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The Salt Flats Tour – Day 1

Posted by on September 9, 2010

Still backposting, but now I’ve got a lot of drafts written while on a bus ride today so can churn them out over the next few days, internet connection permitting…

We woke early, to find that the showers were cold, but got a coffee and lugging our bags of supplies and water, strolled down to the meeting spot, with plenty of time to spare for once. There were quite a few people around, and while we knew we were in a truck of six, we weren’t sure which one – as was quickly evident, there were a lot of companies meeting there. We spoke to two English girls for a bit – Caz and Hannah from Gloucestershire. They were panicking a bit, as the ATMs weren’t accepting their cards, and we required Bolivianos (actual currency name!) for the tour. Amal fortunately had extra cash, and was able to help them out, and we decided to try and stick together in terms of trucks.

Initially a van pulled up and the driver made a few comments to us, of which we didn’t understand. We pointed at the tour office and he nodded, “si, si”, so we shrugged and started loading our bags, although a little confused as to how he knew who was meant to be on his truck out of the few dozen tourists milling around. Then someone behind called out one of our names, and found someone was paying attention and we were meant to be on a different truck. We looked back at the first driver questioningly and he shrugged, saying they all went to the same place anyway(!).

To some extent he was right, as we piled into the other truck and all the vans made their way out of town and into the hills, and around to the Bolivian border point. The reason you know this is the border is a

Crossing from Chile into Bolivia

Crossing from Chile into Bolivia

tiny little hut in the middle of nowhere that you file in and out of, receiving a new stamp. Otherwise you’d have no idea. All around is just mountain and desert, save for a burnt out old bus (the last tourists?)

The previous tourists?

The previous tourists?

and two alpine foxes scavenging through the litter people had dumped.

We got asked to choose trucks, and this was better – decent 4WD beasts with roof-racks, each taking 6 passengers and the driver. After a quick breakfast, we got to know each other while lifting bags, water (we need not have brought some, there was far more than enough supplied by the company) – Tierra Mistica. In our truck were the two English girls – Caz and Hannah, myself and Amal, and a couple from Europe – Neil and Suzie – English and German respectively. Driving us was Miguel, who knew practically zero English, which added a whole other level to the tour. The company had actually said we’d get a driver who spoke both English and Spanish, but this was more fun :)

Pretty soon it was evident most people had two concerns. First, the altitude – we’d all noticed it, even in San Pedro you can feel it, walking around town is energy-sapping, putting on boots takes serious effort, and given we’d more than double the altitude by the end of the day, we were anxious to see how it’d go. On the plus side most of what we were doing would be taking photos, so then the discussion turned to the second concern – the temperature.

During the day, San Pedro was quite nice if it wasn’t windy. Around 18 degrees, sunny, pretty good really. However at night the temperature started dropping rapidly as soon as the sun went down, and we’d been told that up at the accommodation for the first night – the word accommodation being used lightly – the temperature outside was expected to be in the twenties – minus twenties. A couple of us had decent sleeping bags, but the rest were going to be relying on what the accommodation provided, plus however many layers of clothing they could physically wear.

We soon stopped at the entrance to the national park and paid our entrance fee, used the bathrooms (it still feels wrong to have to pay for a bathroom, but given how precious water is in the desert here, it makes a bit of sense). We headed down to the first laguna or lagoon, which was partially frozen over. The view is spectacular, but incredibly cold. A few of us walked out onto the ice, and some a bit far – three managed to put a foot through, including Amal, to a very cold reception!

The national park drive takes you around behind Licancabur – the massive volcano seen from San Pedro.

Licancabur Volcano in the background

Licancabur Volcano in the background

We had the usual geography lesson, and started to form a routine for the talks Miguel would talk away in Spanish for a few minutes, then stop and look at us expectantly. Blank looks all round, so we’d piece together the words each person had managed to grasp, form sentences and work it out. Then a “si” and he’d go on to the next bit. This went on for three days, although there were also opportunities for each of us to practice a bit of Spanish with Miguel. Caz especially was better at forming sentences faster than the one-word-at-a-time tactic that I was mostly still stuck on.

At one point during the drive Miguel conveyed that we were at the highest point we would reach. 5300m, now my personal record. It occurred to me that at this point, the land itself is higher than when I sky-dived from 15,000ft. A amazing thought.

More driving and we came to the ‘fun moment’ of the day. Thermal springs! Steam was rising from this alluvial plains area ahead, and being blown across the plain with the strong, cold wind. In the middle was a semi-natural pool, with some added in walls, drawing hot water in from the river above, and draining it out the other site, keeping a constant supply of hot water. There was only one obstacle between us and the pool – the FREEZING outdoors and wind.

Neil and I stripped off without hesitation and changed into our pool-wear, with Amal quickly joining us. Caz and Hannah both opted to stay in the warmth and safety of the car, while Suzie was undecided. So she came down with us to the pool and got some photos, and by the time we were in, we’d convinced her to join us. I managed to slip

The Thermal Springs

The Thermal Springs

getting in, taking two nice gashes underfoot – but so did three or four others – it was very slippery, and fortunately I wasn’t that guy who fell in WITH his towel!

After a while enjoying the water we had to foot it back to the car. This was the really tricky part – going back into the wind. To our surprise, however, the wind was so strong it dried us almost instantly, barely requiring our quick-dry towels, before we dashed back and into the relative warmth of the car.

The next stop was at a series of volcanic vents, steam rising again out of the holes in the ground. Miguel warned us not to look into them directly, as they were prone to occasionally sending rocks flying out with small bursts and eruptions!!!

Onwards we went, through two more valleys, realising why they recommended you go with a guide through this desert – there are barely tracks, the drivers either decide to follow some other tracks, or take their ‘favourite’ or ‘fun’ route as they please. Along the way are pot-holes, random rocks, drops, thick sand you could easily get dropped in, and as we arrived at a river – we realised – ice – not necessarily thick ice.

Miguel eased the truck down to the river where he intended, but it was looking far too unsafe there – some ice had cracked and broken off. Three more attempts upstream we could see where two trucks had crashed through the ice. Eventually back downstream we found a spot, and Miguel eased the car into the stream and revved across and up the other side.

We were just near another lagoon at this point, but we turned upstream towards the shelters we could see in the distance. It was sort of a farm in that some people lived there, along with their llamas, but several structures had been built to house travellers overnight. We unloaded the truck and were assigned our ‘room’.

Coldest place I've ever slept

Coldest place I've ever slept

The ‘windows’ were insulated by corrugated iron leaning against the outside. The shelter itself was all concrete, including the base of the beds. The beds themselves were mattresses with three blankets each.

Being in the desert the toilet didn’t necessarily have water, and indeed those walking in there did a quick about turn. Fortunately our spirits were lifted shortly as some of the locals brought in some te, cafe and biscuits. We wondered at this point if it was it for the day as it was only about 3pm, but just as we mentioned this Miguel called in to tell us it was time to vamos. Just near the shelter, it turns out – was Laguna Colorada.

Currently there is a worldwide competition to find the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World. As it happens, they’re down to the final twenty-eight. Laguna Colorada is one of these.

Laguna Colorada

Laguna Colorada

Slightly more impressive during summer, as we saw from postcards later, nevertheless it was an impressive sight. The algae or minerals in the water turn the surface red. Lumps of borax are scattered throughout, a stark, white contrast to the rest of the lake. And dotted around are a few flamingos, their wings and feathers a dark shade of pink, as a result of eating and drinking from the water. It’s a strong contender for the final seven, being in the middle of nowhere at around 4400m above sea level, a spectacular oasis amongst the rough mountains and sand.

Returning to the shelter, we were served our dinner, starting with a fantastic soup, and then pieces of chicken (or ‘flamingo’, as Miguel insisted – he apologised for there not being as many flamingos in the laguna, but he’d been hungry a lot recently…). More tea and coffee, and sunset. Immediately the temperature started plummeting, and each time the local kids came through the door to try and sing to us for money, what little warmth we’d generated from our bodies was immediately replaced with an icy draft, penetrating any number of layers of clothing people attempted to cover themselves with.

There was a fireplace in the middle of the dining area, and although the locals seemed surprised that we really needed a fire, they helped us light it. It’s not simply a case of building one and lighting – at this altitude, there is so little oxygen the flames struggle to survive. Fortunately Miguel was at hand with some petrol, and that immediately gave it a good boost, although the heat coming off the fire was still insignificant, it helped the mind a bit.

The 'shelter' we slept in

The 'shelter' we slept in

At this altitude, a couple of people were starting to get headaches. Suzie especially was feeling quite ill, and crashed early. Not long after the rest of us decided we’d best attempt to get some sleep. We had no chance. Myself, I was fully clothed, jackets and all, inside my winter sleeping bag, under three heavy blankets, and was so cold I managed at best an hour. Many had no sleeping bags, and very little sleep was had that night. I’ve been to Colorado for two ski seasons, watched an eclipse in El Calafate and camped in Siberia (ok, it was summer), but this was the coldest night, by a long, long way.

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