San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni – Day 1

The day before we were headed to the salt flats tour we stocked up on snacks and water as we were told by the tour operator. We brought 9 liters of water and a lot of crackers and chocolate. There was reports on the food not being plenty and of sub-par quality, hopefully crackers and chocolate would help us then. We also bought coca leafs to chew and make tea of to help with altitude sickness. Finally we bought a thick jumper each, and I bought a winter cap. It is cold at high altitude!

The first day began with waking up at 06:30, grabbing our already packed bags and breakfast that our hostel kindly had prepared for us. The bus took us first to the Chilean border control, conveniently located in San Pedro. There we got our exit stamp as we both had been good enough not to loose the receipt that we got when entering Chile.

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After this the bus drove us to the Bolivian border control, at an altitude of about 4000 meters even walking made us need to stop to catch our breath. The border control is quick and without anything fancy, EU passport holders just get the stamp, others might have to pay and get the stamp. At no point did anyone mention anything about a “fee” to get the stamp other than the official one for US citizens among others.

After getting the stamp we were served a very nice breakfast, leaving the one we brought from the hostel redundant. We were asked to arrange ourselves in groups of six in each group, we found a great group!

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In the picture above, taken by Fran who was the 6th member of the group is, from left to right:

Diego, German, Linn, Felipe and me, Jon. We all had a great time together during our trip through the desert, along with our driver Richard. And thanks to Fran who brought a real camera we will have very good pictures from the whole tour!

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Here we have our first stop to actually see something on the tour, Laguna Verde, the green lagoon. The green color comes from minerals that are stirred up by the wind. We were actually lucky to see it as the wind started blowing just as we made our stop.

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Back in the Land Cruiser for a while before we arrived at Desierto de Dalí which is a part of the desert that got its name because looks very similar to the paintings of Salvador Dalí. If you imagine some melting clocks in the frame above you might understand where they got the name from. (picture by Fran).

After another while in the car we visited some hot springs which we got an opportunity to take a dip in. at 38 degrees Celsius it was more than welcome. It really gets cold at altitude, we were wearing double jumpers, a wind jacket a winter hats but still felt cold at times. The only bad thing about the hot springs was that you needed to get up after a while as we had to continue to our next destination.

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At a lovely altitude of almost 5000 meters my headache was getting worse even though I tried to chew as much coca leafs as possible. Linn was also enjoying a worsening headache combined with some dizziness.

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But you have to sacrifice something to see the planet do things like this. A big field of geysers with some gray boiling substance was presented to us. Some of the geysers even gave away big whiffs of smoke, with a smell of sulfur, somewhat hard to decide if it smelled like matches or a fart.

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After yet some more time in our lovely car we arrived at our stop for the night (photo by Fran) at an altitude of 4700 m. Here we were served a late lunch consisting of mashed potato, sausage and a salad. After all we had done during the day, nothing ever tasted so good!

Linns altitude sickness was getting worse, and the plan was to leave the hostel for a while to see a nearby lagoon that is home to a lot of flamingos. When walking to the car Linn almost fainted and decided to stay and try to get some sleep. I and the rest of the group drove to the lagoon while I was teaching them some Swedish words and they taught me Chilean slang. Cachai? Snö. Filete.

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The lagoon was colored red by algae and is housing a population of at least a few hundred flamingos. A lot nicer than to see the few flamingos in a zoo living more or less in their own excrement (at least that is how it usually smells). The flamingos were not even that afraid of us, we could get rather close to watch them dredging the lagoon for food.

After our flamingo spotting we went back to the hostel to have some coffee and some well earned rest. Most of the day was spent sitting in a car, but that takes its toll when it is at high altitude. Linns altitude sickness had worsened further, symptoms including nosebleed and getting rid of the lunch. We made her some coca tea and our driver Richard gave her a pill. In the end I think that the pill did the main part of the work and the coca tea was there as a helper, but she felt a lot better and slept like a baby.

We all slept great, the beds were not too comfortable but we got many thick blankets and stayed warm even though I and Linn did not have any sleeping bags with us. The exhaustion from a day filled with too many things did also help to make sure we slept good.

Laguna Cejar

Our second tour that had its start in San Pedro de Atacama was the one to Laguna Cejar. It is actually not only one lagoon that is visited, but five. The thing that caught our, and especially my, interest was that two of the lagoons were possible to swim in, and are as salt as the dead sea. I long ago saw pictures of people swimming in the dead sea and got very fascinated about it, it looked very relaxing and strange.

The first stop on the tour was to pay the admissions, this time a hefty €18, but here showers etc. are supplied to get rid of the salt after the swim in the lagoon. Our guide started explaining about the salt flats of Atacama, that the lagoons are situated in the middle of. The salt is roughly 1000 meters thick, and floats on water that is below it. The salt is there because very long ago the ocean used to be there, and when it got cut off by the mountains it ultimately dried up and left all the salt.

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The first lagoon we saw was the one actually called Cejar. It was only for viewing and not swimming in, why our guide Carlos (who spoke really good English!), said that go there first and take a few pictures, then change clothes and enjoy a swim in the two lagoons which you can swim in.

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Ahh! Why can not all water you swim in be like this, as long as you dont roll over to your side you can lie there all day long, relaxed! Some people even brought phones and cameras as the water lifts you so high you dont have to worry about them getting close to it.

Apparently one of the lagoons is 35 meters deep, and the other one of unknown depth. A descendant of Jacques Cousteau had been there with the intention of getting to the bottom of it, but gave up at 100 meters depth. It therefore remains a mystery how deep it is.

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Did I mention that the water is SALT?! This is Linns legs, even after showering. Because of our salty and wet hands we didnt capture how it looked before the shower, but it will suffice to say that the showers were a welcome amenity.

After everyone were finished getting amazed by the salty lagoons and got cleaned up we got back in the tour bus and headed to the next stop, Los ojos del salar. The eyes of the salt flat is two sweet(!) water “eyes” in the middle of the salt flat, and the fact that there is two of them and that they are adjacent to each other gave them their name, as they look like two eyes.

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It is two rather big eyes, in the middle of the desert.

The reason they are not salt is probably because a nearby river disappears underground and shows in these two holes in the salt flat. The only salt in them is what the wind brings there, and after a dip in one of them I can account for the fact that they are very much like our lake Mälaren at home, maybe a bit cleaner.

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The final stop was at the last lagoon, this one was in the process of evaporation, that is the water is on its way to leave which creates a very white layer of salt, similar to the salt flats in Uyuni.

The day was finished with some Pisco sour, cheese, olives while watching the sunset. Wikivoyage was completely right about the fact that the tourists are way more chatty on their way back from the tour.

Valle de la Luna

Our first tour with Sol Andino Expediciones was to Valle de la Luna. As all the tour agencies  sell all tours, not all are run by them, rather the cooperate and you can book with one agency and get the tour arranged by another. We chose Sol Andino since they reportedly run their own Salar de Uyuni tours, and this is apparently the most important tour to have a good guide on.

The tour to Valle de la Luna however, was carried out by another tour agency which I cannot remember the name of. Nothing wrong with this, it is a 4 hour tour and you are not left to the elements if the guide and driver are drunk or rude, you can simply walk back to San Pedro, or call a taxi.

The tour started at 16:00 and we got in a small bus that took us to the first stop, where we paid the entrance at €3 and had the last opportunity to visit a bathroom for a while.

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Our second stop was to get some background about the landscape, it was given first in Spanish and later in English. Somehow the English part felt a lot shorter than the Spanish… But not to worry, we got enough information about what we saw. The landscape was like nothing else, made up of sand, stone and salt that had been carved by wind and water over millions of years.

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Views like this gives a good hint of where the name comes from. It really looks like it could be a landscape found on the moon, or in a star wars move for that matter. Walking around in this landscape was interesting, it was nature as we had never seen it before.

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At the end of the tour we left the valley and drove up to a mountain beside it, there we watched the landscape transform as the sun set. After the sun has set we were driven back to San Pedro and left in the middle of the town, happy that the nature on the tour was interesting and strange enough to trump the fact that San Pedro is such a touristy place.

San Pedro de Atacama

After Antofagasta our travel plan had a line to Calama, and then a dotted line as we were unsure about how to proceed. We knew that we wanted to see the salt flats of Uyuni in Bolivia, but we were unsure about the best way to do that.

The consensus of all travelers we met along the way was that the best way is to go to San Pedro de Atacama, and from there take the three day tour that ends in Uyuni. Since Uyuni is located at around 3700 meters above sea level and the tour there reaches 5000 meters we would need time to acclimatize in order to not suffer too much from altitude sickness. San Pedro at 2400 meters seemed like the perfect place to do this.

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Located out in nowhere, San Pedro only exists because there are beautiful nature around it, and the town is built around tourism and the only thing available to do there is to eat a surprisingly good pizza and go on different tours.

We chose to go on three tours including the one to the salt flats with the company Sol Andino Expediciones. The other tours were the Laguna Cejar, a lagoon that is as salt as the dead sea and Valle de la Luna, a landscape that looks like belongs on the moon. They had the three tours listed at a total of €180, and we asked for a package price and only paid €156.

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We stayed in a nice but central hostel called Mama Tierra, at €29 a night for a double room including hot showers, wifi and a bottle of water each day it was well worth the money. We booked in advance on hostelworld, this turned out to be a good thing as there was numerous people coming by looking for a bed for the night, but it was always fully booked. The tours on the other hand were easy to book the same day or just one day in advance.

Antofagasta

During our stay in La Serena we heard that our next planned stop, Antofagasta, is not a nice place to visit. Nothing to do and hard to find hostels. And a quick look around the internet it seemed to be right. After a discussion we decided to stick to the plan. Antofagasta is one of the most important industry cities in Chile and a big port city.

Jon found a B&B pretty close to the beach. And it was hot during the days. The two days we were in the city we stayed on the beach. No sand at the beach and a bit chilly but still nice.

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Jon forgot the sunblock and the result? The next day we spent in the mountains (in the shadows) and eating Chinese food that was good and very cheap!

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You’ll notice pretty quick that you are in desert.

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We are a little allergic to touristic tours and the last evening we were planning where to go next. The plan: San Pedro the Atacama. This city sounded very touristic to me. A place that exists just for people like us to do tours. Expensive and not worth it. But it was the best option for our coming events and a good place to adjust to the height (more about that later).

Restaurant: Jack Fish

In La Serena we found a few good restaurants, and one great! The great one was called Jack Fish, or more precisely Cevicheria Jack Fish, Sushi and Rock.

The place is run by a rock enthusiast who also possess a great interest in Japanese cooking. The restaurant is small and seats just eight persons, or the double if the persons already know each other well. There is always rock music playing and the place is styled in red, white and black. All in all a very complete and well defined style that made us really like the place.

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And the food, the food is super great! We actually visited Jack Fish two times during our stay in La Serena, but only brought the camera the second time. For this reason we only have pictures of the sushi, but the Ceviche was both beautiful to look at and tasted good when eaten.

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The classic south american sushi with cream cheese, I think we are starting to like it!

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If you go to La Serena and feel like you want to eat something great, go to Jack Fish, the food is great and the place is definitely unique!

La Serena

After Valparaiso we headed to La Serena, we found a bus company called Buses Romani and they offered a service that cost around €13 and took roughly seven hours. The ride was comfortable and the attendant on the bus tucked in all the passengers with both pillow and blanket.

In La Serena we wanted to both be able to see the town and go to the beach, this is why we booked two beds in the Hostal el Arbol hostel that was right in between. After getting off the bus we noticed that a pattern emerged, in Chile is is hard to find open WiFi networks. After walking around for more or less 30 minutes Linn succumbed and bought 20 MB of data on her phone and downloaded the description of how to get to the hostel. Even though we had this description we had a hard time getting there as it was located more or less out in nowhere.

At first we were a bit unhappy about the hostel as it was hard to find and didnt seem to be located close to anything. This feeling faded the longer we stayed, we went to the beach one day, it was just a 10 minute walk.

Another thing we found to be close to the hostel was the big Jumbo supermarket, this led us to spend quite some time at the hostel, enjoying to cook food ourselves, something we are missing from home.

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As we didnt find any charcoal ligther fluid at the store our friendly hostel manager showed us how to light the coal by making a chimney of newspaper and dropping a match in the middle of it.

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The skewers we made turned out great, and it was a lot of fun to cook ourselves for once!

Because we had such a great time at the hostel and also found some good restaurants around the city we ended up staying four days in La Serena, lots of them spent in the hostel just relaxing and enjoying the calm.

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An interesting thing about staying in a hostel not inside the city, one of the local farmers were moving his herd of goats when we were heading to the beach!

Valparaiso

We left Chatto and his family after one day with lots of good advice of the nearby cities, what to do and which hotels to stay at. We took a local bus to Valparaiso, very cheap and we got the chance to see lots of places on the way (the bus took three hours instead of one and a half). We had been recommended a hotel but we didn’t find it, an old man pointed us to a bed and breakfast nearby and they had room. A bit expensive but very nice.

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After a good nights sleep we decided to visit the old part of town. Jon was very fascinated by the acscensores which is all over town. So we just went out to take a look.

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Valpariso have a beautiful view since the lots of hills.

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It was market day when we were there and everything looked delicious. We only bought 0,5 kg strawberries (for like €1,2) and Jon found a game machine that reminded him of his childhood holiday at the Canary islands and wanted to play a few times.

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Catemu

When we decided to do this trip Jons colleague Bosse told us to talk to his sister Agneta and her husband Luis who has a house outside of Santiago in a small village called Catemu. As it turned out they were not there at the moment but she told us to visit Luis’s brother Chatto. After many phone calls back and forth to Sweden and Catemu everything was arranged.

We went to the bus station in Santiago, this time the one called San Borja, and bought tickets at the very reasonable price of €3 each. After one and a half hour we arrived, and using our default modus operandi we got out of the bus and started to look a bit lost. Seconds later a Chilean man greeted us and let us know that he is Luis’s brother!

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We managed to more or less speak to each other and understand most things even though my Spanish was as bad as his English. After getting some rest in his house in downtown Catemu we went to buy some food for the evening and Chatto found us all a “Collectivo” which is a taxi that works like a bus with a defined route, and is dirt cheap!

After a quick brush with death as the driver got very creative when making a u-turn on the main road a bit outside the village we arrived at El Cobre which is the small village on the mountainside just outside of Catemu. Here we got to meet a big part of the family, and maybe most importantly Chattos mother who went to great lengths of making sure that we knew that she was the boss there. They offered us some traditional Chilean sandwiches which we accepted and then forfeited our own food we had bought.

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When the night arrived we moved to Agneta and Luis’s house right beside the house of Luis’s mother. It is not completely finished but is starting to look really nice. And it has a view that is not bad at all!

The day after Chatto bought us lunch at the local restaurant, they did not have a menu but rather a choice of beef or chicken. Both turned out to be good! After this Chatto wanted us to meet the lady who runs the local radio station. It turns out she lived a few years in Sweden and therefore speaks Swedish. Jon was put in a chair with a microphone in front of him and asked questions about how he liked Catemu and what Spanish words he knew. The most advanced Spanish that emerged was something along the lines of “Una cerveza, por favor!”.

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All in all it was a great experience to visit Catemu and meet Chatto and the others. The village was very relaxed and Chatto literally knew everyone there! It was also great to meet people with a connection to, not a close one but very different from meeting people in hostels.