Monday, January 29, 2007

From Bolivia to Chile

The last few days have taken us to some of the most uninhabitable, barren, but amazing earth I have ever seen to the the most developed country in South America.

I´ll begin where I left off. We left civilization (Uyuni, Bolivia) on Friday, taking off with our tour of 7 people and a cook/guide/driver in a old Toyota Land Cruiser. All the other people in our group were from ¨The Land Down Under,¨ 4 of them students from Australia, and one of them a friendly New Zealand-er whose expertise was in flatulence.

Our first stop was a railroad graveyard, right outside the town. In the graveyard there were dozens of rusting trains with graffiti sprayed all over them. Though it was not especially interesting, it did make for some cool pictures behind the old conductor´s seats.

Next we entered the salt flats of Uyuni. The salt flats consist of 12,000 square kilometers of desert-like landscape that contain billions of tons of salt. When it rains, sometimes there is water. Salt and water. And that is all. It is a completely surreal experience. It is said that the salt flats are part of a dried up lake that existed thousands of years ago, and when the lake disappeared it left mineral and salt rich compounds behind. During the rainy season, the water collects and large, very shallow lakes form.

A few small surrounding populations are employed by the salt mines and also make money by selling salt figurines or salt crystals. We visited such a settlement and bought a salt crystal. Then the driver took us to a small area where a family had created an entire restaurant and hostel out of salt bricks. In this area, a few tourists had posted flags of their countries, and Gaizka was proud to see that someone had posted a Basque flag just a few days before we were there, so we took our pictures with it.

Though it is considered somewhat dangerous this time of year due to water deposits left by the rain, we voted, and the driver agreed to take us to what is called La isla del pescado, aka fish´s island. It is really strange to see an island with no water surrounding it, but that´s exactly what this is. The island consists of large brown volcanic rocks that look like coral and many giant cacti. There were also bathrooms and a couple of touristy snack stands. Here Gaizka decided to take the opportunity to play a game of soccer with some Bolivians and Argentineans.

After the driver/guide/cook made us a decent lunch of steak,quinua, tomato and cucumber salad, and bread, we left the fish´s island and drove on through the salt flats. By the late afternoon we reached a small settlement where the tour company had a basic hostel set up. We ate dinner, and then played Monopoly with the kids from Down Under.

The next morning we awoke early at 6am, had breakfast, and set off in the good old Land Cruiser. This day, we visited many different lagoons of various colors and mineral deposits. The most interesting thing about it was that each lagoon had it´s own varieties of flamingos.

The landscape in this area was extremely deserty, with volcanoes and very red rocks and sand. It occurred to both me and Gaizka that it seemed as though we were exploring a different planet, like Mars, or maybe the moon.

Though there were almost no growing species that we could see, we would occasionally come across a herd of alpaca, llama, or vicuña (a deer-like relative of the llama, also an endangered species). We even saw a vicuña chasing away a fox near one of the lagoons!

That evening we came to the next hostel (much colder and more remote than the previous hostel). We played Monopoly again, ate dinner, then played poker with Monopoly money.

Because we had to make a whole day´s trip in one morning before arriving at the Chilean border, we had to awake at 4 am the following morning. Dreary and half asleep, all 7 of us stumbled into the Land Cruiser and we were off. The first stop we made was at some natural geysers that smelled like poo due to all the sulfur. It was freezing cold, and so all we managed was to take a few pictures and then set off again. At one point, the driver stopped the car and informed us that we had reached 4,950 meters, or just over 16,000 feet -- the highest point of our trip.

Next, we came to a natural hot springs. At first I was determined not to get in because it was SO cold outside that I didn´t want to take off my clothes, but after I felt the steamy waters, I decided to go for it. We spent about an hour lounging in the relaxing pool with all the other tourists, and then got out for breakfast.

Right before we reached the border, we drove past what the driver called ¨The Desert of Dalí.¨ Because the giant rocks are so precariously placed among the empty desert, the landscape really does resemble a surreal Dalí painting.

Around 9:30 we came to the border and transferred to a bus that took us down 2,000 meters into the northern Chilean oasis of San Pedro de Atacama. Though it is considered an oasis in the desert, it was extremely dry and HOT! What a change after the literally freezing temperatures of the higher desert. We spent all day there, and in the evening took the night bus to our current location of Arica, Chile.

Arica is on the ocean, and we are really enjoying the mildly warm temperatures and relaxing beach atmosphere here. One of the biggest differences we notice here are the prices -- at times twice or more expensive as Bolivia or even Peru.

Though we have only been here 2 days, we are leaving Chile tomorrow, due to time and money restraints. Back to good old Peru to visit Arequipa and Nazca before we reach Lima once again.

More to come!

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