Previous Trip: Peru and La Paz - October 2012

La Paz to Santiago

20th October - La Paz

Before I start the next part of the trip there is something I have to say. To mis-quote Sir Steve Redgrave "Anybody who sees me even looking at a brochure for another holiday at altitude has my permission to shoot me!"

All the time I feel like I've got a minor hangover or possibly sun stroke. I feel a bit lazy, slight headache and a bit nauseous. But yesterday it really hit me. It was the evening of the day after The Death Road. Maybe I hadn't drunk enough water, maybe not replaced enough sugar after the ride. Or maybe it was the fact we went from La Paz at 3,600m up to 4,600m for the start of our ride. Then ridden down to 1,200m followed by a bus journey back up to 4,600m and then down into La Paz again at 3,600m. Whatever it was I really crashed.

I survived The Death Road but did not survive The Steakhouse! I hadn't eaten a lot all day, feeling lazy after the big day before, so decided to go out for a steak. I had my food but towards the end I was starting to feel really hot. I went to the toilet to splash some water on my face and by the time I got there I was feeling dizzy. I almost collapsed in the toilet, then as I came out I did collapse. Really hot, head spinning totally out of it. Luckily this was a tourist restaurant and they looked after me really well. Let me lie down and called the doctor. The doctor took my blood pressure it was 80 over 60. Even I know that's a tad low!

Anyway lying down and then some water and a Fanta and I felt much better. Apart that is from a graze / gash on my left arm, my right hand being bruised to hell. A bruised shoulder and thigh. Thankfully I didn't bang my head as I fell. The doctor patched up my arm and was much happier when my blood pressure rose to 100 over 70. I was really lucky that at the table which I collapsed beside was a very well travelled local out with his son. He was fantastic. He chatted to me, got drinks and really helped take my mind off first the fall and secondly how stupid I felt passing out in a restaurant. Anyway after quite a bit if time they walked me back to the hotel. Feeling better now but still got the bruises to show for it.

As I said "Anybody who sees me even looking at a brochure for another holiday at altitude has my permission to shoot me!"

Tucan trip from La Paz to Santiago

21st October - To Potosí

Still feeling more than a bit queasy so the 9 hour journey from La Paz to Potosi was a bit of an endurance test. The bus was a sleeper so there was plenty of leg room and the seat reclined quite far. So I bedded down opened the window and sat it out. The scenery was stunning. One we had climbed up onto the Andean Plateau there were wide expanses of flat scrub land with hills and mountains beyond. Quite a few flocks of llama and the odd mud brick village. All the time we seemed to be gently climbing and the air was definitely getting thinner. Eventually we started dropping down into Potosi.

22nd October - Potosí

Potosí was established by the Spanish in 1545 soon after the discovery of a rich vein of silver in the hill which overlooks the city. It soon became the world's largest silver producer and silver from Potosí underwrote the Spanish economy. Millions of indigenous South Americans, and later, African slaves, worked in the mines in appalling conditions. We had the option to visit the mines, but unfortunately I didn't feel up to it. Potosi is quite a nice old colonial town with nice squares and colonial buildings. I took things a slowly though, Potosi is at 4,060m!

23rd October - To Uyuní

Up very early. It seems the Bolivian national pastime is striking and blockading roads and today they planned to have a practice in Potosi. So we hired a bus to leave at 5am figuring the union types wouldn't be out of bed that early. As we left town they were setting up a road block, a guy got on the bus, gave a little speech in Spanish and wished us a happy journey!

After about 4 1/2 we reached the desolate town of Uyuní in the south of Bolivia. Built on the edge of the salt flats it is now just a jumping off point for tourists.

Late afternoon we visit to the Train Cemetery which is on the outskirts of Uyuni. This is where the great steam trains which were used to bring the salt out of the planes come to die. There are remains of many 19th and early 20th century steam locomotives, it's an amazing sight. So time for a few artistic photographs.

24th October - Uyuní (Salar de Uyuni)

Time to visit what is claimed to be the largest salt flat in the world, the brilliant white vast Salar de Uyuní. We packed up and jumped into our 4x4 Toyota Landcruisers which will practically be home for the next 3 days. But first we stop at a market for a last chance to buy cheap Bolivian souvenirs (we are assured the same stuff will be at least twice the price in Chile).

We head out onto the salt flats at first it's a bit muddy brown but soon it becomes brilliant white. After a bit we stop at and old rescue post where we have our first chance to put together some perspective busting photos. It's fun watching people lining up the toys and other props, dinosaurs, wine bottles, teddy bears anything which could (emphasis on could) make a fun photo

After lunch we drive for and hour or so further out into the salt plane. We can see an island in the distance but it seems to take forever to get any bigger. The flats really do stretch as far as the eye can see, with distant mountains around the fringe.

When we do get to Isla Incahuasi, it is quite extraordinary. It is a big lump of rock covered in 1000 year old cacti. You can see that the island is made of sedimentary rock and fossilised coral. This island was once under the sea. In fact the whole salt plain was once part of the sea. In fact the Andes rose up 13 million years ago and created some lakes with Lake Titicaca at the highest altitude and the Salt Flats at the lowest. With the plain being the lowest all the sea water drained down and with nowhere else to go, over time evaporated.

The island is located in the centre of the salar, 100 kilometres from Uyuní, this "hilly outpost is covered in giant cacti amid a flat, white sea of hexagonal salt tiles."

Late afternoon after more perspective photos and watching the sunset it started to get chilly and we headed to the Salt Hotel at San Juan. Yes it is a hotel made of salt from the flats. Temperatures here vary a lot, a very pleasant 18 degrees with a very hot sun during the day the temperature soon drops when the sun goes down. We're told in July and August it can get down to minus 15. Not sure how cold it was tonight but plenty of clothing and three blankets get me through the night.

25th October - High Andean Deserts and Lagoons

Following breakfast we should have headed straight out and higher up into The Andes. But we had lost a driver! Search party went out, it was assumed he'd bunked up with one of his mistresses somewhere close by. Eventually they bring the truck back but no driver, all we're told is that he is sick. Hungover is more likely. Anyway a new driver is found from the hotel and an hour late we're off. Below is a picture of the altimeter in the truck later in the day. It's been past 4,000m and still going up.

First stop is at the foot of an active volcano. All around are the solidified lava flow which make some amazing patterns. Thankfully at the moment the volcano itself if just gently steaming.

As we're taking photos the drivers are working frantically on the brakes of one of the trucks. Later on this delays us by another hour. In the evening we hear they eventually 'fixed' it but taking the whole brake mechanism out, and disconnecting the front brakes altogether. Anyway we carry on climbing on official (there is the odd sign post) but very rough tracks which cut through the rock. We reach new plateau after plateau. The vegetation get less and less and by lunch we are in desert. But it desert is punctured by a number of lagoons. Lakes of varying sizes, quite sulphorous I imagine. They are all different colours and most of them contain large flocks of flamingos. Who'd have thought it nothing much else living up here yet there are thousands of flamingos in these colourful lagoons. Quite surreal.

The lagoons get their rich colours from algae and plankton which thrive in its minerals. The shoreline is fringed with brilliant white deposits of sodium, magnesium, borax and gypsum. All of this causes quite a smell.

All day we were travelling around above 4,000m and the scenery although spectacular is very sparse, it really is a desert. Dry and dusty, as the trucks drive along great dust clouds fly up. Every now and again there are quite random boulders or rock formations. The most weird included the 'Stone Tree' below.

In the evening we head to a desolate looking outpost sheltering under another mountains. Looks more like a deserted army barracks but this is where we are to spend the night. At about 4,200m it's going to be cold.

Some good news, I now seem to be completely over my episode in The Steakhouse a few days ago. In fact after feeling pretty rough for a couple of days, especially on the bus journey to Potosi I'm now fighting fit. It seems to have reset my body and now the altitude is having a lot less effect. I climbed up the island without hardly losing my breath. After 2 weeks of constantly breathing through my mouth because I couldn't get enough oxygen through the nose even at rest, I'm now breathing normally through the nose most of the time. Just in time to start heading down tomorrow!

26th October - Leaving the Salt Flats

We leave the 'barracks' at Laguna Colorada at 5:30. It's bloody cold but we have a plan. We're visiting the volcanic zone ‘Sol de Mañana' (Morning Sun) which is up at 4,850 metres above sea level. First we take a look at the area full of blow holes with steam pouring out and bubbling mud. Then we moved on to an area of hot springs where we stripped down to our bathers and jumped in. It was still freezing but the water was beautiful, probably around 32 degrees or so. We lazed around for a while as the sun got higher and it got slowly warmer.

From there we went even higher crossing a pass of over 5,000m. More stunning scenery and more mountains and volcanoes rising up on all sides. We stop at the Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon) which is rich in lead, sulphur and calcium carbonate. The lagoon is too toxic even for the flamingos. The scene is made even more impressive as it's shadowed by the cone of the Licancabur Volcano.

Then it's time to head to the border. A pretty desolate wind-blown spot high up and seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We actually got our exit stamps from Bolivia in Uyuni 3 days ago so leaving Bolivia should have been a formality. But there was no Chilean bus waiting there to pick us up. After much toing and froing and two hours stuck in the blazing sun and cold wind we finally get a bus load up and we head into Chile. We don't actually pass immigration though. The Chilean immigration is in San Pedro de Atacama 42km away. In fact if you leave San Pedro for Argentina the border posts are 150km apart. Anyway from the border it's downhill all the way. In the 42km we descend over 2,000m before hitting town.

27th October - San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro is a small tourist town set in a some oasis area in the huge Atacama Desert. The Atacama runs all the way from Ecuador down through here and on a further 900km south. The town is full of Chilean and foreign tourists, as well as being the start/end point for trips to the Andean Plateau and salt flats there are quite a few local attractions too.

After a quiet day enjoying the sun we headed out for an evening tour of the Moon Valley (yes, another one). I'm going to be lazy and let WikiTravel take over from here. "Commonly advertised as 'Moon Valley' in English, this part of the Salt Mountain Range offers stunning clinal and anticlinal formations in a perfectly barren landscape. Almost all tours include watching the sunset there-you shouldn't miss it. The large stone walls resemble those of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, sans river. There are also huge halite (rock salt) strata that produce a cracking sound all day long. This can be unsettling at first, but it's actually harmless. Among its prime attractions are the Grand Crater, the Salt Canyon, the Three Maries and salt mines, the Salt Caves, the Cari Viewpoint (also called 'Piedra del Coyote'), and Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley)."

We visited the Grand Crater and the Salt Canyon which were stunning, but there has been so much great scenery over the last few weeks each new view loses its impact a little. It's a bit like being 'Templed-out' in Asia. The Three Marias were just some rock sticking up out of the desert, it would take a lot of imagination to see them as three anythings. The salt mine was interesting, basically just and big hole dug into the rock. But we climbed down inside and there were big seams of salt running through the rock. We then all stayed quiet and we could here the crack, crack, crack of the crystals. We then went down into a cavern system. A lot of ducking, swaying left, swaying right, crawling on all fours at 45 degrees through a seam in the rock which had opened up. It was fun to do a bit of scrambling through the rocks for 15 minutes or so, but it would have been a lot easier if I was shorter!

We then did the sunset over looking Death Valley and headed back. All these types of trips do the sunset view at the end but rarely is it worth hanging around and getting cold as the sun goes down. But it was a good trip and our guide was great which really made it come alive.

28th October - San Pedro de Atacama

More WikiTravel; "This is one amazing location... in summer! Set in the northern tip of the Atacama salt pan, this location offers a splendid panorama of the Andes, and the possibility to bathe in waters as salty as those of the Dead Sea. The landscape's also remarkable. It usually ends with sunset, along a simple cocktail with pisco sour. Besides the Cejar and Piedra lagoons, excursions usually stop by the 'Ojos del Salar' (Eyes of the Salt Pan), two freshwater eyes very close together, and lake Tebenquinche, a water mirror that offers the absolute best sunsets in the whole area-imagine the mountains slowly changing colors, from yellow to pink, and that same image reflected on the lake's perfect surface!"

First we headed down to the salty lagoon and jumped right in. It was amazing we were all floating around high in the water. If I was upright my shoulders were forced out of the water. We all floated around for a while before it was time to move on. When we came out of the water we were all covered by a film of salt. So next it was over to the Ojos del Salar which are two large circular pools of water fed by an underground river. Again we jumped in, this time it was fairly cold, the water had come straight down from the mountains. Finally it was Lake Tebenquinche, a very shallow lake which completely dries up in Summer. The lake is surrounded by salt deposits and the sunset was good, but spoilt a bit by some cloud on the horizon.

29th October - To La Serena

Bus to La Serena. 17 hour bus to La Serena. 17 hour bus through 17 hours of desert to La Serena. Desert, desert, mine, heavy machinery and some more desert.

30th October - La Serena

All change, back to sea level and there's some greenery. Some hedges and fields, fruit trees and vine-yards growing grapes to make pisco. La Serena is quite a big city right on the coast, the centre is nice and has a colonial feel.

In the evening we made a trip to a local observatory which is open the public. It sounded great, look through the telescopes and see some interesting stuff in the night sky. But it was a bit of a let down. We looked at a binary star and some areas where there were clusters of thousands of stars not visible to the naked eye. But it was all a bit sterile, the guide didn't put on much of a show and the group was too big so there was a lot of waiting around. We did get a good view of the moon though and we took some pictures through the telescope.

31st October - La Serena

A free day in La Serena. Had a bit of a wander, did some reading, generally a lazy day.

2nd November - Santiago

After yesterday's 7 hour bus journey I'm now in Santiago. I really like it, such a change from anywhere I've been since Lima. Santiago's a proper grown-up city. Big boulevards, big squares and surrounded by proper big mountains. It has a European feel with big buildings and cathedrals. I'm going to enjoy my few days here.

3rd November - Santiago

The mountains around Santiago are not like the mountains of the last few weeks which although 6,000m only rise 2,000m above the plateau and being nearer the equator, barely topped with snow. Santiago is at about 500m and sits in a valley surrounded by high mountains, the tallest is the Tupungato volcano at 6,570 m (21,555 ft). It all gives Santiago an impressive back-drop.

Buenos Aires to Rio 2012.