The Uyuni Calama-ty

As soon as we crossed the border into Chile, the landscape changed. From a winding, rocky road there was suddenly desert. Another hour or two and we were in San Pedro de Atacama, one of the driest places on the planet.

We were stamped into Chile at the edge of town and walked through the dusty streets to find our hostel. The sun was beating down but the temperature was pleasantly warm. Exhausted after another long day on a bus, we laid down for a rest and awoke just before sundown. The warmth of the day was beginning to wane so we headed out in search of tour agencies who could help us with our proposed itinerary.

The plan was to take a three day tour from San Pedro up to the salt flats at Uyuni in Bolivia, visiting geysers and coloured lakes on the way but, having spoken to a very helpful tour guide, we decided to postpone that and take some local tours first, booking ourselves on an early morning tour to the (much smaller) salt flats of San Pedro the next day.

It was cold at night and even colder at 6 the next morning when the minibus came to collect us but it’s the desert and that’s how it is in the desert. Turning off the main road and onto the salt flats, our first stop was the lagoons which are home to hundreds of flamingos. Our tour left deliberately early in order to catch them as they woke up and began to feed – as well as the obvious advantage of being there before any of the other tour groups.

The lagoon is home to three different types of flamingo and we were told how to identify them by our guide – the best one being the James flamingo which kicks its feet around in the water to disturb the tiny organisms it prefers to eat. As we watched those present eating, more flew in over our heads on a regular basis, gracefully swooping in in groups of four or five before tip-toeing their way onto the water to avoid crash landing.

Some superb photos taken and a great breakfast consumed, we piled back into the bus for the rest of the trip, starting with a drive up to the altiplano for some walking and photos of the volcanoes nearby. As we ascended, the weather got worse and worse and, by the time we were around 3000m it was raining and sleeting. Several photo opportunities were rushed due to the cold and wet and we were glad of the soup we were given for lunch to warm us up. A pointless stop in a small village for tat-purchasing and we were home – cold, wet and tired. The rain had stopped at lower altitude but it was still cloudy and windy and, once we’d sat down in our room for 5 minutes the storm began, the wind howling around the hostel and throwing rain at the windows. Our host told us that they hadn’t had any rain for the whole of 2009! We felt suitably blessed.

Knowing that we still had somehow to get to Uyuni, we’d been assessing our options. The only option seemed to be a bus to Calama – a horrible mining town two hours north – and another bus from there. But an Australian couple we met on the tour told us of a company in town that might do the three day tour route in one day so we joined them to try and go that way.

Arriving at the tour company, we were told that the border was closed due to the snow and that all the vehicles were stuck on the other side, in Bolivia. Realising that we could be stuck here forever, waiting for the border to open, we all bought tickets for Calama that evening and sat around all day doing nothing.

The trip to Calama looked stunning, despite the fact that it was after dark – the road cut through enormous rock formations that, lit up only by the bus’ headlights in the night sky, made it look like we were on a film set. We arrived in Calama, found a cheap, dingy hostel and slept as much as we could in the freezing, heating-less, cheerless hostel.

The bus to the border left at 6am and didn’t look too bad. But the fact that all the locals had blankets galore should have made us realise what was to come. Either the bus didn’t have heating or the driver refused to switch it on for this was the coldest bus journey I have ever done. Every part of my body was absolutely frozen and, when the sun began to appear over the mountains and volcanoes around 2 hours in, I revelled in the feel of its warm rays on my face.

The border was at the base of Volcan Ollague – an active volcano whose peak is at 6000m. Shivering and exhausted, we left Chile for the last time. The bus then drove us 500 yards to the border post where we swapped buses with the people coming the other way and boarded a much older bus which would hopefully take us to Uyuni.

The Bolivian bus, despite being an ancient Brazilian cast off, was much warmer – in fact, within half an hour, we were all roasting hot and had to regularly remove items of clothing. Insane.

To add to the soaring temperatures, the road was incredibly rutted and this, combined with incredibly springy suspension made for the most violent vibrations ever experienced on a bus. A Dutch guy we met on the bus (who had cycled from the Southern tip of Argentina and was going to cycle from Uyuni to Lima in Peru!) told us that he’d heard the road starts bad and gets better – it didn’t. A mere five hours of high-altitude, bone-shaking horror later – punctuated by some very drunk locals, a very unusual-smelling bus conductor and a toilet stop in as dingy a town as you can imagine – we finally arrived in Uyuni. Given my feelings about what the journey might throw at us I am mighty relieved to be here. We have heard that there have been many crashes in the past on this route, caused by the bad roads and drunken Bolivian drivers (the country’s bus drivers apparently went on strike recently to protest about new laws preventing them from drinking and driving!) so the agony and headache that the altitude and the road have caused me are all worth it. We’re in Bolivia which is nothing short of a miracle!