Atacama to Bolivia – Across the Altiplano

After returning from Mendoza, we stayed overnight in Santiago and then took the bus to San Pedro de Atacama. This journey took 23 hours, but was not nearly as bad as that may sound.  We are getting accustomed to South American buses, and they really are good.  The seats are wide and well-padded, with plenty of space – much more comfortable than normal (economy) airline seats. Snack packs are delivered at intervals.   On this occasion we had upstairs seats right at the front, with great views of the scenery during the day.  We got a fair amount of sleep during the night.

San Pedro is a small place, which caters mainly for tourists. It is attractive and unusual, with dirt roads and adobe-style buildings.  The main street consists almost entirely of small shops, restaurants and tour companies offering excursions to local attractions. As we had an afternoon free after arriving, we explored out of the town to an ancient Atacaman fortress, the Pukara de Quittor, where we also found some interesting faces sculpted (more recently) into the rock.

The Pukara de Quittor ancient fort, outside San Pedro

Strange sculpture near San Pedro

We had booked in advance (via the Net) for a 5-day private tour across to Uyuni in Bolivia, with a company called Say Hueque.  Unfortunately, they let us down.  The first three nights were spent in San Pedro, and there were no problems with the hotel they had booked for us.  But it took us a while to track down the offices of their local agents, which proved to be locked up.  We were then told that a representative would call to see us, but he never appeared.  Finally we received a letter from them, announcing that they had booked us onto three tours with other companies: two excursions from San Pedro and a 3-day trip across to Uyuni.  Similar tours are run by many companies in San Pedro, and we could easily have booked them ourselves for half the price we had paid Say Hueque.

The first excursion from San Pedro was to two local scenic attractions: the Valley of Death (Valle de la Muerte), and the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna). At the first we got some great views over an eroded landscape of rocks and mountains. At the second, we walked down a gorge cut through salt, with some interesting shapes and formations. We also climbed a ridge to see the sunset, and watch the nearby volcanoes turning pink.

Valle de la Muerta

Canyon walls formed of salt crystals in the Valle de la Luna

Pink volcanoes at sunset

Our second excursion was to see the El Tatio geysers at 4,300 metres. It is said that the geysers perform best in the early morning, and it is a two-hour bus journey from San Pedro, so all the tours to El Tatio start at around 4.30 am.  It was of course very cold when we left the hotel, and the heating on the bus didn’t work, so we were already frozen when we arrived, and the temperature there was -11. We walked around the geysers in the dark, but despite all her layers Sandie was shivering badly, so we finally took refuge back on the bus (although that too was cold). When the sun came up it got warmer, and we finally managed to see the geysers in the light. There was also a hot pool there, which some people bathed in, but we passed on that.

Tatio geysers at sunrise

As we had more than enough time in San Pedro, we booked a third excursion, to see a village with an interesting church, and the local salt flats (Salar de Atacama) with a few flamingos feeding on a lagoon.

The Salar de Atacama

On Monday 2nd May we set off on the trip to Uyuni.  San Pedro is close to the Bolivian border, where we finally said goodbye to Chile and transferred into jeeps to travel across the Bolivian altiplano. On our tour there were 18 people, so we had three jeeps which each held six people and a driver, with luggage stored on top.  All the other travellers were half our age, or less.  We shared our jeep with four young backpackers who had to put up with a couple of old folk for three days.

Our driver Edgar loads up the jeep

The scenery on the trip was certainly impressive. We passed a number of volcanoes, and other mountains, some snow-capped and others a mixture of weird colours due to the minerals in them.  We visited a number of high-altitude lagoons. Some had salt or other minerals in them, while others just had water (usually frozen). One of the lagoons was a deep red/orange colour, while another was blue/green, due to minerals or algae.

Typical scenery - the White Lagoon

Coloured mountains

Red Lagoon

Most of the time we were travelling at altitudes between 4,000 and 5,000 metres. The weather was therefore generally cold: when the sun shone it warmed up considerably, but there was sometimes a wind chill factor to contend with, and at night the temperature dropped rapidly. On our first day we stopped at a thermal pool; the sun was shining at the time, so we braved stripping off and plunged in. The water was delightfully warm and relaxing.

Frolicking in the hot pool

As well as the volcanoes and lagoons, one of the features of the altiplano was weird eroded rock formations. We saw one which was called the ‘Stone Tree’, with other bizarre shapes round about. In another area, the ‘Valley of Rocks’, there were more fantastic eroded shapes, including one known as the Condor.

The Stone Tree

The Condor

We visited another set of geysers and hot mud pools on our way – fortunately the weather was warmer than at Tatio.

General view of the thermal area

Hot mud pool

We also saw a variety of wildlife on the altiplano. The vicuna is a wild relative of the llama, and we saw several groups of these on the way. In a narrow gorge we met some viscachas, a mammal a bit like a rabbit. Several of the lagoons were inhabited by flamingos, in three different varieties, filter feeding on algae and brine shrimps.

Vicunas

Viscacha

Flamingo feeding

Group of flamingos

We stayed in two places on the way. The first was a ‘mountain hut’, with shared rooms, at about 4,300 metres above sea level. It was seriously cold there at night, with no heating or hot water. Most people slept fully clothed, in sleeping bags with other bedding on top.  Our second night was in a very basic hostel in a village at 3,700 metres, still very cold at night. We had a double bedroom there, but spent most of the evening in the dining room, where there was a stove lit.

On our final day we visited the ‘Railway Graveyard’ just outside Uyuni, where there are rusting remains of trains from the 19th and 20th centuries which once hauled freight across Bolivia.

The Graveyard of Trains

Our final visit was to the Salar de Uyuni, a vast salt flat (120,000 square kilometres) which is the largest in the world. We drove across the blinding whiteness, saw the salt drying in cone-shaped heaps and visited the ‘salt museum’, formerly a hotel. The backpackers on our trip were keen to have photos in various silly poses, so Ian helped by being cameraman for our group.

Mounds of salt drying for extraction

Ian the cameraman

Team Edgar: with our driver and travelling companions

Our trip across the altiplano was challenging because of the altitude and the cold, but exciting because of the amazing scenery and wildlife we encountered.

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  1. #1 by Andrew P Schagen on May 9, 2011 - 8:27 pm

    Hi guys,

    Glad you had a cool time. (geddit?)… Glad also to see a blog entry with some exploration, great photos but no reports of physical violence or theft. Long may it continue!

    Love
    Andrew

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