When I was growing up, one of my favourite cartoons was Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner. Not only was the ‘Meep meep’ catchphrase hilarious, but the setting in the desert was completely alien and not somewhere even the most imaginative six year old could picture being.
It was only on the 24 hour bus journey from Valparaiso to the tip of Chile’s border that I started to think back to watching the Road Runner. Puffs of dust and carpets of red sand reminded me of the Road Runner constantly being one step ahead of the coyote trying to catch him.
And it was only at this point that I started to realise how sparse Chile is. Given that it comprises predominantly of desert it’s no wonder that Chileans can’t live in a large majority of the country because of what would be unbearable living conditions.
Even the town of San Pedro de Atacama feels like it shouldn’t be there. Seemingly dropped in the middle of the driest desert in the world, it takes days at a time for supplies to reach it, and hostels are constantly encouraging their guests to be stingy with water.
Although the town is somewhat of an expensive base for tourists wanting to visit the Bolivian salt flats, it is also home to some of the most eye-widening scenery in the whole of Chile.
Being in Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) is a bit like landing on Mars. Here you’re thrown right into the heart of the desert, climbing huge sand dunes and crawling through salt caves directly in front of a backdrop of towering volcanoes.
Although there are an abundance of tours to see the geysers, volcanoes, and piedras rojas, one of the cheaper and less sensible ways to explore the desert is on two wheels.
Indeed, it’s only once you’re on a bike in the middle of the wilderness that you can appreciate how brutal and pure roasting that the Atacama Desert is.
Religiously reapplying factor 50 suncream probably isn’t that advisable, but felt remarkably necessary in the face of dry, cruel winds that threaten to knock you off your bike while simultaneously turning you into the Pink Panther’s identical twin.
Despite the scenery and activities that San Pedro serves up on a piping hot plate, the desert isn’t a place many people would choose to spend New Years Eve.
And I think anyone would have apprehensions about a town where the pubs and bars have a habit of demanding customers to order food first if they want to quench their thirst with an alcoholic drink.
But it turns out that the 31st December is the one day of the year when the locals want a party. Not only were the hostels going all out, but parties in the middle of the desert made for a unique setting to prove to other travellers that you can count down from ten.
However, San Pedro is fundamentally a point of connection between Chile and the Uyuni salt flats.
Indeed, the town is littered with travel agencies trying to convince visitors that their three day tour is far better than any of their 1,472 rivals offering the exact same package deal.
Ultimately, the tours are all in Spanish, and it really doesn’t make a world of difference which operator you choose.
If you believe what you read on Trip Advisor, the three day tour of the salt flats involves drunk drivers, terrible food, and you’ll probably end up going through the windscreen.
It’s times like this that you really have to question the reliability of the website that advises trips.
The problem is that no one is ever going to log on to warn people that their tour was perfectly fine. Instead, people will only write a review when they feel they didn’t get value for money, and want to steer people from signing their life away to an inevitable death in the middle of nowhere.
However, the concept of off roading across the desert in a Jeep is actually pretty swell, and the tour is incredibly scenic from the moment you cross the Bolivian border in a shack over 3000m above sea level.
Contrary to popular belief, however, the entire three days aren’t spent solely in the salt flats.
The first two days take you through Eduardo Avaroa National Park, showcasing rainbow mountains, glistening lagoons, and thousands of flamingos and llamas.
It’s only on the final day of the trip that the tour leads you to the much sought after salt flats, and the perspective photos that guarantee at least fifty likes on Instagram.
They say there’s a first time for everything, and not once have I seen someone post a picture of Salar de Uyuni that wasn’t basking in glorious blue skies.
So when I finally get round to uploading my snaps of the salt flats, I’d imagine I’ll be the only person on my Facebook friends list with overcast photos of one of the most popular destinations in South America.
However, the London-like conditions still couldn’t detract from the weird and wonderful nature of 11,000 square kilometres of bright white salt.
Indeed, standing on a dried up lake surrounded by cactus islands, peculiar rock formations, and something you season your dinner with is an extremely surreal experience, and feels a bit like exploring another planet.
In fact, just over a week in the red desert and shiny salt flats felt a lot like an otherworldly experience.
San Pedro de Atacama and Salar de Uyuni are the furthest things from civilisation you’re likely to find, and although my tour driver wasn’t drunk, the food was reasonably good, and I didn’t go through the windscreen, it was still a pretty good time.
Next stop, one of the highest cities on earth, Potosi. Until then.
N.B. Instagram accounts exploited in this blog include: