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Solar de Uyuni - Crossing from Chile to Bolivia

lyingonsolarTo cross from Chile to Bolivia you traverse the rugged Andina Eduardo Abaro National Park with untold treasures and the largest salt flat on earth. First there are lagoons of vibrant colours - red, white, green - bursting with minerals, hot springs, volcanos, bubbling mud pools and fierce steam jets, strange shaped rocks and desert sands of every shade of brown. Its like visiting another planet. Flamingos and relatives of the lama somehow survive in this stark landscape. Then comes the salt - 12,000 square km's of it.

Although fairly flat the whole area is high. It reaches heights of around 5000m so altitude sickness can be an issue. It's best to be prepared by giving yourself time to acclimatise, keeping hydrated, and perhaps taking medicine (diamox) or drinking cocoa tea. We didn't drink alcohol or eat sweet foods beforehand, and even took an overnight excursion to a medium height to prepare our bodies. (Not everyone is as strict but we wanted to minimise the risks as we had our children with us). If you suffer extreme symptoms you need to descend - AMS can be fatal.

It's slightly easier if you start in Bolivia and head for Chile as the height works more in your favour but we didn't have that option. We flew into Calama in Chile and booked into a hotel at San Pedro de Atacama at around 2400m. Even this is considered to be at altitude although most people won't feel it much there. We took things easy - taking short bike rides and feasting out in the relaxed town of San Pedro which is moonrisebursting with eateries, as well as tour agencies and souvenir shops. Tourists pace its mud packed streets, but it has charm. All around it there are desert valleys which turn shades of orange and red at sunset. Excursions are offered in all directions. At night the sky is alight with twinkling stars - although during our stay we didn't see much of these as the moon was full and out-shone everything.

We hired a ute for 24 hours and headed towards Argentina. There is the remote dusty town of Socaire, at 3600m. Tours stop here for a set lunch, and we joined them eating soup then lama with rice and tomatoes. We booked into the community cabanas ($20 per person) which were simple but clean and the beds piled high with blankets. Comunidad Atacameña de Socaire - This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Next we drove on to the beautiful lagoons beyond (Miscanti and Miñiques and Aguas Calientes beyond) to watch the changes at sunset, at 4200m. We eventually returned for a cosy night at Socaire. We experienced some symptoms of altitude - some nausea, headaches, breathlessness, tingly fingers, multiple pees and loss of appetite - but nothing too drastic and we were now set for the more dramatic jump in height when we entered Bolivia.

Leaving Socaire with fond farewells - leaving the town busy preparing for a fiestas - brushing dust from one pile to another. The locals had been helpful and friendly. We headed back to San Pedro for our last night before the off.

The first leg of our journey, as far as Bolivia, was in a van but once we'd crossed the border we swopped to our Ruta Verde tour guide's 4x4. His name was Iladio, and he turned out to be quite shy but a responsible and experienced companion. The first day was action-packed as we drove from one other-worldly scene to another, not quite believing our eyes. Unfortunately though, the following morning we woke to snow which marred the views, and slowed our journey, but we did stop at an amazing lagoon with hundreds of flamingos close to the edge - asking to be photographed. We eventually escaped the snow by afternoon and passed through flat expanses with coral rock scattered about. All this was underwater many millenniums ago.







Then suddenly out of nowhere the land turned white. It was like driving over a frozen lake, which in a way it is. The huge expanse of solid salt was once water, but has turned into a 30 metre deep bulk of bright white as far as the eye can see. We drove over it until we reached an island - one of 31 - called Incahuasi which was covered in tall and ancient cacti. That night we slept in a hotel made of salt, which overlooked the Solar de Uyuni. Dining at a salt table and sitting on solid salt chairs, we ate well. The rooms were comfortable - although not particularly salty looking - and we were grateful for taking the 'comfort' option that Ruta Verde offer. This includes use of oxygen too if needed. We saw the basic accommodation in the wilds during a lunch stop where cold and drafty dorms were offered of the most basic nature.



















Our last day and the sky was blue. We rolled around on the Solar, taking wacky photos, seeing the natural hexagon shapes that are created on its surface. You could see the dust cloud that rose from around Uyuni long before we reached it. It dirtied the pristine white, and was vast and daunting. We raced through our last visits, including the train cemetery (which the children would have loved) as it was impossible to breath outside without getting a mouthful of grit. The winds were high and the air full of dirt. Driving into Uyuni we were all thinking - god, this is grim. The half built buildings, the rubbish everywhere, graffiti, roaming dogs - and so cold. (Apparently this was a bad day!)

Once settled into our hotel room at Girasoles Hotel we caught our breath before exploring. The wind had calmed thankfully. In the centre of town there were various restaurants - predominantly serving pizza - and chose a great one (called Arco Iris) with tasty food, good company and a brief visit from travelling Argentine musicians. There was a brass band parading town for a fiestas which we caught up with on the way home. We watched the town's folk leading it in dance - and joined in a bit. But the thing that won the children over in Uyuni was the long bumpy slide at the playground that the they went down time and again.