My crossing into Bolivia was incredibly eventful. To save a 25hr bus ride, I flew over the Andes from Santiago to Calama, Northern Chile, then took a shuttle to the tiny town of San Pedro. Although small, it felt like the entirety of travellers in Chile descended upon the town in preparation for the salt flats tour.
The town was a stark contrast to the streets of Santiago; the houses all single story and made of a dry camel coloured sandstone and dirt streets. We settled down to cards and star watching on our two nights there, booking the jeep tour for early the next day.
Our crossing into Bolivia was truly freezing – but nothing as cold as what we would experience that evening. We travelled by jeep, stopping off through the desert at beautiful lagoons and natural pools. At our lunch stop, we should have realised something was wrong when I saw our driver Benjamin rip off a bit of a plastic bag and scurry under the car to fix the wheels.
We continued on our tour only to be halted at about 5000m above sea level with mechanical issues in the car, where the brakes had both completely stopped working – in order to stop the car rolling alone the downhill gravel path, the driver would have to get out of his seat and try to stall the jeep, but also the 4×4 power stopped, meaning our inclines up the hills were about 10km/h.
Our journey did not continue more than about 200m in 6 hours – which was hilarious until we all started to feel the affects of our 5000m altitude (which, apparently, you are supposed to spend a few days preparing for) and the below freezing temperatures come sundown wasn’t too enjoyable. The jeeps that passed us and didn’t stop, despite our intense waving, made the experience feel all too surreal.
Due to the extended break in the highest desert, we were forced to make an emergency stop at some accomodation. We didn’t know if it was colder inside the harsh brick building we were moved into or outside; both were in negative numbers. Under about 10 covers, we all tried to sleep – but throughout the night our coughs, phone screens and constant chattering indicated that about 3 hours sleep was had between the 3 of us.
The next day improved significantly – the car was miraculously fixed, we visited the missed destinations from the day before, and were on the road again.
Our last day – a visit to the spectacular salt flats – was incredible. It’s so hard to explain what the flats were like; incredibly vast expanses that continue for as far as the eye can see, a sea of white that edges further and further into the distance. I loved the cactus island in the middle of the flats – it was an excellent visual break from the salt. Seeing hundreds upon hundreds of huge cactuses really showed the age of the area. We did all of the classic cliche games on the salt, where you create images using different depths of field – which wouldn’t seem to be fun but were actually really really fun.
Our final visit to the flats was to an area where light rain had shrowded the salt with a thin layer of water. It was incredible to see, as for as long as the eye can see, the reflections on the salt.