Week 21 – San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, and southern Bolivia
Hi everybody! We are now in country number 10, if you can believe it. We’ve had a week of absolutely incredible scenery, both in the Atacama in Chile, and on our tour of southern Bolivia. We’ve seen a lot of wildlife and even got to feed some of it! Sorry in advance – this is a pretty long post.
Today we left Santiago behind us and caught a flight to the far north of Chile, to a town called Calama. The views from the aeroplane were incredible during the flight. We were basically flying straight up the Andes, and so there were miles upon miles of mountains below us.
We landed in Calama and caught a transfer to San Pedro de Atacama. This town is a gateway to the dramatic landscapes of the Atacama Desert. It’s a slightly surreal place – after journeying through miles of barren landscape a thriving town is the last thing you’d expect. The town has grown up around an oasis, so there are trees and greenery. A lot of the buildings are made of mud and straw, including their colonial church. The Atacama region has a long and interesting history – for a while it was part of the Incan Empire and a chain of villages acted as stopping points for travellers along the Inca Trail. Currently it has a large industry in copper and lithium mining. San Pedro’s tourism is one of its more recent industries.
We are staying in a cool hostel that has yurts in its backyard. Our yurt has two beds, electricity (something that I wasn’t expecting), and its own private outdoor area with a hammock and a barbeque. It’s really nice. We arrived relatively late and were about to head out to find something for dinner when we discovered that our hostel were having a campfire and barbeque that evening. Good timing! We enjoyed sitting by the fire while the food was prepared and then ate way more meat than one person should have been able to. It did mean that our clothes now smell of smoke but it was such a nice evening.
This morning we went to discover the town of San Pedro de Atacama more thoroughly. It’s no overstatement to say that it’s very touristy. Almost all of the shops on the main road are either souvenir shops or tour companies advertising their excursions. Handily for us, that’s exactly what we needed. We found a tour company that was offering a package deal if you booked multiple tours with them, and ended up booking four excursions, including one leaving that afternoon. We also booked ourselves onto a stargazing tour. We’d been planning to do this later in the week but we were told that this was the last day that we could do it before the moon got too bright. A few days before and after the full moon, apparently the moon is so bright that it limits what else you can see in the sky!
Our afternoon tour was to a place called Lake Cejar. This is a sinkhole lake in the Salar de Atacama – Chile’s largest salt flat. The lake is super salty (apparently it has a salt concentration of 28%), meaning that it’s a bit like the Dead Sea (salt concentration 34%) and you can float there really easily. In fact, it’s almost impossible to swim, because your legs won’t submerge under the water. We had great fun there floating on our backs, our fronts, and even trying to sit cross-legged in the water. (You can manage it, but your legs soon rock back to the surface.) When we got out we quickly crusted over with a layer of salt too so that we looked a bit like snowmen. Thankfully there were showers provided nearby so we could wash it off.
After enjoying Lake Cejar, we went to another viewpoint to enjoy part of the salt flat and a lagoon called Laguna Tebinquinche. We arrived there as the sun was starting to set, and enjoyed looking over the water to the mountains in the distance as the sun went down. We were given a traditional Chilean cocktail, the Pisco Sour, while we watched. I like it but Ben finds it too sweet.
We got back to San Pedro at around 8:30pm, and then had to shower and eat dinner before heading out at 10pm for our stargazing tour. The Atacama is known for its incredible stargazing opportunities, partly because it has such little light pollution, and partly because usually it has so few clouds. There are a number of international Observatories here, including ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter Array). I had hoped to do a tour of their facility but you have to book it months in advance.
Our stargazing tour took us out to the fringes of the town, where a large telescope was set up. We met our astronomer, and his translator. While they were getting ready I enjoyed trying to spot any constellations that I recognised. There are some which are unique to the southern hemisphere, including the Southern Cross. I’ve seen it once before when I was in Australia, and it was cool to be able to pick it out again. Orion was also present, although in a different orientation to what we’re used to. The astronomer then pointed out a number of other constellations, including Gemini, Leo and Taurus. He pointed out the Milky Way, which was awesome, although he told us that we’d see it better when it was a New Moon. What a shame we didn’t plan our holiday around the lunar calendar!
After seeing the ‘broad perspective’ of the sky, the astronomer started to train his telescope on various points in the sky for us to look at. The first one was the moon. It was so cool to see the craters in so much detail. He even helped us to take photos down the lens of the telescope. After this he showed us the nebula in Orion’s sword, a cloud of dust and gas where new stars are being born. According to NASA’s website, the Maya believed that this nebula was the ‘cosmic fire of creation’ – they were pretty accurate!
We looked at Sirius, the brightest star in our sky, and Alpha Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbour at a mere 4.37 light years away. Apparently it would take a rocket 165,000 years to travel there, so the term ‘neighbour’ might be a bit generous!
The astronomer trained his telescope on a binary star, an open cluster (A group of thousands of stars that were formed from the same giant molecular cloud), and then Jupiter with three of its moons visibly circulating around it. That was probably one of the most exciting ones – you couldn’t see any colour on the planet, but knowing that we were looking at Jupiter and its orbiting moons was so cool.
We arrived back at about 00:30 and had to go straight to bed, because tomorrow’s tour starts really early!
Today we woke up early for our tour to Lagunas Altiplánicas. These are two lagoons (Miscanti and Miñiques) around 90km from San Pedro, and at around 4,000m altitude. They are part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve, and are surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. A lot of the landscape around here is volcanic, with the volcanoes at varying levels of activity. The lagoons were both very still and provided a mirror surface with beautiful reflections of the peaks behind them. While we were enjoying the view, our guide JP set up breakfast for us. It was pretty cold at this altitude and this early in the morning, so we were glad for the thermos of hot water to make tea!
We drove on from here to our next destination, a small salt flat called Salar Aguas Calientes. On the way we spotted a lot of wildlife. Our guide pointed out vicuña, a relative of the llama. (There are four related species – guanacos, llamas, vicuña, and alpacas, where llamas and alpacas are essentially domesticated descendants of the other two. Vicuña are the smallest of the four and are a protected species. They don’t have a thick woolen coat and it grows very slowly – you can only shear them once every two years and only get around 200g of wool at a time. Vicuña wool is really soft but if you want to buy a jumper of vicuña wool it will cost you around £4,000.) They looked really graceful, and once he’d pointed them out we noticed them everywhere! We also saw viscacha, a rabbity looking creature which is a relative of the chinchilla, and rheas, which are like emus or ostriches. It was amazing to think that all of this wildlife survives in a place which, for the most part, is so arid.
Salar Aguas Calientes is a salt flat/lagoon made beautiful by the minerals dissolved within the water. We stopped to admire the view, which was almost otherworldly. The lake was almost multi-coloured, with areas of different mineral deposition.
Our final stop on the tour was the one I was most excited for. Laguna Chaxa is a lagoon on the Salar de Atacama which is a common feeding ground for flamingos. Luckily there were quite a few flamingos there when we arrived. We learnt that there are three types of flamingo in South America – the Andean flamingo, the Chilean flamingo and the James flamingo. We were shown how to tell the difference between them; primarily the features of their legs and their beaks. We saw a lot of Andean flamingos and we think that we also saw a Chilean flamingo. James are supposed to be a lot less common.
We had lunch, and then afterwards JP taught us a bit more about flamingos. I was quite proud that I knew why they walk so strangely. Flamingos’ hips and knees are very high up in their body, meaning that the joint that looks like the knee is actually the ankle. This means that it flexes forwards (like us lifting our foot up, or dorsiflexion), rather than backwards like our knees do. That bit of knowledge is thanks to the ‘No such thing as a fish’ podcast that Ben and I listen to! We also learnt that flamingos are actually born a grey-white colour. Their feathers turn pink due to the beta-carotene in the algae and microorganisms that they eat. These algae flourish in the less-than-hospitable lagoons in the Atacama, which is why it’s such a great place for flamingos. Flamingos in zoos have to have their diet substituted with these pigments in order to keep their feathers pink. Isn’t that weird?
In the evening, Ben and I decided to make the most of our private barbeque area and have our own barbeque for dinner. It took a while to prepare but it was really nice. We made a salsa to go alongside it and added maracuya (passionfruit) seeds – an unusual combination which was actually very tasty!
We revelled in our lie-in this morning, or at least we did until it got too hot in our yurt. Nights here are very chilly and we have lots of blankets on our beds, but in the day it heats up and the tent becomes a bit unbearable.
In the afternoon we went on a tour to an area called Valle de la Luna (valley of the moon). Its name comes from its appearance, which apparently is a bit similar to the surface of the moon. Our tour guide Victor took us to the back of the park first in order to avoid the other tourist groups. The views on the way through were certainly dramatic, with large banks of sand, craggy cliff faces and strange rock formations.
Our first stop was at the slightly unimpressive ‘tres Marias’ rock. This is a large and distinct looking rock that has been weathered and eroded into three small peaks, which apparently look like the Virgin Mary kneeling, then standing, and then in a third pose. I can’t tell you what the third pose is because a few years ago some tourists managed to break it while posing for a photo. We were allowed to observe it from a distance before moving on to spot number two.
Stop number two was a walk up to a vantage point over a large sand dune, and the rest of the rocky landscape of the valley. It was a very surreal view. Whenever the wind blew it would pick up sand from the dune and we’d get surrounded by a stinging sandstorm, but fortunately they died away very quickly. It was really beautiful.
We visited the salt caves next. I think that this was an old river valley which has eroded its way through the rock. We walked through a narrow gorge with high walls that were covered in crystalline deposits. At one point, the guide advised us that we were about to go into the cave system. It was dark and we had to crouch to get through some parts. When we got out the other side, we climbed up the side of the gorge and ended up back out in the fresh air of the valley. It was really fun.
Our final stop was a view over the Luna Valley to watch the sunset. It was lovely, and the rocky landscape changed colour as the sun went down. I tried to work out how to do a time-lapse video of the sun setting (I’ve recently read the ‘advanced’ manual for my camera and discovered a lot of settings I didn’t know about), but I didn’t manage to work out the settings in time. Maybe I’ll capture a sunset somewhere else!
Today I came face to face with 4am, and I didn’t like it very much. We had to be up super early for our tour to the El Tatio geyser field. Our guide Patricio welcomed us all onto the bus and then very kindly let us sleep while we drove the 80km to get there.
El Tatio is a geyser field located at 4,320m above sea level. Time for a brief geography lesson (which I’ve taken from our guide and various websites). Geysers occur in volcanically active areas, because they require an intense source of underground heat. They also need a ‘plumbing system’ of underground cavities and porous spaces through which water can travel. Surface water permeates the ground, and as it gets deeper it comes into contact with the underground heat source. The water boils, and pressurised water and steam burst out of a surface vent.
The El Tatio geyser field has around 80 different geysers, fumaroles and hot springs. Fumaroles differ from geysers because they only emit steam and other gases. Hot springs aren’t pressurised in the way that geysers are, and so aren’t eruptive. Their opening to the surface is much wider, meaning that the water circulates, lets off steam and therefore pressure doesn’t build up.
We arrived at El Tatio at around 6:30am. We had been warned that it would be cold and so had brought gloves, coats and multiple layers, but even so it was a shock when we got off the bus. We were above 4,000m before the sun had risen, and Patricio informed us that it was -11 degrees. Apparently the reason we had arrived so early and were suffering these insane temperatures was because this is when the geysers and fumaroles are at their most impressive. The cold temperatures mean that the plumes of steam from underground rise higher and look more dramatic.
It was still quite dark when we arrived. While our guide and driver made us scrambled egg rolls for breakfast (they’d brought a stove with them and stood cooking in the freezing cold!), I retreated back to the bus to warm up. I wasn’t alone – quite a few of our group decided to do the same. I felt a bit bad for our poor guides who were obliged to stay outside.
After breakfast, it had lightened up enough that we could see the geysers. It was an impressive sight. There were plumes of steam rising across a wide open area. Patricio showed us around, pointing out extinct fumaroles, sulphur stains on the ground, and then the active fumaroles and hot springs. He then took us to see some of the geysers. Some spurt water continuously, others follow a predictable pattern and still others don’t seem to have a clear schedule. There was one geyser that erupted every minute, and another that would lie silent for twenty minutes, and then boil continuously for five minutes. They were really cool. Ben and I visited Iceland last year and saw the Strokkur Geyser there. None of these were quite as big or dramatic as Strokkur, but they were still impressive, particularly in how numerous they were. It was awesome.
Our guide took us through to the other side of the geyser field, where we saw a small swimming pool. It was fed from one of the hot springs and was a reasonable temperature to swim in, apparently (compared to the others that were above 85 degrees!). I’d known about this in advance and was already wearing my swimming costume. The only problem was that to get in, I had to first take off my many warm layers in the -11 great outdoors. Ben sensibly decided that this was a crazy proposition. I was not so sensible. It was a relief to get into the water and warm up a bit! It felt like a nice warm bath, although my head was still out of the water and freezing. It was a weird contrast.
Bathing was fun, but getting out wasn’t so much. It was a relief to finally get back into my many layers! Typically, as I got out of the water the sun rose fully and it instantly felt much warmer. I could have spared myself the cold if I’d waited about 20 minutes!
After visiting the geyser field, our bus took us to the tiny hamlet of Machuca. As far as I can tell, their main source of income is selling llama kebabs to tourists. Ben and I decided to try one and it was actually really tasty, a bit like a mix of lamb and beef. Look at us, trying all of the local delicacies!
We had another early start today. It was time to leave Chile and head into Bolivia. We’ve signed up for a three day tour which takes us from San Pedro de Atacama, through southern Bolivia and up to Salar de Uyuni, the the world’s largest salt flat.
We were picked up by a minibus and driven for about an hour until we reached the border. It was completely in the middle of nowhere, just like our entry point into Chile. We were surrounded by mountains and there was even snow on the ground. After getting our passports stamped we were driven to the Bolivian Immigration. At this point, we had to leave the bus and were divided up into groups of 6. The rest of our tour will be in a 4×4 Land Cruiser. Our fellow travellers are Lisbeth and Linus from Belgium, and Martin and Anja from Germany. It was nice to get to know them and exchange travel stories. There were also some good-natured jokes about Brexit, to which we strongly protested our innocence. Stupid Brexit!
Our guide was called Celco. He only spoke Spanish, but fortunately everybody in our group knew a little bit of the language. He was super friendly. When we’d been reading about this tour we’d seen warnings that the drivers were not tour guides, however each time we arrived at a new place Celco would give us some information about what we were about to see, and was really knowledgeable.
The first day of our tour took us through the Eduardo Abaroa National Reserve. This is Bolivia’s most visited protected area, and I can see why. This high altitude Reserve has lagoons, deserts, geysers and more.
Our first stops were at two different lagoons, known as Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde. Celco explained that they appeared different colours due to the minerals within them. Laguna Blanca contains lots of calcium and sodium borate, making it appear white, whereas Laguna Verde contains a lot of copper, meaning that it appears green. They were both gorgeous, particularly Blanca because its still surface made for some beautiful reflections.
We drove past the Salvador Dalí Desert. This is named after the surrealist painter, although he never visited the area. Apparently the landscapes in many of his paintings closely resembled this place. When we got out to take photos of the rocky desert in the distance, I was amazed by just how in the middle of nowhere we really were. Rather than roads we were following tracks through the sand, and the only other vehicles in site were the other tour groups. We were standing in the middle of a vast expanse of dusty soil and sand, surrounded by mountains in the distance. It was quite breath-taking.
I mentioned that this Reserve was high altitude, right? All of the sights we’d been seeing so far were at around 4,000-4,300m. We now ascended up to the highest point of our trip. At 4,990m lies the Sol de Mañana geothermal field. It was similar to the El Tatio geyser field, although rather than fumaroles and geysers, here there were sulphur springs and boiling hot bubbling mud pools. It was a harsh, volcanic and very exciting landscape. However Celco advised us that we should only spend 5-10 minutes there, otherwise we might start feeling the effects of being at such high altitude.
We drove on to the hostel where we were staying. We were sharing a six-bed dorm with the rest of our group. I’d been worried about reviews that warned about basic food and accommodation, but actually the beds were really comfortable, and the food was nice too!
After a late lunch, we headed out to our final stop for the day. A few kilometres from our hostel was the insanely gorgeous and amazing Laguna Colorada. Laguna Colorada is a high altitude lake with a distinct red colour, due to the presence of sediments (that’s the best I can find online, there are no details) and red algae. It is also home to hundreds of flamingos!
This place was AMAZING. We weren’t allowed right down to the edge of the lake, so as not to scare the flamingos, but we got close enough to watch them. There were so many, stalking through the water and dipping their heads down to feed. We also saw a number of young grey flamingos, who were all grouped together like a nursery. They were so cute. They also make really funny noises – I’ve included a video further down the post where you can hopefully hear them.
It was so incredible to see flamingos in the wild. Laguna Colorada was definitely the highlight of my day – it’s been one of the big “to sees” of this trip!
Today we woke up at around 6:45am. Actually, ‘waking-up’ is an overstatement. Neither Ben or I slept very well, which we think was probably down to the fact that we were at around 4,300m. Sleep disturbance is quite a common side effect of mild altitude sickness. Every time I tried to lie on my side I got too breathless and had to lie flat!
After breakfast we piled back into the car. After stopping to enjoy another vantage point over Laguna Colorada, we continued on. It was quite fun being in the car and listening to different Spanish pop songs, both from Celco’s collection and those of the rest of our group. I’ve now got quite a list of new songs to download and learn. Ben will be so pleased – it only took me about 2 months of non-stop listening to learn the lyrics of ‘Despacito’!
We drove for miles through more barren desert until we reached an area with huge weathered rocks. One of these is called Árbol de Piedra (tree of stone) because of its unique appearance. It was cool to walk through these towering columns that are a testament to the power of nature. They’ve primarily been eroded by strong winds carrying sand particles, wearing the stone away by attrition.
We passed through a small river valley, and Celco suddenly stopped the car. He got out of the window, fetched some bread from our lunch bag and went to stand by the rocky walls of the valley. He’d spotted some Viscacha, the chinchilla-like creatures. One approached him and started eating the bread out of his hand. We all got out of the car and he gave us each some bread so that we could try. The viscacha were quite nervous, but not as much as I would have expected. I think this must happen every day, and they’ve learnt that tourists come bearing food. As long as we stayed very still, they would approach cautiously and then take the bread from our hands. It was so cool.
We stopped for lunch at a hotel by another lagoon full of flamingos, and then afterwards stopped at another craggy landscape known as the Valle de las Rocas (imaginatively, the Valley of Rocks). There were large, weathered, volcanic rocks stretching out in all directions. It was pretty impressive.
As we started to come down to a slightly lower altitude, the land started to become more lush and green. We passed a number of farms, including one with a large herd of llamas. The llamas were all standing in the road and took a while to get out of the way! We also passed fields of a beautiful red and yellow crop which we found out was Quinoa.
Our hotel for the night was made out of large bricks of salt, which was pretty cool. After dinner, we went straight to bed. Celco had given us two options for visiting the Salar de Uyuni the next day. We could either have a good night’s sleep and wake up at 8am, or we could wake up at 3am and arrive in time to see the sunrise. Our group unanimously voted for the latter! Who needs sleep when you could have stunning views of the sun rising over a huge salt flat?!
I’m choosing to write another 8 day blog post so as not to break up our southern Bolivia tour. This morning we woke up at 3am and piled into the car. It took around 2 hours to get to the Uyuni salt flat, so we tried to get a bit more sleep on the way.
Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It’s 10,582 square kilometres (4,086 square miles), and sits at 3,656m above sea level. The salt flat is part of an area called the Altiplano, a high altitude plain that was formed when the Andes pushed up. Because the Altiplano is surrounded by mountains, there is no way for water to leave to the sea (this is known as an endorheic basin). Water that exists in this area travels down to the lowest point on the plain, Salar de Uyuni, and deposits all the minerals that it carries there. Around 40,000 years ago this water formed a massive lake. The water has since evaporated but the crust of deposited salt remains, forming the huge salt flat.
The salt flat is amazing in any weather, but it’s particularly exciting during the rainy season. When there’s a thin layer of water on the salt flat, it creates an amazing mirror effect. We were lucky enough to visit when there was still some water on the ground.
We arrived just before the sun rose, and jumped out of the car to admire the reflections on the water. The water wasn’t too deep, but I was glad I was wearing my walking boots. The reflections on the water were absolutely gorgeous – it really was like a mirror.
After the sun had risen, we went to a hotel that was literally in the middle of the salt flat, completely isolated. I think that it was another building made primarily from salt. We had our breakfast here, then headed outside to see the dry part of the Salar.
As well as being an amazing natural wonder, the huge Bolivian salt flat happens to be a great place to take perspective photos! We enjoyed playing around with different props to create silly photos. It is actually really difficult – both to achieve the correct focus and to position yourselves correctly. Celco our driver was lovely and lay down on the floor to get some good photos of us all. He even directed a mini-video where there was a camera in the foreground, and we all ’emerged’ from the camera lens and danced across the salt flat in the distance!
We drove back to the water covered part of the Salar to enjoy the reflections of the sky and the clouds, before reluctantly leaving. Our shoes and trousers were completely covered with salt – my boots have turned white!
Our last stop of the tour was a place called the train graveyard. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Uyuni was a hub for trains carrying minerals to the Pacific Ocean ports. However in the 1940s a lot of the mining industry collapsed, and the trains were abandoned. Because they are so close to the salt flat they have rusted and eroded really quickly. It was quite cool to look around, but there were loads of people there. I guess this might be a cross over point for people ending their Atacama to Uyuni trips, and those starting an Uyuni to Atacama trip.
We were driven back to the town of Uyuni where we had lunch before saying goodbye. It had been such a great few days with lovely people. We had to wait around the town for 7 hours for our night bus to the city of La Paz. Fortunately there were a lot of benches in the plaza, and a few hours in we ran into Lisbeth and Linus, who were catching the same bus and told us that we could wait at the pickup point where there was free tea and wifi. We ended up watching episodes of House until our bus arrived.
Next week we’ll have come to the end of our time in Bolivia and be moving on to Peru. It’s weird to think we only have about six weeks left!