…is what I am after four days driving around hairpin bends 4000m above sea level drinking cocaine (well, coca leaves) tea to relieve my altitude sickness and marvelling at the most impresive scenery I’ve ever seen. We got to Arica on Monday night after five days sandboarding, watching the sun rise and set over mountains, lunar valleys and steaming geysers and finally eating some decent veggie food in the hippie restuarants of San Pedro de Atacama, followed by a weekend in a little desert oasis town two hours from Iquique feasting on mangoes and oranges, swimming in thermal rock pools and relaxing in a beautiful colonial style hotel for only six quid a night.
We hired a chevvy pick up Tuesday night and headed out into Lauca national park early Wednesday morning. We stayed at a village on the edge of the park the first day to get used to the altitude (3500m there, 4600m at height of park) and spent the day in some amazing thermal pools nearby. On Thursday we continued up into the park and took in the breathtaking views of snow capped volcanos and deep blue lakes. We’d planned on going walking, but I despite spending a day at lower altitudes I still suffered from altitude sickness and felt breathless and sick, as well as deathly tired, so more than a few minutes walk was too much. I tried out the local remedy of chewing or boiling coca leaves to releive the symptoms and it well enough for me to be able to function pretty much normally, so no panic there.
Yesterday we drove 100km out into the neighbouring national park to see the huge salt flat, Salar de Surire. The drive was fantastic, over bumpy, dusty desert roads, skirting heavy mining lorries and grazing llamas to be rewarded with a blinding white plain of salt encircled by towering mountains and smoking volcanos and populated with flocks of flamingos and herds of llamas and vicuña. We drove all the way round and stopped halfway to take a bath in yet more hot springs (unfortunately these were v sulpherous and we still smell a little, but it was worth it!) and got back to the village by nightfall.
We drove back to Arica today and, I have to admit, were pretty relieved to drop the car off without incident and go eat some congratulatory cake! So it’s back to Santiago by plane on Monday morning, partying with my friends for the last time, then the thirteen hour plane home. I’ve had an ace time, but don’t think I’ve ever been so excited at the prospect of being in the UK again… nos vemos pronto amigos!