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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.