Flat out in Atacama

Blogging and travelling is apparently harder than I first imagined – I’ve started new posts on about 5 occasions in the last few weeks, but I´m so busy doing and seeing crazy things and moving from one place to another, I just don’t seem to have TIME! So apologies for the lack of updates – I’ve been getting stick from a few of you. All I can say is, let’s hope this post makes up for the silence over the last month…

So, since the last tale of the crazy caballo in Uruguay, I´ve come quite a long way… through Buenos Aires (where there were tanguerias, and tears over leaving my first amazing group of travelling friends and superstar roomie one, Tracey, man), into the beautiful town of Bariloche in Upper Patagonia (with awesome new roomie Liz, aka Little Piglet/Angel/Burro, to see mountains, lakes, Swiss chocolate tin-style chalets), into the weirdness of Puerto Varas in Chile (where there was lots of illness, and one of the funniest days of my life, staying in a hostel that was a cross between a rabbit warren and  the interior of a Seventies caravan), over to Chile’s adventure capital, Pucon (where Hostel Willy was the backdrop for some rafting, hydrospeeding, almost volcano climbing and major dirt biking injuries, courtesy of brilliant local guide, Philippe), up to Santiago (to meet the next lot of travellers, visit the hospital, yes, read that right, and chill before heading up towards La Serena (with crazy Pisco-fuelled tours, and amazing observatories), before hitting San Pedro de Atacama (our last mad cycling, sandboarding and first high altitude stop) before leaving Chile for Bolivia via Atacama and the salt flats…which is where this story basically begins.  (Yes, that was a long intro, but a LOT has been going on over here…I’m reinforcing the ‘I´m not lazy’ point!).

SO, where to begin? The salt flats are the part of the trip I’ve REALLY been looking forward to for months.  Maybe the border crossing is the best place to start. Our fantastically fun tour leader, American dude John (aka Mr John, John Boy, Animal ((from the Muppets))) warned us the border could be interesting… he wasn’t kidding. We left Chile, drove about 40 minutes into no-man’s land and literally crossed a line in the sand to go to the most disorganised immigration office ever. I don’t know what was going on, but it took a little sweetening to get us all over the border after about half an hour in the cold. We loaded into our three 4x4s, our transport for the next day – car numero uno, which became known as the party car, up front with Liz, me, Stu and John and speed demon local guide Toby.

San Pedro de Atacama had been HOT. I mean, muy, muy calor. Atacama was NOT. A cold front had come in overnight, and as we headed past our first stop – the laguna verde – towards the natural hot springs, it started to snow. A little at first, but by the time we were in our bikinis and board shorts in the springs, it was come down pretty steadily. Certainly surreal. But things got far trippier as the day went on – steamy geysers, sulphur and snowflakes were interesting, but by the time we arrived at the truly beautiful red lagoon,  inhabited by a flock of flamingos, I was beginning to think that someone had slipped some kind of hallucenogenic into our lunch. None of us, including the drivers were prepared for this – it hasn’sa snowed in the salt flats since 2002. And the worst part? After a freezing cold day, we had to spend the night in an unheated and only recently electrically lit concrete bunker of a hotel. I think I wore about 4 layers to bed that night, in a sleeping bad, with 3 blankets on top, and I was STILL shivering all night long. Still, in the salt flats with an amazing group of people, so I let it go and focussed on day two in the party car.

This day might have floored some people, but I haven’t had such an insanely amusing and fun day in ages. The snow had settled overnight – a lot of it – and we weren’t even sure what we were going to see. The conditions were terrible, the desert tracks invisible, as at times there was no way to differentiate between snow and sky, and our drivers were incredible. I have no idea how you navigate through a desert without any landmarks, but Toby managed it. We got to the rock tree no problems, and had a massive snowball fight. Our next stop was meant to be a mountain coloured by beautiful minerals – we coudn’s see it, so we built a snowman. From there we headed to lunch, and into our first dodgy encounter with the weather that day.

As we drove through a whiteness that resembled a totally blank piece of paper, the car got stuck. It woudn’t move. So the party car passengers, plus a couple of the other lads from the other cars, jumped out to push start it back on track. Five minutes, some frozen fingers and a lot of hilarious photos later, we were on the way again. Lord knows where to… but we got there somehow for a tasty but bizarre lunch of ingredients yo’d never put together in the UK in a month of sundays. It worked though.

In under an hour we were packed up and back on the ‘road’ again. As the power ballads once again made an appearance, we travelled through deep snow, to lighter snow, into water-logged salt flats. Cue salt flat horror number two. Halfway through a rendition of Danger Zone, the car skids to a halt, as the wheels get stuck in the muddy salt waters. Reverse, go forward, turn, reverse go forward, turn,….nothing doing, car into reverse, won’t move. Toby takes off his shoes and socks and wades out into the water to take a look and find the good ground, as Little Piglet, Little Big Hair, “Sthuwart” and Animal contemplate the strong possibility we’ll have to do the same. We do. Abandoning shoes  and socks and with trousers rolled right up we exit the car for push start number two, as everyone else looks on from the higher, drier ground. Bloody hell is this mud cold! And deep. And sticky. But we’re all a bit keyed up, and after failed attempt one, Joe, Henry, Ade and Eric come to join the fun. It takes a while, but after a lot of mud digging, exhaust burning and effort, the car’s out and we can be on the way again. As we climb into the car to get warm, I chuck John’s coat fom the back seat into the front…don’t realise the door’s open, and I hear a yell of ´DEVIL WOMAN! Why are you throwing my coat and passport into the mud?!’ Dios mio… big, big error.

I got the guilts big time and spent the next half hour apologising. John’s over it in minutes, though, and ripping it out of me, milking the story for all it’s worth for the rest of the day… even when we hit snag three. The car gets stuck, AGAIN, and this time, it’s really not looking good. The running boards are almost in the mud, the tyres are buried and the engine won’t start. If this car comes out, it’ll be a miracle. About 45 minutes later, after some tinkering under the bonnet, and with ten of us pushing the car like our lives depend on it, which in this cold they might do, the car’s somehow, to our incredulity, freed. Frozen and knackered, we climb back in, being careful with personal possessions this time, and spend the next 2 hours (? maybe less) with our fingers crossed in our laps that it’s not going to happen again. I have never felt such relief as the moment we drove off the water logged salt flats onto a relatively normal road. Ever.

The sweets and beers we bought in San Juan before Liz got assaulted, and Stu almost pickpocketed, by a six year old boy, tasted incredible, and the party car got back on the road, iPod blaring with wake-up tracks (DAMN GIRRRRL!) to get us to the amazing salt hotel…of which more in part two, as I’m out of time again! Keep your eyes peeled, as the salt flat stories do only get better. Hasta luego…

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About Alanna

...is all about seizing the day, Free Style!
This entry was posted in Travel Stories, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Flat out in Atacama

  1. Alex says:

    Dude, glad you’re having so much fun! I didn’t sleep at all on Flats, was so cold! Keep us updated! x

  2. father says:

    Sooner you than me!

  3. Mum, says:

    What a story, can’t wait to hear part 2. I’m so jealous!

  4. Great. I found this site on a random google search and what can I say, best read I have had all week. Definately be back, Thanks and good luck!

  5. Auntie says:

    This is MUCH better than Listen With Mother!!! keep it coming. We’re all living vicariously through you.

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