From Peru we went to Bolivia, and from Bolivia we wanted to go to … Bolivia. Specifically, we wanted to go to the Uyuni salt flats, but we also wanted to go to the Atacama Desert, southwest of Uyuni, in Chile. So from Sucre we flew to La Paz for a night and then caught a flight to Iquique (ee-kee-kay), a port and beach town in northern Chile, where we could catch a bus to Calama and then continue on to San Pedro de Atacama well inside the desert. After a couple days there we’ll head back north into Bolivia and the salt flats, doing a big circle before ending up back in Iquique, from which we’ll then fly up to Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s biggest city.
Whew – complicated, and not an intuitively obvious route for getting from Bolivia to, well, Bolivia. But so far it’s working for us.
Here’s what to know about Iquique. It’s an old mining town, famous in its day for large quantities of sodium nitrate, sometimes known as saltpeter and particularly useful for making fertilizer. When petroleum-based fertilizers were developed, though, Iquique’s glory days were numbered.
Today it still has some of the feel of an old mining town – the streets and buildings have very much of an Old West style to them. But the city is also reinventing itself as a beach destination, too. Our hotel was right on the coast, though in a decidedly rocky area rather than on the sandy beach. There are huge waves (or at least there were huge waves when we were there) and it seems to have particular appeal to surfers. The city is very near some of the driest places on earth and it definitely has feels like it’s on the edge of a desert with huge cactuses and massive dry hills just in back of the city. Interestingly, the city has been subjected to two huge earthquakes in the last 10 years – one measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale in 2005 and another at 8.2 in 2014 – but we didn’t see any evidence of damage.
All in all it was a charming place to spend two days before heading into the desert and back up into the highlands.
The bus out of Iquique was something of an adventure. Mark had done his research online and knew what company to go to, what time the bus left, and how long it would take. Except when we went to the bus company’s office, the schedule was measurably different. And they said it would take six or seven hours, not the three or four the schedule indicated online. OK, fine, we don’t have much choice. So we go to the bus depot the morning of our departure and can’t figure out at all what bus to get on. We ask a guy working there, show him our tickets, and he kind of shrugs and tells us to ask inside. They tell us that in fact to get to Calama we have to take a bus to another city, Tocopilla, and transfer to a second bus that will eventually get us to Calama. What? That’s not what the schedule online indicates and no one told us that when we bought the tickets!
All very frustrating. We had assigned seats, but those seats didn’t exist on the bus out of Iquique (we later discovered they were the seats on the bus from Tocopilla to Calama). We continue to be amazed at how some places can make buses work wonderfully and other places just don’t seem to have it figured out. For what it’s worth, the actual trip, once we got on a bus and started moving, was beautiful. A couple hours down the coast through remarkable scenery, then inland and up back into the highlands. No loud music and no blaring movies. There was the weird stop for customs, where everyone had to get off the bus and put their luggage through an X-ray machine … when we were many, many hours from any border … but that’s why you try to stay flexible because weird things happen.
Next stop San Pedro de Atacama, then up towards the worlds biggest salt flats.