Iquique - Uyuni (07/05/16 - 16/05/16)


The highway inland from Iquique climbs up an incredibly steep hill more like a giant sand dune with a road tacked onto to the side, we wound our way up along with hundreds of impatient locals to over a thousand metres above sea level, past mounds of rubbish, random tent homes and failing vehicles all with an increasingly amazing view out over the city and pacific ocean. Nearby is the ghost mining town of Humberstone which captured our attention for the afternoon wandering the streets, houses, community buildings and remains of the refinery while getting a feel for how life might have been back when the mine was functional. Humberstone was a former nitrate (saltpeter) mine and refinery with its adjacent town and closed down in 1960 but since reopened as a tourist attraction and is gradually being restored. Founded in the 1870's it prospered for years with most of the world's saltpetre coming from the area until synthetic saltpeter was developed by Germany during WW2. Much of the town was build in an English style and a lot of the machinery originated from the UK with the town being named after the mine's founder British chemical engineer James Humberstone. Housing varied in size and quality and denoted the occupants social status within the mining community, there is a stylish theatre still in excellent condition and a community pool made completely of cast iron salvaged from an old shipwreck and displays of a huge range of trains, tools, equipment and household items all surprisingly well preserved in the dry desert air.

Humberstone - Arica

The “Giant of Atacama” is a geoglyph or ancient artwork in the landscape, on a small mountain basically in the middle of the atacama desert, 119 metres high and a human figure, it is the largest in the world and thought to represent some sort of astronomical calendar. We camped at the back of this mountain in a carpark which had once been lit by solar lighting, unbelievably every single solar panel and lamp had been dismantled and stolen with the poles bent to the ground for easy removal!

The remainder of the road to Arica was mostly through desert with more ghost towns and remnants of other mines and desert valleys full of patch-worked green plots of the Pica limes used in our delicious Pisco sours! Also several more geoglyphs and in a modern day take on giant geoglyphs an enormous coca-cola sign near Arica! Coca-Cola originally commissioned it in 1986 to celebrate their 100th anniversary and it was rejuvenated for the 125th, made from 70,000 empty glass coke bottles and the world's largest coca-cola billboard it is visible from space – weirdly impressive!!

Arica - Colchane

From the unimpressive northern city of Arica we took highway 11 east along with hundreds of Bolivian trucks fully loaded and inching up the mountains, this road is a major freight route across the border, we had been warned but didn't fully appreciate the scale! Needing to acclimatize again after our days at sea level, we camped one night in a roadside quarry then climbed further to stop at Putre, a cute quiet mountain village set in a green fertile valley, for a further two days. These mountains are most memorable for the incredible range of flora, the roads were often edged with thick bright patches of pink, purple, blue and yellow flowers, also the rare candelabra cacti which only lives in a narrow altitude range and flowers for just 24 hours each year – sadly not during our visit! Our turn-off to the national park was very close to the Bolivian border and to our horror we arrived at the tail end of a queue of trucks kilometres long waiting to cross, our only option was to creep along on the wrong side praying that no-one came the other way and if so that we could squeeze into a tiny gap between the trucks. Accomplished without a scratch we escaped into the Lauca national park, camping by thermal pools surrounded by volcanos and huge herds of vicuna, the road even snuck into Bolivia for several kilometres with no warning just a random sign to advise we were now in Bolivia! Sadly some of the park lacked maintenance and we struggled to find a campsite on our last night as the promised thermal pools were an abandoned trashy mess and we finally ended up in a quarry!

Colchane - Uyuni

Recovering from an icy dusty windy night in the quarry, our mission was to deal with the border crossing as soon as possible but despite arriving relatively early in Colchane there were already kilometre long queues of trucks waiting to cross into Bolivia. Surprisingly easily we navigated our way through the chaos and arriving into the relative calm of the wee Bolivian town of Pisiga and topping up fuel and cash to continued toward Uyuni. After camping on flats dotted with ancient cone-shaped buildings and complete farmyards built out of blocks of salt, next came roads lined with patches of reddish plants in the process of being harvested. I guessed quinoa and next to our surprise we arrived at the “Quinoa Capital of the world” Salinas de Garci Mendoza, complete with a giant quinoa plant and signage to welcome us. The increase in popularity of quinoa worldwide has apparently had a positive financial boost to Bolivia but sadly it has also almost priced it out of the range of locals! Due to the relative lack of signage we were lucky to find an entry to the salar and after an awesome drive across the huge expanse of whiteness arrived in Uyuni, a drab dusty cold town beside the salar which seemed to be mostly focussed on selling the local tours to visitors. We managed to have the salt cleaned of the truck, find accommodation and then food, which turned out to be the highlight of the day, delicious dinner at the “Minuteman” pizza restaurant, our best pizza in south america!

Cementerio de Trenes

A bizarre tourist attraction and highlight for Martin was the train cemetery near Uyuni, lines of ancient steam locomotives and railcars lie decaying in the desert, sad relics of an industrial past these stately engines stand tall among jumbled rusty iron, dust and garbage and suffer graffiti from the disrespectful. Uyuni was previously a major hub for trains carrying minerals to the Pacific ports but as that industry collapsed trains were abandoned and formed this somewhat derelict neglected cemetry, hope remains in that there is talk of building them a museum.