Ahhhh how sweet it is! 0 elevation. Zero altitude. Every breath fills your lungs with oxygen. How we've taken that for granted. We're in Zona 3, in Northen Chile. Bahia Inglesa, a cute little beach town that is a bit deserted (it's early spring here, not exactly beach season for the locals), but we're psyched to be at sea level and out of the desert. Below is Deanna actively exploring the concept of chilling in Chile.
So from La Paz we took a 3 hour bus ride to a 7 hour train ride (which ended up being hellish as the dust from the desert found a way to get inside the cabin, making it impossible to breath or even see the english subtitles of the dubbed version of High Crimes, with Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd). We arrived pretty late to the mining town of Uyuni and checked into our hotel, showering and repacking for the excursion into the salt flats. The morning saw us rounding up supplies (water, batteries, cookies, wine--you know, the four main food groups), and we were off into our 4x4 jeep. We lucked out--two of the other three people in the jeep were the awesome couple, Shanon and Jared, from Salt Lake City whom we met in the airport in our thwarted attempt to visit the jungle in Rurrenabaque.
Armed with our driver-cum-mechanic, Nilfer, our cook, Hilga, and our fifth partner in crime, a cook from Montreal named Ben Finkelberg (we never got your email, so if you're googling yourself, as we frequently do, and come across this, please email us or post your email in a comment!), we set off bounding around the desert and salt flats. Our first stop was a ghostyard for ancient trains, from the mining heyday. Back in the day, several of the mining towns in southwestern Bolivia were larger in population than London and Paris.
After that, we headed to Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. The light reflecting off the white was blinding and the salt went on forever. And ever. And ever. They supply most of central South America's salt from this reserve (though I don't see many goiters, so I guess they iodize it in some factory--don't look behind the curtain!). It really looked like someone painted a backdrop and we were on a soundstage.
So of course we took some fun pictures... First is Deanna holding me in the palm of her hand (cue evil laugh).
Then you have the five of us, Shanon, Ben, me, Jared, and Deanna.
At one of the hotels made out of salt, here was a sign on the wall (alas, we couldn't find a "Do not lick the walls" sign).
And here's me floating in mid-air.
In the afternoon, we got to an island in the middle of the Salar. They think that before the Andes formed, this region was a lake. Once the plates shifted, the whole area was raised closer to the sun causing the water to evaporate. This island was formed, with 3000 cacti growing on it. Here's us in front of some of them.
That evening, we arrived in the "town" of San Juan. This farming village, of maybe 20 people, was built up into a rest stop for all the Salar tours that pass through. We saw some 5000 year old mummies (below is us walking back from the necropolis at sunset), had dinner with another tour jeep, and tried to drink our wine, which had clearly turned to vinegar under the desert sun in Uyuni.
The next morning saw us bouncing around more of the altiplano. And since you requested more pictures of us and fewer pictures of rocks, we decided to compromise--more pictures of us and rocks. Note the active volcano in the background, with a plume of smoke coming out of it.
Later that day, we stopped off at a few lakes. The first one was blue water with tons of salt and borax floating on top of it. And flamingos. Lots of flamingos. Below you can see them hanging out by the salt.
After that, we headed to the red lake, where we spent the chilly evening at 4800 meters (that is 15,780 feet, yikes!). Seems to be some sulfur runoff from the mountains (mixed with some elements and oxides that we couldn't quite translate from Spanish). Here is me on a cliff above the red lake--and that is actually the water that is red, not something floating on it. Very weird.
At dinner, one of the vicuñas decided to join our tour group, but when we hid the crackers from it, it spit at us (barely missing Deanna's dinner plate). Below you have Jared trying to lure her (the vicuña, not Deanna) outside.
The next morning we woke up at 4:45, freeeeezing cold (as you can see Shanon, Jared and Ben huddled together under a blanket in the jeep), so I decided to take a little swim in the thermal baths just
after watching the sun rise over a few geysers (that's me in the foreground center).
After my swim we rolled on to the third lake, the green one (I know it looks blueish below, but compare it to Deanna's scarf and it looks green--my camera did not do it justice). The green water is caused by copper runoff from the mountain.
We crossed the border into Chile and took a bus 45 minutes down the mountain (and down about 1500 meters) to San Pedro de Atacama. Despite all the stray (and rabid-looking) dogs, this was an incredibly cute village. It felt like the perfect beach town--one-story adobe buildings, dirt paths everywhere, weeping willows, but there was on problem: the beach was 100 miles away! We spent a few days (and 10 showers to get the desert dust off) relaxing and reading there.
We took two excursions from San Pedro. The first was to the Valley of the Moon for the sunset over a giant sand dune (see below). Above is the Dinosaur Valley (as those sand/rock formations look like a stegosaurus's armor).
The other trip was about 20 minutes outside of town, to a French astronomer's house. Alain Maury was a gracious and very funny host to our small tour group. He gave us a tour of the stars with a green laser pointer (that incited a Malaysion traveler to call Alain a jedi). He and his wife showed us all the constellations and i FINALLY SAW THE SOUTHERN CROSS FOR THE FIRST TIME (after spending 6 weeks looking for it, every night... grrr). The super-duper telescopes were aimed at Jupiter, the butterfly cluster, the spiral nebula, antares (a star in Scorpio), Alpha Centauri and a supernova. We had a blast dorking out about the stars and finished the night with very yummy hot cocoa.
The next morning we took a bus out to the coast to celebrate our one-year anniversary. In Antofagasta, we ate two asian meals (chinese for lunch and sushi for dinner mmmmmmm), stayed in a very nice hotel and relaxed the night away. Now we're in Bahia Inglesa, staying at the funkiest hotel ever--the Domo Chango Chile--a geodesic dome / yurt / pod / igloo hotel. The picture below is taken from inside the restaurant / common area, which the proprietor, from Berkeley, told us is modeled after the tents he used to hang out in at Burning Man. We have our own pod thingy to ourselves (so I guess that makes us the pod people?) right on the beach. Ain't life grand!!