Trip of lifetime San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, Bolivia
We had already decided that we would go to Bolivia after Chile, but had yet to decide how to best get there. Our main concern was how the kids would cope with the very high altitude required going over the mountains to Bolivia for either a few hours or a few days depending on the route we chose. Both the 8hr direct transfer and the 3 day jeep tour meant we would have to go over very high passes of around 5000m altitude. We had bern trekking at altitude before, but this would be an entirely different league.
In the end, after much research it appeared that the risks, beyond feeling unwell with high altitude sickness, were quite small as we had already been acclimatizing at 2400m in San Pedro de Atacama for almost a week with everyone feeling ok. With so much to see on the way to Bolivia and with a relatively small difference in cost, Paul and I agreed that we simply could not miss the chance to do the 3 day trip by Jeep. Once decided, the kids were very excited and so were we.
Although many travel agencies offer the exact same trip, I did go to at least 8 different ones before selecting the one for us, Toursimo Caur. Most tour operators appeared to have little experience in taking little children over the mountains despite claiming otherwise. Finally I found one tour operator who seemed to understand the importance of Ingrid and Scotts comfort and wellbeing. Also, Turismo Caur was the only operator I spoke to who went over the mountains on the “alternative route” staying at hostel with hot water and electricity at 3900m in San Juan Puerto the first night rather than the standard cold, hostel without heating and electricity at 4400m. A better night sleep for Ingrid and Scott could make all the difference in the overall happiness and success of the entire trip, so this is what we went for in the end. The alternative route also offer a more varied scenery than the classic route.
Bolivian immigration and breakfast at 4400m
On the outskirts of San Pedro is the Chilean immigration control. We spent 30 min in the freezing cold queueing up only to realise that we did not have our Chile entry cards to show. After pushing the kids to the front with big smiles and apologising profusely for loosing our cards the border controller very reluctantly let us through. Phew. 45 min later, 1600m higher up in much colder weather it was time for Bolivian border control at Hilto Cajon.
It was freezing cold hanging around waiting for our turn outside the little building on the side of the mountain. I was glad I had stopped at the San Pedro market the night before to buy hats, gloves and llama wool socks to help us keep warm.
While in the queue, our driver had set up the most delicious alfresco breakfast with hot chocolate, coffee, cheese, salami, avocado and bread. It simply tasted fantastic in the cold air and helped defrost our frozen hands and toes somewhat. With our tummies full it was finally time to take all our gear from the minibus and load up our Jeep. Finally we were going to be on our way!
Soaking in Polques hot springs at 4400m
Just 20 min in the journey we stopped at Laguna Blanca, the white frozen lake. I was already feeling stunned by the amazing landscape and colours of the vast volcanic dessert around us and this frozen lithium lake was simply beautiful.
A similar view at the next stop, followed by the highlight of the day, a hot bath!. Lagunas Polques is a hot spring up high at 4400m altitude with water at a constant 45 degrees celsius. The very cold morning simply melted away as we sat soaking in the hot water gazing out into the desert.
Ingrid and Scott loved it too and we all wanted to stay in longer than the recommended 15 min. I’m not sure if it was the mineral content, the fumes from water, the change in temperature or simply the high altitude, but we all felt dizzy and light headed getting out and dressed ready for lunch.
Yet again, our driver had prepared a great feast while we were enjoying the hot bath. Ingrid and Scott wolfed down the fried chicken and mash…and so did the rest of us. Another quick stop at Laguna Verde before heading up the the highest point of the trip 4995m to look at Geyser Sol de Manana.
Getting out of the car into the sulphur fumes I was surprised not to feel anything of the high altitude except thirst and a bit of breathlessness. We had seen volcanoes in action before, while living in Nicaragua and knew this would be another highlight for the kids. However, Ingrid and Scott did not this as much as the smelly sulphur fumes made them feel ill. Just 5 min was enough to call it a day and head back into the car.
Final stop of the day, the colourful Flamingo Laguna or, Laguna Colorada. You simply have to see it with your own eyes to fully understand how amazing it really is. Bright pink water, flocks of flamingoes, white sand along the water with dark blue mountains towering up against the clear blue skies. We walked 20 min along the beach feeling as though we were walking in a dream world.
We reached the hostel in San Juan Puerto a couple of hours later and went for a wonder among the stunning boulders in the Valle de Rochas before dinner where we discovered a crashed airplane and a sacred cave complete with human sculls.
We were surprised yet again by the great quality of the food. Tea and biscuits as we arrived then a very late dinner of vegetable soup followed by spaghetti Bolognese. We all went to bed full and tired and excited about the next days adventures.
Anaconda canyon and hidden lagunas
Day 2 started with cold pancakes and hot coffee followed by a 30 min drive to the most amazing stone & boulder landscape, Valley of rocks. We stopped to explore the “world cup” boulder formation and climbed onto the gorgeous camels back.
After an hours drive and a quick stop by Vinto laguna we reached the main site for the day. Tucked away behind cliffs and green little fields with grazing llamas we found to the most beautiful hidden pool, the mystical black laguna.
We had a break and a snack up high on the rocks looking down at the strange rocky landscape around us, wishing we could climb all the cool boulders we could see. Before lunch we also managed to stop at the Anaconda Gorge, named after the snake like river at the very bottom.
In an empty town in the middle of nowhere we finally stopped and pulled up by a little house where our driver served us sausage potato bake and some canned tuna. Not quite the meal a starving Ingrid had hoped for, so she spent the rest of the afternoon in a bad mood with a headache.
Our final stop before the Salt hotel was the deserted town and the end of the train line…Finally Ingrid perked up at the sight of some random monkey bars in the deserted playground.
The bright white salt hotel where we spent the night had an amazing hot shower after which we all felt better and ready for the next day adventures. We had a lovely dinner of soup followed by chicken and chips and then an epic game of pass the pigs with our fellow travellers Kevin and William. We retired really early in hoping to avoid a major meltdown at the early start 4.45 for the salt plains sunrise.
Salt, giant cacti and dinosaurs
At 5am we had packed up the jeep and headed out into the dark for 1 hr straight onto the largest salt flats in the world, where no roads exist. Behind us in the dark, a convoy of Jeep headlights all heading the same way to the the Incahuasi Island with giant cacti in the middle of the vast sea of salt . Here we got out and climbed to the top to catch the imminent sunrise. The high altitude, freezing cold and early hour meant Scott was not very happy. He finally perked up once I lent him my coat. At least I still had my llama socks, hat and gloves to keep me a little bit warm.
The sunrise itself was not that spectacular as the horizon was shrouded in clouds but the view over this completely flat while landscape with the cacti was stunning none the less. The giant cacti here grow 1-2 cm per year, so some of them would have been over 300 years old. It felt magical standing on this ancient little slab of land surrounded by these magical ancient trees.
As we came back down again to our jeep, our driver had set out our breakfast on a little table next to the car in the freezing cold. Hot chocolate, coffee, cake and rice puffs got our blood pumping again and the air started to warm up too with the sun rising above the horizon.
Ingrid and Scott went for a snooze in the car after breakfast while Paul and I went for a walk out on the salt flat. It was a surreal feeling walking for 30 min straight out onto the the big white landscape with nothing in front of us but the vast sea of white. 30 min later and a few km from the Incahuasi island the jeep found us and picked us up for another 10 min drive further out for some funny photos.
End of the trip – Train Cemetery in Uyuni
On the way to the last stop the Bolivian train graveyard we stopped at the local market where we bought some amazing salt crystals and nothing else after being told that all Bolivian handicrafts would be cheaper in La Paz. After another hour in the car we passed through Uyuni on the way to see the trains. …This place was a bit of a dump if you ask me, but of course just the kind of dump that the kids loved. Ingrid and Scott had a great time exploring and climbing up onto the olds trains and stream engines…me not so much.
Our 3 day trip ended in Uyuni at the little local eatery run by our drivers wife. Inside a little building, or perhaps it was their living room, we got sat at a table for our last meal consisting of llama chops and rice. Again, the for was surprisingly good and we felt full, tired and happy when we got our bags out of the jeep to walk 4 blocks to our hostel.
Packing for 3 days in the desert
We did have all our luggage with us as we were going to continue our travels in Bolivia after this trip, but here are the things we brought and kept to hand that proved very useful.
- Head torches – for early mornings and late evenings and climbs to see the sunrise
- Swimsuits & towels – to enjoy a delightful dip in the hot springs
- Sunglasses, suncream & hats – the salt flats are blinding and the sun very strong
- Extra batteries – for charging things up as there are only a couple of points where you can get electricity throughout the 3 day trip
- Kindles – for the kids to read, as they do get a bit bored staring out of the car window at the amazing views for 3 days.
- Travel pillows – so the kids can have a comfortable snooze in the car
- Water – 2l per person and day is the minimum
- Paracetamol and neurofen – to deal with any headaches or feelings of illness
- Warm clothes – wolly hats, socks, gloves, scarfs and layers for very cold nights
- Extra snacks – as there are nowhere to buy anything, dinner is served pretty late and the food might not be to your liking.
- Lip Balm – Sun, wind and dry air will crack them up for sure
- Bolivanos – 250BS per person as you need to pay at immigration and buy tickets to enter some of the national parke
- Satellite phones and oxygen tanks are extremely important for emergencies and should be kept in every Jeep – check with your driver before departing
Extremely high altitude with children
We were worried about the effects the extremely hight altitude could have on the kids, especially Scott who is only 5. Before deciding to do this trip we did quite a lot of research on the internet on how to acclimatise and best prevent altitude sickness. As we had been at relatively high altitude before 3200m Nepal, 2200m Thailand and 3400m in Peru without any problems we though the risk of serious illness was slim. However, Paul and I had prior to this only been up over 4000m once and the kinds never so we still need to take all possible precautions. The jeeps doing this off road journey are all equipped with oxygen tanks and masks for emergencies as once you re on route it is 1 to 2 days drive to the nearest hospital.At High altitude in Peru, paul found that drinking coca tea helped, so this we would bring with us, and coca sweets for the children. The actual coca content is minuscule, but the effects very positive at it helps oxygen uptake in to body. After much internet research we decided against altitude sickness pills as they rarely work. Instead we brought lots of water, paracetamol and neurofen for any headaches or feelings of illness.
We all felt the effect of the altitude, in the way of constant thirst, extremely dry mouth, lips and constantly crusty noses, but at no point did we feel seriously ill. Neither of us got a particularly goos sleep over the 2 nights and the same was true again when we went to Potosi at 4400m a few days later. The effects of the altitude increased throughout the 3 day trip and by the time we got to Uyuni, we were glad to be lower down and started to feel better again. I believe the long period of acclimatizing in San Pedro before this trip was the key to our success in adapting to the high altitude ad would recommend the same to anyone thinking of doing this trip with their children.