Don't Forget Your Sunblock in the Deserts of Chile and Could You Please Pass the Salt Flats of Bolivia?

Hello friends, family, and followers!

When we last left off we were in Valparaiso and were heading out on a bus to San Pedro de Atacama.  We have grown very accustom to long bus rides throughout our world travels.  Quite often we welcome the journey as a time of reflection.  It's the perfect time to recap all the highs and lows that we have experienced and try to determine what it is about us that inspires such wanderlust.  

This brings us to our most recent bus encounter.  We confirmed that it was going to be a 12-hour bus ride with five different people so we boarded the bus with a bottle of water and couple of apples for our overnight jaunt.  The next morning we woke up and thought we had a couple of hours to go, no problem.  We pulled into a stop around 10:30 am and Leanne asked if we were in San Pedro.  With a smirk the guy responded no we were in some town that we had never heard of.  We thought to ourselves "I wonder why he was smirking?"  The next thing we knew the attendant was popping in another movie.  We had no idea what was going on but realized that we must have a little farther than 12 hours.  We then asked the attendant when we would be arriving in San Pedro. He responded "11:30." We could handle that.  He then reiterated "11:30 at night."  Apparently, everyone confuses am and pm at the Valparaiso bus station.  They say 12 hours but really mean 24 hours.  Suddenly, we started to panic.  We only had about 5 sips of water left, we ate our apples for breakfast, and the bus had not made a stop since we had boarded.  On top of that, our hostel had a strict policy that we must notify them if we were checking in after 8:00 pm.  This is Josh's look of concern after finding out that we had 13 more hours to go. 

Leanne quickly went into planning mode.  If there was ever a time to use her knowledge of Spanish, this was it.  We noticed the lady next to us was using her phone.  Leanne asked if we could borrow her phone to call our hostel.  We told her we would give her money for the minutes. Too bad we didn't notice she was nursing her baby at the time.  However,  nursing babies in other countries is a common occurrence.  She didn't think twice about it and whipped out her phone for us to use and refused to take any money.  Of course, the number on our booking was wrong.  What do we do now?  The sweet mother of two told us "No problemo."  She used Facebook to ask her husband to look up the phone number for us.  Ahhh…the world of Facebook never ceases to amaze us.  She was able to get us the number and Leanne called the hostel and squared away that we would be arriving after midnight.  We were feeling quite accomplished that neither one of us lost our cool in what could have been a stressful moment.  On top of it all, the mother and her little boy gave us a pack of their cookies to make sure we had food for the remainder of our trip.  It's times like this that you realize just how kind strangers can be and what an unbelievably spectacular world we live in.  We are definitely looking forward to the opportunity to pay it forward.  A great big thank you so much to that kind mother and her sweet children.

For 13 hours we were able to check out amazing scenes like this.

We actually wound up pulling into town at midnight.  What better time to began our search for our hostel?  We wandered the streets of the dusty town of San Pedro for about 20 minutes until we finally realized we were walking in the wrong direction.  At the start of our trip we both considered ourselves to have a strong sense of direction.  We have come to realize that was completely incorrect and that most of the time we are directionally challenged.  I guess trying out for Amazing Race is not something in our future.

San Pedro is a dusty, desert town that is ridiculously over-priced because it is in the middle of nowhere.  Basically the town is set up for tourism so with that comes a hefty price tag.  What it lacks in budget it makes up in its beauty.

The Church of San Pedro is national monument built with adobe, a building material used in colonial times.

We took a tour to the Valley of the Moon.  Leanne quickly grabbed her boots and headed out the door for the tour not realizing that we would be hiking a few short treks in the desert.  That's right folks, Leanne was that high maintenance looking chic on the tour with her cowboy boots.

San Pedro is one of the most arid spots in the world.  As a matter of fact, NASA conducted tests on the new martian rover Nomad here in 1997.

You couldn't help but experience a little jaw dropping when taking in the scenery.

Is this what Red Rocks looked like 10 million years ago?

A full moon rising over a volcano?  Are. You. Kidding. Me?

With every sunrise comes a sunset to signify the ending of another day in history, another moment in our lives and another day well spent.  We have been fortunate enough to witness some of the most beautiful sunsets you could ever see and this was no exception.

Another reason San Pedro is common in the tourist market is the plethora of mountain biking trails.  We set out on our own day of mountain biking adventure.  Well, first we need to figure out what direction to head.  What, wrong way.

There we go.  Now we are back on track.

That desert is hot, hot, hot!  We welcomed any chance to splash around in the water.

Too many choices that all pointed left so we naturally went right.  

We stumbled upon this amazing little church.  We couldn't help but think of Josh's parents.  They would love this church.

This silly picture is for you, Mom and Dad!

For the agenda on day two was a 14-mile ride to Laguna Cejar (Salt Lagoon).

We hope this is not foreshadowing for Christmas.  We don't want to be stuck out in the desert come HO, HO, HO season.

It was at hot but flat 14-mile ride.

Laguna Cejar was a mini version of The Dead Sea except the water was about 30 degrees colder!

Look, he floats!

Leanne lasted all of 5 minutes in the water.  It was refreshing after riding around in the sun blazing heat but we are babies when it comes to cold water.

We committed a travel no, no the day before and forgot to wear sunscreen.  We were scorched.  Talk about premature aging.  By the time our 22 months on the road is complete, we will be lucky to walk away without permanent skin damage and looking about 10 years older.

We made the 14-mile ride back into town to grab something cold to drink before making our way to the sand dunes.

This was exactly how we felt.  The desert climate and relentless sun beating down really takes it out of you.  We thought about curling up next to this cozy looking man but that might have come off weird to his buddies that were making fun of him and taking pictures right alongside Leanne.

After paying far too much for cold drinks we hopped back on our bikes for more cruising.

Unfortunately, we didn't rent a sand board but we went to check out the dunes.

Josh's go-to pose and the cliche jumpy pic. Check!

Have you ever heard of a town that has a stray St. Bernard wandering the streets?  Cujo, is that you?

The next day we were heading out to Bolivia to do the salt flat tour.  The Uyuni Salt Flats are the largest salt flats in the world and always a popular tourist destination.  This is mainly because of the photo opportunities that arise on the tour.  We had heard nightmare stories about crossing into Bolivia.  This is mainly for Americans.  The stories include showing bank statements, yellow fever shots, your entire itinerary for your stay, proof of exit of the country (i.e. plane ticket out), dollar bills that just came off the printing press for the $135 visa fee, etc.  We heard them all and were really worried about getting into Bolivia.  Here's the spoiler…it was one of the easiest countries we've entered.  All they want is your dollars.  That's it.  Nothing special, just bring U.S. dollars.  Ours weren't even perfect and nobody cared.  The border patrol was going to let us go through and get our visa in Uyuni but we insisted on getting it at the border so we wouldn't have to mess around with it later.  They asked us if we had dollars and we said "Yes".  As soon as they heard that it was to the front of line.  We had a few left over Chilean Pesos and the guards even changed that for us.  It was the first time we changed money with the actual immigration officers at the border.  Interesting but kind of funny in retrospect.  We were off!

Old abandoned bus/bathroom at the border of Chile and Bolivia

Posing at the most relaxed border crossing we've encountered. It's literally a tiny building in the middle of nowhere. 

We loaded up our stuff at the border and hopped into our four-runner for the salt flat tour.

We were immediately greeted with spectacular views of the Bolivian countryside. To put it simply, it was a visually captivating landscape every turn and stop that we made along the way. 

One of the stops included a dip in the geothermal pools.  Josh braved the cold temps outside to warm his bones in the water.

While this made for brilliant pictures, it was actually quite scary to be that close to a geyser.  You could feel the heat radiating from the pale grey crack in the earth's surface.  Every few minutes a cloud of steam would project from deep below, warming our faces and invading our noses with the smell of sulphur.

Scary or not we had to get creative with the photo opportunities that were presented right before us on a photographic plater.

With a sufficient amount of dust on the bumper and the wide open road in front of us, we continued land cruising.

Laguna Colorada was our favorite lagoon. Was it because of the clear blue skies interspersed with a few white billowy clouds and the striking red hue of the water or was it because Colorada sounds similar to Colorado?  We will never tell.  The red color was a result of a large amount of red algae in the water.  Pretty magnificent, huh?

It was almost unreal how the color on the flamingos almost perfectly matched that of the water.  We are not even photographers and it was hard to not capture beautiful images everywhere you turned.

A huge factor on having a good tour versus a bad tour are the fellow guests in your tour group.  We couldn't have asked for a better group of ladies.  We laughed, we joked, we exchanged travel stories and came away with four new friends.

Our lovely new friends from left to right:
Maria and Matie from Spain
Simone and Kathrin from Switzerland

We were trying to do our best impression of two loving flamingos.  OK, so it didn't really turn out the way we were picturing in our minds.

After a full day of crossing borders, viewing breathtaking scenery, and maneuvering our way up to almost 16,500 feet in elevation, it was time to settle in at our hostel.  We were told we would all be sharing a dorm room which was fine by us.  When we arrived, they actually gave us a private room which was a nice touch.  While Leanne was looking forward to a slumber party with the girls, we couldn't be rude and turn down the private room.  We have learned that if a tour operator under promises and over delivers, it makes for a much better experience.

Our neighborhood for the night.

We bought a few items from the local market to stimulate the economy.  For the most part, Bolivians do not like to take pictures. It is important to ask for permission before taking a photo.  We understand that because it would be strange if someone came up to you out of the blue while you were walking around in your hometown and wanted to take your picture.  Also,  it is known that many indigenous people in South America believe that cameras capture their souls and that you are stealing them when you take a picture. They fear the day that they will die soulless.  We respected the culture and asked for permission to take a photo with this lady.  She agreed to it but wouldn't look at the camera.  We understand that it is a cultural thing but it so hard to not want to snap pictures of them in their traditional clothing and hats.  

The standard dress code of an Amaya woman is a long silky shirt with layers of puffy petticoats, handmade shawls, neatly braided waist length hair and a bowler hat to complete the look.  The unique fashion of incorporating a bowler hat is a curious nod to 19th century British fashion.  

Leanne looked like the typical tourist in her zippy pants and silly hat standing next to the beautiful adorned Bolivian woman.  That's one of the downfalls of traveling for so long.  Our clothing options are becoming more and more limited with each day that passes. 

We were told to prepare for a frigid night of sleep on our first night of the tour.  It was cold but not nearly as cold as people had said it would be. Maybe we got lucky because our hostel was newer and better built than others in the area?  After an early night of lights out at 9:30 pm, we journeyed on through the land of cobalt blue sky and dusty roads.

Can you guess the name of this rock? Someone was really using their creative juices when they named it The Stone Tree.

More picturesque views

This fox must prefer to drink salt water.

There were three types of flamingos at this particular lagoon.  We had trouble differentiating between the three but either way they are such a graceful species of birds.

Despite the cool temps, the sun was beating down on our faces.  This time we were prepared to tackle the sun head on with our layers of sun block protecting our precious aging skin.  If wrinkles could tell a story ours would publish a book.

Pretty in pink.

An active couple with a backdrop of an active volcano.

Traveling down the long road…

Yeah, we know, ask for permission but we were in the car.

Our second night of accommodation was in a salt hostel; made entirely of salt.  Even the floor was salt.

Dinner time with a bottle of wine? Don't mind if we do.  However, the food could use some salt.

The negative comment we will make about our tour guide is that he didn't even offer us the opportunity to capture sunrise the following morning.  He wanted to sleep in while the other group headed out the door at 4:00 am for sunrise on the salt flat.  We accepted our 7:00 am start after the sun had risen and were all smiles during the ride.  You can't do everything and for us that meant no sunrise start. Oh well, we did welcome the additional sleep.

First on the agenda was a visit to Cactus Island.  Cactus Island is an unbelievable island of cacti in the middle of the salt flats.  It cost a little extra but it was absolutely worth the small fee.  The pictures speak for themselves.

After we visited the island we stopped in the middle of the salt flat to take pictures.  There were more pictures being taken than Josh is normally comfortable with but tourist flock here to capture unique and crazy photo opportunities. 

The salt flats are like nothing else you have ever seen.  The sky and ground merge into one and it seems to go on without end. 

Bolivia's Uyuni Salt Flats make up the world's largest salt desert and quite possibly the largest amount of tourist competing to take the coolest photographs.

Here's our attempt at some funky photos

Taking multiple pictures while trying to be creative is pretty much Josh's nightmare.  He was a trooper and in the end Leanne was actually able to get a smile on his face. 

In the short amount of time we visited the salt flat, each of us almost completely drained our camera batteries.

We bid farewell to the salt flat and started our trip towards the town of Uyuni.

We made a quick stop in one last small dusty town for lunch and an attempt to sell us a few things.

When we arrived in Uyuni we stopped at the antique train cemetery.  In the 1940s, the mining industry collapsed and many trains were abandoned thereby creating the train cemetery.  It reminded Josh of one of Stephen King's Dark Tower books. 

It's always hard to say goodbye.  Thanks to the ladies for making our trip even more memorable.  We look forward to crossing paths again in Spain and Switzerland!

Within a blink of an eye, our journey to the place where heaven and earth merge into one was complete. From mountains to salt, we were moved by the beauty of the world's largest salt flat and the unbelievable surrounding landscapes.

We decided to leave the town of Uyuni right away since it really didn't have anything to offer besides overpriced hostels and dusty roads.

Next stop, Potosi, Bolivia!

As always, thanks for following.

Leanne & Josh