The Bolivia-Chile border spans the Atacama, the world’s driest desert. This huge expanse receives an average rainfall of about half an inch per year and is composed of salares (salt lakes), red rocky terrain, volcanic lava geysers, and endless miles of sand. It took me three days to cross from Uyuni, Bolivia, to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, accompanied by five Brazilian women, and our faithful Bolivian driver, Victor, in an old but powerful jeep.
We started in the small, picturesque town of Uyuni, Bolivia, on Friday morning, loading our backpacks onto the roof rack of our jeep and piling into the car, occupying every seat. Our first stop was the “Train Cemetery,” about 20 minutes into the desert from Uyuni.“This is where trains used to go to die,” Victor told us as we arrived. These skeletal trains were coal-fueled machines that were abandoned after the introduction of steam power. The trains congregated here because Uyuni used to be a central hub with maintenance stations connecting the southern and northern parts of South America. The desert served as an out-of-the-way location for depositing the defunct trains. From here we continued to our first viewing of the Salar, or salt lake. A mind-boggling expanse of flatness extended before us, and the only trace of the old lagoon was a bed of pure salt.Bolivia harvests all of its salt from this flat, and exports much of it to other parts of the world. The Dakar, a famous off-road endurance race, was held here last year, the location selected for the rugged and dangerous terrain that spans from these salt flats into more rocky and cliff dunes.Salt art has become a large tourist attraction in the area. This Dakar statue is made completely out of salt, as are many hotels and more-traditional art statues.The next stop was Incahuasi, the famous cactus “island” in the middle of the large Uyuni Salar. The cacti seem to have popped up out of nowhere in the giant desert expanse. From the top of the “island” it is possible to see the fullest extent of the massive Salar; in between some of the mountains surrounding the main salt bed, the flatness continues literally as far as the eye can see.A series of lagoons traverse the desert. They are home to most of the wildlife found in the area, including flamingos and small fish. The different minerals and salts found in the ground produce incredible rainbows of red, blue, yellow, purple, and green colors in the water and the surrounding mountains.
Sometimes, as we drove across the sand with no other truck tracks in sight, I thought about how easy it would be to get lost in this expanse of dirty, white nothingness. But Victor reassured me that he had been driving tourists around this area for over 18 years and knew the desert like the back of his hand. We ended the day at a smaller hotel near the Chilean border and woke up early to watch the sunrise before driving to a set of lava-fueled geysers.These gaseous pores in the Earth’s crust emit a sulfurous smell. The pressure created by the lava-produced heat causes huge bubbles of bursting mud and earth to spit up in large bowls. Standing next to these gaping lava pits, we were transported to Mars, and the experience was as surreal as they come. From there, we drove to a set of hot springs, warmed naturally by the same forces as the geysers, and stripped from our clothes to submerge ourselves in the salty liquid.From there we shuttled over the border and arrived in the town of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Still enraptured by the fantastical nature of the last three days, we said our goodbyes, as the Brazilians headed back up to Bolivia and I prepared to continue my solo journey down south, with Patagonia next on my list of places to see.
~ By Emma Murray.