Readers who have followed the rock and roll scene in the late nineties and early noughties will be familiar with the term ‘Desert sessions’. Josh Homme, lead-singer of the Queens of the Stone Age, gathered several of his musical friends for jam sessions in the middle of the Mojave Desert. After a period of isolation and contemplation they came back with some great inspirational music.
We followed in the footsteps of some of our musical heroes when we headed for the Atacama desert in the north of Chile. An overnight bus took us from the Chilean beach side into the town of San Pedro de Atacama, which has developed into the backpacker’s Mecca for this area in recent years. The tiny pueblo is brilliantly located in an oasis that is surrounded by deserts that haven’t seen rain in years but is nourished by underground rivers that collect the melted snow of the neighbouring Andean peaks. It consists of little more than a couple of blocks filled up with hostels, tour agents and restaurants. We were definitely on the Gringo Trail. Nevertheless it’s the ideal operating base to discover the surrounding salt flats, geyser fields, lagunas and valleys.
Not allowing time to pass by, we immediately took two of the bikes – that our hosts at Inca Huasi provided for free – to check out the nearby Valle de la Luna. The sensation of biking through a desert is just sensational, although the altitude and omnipresent dust certainly didn’t make it an easy ride. Enjoying sunset on one of the dune ridges in the the valley was downright amazing, with the last rays of sun projecting a beautiful pink hue over the low hanging clouds that topped off the moon-like landscape. Following days were spent on excursions that took us to the Laguna Cejar, Ojos de Salar, Salar de Atacama and the Tatio Geysers. Because of the large distances to be covered and the tourist nature of Atacama, we were forced to join tour groups to see these attractions. It didn’t really feel like the way we preferred to travel, so by the end of these two days we felt a little bit disappointed by it all.
Our original plan was to head out of this desert-town on Monday towards the salt flats of Uyuni, unfortunately it had been snowing in the Bolivian Altiplano during the last couple of days so our departure was delayed for a day in order to clean up the roads. It turned out to be a great delay, because we took out our bikes again to ride towards the La Corniza. After taking a scenic but bumpy road that was constructed in the 19th century to connect San Pedro de Atacama with Calama, we got up to a little tunnel that took us in an out-of-this-world scenery. With nobody around we felt like we were dropped on a lunar landscape, so we happily biked further. Route indication was non-existing and our orientation had been heavily pertubated by the winding road towards the tunnel, but our instincts told us to drive straight ahead. We continued through dried up stream beds, steep canyons and vast desert landscape. At lunchtime we did some rock-climbing and got up to a plateau that gave us a majestic outlook over this amazing scenery without a single sign of human interference. This was the way we loved to travel: off the beaten track, not following a guide like a herd of sheep but breaking a sweat to arrive in a place where we’re all by ourselves and can be surprised by an amazing landscape and then not be afraid to scream out how f***ing great this all is.
After spending the night gazing at the stars (as well as freezing our toes off) in the Observatory, an early wake-up call got us out of bed for a three day adventure in the Bolivian Altiplano. At the border we were introduced to our companions for the coming trip: Chris, a very likeable investment banker(no this is not a contradiction) out of the UK; Francis, our medical whizzkid out of Singapore; Alex, freshly released of the New Zealand army, Bobby, a creative globetrotter out of Australia and Epi, our Bolivian driver. All of us got in to a 4×4 Toyota, which was surprisingly comfortable and besides lacking a functioning dashboard has taken us safely throughout the Altiplano.
It took us three days to get to our final destination Uyuni, but these are the things that we’ll remember for a long while:
1. Salar de Uyuni: without any doubt the highlight of this trip. The image of the otherworldly sunrise is something that is burned in our visual memory forever. Amazingly beautiful.
2. Geyser bathing at Salar de Chalviri: this was so much better than our experience at Tatio Geysers. This time the water was truly warm here and the family of vicunas passing by in the background just made the image complete.
3. Dark Side of the Moon: without any doubt the best soundtrack for this trip.
4. Cold nights: if you want to have a decent night sleep in a refugio at 4200 metres of altitude, you’re better off when you nick a pair of sheets from the empty room next doors to be covered in nicely.
Upon arrival in Uyuni, a sinister feeling crept upon us. The city was rather dead and signs of poverty seemed to be everywhere, it just didn’t feel comfortable. For a moment we were afraid that this would be representative for the whole of Bolivia. A well-deserved good night sleep and our arrival in the city of Potosi the following day luckily changed that whole idea, but more on that in a coming update.
Hasta proximo …