Leaving Salta, Argentina in the morning, another high altitude bus ride and border crossing brought us back into Chile. We landed in San Pedro de Atacama, located in the driest hot desert in the world. San Pedro was a dusty but neat little town, absolutely full of travellers using it as a base to tour some of its surrounding sights. San Pedro’s most popular and easily accessible natural attraction is the Valle de la Luna (or Valley of the Moon – apparently its landscape looks similar to the surface of the moon). Since it was only located about 15km from San Pedro, we decided to go via bicycle along with another couple we had met at our hostel. Although it was mostly flat riding, the heat and one big hill made it a pretty exhausting ride. In our opinion, the Valley of Moon itself wasn’t as dazzling as its reviews would suggest – an interesting place, but not overly inspiring. While watching the sunset over the valley is immensely popular, we couldn’t stay since we weren’t equipped to ride our bikes back in the dark. Instead we saw the sunset over the desert a little closer to town – again not as dazzling as others have suggested.
After a few days in San Pedro, we took off to the Bolivian border to begin our two night / three day 4×4 tour through southwest Bolivia. The Bolivian border control was a tiny building in the middle of nowhere at a dizzying altitude of nearly 5000m above sea level. Once getting our passports stamped, we were grouped with a young Swiss couple, a young Frenchman and, of course, our Bolivian driver / guide with whom we would be spending the next few days touring some of the most spectacular landscapes we have seen on our travels thus far. Starting in Bolivia’s National Andean Fauna Reserve, three days of 4x4ing took us past colourful lagoons, geysers, volcanoes and finally the amazing Salar de Uyuni (the biggest slat flat in the world which was formed after the evaporation of a saline lake).
The accommodation during our first night on the 4×4 tour was simple, but adequate – shared rooms and no hot water. Given that we were in the middle of a national reserve at 4300m above sea level, however, we were happy to have a roof over our heads and a working toilet. The night got very cold (definitely below zero degrees Celsius) but the sleeping bags we rented kept us warm. We were also fortunate not to have suffered any major effects from the altitude (apart from minor headaches). Several people from another group staying at the same accommodation suffered from terrible insomnia and, in some cases, vomiting.
The accommodation on our second night was really neat – the building was made completely of salt! The showers were warm, wine was served with dinner and everyone was feeling a bit more lively after descending to “only” 3800m above sea level. All in all, we had a fantastic tour – we got along great with the three others in our group, the food was plentiful and of course the scenery was unreal. Our driver / guide was also incredibly kind and light-hearted – although he didn’t speak English, Patrick was able to communicate with him using broken Spanish and the Frenchman in our group (who spoke excellent Spanish) could translate the rest. Considering we had heard horror stories of other drivers / guides being grumpy and even getting drunk to the point that travellers had to drive portions of the trip, we couldn’t have been happier with our experience.
Tour company used for Salt Flats: Cordillera Travellers – $180 US p/p for an all-inclusive 3 days / 2 nights tour booked out of San Pedro. Excellent service, good food, comfortable accommodation and no vehicle breakdowns – highly recommended.