It’s pitch black and bloody cold at 4.30am as our trusty band of gringos emerges groaning from our overnight hostel, in the middle of nowhere for Tour Day 3 (see Days One and Two). Awakening wasn’t a problem as nobody had slept well – deep sleep breathing had proved impossible at this altitude. By 5am we were on the ‘road’ in the darkness, our amazing driver somehow knew which of the identical tracks to take across the desert, aided only by his headlights.
Before 6am, still dark, we’d reached the steaming geysers of Sol de Manana, white hot air blowing up into the sky. They’re best seen at sunrise, but we had other plans, namely a hot natural bath! So off we went towards Laguna Polques with its hot springs contained in rudimentary pools, arriving about 6.30am to find the loos still shut & the changing rooms very basic. We weren’t the first there, but it wasn’t crowded. Still bloody cold there was time for just one quick foto (see top one) before entering the relief of the hot baths. Bliss.
After an hours soak we breakfasted and were off again. Apparently our Chile border transfer transport was booked for 9.30am and we still had things to see. First up was the ‘Desierto Salvador Dali’ (not that he came here – but a famous painting of his had some very similar rock shapes) viewed from a distance and some beautifuly coloured mountains facing it. Then onto the Lagunas Verde (green) & Blanco (white), seperated by a small strip of land and towered over by the perfectly shaped Volcan Licancabur. Unfortunately the Laguna Verde doesn’t turn green until about 11am when the sun impacts on the lake’s algae to generate the green effect, it’s also a ‘dead lake’ – the minerals etc in it make it poisonous so no living thing is present. No second bath here then.
Then 15 minutes later it was all over, we’d reached the pretty basic Bolivian side of the border with Chile and joined the line up to get our exit stamps. Out of there and only time for a very fast ‘adios’ to Dioni & Grobert, our guide & driver, and the 4×4, before the 5 of us are bundling onto the bus into Chile. Adios Bolivia, it’s been a mighty fine 10+ weeks!
Into San Pedro de Atacama
Our intro to Chile wasn’t great. The bus driver was an authoritarian arsehole who didn’t focus on his driving very well. Luckily we went from the bumpy, rocky, dirt tracks of Bolivia’s desert to a perfectly tarmaced road in Chile, which was pretty straight all the way down into San Pedro de Atacama, about 35km away and a good 1500m lower at an altitude of about 2500m. Chilean border control & customs didn’t actually happen until we were in San Pedro, giving us time to dump a few veg/fruit items that the Chileans get very uptight about. Then just a short walk to the hostel we’d pre-booked for 5 nights, a coffee or two in the communal kitchen and a hot shower!
San Pedro de Atacama the town was a not unexpected disappointment, although its geography & skies were superb (more of that later). The prices here were very high for their captive audience, making overpriced Uyuni seem cheap. Despite it’s long indigenous history amidst a harsh climate, San Pedro is now utterly reliant on tourism, and some people are clearly making a packet. Once a bit of a wild west party town it’s been utterly reformed/controlled and dressed up for tourists. The tourist central district (distinct from the locals area near the bus station) is all faux brown adobe walls (on top of breeze blocks) and a pretence at ethnicity, with pretty wooden signage sponsored by a large mobile phone company!
Full of overpriced bars/restaraunts and many tour agencies, there’s an attempt to promote a vaguely ‘new hippy’ vibe for those wealthy enough to afford it. Towards the edges of the tourist district and north along the Rio Pedro riverbank there’s the typical pricey ‘eco-lodges’, hostels & campsites, ‘eco’ in the sense that there’s a solar panel or two. Signs about saving water in the desert abound, as they build more tourist hostels! Green market capitalism is the name of the game here, as signs banning any free camping are everywhere. No doubt at some point, as with places like Ibiza, there were some fairly motivated alternative new agers here, but they seem to have been priced out now – we couldn’t find any. We wonder how the normal locals, working in the service industry, are able to survive here?
Disappointing, but not unexpected. But we found some interesting things to do, had use of a kitchen, located the only veggie/vegan place in town (Estrella Negra – great soya burgers, salads & juices), and the only sensibly priced bar (beer only at the Estacion de Ceverca) – an appropriate place to spend a final evening with the 3 Aussies we did the Tour with! As we said we were here more for the geography & skies – more on this to come, but here’s some fotos from Day 3…..