We have had an incredible last few days. We were lucky to leave Bolivian cities behind when we did as the country was preparing to strike. The only impact to us was a few hour morning delay as the drivers of the two Land Cruisers we were taking had trouble finding gas since everyone was stocking up in advance of the strike. We split the group in the two vehicles and we also had a cook accompany us. We first drove to the train graveyard just outside of Uyuni and climbed around the rusted remains. We later stopped at a little town that collects the salt to sell across Bolivia, and also creates goods from it including furniture, sculptures, and knickknacks, We finally drove onto the largest salt flat in the world. In the distance hills looked like they were floating from the mirage of the sun reflecting off the salt planes. We stopped at a section where salt was being piled and ready to be transported. We took numerous pictures of everyone jumping off the piles. A lot of of laughs and a lot of fun. Our drive was entertaining with the driver continuously dozing off. If there was ever a time you didn’t care if the person driving the vehicle you are in is asleep, this was it. There is nothing around whatsoever but simply a flat, solid surface in all directions. We eventually arrived at a little cactus covered island in the middle of the flats. We took a hike through it to get views of the surroundings and had an excellent cooked meal before wandering back onto the salt flat to play with taking photos while there is little in the background for perspective. When we finished we drove a while more and stopped to watch the sunset in what felt like the middle of nowhere where the ground seemed like it belonged on the moon. That night we arrived at a little hostel made almost entirely of salt. This included the floors, walls, bed frames, tables, and chairs. The accommodation was basic. No private rooms and shared facilities. We were lucky to be able to share the smallest room available (for 4) with people we were travelling with. We had an ok dinner and played cards before they turned the generator off at 9PM and then settled in for a chilly night.
The following morning we left the salt flats and climbed over dirt and rock roads through incredible landscapes of wind sculptured rocks, lagoons, and multicoloured mountains. At one point the road was so bad we all had to get out of the vehicles to reduce the load and climb a while up a hill at high altitude in freezing weather. The drive was often bumpy, or dusty, but it was well worth it for the scenery. We felt like we were in the middle of nowhere and were often surprised at the direction the vehicle would go, onto what seemed like rarely driven paths. We saw a lot of wildlife including many animals that look like a cross between a llama and a deer. I forget the name but will add it when I figure it out. We also found flamingos in the half frozen lagoons. Our night was spent well above 4000 meters in another multi-share hostel with no electricity after 9PM. It was almost too cold to handle and it was a rough night for a number of us. We got out of bed and packed at 5AM in the dark and cold. We drove off to reach some amazing geysers at sunrise that were spewing hot steam high into the air. We later arrived at some hot springs and had some breakfast. There were other travellers there and some were crazy enough to go in the waters. While the baths would have been lovely to get into, I couldn’t imagine getting out of them in sub zero temperatures. We crossed around 5000 meters in elevation before finally reaching the border of Chile. Once we left Bolivia we descended on well paved roads down to the Atacama Desert (considered the driest place on earth) with an elevation of only 2400 meters. It is amazing how much more energy and comfort you feel after such a descent. We were lucky with no real altitude problems during our adventure through the Andes, having gone in a direction that allowed plenty of acclimatization. People who go from Santiago to Bolivia through this high elevation pass often suffer tremendously.
We are now in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, a tiny tourist town. We are thrilled to have our own room and private shower with hot water again. The difference in culture in Chile is immediately evident. The people look of more Spanish than native descent, and service and food is similar to what we are used to at home. Drinks arrive for everyone before the meals and food is served for everyone at the same time instead of sporadically like elsewhere in Bolivia and Peru. Chile is one of the richest of the South American countries and we are benefiting from its comforts, but not prices. We are taking it easy this morning getting some laundry done and will be taking a trip to the Valley of the Moon this afternoon. Tomorrow we will be on our way to Santiago.
Photos from our last few days are posted here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=98725&id=673382190&l=5ae4c02cd9