Top deserts of the world: Atacama & Salares de Uyuni


My friend Jen from California, who had stayed with me in Jardin for a few days was now traveling through South America. I was pretty much following her footsteps in Chile, only behind by about a week. I thought why not meet and travel together?! Duh!!! We made plans to meet at the hotel where she was staying called Tierra Atacama. I arrived to a beautiful posh Spa Resort that offered all the fancy amenities you can imagine, plus a great swimming pool with awesome views of the snow-capped Licancabur Volcano. Jen and I just stayed for an hour while we waited for her trekking guide and new friend Sandra. We had been invited to stay at Sandra’s place to enjoy some home-made cooking, do some laundry, and just relax while we visited the surrounding desert attractions, and got ready for our Uyuni adventure.

outside Sandra’s place waiting for our ride to Uyuni

the pool at Tierra Atacama with Licancabur in the background

Jen had already made arrangements with Cordillera Traveller to take us to the Salares de Uyuni in Bolivia. This was one of the must-see-places on my list. We had one day in San Pedro before taking off to Bolivia so we decided to go to town and book a group tour to see the famous Valle de La Luna or Valley of the Moon, one of the top sites in the park. Atacama is not the typical desert with just dunes. It offers so many other different types of landscapes and geological formations that you can easily spend days there. You can see geysers, hot springs, tall peaks, salt flats, etc.  In the Valle de la Luna we saw different things including jagged peaks, granite towers, flat areas full of white minerals, and a perfect valley with a river running through it.  The Valle de La Luna was absolutely stunning.  The best part of the trip was enjoying the sunset from Duna Mayor or Big Dune from where we had a perfect view of the entire valley.  If you go to Atacama this is definitely a must-see.

Las tres Marias

The immense Valle de La Luna

spectacular views everywhere

After a perfect day we joined Sandra back at her house for a fun night of carne asada, yummy Chilean wine, and some reggaeton music. The following day we were picked up by our Cordillera driver and were off to Bolivia. The border crossing from Chile to Bolivia was like no other that I’d seen before. It was literally in the middle of nowhere and at an altitude of 14,000ft, the highest I had been on this trip since the Himalayas. There were no toilets but rather holes in the ground that had been dug about 25 meters away from the house where the immigration officers worked. All tour buses arrive there early in the morning to get all passports checked and stamped. Jen had to get a US$160 visa just to cross into Bolivia but when she told them that she was only there for the Uyuni 4-day tour they let her fill out a questionnaire and pay an entry fee of US$80. I had my Colombian passport so I did not worry about anything as South Americans can move around the region fairly easy, without visas.  This was not the case with Bolivia though. The officer did not want to let me in because he said that all Colombians needed to show a copy of their criminal record in order to enter. I had no idea about this and had to beg the guy to let me in. I told him that I had already paid for the tour, and only had those four days to travel with my friend.  A few minutes later he decided to let me in under the condition that I exit the country through the same border point and that I’d print my criminal record. Somehow I had to find this on the internet from one of the hotels where we would be staying in the desert. I just agreed to all his demands so that he would let me in, I would worry about the rest later.

The border office in the middle of nowhere

And so we began our trip into one of the most beautiful places in the world, Northern Chile and Southwest Bolivia. We entered the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa.
It was a fantastic 4-day tour of beautiful desert scenery including the Laguna Blanca y Verde (White and Green Lagoons) at 4300m. El Desierto de Dali or Dali’s Desert. The Polques Hot Springs, the Chalviri Lagoon, an extensive collection of fuming Geysers at 4904m, the Cilohli Piedra del Desierto or Rock of the Desert, Montaña de Colores or Colored Mountain, Hedionda Lagoon and Turquiri Lagoon, and Valle de las Rocas or Valley of the Rocks.  We covered a lot of territory.
We also saw tons of wildlife including flamingoes, Guanacos, Llamas, Vicunas, and all types of birds. We stayed in local hotels in big rooms, dorm style. On our last night we got to stay in a Hotel made entirely of salt, even the furniture. Unfortunately I got really sick toward the end of the trip and could not enjoy the hotel as much as everyone else due to a bad fever and stomach pains.

being silly at the Dali rocks

colorful geysers

Laguna Hedionda

Flamingos eating in the lagoon

Laguna Colorada

The beautiful Licancabur

Polques hot springs

Valle de Las Rocas

It took us a bunch of tries to finally catch everyone in the air

And for the grande finale, we arrived to Uyuni just in time for the sunrise. Words cannot describe the beauty of this place, and pictures won’t even do it justice. It is one of those places that people have to go and experience themselves. It was truly magical to be standing on the salt fields with 10cm of water on top and seeing the perfect reflections of the sun, clouds, people, cars, everything around. We hung out for a while on the fields, completely mesmerized with the changes of the colors as the sun rose over the white ground. We were on 12,500 km2 of pure white salt; about 10m deep.

you have reflection like you will spend hours taking silly photos, trust me!

We couldn’t get enough of this place but our feet were wet from jumping on the water so eventually we had to get in the car and warm up.  We drove for about an hour on the salt, it seemed as if we were going to the end of the world. All we could see was the line where the sky met the salt field. It was incredible!

where does it end?

salt and more salt

We stoped at Colchani, the artisans’ town to walk through the market, along the lines of alpaca garment stalls and other souvenirs.  We visited the Playa Blanca salt hotel and the train cemetery.

We got back to the border and luckily the officer that had previously seen me got distracted with something and forgot to ask me for my criminal record. I ended up paying an exit tax that Colombians do not have to pay but it was only US$3; which is a small fee to pay to get away from these guys quickly. I had actually found a Colombian government website where I put in my citizen number and it returned a small note saying that I had no criminal records or lawsuits pending. I had taken a screenshot of it just in case but I have a feeling it wouldn’t have been enough.

The trip had been incredible, great landscapes, great company, great guide, and great food.  Thanks to Jen for planning everything and being an amazing travel companion.

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Girls time at the Resort

We returned back to San Pedro de Atacama to stay with Jen’s friend Sandra. We hung out for one more night, did some laundry, and relaxed a bit. Jen made us some delicious mango salsa chicken tacos and guacamole. I was still sick but I was able to eat the tacos after taking some antibiotics. And the best part was that Jen treated me to a night at the Tierra Atacama Spa and Resort. Unfortunately I was too weak to go see any other attractions in the Atacama Desert and I had to rest for two full days. I missed out on a few great places but after Uyuni, I felt that I had seen enough for the time being.

And last but not least, we flew to Santiago together and met up with my dear friend Rebecca from Nestle.  She also quit her job to travel to South America and teach English in Chile. It was awesome hanging out again and seeing a bit of the city. We visited a bit of the historical downtown were our hotels were located, the Cerro de Santa Lucia and enjoyed some yummy street food at the ñam fest of truck food, wine, and beer.

Jen and my friend Rebecca (from my old job) who quit her job to teach English in Chile

an old building in the historical part of downtown

The following day and last day for me in Chile we took a bus to Vina del Mar to meet my friend Margarita whom I had met in Thailand a year before.  We took an hour bus to Valparaiso and had a full-day tour of the old city guided by Margarita.

We ended the day with sunset over the ocean in Viña del Mar  where Margarita lives and a walk along the ocean. We took a bus back to Santiago where I would catch my flight the next day back to Colombia.

And I was off to Colombia for one last fling with the family before returning to LA and ending my 2-year RTW trip.

Categories: Bolivia, Chile, ecotourismTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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