Our trip across the Atacama towards the salt flats would take three days. We started early on day one, stopping off at immigration to stamp out of Chile and then into Bolivia, before quickly ascending in 4x4s towards some of the beautiful wonders of the driest desert in the world. Our first stop was a green lagoon – literally green, due to the high proportion of arsenic in the water. It really was dazzling – a vibrant yet milky hue stretching out in front of us.
We continued climbing, stopping briefly for lunch before hitting possibly the most amazing sight of the day – boiling mud in volcanic craters. The liquid mud spat at us from their deep pools, colours ranging from a rusty red to a light grey as we walked between them. Our guide pointed out little craters that were beginning to erupt – the mud under the surface pushing upwards and creating movement on the top, just waiting for a chance to create a new hole.
Driving just a few minutes more, we ascended to the highest point of the day – 5060 metres, really feeling the shortness of breath as a result of the incredibly thin air. Our driver passed back a bag of cocoa leaves – the traditional remedy in South America for dealing with altitude. They help to absorb more oxygen through the act of chewing them, although it is tricky if you are not accustomed to it as the leaves are extremely bitter (and become more so the longer they are chewed) and break up into little bits in the mouth, and the trick is to keep them in a ball and not swallow any bits (which we found near impossible!), only the juice. Whilst our driver kept popping more and more into his mouth, creating a chewed wad in his cheek, we could only handle it for around 5 minutes before asking him to pull over so we could spit them out. A couple of our group stated an improvement in how they were feeling afterwards though, so I won’t count them out for the future if necessary.
Our final sight for the day was a red lagoon – this time coloured by chalky pink sediment dropping down from the surrounding volcanoes. Apparently during the summer the lagoon acts as a feeding and birthing ground for flamingos, although on our cold winter’s day we didn’t spot any – the sensible birds had flown elsewhere for some warmth.
We ended this part of the drive at our accommodation for the night - a building smack in the middle of the desert, with nothing around and minimal amenities, with a promise that the temperature would drop to its lowest yet on the trip…with the wind chill adding itself to the situation, we dressed ourselves up in all our clothes (3 layers minimum!) and prepared for a chilly night.
The following morning, after untangling ourselves from the mountain of blankets each had accumulated over the night, we set off for another day of driving. Our first stop was the rock formation immortalised by Salvador Dali – the ‘Tree stone’. Viewed from the right angle, the weathered rock was beautiful, with jutting 'branches' and soft colours. I had a go at being a ‘stone tree-hugger’, although without actually touching the fragile monument. Unfortunately, not everyone decided to play by the rules – soon after we arrived another group came along and one man actually picked up the sign and tossed it aside as it was ruining his picture, whilst another proceeded to start pushing the stone for a photo. Our driver explained that much damage (and not of the natural erosion kind) had already been done by visitors, drastically reducing the lifespan of this majestic and famous sight.
Moving on, we drove past another few lagoons, sharing our lunch spot with flamingos who had also stopped for a meal. Their vivid pinks contrasted wonderfully with the surrounding rock and icy lagoon, and we sat listening to their jabbering and watching them fly above us. I hadn't seen these graceful birds since our trip to Africa last year, and would have been content to stay all afternoon, but we had to set off again, and soon left the Atacama behind and began our drive across the first part of the salt plains (although not yet recognisable as such with a light layer of sand on top).
A couple of hours later and we had arrived at our hotel for the night – made entirely out of salt! As usual, it was lacking any kind of heat and I sat covered up with hat, gloves and numerous layers, but it definitely had the novelty value.