The ride to The Atacama was long and slow. Hundreds of kilometres passed us by as an endless sheet of sand and rock, with a single road connecting the few remaining major towns in northern Chile.
My with my limited spanish, I started conversation with a Chilean backpacker who was travelling to the same town as me, San Pedro de Atacama. He would ask questions, and most of the time I would hear something completely different to what he was saying and made up a topic of my own. Fortunately he would happily veer off to whatever conversation I had heard. He even brought out a pair of crumpled cigarettes, lit them both and handed me one too during one of the breaks we had during the journey. I don’t smoke, but I probably told him I did during one of our jumbled conversations (when I thought we were talking about football), and now it was too late to refuse.
The bus rolled from Calama through a land of nothing towards San Pedro. The land was too bare to even support small farming villages, but occasionally a burnt out car was left abandoned by the side of the road to mix up the scenery. The last 500km was continuation of the previous 500km, although now the sun was setting over the landscape, transforming the plain landscape into a multi-coloured feast, with pink tipped mountains on the horizon beyond the famous Valle de Luna.
San Pedro de Atacama is essentially the Las Vegas of The Atacama. Although it lacks casinos and the Cirque de Soleil, it’s similar sole purpose in this dead land is to serve tourists. The main street is a queue of tour operators, jostling for every passer by. For me, it was just a stopping point before heading north over the Andes towards Bolivia. However, the unique lands of the Atacama desert certainly had its draws. It holds claim to be the driest place on Earth, and does indeed have plenty of dry things to see; from crusty salt flats to dusty plains and baked red rock. Even the few Lagunas looked unmistakably inhospitable. Just a few unfussy flamingos remain to fish for the ancient shrimp-like inhabitants.
Although I don’t generally book tours, a 3-day excursion in a shared jeep towards the Bolivian Salt Flats certainly seemed like the most enjoyable and cost effective option to cross the border and see the sights along the way. After visiting several agencies I found a suitably convincing pitch, and after some bartering I had the ticket booked.
The next day, I was ready at sunrise to depart. Seven of us in the jeep, including our driver. I was joined by two Venezuelans, who kept to themselves for most of the journey, and three other English backpackers. The three, who other than occasionally complaining about one of their family’s maids in Buenos Aires, seemed normal and very amicable.
The driver, who I can only recall as being called Roomba (although I’m fairly certain that wasn’t actually his name, as it is in fact the same name of the famous autonomous vacuum cleaner robot) maintained a buoyant sense of humour, and wore his toothy grin frequently. He took great pleasure in calling Will, one of the British backpackers, William Wallace, whilst waving his arm above his head in the same manner as someone about to throw a lasso. Maybe the film Braveheart had a different translation in Bolivia.
We travelled north through a desolate, but ever changing landscape. Lagunas were dotted throughout the lower sections of the valleys with varying colours depending on their mineral/chemical makeup; some white, pea green, rust, or blue. The flat land was encompassed by volcanoes and mountains, whose sides seemed soft from the millions of small shards of rock tossed out from past eruptions.
The wildlife was peculiarly similar to that seen in Patagonia. Serene llamas and alpaca could be seen dotted throughout the high altitude plains. Only tufts of yellow bush interrupted the nothingness they wandered through. In the right lagunas, flamingos would flock in their hundreds. The colour of the land varied greatly every turn, from sandy flats to lush green fields, where viscacha (a strange half-rabbit, half-squirrel) inhabited strange grassy marshes surrounded by red walls of rock. With only llamas, viscacha and flamingos (who really do look alien anyway) situated in the surreal landscape, it all felt increasingly martian every passing minute.
Then whilst steadily travelling upwards over the smooth mountain range, everything started to go downhill. The thing about Altitude sickness is you don’t know who it will affect, or when it will take place. I guess I was the unlucky one. Crossing over the Andes involves swooping through high altitude valleys, and slowly creeping towards around 5000m above sea level before dropping off slowly to the level of the Bolivian Salt flats at around 4000m. A slow and daunting headache crept up on me half way through the day, although with no other side effects I continued onwards.
Our final stop would only serve as my downfall. I lost all energy, and became light-headed just walking over the small rocks. Roomba offered me a handful of coca leaves, which I was told to chew to relieve any effects of altitude. Unfortunately, it only delayed the full illness that I would endure that evening.
Upon arrival at our camp at 3800m, I weakly clambered into bed. My head was throbbing, and upon a small sip of water, I had to rush to the bathroom to relieve my stomach from anything I had eaten that day. I felt a bit better. I returned to bed, feeling very sorry for myself. I was 200km from anywhere, and I knew I would simply have to wait this one out. I felt even worse for the two short Bolivians who shuffled past, equipped with a plunger a similar size to them, to unblock the sink which I had managed to completely disable. I had a few painkillers left from my Thai hospital visit last year, which I took along with a dry piece of bread I had been offered by the hotel staff. I then squeezed my eyes shut and simply hoped for the morning to come quickly.
The night seemed to take forever as I slipped in and out of my light slumber, but finally the next morning I woke to a sense of relief, and some improved wellbeing. My body was now adapting to the altitude, which meant I could now comfortably enjoy the scenery again.
We drifted north through valleys, and finally arrived at the Salt Flats frontier, where we stayed comfortably for a night in a hotel entirely made of salt. I don’t think I’ve ever been tempted to lick the wall of a hotel before. I don’t recommend it if you ever get the temptation either.
We woke at sunrise to enjoy the mirror effect the flats had where rain had recently fallen over a wide shallow expanse, and stopped to take plenty of photos and enjoy the unique landscape, where white extended to the horizon in every direction. It wasn’t long before salt was coating our legs and clinging to our clothes, but there was still a glorious sense of serenity in this land of nothing.
Throughout the journey it became very apparent how a country like Bolivia could be so poor. In the south was this lifeless realm, where only quinoa could be grown in the lower altitude valleys and a few llamas farmed. To the north, the almost inhospitable amazon jungle started, and there was not much in between. After three days, we reached the simple town of Uyuni, where a litter of unfinished houses fill the silent outskirts, and life slowly emerges as you approach the centre. I was just looking forward to getting rid of all this salt.