John Steinbeck once said that people don’t take trips—trips take people. He’s right, of course. I should know. South America has always had a way of taking me—whisking me away from wherever I was in life and depositing me somewhere along the Andean spine, awestruck and in love with wild people and even wilder places. I first traveled to the continent when I was 23-years-old to spend two weeks in Ecuador and Peru. Five years later, it was Argentina, followed by Chile and Argentina a year later and then back to Argentina again eight months after that. So by the time I sat down with a dear friend from college to plan a trip to northern Chile and Bolivia, one could say I was somewhat familiar with the region.
But every trip is dissimilar from the last. As I stared out the window of the Sky Airlines 737 that was taking me to Calama, Chile at the vast yellow-brown sea of dirt and sand, punctuated by the copper mines that left gigantic pockmarks in the Earth’s surface, I knew that I was about to embark on something unique, something that would take me and swallow me whole and spit out a slightly different person than before I began. That was the plan—to lose myself in South America for a month; to find inspiration and direction for my newly jobless existence in the desolation of Chile’s Atacama and the isolation of the Bolivian Southern Altiplano. Like Thoreau going to the woods, I set out with the intention of completely removing myself from the life I had built in Washington, D.C. to see if, in doing so, clarity of what I want out of life would come to me.
My first step in pursuit of clarity began with the lesson that the Atacama Desert is less sand dune and more dirt. When we landed in Calama, Chile—the only two females on a flight full of miners returning to the job, hard hats dutifully strapped onto the exterior of their carry-on backpacks—there was not a cloud in the sky. It remained that way for the duration of our stay, little surprise given that the Atacama Desert is known as the driest place on Earth. Arica, Chile, in the northern Atacama, holds the distinction of having the longest dry spell in the world, having gone 173 months without a single drop of rain in the early 20th century. Still, it is one thing to tell yourself that you’re going to the driest place on earth and another thing entirely to actually be there.
The road from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama is 100km of blacktop stretched out atop a sea of dusty dirt upon which wind turbines loiter against the cloudless sky and guanacos wander. Inactive volcanoes ring the horizon. San Pedro appears quite literally out of nowhere; the irrigated green trees give it away from a distance. A desert oasis. But once you’re there you discern the place for what it is: a dry and dusty town comprised of brown buildings, dirt streets and store fronts populated by adventure outfitters and entrepreneuring local artisans hawking copper jewelry, t-shirts and bottles upon bottles of water. We were staying at the Hotel Cumbres, set slightly outside of the main village drag. It was from there that we would embark on our daily excursions, explore Atacama and its surrounding environs only to return to numerous crystalline swimming pools and our bedroom suite complete with one of the largest outdoor showers I’ve ever seen. Cumbres, like many of its all-inclusive resort neighbors, makes exploring the top sites in the world’s driest desert easy.
We began that first afternoon by going to Valle de la Luna where a prototype for a Mars rover was once tested—the idea being that Atacama is the closest thing to Mars on Earth. With its sand dunes, spiry rock formations and salt deposits that at first glance are easy to mistake for a dusting of snow, this is the ambiance one thinks of when the word desert is mentioned. Our guide for the afternoon was a Chilean in his mid-20s who had just spent half a year in Thailand island-hopping and beach-residing with the sort of carefree enjoyment that similarly aged Americans find hard to indulge in for too long. When asked what exactly he had been doing in Thailand, he told us that he had wanted to trade the aridity and heat of Atacama for the humidity and heat of the verdant Thai landscape. It seems that he had planned on guiding over there—for what or whom I never could quite tell, and maybe he couldn’t either—but when that fell through, he simply existed and appreciated. His was the type of lifestyle I had always envied, and I felt that familiar twinge of jealousy creep up inside of me upon hearing his story up until the moment I realized that I was doing something similar. Seeking clarity is the euphemism I had assigned to the phrase “left my job in order to travel and figure out what I want to do with my life.” I stood there on that ridge, eyeing a similarly minded, peripatetic soul, and I found solace in knowing that this world is filled with restless individuals who are driven to wander, whether they have a purpose or not. For some of us, the simple act of moving is reason enough.
We continued to hike along a ridge, wind whipping sand off the dunes and buffeting the red rocky outcrops with sharp gusts. In every direction, the world at your fingertips was a beautifully inhospitable one. That perception carried over to the plateau we later stood on while watching the sun set over the valley. Rocks and sand were lit up in a cascading color spectrum—warm orange and red gave way to pink, purple, and finally that dark, muted blue which brought the night and the cold and countless stars.
Borrowing hotel bikes, we spent our second day cruising the streets of San Pedro and, venturing further afield, the pre-Columbian archaeological site of Pukará de Quitor. The ruins of a 700-year-old fort in the desert are pretty much what you would imagine: sun-baked stone blocks set against a hillside that require a stretch of imagination to envision how any human inhabitants could live there for long. We hiked around and sweat. We drank water and continued to sweat. Everyone we encountered had a glazed look about them, set in by some combination of heatstroke and archaeological bewilderment. It was hard to discern artifacts of historical significance from the newer structures. Impressive faces carved out of stone memorializing the resistance of the Atacameños to Spanish invaders nearly 500 years ago are only a few decades old rather than the centuries-old relics you wished them to be. Feeling satisfied with our basic understanding that the Atacameño people who built this fort were practically superhuman and no longer capable of sweating because dehydration had set in, we pedaled back to San Pedro where cold Austral lagers and french fries awaited.
In every place you visit, no matter where in the world you are, no matter how thoroughly you researched your destinations, something will surprise you. The surprise is almost always inversely proportional to how well you planned your trip. If you are winging your entire vacation, everything will be a little surprise—the ease (or difficulty) in which you can find lodging, the quality of food at the no-name bodega down the street from your B&B, the delightful side journeys to quaint towns with their friendly store proprietors and locally-sourced ceramic goods. But if you have a general idea of what you are doing on any given day, as we had to in order to obtain Bolivian visas and ensure that we were going to find open seats in an outfitter’s Land Cruiser to make the overland drive from San Pedro de Atacama to the Salar de Uyuni, then the surprises that are in store for you are always somewhat remarkable in nature. They are the things for which you cannot plan, and they are either going to be catastrophic or sublime.
The Salar de Aguas Calientes lay shimmering like a translucent, multicolored jewel in a valley filled with rust-colored tufts of coiron grass. Surrounding it were volcanic mountains whose slopes, depending on where you stood, appeared to be newly polished black, royal blue or grey. The salar, located in Los Flamencos National Reserve, sits at nearly 16,000 feet—8,000 feet higher, 100km away, and a world apart from the town of San Pedro. In a trip featuring many sublime surprises, this counts as the first one. The fact that one can drive for two hours and trade a world of sand and dust for something so starkly beautiful as this high alpine lake boggled my mind. I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised; this is billed as a land of extremes, after all. But the colors did me in, and I thought—not for the last time on this trip—this cannot be real life.
A short drive away from the salar, Miscanti and Miñiques lakes, better known as the lagunas altiplánicas, sit at the foot of Miñiques volcano having been separated years ago by a lava flow. When we arrived, a herd of guanacos grazed along the shoreline as the ever-present wind fiercely howled. Some frolicked across the grass, running every which way, while others slowly marched in a single-file procession. They paid no attention to us—we blots of intrusion on their land frantically trying to keep our hats on and our hair from flying in front of the camera lens as the shutter snapped shut. Like Atacama, this is a desolate region. The land goes on for miles, and you never see anyone or anything save some ostrich, a few guanacos and minibuses carting around tourists on a day trip from San Pedro. But it’s a beautiful and necessary desolation. At the mere sight of these lakes, that ancient gene within my twisted DNA—the one that links me most acutely to my hunter-gather ancestors and prizes the sanctity of nature above all else—rejoiced.
It was still dark outside when we awoke on our fourth and final day in San Pedro de Atacama. The Magellanic Clouds loomed near the southern sweep of the Milky Way, a fact I knew solely because I had attended a hotel-organized stargazing session earlier in the evening. Nowhere on Earth is better for stargazing than Atacama where the cloud-free skies, high altitude and lack of light pollution offer visitors an unparalleled view of the night sky. It is here that the world’s largest astronomical project, Alma, is based, and scientists are able to observe the birth of stars and planets near our solar system and detect distant galaxies forming at the edge of the observable universe. But I wasn’t awake at 4am on Christmas morning to put my face up against a telescope. We were headed back into the mountains to watch the sunrise at El Tatio, which at 14,300 feet is one of the highest geyser fields in the world.
Like many attractions outside of the rule-bound United States, there are seemingly no regulations on what you can and cannot do at El Tatio. Guides are likely to suggest you avoid getting too close to the geysers as the capricious wind funneling through the plateau is fully capable of sending boiling water any which way, but really you can do whatever you want. People stood in the steam and angled their tripods directly over the fumaroles while others posed for pictures alongside jets of boiling water spurting from the ground. If you want to touch scalding water sent straight from the depths of the Earth—and I don’t suggest you do—this is as good a place as any to try. The laissez-faire nature of El Tatio directly complemented its beauty. At dawn, as the temperature hovers near freezing and the air is not yet able to evaporate the steam, wraith-like columns dance and sway across the entire field. Like most things in this region, the colors change dramatically depending on your perspective. Towers of steam morph from icy blue when contrasted against the mountains in soft light to marshmellow white while standing beside them. Trying to keep warm, I walked around listening to the strange and incomparable sounds the ground emits as it vomits out water. In the distance, a handful of tourists sat crouched in a hot spring, careful not to expose too much skin to the frigid air. Two guys were wearing Santa hats—the only flashes of red in a landscape otherwise saturated with earth tones.
K and I returned to San Pedro where we lounged by the pool and packed for our impending departure to Bolivia. We ate dinner at La Casona, a quaint restaurant with an open firepit, excellent pizzas and Chilean flags strung from the ceiling. A parade of municipal vehicles drove down main street, honking at the tourists and children who had gathered to watch as wreathes dangled from their hoods, red and green streamers flew from their sides, and street dogs scampered off in their wake. Men wearing Santa costumes walked down the street on stilts. Three minutes of ruckus. Then the shopkeepers returned to their stores while restaurant employees stood outside trying to entice tourists to enter; the children dispersed as little kids are wont to do after a party is over, and the street dogs lay back down in the middle of the dusty road, managing to eye every passerby both disdainfully and hungrily at the same time. And thus concluded Christmas in San Pedro de Atacama.
Disclaimer: I’m always trying to venture off-the-beaten-path in hopes of seeing a place for what it really is and historically has been, before civilization got in the way and put up its roads and signs and barriers. I also can appreciate the irony here: tourist seeking well-known touristy spots but preferably without other tourists and little tourist infrastructure. And how did I get here? Well, I read about it in Lonely Planet or The New York Times travel section. We all want to be deluded into believing we were the first ones to find and appreciate something unique, some place of unspoiled beauty that has not yet been overrun by people toting guidebooks and taking selfies—both of which I admittedly do. Avoiding the sensation of predictability—where everyone is gathered around the same few paintings at the world-renowned art museum and everyone is stopped at the same highway pull-off that’s been Instragrammed approximately 42,000 times—is the goal. Of course, it doesn’t happen often. Fame and popularity are generally bestowed for a reason, and the things we want to see, the places we want to visit, are the things of which we have read and heard people rave about for years. When it does happen, however, and you find yourself squarely deposited in the midst of someplace otherworldly that still retains an aura of pristine isolation, you kind of lose your mind. This is what happened to me in southern Bolivia.
For our three-day excursion from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Uyuni, Bolivia, we selected Cordillera Traveller as our tour outfitter. There are a myriad of options from which you can choose, most offering the same itinerary and similar lodgings with transportation in a requisite 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser. A cursory glance at TripAdvisor is replete with the usual wide range of comments, from people saying their guide was drunk and they were constantly cold (the average height of the Bolivian Altiplano is approximately 13,000 feet, so yes, bring layers) to people raving about the flawlessness of the entire experience. We were fortunately among the latter.
From the moment we exchanged the Chilean paved highway for a Bolivian dirt road, I knew the border crossing signified more than a new passport stamp. Bolivia is a country of statistical extremes: It is the highest and most isolated country in South America with the largest proportion of indigenous people, and though rich in minerals and energy resources, it is one of Latin America’s poorest nations. Poverty and isolation in this rural context immediately translated into the sensation that we were entering a frontier wilderness—a place far from the reaches of the national government in La Paz that, beyond setting aside vast tracks of land for national reserve status, seemed content to let the tour outfitters have relative authority and autonomy in the region. At the border crossing, we were divvied up into traveling groups with six people per Land Cruiser. K and I lucked out and were paired with four friendly Swedes of Chilean origin whose parents had fled Chile once Pinochet took power. Our guide was an affable Bolivian who made the Atacama-Uyuni-Atacama crossing twice a week, year-round. His familiarity with this road-less drive of a few hundred kilometers was such that he likely could have done it blindfolded.
Prior to the trip, I was familiar with a couple of the key sights—Laguna Colorada with its flamingo-saturated red waters, the Salar de Uyuni with its white salt flats extending in all directions to the horizon—but our first few stops in the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna trump the others in terms of the element of surprise. We piled into our Land Cruiser, drove a few kilometers down from the border crossing, piled out, paid an entrance fee, piled back in and were soon deposited on the shores of Laguna Blanca. Walk around, our guide told us. Meet me over there in 20, he said, signaling at a point in the distance. I heeded his words, walked towards the lake, and the now familiar refrain—THIS CANNOT BE REAL LIFE—flashed through my mind like a news announcement scrolling across a Times Square billboard in gigantic font with all letters capitalized. The world was entirely silent save the sound the wind makes as it cuts across a huge expanse rustling over grass and water, concurrently violent and soothing. And this world was huge—mountains on the horizon in every direction you turned; thin, whispy cirrus clouds strung out high above; flamingos with their heads tucked in close to their chest, standing on one leg in translucent white-blue water. As of that moment, I became a convert to the ardent belief that the colors of the Bolivian Altiplano are more visually arresting than anywhere else in the world.
The afternoon continued on in much the same fashion, and our routine became firmly established: Pile out of the Land Cruiser to witness the surreality of the landscape firsthand, take pictures, stand around, pile back in, and continue the drive towards Uyuni down a road-less path whose existence was solely marked by the imprint of the countless Land Cruiser tire treads who had gone before us. Every stop was somehow singularly beautiful. Laguna Verde was a sanctuary of teal water and salt-rimmed shores. Flamingos feasted in the nameless runoff to its south where minerals mixed with salt and water and the ground turned bright yellow.
We drove across the Valle de Dalí, a moonscape where huge rocks are precariously positioned and painted mountains of red, yellow and white rise out of the sand. Don Omar, Shakira and Avicii blasted from the car’s speakers. Our Swedish-Chilean compatriots sat bobbing their heads to the beat of the music; K slept; I stared out the window at the unfurling landscape.
And the Land Cruiser drove on.
We arrived at Laguna Colorada late in the afternoon as the sun inched ever closer to the horizon and the wind drove relentlessly at our backs. Go forth, it seemed to say. Get closer to the lake that will alter your perception of how things in this universe should appear. And so we did. Cresting a hill, the laguna stretched below us in all directions. Flocks of flamingos flew effortlessly, their bodies a fluid mixture of black, pink and white. Those flamingos that were not in flight—thousands of them—walked on legs that resembled toothpicks. Their heads disappeared from view, some hidden under a wing, others face first in the shallow water seeking something to eat. Fact: The lake’s rusty burnt-orange hue is derived from algae and plankton that live in the mineral-rich water. Additional fact: Bolivia’s landscape is a direct affront to the world we were taught to expect. Here the lakes aren’t simply blue; they’re red and green and white. Trees are anathema. It is a landscape painted by an artist in love with reflections, someone who sees the world more vividly than the rest of us and has a color palette on LSD.
Edging closer to the water, I was able to appreciate the nuances of the lake—the yellow coiron grass blanketing the shoreline, the white beach of sodium splintered with rivulets of blue, the grey gumminess of the silt punctured by the feet of flamingos, and then the abrupt change in color, as if the water suddenly decided that blue was terribly ordinary and there is nothing worse than being ordinary. K had walked down the shoreline, and I stood alone digesting, processing, fighting to stay upright in the wind. Across the lake, gusts kicked up a cloud of sand and salt. I was acutely aware in that moment that this was one of those times where it was best to take in the scene alone. Conversation would only mar the feeling of complete isolation. And isolated we were, standing in a place too surreal and too beautiful to be believed. I knew the feeling well. It is that feeling you have when you know that no words will do the description justice, and your memory races to try and memorize every detail, every sound, fighting and flailing and forgetting little-by-little as your attention is directed elsewhere. Even as you are standing there, so very much in love at first sight with what you are seeing, you know that the moment is about to end, and so you are overcome with an unshakable sense of poignant sadness. In the very same instant that you are elated to receive further confirmation that the Earth is wide and huge and places like this exist, you are silently inconsolable knowing that goodbye is imminent. It is like kissing a man you love who isn’t yours and never will be yours, save for those few moments you delude yourself into believing he is before your lips part. I am addicted to the melancholic beauty of the delusion.
We spent that night at Refugio Laguna Colorada, a windswept hostel a few kilometers from its namesake lake. The four Swedish-Chileans, K and I crammed into a room that offered little more than worn-down mattresses and decades-old pillows. No one complained. We were all exhausted and windswept, simply happy to lie horizontal for a while. A number of cars from the Cordillera Traveller fleet as well as a couple of other tour outfitters were parked out front. TripAdvisor lists only one option for lodging in the area, and we were staying at it. That evening, over a meal of soup, pasta and bite-sized pieces of hot dog, we were serenaded by three children whose mothers worked at the hostel. They sang and danced in ragged clothes with their dirt-smeared faces and hands, and we applauded them. Some among our group of 50 handed them snacks—I witnessed a little boy pocket a Clif Bar and some Livesafers—or loose change, whichever was most easily within reach, which later prompted a debate between a French man and a Spanish woman as to whether giving money to poor rural children is actually for their benefit or is it simply the easiest avenue for westerners to absolve their sense of shame.
The following day was a blur—more lakes, more flamingos, more bumping along in the last row of a Land Cruiser as it moved in formation with its SUV brethren. After we left the refugio, we crossed a barren landscape of sand and dirt, punctuated by rock formations and arroyos. This continued for a couple of hours until we reached a multicolored lake whose placid surface perfectly reflected the surrounding mountains and inhabiting flamingos. Its serenity cannot be understated. We continued on—our next destination: A lake, followed shortly thereafter by one more lake. One of the boys in our group summed up the general sentiment perfectly as he stepped out of the car, sighing aloud as he said: “Another lake.” I knew what he meant. The initial all-consuming awe I felt towards the otherworldly beauty of the Altiplano lakes had faded into more of the desensitized awareness one has of their surroundings after residing in a gorgeous place for too long. In the span of 36 hours, paradise had become the norm.
Inching northeast, we finally left the lakes behind, passing active volcanoes while moving in the general direction of the Salar. We stopped in the middle of a huge basin to walk on the tracks of the Arica-La Paz railway, which, running through the Salar de Uyuni (largest salt flats in the world) and the Atacama Desert (driest desert in the world), unquestionably passes through some extreme train. Primarily used to transport minerals and agricultural products, the railway was inaugurated in 1913 and remained in service until 2005 when the operating company filed for bankruptcy. It is not clear when the trains will resume service; for now, the empty tracks stretch across an empty land.
We—along with the rest of our traveling SUV cohort—bedded down that evening in a salt hotel on the outskirts of Uyuni. The salt hotel concept is rightfully prolific in an area that encompasses over 4,000 square miles, all of which is covered by a few meters of salt crust and has an extraordinary flatness with the average altitude variations within one meter. Be prepared for bone-chilling cold tomorrow morning, we were warned. The wake-up call is at 4am. And with that, the guides headed off for some privacy and some beers; the French family pulled out their books; K and I got into a discussion with a Spanish couple about their travels through South America; and everyone else headed off en masse for their first lukewarm shower in a couple of days.
As it turns out, the sun rises at a glacial pace when you are standing in the dark on a sea of salt with a bone-chilling wind blowing in your face. With the first hint of light breaking over the horizon, the darkness takes on every imaginable shade of blue. It’s a deep blue at first. The salt floor looks like a sapphire before morphing into cerulean as the sky fades from cobalt into azure. Eventually, as orange creeps into the edges of the horizon, the hexagonal rinds of salt are lit aglow with a similar warmth. As the tint of the sky changes, so does the sea of salt—from blue to tan to eggshell to a dirty shade of off-white, it is akin to standing on a muted kaleidoscope. Our group of seven had spread out, and the other Land Cruisers were scattered far off in the distance all across the Salar once again giving the impression that we were all experiencing this natural phenomenon in solitude. The wind blew; the sun rose; the landscape became an incredible study in contrast.
We spent approximately four hours on the Salar that morning taking the requisite candid pictures which demonstrate the landscape’s capacity to manipulate size and scale (K pretending to hold me in the palm of her hand; someone pretending to step on us, etc.). Mostly though, we just sat on geometric patterns of salt and silently gazed at an infinite horizon until we were told it was time to drive to Uyuni and go our separate ways. When we did, K and I hugged our newfound Swedish-Chilean friends with a fierce camaraderie that only a short period of intense travel can instill in people who had been complete strangers just three days prior. Then we walked in different directions on the dusty streets of Uyuni and disappeared down our separate itineraries.
In the week I had spent exploring and traveling from Atacama to Uyuni, easily 90% of my waking hours had been spent in silent observation of the world around me. Generally this occurred from the interior of a vehicle while in transit from Beautiful Point A to Beautiful Point B. With a guide and a fixed itinerary, I had effectively relinquished all control. I was relegated a witness to the world around me, which in theory is the perfect scenario to construct in order to have the time to think. I had all of the time in the world to contemplate what I want to do with my life, how to best achieve it, how to incorporate dreams with reality and somehow emerge happy on the other side. I had all of that time to gain clarity, but instead I found myself marveling at guanacos and geysers, gaping at jewel-toned lakes and the enormity of the Altiplano. The clarity I received did not concern where I was going or what I would be doing; it solely pertained to where I was in that exact moment. Standing in the Salar on a limitless sea of white under an equally limitless sky of blue—so unique a location that it cannot be replicated, knowing that it only exists here, and now understanding what it takes to arrive in this place—I could only think of the necessary act of traveling.
WHEN TO GO: July-March
RECOMMENDED TIME: 7 nights (4 nights in San Pedro de Atacama; 2 nights in transit from San Pedro to Uyuni; 1 night in Uyuni)
GETTING THERE: Fly direct from the U.S. to Santiago, Chile; American Airlines, Delta and United all service Santiago’s Arturo M. Benitez airport. From there, fly to Calama, Chile on either SKY Airlines or LAN, where you can arrange for a transfer through your hotel to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Book your San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, Bolivia leg through any of the outfitters in San Pedro de Atacama.
STAY: Hotel Cumbres San Pedro de Atacama (cumbressanpedro.com; from $299)
Cordillera Traveller (cordilleratraveller.com; from $220 per person)
EAT & DRINK: La Casona (Avenida Caracoles 195)