Part 3 –On my way to Machu Picchu… Through deserts, salt flats, altitude and lakes!
After taking advantage of Mendoza’s delicious wines, I travelled by overnight bus (stopping at the border from 1am-4am!) back to Santiago, to fly to the very north of Chile. Upon landing in Calama, I took a Jeep full of gringos to the town of Atacama de San Pedro. Along the way, we saw something so beautiful, but quite surprising amongst the driest non-polar desert on Earth… a rainbow!
Locals reported not one drop of rain for approximately five years… until I got there! It rained 3/3 nights that I stayed there and on the last night it was a downpour! The rainbow was magnificent as there was nothing blocking the view of it, so we could see what looked like the ends of both sides of the rainbow, contrasting with the desolate, dry land. As we drove closer, we could see a huge thunderstorm in the distance, immediately over the town; it was quite a sky show!
Upon arriving in the tiny twelve-block town, I settled in to my hostel, made friends and we decided to go out for a drink. That’s when I discovered the “Footloose” culture of this small town. We sat down with the intention of one drink each, only to discover it is illegal to order solely alcoholic drinks. Food must be ordered with any alcohol.
There was live music and I wondered why no one was getting up and dancing – this was South America still, right? Guess what?! It’s illegal to dance in restaurants and bars! People who do attempt to enjoy themselves with such a ‘crazy idea’ will get thrown out and not only the guilty person, but the bar also, will receive a huge fine and be told to close.
Due to these extreme restrictions, most places in town close at 11:30pm (expected in Perth maybe, but very early for South America!) In true Footloose style the locals throw illegal parties in the middle of the desert, where the location changes every week (or multiple times during the week) and it is kept secret until you arrive on a bus. As much as I was tempted by the exciting sound of it all, I didn’t attempt it after hearing reports about people getting stranded and having to walk home for hours through the desert!
The town itself was basically a travel agency hub and a central spot to stay in order to do these activities.
Traveller’s Tip: Do not book tours in advance or online or in advance. There are hundreds of agencies and they all basically do the same for similar prices, which happen to be about a quarter of the prices online, and you’re guaranteed to find a spot on one of them, even with booking on the day or the day prior.
The first on my list of activities was the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) which consisted of walking through caverns and sand, climbing rocks and hiking to see fantastic views, finishing with watching the sunset fall over the valley.
The second day was filled with witnessing flamingos in the salt flats whilst enjoying breakfast, discovering the different lagoons and visiting a small village. The landscape was so picturesque and very different from what I had seen in Patagonia.
In the village where we had a huge traditional Northern Chilean dinner, we got asked if we could help find Rosemary, the local Llama who had gone missing! After five minutes, we thought this was probably a daily joke played on travelling gringos, only to see a friendly Llama casually walk through the town centre! She was famous and everyone wanted a photo with her. I even attempted a Llama selfie… but when she went in for what I thought was biting my cheek, but was really just a “kiss” or lick, I panicked and what I snapped resulted in my all-time favourite selfie.
I wish I had more time in the Atacama Desert because it was such a different place, with so many daily activities to do and places to explore. If I were to do it again I would definitely put a few more days in there so that I could see the geysers and float in the salt lakes… BUT I had a date to get to Machu Picchu and I couldn’t miss it!
So on to Bolivia! I had booked a 3-day Salt Flats tour that started on a bus in Chile, crossed the border to Bolivia, and travelled in a Jeep through the desert, visiting lagoons along the way and ending with the stunning Bolivian salt flats; Salar de Uyuni.
On my tour, there were 2 Aussie couples, an English couple, 5 Brasilians and myself. Naturally, all the couples went together in one Jeep and I jumped in the other with the 5 Brasilians. It was such a great experience as I basically spent the 3 days getting to practise and improve my Portuguese. They all spoke English, but it made no sense for the 5 of them to speak English just for me, so during the day we would only speak Portuguese (with the occasional help when needed!) and at night, when my brain got tired, I’d speak English and they’d speak Portuguese, and we’d all understand each other perfectly, although it would’ve seemed like a very confusing conversation for anyone listening in.
The landscape of the lagoons was stunning, and we witnessed so many magnificent colours of the land and the water, which was mainly created by the minerals in the Earth. I bathed in thermal springs, saw more flamingos and vacunas (part of the camel family), climbed a bunch of big rocks, saw a volcano, walked at altitude (the first day of the tour we made it to 5,000m above sea level), got thrown around in an old Jeep and lots more. The absolute highlight was organising to leave for the salt flats at 3am on the last morning, to view the sunrise over the salt flats. It took much convincing and bribery of our driver, named Feliciano (Translation: happy man) who we nicknamed Infeliciano (Translation: unhappy man. It was absolutely breathtaking!
There were dangerous moments, as the rain had made it difficult to drive through the water on to the flats, but we made it safely and it was well beyond worth the early morning rise! We enjoyed breakfast (with fresh salt, straight off the flats on to my eggs!) and one of the Aussies proposed to his girlfriend with the most spectacular view! We then moved on to the drier salt flats and took perspective photos, which was hilariously good fun, before heading to finish the tour at the local tourist markets in Uyuni.
I had befriended an Aussie guy, Tim, also travelling solo, in another tour group at the Bolivian border and with the same travel plans as me, we met up in Uyuni. We bought a pizza and had a bottle of Mendoza Red and jumped on to an overnight bus headed to La Paz; the unofficial capital of Bolivia. Arriving at 4am, we caught a taxi to our hostel and managed to shower and check-in early. We were absolutely knackered, but also starving so we set out on a hunt for some local breakfast. On our search, we realised a few things:
- La Paz had extreme hills and the altitude made those hills even more difficult to walk up.
- There were hardly any real shops or supermarkets and it felt like we had gone back in time 400 years.
- The people were completely conservative and timid; very unlike the rest of South America.
- The women (called Cholitas) had their hair in long braids (some with extension braids; the longer the braid, the more attractive!), wore long skirts (but usually showing a bit of the calf muscles as this is known to be the main attraction for the men) with big knitted sweaters and scarves, and a hat that was too small for their heads.
The story behind the hats is that hundreds of years ago, in a time when Bolivians wanted to be like the rich Europeans, the Europeans took bowler-type hats to Bolivia that had been made too small, convinced them that this was the fashion, and the rest is history! Since then the Bolivians added their own twist to the way they wear the hats; if it is sitting (aka balancing, and have no idea how!) on an angle, then the woman is single, divorced or widowed, and if it is balancing directly on top of the woman’s head, it symbolises that they are off the market!
There were food stalls all over the town filled with the usual things that we had seen previously, like breakfast empanadas etc. but we found a stall (constructed using a couple of poles with tarpaulin as a roof, at a height of only about 1.5m, because they are all extremely short) that was surrounded by locals diving in to all kinds of strange-looking food. We looked around and could see half jaws with teeth, cow heads and tongues, all different kinds of organ-looking things, and just a whole lot of unknown foods! We looked at the list of options, tried to use our translating app to decipher the mysterious selection (but only managed to translate half of each) so we took a punt and ordered something. We hit the jackpot and managed to get the safest option being cow’s shoulder and belly (I still can’t be 100% sure!). It was served in a huge bowl of rice, with different types of potato (a staple food in their diet) and a delicious sauce on top, enough to share and for only a couple of dollars. What a perfect start to our time in Bolivia!
While in La Paz, we rode the cable cars (being the only public transport method due to the steep hills) to the huge markets, and saw the amazing view of the city, visited the famous San Pedro Prison (known for the world’s largest and purest production of cocaine), met up with our Aussie friends from the salt flat tours, over a curry feast, including Llama Korma, and then conquered Death Road. This was one of the best tours I’ve done. My competitive nature definitely came out (as always) on Death Road. Tim and a couple of other guys we met on the tour, made it all the more fun (and probably more dangerous!) Death Road is a narrow pebble road that was previously used by trucks and cars (and still is, but to a very lesser extent) and borders on a cliff the entire way. Previously it was not uncommon for cars to take a trip off the cliff as they were trying to pass another car, and still today there are people who occasionally die from the same, or while on their bikes trying to take selfies! It wasn’t actually as scary as it looks or sounds, but it was a whole heap of fun riding mountain bikes and being way too competitive! Although we started in the cold and near snow, it ended up a beautifully warm day down the bottom, finishing with well-deserved beers and a barbecue dinner!
To finish off our quick stay in Bolivia, we travelled to Copacabana; a small town on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. The bus ride was extremely bumpy because there was no bitumen or developed roads, so it was over rubble and bumps for the entire 4 hours. The only distractions were the villages we passed along the way. The main thing I noticed was that there were thousands of houses that had been started and never finished, and were seemingly not being used. They didn’t seem dirty or dangerous; it was more like the entire country had almost been abandoned.
We arrived in Copacabana and we hadn’t pre-booked our accommodation because usually you could just arrive at a hostel and they’d have spare rooms. This was clearly the same idea every other backpacker had, and unfortunately none of us had done the research that would have told us that it was a long weekend and everyone in the country gathered there to celebrate!
Tim and I walked with our 23kg big backpacks and 5kg backpack on the front in hot weather, for about an hour, searching every single hostel for a room, while watching hundreds of other backpackers doing the exact same! Everywhere was completely full, so much so that I was even asking if we could sleep in their lobbies or on couches. We were becoming pretty anxious (and tired) and were about to concede to the fact we would be camping with our bags on the sand at the lake…when we asked an amazingly generous hostel owner if we could pay to sleep on his hammocks outside. Although he had turned away so many others prior to us, for some reason he offered us his common room, a mattress on the floor by a fire… for free! We were happy with this, when he then realised that his neighbours had a spare room and would happily have us stay there! We couldn’t believe our luck! He unnecessarily apologised for it not having reliably hot water in the bathroom, and it not being of great quality. When we arrived at the room, it was unbelievable! It had a view overlooking the lake and the town and we watched the sunset in awe, not understanding how our luck had just taken a complete 180!
Copacabana was beautiful, and we had great weather so we explored the small town in no time. We decided to spend the remainder of our day just chilling in the sun at the hostel hammocks, with the magnificent view, and the company of their pet llamas. The next day the weather turned so our plans of visiting Isla del Sol (island of the sun) quickly disappeared. Instead of staying on the island for a night and walking from the north to the south and experiencing the supposedly beautiful viewpoints, we ended up doing a quick, but relaxing and stunning return ferry trip over the lake just to see the south point. We briefly saw some ruins and then returned to Copacabana to make the long overnight bus trip (with more pizza and red wine, of course!) to Cusco, Peru.
Next on Alicia’s adventures:
What happens when you combine gastro, a hike 5 200m above sea level and Australia Day in South America?