Dusty sun-baked desert, impassable snow-laden mountains and green fertile valleys
02.08.2011 - 11.08.2011
In all my years of travelling, never have I known a border crossing quite like the one from Bolivia to Chile, between Uyuni and Calama. Forced to get up at the un-Godly hour of 2.30am, we then had to spend the next thirty minutes outside the frozen bus station waiting for a bus which hadn´t yet arrived, followed by the most uncomfortable four hour journey through the arctic Bolivian countryside, with ice encrusting the insides of every window, painfully contorting in our seats in order to sit on our feet so that they wouldn´t fall off through frostbite, all the while jealously watching the comfortable locals who had the luxury of bringing 47 layers of blankets to hibernate under for the unpleasant ride. Due to the early hour, we did however make good time to the Bolivian immigration border crossing, which consisted of nothing more than a few rickety buildings, next to what appeared to be a disused railway line, in the middle of nowhere. We were then informed by the miserable border official that we would be required to pay 15Bs to exit the country. As the only Spanish speaker in our little group of tourists, I questioned what the payment was for and was abruptly told that it was for national park fees and tourism costs. Despite the urge to argue the point, or pretend that I didn´t have 15Bs, we all finally decided that for the sake of $2, at the risk of being stuck in the middle of nowhere, at the discretion of a border official who already seemed displeased with us, we may as well pay the man and be on our way. What no one had so far mentioned on the trip was that the border didn´t officially open until 9am, and with a locked bus and no driver in sight, it meant yet another cold and uncomfortable hour-long wait on the dusty curbside next to the bus. Finally, at 9am, with a cheer from all the impatient tourists, the border was opened and our bus, still the only vehicle in sight, was allowed through. Unfortunately, it was only 30 seconds later, in the middle of the vast expanse of no-mans-land, that the bus was stopped again and we were promptly informed that we would need to deboard, collect our bags and once again wait outside in the cold morning air for the connecting Chilean bus.
Two hours later, that Chilean bus finally turned up, and at first we believed it to be simply delayed or held up at Chilean immigration, however after speaking to another tourist onboard we were informed that the bus wasn´t delayed, it had simply departed on time at 6am. Why then does the Bolivian bus have to leave at 3.30am, knowing that it will need to wait at the border for 3 hours for the Chilean connection? The follow half hour was then spent watching in amazement at the spectacle of luggage exchange between the two buses, with bags, boxes, crates, TVs, stereos, cookers, and all other manner of household appliances being offloaded and then reloaded (tetris style) into every possible available space onto the opposing bus.
Finally we were on our way to the Chilean border, only to stop for another half an hour outside immigration while the slightly simple looking bus driver collected all the passports and began filling in the countless sheets of paper and passenger manifests required by the Chilean officials. Ironically, it was now warm enough to comfortably sit outside, however for the first time on the journey so far we were instructed to remain on the stuffy, dusty bus. Finally we were allowed into the immigration office and received our entry stamps, only to be then told that there was to be a complete baggage check (not what you want to hear when you´ve spent the last hour watching how much crap the locals carry with them and how difficult it was to pack onboard in the first place). This however didn´t start for another half an hour, forcing us to wait in yet another queue, presumably while the baggage checkers disappeared for a much needed tea break. Finally, bags checked and back on the bus, we were on our way. Or so we thought! Not 100m down the road, the bus pulls up once more and the driver (who had been free to do whatever he wanted for the past 3 hours) informs us that we are now stopping for a 20 minute lunch break (at what appears to be his home), to the sounds of gasps and boos from locals and tourist alike. FINALLY, after nearly 6 hours at the border, we were actually truly on our way and three hours later we were in Calama, only just managing to make the connecting bus to San Pedro de Atacama.
As its name suggests, San Pedro de Atacama is a small, dusty town in the Atacama desert. With little more than hostals, restaurants, cafes, shops and tour agencies, it seems entirely built on tourism. Thankfully though, the town itself is not what attracts people to it, more the incredible landscapes surrounding it. Having overdosed slighly on organised tours, I decided, along with a couple of people from the Uyuni trip, who happened to be travelling in the same direction, to explore the area independently. Hiring a bike (from one of the many, many available shops) we headed out in the direction of Death Valley. Unfortunately, the maps provided by the store were less reliable than their bikes and so one missed turn resulted in an hour steep uphill ride, following the main road back towards Calama. Despite some great views from the top, it was still highly frustrating to realise after so much expended effort that it was all for nothing (although seeing people with the same bikes from the same shop following the same route, did make us feel slightly better). What took over an hour to climb, took just 5 minutes to descend, in an exhilarating, panoramic, dust whipped, wind swept, downhill bullet ride.
Finding the correct path (unmarked) at the bottom of the hill, we were soon entering the twisting, bumpy track through Death Valley. Winding your way through towering rock formations and narrow channels, you soon reach the enormous sand dunes at the valley´s centre. Popular with early morning and late afternoon sandboarders (on tours), we arrived in the scortching midday heat to a vast expanse of emptiness, to have the entire valley to ourselves.
Following Death Valley, we headed back towards San Pedro and on to the Moon Valley (so called due to its resemblance to the surface Moon). What we believed to be just one location actually turned out to be an entire reserve, with over 12km of tracks and scenic views from the main ticket office to the final lookout points. Unfortunately, not realising this, we hadn´t left ourselves enough time to explore completely and had to make do with the hour and a half that we still had available. Thankfully, despite yet another gruelling uphill struggle, we managed to make it to the main lookout point on the "Great Dune", overlooking some of the most remarkable scenery in the park.
With a late afternoon bus booked the following day, we chose not to waste any time and once again headed out on bikes to the "Devil´s Gorge". What no one at the bike office had informed us about when explaining the route was the fact that the journey to the gorge involved crossing a river several times. The first crossing luckily had a small bridge, although this still involved carrying your bike up a wobbly vertical wooden ladder and then across the uneven, unsecured wooden boards, which made up the small makeshift bridge. The subsequent crossings were also not too much of an issue, due to very low water levels (what with it being the desert, and the driest place on earth). The final crossing however, with the entrance to the gorge in sight, just the other side, was over knee high, fast flowing, extremely muddy, unbearably cold, and once again involved carrying the mountain bike over your shoulder in order to get across.
The gorge was certainly interesting to start, however, after walking several miles with no change in scenery and no idea how much further the trail leads, or even if it leads anywhere at all, it all became a little tiring. After an hour and a half of walking, we decided it was probably a better idea to head back the way we´d come, rather than risk wandering forever in the harsh desert landscape.
The following day, there were just two of us who continued the journey on to Copiapo (where the Chilean mining disaster happened), hoping to do a tour of the nearby reserve of "Nevado Tres Cruces". Unfortunately we hadn´t counted on Chile becoming a tourist ghost town in winter and found ourselves to be the only tourists in Copiapo. Luckily the tourist office knew a man who (probably against all common sense) was still willing to take tourists out into the mountains in the bitterly cold and harsh, unforgiving winter months. Meeting crazy Daniel (our guide), at his office (which was actually his home as there weren´t enough tourists to make having an office beneficial) was a little disconcerting at first, however his enthusiasm at seeing the landscape in winter, after the heaviest snow fall in over 50 years, was highly contagious. As it was the "Day of the Child" in Chile, Daniel had an organised trip with 150 local children to a nearby sand dune mountain, and invited us to come along for the experience. Watching 150 very young children climb up the loose, rocky slopes to the top of the sand dune was a little tense (and would certainly not meet Health and Safety requirements in England), but joining them on the steep, sandy slide back down was great fun.
The children were then taken back to Copiapo by bus, while we continued our jeep journey towards the mountain reserve of "Tres Cruces". With a guide that had an overabundance of information (unlike the Uyuni guide who seemed to have none), we travelled along the mining road (with special permission from the mining authorities), past a couple of disused ghost mining towns, with a spectacular sun set over the surrounding mountains, towards our camping destination for the night. Reaching a small turn off from the road, with a barely visable clearing in the distance, we set about making camp in the dark while the guide prepared the fire and our dinner. With over 3kg of meat (for just 3 people), plenty of snacks, no boring salad or healthy food, and alcohol, I was in my element. It appeared that so was the guide when he promptly informed us that his after dinner dessert was a pre-rolled joint!
Sunset in camp
Home for the night
That night we were woken to the sounds of footsteps outside the tent, and with the guide´s stories of the Puma which had been shot just a couple of miles down the road, we decided not to go out and investigate. The following morning the guide confirmed that he too had heard footsteps, however was certain that it was a person and had assumed it was one of us getting up for a late night pee. To be honest, the thought of a random person wandering around outside the tent is somehow more distressing than a vicious Puma. Regardless, we survived the night and continued our journey into the mountains. Upon reaching the summit, overlooking lake Santa Rosa, we stopped to allow the guide a chance to run around in excitement at the spectacular view. With the entire lake covered in a thick blanket of snow (much the same as everything else) he informed us that in his 26 years of visiting the site he had never seen anything quite like it. His excitement certainly made the trip far more entertaining for us as we realised what a rare experience it was to be allowed through the reserve in such extreme conditions, (proved by the fact that we often had to wait for the mining snow plows to clear the way before we could continue).
Although expensive, the tour was certainly worth it, and we were glad to have found a guide (crazy as he was) to take us out during the dead winter months.
Our excited guide
We then headed down to the fog shrowded coastal town of La Serena, which enveloped in a cold blanket of mist, cloud and fog, was less than inviting. Once again we seemed to be the only tourists in town and were glad to find a tour agency willing to sign us up for a trip to the islands of Choros and Damas where you can see Humbolt penguins, sea lions, otters and dolphins. Unfortunately we woke up early the following morning to a hastily scribbled note under the door informing us that the trip had been cancelled due to lack of people. Why they hadn´t told us that this was a possibility the day before (even though I had asked if there were other tourists on the trip, and been informed that there were) is an annoying mistery. As a result, my time in La Serena consised of a cold and misty trip to the beach, a stomach churning meat sandwich at a local cafe, a slightly overpriced hostal, and the pleasure of being hosed and gassed in a student protest (which unlike the ones in London happening on the very same day, were dealt with and dispersed without violence in less than an hour).
Mist shrowded La Serena in the distance
Following the disappointment of not being on a trip to Choros Island (which we later found out from independent means that the mist had cancelled all boats anyway), I caught a bus to Vicuña in the Elqui Valley; a sunny, green, fertile place, in stark contrast to anything I´d seen in many weeks. Although small, the town was friendly and offered great opportunities to explore the surrounding countryside.
That evening I booked a trip to visit the Mamalluca Observatory, to see some of the clearest skies on the planet. The highlight of the trip were the excellent views of the moon (which was so startlingly bright that I´d actually taken photos of it during the day). Unfortunately this was also the downside of the trip as it was so bright (alomst like having a spotlight in the sky) that it made it hard to see anything else. In fact, as far as stars and galaxies went, we may as well have been trying to see them during the day. We did however get to use the large telescope in the observatory dome to look at Saturn, which appeared clearly in all its ring surrounded glory. Photos unfortunately did not come out due to it being too dark, but I´m sure you all know what Saturn looks like, and yes, that´s exactly how it looked.
Despite La Serena being a complete waste of time, my time in Chile so far (while being unbelievable expensive after Bolivia and Peru) has certainly lived up to expectations. I am somewhat surprised how few tourists there are in the winter months, but then I guess even this has its pros and cons. Whether this will affect my travel plans on heading further south, well, that remains to be seen.
Journey through Elqui Valley