Sunday, June 13, 2010

Neither of us slept well, and we both woke up with headaches. There was no power, so it was good we had packed 99% the night before. We had a very quiet breakfast, with Coca Tea and some altitude medicine from Silveria (breakfast of champions). We left before sunrise, which was a bummer because we expected it would be great on the red mountains. Between the diamox from the night before kicking in, the Coca Tea, Silveria's medicine, and dropping a bit in elevation, we started to feel better quickly. That was countered by a different sort of headache, this time from the uneven road jostling us around.

We quickly entered the Eduardo Avaroa natural reserve - apparently the hotel was just outside its borders. Although the Hotel del Desierto doesn't show up on Google Maps, by looking at the satellite view (the roads are clearly visible), the location of other landmarks, and what we remember the valley near the hotel looking like, our best guess is that the hotel is located approximately at -21° 51' 19.94" latitude, -68° 2' 6.49" longitude.

We did get to see the sunrise on other mountains, which although not as nice as the ones near our hotel, was still far better than your average sunrise. We stopped at "Stone Tree" - a rock formation in the shape of a tree. We were told its been shaped over the years by lots of wind and sand - thankfully we had neither today. The sun came out on the rock right while we were there, which was good since otherise the background would have been too light or the foreground too dark.

We kept heading south, and went to Laguna Colarada, which like the lagoons the day before, was much smaller than it used to be, and half frozen. Also, it wasn't very red (as it usually is) - the wind whips up the minerals from the bottom, but it wasn't very windy. But, on the bright side, there were some areas that weren't frozen, and there were a good amount of flamingos.

Some parts of the lake did look a little red, but that was mostly due to reflections from the reddish mountains nearby. Silveria told us to come back sometime in November or December, when it is much warmer and the lagoon is chalk full of flamingos. Our next stop was the Sol de Manana geysers, which weren't geysers so much as boiling mud puddles. As with many other sites in Bolivia, the scenery was otherworldly.

Some areas smelled, but not like rotten eggs, but more like hard boiled eggs. The whole area is in flux - Silveria told us that some areas were new since her last visit (and we had to divert from her regular path because of this), and some areas were smaller than before. There was quite a bit of steam, and between that and the reddish mountains, it was as if we were on another planet. We drove past several more reddish mountains (all sandstone), and saw a fair number of vicunas. We have no idea what they would be eating - there wasn't much of anything in the way of food or water.

We came up on a bend and Justin said "maybe Licancabur will be around this one - eventually I'll be right" - this was at least the 10th time he had guessed this, but this time he was in fact correct. It looked much smaller from the Bolivian side than what we remembered from the Chilean side. In fact, it actually looked smaller than its neighboring mountain, Juriques. Driving a little farther, we saw Cerro Toco as well. We made sure to get one photo with Cerro Toco in the background, so we could compare it side-by-side with the picture of us from Cerro Toco 2 years ago (below). Where we're standing in the picture on the left is behind the lagoon that is visible in the picture on the right.

It was weird to see all of these mountains that we've seen from another angle thousands of times in our own photos. One interesting item was that what we thought for two years was Laguna Verde in a picture we took from Cerro Toco was actually Laguna Blanca - Laguna Verde now split in two several years back, and only Laguna Blanca is visible from Cerro Toco.

It was depressing to hear how all of the lagoons have shrunk the last ten years - hopefully the area will get a lot of rain or snow sometime soon. Laguna Verde was very green, and it was very windy - probably at least 40mph (65 km/h). The view of Licancabur with Laguna Verde in the foreground was picturesque (thankfully wind does not show up in a still photo). The view got even better when Justin spotted some vicunas eating the salt at the edge of the lagoon, and Hilario was kind enough to drive us down there. Fortunately the vicunas did not run off when Justin walked up. We ate lunch with Silveria and Hilario, then went to the "border," which we had been within 500 meters of in 2008. For 3 days, 2 nights, with a private driver and guide, it was one of the best bangs for the buck we've had on any of our travels. For everything we saw in these three days, plus all the food, all the drinks, all the lodging, it was well under $1000. When we come back (and we will, sometime), we'll definitely use them again, and would recommend that if you're at all interested in visiting Salar de Uyuni, give them a call.

Bolivian immigration was easy, but oddly there was no Chilean immigration. Instead, we drove all the way to San Pedro de Atacama, then went through immigration there. Since there were multiple turnoffs in the road prior to immigration, what this amounts to is that immigration is basically on the honor system. We checked in at our hotel (Hotel Altiplanico) at 2pm, and given how early it was, we asked about tours we could do in the afternoon. We hadn't planned on doing anything, but we also hadn't planned on getting to the hotel so early. We were told that we could visit either Valle de la Luna or Salar de Atacama (Laguna Chaxa). Since we had gone to Valle de la Luna last time (coincidentally on the same day we went to Cerro Toco), and had missed Laguna Chaxa, we decided to go to Laguna Chaxa.

It was substantially warmer than it had been earlier in the morning in Bolivia - San Pedro de Atacama is at only 2400 meters (7900 feet), while the area around Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde is roughly 4300 meters (14,000 feet). During the drive down from the border to San Pedro, we kept opening our water and soda bottles so they wouldn't compress. It was nice to change out of our long underwear, and also put on some sandals. We walked into "downtown" San Pedro (which we never did in 2008), got some cash, and went to a tour agency to sign up. We heard loud roars while waiting at the ATM - Germany was playing Australia in the World Cup, and apparently Germany had scored a goal. We walked back to the hotel to grab some water and a jacket before our trip left.

Out in front of our hotel, while waiting for tour pickup, Justin wondered out loud "I wonder if the guide will speak any English?" When he arrived 5 minutes later, he confirmed he did not. He asked if this would be problematic, and we told him it would not be since we had a basic idea of what we were doing and where we were going. There were 6 other people in our group. We stopped in the small town of Toconao for a little bit. The group (including Crystal) got to feed some llamas, and then we walked around the main square. From Toconao, we continued on to Salar de Atacama.

Unlike Uyuni, the salt was not flat - it was very ridged, like a bunch of tiny mountains. Also, the varying mineral contents meant that the salt was not a solid color, but varied from white to brown to sort of pink. We got some background on the 3 flamingo varieties (which we had gotten from Silveria a day earlier), and then we went out onto the lagoon (Laguna Chaxa) just prior to sunset. Theree were flamingos on both sides of the path. It was much easier to see flamingos up close (not to mention much warmer) than in Bolivia.

It was another very good sunset. There is lots of dust in the air from a huge copper mine north of Calama, and this dust helps create colorful sunsets. It was a one hour drive back to San Pedro de Atacama from Laguna Chaxas. At the hotel, we went to the front desk to ask about our transfer the next day, and fortunately the company had already called. We were scheduled to have a 5:20 pickup, meaning we'd need a 5:00 wakeup call. We got cleaned up, then went to dinner. We both got steaks, Crystal with a blue cheese sauce and Justin with a red pepper and onion sauce. Our Pisco sours were much more lemon-y than in Peru or Bolivia, but that could have just been the bartender. After dinner, we had to "airline pack" for the first time in a week. We were happy to get some sleep somewhere warmer and lower in elevation.