for less than $AU10 - welcome to Bolivia!
Before heading off in the morning, our camp was visited by a number of inquisitive llamas, which made for some breathtaking photos coupled with mountainous backdrops.
Next stop was the 'Salvador Dali' rocks - a strange collection of huge boulders plonked in the middle of the desert. The best thing about this place is that you can climb on top of them (a struggle on low oxygen) and stretch your legs after a lot of driving. More lagoons, more desert, more llamas. Finally a new addition, flamingos! Thousands of these skinny pink birds make their homes in the high Bolivian lagoons.
On day three, we arrived at the famous Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni). There was a spectacular lightning storm the night before, which covered the huge expanse with a few inches of crystal-clear water. Our 4WD skimmed its way across the flats, making it seem like we were driving on a lake!
Roughly halfway across the salt flats we came to Fish Island, a small rocky outcrop that’s absolutely covered in the tallest cacti I’ve ever seen. We took the short walk to the top to get even better views of the Salt Flats and got a closer view of the gigantic thorny trees.
Next stop: the obligatory tourist aspect photos. We must’ve spent over an hour doing ours, including some saucy nudes!
The finish point for the trip was a crappy little town called Uyuni - make sure you ask your driver to take you to Los Cemetarios de Trains (Train Cemetery). On the edge of the village, there’s a dumping ground filled with dozens of rusted old locomotives and carriages dating back to the early 1900s. Some have been turned into swingsets and all are covered in graffiti. It’s a strange sight to witness in the desert and probably one of my highlights from the whole tour.