Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Desert Driving

From the dusty desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, a group of us booked a 3 day tour through the Atacama desert and the salt flats to Uyuni, Southwest Bolivia. Absolutely the best experience of the trip so far and definitely worth the cold, showerless nights!

The first thing we saw were the brilliant coloured lagoons. Although it was difficult to understand our guide, I think he said, addressing us in formal spanish, that this was because of oxidized copper minerals in the water. We then went to some thermal springs where the water was 30 degrees, lovely to get into but not so nice getting back out into the freezing wind! It was pretty funny, we saw about 3 people stack it on the slippery algae on their frantic entry into the pool, which was met each time with great applause.

It's hard to do the scenery justice in these photographs but it was like being on another planet driving through the desert. Since we went during the month of July, the sky was a crisp dark blue and the contrast of this against the reds and oranges of the surrounding landscape was fascinating.

We stopped at some huge volcanic boulders to see the surreal effects of the wind and heat erosion (onion skin erosion if my year 9 geography is correct). This also released the inner rock climber in me.

On the second night we stayed in an awesome salt hotel, and Javier gave us the option of getting up at half 4 so we could see the sunrise over Salar Uyuni, the highest and largest salt flat in the world, formed through the evaporation of the sea water that was cut off like a giant rock pool by the surrounding mountains and volcanoes.

So rising early, we raced against the sun to a coral island called Isla Incahuasi, covered in cacti, in the middle of the salt flats. I climbed to the highest point of the Island which absolutely knackered me out because of the altitude. As I waited up there for the sun to slowly rise, illuminating the brilliant white crust and for the moon to disappear from the purple sky behind me, it was all worth it.

We took a load of photos that mess around with perspective on the salt flats which was awesome, some of the best ones are on my mates camera but here are a couple anyway. Apparently the salt crust is around 80m deep in the centre of the flats.

Finally we stopped off at the locomotive graveyard in Pulacayo which contains the rusty remains of the train stolen by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

For those interested we used the tour company 'Cordillera' and our driver Javier was sound, not a fingerless, one eyed, drunk driver as the hype surrounding these desert tours would have you believe. So I'd definitely recommend booking with them. Also, beginning the tour from Chile meant ascending from 3,665m at San Pedro de Atacama, to around 4,900m within an hour or so (the ascent is more gradual if you start in Bolivia) , I'd heard loads of stories of people suffering really badly from altitude sickness but honestly everyone on our tour (2 4x4s with 11 people altogether) was absolutely fine, apart from a few headaches in the night which a few pills can easily calm. It does get pretty cold though so layers + a sleeping bag (can be hired) are essential.