The bus ride over the Jama Pass from Argentina into Chile was stunning. The road curved for a couple of hours (fun trying to use the toilet on the bus and not fall off!) up to the Argentinian border post at 4700m. It must be one of the few border posts in the world where they have a first aid post and oxygen on standby for the people who keel over due to the altitude! We saw it happen to one poor guy. Having lived most of our lives at sea level we were feeling pretty grateful it wasn’t us.
Once over the Jama Pass, the road goes literally through a salt flat, then curves down into the desert of Northern Chile. This is where more of the bus passengers were suffering altitude sickness – lets just say the sick bags on board were being used. Luckily we were fine.
We arrived at the Chile border just outside of San Pedro de Atacama, where we had to open all our bags for a ridiculous superficial ‘search’ looking for fruit, coca leaves (which are illegal to bring into Chile), tea bags and god knows what else. Perhaps a sniffer dog or x-ray equipment would have helped the cause slightly!
The bus dropped us off on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama, which was a really cute litte town right in the middle of the desert. It only rains once or twice a year, and there are parts of the desert where it has never rained. So water is a precious resource. We stayed in a cute room in adobe style made of mud brick, and the owners kept reminding us to take short showers. We were the lucky ones we found out later from talking to other travellers – most of them had no water for their entire stay!
We spent a couple of days chilling out in the town which was very pleasant, and booking our overland trip into Bolivia. We had heard nothing but horror stories about the 2 night, 3 day trip via 4WD to the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats) in Bolivia. Unfortunately all of the companies have bad reports – from drivers falling asleep at the wheel, driving drunk, running out of food and water, the jeeps repeatedly breaking down etc – so we ended up booking with one that had the least worst reputation. But more about this later.
One thing that drove us nuts about San Pedro was that it had 2 ATMs, which were incredibly intermittent and that we had to visit at least 7 times during the 3 days we were there, to see if we could get any cash. And of course no-one took credit cards. Lesson learnt – always get the local currency BEFORE you show up in the town…
The beautiful church at San Pedro de Atacama at sunset. It is one of the oldest in South America and the roof is made of adobe mudbrick (cos it hardly ever rains!)
“Can I haz siesta tiem nao pls?” The desert gets really hot during the day and freezing at night. These dogs were tuckered out!
We also did a trip out into the desert to the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon – so called because it looks like, yes, the moon) and Death Valley/Mars Valley for sunset. Apparently the area was called Mars Valley but mars and death sound very similar to one another in Spanish, so take your pick!
The scenery was absolutely amazing and the closest thing you would find on earth to Mars and the moon we reckon. We did a walk along the top of the canyon and then a massive run down through the sand dunes to the bottom which was great fun. The photos in no way do it justice but this will give you a idea of what it was like…
Not only is there cool desert, but active volcanoes all around too! (those of you who know Kylie’s obsession with volcanoes will understand the excitement…)