Amazing Atacama

This week I started off in Potosi, with my sights set on getting out of Bolivia after 6 unforgettable weeks.

The road from Potosi to Uyuni contains absolutely nothing. No rivers, no farmlands, just a few small towns and the endless landscape views of the Altiplano region of Bolivia. The mountains are a spread of different colors, their jagged peaks providing perspective to an otherwise unfathomable landscape. Tiny bushes dot the wide valleys, but trees are non-existent in such an arid place. 

Even the riverbeds are deathly dry. The only water visible was a tiny trickle of a stream locals were using to wash clothes. The few towns around still give a sense of abandonement, as all they have are a few run down buildings built with rocks and topped with straw roofs. 

As we approached Uyuni, threading through a mountain pass, the entire world began to flatten out giving way to a landscape which was once a grandiose lake long ago. In the distance I could see the dull greens and greys gave way to a pure blinding white with no mountains around, marking our the arrival at the world’s largest salt flats. 

Uyuni seems to exist in defiance of its surroundings, the aluminum roofs shining the sun’s lights as the first sign of human life in over an hour. 

Instantly upon stepping off the bus and onto the streets surrounding the makeshift bus station in Uyuni, I was overtaken by a familiar feeling. It feels weird to return here, more than a month after my original arrival. As I fruitlessly searched for onward transport (it turns out the only busses to Chile leave at 3:30AM), I was bewildered by the strong feelings of deja vu: just outside the bus were the same tour agents selling the Salar de Uyuni tours. On the corner were the same bus companies, employees continuously yelling the same destinations on loop. 

“Sucre Sucre Sucreeee!” 

“Potosi Potooosiiiii” 

“La Paz amigo, La Paz??” 

Just around my first turn was even the same ostrich trapped inside an explicable outdoor gym that my friends had used to navigate to the bus station over a month ago. In a lifestyle of constant traveling, it was a jarring reminder of how much stays the same in these small towns, even as my eyes are treated daily to some new amazing sight. 

With literally nothing to do until my early morning departure and Uyuni severely lacking in entertainment options, I opted to explore as best I could on foot. Eventually I encountered a hole in the wall restaurant still serving the last set lunch menu in town. I took immense joy in my last three course Bolivian almuerzo for just under a dollar fifty. 

The pace of Sunday afternoon in Uyuni threatened to lull anyone into a long nap, but it was also the perfect situation to sit in the plaza, soak up some sun, and read. I even encountered some friends from Sucre while sitting there and that night we hit the town in Uyuni. At first we stepped into an expensive tourist trap of a restaurant, but after perusing the menu better judgement prevailed and we took to the streets, paying $1 each for two sandwiches. Afterwards, splitting a few bottles of wine turned out to be the perfect potion to send me to bed early. 

If during the day the streets of Uyuni are stark, then at 3:30AM they’re downright spooky. At 4 in the morning my bus to Chile finally departed, with the other passengers seemingly uninterested in sleep as they listened to music and talked to each other through the wee hours of the morning. 

Seeing as our early departure robbed a few hours of my sleep, you can imagine my annoyance when we pulled up to the border just after 7AM and were politely informed it didn’t open until 8:30AM. In the barren expanse of the desert surrounded by no signs of life except low lying bushes and the distant sight of the Bolivian border patrol, two busses pulled side by side and the harried exchange of people, luggage, and money began. Quickly we were pulling away in opposite directions on a Chilean bus. 

Compared to the rushed procedures at every other border in South America, crossing into Chile was a decidedly more organized and detail-oriented affair. We waited for half an hour while the busses in front of us went through the procedure one by one, then were guided through an extensive baggage and documentation check including drug-sniffing dogs. Chile doesn’t even allow fruits, meats, or vegetables from other countries to cross in, so all of our bags were thoroughly checked before finally moving on. 

Now normally I would have felt robbed of time that our 11 hour bus ride couldn’t have taken place during the night, but the sights of Chile’s rugged Norte Grande region definitely made the trip worth it. From my window seat I had a perfect view of the jaw-dropping scenery. First we crossed through an Andean mountain pass, dwarfed by perfectly canonical leviathan volcanoes on either side. Then as we descended another perfectly white salt flat came into view, draped by impressive peaks in the distance. 

For another three hours we drove without encountering any villages, houses, or even farmlands, just the never-ending stretch of paved road in front of us. At the bus station in the dusty desert town of Calama I befriended three guitar wielding Chileans also on their way to San Pedro and they graciously led me to a cheaper bus station where we were able to purchase tickets for the next bus into the desert. 

On the way out of Calama the landscape morphed into a dizzying array of rock formations, with the jagged edges transforming the valley into a sight to behold. Soon the monstrosity known as the Atacama desert began to take shape, as the desert’s red sand encompassed the panorama view. As we finally began to see vegetation, signaling our arrival at the desert’s lone town, my Chilean friend Eduardo tapped me on the shoulder and told me it would be best if we got off and walked from here rather than going to the terminal outside of town. Initially highly skeptical about marooning myself in the desert with the three people I originally mentally voted most likely to rob me on the bus, I opted for the adventure and popped out into the oppressive heat. Because the bus pulls all the way around town before disembarking, it turned out to be a good decision; soon enough we were approaching the dusty quiet streets of San Pedro. 

On the way into town Eduardo, Alonso, and Rocko informed me about the scene of San Pedro, where they eek out a living as street performers singing traditional Chilean music. As soon as we arrived the three of them posted up on a street corner and started drinking beers, clearly immensely pleased to be back home among their compatriots. They greeted almost every non-tourist that walked by, then were kind enough to lead me on a search for the cheapest hostel in town. After I bed them farewell, I set off to explore San Pedro, and within minutes some of the massive differences between Chile and Bolivia became apparent. 

Gone were the adventurous budget travelers carrying their entire lives with them on their backs; they were replaced by groups of elderly European tourists pulling wheeled luggage to one of the town’s many upscale boutique hotels. Desperately I searched for cheap food options and asked around at some of the hostels, but whereas set menus for less than $2 USD were rampant in Bolivia, in San Pedro the cheapest meals hovered around $6, signaling that the country would surely take a chunk out of my budget. One welcome change, however, about returning to a developed country was that all the restaurants and hotels boasted wifi and for once it actually worked! 

As I burned in the afternoon sun I prowled the streets of Chile’s most popular tourist destination, which were lined with a plethora of overpriced tour agencies and devoid of multi-story buildings except for the adobe church. 

That night I slept soundly, exhausted from the full day of travel. On Tuesday I woke up and set off to find some groceries and a laundry service, but on the first corner I encountered Alonso and Rocko, standing in the shade and arguing with each other in rapid Spanish about some coins in their hand. 

“What’s wrong, amigos?” I asked in Spanish, sensing their exasperation. 

“We want to buy a beer” Rocko responded, “But we’re 200 pesos short.”

Seeing as it was only 10AM I should have been surprised they were ready to start drinking, but then I noticed they were still wearing the same clothes from yesterday and clearly hadn’t been home. I happily forked over the pesos (less than 25 cents), which kicked off an authentic example of Chilean hospitality. For the next six hours we walked around almost every street the tiny pueblo has to offer, as I was treated to the cheapest and most insightful local walking tour San Pedro has to offer. They showed me where to buy the cheapest food, the most delicious empanadas, and some of their favorite spots to just hang out and take in astounding views of the ring of Volcanoes around the desert. Along the way we stopped in at a number of great eateries and other shops so that they could introduce me to their friends and ensure everyone I was a welcome guest in town.

While moving South through the continent I’ve continuously been warned the Chilean dialect almost isn’t even Spanish: the people speak so fast and drop so many letters that they're borderline impossible to understand. Indeed it turns out everyone was right, because by noon my head was spinning trying to follow along with their conversations. 

Despite San Pedro being a tourist destination, spending the day with two locals exposed a different side to the town. It’s also a destination for young Chilean artists, musicians, and partiers to plant for a few months or a few years, providing a deep sense of community above the surface level flow of travelers. As it hit 2pm and I realized the only thing we had eaten all day was half an empanada, I asked the other two guys if they wanted to grab some lunch. 

“I’d love to man,” Alonso responded, “But we don’t have any cash. Before we eat we’ve got to play music around town to earn some money." 

Eager to get them fed after all the hospitality and friendliness they had demonstrated, I devised a plan. Rocko had told me he had a tent he wanted to give me to avoid the more expensive hostels of Chile and Argentina, so I offered to buy them both lunch in exchange for the tent. This decision sparked an hour long expedition into the outskirts of the desert. At first when they told me their house was the last one at the end of town I thought it was a joke. It wasn’t.

For the next 40 minutes we trudged through the blazing hot desert, burning our skin under the sun’s intense rays. The outskirts of San Pedro contain just a few lean-to shacks and construction projects, which ensured we wouldn’t even get enough shade to shelter us from imminent sunburn. Eventually we uncovered the tent and although it’s lacking a rain cover at less than $10 the price was right, so we set off for me to treat them to lunch. On the way back the intense heat and lack of food began to take its toll, leaving me dazed and woozy by the time we got back to town. Fortunately this was nothing that Las Delicious del Carmen couldn’t provide the solution for. The guys brought me to their favorite restaurant in town and for 3500 pesos each we feasted: fresh bread with traditional Chilean salsa, salad dressed with lemon and olive oil, and a prodigious soup thick with corn on the cob, a whole potato, and a quarter of a chicken. 

That evening I reunited with my dutch friends Stefje and Manon, who had just finished their 3 day tour to the salt flats of Uyuni in Southwest Bolivia. We decided to check out one of Atacama’s most popular offerings that night, going stargazing a few kilometers away from the town’s ambient light. With no cities for hundreds of miles in every direction, the desert of Northern Chile is one of the best places on farther to observe the galaxy and is dotted with powerful telescopes. Our astronomical guide used a ridiculously powerful laser pointer and the strength of his telescope to lead us on a tour of the night sky. 

The number and brightness of the stars was awe-inspiring, but the real beauty was in the clear spiral of the Milky Way galaxy, which looked like a rainbow of stardust drifting across the night sky. By swiveling the telescope around he showed us the rings of Saturn, clusters of hundreds of stars grouped together by gravitational force, and even the shape of the Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years away. The Southern Hemisphere is also home to a variety of constellations no visible from the other side of the world, and for the first time in my life I was taken on a guided tour of the Zodiac constellations that I’d previously only seen in books.

I usually only include photos I've taken myself, but here's a professional photograph of the night sky in the Atacama just to give a sense of what we were dealing with that night. 

The following day we didn’t end up escaping from the hostel until the early afternoon, heading to one of the restaurants recommended by our friends the previous day. We planned on heading to the town's pool after lunch, but the restaurant turned out to have a gorgeous backyard wooded area with hammocks strung from the trees. We posted up and ended up chilling, reading, and dozing off until long past the place closed for lunch service. 

As we walked around town in the afternoon it became clear that the people of San Pedro clearly just do the same things all day every day: playing music, talking in the streets, and taking long afternoon naps. Concisely, they enjoy life. 

Thursday morning my alarm rang at 6:30, sacrificing a few hours of sleep in exchange for missing the epic afternoon heat. Stefje and Manon are from Amsterdam, so they were in their element as we headed off for the day’s excursion: biking 30 kilometers into the desert to the Atacama’s Valle de La Luna (Valley of The Moon). 

The valley was pretty much right outside the city and the landscape was like no place on earth. There were crazy rocks, epic san dunes, and stunning colors everywhere we turned. 

On the way back we had a perfect view of the twin volcanoes that dominate the town's natural skyline. 

That night Chile took on Brazil in a World Cup qualifying match and when Chile’s Valdez scored off a set piece in the second half it set the stage for the entire town to go nuts, celebrating the victory until the wee hours of the morning. 

It was freezing on Friday morning when we left the hostel at the ungodly hour of 6AM. Under the cover of darkness the three of us worked our way through the deserted town, following instructions a highly inebriated Rocko had provided us the night before. Every time I’ve wanted to move onwards to a new city in South America, I’ve gone to the bus terminal and purchased a ticket. Not the time. 

Motivated by the ridiculous cost of busses in Chile and encouraged by talking with local friends, we walked to the start of the highway on the edge of town and stuck our thumbs out. It was time to try hitchhiking! We had our sights set on Paso Jama, the northernmost border crossing with Argentina. 

As the sun slowly began to that my finders out by throwing it’s gorgeous rays over the nearby mountains, we encountered a group of truckers who had parked and slept on the side of the highway. The first ones we asked were dealing with a broken engine and the others were still in the process of making breakfast, but they told us to stick around and maybe we would get lucky. Unlike standard highways, the two lane road that was trafficked primarily by long haul truck drivers, as it twists through the barren desert and a wildlife reserve before calumniating 160KM away at the Argentine border crossing. 

Most trucks pick up goods from Chilean ports and drive them to Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, or landlocked Paraguay. In fact that morning I got my first taste of trying to understand Paraguay’s thick dialect: downright incomprehensible. A few trucks whizzed by over the next hour without stopping, so we started scheming; the girls would wait by the side of the road and entice drivers to stop while I hid behind the parked trucks. 

Just before 8AM our plan became fruitful. A Chilean driver stopped and offered to take us as least as far as the border. Unbelieving our luck we quickly piled into his tiny cab and working our way out of town. In the first few minutes we got to know each other and although his accent was tough to understand, we gleaned that he was carrying clothes imported from China all the way through to Uruguay. 

Headed East out of San Pedro, we approached the giant volcanoes that had towered over us for the last few days. We steadily gained elevation and passed over the first range of peaks, signaling the beginning of bizarre landscapes taking shape on the other side. Sand dunes swept hundreds of feet into the air, and the endless desert was broken up only by the outline of rogue mountains far in the distance. The road lay straight ahead of us, incomprehensible in the vastness of its length. 

At 10:30AM, without encountering a single building along the way, we pulled in to a tiny collection of houses built in defiance of the wind-swept desert. Crossing the Chile-Argentina border without a tourist bus turned out to be quite the escapade, as we had to become quite resourceful to figure everything out. We were initially refused entry as no one can cross on foot, but lucky our driver came to the rescue and agreed that we could register with him. 

After getting stamped on both sides and following instructions decently well, we thought we could finally be on our way, but in the end we ended up waiting almost an hour for the trucking paperwork to get approved. By the time we left we had somehow blown three and a half hours at the border. While scouring a map at the station, we also determined that the best place to get dropped off in Argentina would be Jujuy, a mere 360KM away.
Throughout the afternoon we were treated to our first taste of Argentina’s natural wonders. Slowly the harsh desert began to relent, giving way to low-lying bush coverage before eventually we saw our first tree of the entire journey. From there we followed switchbacks up and over mountains before descending on the other side straight into a beautiful cloud that lay perched in the valley floor.  

We ended up getting left off on the side of the highway in Jujuy in the late afternoon, but due to not having any local currency, our ATM cards not working, and following a map to the wrong bus station, by the time we had worked through all the trials and tribulations and purchased onward travel to Salta all three of us were at our wits end. We finally arrived in the beautiful city just after midnight with a steady rain welcoming our arrival and promptly passed out for as long as we could. 

Saturday in Salta was dreary and cold, but we had a great time the entire day. Over breakfast we made friends with Simon, a French traveler and archaeology student planning on moving to Australia after South America to work in their lucrative mining system. He wanted to see the city's Museum of High Altitude Archeology, so the four of us went over and worked our way through the exhibits. The most moving was definitely the "Children of Llulliaco."

 In 1999 an archeology team ascended to an altitude of 22,000 feet at the peak of Llulliaco mountain in Northwest Argentina and started digging. What they uncovered shook the archeology world: three perfectly preserved mummy children. Over 500 years old, scientists believe the children were of noble heritage, selected for their perfect features as sacrifices to the gods. They were probably ceremonially married, then buried alive at the top of the mountain peak. Interesting yet provocative, the altitude and cold ensured the mummies are the best preserved bodies remaining from the Incan empire. One body was even on display, and we marveled at its hair, skin, and facial features, captured as a moment in time. 

That evening we made some friends at the hostel and a big group of us decided to hit up a local peña, one of Argentina's live music venues. More like a restaurant with a couple of guys wielding guitars, the night was one to remember. First we started off by ordering the standard local fare: wine and steak. The prices were ridiculous cheap and the combination delicious. After everyone was well fed the music started breaking out, as each room had a different amateur singer belting out local tunes at the top of his voice, encouraging everyone else to sing along. 

It was clear that all the locals took great pleasure in singing along with their friends and family while downing copious amounts of meat and alcohol. It was a really fun night and a great taste of the strong culture apparent in this country.

Afterwards we hit the one street in town with all the bars. While prowling around and searching for a good option we were approached by a promoter and inexplicably offered free VIP access. How could we say no? It turned out even though the line outside was over 100 people long there was pretty much no one inside yet, but over the next few hours the eerily deserted club transformed into an awesome party scene. 

If the first few days are any indication of what the rest of Argentina is going to be like, then I can't wait for the rest of my travels here. Bring it on!