An October morning in San Pedro de Atacama. A group of sleepy tourists on the sleepy main street in this sleepy dry desert town, waiting for the – probably – sleepy tour guide. I’m observing the assembly of co-travelers, knowing that I’m about to spend practically every second of the next three days with a number of strangers. Some talkative, some reserved, some more awake than others. The early morning is doing an effective job at disguising the level of anticipation and excitement among us.
From my research on which tour operator to choose for this tour I found that it doesn’t really matter which company you decide on. All come similarly priced, visiting the same sight, with the same group sizes, and offering roughly the same standard (or lack thereof) of accommodation and transport. What differs is the skills, knowledge, sociability, and sobriety of the driver. Randomly I pick one called Colque Tours.
After an uneventful ride to the Chilean-Bolivian border, and an equally uneventful crossing of the border at the immigration office that is little more than a stone hut in the barren and windy desert landscape, the real thing can begin. Our 4×4 Toyota Landcruisers are waiting for us. Our group of 12 is evenly divided up into two vehicles. My new unit for the next 3 days are from Argentina, Czech Republic, England, Germany, and Poland. And of course our designated Bolivian driver Marco.
None of us know exactly what to expect from this tour. We’ve all heard it’s a “must do”, that it’s a spectacular experience, but also that it’s a rough one; uncomfortable rides and sleeps, very basic food, high altitude and inhospitable air, or grumpy or drunk drivers. This is an expedition for those who are able and willing to prioritize adventure and experience to the lack of reclining leather seats, fancy umbrella drinks and caviar, immaculately made beds and spotless bed sheets, and 24/7 room service.
The first stop is Laguna Verde. Like the name suggests, a lagoon with water appearing greenish against a background of brown mountains and a blue sky. At 4,000 meters (and some change) above sea level, this is a surprising yet impressive sight. Looking very inviting to go for a swim with its crystal clear water, tiny waves, and complete lack of screaming kids, sharks, beach vendors, jellyfish, or any living creature that would normally ruin your beach experience at sea level. However, the chilly winds and the unpleasantly cold air effectively discourage any attempts at dipping anything beyond the fingertip.
I’m already now starting to realize that Bolivia extraordinary with its relatively untouched and extremely spectacular nature. From high mountains to tropical jungle the country offers unforgettable and unique experiences in the wild.
In between lagoons we also make stops at hot springs and geysers. At an altitude of almost 5,000 meters the air is very thin and frigid, which makes it quite remarkable to find wells with boiling water. Volcanic activity nearby, no doubt. Water boiling at 80 degrees centigrade. Fascinating. Always learned that water boils at 100 degrees. Time to think outside the box.
If the first lagoon was remarkable in its own inhospitable and desolate way, the next one – Laguna Colorada, The Lagoon of Colors – is even more impressive. The brown gravel turns into marshy yellow and green grass, before it turns into blue and red water. All framed by brown mountains and clear blue skies. This picture in itself would be spectacular, but throw in a few hundred flamingos in the lagoon, a few vicuñas on the shores, and you’ve got yourself a photo op that couldn’t be ruined even by the worst of “headchopping-grandma-holding-camera-backwards” photographers.
This setting is as bustling with life as the average laundromat, but compared to the previous sites this one resembles a wildlife safari. A few vicuñas frolic around with a look of complete disinterest in their cute, innocent, hairy faces. For most of us non-South American tourists, this is the first time we observe this animal. For them, it’s not the first nor the last time they see humans. Since they appear to live off grass, and we’ve got none of it, we’re of no interest to them. And then there’s the flamingos. Hundreds, possibly thousands of them. I willingly admit I’m no bird person. Surely they possess some kind of characteristic that make each one unique, but to me they all look the same. Long beak, long skinny legs, all pink. And they all do the same thing; stand in the water with their head bowed into the water, fishing for whatever it is they’re consuming. The site doesn’t look very fish friendly, so I’m guessing some kind of plankton. The birds seem to be in perfect harmony with their environment, and maybe it’s the multiplicity of these birds that make the scenery so astonishing.
After a first day filled with sights and scenery, we withdraw at our lodging site. To refer to it as a hotel would be wide of the mark. It’s a series of stone houses with no heating, limited electricity, and no running water. We were prepared for “basic accommodation”. This is as basic as they come, but still it somehow exceeds our expectations. At 4,200 meters above sea level, it’s numbingly cold. And for us who didn’t get adjusted to the high altitude, it’ll be a long night. But, it’s got four walls and a roof, we’ve got beds, and we’ve got food.
One of the beauties of travelling is meeting people. People of different origin, with different backgrounds, with different experiences, and with different knowledge to share. On this very tour we happen to have a German astronomer. A true character, but an entertaining one. And one who’s more than happy to share his wisdom with his fellow travelers.
After a basic dinner our astronomer agrees to show us the wonders of the night sky. He’s a bit apologetic that he failed to bring his green laser – with which he would allegedly be able to actually point at the heavenly bodies – but he does a solid job at explaining things without visual aids. Without any light pollution, and at this high altitude, the sky is as clear as it gets, ideal for star gazing. A myriad of galaxies, planets, and stars fill the night. The only sound to be heard is that of our clattering teeth. For a few minutes we forget our fatigue and the bitter cold, and drift away in the sky. It’s a grand ending of the first day of our tour.
Christian Celind on Salar de Uyuni tour, Bolivia, October 2009