When we put together our South America itinerary, this was one of those anchor experiences that influenced the whole thing. We weren’t missing it – regardless of what ridiculous buses we had to get to god knows what towns.
At points it was hard going. It was exhausting, alternately baking then freezing, and occasionally pretty painful. But it was all worth it, for a one of a kind experience. The below is how we did it! Warning, it’s a long post – there’s a lot to tell…
We flew from Santiago to Calama – the closest airport to San Pedro de Atacama (SPdA) the Chilean desert town from which we’d start the trip. This was a short flight, but was super early morning at around 5am meaning we spent a restless night in the Santiago airport departure terminal! Once in Calama, we took a (pre-booked) shuttle bus to SPdA, having heard pretty grim things about the alternative option of public buses to Calama city and then onwards to SPdA.
SPdA was actually really cool, and in hindsight we’re glad we booked two nights there. To us Gringos, it’s basically our expectations of a Latino, wild-west desert town. Sandy roads, saloon bars etc. We also spent a good night outside the town viewing the stars as clearly as we’ve ever seen them.
We also finalised things with our tour agency for the trip – World White Travel. They had been recommended by FindLocalTrips as a standout agency in a sea of companies known for drink-driving, crappy guides and general bad experiences. We were a little miffed to discover both our guide and all our travelling companions were Spanish speakers, but decided it would be a good opportunity to pick up a little more of the language!
The trip started off (unnecessarily!!) early on Thursday morning, with a pickup around 6am. Most of the morning was spent getting through customs into Bolivia, changing us from our minivan into our 4×4 and getting acquainted with our fellow travellers: 2 students from the Basque region of Spain, and a solo Chilean woman. We did actually all become friends during the trip, mostly thanks to Saio’s ability to translate!
Whilst the logistics took up a lot of Day 1, we got a lot of ground covered and did see some sights. The Laguna Verde was our first look at the bizarre, unexpected colours of the desert.
Colourful mountains also made more and more frequent appearances as we made our way towards the natural Polques hot springs. The springs had been harnessed into man-made infinity pools with 30 degree Celsius waters (yay, a bath!) and great views.
We also visited the Sol de Mañana geysers. Unsurprisingly, they stunk off sulphur i.e. rotten eggs. Surprisingly, they were multi-coloured!
That night was spent in a basic but fine hostel, in the absolute middle of nowhere. Ben woke up in the middle of the night with a splitting altitude headache – the first of many symptoms received from being so high up in the world.
Day 2 was really about one thing and one thing only. FLAMINGOS. Lauren has an obsession with a bird she had never previously seen. This trip probably satisfied her. There were thousands. Our guide gave us a great chance to see Flamingos in really quiet spots, as well as in bigger numbers at more touristy areas.
The day was rounded off with lunch in the desert and a beer in front of an active volcano, before a night spent in a hotel made almost entirely out of salt. Even the floor. Interesting novelty, mildly irritating in practice (hello, salty bed).
The third and final day is what everything before had been building up to, the salt flats themselves. Coming from Chile into Bolivia rather than the other way around gave us one distinct advantage – we were better placed to visit the salt flats for sunrise! This did, of course, mean leaving at 4:30am in the morning. The pictures can do the rest of the talking:
It was utterly surreal. From the sun rising above the salt, through the hexagonal salt tiles (apparently caused by lithium?) themselves, to the island of cactuses in the middle of it all, it was truly like being on another planet. Fun fact: most of the world’s satellites are calibrated off the salt flats in Uyuni as a constantly flat, non-moving surface is needed. Fun fact number 2: the salt flats are 22m deep!
We ended our desert adventure in Uyuni, a little town 3,700m above sea level where we explored a train cemetery (also bizarre), re-connected with WiFi and didn’t speak to each other in more than three word sentences due to sheer exhaustion. It was all totally and utterly worth it.