Salt, sand and a 4wd!

My aim was to get to Puerto Montt in Chile and catch a 4 day ferry to Patagonia. With only 7 weeks remaining I wanted to make the most of my time to explore the deep south. That was about as detailed as my planning was for the whole trip. Most of my decisions to go to certain places were based on the grape vine of tales and tips from fellow travellers. One such ‘not to be missed’ journey was the start of my route south, a three day 4wd journey that takes in some of the most amazing scenery in South America. A well beaten dirt and salt track from Uyuni in Bolivia across the salars (salt plains) and the Andean altiplano to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.

Uyuni is a town that sits on the side of the vast salar that bears it’s name and is a shoppers paradise if your penchant is for disposable cameras, film or batteries. I quickly booked in at one of the towns ‘quaint’ little accommodation blocks that would not have been out of place in Eastern Europe. Clean and functional but with the ambience and look of a concrete prison unit. A stroll around the town followed by some intermediate-level bartering with a few agencies had me booked on one of the Toyota Landcruisers heading out the next day. A three day trip including transport, food, accommodation and park entry fees for the miserly sum of US$65, Bolivia’s just full of bargains!

After a sound nights sleep in cell block H we gathered at the agency to find a caravan, herd, gaggle, heap of decrepit Toyota Landcruisers (what is the collective term?) waiting for us. Some looked a little newer, but sadly they were for the groups who’d paid a little more with an agency around the corner. Ours was once upon a time a sparkling red beast, now a little faded from the sun and possibly on it’s 10th engine. We loaded up and headed off into the wide dusty yonder in a cloud of black diesel smoke, yeeehaaa!

There were 7 of us crammed in, our packs safely thrown on to the roof, and of course our driver. Sadly communication was a little difficult as he spoke no English but this was a long journey so there was plenty of time for a few charades to help us understand each other. Where we failed to make any progress in communication was with the music, he had one tape and he liked it… a lot! Repeated attempts to inject a little western music into the journey were dashed as the rule of the road in Bolivia as anywhere in the world was applied ‘What the driver wants, he gets!’. So pan pipes accompanied us, and the music still haunts me to this day…

We passed through Colchani, a small settlement on the border of the salar where, as throughout South America, you’re hit by the difficult life of the indigenous peoples. Here they made a meagre living ‘mining’ from the salar by digging up big piles of waterlogged salt and waiting for the water to seep out. The vast expanse of the salar stretched out before us, just a few points of land floating above the haze on the horizon. And that big expanse of nothing was the road!

How they actually navigate across the salar is still a mystery, not once did I see a compass! The precision with which they drove us straight to each destination was uncanny. The Alojamiento Sol de Mañana (salt hotel) is a hotel made entirely of salt, even down to the furniture. Sadly it is now locked up as it has been deemed a health hazard, but peering through the windows you can imagine the place thriving with people… Ok, I struggled to imagine a place in the middle of the largest salt plain in the world which itself is in the middle of a barren nowhere as a thriving hotel. In my defence I was suffering with the first signs of food poisoning, thanks to a roadside foodstall in Potosi, so you’ll have to forgive my lack of imaginary prowess.

After a few photos, we once again piled in our trusty Landcruiser and our driver picked an imaginary spot on the horizon and headed straight for it magically transporting us to our next destination in the vast expanse of nothing. Isla de Pescado (fish island) emerged like a mirage from the desert. An island of rock, apparently in the shape of a fish, protruding from a sea of salt. The island is covered in tall cacti and somehow small rabbit-like rodents (‘biscachas’) manage to survive on this marooned island.

We arrived at the town of San Juan in the late afternoon and found our alojamiento for the night, a simple room full of bunks. The local children were quick to start up a game of football (that’s soccer for those who get confused!). However, running around at almost 4,000m is a difficult task for a fish-lunged boy born and bred at sea level, and the local kids were enjoying making the gringo soccer stars struggle for breathe. As dusk brought spectacular colours streaking across the sky we retired to the alojamiento to dine and pass out after the exertion of altitude training.

The scenery the following day was a stark contrast to the vast flat expanse of the salar as we were now cruising across the altiplano between enormous 6,000m volcanic peaks belching plumes of smoke. Passing lagunas (lakes) of vastly different colours from the minerals disolved in the thermal alkaline waters that flow into them. These lakes were lined with flamingos surviving on the algae that is the only thing that thrives in these toxic waters. Stopping at the amazing ‘arbol de piedra’ (stone tree) wind scuptured rocks and soaking in hot springs allowed us to take-in the awe-inspiring views that my camera could simply not do justice.

Our lodging that night was in a village which bordered the beautiful Laguna Colorada. The sunsets here are legendary but sadly the exertions of the previous evening’s football game and the culmination of a little food poisoning meant it was a sunset I had to forego. The following morning we woke early and were on our way just before dawn. While I caught the last of my well needed beauty sleep we were transported to a magical place, witnessing the sunrise next to the enormous sol de mañana geyser. A short drive further and we stopped at the Laguna Verde (green lake) where the still water perfectly mirrored the surrounding volcanoes to make it a memorable breakfast spot.

At the border an abandoned bus and a tiny outpost marked the spot where a few US dollars got your passport stamped to exit from Bolivia. A few kilometers into Chile the dirt track suddenly turned into a beautifully paved road. After Bolivia and Peru the feel of a sealed road was surreal and the lack of potholes almost unnerving! As we sped down the road with our ears feeling the pressure of the drop in altitude the plain of the Atacama Desert, the driest place in the world, spread our before us. A huge expanse of dry crusty sun-scorched earth. As we dropped into the desert bowl, the temperature soared and dry heat burst through the windows, we all peeled off layers of clothing and enjoyed the warmth engulfing our bodies.

Our destination came into view, an oasis of trees and life in the middle of this barren landscape fed by man-made irrigation channels. San Pedro de Atacama is a beautiful little town with a small touch of colonial style. Shaded courtyards with hammocks and cool drinks welcomed us to this idyllic place. After weeks of bumpy roads through crumbling towns and witnessing the severe hardship people lived through, San Pedro was a welcome rest!

January 2002

Salt, sand and a 4wd!


Wellington, New Zealand

  • Artist

Artist's Description

How you can enjoy a rusty 4wd bouncing across the altiplano from Bolivia to Chile.

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