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Rock ‘n roll nights

15 Nov
Colourful Valparaiso

Multi-coloured  Valparaiso.

Jupapina, nr Mallasa, Bolivia
[by Paula]

We spent a day trying to decide where to go for the last portion of my brother’s visit. We could still make it to Peru for some trekking? Maybe pop over to Argentina?

After Derek left, Jeremy I were either going to be scooting back up north to Ecuador to collect our van (remember the van?), or heading directly to Bolivia to begin a voluntary work placement we’d set up, which meant the most illogical thing to do would be to head south again.

So that’s exactly what we did.

Let’s hire another car, we said, and drive south to Santiago – it’s only 1,670 kilometres (1,012 miles) each way!

We were getting to know this Atacama Desert road pretty well. A bit under-prepared on the provisions, we pulled into a little roadside posada for dinner before pushing on for our second visit to Pan de Azucar national park. We pitched our tents as the sun set behind the island, then settled in for a night of, well, not very much. So disorganised had we been that we only had one can of beer and a handful of sweets for entertainment. But it’s amazing what you can do with nothing. We trawled the site for wood, lit a fire and shared the can. Rock ‘n roll!

Setting up camp, Pan de Azucar national park, Chile.

Setting up at sunset, Pan de Azucar national park, Chile.

Then Derek did his best Bear Grylls impersonation and showed us you can boil water in a paper (yes, paper) cup on the fire. Most exciting cup of coffee I’ve ever had! If we can make a cuppa from nothing, we can survive anything.

We left early the next morning and pulled into Chañaral for one of Chile’s best any-time-of-the-day snacks, a hulking great steak and avocado sandwich. Happy 14th wedding anniversary to us!

Another long day of driving, and several gas station coffees later, we made it well south of La Serena and into new territory for Jeremy and me. We had high hopes for a campsite called Termas de Socos, which reportedly had natural hot thermal waters. We pulled into an empty, very locked, campsite. Bugger. We took our unwashed, rather unpleasant looking, selves into the very posh hotel next door to ask if they could help. They phoned the campsite owner who came down and opened it for us – an entire, massive campsite to ourselves! The ‘thermal pool’ was empty but the bonus was that the owner also ran a restaurant just up the road.

Campfire night

Anniversary campfire! Termas de Socos, Chile.

We pitched the tents and headed straight up there for a totally delicious – and cheap – dinner of roasted goat and ribs with the most orgasmic mashed potato in history.

Back at the tents, Derek went into full pyromaniac mode with the campfire, and we willingly colluded. The music was cranked up, and the more we drank the more outrageous the fire got. Luckily no one was around to hear the singing.

On our wedding day I’m not sure what we thought we’d be doing 14 years hence, but it probably wasn’t that.

Next morning we found the perfect antidote to a hangover and a few days without a shower. The very posh hotel next door rented out natural hot baths – bingo! We each got an individual room with a huge bath and unlimited hot water. Ahhhhhhh.

Three squeaky clean, slightly wrinkled, bodies climbed back into the car and headed for Valparaiso. We were amazed we easily found our B&B in the city’s crooked, windy, unbelievably steep streets. From our room we had a fantastic view over the bay.

We spent three nights in this kooky, artsy city which is part grimy and edgy, part pretty and funky. One of the most remarkable things about it is that seemingly the entire city has been, willingly, given over to graffiti art, murals and brightly painted buildings, which makes for some great aimless street-wandering.

Derek and I took the ascensor (while Jeremy took his vertigo for a steep walk) up to the Cerros Concepcion and Alegre district, where we shopped, then ate the thickest seafood chowder known to man.

We visited the late, uber-famous, Chilean poet/activist/politician Pablo Neruda’s fabulous home and mooched round the city’s ornate cemetery.

Having not quite adjusted to Chile’s late night culture (band starts at midnight, what?!) we heroically managed to prop our eyelids open to watch some sublime live music – the mesmerising, accordion-wielding, gypsy-jazz-salsa singer Pascuala Ilabaca and her band Fauna.

Mercado Central, Santiago

Fish galore at the Mercado Central, Santiago.

Derek’s final stop in Santiago was brief, but not too brief to visit the famous Mercado Central, a vast and chaotic emporium of fish sellers and fish restaurants. We sampled a few dishes – king fish, eel and merluza – while watching several of Santiago’s upper echelons order king crabs at well over US$100 a go. The waiters delivered them with a flourish, as everyone watched and took photos, which was presumably the reaction they were hoping for! We left enough of a gap before scoffing ceviche and one of the best tres leches cakes ever encountered, at bar The Clinic – the official bar of Chile’s political magazine of the same name.

The following day was a repeat of That Horrible Goodbye, as Derek took off back to Scotland and his wife Fiona and kids Skye and Finn – who had kindly loaned him to us for a while. Hasta luego hermano!

We’d been hoping we could dash back to Ecuador, collect the van, and make it (almost) on time to Bolivia, for the work project we’d organised. But while the mechanic had managed to source and install a manual gearbox in the van, there was still an issue with the computer understanding what the heck was going on, and a part had been ordered from Germany to try to resolve it.

We didn’t see the point in going back to Ecuador to wait around, when we had something great lined up in Bolivia, so we decided to head straight there and worry about the van once it was fully repaired.

First we had to return the hire car in Calama. We bombed it back up north in a long two days. The journey included an epic search for somewhere to camp or lodge near Antofagasta, on the coast. All campsites turned out to be closed or too rough-looking to contemplate. We searched nearby coastal ‘resorts’ which turned out to be more of those creepy half-abandoned encampments we’d seen before. When we enquired about camping or staying in cabins were told everything was ‘closed for maintenance’.

All lodgings in the town of Mejillones were booked out with miners – we almost got desperate enough to ask in a dire-looking dosshouse. But one look at the way the plastic ‘garden’ furniture was chained to the fence outside gave us pause to reconsider.

Car bed

Sometimes there’s nothing else for it but to give up and wind back the driver’s seat.

We found a posh hotel a few miles away, parked on the edge of their property and slept in the car. Oh what crusties we have become.

Things got creepier the next day when we took a different route up the coast and, in the early morning fog, came across a baby cemetery right on the beach. A huge area was filled with Victorian-style wooden cribs, most of which had cuddly toys tied to them. Some of the graves were 100+ years old, but most of the toys were quite new. There are some great things about Chile’s northern coast, but some of it is just damn weird.

We headed on to Calama, and delivered the car before setting up camp for a couple of nights to sort ourselves out and prepare for our big project in Bolivia, where we hoped to stay for up to six months.

After that we’d resume the trip south towards Argentina, but for now, the next chapter awaited.

Days: 772
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 7,259
Things we now know to be true: You can boil water over a fire using a paper cup. Honestly.

PHOTO GALLERY BELOW!

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UnBoliviable

6 Nov
Jeremy jumps for joy, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

Yay, it’s snowing! No wait, hang on, this is salt.

Jupapina, nr Mallasa, Bolivia
[by Paula]

Not for the first time, I was sorely tempted to get down on all fours and lick the ground.

Could it really be a 12,000sq km blindingly-white desert of salt we saw before us? It was reminiscent of one of those movies where they try to depict ‘heaven’ by making everything all white and floaty and unreal.

Along with my brother Derek – who was visiting for a few weeks – we were taking a three-day 4×4 tour of Bolivia’s south west corner. For countless reasons, it’s one of the most popular trips to do in the country. It’s typically described as a tour of the salt flats, with one of the main draws being the largest salt ‘lake’ in the world, Salar de Uyuni. But it is so much more than that.

This region of Bolivia is a smorgasbord of ever-changing landscapes, of unfeasibly luminescent colours, that it looks for all the world as if someone’s created the whole thing in Photoshop.

Each time we claimed we’d ‘never seen anything so incredible’, we’d drive for a little while, then happen upon a scene more mind-blowing than the last.

There was the suspended reality of the salt flats, which are so uniform and vast that tourists love to play with the lack of perspective and take comedy photos that portray them as huge or tiny. It’s a rite of passage that would have been churlish to deny ourselves.

Little Jeremy and Derek, Salar de Uyuni.

Honey, I’ve shrunk Jeremy and Derek. Silly perspective-bending moments, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

Then, just as we thought the salar would never end, we arrived at Isla Incahuasi, a whopping great pre-historic island in the middle of the encrusted lake, which is blanketed in giant cacti. From the top we had an amazing view of the flats, much of which has crusted into surreal hexagonal tiles.

After an incredible sunset on the flats, and dinner at our hostal – which was entirely made of salt, what else? (the hostal, not the dinner) – we wrapped up against the cold and went out to gaze at the stars, and our own moon-shadows.

The next day was a feast of rock forests, altiplano lakes, pink flamingos and a procession of incredible snow-capped mountains to top off the scene. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we arrived at Laguna Colorada, which is turned red by natural algae.

Flamingo, salt lagoon, Bolivia.

In the pink. Flamingo, salt lagoon, Bolivia.

We were agreed that the trip so far was one of the best things we’d done on all of our travels. It’s not necessarily a cakewalk though. It can be very cold at times, the accommodation on most tours is communal and fairly basic, and both nights are spent sleeping at very high altitudes, of up to 4,300m – which often means, at best, sleeplessness and headaches and sometimes worse symptoms of altitude sickness.

On the second night, Derek was suffering pretty badly and – to top it off – had had zero sleep before our wake-up call for a 5am start. He was feeling fairly shitty, and needed to get to a lower elevation.

Problem was, we had 12 hours of driving at altitude ahead of us, followed immediately by a 12-hour overnight bus journey to La Paz, one of the highest cities in the world. A couple of nights before we’d made this crazy last-minute plan to try to make it to Peru within Derek’s short trip – more trekking at altitude! Not good.

Salt hostel, Bolivia

Basic but comfy accommodation at a hostel made of salt – all furniture included!

We quickly decided it wasn’t worth putting his holiday in jeopardy by overdoing it, and cancelled the plan to go to Peru. That morning the tour skirted the Chilean border and, luckily, Derek had the chance to skip the last few hours (mostly just involving the drive back to Uyuni) and head quickly back over the border to San Pedro de Atacama, at a mere 2,500m.

Before he departed we saw sunrise at the one of the highest geyser fields in the world – Sol de Mañana, at a gasping 5,000m. We then warmed our chilled early-morning bones at the sublime natural hot springs at Laguna Polques. The reaction of every single person who sank into that hot steaming pool was identical – aaaahhhhhhhhhhoooooohuhhhyes!

The (almost) final stop was the strikingly green Laguna Verde. Saving the best for last!? It’s hard to choose a ‘best’ from this trip, but that was one hell of a green, shiny, not-completely-real-looking lake. When you look at photos of this famous laguna, you just assume they’ve been enhanced. They haven’t.

Laguna Verde, Bolivia

The impossibly-luminous Laguna Verde. Panoramic pic courtesy of Derek Jolly.

It was lovely having so much time with Derek, whom we rarely see for more than a few days at a time. Now suddenly he was gone! Jeremy and I had no option but to continue back to Uyuni, as we’d left half of our gear there. After a final, gorgeous, stop-off at a hidden oasis, and a brief pause to let some wild ostriches cross our path, we dug in for the long drive back.

After a long, remarkably unpleasant, bus journey from Uyuni to San Pedro the next day we were reunited.

With Peru off the table, all we had to do now was make a new plan for Derek’s final week. North, south, east or west?

Days: 763
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 7,259
Things we now know to be true: Sometimes table salt really is a table made of salt.

PHOTO GALLERY BELOW!
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NOTE: We were delighted with the company we chose for the tour. There are many disreputable firms in Uyuni, so choose carefully if you go. To date there are nearly 1,000 reviews on Trip Advisor.
We would happily recommend family-run Quechua Connection, based in the centre of Uyuni. Email Jose at quechuaconnection4wd@hotmail.com – he can speak English if you need that.
Great guys, safe drivers, food very good and nutritional – Jose is also a nifty photographer for those tricky salt flats pics.

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Laguna Colorada, Bolivia

The red lake, Laguna Colorada, Bolivia

PHOTOS! PHOTOS! PHOTOS! Click on the gallery below for a taster of south-west Bolivia.