After an incredible trek in the Colca Canyon, we continued our travels in Peru northbound towards Huacachina, a small desert oasis just outside the city of Ica. Huacachina is famous for its huge golden sand dunes, and is therefore a popular place to do sand boarding and dune buggy tours in the surrounding desert. To get there we took a night bus from Arequipa, with a short wait at Nazcar (which we decided to skip) before continuing up through Peru passing small dusty towns and dry, rocky landscapes. After arriving in the connecting city of Ica we took a short cab ride to Huacachina in time for a late breakfast.

After doing a bit of research on Huacachina, and with relatively few options available, the best choice for accommodation in the area was Bananas Hostel, a lively place complete with a pool (which was surprisingly cold!) and a very social circular bar/restaurant serving a selection of decent western food and cocktails. The rooms were built from bamboo and reeds, and the sand and pebble floor around the hostel completed the beach vibe. It was a great place to chill, soak up some desert sun and chat to other travellers en route through Peru. 

After arriving we decided to wander through the town, which is situated around a small central lake padded with grasses and reeds. Even though the lake wasn't suitable for swimming, the enormous surrounding dunes made for a very dramatic backdrop; it looked exactly how you'd imagine a desert oasis to be! We wandered around the lake and down a few streets in the town to check it out, but found our hostel actually had the best food and a more lively atmosphere.

Another perk of staying at the hostel is that an activity or meal is included in the (seemingly expensive) price. On the first night we opted for the BBQ, which was a delicious combo of chicken wings, steak and sausages with salad and veg. It was a great opportunity to meet other travellers and chat about their experiences, and get tips on our upcoming destinations. That night we booked onto the dune buggy tour for the following day, and settled in for a few beers around the bar.

Dune Buggy Tour

On our second day we prepared for our buggy tour through the massive sand dunes surrounding the oasis. The tour didn't started until 4pm, and so we managed to get some relaxing pool time in, and by the time we were due to leave luckily the desert heat had subsided. We hopped onto the reinforced steel buggy parked outside our hostel with about 8 others, and strapped in using the heavy duty seat belts. The driver slowly eased through the town in a convoy of other buggies until we reached the entrance to the dunes.

From that point on things got a lot more intense, and as we climbed up the first mountainous dune we realised we were in for an exciting ride. We hit the peak of the first ridge and plummeted down the steep sand dune at speed, evoking shrieks from ourselves and the fellow passengers (and much to the drivers amusement!). As we continued we began to pick up even more speed, and flew over small and large humps, down steep dips and even got some air over the sharper ramps - it was a lot of fun!

We then stopped at the top of a large sand dune and got some pictures of the incredible desert surroundings that stretched for miles, with orange and pink tones created by the setting sun. The driver then began to unload the sand boards from the back of the buggy, and after waxing them up we attempted our first descent. We were a little rusty during the first couple of goes, but after persevering (and a few very sandy tumbles!) we started to get the hang of it, and Stefs snowboarding skills came into their own!

After the first dune we were met with two more, the last one being even higher and steeper that the previous two. At this point most people decided to go down on their stomachs, getting huge amounts of speed down the steep dune. This was actually equally as fun, and allowed you to gain even more speed. Some people dug their legs into the sand to slow down, where as others ripped down as fast as they could with zero friction, covering a good 30 meters past the slope before stopping.

Once we had complete all 3 dunes we got back into the buggy and made our way through more gentle sandy mountains with the sun setting in the distance. We parked up with a load of other buggies to see the sunset view of Huacachina and the lake from above, with the city lights of Ica in the distance. We found the town looked much more appealing from above, and with the surrounding scenery and setting sun, it was a picturesque way to end the tour. As it got dark we slowly convoyed back to the town and to our hostel, feeling very sandy but also very satisfied with the days activities.

Having 3 days in Huacachina felt like more than enough time to both relax and take advantage of the sand boarding and buggy tours that make the place so popular. Although the town lacked culture and soul, the activities on offer more than made up for it, and we found it to be a great stop-off for any backpacker who enjoys a bit of sand, sun and excitement. Bananas Hostel was perfect base to chill for a few days, and having been to many culture-rich places in Peru during the past month we didn't feel too guilty about the gringo-heavy scene and western food. We took another long bus up the north-west coast of Peru, excited to have Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands closely in our sights. 

Bolivia — Uyuni Salt Flats

The 3 day Jeep tour from San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni was, for us, one of the things we had been looking forward to most during our trip around South America. After a few days in San Pedro de Atacama we finally decided on a tour company (there are loads to chose from, we went with Atacama Mistica). We had heard plenty of horror stories about drunk drivers, and therefore did a lot of research and asked around to make sure that it was going to be safe. The night before we bought some final provisions for the trip, including snacks and 6 litres of water each, and settled in for a much needed sleep before the adventures ahead.

Day 1

We were picked up from our hostel by our tour bus at 7.30am, and made our way to the border. Only 20 minutes into the trip we were met with complications: it had snowed heavily near the boarder crossing due to the storm the night before, and so we had to wait 2 hours for the snow to be cleared. Because of this we had breakfast early, and took the chance to chat with other members of the group before we were split into 2 separate Toyota Land Cruisers, with our packs and water on top of the roof in tarpaulins. After being introduced to our driver we were finally ready to set off on our 3 day adventure.

After driving through the snow-covered mountains we arrived at the first stop on the tour, Laguna Verde and Lagna Blanco, two beautiful mineral-filled lakes named after their green and white colour. As the lakes were pretty exposed it was quite cold and windy, so we only stopped for about 10 minutes to get a few snaps and continued on our way.

We drove onwards passing the Desierto Salvador Dalí, and arrived at Laguna Polques, a natural hot springs at an altitude of 4400m. We parked up with the rest of the Jeeps, quickly put our bathers on (the air temperature was pretty chilly!) and sank into the amazing hot water that had been warmed by the earths core. With guanaco and flamingos wandering in the lake beyond it was a really special experience. It was difficult to leave the water once we’d got used to the temperature, but after half an hour or so we finally dragged ourselves out and got changed speedily before continuing our journey.

Next on the route were the Sol de Mañana Geysers, natural pillars of steam that shot out of gaps in the earths crust. The entire area was surrounded by warm bubbling potholes of yellow, orange and grey clay; neither of us had ever seen anything like it before! The smell from the geysers was pretty unpleasant (kind of an eggy sulphur), but it was fascinating to be in an area that was so impacted by the incredible activity from the earths molten core.

We continued on our journey until we reached the final stop of the day; Laguna Colorada (or the red lake), a stunning expanse of salt water home to flocks of three types of pink flamingo: the James, the Chilean and the Andean. Seeing such majestic birds up close in the wild was made even more special due to the beautiful surroundings. After about an hour of walking around the lake and taking pictures we headed back to the Jeep and drove to our first nights accommodation, passing a few more wild guanacos on the way. 

We were told that the first nights accommodation would be basic and very cold due to the altitude and remote location. On arrival we found the description pretty accurate as we were guided to our concrete-based beds. Electricity was only on for a few hours, so after our three course meal of soup, spaghetti and peaches (which was tasty considering!) we took advantage of the lights by playing cards and drinking rum with our tour companions (one being a professional poker player!)

Day 2

After sleeping better then expected despite the high altitude and below freezing temperatures (thank you rum blanket) we woke early for breakfast and set off in the Jeeps for our second day of adventure. Our first stop was to the Siloli desert where the famous Stone Tree rock formation is found. It stood amongst various other interesting rock formations in an expanse of dusty, exposed desert, and as we were battered by the winds and sand it was easy to understand how after thousands of years of erosion these amazing natural rock sculptures could have been formed.

We then made our way along the bumpy road into the Inca Canyon where we spotted a viscacha (a large rabbit-like animal) hidden amongst the canyon wall, as well as a group of vicuña and a few llamas crossing the road. With snow topped mountains in the distance contrasting with the dry, rocky desert, it made for a very picturesque drive.

After 2 hours of driving we arrived at two lakes, Laguna Honda and Laguna Hedionda. With crystal clear waters, white sands, pink flamingoes and snow topped mountains all around us, it was a total treat for the eyes. We stopped for lunch with the other tour groups at a small, basic shelter not far from the lake. Again the food was pretty basic, but was hot and filled us up enough for the afternoon.

Once finished we got back into the Jeep and headed past more stunning lakes with even more flamingo's and snowy mountains in the distance. With Pink Floyd's Dark side of the Moon playing from our iPod it made for a pretty epic drive as we continued past Volcano Ollagüe and stopped at the mirador. We noticed a dramatic change in the landscape - it was completely covered in volcanic rock. We pictured how thousands of years ago the lava had flown through the land and finally cooled before being battered by the weather to create such fascinating rock formations. 

After half an hour or so it was time to head onwards to our second nights accommodation. This hostel was a bit different however: it was mostly made of Salt! The circular structure consisted of salt rock bricks, a salt floor and salt rock furniture finished in traditional Bolivian textiles. It was a great little space to socialise, drink beer and enjoy talking about the amazing sights we’d seen so far. After another evening of nice hot food, wine, rum and cards we headed to our private rooms for some sleep before our 4.30am start the next day.

Day 3

Getting up at 4.30am was made a lot easier knowing that we were about to visit the main highlight of the tour: the Salar de Uyuni. We piled into the jeep in the dark, still feeling a little sleepy, and drove for around an hour until we started to see the ground beneath us turn white. It was surreal driving in an area so removed from scenery and landscapes, and the ground seemed to go on infinitely, with only the clouds and tiny mountains in the distance marking the end of vast white canvas.

As the sun rose we were treated to a beautiful pink and orange sky surrounded by vast salt desert. It was a magical way to see the salt flats for the first time. As far as the eye could see was brilliant white salt with beautiful hexagonal patterning. We waited for the sun to rise fully, and our cold feet and hands began to regain some feeling as we continued our journey to our next stop, Isla Incahuasi.

After half an hour or so of driving, Isla Incahuasi came into view, an island located right in the middle of the salt flats. Surrounded by giant cacti, we began to climb the stone steps to the look out point. We were told that this entire island had once been under water, and as we walked to the top we spotted amazing fossilised coral and caves that had once been totally submerged by the sea around 40,000 years ago. 

We then walked to the mirador to take in the view and get some pictures. At the top we were surrounded by thousands of huge cacti and had a fantastic 360° view, with only a few tiny cars in the distance revealing the scale of the worlds biggest salt flats.

We then descended back down to the bottom and met our fellow tour members at the ’shoreline’ of the island for some breakfast, consisting of tea and an enormous slice of sponge cake! We spotted an Alpaca (who looked like he needed to be hugged!) and then got back in the Jeep and set off once again into the salt flats. 

We drove for a little while and parked up without a car or person in sight, and were told we had time to take some of the novelty photos everyone takes when on the salt flats. Embracing the cliché we spent an hour messing around with our scale and practising kung-foo moves against the surreal white back-drop.

After a quick visit to the salt museum and the Dakar rally sculpture we headed to the final stop of the tour: the Train Cemetery. We learnt that the town of Uyuni was once a distribution hub for many trains carrying minerals on their way to the Pacific Ocean ports, but became obsolete after the mining industry collapsed in the 1940s, leaving the old trains to rust. We spent a fun half an hour or so playing train bandits and climbing up the rusty old carriages before heading into Uyuni. 

We pulled into Uyuni at 3pm, sadly marking the end of our trip. We had lunch prepared for us while we wandered around the many stalls selling touristy trinkets, and then headed into the town. Despite all the money that tourism brings to the salt flats, the town of Uyuni sadly didn't look like it had benefited much, and seemed pretty run down and poverty-stricken in places. We decided to get a bus straight out of town that evening, and with a few guys from our tour group we boarded a cheap local bus and headed north to the city of Potosi.

Like many of the big sights of South America, theres a lot of hype surrounding them, adding often unrealistic expectations to travellers when visiting. We found the salt flats tour more than met our expectations, with fantastic scenery, interesting wildlife, an excellent driver and a fun group to travel with, making the 4 days a completely unique experience for us. Our highlights included seeing pink flamingoes, swimming in the hot springs and of course the incredible salt flat itself. It turned out to be one of our favourite tours we've had so far, and definitely one that will stand out when looking back on our trip around South America.

San Pedro de Atacama

After a week of exploring Salta and the Jujuy region it was time for us to move on to the desert. We took an early day bus from Purmamarca as we’d heard the scenery was particularly beautiful along the road to the Atacama. By chance we had front window seats giving us amazing cinemaesque view of the Andes as we cut through the towering mountains toward Chile, passing through salt flats, volcanoes and deserts. The boarder crossing was quick and painless, and after a basic lunch provided by the bus company we arrived in San Pedro, the gateway to the Atacama desert and the salt flats of Uyuni.

San Pedro is a small but touristy town due to it’s proximity to the Uyuni Salt Flats, making it a popular stop off for backpackers working their way up to Bolivia. There are also some highly recommended things to do around the town including star and planet gazing, the Luna Valley and trips to Volcanos and Geysers. Positioned in the heart of the Atacama desert, and surrounded by volcanoes and canyons, the town is comprised of single-level huts made from mud bricks, with a few bars, restaurants and numerous tour operators all selling pretty much the same tours.

We decided to stay in Hostel Rural, a hippy hostel that looked like something out of Burning Man festival. With hammocks, a bar and helpful staff giving advice on tours, it was a great place to stay while we prepared for our Salt flats trip. San Pedro is one of the best places in the world to see planets due to its high altitude and lack of ozone. Unfortunately, the day we arrived the moon was too bright, meaning the conditions weren’t suitable for star gazing that evening (which we were a bit gutted about). Instead, we booked the Luna Valley tour the following day, one of the main attractions in San Pedro. That evening we had a few beers with fellow travellers, and found a great sandwich shop offering lentil burgers and shredded beef sandwiches (we made more than one visit!).

The Luna Valley

Our tour to the Luna Valley started at 4pm in the afternoon, so we had time for a lazy lunch before setting off. We were picked up in a minivan with several others and driven about 30 minutes out of the town to the first stop on the tour. On arrival we had to pay a park entrance fee before were taken to Pedra do Coyote, an amazing mirador overlooking the Luna Valley. Our guide explained the geological history of the area, and how the valley had been created by rising tectonic plates and evaporating salt lakes.

We then jumped back on the minivan and were driven down into the huge expanse of orange and white mountains made out of rock salt. We could understand why the area had been named Luna Valley, as it definitely felt like another planet! We trekked along a steep, narrow path through the rock salt formations and into the Salt Cavern, where we needed torches to navigate the tight passageways and tunnels to get to the other side.

After the cave we got back in the minivan for a short drive to an interesting rock formation called The Three Marys, a group of rocks that looked like three women praying. One of the Marys had been knocked down by tourists over a decade ago, but the other remaining two still bared a resemblance at the right angle.

We then were taken to our final stop, the Great Dune, to watch the sun set over the central crater. We climbed our way up to a narrow ridge on top of the huge sand dune in order to get the best spot. There were already a number of people waiting at the top, but it didn’t detract from the incredible 360 view.

It was a fantastic sunset, with vibrant reds and oranges beaming through the clouds and turning the Andes behind us vivid pinks and purples. The panoramic views were spectacular and we spent half an hour watching the light fade away before we made our way back down the ridge to the minivan.

The Salt Lagoons

Much to our luck, the day we decided to go on the lagoons tour was overcast, and the temperature had dropped a lot. This meant that the pools were a bit on the chilly side, but that didn’t stop us from going along to experience swimming in the floating salt pools. We were picked up at 4pm, and with spirits still high made our way to the first lagoon.

On arrival we had to pay another park fee (which was pretty expensive!) before heading to the changing rooms not far from the lakes. The water was very cold - It reminded us of swimming on a ’summers day’ in England! It was, however, a lot of fun floating in the salt water, and was near impossible to swim due to our buoyancy! We stayed in until we started getting really cold, clambered out and made our way back to the bus feeling very salty!

After a 20 minute drive we reached the second pool, and by now most people were not feeling keen to jump in: the dramatic drop in temperature was not what they’d signed up for! Us being Brits, and having experienced colder water, couldn’t turn down the chance, so we led the way with big dives, much to public applause! It was pretty cold but as this pool was fresh water it got a lot of the salt of us.

We then made our way to the Salar de Atacama to watch the sun set. By now the weather had really started to kick off and a storm was taking place over the mountains with dramatic bolts of lighting every minute or so! We were given Pisco Sours and some snacks, and chatted with the other tour members whilst trying to get a photo of the lightening. 

Despite unusually cold weather during our stay (We’ll blame it on El Niño!), we found San Pedro to be a great place to relax, meet lots of new people and gather research and recommendations for our trip ahead. The Luna Valley tour was excellent, with stunning scenery and wild weather revealing the desert landscapes at their most colourful. San Pedro was, for us, a stop gap between the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia, but we were really glad we stayed for an extra few nights to experience some of what the Atacama desert had to offer.