After much research, preparation and anticipation, we set off on our 3 day tour from the Atacama desert in Chile to the famous Bolivian salt flats. Of course we were excited to see the largest salt flats in the world, an amazing opportunity, but our excitement was also met with a little anxiety. Why? Well we’d read about many negative experiences of the trip (crammed jeeps, drunk drivers, terrible food etc) and it seemed difficult to find a reputable company with a clean record and good reviews. The more research we did, the harder it became to choose. So in the end we just picked one and hoped for the best! What was the worst that could happen in the middle of nowhere in the Andes mountain range anyway? Mmm, probably best not to contemplate that.
So after a very early start (4am!), we set off in the dark on our bus to the Chilean border. We’d been told about some political conflicts at the normal border crossing, so we had a 5 hour diversion to look forward to. This turned out to involve traversing some particularly rough dirt roads and high mountain passes (I tried to avoid looking down over the cliff edge), before we finally arrived to the Chilean border, our jeep meeting point. Amazingly we still managed to catch up on some sleep despite the bumpy ride. Well Barry certainly did while I enjoyed the sunrise over the Andes, honestly that boy could sleep anywhere!
After a surprisingly good breakfast (from the back of our bus) and an hour or so wait, in the distance we saw a dust trail approaching us, and a few minutes later our 4×4 jeeps came into view as they hurtled down the valley towards us! Anxious and excited, we waited for the jeeps to come into clearer view to see our first glimpse of our home for the next 3 days! Thankfully they looked pretty decent and so did the drivers – well sober at least. And our driver in particular seemed to have a sense of humour given his cap choice!
Each jeep holds 6 people, and luckily our fellow passengers were all perfectly normal! Pretty important as we were about to be in close proximity for the next 3 days! We were certainly an interesting mix with 5 different nationalities and 5 different languages to match (English, Spanish, Portuguese, German & Korean)! So after brief introductions and loading our bags onto the roof of our jeep, it was finally time to set off on our 3 day adventure (after waking up 7 hours earlier!).
I’ll never forget the first section of the drive when we set off into the vast barren landscape of the huge Andean mountains. Cruising across the deserted mountains, it felt like we were instantly putting our jeep’s cross country and suspension ability to the test (I didn’t expect this so early in the 3 day tour). We didn’t seem to be heading in any particular direction, rather just up, down and across the wide expanse of the mountains. Each of our group’s 3 jeeps seemed to choose their own crazy path with the drivers constantly checking their mirrors to see where the others were, if they could see through all the dust! They seemed to relish in the freedom of it and got a kick out of finding the fastest route and taking over each other all the time. It felt like we were in an episode of Top Gear! Despite being a little scary at times, we loved the thrill of it too and the feeling of freedom from roads and highways and being able to venture whichever way we wanted.
After an hour or so of rally driving, we finally reached the Bolivian border (so we really were in ‘no man’s land’!) where after a long wait in the blistering mid day sun, we were greeted by a grumpy Bolivian border policeman (who threatened to close the office for an hour unless we stood in an orderly queue!). After finally getting our entry stamp, we stepped foot into Bolivia for the first time. With all the formalities out of the way, we finally began our tour of the Altiplanos of Bolivia – woohoo!
Just half an hour later we made our first stop at some incredible rock formations. Rising out of the Altiplano sand dunes were these amazing creations of nature.
Slightly further along our route, we witnessed more incredible rock formations including this isolated rock made of stone, sculpted by the wind and sun resembling a weirdly shaped tree (hence its name “stone tree”). Amazing, and just one part of a larger group of rocks known collectively as the “stone forest”.
Next it was time to visit some of the famous lagoons of the area including “Laguna Verde” and “Laguna Blanca”. The best part of these was seeing the pink flamingoes which inhabit them. Incredible to see as one of few species able to survive at such a high altitude (approx 15,000 feet above sea level) with such little vegetation around.
Our first day concluded with a stop at “Laguna Colorada”, a stunning and large shallow salt lake in the southwest of the altiplano area. Its beauty stems from the contrast of its white speckled borax islands with some reddish coloured water, caused by red sediments and algae pigmentation. I wondered if that’s why the flamingoes are pink? Well it turns out that’s true! Flamingos are indeed pink or orange or white depending on what algae or crustaceans they eat – interesting!
After admiring some more pink flamingos at the lagoon, we were relieved that it was finally time to find our accommodation for the night. It had been a great but very long day! Satisfied that our concerns were not met on day 1, we rested peacefully and looked forward to what Day 2 & 3 Of Our Bolivian Jeep Rally Adventure had in store for us…