Tuesday 9 December 2014

Crossing the desert

Well, a lot has happened over the last few days. In an attempt to stop you growing bored halfway through the post, I’ll be skimming over the cycle ride through San Pedro and the surroundings and the comings and goings between my last post and the start of my trip through the desert.

So, when I last left you, I was approaching the cheerful little town of San Pedro. It’s surprising really that such a small collection of houses and shops could support the vast hordes of tourists that descend upon it. Still, it manages to retain a certain small town charm, and I found everyone there (both local and foreigner alike) to be cheerful, friendly and helpful.

I decided to join an American who was staying in my hostel on the same tour he was taking the next day: a three day, action packed jaunt across the Acatama desert and the Uyuni salt flat, which is the largest in the world. Incidentally, the incredible flatness, high reflectiveness and large area of the salt flat means that the majority of the satellites in orbit that need to use it to calibrate their altimeters.

We had both chosen Estrella del Sur for our trip, which is one of the multitude of tour operators in San Pedro, but had a better reputation that most. According to the lonely planet, almost 20 people have died making this crossing, sometimes from drunk drivers who turn over the jeeps, and one or two from severe altitude sickness.

So, with this in mind, we left San Pedro (at the comparatively paltry height of 2900 metres above sea level) and started our long trek up towards the Bolivian border. I have never seen such a small operation in my life. The migration office is a tiny little half-brick, half-mud construction in the middle of nowhere. Amusingly, they had installed a ‘stop’ arm, like the ones you see in car parks, across the road, despite the fact that no one used the road and happily drove around it.

The first day of our tour was fantastic. The views were breathtaking, our companions (a bilingual American and German, 3 Chileans and myself) were fun and friendly, and our driver was a pleasant and informative young man who was happy to stop the jeep whenever one of us wanted to snap a picture or two. We started by proceeding further up into the clouds, passing lagoons full of bright pink flamingos and a bright turquoise coloured water that defied imagination. At this height, every step was exhausting, every breath seemed ineffective, and a gentle pulsing at the back of my head indicated a headache was coming on. As you shall see, I had no idea.

And the sun. At one point we stopped to enjoy a relaxing bathe in a hot spring, and us three westerners neglected to suncream up the parts of our bodies that are usually covered by t-shirts. Within 20 minutes, my shoulders and back were burned, though I wouldn’t realise this until the next morning when I took a shower and found that half of my upper body now resembled a lobster. If anyone follows me and does this, suncream regularly from the get-go, and use 50 SPF or higher (though you actually can’t buy anything lower than 50 in San Pedro).

Eventually, we reached our peak, a system of geysers above a volcanic magma plume, which threw our huge quantities of anxious smelling gas and steam into the air. These were located at the mind-boggling height of 4850 metres; we had traveled almost 2 kilometres up that day, and only the day before I had been in Santiago, which has an altitude of 500 metres. Foolishly, I had neglected to properly acclimatise.

We ended day one early, arriving at the hostel in the desert just after 3, and enjoyed a late lunch and dumped off our bags. After a brief but interesting diversion to a nearby lagoon, we ended the day with dinner and crawling into our freezing cold beds. While the day can be swelteringly hot, the nights drop rapidly below zero, and we slept fully clothed under 2 blankets, me nursing an ever increasing headache, and fitfully dropped off to sleep.

The next morning I felt even worse, and ended up being quite sick at the ‘stone tree’, a volcanic formation in the desert. Luckily, we were now heading back down, and the driver managed to scrounge up an altitude sickness pill that seemed to help somewhat. Despite the insistence of the locals, I found that the coca leaves did little to alleviate my symptoms, though it does make a pleasant enough tea. I was pleased that on day two we got to see an active volcano (quietly sending up steam in the distance) as it’s one of the things I’ve always wanted to see. Sadly, or perhaps sensibly, it was a really long way away.

Night two was spent in a salt hotel, literally made out of blocks of salt, and we enjoyed the evening by playing cards and watching the sunset. It surprised us all just how exhausted we were. Despite the fact we had spent most of the day sitting down, walking at points, it was like we had done a marathon. It’s amazing how much the altitude can affect you.

Day three was our final day, and we woke up at 4:30AM to watch the sunrise on the salt flats. While freezing cold, I can describe it as nothing short of magical, and wholly captivated how amazing the entire journey had been. After some more driving, we made a brief detour at the Incahuasi ‘island’ in the middle of the salt flat, the top of an ancient volcano that pushed it’s way up when the salt flat was still a lake. But for me, the highlight was immediately afterwards, when some of us clambered up onto the roof of the jeep for a breezy but wonderful way to travel across the salt flat.

Finally for the tour, we ended up at a train cemetery, where the Bolivians 30 years ago abandoned their ageing locomotives to rust away magnanimously in the sun and sand.

Well, since then, I’ve boarded a bus to Potosi, managed to snake my way doubled over through 3KM of mines and arrived in Sucre. But, in an effort to not overload you, I’ll leave this until the next post!

Thanks, as always, for reading,


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