A Travellerspoint blog

The city of Santiago to the world´s driest desert



Hola Amigos!!!

Well, this has been a long time coming.

Hopefully everyone is well and 2014 is going great so far. I was just saying today it definitely doesn’t feel like 4 months since I left! The girls (Hailey – I met in Africa, and Renee – Hailey knows from home) and I get along really well which is perfect and tend to agree on most things, everyone is independent although we do get separation anxiety when facing the world alone as we are so used to being together now.

117 days, 379 hours of buses and trains to travel 18,621km brings us back to La Paz for the 3rd time. We´re now working at Loki hostel in the bar for about a month so that we can arrive in Cusco after the rainy season ends for Machu Picchu…plus I looooove La Paz and this hostel and we had so much fun here the last 2 times it was impossible to resist. It is hard work – even off shift we are required to be fun at all times. Tough life.

Starting in November in Santiago, Chile…

We stayed the first night in a hostel and had fun navigating the area and practicing our Spanish – or lack of it. Us ignorant English speakers were surprised that English doesn’t seem to be very widely spoken there but we still managed to score an invite to the apartment of an old couple we were buying snacks from who were very patient with us using our book to speak to them and had fun pointing at things in the store and telling us the translation.

After exploring the centro area of Santiago, the next day we went to our couchsurfing host, Gus´s apartment by metro and walking…we were still determined not to taxi anywhere at this point of the trip and were soooo sweaty by the time we arrived. Providencia is a nice residential area and from the balcony, over the pool (no a bad first couchsurf score), we could see the Andes Mountains. Nice apartment too, and he gave up his room for us which was great. He cooked dinner for us that night and we had some good laughs over wine – especially interesting hearing his stories about the big earthquake that hit a couple of year ago. He said he was at a friend´s apartment and was looking out the window and a minute later it was as though he was looking out another window as the view had changed so much due to the building swaying.

Santiago is the perfect temperature, warm, sunny (my skin is finally building up a tolerance), with a nice breeze. We had a day around this area of Santiago, seeing the must see ´river´ which we are learning not to bother seeing in South America as they usually look more like water run-off systems, but the streets are all tree-lined and we eventually found ourselves in Bella Vista which is a really pretty area with cobblestoned streets and lots of nice restaurants and bars sprawling onto the sidewalks. One of the waiters told us about a funicular train that takes you to the top of a hill overlooking all of Santiago. We later found out this is Cerro San Cristobal. Lucky we found out about it as there were fantastic views. There is a zoo, gardens, pools and up the top the Virgin statue overlooks it all and it is quite a spiritual place. We then went to the city centre and saw Plaza de Armas, some cathedrals and then headed back to Bella Vista in the evening. There was the Paris Parade on which explained why we could not cross the main roads as they were all blocked off and also explained why there were so many kids dressed up in crazy costumes running about. We eventually made it to a bar and there just happened to be a Euro-Chilean jazz festival on we could enjoy from the balcony. Lucky us, these things seem to happen where we just turn up somewhere and there are these lively events going on.

After 2 nights with Gus we headed off to Valparaiso on the coast, one of the places in SA I was most excited about. The famous Chilean artist Pablo Neruda summed up ´Valpo´ perfectly when he wrote ¨Valparaiso, how absurd you are…you haven’t combed your hair, you´ve never had time to dress, life has always surprised you¨. It’s a really cool city of hills, with crumbling old mansions mixed amongst colourfully painted lofts and graffiti art covered homes. The best thing to do is just head out and walk the streets. If ONLY the people were nicer here it would have been an absolute highlight but they weren´t…they were mostly rude and arrogant. When we were a little lost and standing on the footpath, a man stopped and made us get out of his way!!! As if he couldn’t just step aside. This was a new experience for us as we are used to Señors loving us, so maybe we have just been spoilt. But no, everyone is too arty, too-cool-to-be-happy. Those types. Lucky they have an amazing city to attract people. I´m sure cars sped up to try and run us over.

There were some exceptions to the people there. Jose at the bottle shop, but he is from Mexico/Florida. We ended up visiting him whenever we had questions and needed Spanish help and when we would leave would be yelling out ¨ANYTHING ELSE???¨ he was just so happy to meet the girls from Florida. When we first approached him and said ´we have a question´ his first response was ´I don’t sell drugs sorry´. Apparently we look dodgy.

Another exception was Nicolas, the manager at a local restaurant. I ordered a glass of wine from the old waiter, pointed to it on the menu and all just to be sure. He brought the bottle over to show me so I thought he was just making sure it was the right one. Then he left the bottle and glass so I tried to explain no I don’t want the bottle, just the glass. He told us he´d thrown out the cork even though we saw it in his pocket. Eventually I asked for ´el jefe´ and reluctantly got him. Thankfully Nicolas spoke English and was very apologetic, told us they have problems with the old man and made him be the one to come over with my glass of wine – filled to the brim – to the cheer of a table of young guys near us who had been watching the whole drama. Didn´t realize a glass of wine would cause such a scene…then he tried to rip us off with our change too! We called Nicolas over again and he sorted it out, then said if we need any more help, or to dance, to call him and wrote his number on a serviette. Also, the very friendly construction workers near our hostel who would pamper us with our daily dose of complments such as bonitas (beautiful), Chica or chiquitas (kind of like chicks), Linda´s (cute) etc. I will refuse to simply answer to my name in the future, I need a compliment as well.

We walked up to Pablo Neruda´s house which as amazing views over the coast and the city, although didn’t bother going inside as it was too expensive considering we don´t really know of him. #691 on the list of 1000 things to do to make the most of your time on earth – Neruda´s casa. Close enough.

The waterfront is also nice. Although just a port, it´s ramshackle and colourful boats give it charm. Also many tsunami warning signs around. Valparaiso is known for its many Ascensors which help residents tackle the steep hills, but unfortunately for us UNESCO had been there a couple of days before we arrived and one `that they were on broke while they were on it (as well as members of the group being robbed) so they have all been closed for maintenance. We didn’t realize how dangerous Valparaiso is apparently until speaking to Chileans later in our travels and it now makes sense that one older man was almost mad at us for carrying our cameras around, scolding us like daughters. We can be pretty clueless, though never know it until a later ´derrr´realisation. One of my favourite things here was the outdoor museum, Museo a Cielo Albierto which is an area of streets with graffiti art of students in the 1960-70´s. The area is also popular for teenagers smooching, smoking and drinking and we got offered a lot of weed, as in Santiago. I didn´t realize I look like a pothead.

Next, we headed north and inland to Vicuña, which we didn´t know much about but still reminisce about as it was so small, quaint and the people were soooo nice, as EVERYWHERE else in Chile so we don’t judge based on Valparaiso. As the coastline ended, the terrain became dry and rocky until we started seeing our first cactuses…cacti? The journey became more interesting when a couple of teenagers in front of me kept ducking into the toilet and suspiciously the bus would fill with the scent of marijuana. We ended up in a tiny town parked out the front of the PDI (Policia Investigaciones de Chile) and after a long wait a couple of policemen came on board, pulled the kids off and searched all of their belongings. After about an hour they were allowed back on, looking a little sheepish, and we were on our way again ending with a sunset drive through the valleys which was really pretty.

Vicuña is a sleepy town surrounded by pisco plantations. We did a tour of a pisco factory with some tasting at the end, did some hikes for views over the area, ate one of my favourite foods so far – Copao ice cream which is found only here as the fruit is from a cactus only from this area, and went to Mamalluca Observatory one night . It was so dark here as is a fair way out of town so the stars were pretty awesome and we got to see the moons craters, star clusters (excuse lack of knowledge) and the next supernova. Apart from the reeeeaaaally drunk Aussie on the tour, it was great. We all told him to shut up in the end, to some applause. Mamalluca Observatory - #689 on the list of 1000 things to do to make the most of your time on earth. Tick.

We then made our way to Northern Chile, to San Pedro de Atacama. We had a really sweet man and his daughter help us at one bus stop. Buses are often late but we were worried we may have missed it, tried to ask for their help which they did and when their bus arrived the dad went to find someone who could speak English, told them what we needed and told them to look out for us. He then gave us some chips for the road and his daughter wrote her details so we could visit them. On the overnight bus we got tucked in by the bus man, who also put a pillow under each of our heads and reclined our seats for us. This terrible life! I assume this is how everyone experiences travel in Chile.

When we arrived, we were a bit worried as it was like a desert ghost town. Luckily after a few wrong turns and then some right turns we ended up in town and were intercepted by a crazy-looking dreadlocked man with a hostel brochure so of course we followed him on his bike through town to the hostel which turned out to be really nice, probably the cleanest place I’ve ever stayed at as I’m sure once the cleaners finished the floors they would just start again. It´s very dusty in San Pedro, with cold desert winds at night. This is the driest desert on earth with an average of 365 days without rain per year. It is an oasis of a town, bustling with travelers, with unpaved streets, whitewashed adobe houses and can make you thirsty just looking outside it is so dry.

We were snapped into the reality of traveling with our first proper tour of the trip, waking t 3:30am for the tour to Geyser del Tatio, the Tatio geysers within the El tatio geothermic basin, 4320m asl makes it the highest on earth. After a couple of hours drive to get there, as we arrived it was like a scene from a movie with the sun beginning to rise dimly lighting the area dotted with fumaroles spewing out steam and boiling water. The people from other tours walking around make the scene extra other-worldly as their figures lurked in the steam. As it was -4 degrees, of course we decided that is the ideal time for a swim in the thermal pools which get to about 25 degrees. It was great in, but the run between the pools edge and my clothes felt like kilometers and I have never been in so much pain!

El tatio geysers we really amazing, like when you look in the sky and more and more stars appear – as you look around the basin thousands of steaming holes appear. It is a good idea there is a path marked by rocks that you should not pass as some of the earth is very fragile and you can hear the boiling water underneath. After breakfast and of course stealing some extra boiled eggs for lunch (our budget was doing well at this point) we visited Machuca village in true llama territory, population between 7 & 40 depending on the season and enjoyed a goats cheese empanada – another favourite food to date – then continued on to drive through the very aptly named cactus valley and back to town.

Now adapting to the siesta times of South America that can range from a couple of hours anywhere between 12 and 6pm, we had an afternoon nap before our afternoon tour to Laguna Cejas – a big salt lagoon in the middle of the desert that is so salty you cannot sink. There´s a second lagoon partially attached but the salt crystals are so sharp in that one it is too dangerous to swim in. The water was a beautiful turquoise colour but also so salty you cannot put your head under. Renee also found out the hard way that you should not use your bath towel as your beach towel here when she showered later and the salt remaining on her towel left her unable to see for a while. Our skin and clothes were so white after our swim and hair so stiff I think it could have snapped, so the next stop was to Ojos de Salar, a fresh water hole to rinse off. The final destination was Laguna Tebinquiche (who would´ve thought there´d be so many lagoons in the world´s driest desert) for sunset. This is a huge salt lake that has mostly dried up, leaving a thick salty mass like snow. Sunset over the desert with as pisco sour was the perfect end to the day.

Day 2 in the desert we spent wandering around town, until we realized why siesta time here is from 2-6 as the sun is so strong, so we enjoyed another nap (4 months in a difficult habit to break) and then went on our tour to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). We stopped at a few canyons along the way and heard some interesting facts on the area e.g. some of the mountains still have lakes from when the area was covered in ice over 1000 years ago (does that make it the ice age? Must pay more attention). Some of the areas we drove through looked like they were covered in snow it is so salty. We walked through some crystal salt caves and had a few more photo stops. The landscapes here are amazing, the shapes of the rocks that have formed by the strong desert winds, salty terrain on one side of the track and red sand dunes on the other. So varied. it is easy to see why so movies have been filmed in Valle de la Luna as it really does look like another planet. NASA also used the area to test the Mars-bot. Just before sunset we walked up a half rocky half sand dune to get our spot for sunset. Ok it wasn’t as spectacular as I expected for #673 on the list (tick) but when am I going to be in the Chilean desert on a sand dune watching the sunset again? and it actually was beautiful watching the tones of the earth changing colour as the sun went down.

After seeing what we could of San Pedro de Atacama desert, we hopped on the bus for Calama – a mining town a couple of hours away as it is the only place we could get the bus to Bolivia. Hailey barged a man out of the way who had started opening the front zip on my bag as soon as we got off the bus – common here apparently so that boo-boo´d our idea to spend the night in the bus terminal. As a mining town, it is pretty expensive so we managed to find a ´cheap´ $16 room at a hostel which when we met the characters frequenting the halls seemed a little more like a drop in centre. Once in the safety of our room, inspecting the stains on our sheets and the hair in the bathroom, we realized the lock was a little dodgy so Hailey and I went out for supplies while Renee held the fort. Supplies were a couple of boxes of wine and we actually ended up having our first drunken bonding night as drinking in Chile was otherwise expensive and we had had a maximum of 2 beers in a night. We played some premature Christmas carols and realized we are all at the same point in our lives and excited to leave in 5 months to begin studies etc (hahahaha, that´s what we thought then). The door didn’t lock at all from the inside so my bed was pushed to the door as a barricade but we were out of there at 5am for the bus to Uyuni, Bolivia.

Passing through snow-capped mountains and steaming volcanoes, the standards of bus travel had dropped dramatically on the way to the border and for the first time I felt a bit of the effects of altitude as we exited Chile without hassle then the bus stopped in the middle of the 2 borders, about 500m apart for several hours and we had no idea why. Finally the connecting bus from Bolivia came and met us and after some suspicious trading of boxes between the 2 buses – conveniently out of the view of either border as the buses blocked the way – we were on our way to the Bolivia border. The girls were told they were have to find the immigration office in Uyuni for their stamps ¨AMERICANOS!¨ is becoming a common phrase at borders as they are always a hassle but as I am now British mine took 2 seconds. We then had to literally run as the bus started driving off and jump in the door as it was rolling. And on to BOLIVIA!

To be continued…

Posted by neerg_08 11:13 Archived in Chile Tagged chile santiago vicuna geysers pablo_neruda valparaiso san_pedro_de_atacama calama plaza_de_armas atacama_desert

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