Long days in the Atacama

The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile is at times stunningly beautiful but to be honest at times it does get a little monotonous. All that sand and gravel starts to wear a little thin after more than a week of driving through it.
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We left the stunning Valle de Luna near San Pedro de Atacama after school to head to the mining town of Antofagasta on the coast. A beautifully smooth tar ribbon wound down to the sea through the completely dry parched desert. As it is winter here it wasn’t particular hot unless the sun is directly on you. A lot of Chile’s wealth comes from mining, especially copper and for many kilometres the only signs of human life were the dusty tracks to mines off in the hills and elaborate memorials for people who’ve died in crashes on the sides of the roads. All though Latin America we’ve seem small memorials for loved ones who’ve died but Chile seems to have the biggest…and the most frequent. This seems strange as the driving is of a higher standard than we’ve seen so far. They also have a lot of roadside shrines for saints, these look like works of love by believers and are made of a random selection of materials.
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We’d planned to spend the night in Antofagasta so we could get jobs like laundry done the following morning but to say the campsites left a little to be desired would be an understatement. I wasn’t keen on urban boondocking on the beach in the middle of town so we headed back out to the desert. The bizarre sculpture Mano de Desierto sticking out of the sand in the middle of nowhere seemed as good as anywhere else to park up for the night.
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Still in desperate need of clean clothes (I love this overlanding lifestyle but sometimes even I miss things like a washing machine!) we made the detour to the small fishing and mining town of Taltal. “Every Day is Like Sunday” by Morrissey was on repeat in my head, there is something very melancholy about seaside towns in the winter. Especially when you’ve done a 80km detour to find no laundry. We’d hand wash it ourselves, if there wasn’t a constant sea mist near the coast and it seems ridiculous to pick an inland camp spot purely for its drying properties! We’d also have to find at least one tree to put up a washing line and we hadn’t seem one those for 100s of Kms.
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Taltal: “…everyday is silent and grey…”

Our stop for the night, just outside Pan de Azúcar National Park cleared all the melancholy away though. A beautiful sunset on a perfect white beach, we parked up just off the quiet road for the night. The “sugar loaf” island just off the land is famous for its Humbolt Penguins but we skipped the opportunity for a boat ride out the following morning as it was expensive, freezing and the girls were more than happy examining the dead specimen we found on the beach.imageimageimageimage
Luckily the small town near the beach resort Bahia Inglesia came up trumps with a laundry, pretty good after a 500km search! We camped in what would in peak season be a campsite for 300 plus people but we had it to ourselves bar two tents. We spent a very relaxing day here doing next to nothing although the kids had fun putting up our tent and playing in it. It was nice to have a break from the recent long drives.
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Making our way further down the coast to La Serena, only another 7 hours though the desert, we slept on the promenade for the night. It reminded us very much of Spain. The town was pretty but not enough to tempt us for another night, so we headed out to the fertile Elqui Valley to check out the Pisco and the stars.imageimage

imageThe local wildlife checking out our shiny new shock absorbers.

A Change of Plan

After the rough drive through the beautiful South West Circuit it was time to see if we could get some things fixed on the truck in Uyuni. First stop was the truck wash to get the salt washed off from underneath the vehicle. Then it was off to the tyre change shop to have our puncture repaired. The puncture was repaired pretty easily but worryingly the guy could not get the tyre refitted without air coming out. He said to leave it with him and pick it up in the morning. As it was getting late we just parked on the street in town. As the evening wore on we could hear loud music. Initially we just thought this was a night club nearby but before going to bed decided to look outside to investigate. There was dancing in the street a little way up from us and they had blocked the road, were stopping traffic and lit fires in oil drums. As Uyuni has a recent history of blockades and protests we thought it would be a good idea to move so we woke Alisha and Lucy up, bundled them in the front,and drove a short way outside of town to camp in the rubbish laden area a few kilometres from town. The next morning we drove back into Uyuni and all was peaceful so maybe it had just been a fiesta. Our tyre was fixed so the next job was to have the disc brake cover repaired. We found a welder who did a good job and I was able to reinstall it. Our last job was to find a mechanic to see what the knocking sound was. I was pretty convinced it was the front shock absorbers and the mechanic we found confirmed this. He said we needed new ones but we would not be able to get them in Uyuni. That evening back at our rubbish strewn campsite we debated what we should do. Should we push on with our original plan and drive across Southern Bolivia, through Paraguay to Brazil or should we drive the relatively short distance into Chile. We knew we would be able to get new shock absorbers in both Brazil and Chile but Brazil was 2000kms away and the roads would probably not be that good. After looking through maps and a thorough discussion we decided we would head to Chile do a loop South and then head back up to Paraguay and Brazil. The only problem was that the drive to the first main town in Chile was along 450kms of dirt road. Fortunately it was not too bad. The scenery was spectacular and the border crossing was really easy with the only delay been because the border officials were having lunch. We had heard that on entering Chile we could lose most of our food and there is a form with a long list of things you can not bring in. We declared we had food and would then wait to see what they took. The inspector wanted to look in the truck but seemed more interested in its lay out. He asked if we had any fruit or vegetables and I opened the fridge. He confiscated the small amount we had but fortunately left everything else.

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On entering Chile we started descending and entering the Atacama Desert. We arrived in the town of Calama where supposedly it has only rained four times in the last 80 years. On arrival my impression was that the town was a little bit like Stockton (sorry you need to have been born in Middlesbrough to understand that one) but you could immediately see how much more developed it was than Bolivia.

We camped in a camping area at a large sports complex. As the next day was Sunday we had time to kill so wandered into town. There was nothing really to see and it was pretty closed anyway so we wandered further to the large shopping centres. It was clear we were back in the first world! The shopping centres had everything and we were able to buy all the the thingswe had been looking for for a long time such as new water filters, an ipad charger etc. We went shopping in the great supermarket and whilst everything was more expensive than Bolivia there was a great choice. One thing though was cheaper than anywhere on our travels so far, wine! Wine started at about $3 a bottle so for $6 you could get a pretty good bottle. Needless to say we restocked the truck.
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The next day we headed to the MAN garage on the outskirts of town. We were really glad we had decided to come to Chile as on inspection underneath the truck a bolt had come out of part of the steering. We think this had happened very recently but were glad we still did not have a long drive in front of us. We spent all day at the garage as they tried to source the spare parts. The guys did an excellent job and at 8pm we were finished with new shock absorbers and all our brake sensors working properly again.
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The last job we had to do in Calama before leaving was change the Bolivian money we still had left. As we had left Bolivia earlier than planned we still had quite a bit. The banks would not change it so we were left with the money changers. Each time I had been into town they had been closed so on our final morning I gave it one last go. This time they were open but the rate both of them offered was about 60 per cent of the mid market rate so I basically told them they could stuff it.

We drove the short distance to the tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama. This is near the Bolivian border and only about 100kms from where we were had our puncture before in South West Bolivia. If only we had known we were going to Chile we could have crossed the border there as opposed to the long way round we had taken. We camped in a dusty campsite in town and I immediately went to see if I could change our Bolivian Bolivars. I tried a different tactic this time. At the money exchange I explained that I wanted to buy Bolivian Bolivars and the lady quoted me a rate which was not great. I then pulled my Bolivian Bolivars out and she realised I wanted to sell them not buy them. I apologised for the misunderstanding and just explained that my Spanish was very bad. She now had to quote me a different rate to sell. The rate she gave me was very close to the mid market rate so I was happy and about 50 per cent better than in Calama.

San Pedro de Atacama is a dusty tourist town set up as a base for people to do tours in the surrounding area. It is a town where nearly all the buildings are made of adobe and was quite pleasant to wander around for an hour or so.
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However the next day we decided to head out so see some of the surrounding sights. First we headed to Laguna Cejar a salt lake that you could float in because of the high concentration of salt. However it drops below freezing at night in the desert so the lake was not very warm. At first we could not manage to get on and only splashed around in the shallows. We were told the lake was only 15 degrees so it was very cold. Eventually Gilly and I took the plunge and went on far enough to prove you could float. Mind you we were only in long enough to get the photo and then we were straight out.
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After that we drove to the Valle de Luna. This is an area where the rocks have eroded to give the impression of a lunar landscape. It was very beautiful especially with the ring of volcanoes in the background.
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We drove onto a ridge overlooking the valley to watch the sunset and this made a perfect spot to camp for the night.
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Reflections on Bolivia

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Lucy

Bolivia is nice. We had Alisha’s birthday, we went and saw flamingos and we went to the jungle.

I liked learning about bugs in the jungle and going on boat rides in the Pampas. We saw lots of animals and went fishing for pirañas.

We went to the salt flats, it was fun to make funny photos. On the second island me, Carla and Alisha found a den, we make a salt house inside.

I love llamas. You can tell the difference between llamas, vicunas and alpacas. Alpacas are fluffy, vicunas are orange and don’t have special earrings and llamas have colourful earrings.

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This spider looks a bit like the one that was hiding in my wellies and bit me. It hurt a lot but I was ok as it wasn’t poisonous. I always remembered to check my shoes after.

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Look how high I can jump!

Alisha

After leaving Peru we found ourselves in Bolivia. Coming from the border we headed straight for Lake Titicaca. After spending one night in the truck we took a boat trip to Isla de Sol, where we spent the night. I ran off the path there and did some really good rock climbing by myself. Then we continued to La Paz, where we flew to the jungle. It was great there, the main thing I liked was when it was raining a and we made jewellery. When we went to our tent, I couldn’t believe my eyes: there was a big tent and a special little tent. The little tent was my tent and I slept in every night with Mummy, Daddy or Lucy.

We went to the Pampas and one of the funniest things on the last day was that we saw a whole troop of squirrel monkeys. Some of them went on Daddy’s knee and head and then they went on Lucy’s hat. I didn’t want to have that as Lucy said they were very heavy.

We went to Sajama where we spent my 9th birthday. My favourite present was the sewing kit, that Mummy and Daddy gave me.

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Gilly

After leaving Bolivia unexpectedly yesterday, I still don’t quite know how to sum it up. It was one of the most beautiful countries we have been to, the high altiplano makes your eyes sing with its beauty but is is definitely the most difficult country we’ve travelled though.

We experienced two extremes: the Amazon basin and the Altiplano. We felt very privileged to experience the Amazon the way we did: deep into the jungle and in a camp that was set up by people who fought to protect their lands by getting it made into a national park. Learning about the rainforest from people whose lives are so intertwined with this unique environment was a very special experience that I won’t forget.

The Altiplano fluctuating between 4000-5000m on its flatter parts, had its own unique harsh beauty. I certainly wasn’t sad to leave the dusty towns of Potosi and Uyuni but I’ll miss the salt flats, volcanos, snow capped peaks, jewel coloured lakes and sweeping vistas of plains covered with golden grasses. Back down at a more normal altitude it is great to find that some of the niggles that the truck was having have completely disappeared. Cooking on gas with so little oxygen wasn’t easy and the toilet, which is actually a yacht toilet was definitely not meant to go that high. It was a relief to find that still works properly! The stress of worrying about when the truck will start and how much damage we were doing to it on the bad roads was also wearing. Although we were fortunately unaffected, the threat of roadblocks and civil unrest for two weeks didn’t help matters either. That aside what I’ll remember most about Bolivia is the stunning scenery.

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Steve

Bolivia is a country of extremes. The Altipano is a harsh environment but is stunningly beautiful. People life a hard life up there and it was hard on us and the truck. Most of the time we were near or above 4000m and that meant it was also below freezing most nights. This meant we struggled to start the truck some mornings and sometimes had to wait for the sun to warm it up. Some of the roads were also really bad. We are used to dirt roads but what made these so bad were the endless corrugations which rattled the truck to bits no matter at what speed you drove. The scenery though was stunning and made it worthwhile, volcanoes, snow capped mountains and flamingo filled lakes.

The Salar de Uyuni was very special and it was great to be camped out in the middle of nowhere in a salt lake, the silence was deafening.

Whilst most of the high altiplano towns were uninspiring and reflected the harsh environment of the people living there, Sucre was lovely and pleasant and being just that bit lower was warmer both in temperature and in the people.

The jungle region was altogether different, clearly a different topography but the people were completely different too and it was a great experience to camp in the jungle.

Bolivia is a challenging country to travel in but one that is worthwhile. It also makes you appreciate the creature comforts when you arrive somewhere more developed.

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The truck “sunbathing”, trying to warm up after a night at -13° C.