Bolivia/Chile Desert Crossing, Day 3: Geysirs and Crossing into Chile

On the last day of the desert crossing we were up at 6 in the morning, frozen as a stick and just wanting to get into the car with maximum heating on. It was going to be a long day with lots of driving, but that was something we did not mind at all as our view from the window the last day had been like we were driving through our four climate seasons. We started with the crystal white salt flats, then drove past lagoons with flamingos and then through valleys with thin ice in the middle, cracking underneath us. For our last day we would pass through the worlds driest desert, before ending up in Chile.

Today we also had a few noteworthy stops along the way:
– Arbol de Piedra (“the rock tree” at 4412m) was one of many very interestingly shaped rocks made out of lavastone that had been shaped through centuries by the strong wind.
– Laguna Colorada (4278m): if you are planning on stopping at just one of the lagoons, then Laguna Colorada should be the one as it is the biggest, has the most flamingos and the most colorful red water of them all.
– Solar de Manana geysirs (at 4850m!) and the Polques Hot Springs (4400m) were right by the Chilean border and was the perfect place to have lunch after a nice hot bath. Right before we
– The Laguna Verde (at 4400m) was the last thing we saw before we arrived at Hito Cajon which was the border post on the Bolivian side

The immigration office was really small and placed in the middle of the desert, and could have easily been mistaken for a bathroom stop or totally overlooked, but our guides stopped the cars and told us to bring our passport in for a stamp, before a junmping into a minibus waiting for us at the same parking lot that would take us the last couple of hours to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.

Even though the passport stamping was super quick it was still the longest border crossing I have ever come across. The drive between the immigration office in Bolivia and the immigration office in Chile took us almost an hour of driving, first through more desert and then on bigger and better roads that we had seen our whole time in Bolivia. After letting the Chileans look through our luggage and stamp our passports, it was just a quick half hour drive before we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama.

Bolivia/Chile Desert Crossing, Day 2: Desert, Lagoons and Flamingos

The ones who wanted to get up to see the sunrise over the Salt Flats did so, while the rest of us just got up for breakfast around half an hour before leaving the hotel at eight. We knew we had lots of driving and lots of sights on our programme and even though it was early in the morning everyone were eager to get going.

Since we had forgotten to take a jumping group photo in the Salt Flats yesterday we did a quick stop to get it done on the way to Isla de Pescadores (3653m), a coral island with more than 6000 really old cactuses. The place also had an altar for sacrifice at the top, with a view of the Salt Flats on all sides. Quite a beautiful place to be, but unfortunately like every other stop along the way through the desert crossing, it was just for a short while before we got back in the car.

Our next stop along the way was in the tiny village of San Juan where we stopped for a lunch which included beer for some. Luckily for those it was not far to our next stop and bathroom break, a viepoint of “Volcan Ollague” which is an active volcano with a height of 5868 meters and smoke coming out from the top.

The last stops for the day, around half past five in the evening was Laguna Canapa with its many flamingos and Laguna Hedionada where we would spend our last night of the desert crossing at a freezing cold hotel in the height of 4186 altitude meters.

Bolivia/Chile Desert Crossing, Day 1: Uyuni and the Salt Flats

Having spent the night in Uyuni, a small town with just 20 000 people and overpriced souveniers, we were ready to leave around noon to start our three day desert crossing with four wheel drive cars that would take us to Chile.

Just after ten minutes of driving we had our first stop, which was the famous train cemetary where tens of trains were just left in the desert to rust. We were stupid not to hear the explanation that our guide gave us, as we were too busy looking around at the trains, but we got the more exciting part where he told us about the train robbers  “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” who ended their long train robbing carreer here in Bolivia.

Another half hour drive we stopped at the Colchani at 3653 meters asl, which is the closest town to the Salt Flats, where all the locals were living off salt production and selling salt souveniers to the tourists crossing by. We watched a woman making the salt, and when asking how much she sold it for she said that she made less than 3 dollars for 50 kilos of fully processed, packaged salt.

After just another ten minutes drive we were inside the Salt Flats, where we could see heaps of salt being left to dry. Another twenty minutes of driving through crystal white salt desert, we made a stop for pictures, which seemingly was something everyone had been looking forwards to the most on our whole trip. Our stay there was just for an hour, which was not nearly enough as more than half the time was used for group photos, but afterwards everyone just ran off like crazy, taking pictures in all kinds of positions.

Just forty minutes drive we arrived the Salt Hotel just in time to watch the sun set. The hotel was really beautiful and located right at point where the Salt Flats ended, and tomorrow we will be up really early to watch the sun rise over the Salt Flats before we continue our journey through the desert on our way to Chile.

Potosi and the mining tours

Potosi is the worlds highest city with its 4090 meters and was once one of the biggest and wealthiest city in all of the Americas because of the mines of Cerro Rico (“Rich Mountain”) that brough out more than 60 000 tonnes of silver. The mines have also claimed more than 8 million lives, and there are still a lot of people (also young children) working at around 200 of the total 500 mines today. Conditions were poor, as described in the movie “The Devils Miner“, and since the Spaniards had pretty much depleted the mines for silver before they left, the people today are risking their lives for rests of copper, zink and small amounts of silver, usually paying very poorly.

The main role (Basilio) of the Devils Miner and another guide showed us around in one of the caves still being worked, while explaining the life and working conditions in the mines. People were running around in the narrow caves with filled out trolleys, usually shouting in time for us to jump to the side before it swooshed right past us. The mine we visited was primitive and we also walked past miners hammering a spear into the wall to make room for dynamites. To keep them from eating during their eight to ten hour shifts, they had their cheecks filled with coca leaves, drank sips from bottles of pure alcohol and smoked cigarettes with dark tobacco rolled with thick paper. Although some told us that they had been working in the mines since they were eight and for fourty years, the life expectancy after starting to work in the mines would drop to around fifteen years.

The guided tour was very strong, but also interesting and well worth the 20 US we paid, including tips and gifts for the miners that we bought at the bottom before setting off. We bought some crisps and soda for the kids, and some bottles of 96% alcohol (less than a dollar for a bottle), coca leafs and cigarettes for the miners. We also bought some dynamite for ourself (20B/ less than four dollars) to blow up inside the mines, which I personally thought was the highlight of the tour.