Last known location: London, England

Up to the Altiplano

Next was a long road trip up to the Altiplano, the high plane that stretches from Chile, through Bolivia to Peru, but we had a couple of stops to break the journey. We set off just after dawn (actually only about 8 o’clock!) for the tiny bus station in Caldera and were soon on our way to our first stop, Antofagasta. It was another spectacular journey along the Pan-American highway through the edge of the Atacama desert, and we took in some delightful sights along the way – cement works, gas plants, mines etc.!

We had low expectations for Antofagasta, but were pleasantly surprised when the bus emerged onto a green seafront boulevard lined with palm trees. After getting ripped off by a taxi driver we found a cheap hotel following a sweaty search in the heat with our backpacks. That night we sought out Wally’s Pub, which our guidebook claimed was an English pub serving curries and draft pints. Perhaps we (or more accurately I) had built up too much of picture of how such a place might be, and this led to inevitable disappointment! There was no draught beer and one very average curry!

The next day we had nothing planned, and the city is pretty light on sights – basically a port for exporting copper and the like – so we had a quiet day exploring the market, port and squares, all squeezed onto a narrow strip of land between the mountains and the ocean. We also stocked up on some more warm clothing for the cold nights at altitude!

The following morning we were back on the bus to the desert oasis of Calama, at 2,200 metres (7,200 feet), over half the altitude of the Altiplano, so a good place to acclimatise a little bit. To aid this process we started taking some tablets which supposedly speed things up, but we hadn’t bargained on the side effects – they made you wee on a very regular basis, which made the bus journey quite interesting!

The only reason for stopping in Calama was that it’s the departure point for one of the few overland routes to Bolivia, so on arrival we sought out a bus company to take us. After a lot of blank looks and head-shaking from all the ticket booths at the bus station, Gem threw a bit of a wobbly, plonked herself down, and declared that everything was a disaster and our trip was in ruins! This was a slight over reaction, and after a trudge across town we found the right company and were duly booked onto the 6am departure the next morning, much to her surprise!

Next day we were up bright and early and joined a couple of other travellers on the bus, along with a hoard of Bolivians! 60% of Bolivians claim indigenous heritage, compared to virtually nil in the countries we’ve visited in South America so far, so they were very different in appearance! They were also in possession of some actually fairly obvious local knowledge – nights in the desert are very cold! As we set off under the stars and a bright full moon, they were all straight to sleep huddled under blankets whilst we quietly froze! Our efforts at sleeping through it weren’t helped by the fact that 10 minutes outside of town the road promptly ended and was replaced by a glorified dirt track – this was to be the case for the remainder of the 8 hour journey!

After hours rattling through the desert mountains of the Atacama we arrived at the Chilean border post, the most exciting aspect of this process was the woman selling Saltena, basically warm and spicy Cornish Pasties, very welcome at the time! 30 seconds down the road the bus parked up on the border itself, and for some unknown reason we all had to a change to a different bus. This also involved a wait of a couple of hours, again, reason unknown!

The border at Ollague/Avaroa has to be one of the most remote around, but this hadn’t stopped locals taking advantage of our hanging around to set up a fairly large market! All manner of items were available, the weirdest being a man selling fridge freezers and other domestic appliances – odd as it sounds he can’t have been doing to badly as we saw a couple of washing machines being tied to the roof of another bus! Another novelty for us was the dress warn by the Bolivian women – thick pleated skirts, colourful shawls and bowler hats!

We did finally set off again, and rattled along for several more hours, passing only the occasional mud-brick village, and hundreds of Llamas along the way, until we finally arrived in Uyuni – our first stop in Bolivia and a welcome sight!

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