How to Survive the Bolivian Salt Flats

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Definitely a highlight of our entire South America trip, the Bolivian Salt Flats are a must in South America – but it is important to read up and prepare before you go! Here are our top tips to survive…

1 . A good 4-season sleeping bag.

We brought our own for the trip and they were necessary for the Salt Flats. It got to -20 degrees Celsius on the first night, with my water bottle freezing, however inside my sleeping bag I was very toasty! Some tour companies will let you rent some, but it’s always good to have your own.

2. Water and snacks

We were told to bring enough water and snacks to last us three days – for everything. We ended up bringing more than we needed as they did actually provide us with some drinks at lunch and hot tea in the evenings. However, if you run out, there are not many places along the way to restock. All meals provided were good – we ate well and didn’t starve!

3. Wrap up warm

Wear thermals, even in the day it is cold. Layer up as it can get warmer/colder quickly

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4. Take it slowly

The altitude in some places is very high. We slept on the first night at 4800m, which resulted in massive headaches and me needing to go on oxygen for 5 minutes upon arrival at the refuge. Most people on the trip were altitude sick at some point. When you are able to go off and explore the sites, refrain from walking too far. Although it would not normally be strenuous, with so little oxygen, our bodies tire much more easily and we end up paying for it later in the day. If you push yourself too far and need to go straight to Uyuni due to illness, your entire group (6 of you) have to go together, meaning the rest cannot complete the tour – you need to push through as best you can!

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5. Go in the hot springs

First day, crazy windy, freezing. Getting changed into my swimsuit outside and sitting in some springs? Nope. I would rather keep warm in my clothes. However, I was eventually persuaded, through fear of FOMO and it looking clean. It was worth it as my bones and muscles really warmed up in the natural springs, and it made a difference for the rest of the day!

6. Brush up on your Spanish

This wasn’t relevant as a fluent Spanish-speaker, but I can see the issue if you don’t have anyone in your group who can speak Spanish. Our driver spoke several languages including Spanish, Quechua and some broken English. He spoke all the time in Spanish with us, and it would have been impossible to understand his advice, his knowledge as a guide, his jokes or anything really, without Spanish. It would have been much less enjoyable if we had no clue what was going on. Luckily 4 out of 6 of us spoke Spanish, so we were able to translate for the English-speakers.

7. Research your tour company carefully

We had heard many horror stories of drunk and dangerous drivers, rip-off tours etc. so we carefully chose a reputable company that was a little more expensive but that we knew would look after us and get us there in one piece!

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Our awesome guide, Casimiro!

8. Have an amazing time

It was a blast, and we saw so many things on the three day trip – not just salt flats but cacti as old as 1,000 years, lagoons, volcanoes and crazy rock formations.

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9. Book a nice hotel to stay in when you get to Uyuni/San Pedro

We were the only ones staying in Uyuni after the tour – everyone else went straight on to Potosí/Sucre/La Paz. We booked a lovely 4* salt hotel, with a warm shower and comfy bed. We ate at a fancy restaurant and had an early night (before watching Game of Thrones of course!). This was all I needed after roughing it for three days in the salt flats. An 8-hour bus journey to Sucre would have been unbearable after all that!

Next time…on to Sucre – the capital of Bolivia!

 

South America: Geiser del Tatio

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Alarm ringing at 4am, it is freezing in our desert-home abode with no heating. I have thermals which keep me from being unbearably cold, J. decides he doesn’t need thermals and will be fine (that goes so well….).

The geysers are at the highest altitude yet of the trip, this means two things – freezing and altitude sickness. Unpleasant.

This tour is considered one of the most popular, so guesses are it would be the best. However, in comparison to the incredible geysers in Iceland (which are free by the way), I felt a bit disappointed – especially after the amazing Piedras Rojas tour the day before. The cost was considerable too (10,000 pesos each!).

We spent an hour at the hot springs area however the hot springs have been closed for the foreseeable future due to a health and safety issue. So we were stuck, waiting around in the cold for an hour doing nothing, as there was no alternative. You would have thought they would have considered an alternative arrangement?

Anyway, it was absolutely freezing, even with thermals, so I don’t know how J. survived. (note: he wore thermals for the days after this…).

The tour only lasted for the morning, so we had time to have lunch before our other tours. However, due to a sandstorm, they had to be cancelled, a real shame. Unable to reschedule as it was our final day in San Pedro, we were at least able to get our money back.

However, it gave us time to stock up on water, snacks, warm clothes and mentally prepare for Bolivia, which everyone kept advising us was going to be freezing, isolated and crazy – we couldn’t wait!

Vamos a Bolivia…

How to celebrate your birthday in the Atacama Desert

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We scheduled our South America trip for August. It was the summer holidays meaning I had the whole month off from work but also my birthday. I did not want to be on a bus/train/plane on the day, but rather doing something different.

The day was spent in the Atacama desert on the Piedras Rojas tour. This was the best tour of the trip, a whole day thing which was tiring but worth it.

We left at 7am, early but not as early as some other tours we did! Our first stop was the Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons which are home to three different types of flamingo. However, in the deep mid-winter, the majority of the flamingos had gone off to somewhere a little warmer, while the remaining few decided to hang out as far away from the humans as possible! (Entrance fee of 2,500 pesos).

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It looks warm but actually it was freezing!!

After a warm breakfast of eggs, coca tea and bread, we headed into the mountains to another lake. No flamingos this time, but it was spectacular. Surrounded by snow, it was freezing, but worth it (2,500 pesos entry again). Here James very kindly put snow down my back, what a nice thing to do on my birthday…. (hmmm…).

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Caught in the act!

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So much snow!!

The next stop was by far the coldest and most windy – las piedras rojas – which is where the name for the day trip comes from. This lake, so high in altitude, was frozen, and we spent half an hour jumping up and down on the ice.

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On the frozen lake!

After lunch, we visited a little church and stopped on the side of the road to take some pictures with a sign showing we were on the Tropic of Capricorn which was pretty cool! I was not expecting that to happen in the tour!!

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I made a wise investment in some baby alpaca wool gloves in Tacapao village, which would help me survive the cold days and nights in the Bolivian Salt Falts.

Dinner was going to be a fancy meal, but San Pedro was just a little too expensive. I was happy with our usual 5,000 pesos meal deal. Altitude sickness meant loss of appetite and I didn’t feel like I was missing out.

It was an incredible birthday, packed in with so much to see. It was really special. Exhausted but the alarm was set for 4am the next day for the Geyser tour…

San Pedro de Atacama: the final frontier 

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Descending into Calama airport in Northern Chile, the Atacama desert lay before us. A dramatic landscape of mountains and endless desert – otherworldly.

Calama is the smallest airport imaginable, but it is extremely modern and efficient. We grabbed our backpacks and were out of the airport doors within minutes, a relief when we compared it to the hours of queues upon arrival at both Lima and Santiago.

We had organised a shared transfer to San Pedro by ringing our accommodation that morning, and we spent the 90 minute ride chatting to our new Brazilian friends who we would bump into for the next few days. Chile was full of Brazilian travellers, so it was great to practice speaking Portuguese!

Our accommodation was on the main road, however it was the last house at the very end of town, right by the edge of the desert. It did not take more than 5-10 minutes to walk to the main restaurants and bars; but at night, with no streetlights and only our torches, it did feel a bit unnerving. Luckily San Pedro is very safe, so I shrugged off that feeling and allowed myself to be amazed by the incredible views of the stars instead!

On the Friday, San Pedro was hit by a sandstorm and so,  with regret, our tours to the Valle de la Luna and stargazing were cancelled and we did not have time left to re-book for the next day. As we were staying on the edge of town, we had less protection from the storm. Walking back from lunch, face entirely covered by my sunglasses and neckerchief, I made it back, but not without sand all in my hair, nose, ears and eyes! After a good shower, it was time to go out again, for it only to happen again! It’s hard to live in the desert…

Food was a challenge at times in San Pedro as you are limited for options and therefore prices for a decent meal in a restaurant were costly. However, if you walk around the corner from the main square, we found several places offering a main and a soft drink for 5,000 pesos. We didn’t eat amazing meals, but were well fed and it didn’t break the bank.

Definitely shop around for tours, as we found that if you book several tours with the same company they will give you incredible discounts than if you were to book separately.

In the next blog… find out how I spent my birthday in the Atacama Desert!

 

Robyn

Travel Update: Autumn in Madrid

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My travels from South America this summer are still making their way onto the blog but I am also looking ahead at my upcoming adventures! 

The next trip will see me going back to Madrid for 5 days during half term. I haven’t set foot in Spain since completing my Year Abroad – which feels like a million years ago by the way!

I am going back to the Al-Andalus baths to relax on my first full day – wash away the stress from work – at least for a few days.

I will be catching the high-speed train to Córdoba another day, somewhere I have been dying to visit for too long. Then, for my final night I have managed to snap up a ticket for my favourite opera, Carmen! It was too perfect an opportunity to miss. I bought some opera glasses in an antique shop this weekend so I’m glad to be getting use out of them so soon. 
There will still be plenty of time for delicious food, shopping and hopefully I will make it to some museums and the Royal Palace which I skipped last time. 

I haven’t travelled solo for quite a while now, so it feels a bit strange, but I am excited to do whatever I feel like doing, having some me-time and more Spanish practice!

Any recommendations for Madrid/Córdoba? Let me know in the comments 🙂

Robyn

Adventures at Home: Pembrokeshire, Wales

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It was the first weekend after school broke up in July and I was geared up for a nice, weekend break in sunny South Wales. Of course, things didn’t go to plan! First, J. and I were planning a weekend camping together, but this soon became a group thing with a few of his old coursemates and housemates. Luckily we are all good friends…

I spent a lot of my childhood exploring North Wales, living only a short drive away in Merseyside. Many memories were made getting lost in Snowdonia on expeditions for The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, so it was good to go south for a change.

We stayed at a campsite only a short drive away from nearby Pembroke which has an impressive castle and a high street with some shops, pubs and restaurants. A little further along was Tenby; with its pastel-coloured houses along the harbour, it is a picturesque little seaside town, which we enjoyed going to on both Saturday and Sunday morning for a stroll along the narrow streets and get a spot of breakfast.

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J. and I arrived early on Friday afternoon to the campsite, well before the rest of the group. We were welcomed by nothing less than torrential rain. Looking forward to a ‘summer holiday’, and definitely too optimistic in our choice of clothing (jeans – what was I thinking?!), we were very unprepared to put up our tent and regretting everything.

Sitting in the parked car for a few minutes we agreed we were not going outside. A lady knocked on my car window and asked me to meet her in the reception to check-in. Poor thing had got soaked for that! J. said he was staying put, so it was up to me to brave the weather. It’s not like we don’t have the equipment – I have waterproofs and everything but didn’t bother to pack them. Definitely the wrong decision.

The rain was not subsiding even after quite a while, so we agreed we would just have to put the tent up and get soaked. Get soaked we did. Two hours passed and still the rain was hammering down on the tent. We were getting hungry so it was time to once again get wet, just when our clothes were starting to dry! I called my mum and said suggested we just put the tent down and go find a B&B. It was so tempting but we were too stubborn for that!

There was not much parking in Pembroke. But by the time we got there, we found some free parking only available after 6pm (hooray!). Unfortunately, the main pubs and restaurants were about a ten minute walk away – of course! Walking down the street, we were turned away by a few places as they stopped serving at 7pm and were closing up. So odd as it was a Friday night! Eventually, we found a pub/restaurant/hotel which did food, so we sat down at last. We looked out the window from our table, jaws dropped – it had stopped raining the second we found shelter – typical!

After being well fed, our clothes were drying quickly and one of our friends finally arrived to join us. We were waiting for three more, but after horrific traffic all the way from Sheffield and 2 hours of stagnancy on the roads, they arrived in the thick of night at 11pm. Car lights were useful in helping to put the tent up!

After the nightmare of the rain on Friday afternoon, we were grateful that there was no more for the rest of the weekend! We spent Saturday afternoon relaxing on Stackpole Beach which is known as the best beach in Wales! The walk along the clifftops makes for a dramatic arrival to the beach, but because of this, it is not very accessible for those with restricted mobility. There were a lot of sand-flies as well which wasn’t great, but the views were spectacular.

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On the way back to the campsite, we stopped in Pembroke to pick up food for a BBQ which was a great way to spend our only real proper night together there.

Pembroke is a beautiful, little corner of Wales which has some lovely villages and beaches to visit. Luckily, after a terrible start weather-wise, we were treated more kindly for the days that followed, with some sunshine. Although, this is Wales, we should have known better! Next time though, I think we will rent a cottage together, or at least go glamping/book a B&B. I think my DofE days are past me!

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Santiago: I loved the Wine Tour, just not the 🍷 

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I don’t really like wine and spending $14~ on a wine tour just seemed like a waste of money for me. But I went anyway and it was great! Let me tell you why…

Summer is the best time of year to go to a vineyard, as you can see the vines and all that. However, we went in the Chilean winter – not much point in going to a vineyard when the branches are empty,  is there?

So we didn’t go to a vineyard. We went on a wine tour only a few metro stops from Santiago city centre – way easier to get to than most wineries! That winery is called Santa Carolina, and it is one of the top wineries in the country. They export all over the world.

We were a bit disorientated on the map coming out of the metro exit but some friendly road workers shouted us across to them to offer us some assistance. When we said ‘Santa Carolina’ they said that it was ‘the best wine in all of Chile’ and that they were proud of it, before pointing us down the correct street.

Basically, Santa Carolina’s original set up was right here in Santiago. They have kept the original colonial buildings and cellars for events and tourism but have moved the vineyards further out of the city. It was fascinating to learn the history of the company and see how it has expanded. There is a palm tree in the colonial house which was planted by the founder in the 1880s – it is still there and is the most incredible thing to behold. Just like the company, the palm tree has stood the test of time!


Our hostel had called up to reserve a place on the English-speaking tour at 11am. Out of 20 people, we were the only two English speakers – everyone else was Brazilian! So the tour was done in Portuguese. I was not so fluent in my translation so I don’t think J. would have been able to put up with it for the entire tour. Luckily the guide also spoke English. After giving all the info in Portuguese, everyone would move on and she would do a little private English tour for us two which was great.

The views of the snow-capped mountains nearby was breathtaking.


On to the wine! So, we had three tastings – one white and two red which went up in quality/price each time. Quite frankly, the wines were not for me, but I was not the only one to not finish my glass in the group. There is never any pressure to drink the wine anyway which is good. I was actually asked if I was 18 so I could participate…. I just had to answer that it was my 23rd birthday in two days…

We finished in the gift shop where we paid for our tour and you could purchase wine. However after paying, we were offered two small bottles of red to take as a gift! So James carried these wine bottles for three weeks of our trip around South America.

The low-down:

booking: book through your hostel/hotel to reserve in advance. Tours in English, Spanish, Portuguese

how to get there: the Santa Carolina winery is a short walk from the Rodrigo de Araya metro stop