While in the Atacama desert, other travelers had been telling us about the Salar de Uyuni tour (salt flat tour). We weren’t 100% sure that we were going to do it, but after hearing great stories, we decided it had to be done.
After a few obstacles, including a shady tour company, a $160 (each) visa fee for entrance into Bolivia, and almost not being able to access money from the ATM, things were looking bleak. We thought that the trip might actually not happen, especially when the van to pick us up from our hostel did not show up on time. We were ready to accept that possibility.
Once we made it past our final obstacle (the Bolivian border), we met Martín, who was to become our driver and guide for the tour we were about to embark on. What we didn’t know at the time was that this trip would become our favorite experience thus far.
Martín and his Land Cruiser drove six of us (us and our new friends Sarah, Kayla, Nicolas and Angela) through some of the most stunning landscape and terrain we had ever seen.
Cruising through Bolivian desert
The first 2 days included desert terrain, giant rock formations, lagunas, flamingos and chinchillas. We also stayed in a refugio and an actual hotel made of salt!
One of the species of flamingos we saw along the way
The culmination of the trip was the third and final day where we got to see the largest salt flat in the world! The Salar de Uyuni is one of the most breathtaking places on earth you can ever see and experience.
Soaking up the beauty with some amateur ballet
After watching the sunrise over the salt flats and taking a million pictures, we had a few more stops to make. One was a random rock island (Isla Incahuasi) in the middle of the salt flat filled with giant cacti! Another, the Cemetario de trenes, used to be a functional railway for mineral transport since the late 1800’s. Now it sits as an old train graveyard since the 1940’s.
View from the top of Cactus Island
Too cool for the train yard
Check out our photo album for the rest of our pics and watch the video below of our amazing trip!
In order to satisfy our massive need for excitement and adventure, we took an overnight bus from Caldera to the driest desert on earth, the Atacama desert, in northern Chile. San Pedro de Atacama was going to be the fun filled destination we so desired.
As soon as we got off of the bus we could feel it right away. Taking a few steps toward the station we were out of breath already! San Pedro de Atacama sits at 2,400 m above sea level (7,900 ft) so trouble breathing and altitude sickness is not uncommon. We did end up feeling a little lethargic and felt drained by the sun throughout our stay there. But seeing the things we saw in San Pedro, made it totally worth it!
San Pedro looks like a little adobe town of close to 5,000 residents. With no paved roads within the town, lots of small shops, restaurants, an eclectic mix of people, plenty of tour businesses and lots of stray dogs, you get the feeling that you’re not in Kansas anymore…
A typical street in San Pedro
Our hostel Juriques was an interesting one to say the least. It was our second time on bunk beds! There was a tiny kitchen to work with, which was hard to do when you have 30 other people wanting to use it as well. The bathrooms you ask? Let’s just say they were less than tolerable. The trials and tribulations of staying at a cheap hostel…
One of the greatest places on earth to stargaze is San Pedro, so that was at the top of our list of things to do. We booked a tour (through spaceobs.com, they have the most official setup) and around 10:00 pm that night, a bus took a group of us to a place outside of the town where the lights can’t obscure the clear black skies. We were met by a Canadian astronomer who gave us the basics of constellations (using the coolest laser pointer ever!), star distances and some general history of space and time. We all then moved over to the 10 outdoor telescopes set up for viewing and saw colorful stars, dead stars, star clusters and Jupiter along with three of its moons! The group had to take turns on each of the telescopes as there were about 20 of us on the tour. We finished off with some coca tea and hot chocolate as we listened to our guide answer our questions. Needless to say, we don’t have pics from this trip since it was pitch black! We did manage to get a crappy picture of Jupiter through the telescope lens though. Check it out, you can see three of its moons!
Jupiter with three of its moons
Our next experience in San Pedro was sandboarding! We booked a morning session (with sandboardsanpedro.com) that way it wasn’t going to be too hot. Our group consisted of 4 guys and 3 girls, a good mix. Everyone was at the tour office early and we were all talking about how much “experience” we each had, talking our nerves away the best we could! Our guide Sebastián showed up and we were off to Valle de La Muerte (Death Valley) to the huge sand dune we were to conquer that day. The first run was a little rough but the more we kept doing it, the smoother it became. The toughest part was walking up the sand dune, in the heat and in our snowboard boots, phew!! At first we were a little skeptical, but in the end we had a lot of fun!
Its a long way to the top of the dune!
We look like pros, right?
Selfie with our GoPro
Some of our crew at the end of the day
Us with our guide, Sebastian and our friend Kayla
Meanwhile, back in town, aside from our usual ham, cheese and avocado sandwiches, we were excited to get a taste of good Chilean desert food. There were so many restaurants to choose from! Check out some of the delicious plates below!
Sopaipillas (simply fried bread with a spicy dipping sauce)
Pollo al Pil Pil (chicken in a signature spicy pil pil sauce) with a side of chilena (tomato and onion salad) and rice
Basic meat and fish dishes served with rice and potatoes
Yes, we ate shrimp in the middle of the desert
When booking all our tours outside of town, a local told us that we should also visit some cool ruins located about 3 km away from town. It was not a short walk in the desert heat but we finally made it to Pukará de Quitor. During the twelfth century, it served as fortress used by the first inhabitants of this area, the Atacameño people, to defend themselves from invaders. It’s situated on top of a hill that overlooks the San Pedro River. The stones used to build it were taken from the riverbank below. You can actually still see the individual homes with their attached silos!
Walking to Pukará De Quitor, cool desert scapes and a chocolate milk river!
The path leading up through the ruins
Former homes of the Atacameño people
Good view of the site
Incredible views from the top!
Stay tuned for part 2 of our San Pedro adventure! There’s still more to come!