3 - 4 November
Having finished the Salt Flats tour in Uyuni I did what everyone else does - try to get out of Uyuni as fast as possible.
The town has 2.5 redeeming features - an OK bar which had (an ever present) happy hour that provided a much needed beer; a pretty good pizza place; somewhere to sleep for a few hours before getting on a bus which left at 04:00. Spending b$60 (about 6 quid) for a bed for a few hours was well worth it - it means that I arrived in San Pedro as someone who was just tired and not brokenly tired.
I travelled to San Pedro with Petra, one of the people I had been on-tour with across the Salt Flats, which was great - in part for the good company, in part from safety (it is another pair of eyes and whilst I've not felt in danger in Bolivia, long-distance over-night buses can be "interesting") and in part as she has much much better Spanish than I do.
We had been told by the person who sold us the ticket that the bus leaves at 03:30, despite the sign behind her saying 04:00 and the ticket saying 04:00. We dutifully arrived at 03:15, having had 4-5 hours dozing sleep, to make sure we were there for 03:30. We weren't surprised when 03:30 came and went with no sign of our bus; we were also not surprised to find that it arrived just before 04:00.
Finding that our seats had been double-booked was a surprise, although one which worked out OK for us as we were already sat in them and our names were on the sheet which the office had (the bus bookings are paper-based for a lot of the smaller companies).
From Petra's translation I think (part of) the problem is that the other people had either booked for another day and/or cancelled their booking (it wasn't clear) and yet wanted to travel that day - like many other people on the bus that night, they crammed themselves in somewhere; there were many people who stood the whole way from Uyuni to Calama (12 hours) - a "nice" long distance bus this isn't; a local coach it is.
I slept, well - dozed, from Uyuni to the border, which was about all I was expecting.
The boarder crossing from Boliva to Chile (country 11) is fairly simple, although does involve a lot of waiting around on the Chilian side for no apparently good reason. No change there then.
The Bolivians wanted b$15 for "departure tax", which I couldn't work out if it was an official thing or just the guy with the stamp wanting lunch money - either way, it got rid of a few coins I'd otherwise not be able to exchange.
The Chileans were determined to go through all the bags to ensure no one brought things in to Chile we weren't allowed to. Traditionally this would mean drugs, and I'm sure they looked for them too, but they are far more interested in plant and animal products - something they are very strict about, in an effort to protect their agriculture (a major part of their economy).
Pro tip: if in doubt, tick "yes" to the "do you have..." questions on the customs forms for anything food/plant/animal related - the worst you'll get is questions about what you've got (a few snack bars in my case) and not a pile of hassle (read: you being accused of smuggling) for not declaring that you've got in your bags. The Chileans have no sense of humour when it comes to this.
The journey from the Chilean side of the boarder (noticeably different from the Bolivian side - Bolivia, a small run-down shed with a guy and a stamp; Chile - two "nice" buildings, which actually looked like Customs & Immigration buildings) was another many hours of uneventful sitting on a bus, with a mixture of snoozing and looking at the scenery float buy - the Atacama is beautiful.
I had been warned about Calama bus station in advance by Gil and Nyrzha that the station has a reputation for pick-pockets / theft and to be very aware of everyone and everything. This was backed-up when one of the staff at the bus station gave us the same warning (via sign language).
Thankfully there was only half an hour from when we arrived to when the next bus to San Pedro left, which gave enough time to use the facilities and find some form of snack. Another 1.45 hours on a bus, through more stunning scenery (if you like deserts that is, which I do).
By chance we were met at the bus station by a guy who was down there to promote the hostel to those just arrived off the bus; he seemed a little surprised when we said we had reservations, but showed us the way to what turned out to be a nice hostel (nice feel to the place, relaxed, hammocks, easy going staff, easy going travellers).
Dinner that night was simple thing, washed down with just over half a bottle of red. I went to bed early and slept well.