After a pleasant few days in touristy San Pedro, it was time to venture into the wilderness. Hostal Rural helpfully booked a three-day tour with Tambo Loma Expediciones for me, and at 6 am the following day I found myself in a jeep en route to the Bolivian border.
This excursion, which stretches to either 2 or 3 nights is a popular trip from San Pedro or Uyuni, and takes tourists across the Chilean desert, into the Eduardo Avaroa Nature Reserve in Bolivia, and ends in the salt flats near Uyuni. It covers landscapes that are mind-bogglingly sublime, almost extraterrestrial in their strangeness.
In a jeep with 5 other young Northern Europeans (4 Germans, 1 Finn, and me), we were driven first through the burnt-brown chill of the desert, our car a speck against the awesome sand dunes. Although the sky shone bright and blue beyond, we cocooned ourselves in alpaca knitwear as the temperature hit sub-zero.
This arid landscape transformed into a circuit of lagoons as we climbed higher, each boasting a distinct colour produced by their varied mineral contents. In a a somewhat underwhelming spurt of nomenclature, these were named Laguna Blanca, Laguna Verde, and Laguna Roja. Such intensity of colour made clear contrast with the pale-grey mountains which stood jagged in the horizon, and sharpened the deep palette of the sky as it drifted from cerulean to peacock blue.
At the highest point of our journey (4900 m altitude) I was struck not just by the bizarre lunar terrain of hot springs and geysers, but also el soroche : altitude sickness. What good luck to get this over with before I reach La Paz, I did not reflect, as I lunged out of the jeep to be sick. Outside geysers belched hot gas, and the stench of rotten egg did not particularly help the situation.
During the descent the nausea subsided, allowing me to enjoy the final stop of the day: our desert-shack accommodation. In spite of the (literally) freezing night and the lack of electricity, it was a long and warm night of sleep.
Day Two took us through the craggy formations of the Siloli Desert. Here, strange ochre shapes have formed over millennia, carved by time, water, and wind. In the sudden heat of midday we clambered over rough steps and dusty ridges, with tufts grass springing between the boulders. These are used by several indigenous cultures to be woven into boats and rooves, as our guide explained.
Continuing onto the wetter lands of Sora Bofedal drought gave way to a spongy earth of moss which drew llamas to graze around rock pools. As much as these funny creatures fascinated us, they regarded us only with the haughty suspicion not unlike that of a waiter serving in the 6ème arrondissement.
Just down from these small herds the waters of the Laguna Secreta lapped and glimmered in the breezy sunlight, with families of patas negras bobbing in this hidden lake. Tired out from the journey, and ready for lunch in the nearby settlement, we just sat and watched this scene.
Past the villages of San Agustín and Julaca lay the dazzling white salt flats, and from there our accommodation for the second night: the Hotel Tambo Loma, which my guidebook informed me to be illegal.
The previous evening had been spent discussing routes around Uyuni, as the protests had not yet stopped, and the town was on lockdown. Eventually, it was decided that we would not be able to stop off in Uyuni (where my flight was booked to La Paz, buses having been advised against) & so a more circuitous route was planned. These new plans in place, our third day was cut a little short; we did manage however to visit Inca Huasi island and spend more time on the salt flats.
Inca Huasi island is in the centre of the salt flats, which used to be vast lakes. Cacti stick up between every rock, and at the top there is a plinth used for the worship of Pachamama (Mother Earth). It was once a volcano.
We spent a couple of hours on the salt flats, and got lots of fun pictures : the flat landscape allows for a lot of play with perspective.
Next stop: La Paz, my home for the next three months.