Dust, stars, flamingoes, and salt: San Pedro de Atacama and Salar de Uyuni

As I hinted in the last blog, getting to San Pedro de Atacama was a bit of an adventure. We flew from Punta Arenas in the south of Chile, to Calama in the north of Chile, and had booked a shuttle service from there to San Pedro de Atacama, a little oasis town in the desert. When we got to the airport, our names were at the desk of the shuttle – so far so good – so we paid and went outside to find… no shuttle. Eventually the girl from the desk appeared outside and we waited with another guy who wanted the shuttle, and about 100 miners who were waiting for taxis and buses. The girl kept trying to explain to us in Spanish what was happening, but our Spanish wasn’t quite equal to it. We grasped that the shuttle had either not come or gone but that it would be alright. Hmm. Eventually she started approaching random taxis and (presumably) asking them to take us, and they kept (presumably) refusing. Then she started asking random cars who did not appear to be taxis and finally one agreed. He looked like a boy racer and had a souped up car. Also no English. Hmm. We weren’t sure at this point whether he was going to murder us or take us to San Pedro, but it was 11pm and there was really no other option. He did bring us to San Pedro (with a soundtrack of loud Spanish rap), but that was where the fun really started.

We had an address but no directions to our hostel. The driver did not know his way around the town – although to be fair, he asked several people and they had no idea either. It was after midnight at this point. We drove around for at least an hour and eventually had to give up. Luckily, despite appearances, he was very very nice and ended up knocking on doors of different hotels and guesthouses begging for a bed for us. Very Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. Eventually the sixth or so guesthouse had a room. And it actually ended up being nicer than the original place we booked (which we never ended up finding, even on google maps!).

San Pedro is a cute little tourist town, with adobe houses and dirt roads. It’s an expensive place to spend a few days, but you do get what you pay for and the food was always really good. We went on a star gazing expedition at midnight to 3am one of the nights, which finished me for the following day, but Michael went on another tour by himself, to the Valley of the Moon to watch the sunset. I think the altitude had started to affect me already, although San Pedro isn’t terribly high.

After a few days there, we set off on the Salar de Uyuni trip – three days exploring the lakes, geysers, volcanoes and salt flats of Southern Bolivia, in ancient 4x4s. The altitude there got a bit much – it was up to 5000m on the first day and we slept at 4700m. Altitude is not pleasant to combat – Michael felt ill all the first day and I was pretty bad the second day. It feels like the worst hangover ever. But the scenery was amazing, there were vicunas and llamas and flamingoes and foxes, and sulphuric lakes, and geysers, and an active volcano, and slightly dodgy accommodation, and fantastic fellow-travellers, and being boiling hot and freezing in the same day, and a cactus-filled island oasis and salt everywhere… I can’t give a proper day by day account as it’s all sort of blurred into one, but it was brilliant. Best part: taking ridiculous photographs in the salt flats, and watching others do the same.

A few hours in Uyuni drinking cocktails and beer with our new friends ensued (extreme fun was had by all!), before taking the bumpiest bus EVER to La Paz. Michael succumbed to proper altitude sickness when we got here (I’m alright, just short of breath – which is an interesting role reversal for us, I’m always the sick one), so we haven’t done much yet, other than wander the streets in our immediate vicinity and have an amazing gourmet Bolivian feast with some of the guys from the tour (well, that was really just me and not Michael who had half a bowl of soup), but hopefully tomorrow we can do a little more. It’s a cool city, very different to any in Argentina or Chile. The women still wear traditional clothes and the whole city (that we’ve seen) is like a giant market. After tomorrow, we’re heading to the jungle for a bit! Exciting – but please cross your fingers that I’m not eaten alive by mosquitoes…

I feel like this post is full of commas and parentheses, but oh well!

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