“Yeah,” I said slowly, realizing that these fellow backpackers were just as jealous of me as I was of their “3 months in South America” or “6 months around the world” holidays. We were sitting around the common dining area of a charming little backpacker hostel in San Pedro de Atacama, getting ready to turn in for our trip the next morning to Salar de Uyuni.
Four days before that, if you had asked me what I was doing before my International Experience trip in Chile, I would have replied with a worried shrug. But after getting suggestions from a classmate’s sister in Santiago and some desperate online research driven by necessity, I was armed with a plan: to visit the Atacama desert in Northern Chile and the Salt Flats in Bolivia.
Atacama has two superlatives to its credit: being the driest place in the world, and having the clearest skies (for stargazing) in the world. I got a taste of the first in Calama - the moment I stepped out of the airport, I felt like I ought to be in a khakhi waistcoat full of useful pockets and a giant camera – much like I imagine photo-journalists for the National Geographic dress for the Sahara. The landscape was all that I imagined a desert to be – miles and miles of just brown sand and roads that ran straight as far as the eye could see, because they didn’t need to go around anything. The Atacaman desert is full of wonders: the 10th century citadel of the Atacameno people, the breathtaking valleys of the moon (Valle de la Luna) and death (Valle de la Muerte) and the geysers of Tatio that spew forth hot steam (caused by underground water meeting the hot lava that bubbles close to the earth’s crust in this heavily volcanic region). And these were just things for the daytime – Atacama lived up to its reputation of the clearest skies when I spotted more stars than I had in any other place in my life, learnt how to find south by reading the constellations and saw the gaseous surface of Jupiter up close at one of the observatories in town.
Bolivia on the other hand has an entirely different claim to fame: anyone who lacks the imagination to dream up what heaven looks like would just need land up at the Salar de Uyuni to get a pretty good idea. The salar is a 10,000 square kilometer salt flat, which on days with just the right amount of rain, turns into a giant, as-far-as-the-eyes-can-see mirror. Add in some clouds in the skies, and literally everywhere you look, it feels like you’re standing on clouds. We caught the Salar on the day with these perfect conditions, and were nearly in tears with the breathtaking sight of it all. After taking an unmentionable number of photographs, enjoying lunch with the best view in my lifetime, and having an impromptu Samba dance festival in the 2 cm deep water, we all left the Salar knowing we would never shut up about that day to anyone who got us started on Bolivia.