My experience with off-roading has generally been limited to a few hours here and there in the hills around where I grew up. So I was intrigued with the idea of embarking on a 3 day off-road trek from San Pedro de Atacama (in Chile) through the high-altitude deserts, mountains and salt flats to the town of Uyuni (in Bolivia).
It definitely isn’t a “do it yourself” endeavor (e.g., rent a truck and hope for the best).
It is one of the harshest environments in the world. It is very remote and easy to get lost on the tangle of unmarked dirt tracks that crisscross the area. In other words – things can go horribly wrong, fairly quickly, if you don’t know what you are doing.
In reading reviews of different tour companies online I found it impossible to narrow down the selection.
It seemed like a total roll of the dice. The reviews would vary widely from “most amazing and magical experience of my life, our driver was awesome” to “it was horrible, we almost died and our driver was passed out drunk half the time” – all for the same tour company!
I was so perplexed that I contacted the adventure travel company we have arranged a few other trips through – BikeHike out of Vancouver, BC. Even though this driving trip isn’t something they regularly organize for clients they did the legwork and arranged the driving tour for us through a reputable local company.
That problem solved, our next hurdle was getting across the Chile-Bolivia border.
The tourist visa requirements for U.S. citizens to visit Bolivia are fairly arduous (typical paperwork plus proof of financial solvency, an exit plane reservation in hand, copies of hotel bookings, yellow fever vaccinations, etc.) and definitely expensive ($160 per person).
On the first morning of the trip a Chilean driver picked us up at our hotel in San Pedro de Atacama, drove us to a building on the outskirts of town to get our exit stamp from the Chile immigration officer, then started taking us higher and higher and higher into the mountains outside of town.
Eventually we came upon a tiny little building in the middle of nowhere that served as the Bolivian border station.
We weren’t really sure what to expect. I had read online that the border officers at this location can be unpredictable and may make it difficult to cross if you didn’t get a tourist visa before you left the U.S. (which is what Chris, Glenn’s brother was able to do).
Glenn and I had stacks of meticulously compiled tourist visa paperwork and we anxiously entered the building wondering if we’d get through.
We handed the paperwork to the officer, ready to begin our dance. He barely glanced at the front page, turned around and plopped it on top of a leaning stack of similar paperwork from other tourists, and held out his hand for money. $320.00 in crisp, clean, untorn, unwrinkled and unblemished small denomination U.S. dollars, to be exact. Chris had brought us the cash from the U.S. and he had to visit several different banks to get enough high quality bills to satisfy these requirements.
In the end the officer wouldn’t accept our last $20 because there was some pink ink from the production process on the bill. Chris had a few other $20 in his wallet so we started pulling those out. The guard would look at them, make a disgusted face and throw them back across the table at us. We were getting nervous when we got down to the last extra $20. Luckily this one seemed to satisfy his requirements, he grunted and he gave us our visas.
We made it through!
Next thing you knew we were piled into a waiting Toyota Land Cruiser with our Bolivian driver, Freddie, and guide, Larissa. Luggage in the back, extra gas tanks strapped to the roof and Glenn, Chris and I wedged into the back seat.
While a 3-day off-road road-trip isn’t exactly my favorite pastime, it is really the only way you can get into these remote areas to see the sites. We visited colorful lagoons (green, red, blue, gray), many of which were full of elegant flamingos.
We saw vast landscapes carved by wind and sand, a steaming volcano, as well as cactus filled canyons.
We visited several little villages and settlements of the indigenous people who carve out a tough existence growing quinoa and herding llamas.
We stayed in a hotel made entirely of salt.
We saw mummies, still entombed in their final resting place in some caves at the base of a volcano.
Eventually we ended up at the Uyuni Salt Flats, the largest salt flats in the world.
It is impossible to describe the vast openness of the salt flats. They go on forever and ever and ever. We will be spending a few more days on the salt flats, so I’ll share more pictures of our adventures there in my next post.
If you ever find yourself in this part of the world it is definitely worth the time and effort to arrange for the driving tour (Atacama to Uyuni, or Uyuni to Atacama). You’ll see some unbelievable sites that few others have seen. It was a grand adventure. More pictures below!