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The Best 11 Hour Bus Ride

Posted by on August 27, 2010

Another post in my series of back-dated posts, keep those calendars in July while I type fast and will back-post some photos later (and will be sure to let you know when I do.

Bright and early next morning we wandered towards the bus station until finding a taxi, and actually made it with about half an hour to spare. A nice change! A quick breakfast, with medio-lunes (half-moon shaped croissants covered in sugar), and we were on the 11 hour bus ride to Calama.

I had a brief nap, and as luck would have it awoke just before the top of the Andes. The view was incredible, and I got a couple of quick shots off with my point and shoot, and a small video, before the battery died (oops, rookie mistake), so pulled out the Nikon and fired off plenty of shots. The landscape was like nothing I’ve seen before, dry, arid, mountainous, and a clear view down the mountains to what looked like a white desert.

I got talking to Jong next to me, who was over in theory with a friend, who had run out of money but still gone to New York on the way home(!). Jong had unfortunately come down from La Paz where she’d spent several days in her hostel suffering from altitude. In a moment of irony, we were headed up the Andes, to peak at around 4800m above sea-level, higher than La Paz.

The ride itself continued down the mountains and across the plateau and into the white desert – which turned out to be a small salt flats. This was one of the few time I’ve travelled where the road was dead straight for miles and miles, and through flat cracked salt-covered landscapes with magnificent desert mountains in the backdrop was an amazing sight!

Soon enough we entered a canyon, and the high cliffs were peppered with cacti. Along side the road a frozen stream was visible, and every so often an alpaca flashed into sight. Coming down one of the turns from the canyon we spotted ahead a truck, jacknifed across the road. Groans abound, it looked like we’d be stuck – with someone ahead waving us to stop. As it turns out this must happen reasonably often, as another truck driver helped pull the first out of the ditch and back on track in under ten minutes, and we were on our way to the edge of Argentina – the border crossing.

We were called in turns to venture out of the bus and through the checkpoint, with a simple form completion and stamp. In theory it was simple. In practice, everyone got back on the bus completely exhausted and out of breath. The first hint of the altitude had got us, and it was exhausting. Just walking to the front of the bus required effort, and stairs – were not good. Headaches started among some travellers as well.

Once through we continued on through what I call no-man’s land – that weird zone between customs. When flying it’s easy as you’re just over sea or land, sort of in transit. Crossing from Zimbabwe to Zambia there’s a bridge you walk or drive over – about 200m of no-man’s land between the countries, in front of Victoria Falls, with a bungee jump in the middle. But that’s a short distance. This was about 150km of desert before we reached the Chilean border. In some ways this was good, as we dropped down quite some height in the process, and had a lot of amazing ever-changing scenery – with canyons, plateaus, and volcanos. We stopped briefly for lunch, and then shortly after arrived at San Pedro de Atacama. We weren’t even aware of this town, but it was the Chilean (country 42!) border stop just before it, so we got out and found that while still a bit out of breath, it’s a lot easier at around 2400-2500m. They also required we take out our bags from the bus and x-ray everything at this stage, so it took some time, during which we chatted to some more of the travellers on the bus. It turned out the majority were jumping off at San Pedro, and we were informed by the German girl next to Blair that this was the stop to get off for the salt flats tours and so on. Uncertain, we continued on to Calama after dropping them all off in what appeared to be a dusty hole of a parking lot in San Pedro.

An hour later we reached our destination of Calama, Chile, after a short period where Amal napped and Blair and I attempted to get glorious landscape shots of the rising moon over the volcano and Atacama desert. The view was magnificent, and we were in high spirits entering Calama. However enroute we’d discussed things. Blair it turns out, was considering going south to see the VLT Telescope, and wondered about our interest for this. I mentioned I was considering the salt flats tours. It occurred to us that we could potentially do both, but it might take up quite a bit of time. Alternatively we could split up and meet again somewhere in Bolivia.

After getting off in Calama we asked in broken Spanish for a hostel nearby, as the only one we’d seen was out at the edge of town. They suggested Apollo Viente (Apollo 20, or as we saw shortly, Apollo XX). This was on a dodgy looking street, in twilight, and appeared to be the meeting place for the majority of the town’s stray dogs. Two started fighting as we walked up, so we stepped carefully around and knocked on the hostel’s locked door. A middle-aged man answered, and looked at us a bit confused. By now we had some Spanish for things like reservations, so we asked and quickly established he had zero English, but that he did have space. Entering it looked like someone’s house. There were no signs of it being a hostel as such, but he led us around a corridor in the dark and to a room down the end, which upon unlocking, had three used beds, with seriously worrying stains on dirty bedsheets. We decided it was only for one night and had had such a good run of hostels, we could deal with it. We paid, and then headed for an internet cafe to investigate our options.

After some research, we established that the VLT Telescope was open for a tour on Saturday, but only for one person. Which answered that question – Blair was happy to go, and I checked out salt flats, decided there were a lot of tour companies. Amal and I took a couple of turns phoning some, but either our limited Spanish wasn’t understood, or we’d get ‘transferred’ to an English speaker, and promptly disconnected. We decided we may have more luck in San Pedro, so while Amal called another one, I ran to the station to check bus times. Mistake! Exercise at altitude is exhausting. Asking, there was ONE bus remaining that day that headed to San Pedro – leaving at 7pm. It was 6.48pm. Not again…

Running back, I breathlessly (literally!) explained the situation to Amal, Blair agreed we’d meet in Uyuni, Bolivia, and we sprinted back to the hostel, immediately felt bad upon seeing the hostel owner had remade all the beds with fresh linen and it actually looked quite nice, tried in Spanish to explain that we were leaving but Blair was staying, grabbed our bags and ran again to the bus station. Bought our tickets, threw our bags in the back and jumped onboard, and almost immediately the bus started driving off. Why do we keep cutting things so fine?

An hour later we were back in San Pedro, mildly worried we’d left Blair to be robbed or worse back in Calama. Probably be one of those funny stories in years to come. Probably. On the other hand, we now needed accommodation, so asked some locals – who said they’d show us which hostel they were in. Why locals were staying in a hostel we weren’t sure, but didn’t worry – as we soon entered the tourist area, and the International Hostel. Unfortunately it was sold out for the night, so we wandered around more booked out ones before finding Eden Gardens. We impressed upon them that we didn’t mind what room we got, as long as we could get a room. From our point of view this meant we were fine with a 12 bed dorm. From their point of view, we were in a twin room with ensuite, and charged accordingly. At this point we didn’t care any more, we just wanted a place, so accepted, paid, and briefly used the net. While waiting to pay, we spoke briefly with some Irish guys – there was a twelve person group of them, and two German girls who’d arrived at the hostel. One of them spoke very fluent English and Spanish, which is always mildly upsetting as we struggle with more than one language. Ah well.

We spoke for a while with the guy behind the desk to attempt to get him to phone one of the companies for us, he insisted he understood what we wanted, but instead gave us a pamphlet. We figured we’d head into the streets and look around, and find one of the tour companies. The first place the lady was insisting she was THE person to help us. Of course, she wanted to help us find tours for the next three days all in San Pedro – sandboarding, mountain biking, lakes and more. Great, but not what we wanted. Assuring her we’d return in the morning while we thought about it while backpeddling out of her office, we went further down the main street and found one of the companies we’d wanted – unfortunately at 9pm, closed. As tours leave at 8am, we figured we were cutting it fine anyway and decided to just take an extra day in the area – we wanted to acclimatise after all. Most people recommend a night in San Pedro to do just that, so two nights seemed sensible. We found an open-air restaurant to try the Chilean steak, which was pretty good, but it was no Argentina. It was also getting very cold, very quickly, despite the large fire in the middle of the eating area. We headed back to the hostel as there were also notes that the hot water stopped at midnight, and crashed after a long day.

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