The Desert in Three Parts

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In which we circle the desert through the Andean plateaus and canyons from northeastern Chile into southwestern Bolivia. Careful, folks, it’s a long one.

Part I: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Elevation: 2,407 m (7,900 ft)

San Pedro de Atacama is a low, sprawling town of adobe buildings set in the middle of the entirely inhospitable Atacama Desert. We step off the bus, suck in some dry air, and wonder why anyone would choose to live here. Yet people have lived here since about 9,000 BC.

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As one does in the desert, we rent bicycles and take off on a 45 km day. They are far and away the highest-quality rental bicycles I’ve ever seen and we are given, to take with us, a pump, allen wrench set, tube patching kit, and 2 neon reflective vests, for use on the main road. Safety! The bikes even have mega-shocks, which we put to good use on the dirt roads over the course of the day.

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Our first site is El Pukara de Quitor, an archeological site just 3 km outside of town. This fortress had strategic military purposes, but also acted as living quarters, common squares, and animal pens. The site was first used by the Atacameño people around 1,000 AD, and was continually crucial to their stability in the region throughout conflicts with neighboring peoples. Interestingly, the Incan empire didn’t expand into the area until around 1,450 AD, and effectively destabilized society. The region became increasingly chaotic, which set the stage for the first Spanish encounters with the native peoples.

We wander the old fortress walls, find a giant stone face sculpted from mud, and crawl back through a back cave entrance into the fortress.

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We turn out into the open desert for Valle de la Luna. Instead of the out-and-back option, we go for the 39 km circuit with several other sights along the way. And boy, are we glad we did! We start with a grueling uphill – the sun is relentless and the grade is steep and we’re both feeling the thin air at this altitude. But we end at a spectacular mirador where we have a delightful picnic, and the descent is awesomely long and fast (8% grade for over 5 km of well-paved highway; we flew).

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From the highway, we turn left onto a wide, unmarked dirt road. Soon, the road is forking and we are guessing and finally we are on a terrible excuse for a dirt road which fords several dry streambeds and then hits a locked and rusted gate. Eh? We check our maps, surreptitiously duck the gate, and proceed cautiously, convinced that we might die out here.

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And then the road is suddenly covered in salt. Salt crystals, everywhere, looking like snow! We wind up and around and past some massive desolate sand dunes, and then find ourselves abruptly at the far end of the tourist trail. Huzzah!

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Valle de la Luna

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Cueva de Sal

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Just making sure.

That night, J makes some delightful pisco sours and we stroll through town getting ready for our 3:00 am bus departure for Bolivia. We’ve both really loved Chile. I think it’s mostly about the land – vast, beautiful, and f-ing majestic.

Part II: Uyuni, Bolivia. Elevation: 3,656 m (11,995 ft)

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Welcome to Bolivia! We wander around town acclimating ourselves to the new culture, tasting some new street eats, and giggling at the fact that the currency here is not just called the Boliviano, but the Bolivian Boliviano. We book a tour for the following day for the reason we’re all here: The Salar de Uyuni!

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Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers, and is visible from space. In places, the salt is as thick as 5 meters. We take off in a 4×4 with a driver, a Bolivian family and a couple of college kids. First a couple of touristy spots including a train graveyard where we learn about the mining history of Potosi (read: the terrible ways that mining has destroyed the state’s water supply with cadmium, lead, and arsenic).

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Any building constructed on the salt flats is made entirely out of salt – both the bricks and the mortar.

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That afternoon, we stop Isla de Incahuasi. There are several of these islands that crop up unexpectedly out of the endless expanse of white. The islands were originally volcanic rock then grew a thick layer of coral (from when this area was a part of the ocean) and are now covered in cacti. These huge cacti, seen above, grow about a centimeter per year. The Isla de Incahuasi is a stop along the famed Inca Trail. It took the Incan travelers 7 days to cross the Salar de Uyuni.

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On the way back towards Uyuni, we stop for the most incredible sunset of our lives. It rained a few days ago, and there are a few centimeters of water along this part of the salt flats, creating some incredible reflections.

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A word on the tours: We were tempted to do the 3-day tour from San Pedro de Atacama, but in the end decided that it was too much money, and much too touristy for our tastes. After having done the day tour, I stand by that decision firmly. We did a single day tour with Salty Adventours for about $20 USD each. We spent the whole day seeing the sights, but didn’t get tired of the weird tourist gimmicks.

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The vast expanse is difficult to convey in photographs, but the Salar de Uyuni is a deeply surreal place. Standing in the middle of it, there is nothing but white flatness in every direction – it feels as though the matrix has just been deleted. It was an incredible experience.

Part III: Tupiza, Bolivia. Elevation: 2,850 m (9,350 ft)

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Tupiza is a cute town built around ample parks and green spaces on the undulating hills between red cliff faces. Our first night in town, we crawl to a hostel after a horrific bus ride (read: two flat tires and an unexpected bus change culminating in a 6-hour stretch of driving down winding potholed dirt roads in the hottest part of the day in the desert with no a/c and no windows open) and go straight to bed. Except that we have arrived just in time for Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations. We creep outside to see the festivities for a bit – processions of people preaching into loudspeakers up and down the streets followed by drums and crowds of people shouting “Halleluyah!” at any opportunity -but are much too exhausted for this type of religious fervor and give up fairly quickly.

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We are slow travelers, and all of this touristing and hopping about is exhausting. We slow it down a bit in Tupiza, and over the course of our time here we do several hikes straight out of town and into the surrounding canyons. It is possible to do phenomenal loop hikes connecting any of three canyons together- but the tour agencies won’t tell you this, so we had to rely on studying the google map image of the places before setting off. The landscape reminded us of parts of Northern Territory, AUS. (See Here)

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Puerto del Diablo.

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A little bit of bouldering.

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This place is called Valle de los Machos. Can you guess why?

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Scrambling through Cañon del Inca.

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Colorful rocks above Cañon del Inca.

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Valle de los Duendes (Elves)

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Cacti everywhere.

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A stunning landscape.

We now find ourselves in Sucre, the constitutional capitol of Bolivia and famed “White City”. We like it here!

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Til next time!

Lots of love,

C& J

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3 thoughts on “The Desert in Three Parts

  1. You two are such great travelers! What experiences (esp the ones you only hint at, like the long bus rides)! When you tasted the rock, was it really salt? It looks so much like a dusting of snow… Now we’re all “armchair” Atacama Desert adventurers. There are not many people who would see a weird formation in Bolivia and be reminded of a similar weird formation in Australia! Thanks for the great pics and stories. Love, Dad

    • Dad – “Tasting the rock” is nothing but salt! There’s no rock to taste – the entire cave is made of salt. The brown you see is (somewhat salty) dust and dirt covering the huge salt formations.

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