Chile – Travel Journal – February 2022
Day 1: Santiago de Chile under the aegis of confinement
So here we are, finally, at day one (Monday January 31st, 2022) of our trip to Chile. It has been a long time coming! It all started 40 years ago with my first boyfriend Jorge Iglesias who was from Chile and proudly showed me loads of photos of his spectacular country. Hence, Chile ended on top of my bucket list. We were initially planned for November, but the Pase de Mobilidad required by the Chilean authorities as we emerge from the Corona pandemic arrived too late, so we rescheduled for end of January.
Chile was yellow on the Corona infections world map (which meant you could travel) which is what attracted us but of course that also means they are extra careful about who they let in. You need to have your vaccinations approved by the Chilean Ministry of Health (website entirely in Spanish) and you need a medical attestation covering you officially for up to 30,000 USD.
We flew from Schiphol Amsterdam, a 14-hour flight and only fully realized how far we were going when we looked at the on-flight map.
We are SO excited! Such bliss to be flying KLM in a huge Boeing with food and drink, leg space, online films etc. (we tend to travel budget). There was a hysterical little girl who woke up quite frequently and the lovely young girl behind me managed to vomit over my jacket, but I just felt for the parents and was relieved they were not my children (KLM kindly wrapped my jacket in a bag which I rinsed at the hotel).
Landed at 7:05 am local time (11am NL) in Santiago de Chile, with, as cherry on the cake, the sun rising above the spectacular mountain range piercing through the clouds. So arid everywhere…it is like landing in my idea of the Wild West.
All focus was then on Covid registration. Queue after queue after queue. It took us two hours to even get to the first booth. Very few foreign looking tourists in sight and everyone was surprisingly good-natured. Once again, I felt for the parents who had ratty children to deal with after a 14-hour flight and you had to walk miles to find a toilet. Otherwise, the airport is top notch, we could be anywhere in Europe. Apprehension mounted as you got closer and closer to the first booth, and we shuffled papers and luggage whilst stopping the phone from switching off. Our heart rate accelerated as there was some resistance to our insurance papers as they do not specify (as they require here) that we are covered specifically for up to 30,000 USD (they do not do that in Holland) but our attestations do say ‘full medical coverage including costs relating to Covid’, which I tried to explain really means FULL coverage. It worked. Phew, that was some relief. On to the next queue with the machines where you register for your arrival PCR (we had to do one before leaving NL as well). Once there it went quite fast, and you could actually switch the machine to English which helped speed up the process for us. So aimed with a slip of paper with our passport number the next queue was for the PCR test itself. By then you are quite numb really and just trundle along with the rest of them. It was efficient, just one nostril (some countries one nostril and throat, others 2 nostrils no throat…fascinating…).
Results will come by email in 12 to 24 hours from now which is a bit of a shock. I had thought max 6 hours but hey, we are just so happy to be here! Customs however was super easy, and we now have a Chilean stamp in our passports. DO NOT LOSE the little PDI slip of paper they give you! It is needed for each hotel registration and to leave the country. Next step was to collect the luggage that was dutifully waiting for us all lined up and on to have the luggage scanned after filling in declarations that we had nothing animal or vegetal with us. I had warned Olivier about those two beautiful juicy apples! And sure enough, we get called over by an irate customs employee brandishing the two offending objects he removed from the rucksack before confiscating them. Would have been quite a story if Olivier had had us arrested for apple smuggling.
Next was my bad as I had somehow thought the metro came here but not yet (phase 3 said the taxi driver) but by then we were just so dazzled to be here, outside under the glorious blue sky, surrounded by mountains it all just felt good. You are immediately approached by official looking taxi employees who guide you to their ramp. It is all regulated and the prices are fixed (in our case 25.000 CH$ (very approx. 1000 to 1 euro). We hopped into a taxi to the NH Ciudad which is in Providencia area of Santiago and I am just thrilled to be able to speak Spanish again. There are also city busses from the airport but not so practical with all our luggage. Ricardo, our taxi driver, was very friendly and patient with all my questions. The roads are great, the infrastructure is excellent. Chile is one of the richest and most developed countries of Latin America.
We drove along river Maipo and Ricardo explained that all the water here in Santiago comes straight down from the melting ice in the mountain range, bringing lots of mud with it, hence the brown colour. I was surprised there was still water flowing considering it is the end of Summer here.
They have a large water treatment installation they are proud of. I noticed online though that the water has a very high mineral content, which, as it said, might disagree with some people. Some sites say you can drink it, others recommend not, so I will start with not and take it from there!
It was not the prettiest of drives. First impression of Santiago was rather dire, broken down and not particularly interesting.
Chile has a big problem of inequality and there is a lot of civil unrest around the “contrato social”. Indeed the highest household income in Latin America is in Chile, but also the largest gap between rich and poor The last two years have seen a huge wave of immigrants from neighbouring countries. There always have been Peruvian and Bolivian immigrants but they were seen as hard working and mostly filled jobs no one else wanted in agriculture or construction. This new wave is mostly from Uruguay. Our taxi driver Ricardo said the government had tried to regulate them but there were just too many. You can see them everywhere selling whatever they can and sleeping in tents on the grass berm in the middle of the road. He said that as long as they were not violent or committing crimes the government had decided to tolerate them. Thanks to Ricardo, our first feel for Chile is indeed of very friendly, welcoming people, happy to talk. We did pass some beautiful old colonial buildings and they seem to use whatever green space they have for playgrounds and sports.
At the NH Ciudad (special deal via booking.com), they kindly let us go to our room though check-in is not for another four hours. I had mailed in advance since we are supposed to be in quarantine until our PCR results come in. We also have a suite (a bit run down) but huge with two rooms, seating area etc, a gigantic bed and huge windows where we can actually see some mountains which should make the wait more bearable. It feels a bit weird though since we know we cannot leave the room for at least 12 hours, the Sun is shining, and there is a whole world to discover out there.
We showered, plugged in, updated family and just sort of looked at each other, sharing the surreal feeling of being in a bubble.
Tiredness from a 14-hour flight and 4 hours’ time difference did not help either. We decided to jump-start our Spanish with TV but at 11am the choice was not brilliant though they do seem to have their share of telenovelas! We toyed with the idea of sleeping but are too hyped for now. Then Olivier had the best of ideas: to celebrate having at least made it here with a lovely meal via room service and a bottle of bubbles. I had grilled salmon and ratatouille, Oliver a burger and we really liked the Cono del Sur bubbly. It is starting to feel like holidays!
Slept and then spent the rest of the afternoon reading and trying to work out how, once we get the results, we upload them to our pase de mobilidad and hoping we do get the results in time for our Valparaiso trip tomorrow (we actually changed our bus tickets to make more margin). We then ordered around 10pm local time a salad and mint tea and tried to control the urge to check for results all the time (they could have come in any time after 10 pm.
We read until we fell asleep. I checked a few times in the night but results still do not seem to be there. At least we are here!
Chile day 2 under the aegis of freedom, but it was a bumpy start…
We slept well in our humongous bed (and we have a King Size which makes this one a what? Imperial?), despite the relentless checking and the 4 am wake up with jet lag. We were getting pretty nervous though at the fact there were still no results when Olivier had a breakthrough. You needed to enter your passport number to access the results, which we were doing without noticing that on the slip of paper the machine had vomited to register for your PCR, they had put an additional country code in front of our number and yes, the results are in and are both negative! Next stress was looking and failing to find how to upload the results to the pase de mobilidad before taking a leap of faith and assuming we keep the same QR code, and they do the updating (which turned out to be right). Next my laptop got stuck in a ‘black hole’ (?)by which time I was in dire need of distressing through some yoga and chanting (I am a Nichiren Buddhist and member of SGI International).
It worked! We are free to go down. The beautiful breakfast was enough to cheer anyone up, especially me with a mountain of fresh fruit, oats, soya milk, nuts, and for Olivier everything you could wish for in terms of eggs and bacon, et cetera, and the staff was extremely friendly.
Valparaiso here we come! (We will do Santiago when we return from the North). How good it feels to walk outside in the sun with a gentle breeze, and great vibe.
From the hotel, it was only a 5-minute walk to metro station Salvador. Streets are busy but in a safe, vibrant way. Our neighbourhood, Providencia is middle class. In indeed people all over the place selling things but without being aggressive in any way.
A very friendly, patient, metro employee explained how our transport pass, the ‘bip’ card works and how to upload more money to it when needed. We only need one for the both of us that we swipe in turn.
Wonderfully efficient and easy to work out which line and which direction we need. We took Line One. It certainly feels more like the Paris Metro than the Seoul Metro (which was our last big trip in Nov 2019). Dirty, old, noisy, but works very well. Very civilised as well, no pushing or shoving and we managed to sit. It was nice to see that there is a melting pot here, black, Asian, etcetera. However, I then did some research and 89% of the population is white and 67% Catholic.
On to San Borja bus station to take our Pullman bus to Valparaiso. People really go out of their way to help. The double decker bus was maybe not the newest but royal with a huge amount of leg space, the armchairs recline practically all the way back, aircon, toilet, you can charge your phone. Important to mention here these are not top of the range fancy tourist busses, this is how the Chileans get around too.
I love traveling by bus! It is better for the environment than renting a car and more relaxing and you just get to see so much! This is only a one-hour drive.
Santiago is actually quite sprawled out within the valley and surrounded by the Andes cordillera which is of course so spectacular. The landscape is very dry with the occasional tenacious looking shrub.
Every now and then you suddenly come across a residential area, with beautiful houses, which just seem parachuted out of nowhere, dropped against the sides of the mountains. An entire village of large fancy houses, surrounded by a fence with colourful bougainvillaea just down the road from dumping grounds for all sorts of old car parts, stones, or whatever, jostling for attention with billboards on cryptocurrency; the two sides of Chile indeed.
It’s lovely to be able to sit back and relax, watching Chile unfurl in front of us to the snores of our fellow passengers (all Chilean bar one German couple). The road quality is excellent with long tunnels. After a while the arid turned to green and we can see agriculture: oranges, lemons, grapes, avocado and suddenly we were surrounded by vines. So, this is the famous area of Casablanca valley and the Maipo valley, which leads to Valparaiso.
Regarding Corona, they spray disinfectant on your hands before entering the bus and masks are mandatory everywhere, including in the street. I noticed from our fellow passengers that they often wear a surgical mask under a more design cotton one.
All I know of Latin America is a trip 30 years ago to Mexico and Guatemala and Chile does seem very western in comparison. And that feeling intensified as we approached Valparaiso with our first sight of a McDonald’s drive-in and huge Mercedes garage.
The bus driver is not allowed to drive faster than a hundred kilometres an hour. His name is on an illuminated sign, together with the actual speed the bus is travelling, and you are invited to ask him to slow down if he exceeds.
Anyway, we arrived safely and bounced off with our little rucksacks into a divine 23, 24 Celsius and were immediately caught up in the bustle of this most picturesque and funky city. An explosion of people, noise, and colours as we made our way from the bus station to the city centre through small streets full of vendors, and large avenues boarded by monumental old buildings.
We passed by the Mercado central with stall after stall of gleaming fruit and vegetables piles nose high, and exotic looking (and smelling) fish. You should see the size of some of the vegetables, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a watermelon or a pumpkin of that size. It is recommended however to look where you are walking and not walk on gaping around you as there are many holes and obstacles on the pavements which my twisted ankle did not appreciate.
We decided to make our way up the steep façade of the hill, dotted with Multi coloured houses towards famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s house “la Sebastiana” So we climbed and climbed (20 minutes), removing the masks as there was no one in sight. The place is amazing, meandering stairs along wall after wall covered in street art in vibrant colours with at the top the view down to the sea, everything framed with bright pink bougainvillaea and flowers of all sorts. Sort of free art, funky area with many derelict houses. The guide recommended visiting La Sebastiana, first as Neruda’s house but also for the breath-taking views (he had it built to watch the fireworks) from up there however it was closed but we probably would not have discovered this amazing neighbourhood if we had not been looking for it. (And neither of us knows much about Neruda ). So, we wandered some more, up and down, turning here and there however by now I was quite desperate to use the bathroom (and have not yet mastered the art of cocking my leg) and there don’t seem to be any cafes at all. It is dead quiet. No one in sight. And then we stumbled (as we do) across the most beautiful little cafe. We have always been very lucky in our travels. This one was decorated to perfection, and we got to chat with the lovely owners while admiring the photos and artefacts and how they had made each corner special. They told us that indeed they had all been shut for most of a year and many had gone out of business. Also, that indeed foreign tourists were clearly staying away because of Covid and all the entry regulations. Bliss to sit, stop sweating, enjoy a cold Diet coke after a most enjoyable visit to the loo. Bliss. They were also curious as to how things were being done in Europe. My favourite bird, the hummingbird, here called picoflores also at one point joined us inside!
Time then to wander down to the new town, noise and vibrancy picking up as we descended. Arrived at the plaza Sotomajor, one of the largest squares with the monument to those fallen for the Patria and a lovely market where Olivier bought me a lovely little turquoise bracelet.
From there we just needed to cross a road to arrive at the vibrant Port, full of hustle and bustle, sightseeing boat tours, a huge Viking cruiser and a cargo ship. Olivier had spotted a restaurant with covered terrace overlooking the port that we made our way to (Bote Salvavidas). After successful pase de mobilidad control, temperature check (on the wrist), hands disinfected, and contact data filled in we were accompanied to a lovely table with view over the port in the breeze. So happy!!!
Due to Corona and infection risk, most places no longer have physical menus but a QR code on the tables you need to scan which is not brilliant for us as we have not yet bought a local phone card. We chatted with waiter and took a look at what was on the other tables. Oliver ordered a local fish (reinetta) and I had a fish soup full of seafood with a lovely glass of chilled local white wine. It was amazing. The place is full of locals, some with name tags as if they had just all come from the office. It is so lovely to also have no rush and let it all soak in.
After lunch we walked on to the oldest square in Valparaiso, Plaza Matriz. Everywhere is just so photogenic! I am using my Ministry iPhone 11 and it really takes great pictures. We then walked back towards the station along the sea that you can barely sea as there is a fence hiding all the port activity – the loading and unloading of containers from view. Seems strange having this in the middle of the city.
Next stop was the Parque cultural which I had seen recommended so up we go again to this old, reconverted prison. Now it is full of multi-purpose rooms where they rehearse dance and music and a large grass area where people were picnicking, lying, playing with children, and doing various arty activities: drumming, guitar, acrobatics. Once we had admired the great views from up here it was wonderful to plop ourselves down, remove the shoes and just lie in the grass. We actually had our mini towels with us as we were not sure if there were beaches. There are but quite a bit further along the other side of the city. We lay, staring up at the deep blue sky, inhaling the smoke from the joint the lady playing the guitar behind us was smoking and feeling very happy with ourselves.
Before going down we visited the exhibition on the pretty awful prison that used to stand here. Avenue Ecuador was lined with funky bars and found one with a terrace in the sun. The staff and other guests were all super excited as they watched the Chile- Bolivia match so we gasped and cheered with them whilst Olive enjoyed a fruity lager and me a Guinness style stout called Requiem! And Chile won so we participated in the fun and cheering and yelling as the cars honked past.
By trial and error, and the kindness of passers-by we made our way back to the Rodoviario bus station (only just) for our bus ride back to Santiago. Settled like King and Queen on our thrones at the top of the bus, like being at the cinema really though we did occasionally join in with the snoring.
On arrival however we realised that we were not arriving at the same bus station we had left from in Santiago (here we were at Almeda) and by now it was 11pm. The luxury then of being able to take a taxi after a long and tiring day (10.000).
Back at the NH we packed up all our stuff for our flight to Calama tomorrow and took a much-needed shower. I am surprised we do not feel more tired as it is in effect 4 am by our biological clocks.
What a fantastic first day!
DAY Three: Santiago to Calama, to San Pedro de Atacama, to the stars….
Already day three, sometimes my head just feels so full of all the incredible things we are experiencing here. It took me a while to fall asleep digesting the day, though the mighty stout probably did not help. Woke up early eager for our next adventure (and maybe still a bit of jet lag though 4 hours is easily over).
12 Sun salutations then chanting and another delicious breakfast and by 9:30 am we were ready for our fancy taxi at 35,000 CH$, ordered via the hotel to take us to the airport. Beautiful SUV, with a wonderful, very articulate driver. He was actually from Uruguay, which made him a lot easier for me to understand as here they tend to swallow the word endings whereas he did not. It was interesting to hear his view of things. He actually arrived six years ago and said it had been very easy to find a job as he claimed Uruguayans have a very good reputation here of hardworking people. He said there is more than enough work here for those willing to make an effort. He said many here are not willing to actually work and prefer an easy way of life on the dole without commitments. He used his example as taxi driver with irregular hours et cetera. He also explained the difference between the yellow cabs who can pick up clients everywhere and the tourist only system like his who can only pick up tourists from hotels.
They also use UBER and a local variation, but they are officially illegal so when you take them, you have to sort of sit in the front and pretend you’re their friend sort of thing or the driver risks sizeable fines. He was of the opinion that the transportation system was outdated and urgently needed to be reviewed.
Our domestic flight leaves from the same airport we arrived at Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport.
Very busy (the Chileans Summer holiday) and very unclear which queue we needed as we were managing to print out our luggage tickets from the machines everywhere but not our boarding passes and were sent a few times from one queue to another, probably to do with the pase de mobilidad. Rather unclear and stressful but hey, the joys of travelling! This is also part of it and makes the enjoyment once you have got it settled all the bigger. Once you understand the system it is pretty efficient considering the amount of people who were travelling that day.
We are travelling LATAM, the local Chilean company and the flight is full, so we actually were seated on either side of the aisle (I guess we can survive being separated for 1 hour 40). Smart and elegant hostesses and new looking Airbus A320. Lots of groups of men travelling together and children for whom these are the summer holidays as the new school year starts beginning of March. Not everyone seemed to be very used to traveling, and stood up when you had to sit down etc.
In as far as I have seen Chileans tend to be relatively small in stature (certainly compared to NL). Dark skinned, dark eyed with thick beautiful very dark hair and in general carry quite a few excess kilos with which they seem to have no problem at all. This applies to both women and men, young and old. It is very liberating to see how the women own their curves and do not shy away from tight fitting clothes or bare midriff and just look great and sexy.
Bumpy landing at Calama airport and there was quite a lot of disturbance during the flight but the same can be said of our arrival from NL, maybe it has to do with the airstreams around the mountains.
We had already organised our shuttle bus to San Pedro de Atacama in advance online which made for a relaxed arrival as there was a hostess waiting with a sign. It was a brand-new minibus, or it certainly smelt brand-new. The rows were very tight together and all the curtains were shut so I did struggle a bit at first with light nausea and claustrophobia but opening the curtain and deep breathing helped and soon I was so mesmerised by the scenery I forgot all about any discomfort. The view is amazing, a dry, barren landscape extending as far as you can see. A bit like how I imagine the Moon to be. Vast plains of dry white rock with a few tiny shrubs (ok, not on the Moon) framed left and right by a towering mountain range with at times snow-capped tips which is quite a contrast imagining there is water up there whereas it is bone-dry down here.
The Atacama Desert claims to be the driest in the world with some areas never having seen a drop of rain. The road looks at places as if it has been sliced in one go out of the mountain side and what looks like rivulets of lava where you can clearly see the different layers of the soil by their contrasting colours. There is nothing, not a person in sight, not a building or a crop for the One hour and a bit trip until you arrive at San Pedro de Atacama which is little more than a small dusty village at 2,450 meters attracting hordes of tourists to visit all the treasures around (in our case mostly Chilean tourists).
So far so good regarding altitude sickness. This is a good place to acclimatise as we will be going over 4,000 meters in some of our excursions. I did get the doctor to prescribe me some Diamox but more for reassurance’s sake for should we develop violent headaches and nausea. The minibus disgorged travellers at their various hotels, and we got off at our hotel (booked via booking.com from NL) called the Altiplanico Atacama. Oh my, like entering a green oasis, thatched houses beautifully decorated in terracotta and adobe with colourful local weaving on the walls, a beautiful bathroom and an outdoors shower in your private terrace should you prefer. It all blends into the landscape and is utterly gorgeous and very, very peaceful. We just looked at each other grinning with joy. 4 nights here will be no hardship. We just feel so thoroughly blessed to be able to stay at places like this. It’s very hot in the sun and cool as can be in our luxurious hut.
Before joining Olivier at the pool to cool down and feel we were rinsing off the dust I battled once more with the Chilean site where we are supposed to register each change of location (Corona rules). The receptionist did her best too to change it from Santiago and then told me to let go and not worry as I have done all I could. It was all very frustrating, but wonderful to wash all those frustrations off in the pool. We were alone.
Next, we put the tennis shoes back on and walked to the village. I was having strong flashbacks to Africa (where I lived 10 years) where you come out straight on to nothing, a few stray dogs, the occasional wreck of something. Here too, a lot of sand and a few sleepy dogs lying in the middle of the road. The village itself is a few roads lined with bars and restaurants, little local supermarkets, local arts and crafts shops and rows after rows of excursion operators advertising Valle de la Luna, El Tatio Geyser, Piedras Rojas and so much more. Very hippy feeling, I love it.
The abundance of choice does make it rather overwhelming though. Our best bet was the tourist information centre Sernatur but it was shut. Tomorrow is another day.
Tonight, we have our celestial excursion already planned. We bought some snacks and nuts and biscuits and more water and took a look at the local wares: alpaca ponchos, lots of beautiful local lapis’ lazuli. On the walk back we came across a funky bar streaming rock from the jukebox. The waitress was really sweet as I had none of the docs needed to enter with me, but I did have my negative PCR on Olivier’s phone, so she let us in, and we settled in the last rays of sun on the terrace and finally got to try the much acclaimed pisco sour!!
Apparently, it is a subject of much contention, whether Pisco sour originates in Peru or Chile but has come to be the national drink of both and wherever it started, it is delicious. Pisco is a grape-distilled spirit that was first made in the 16th century which they then mix with lemon juice, sugar syrup and egg white which gives it the velvety froth on the top. Our waitress advised me to try the rica rica version where they add some of this ground altiplano plant which gives it a delicious twist.
We had already reserved dinner at the hotel but were ravenous as we had had a light breakfast and no lunch, so I had some cheese enchiladas, which were with puff pastry and a lot less greasy than expected and what Olive ordered turned out to be a large plate of fried chicken and chips. This was just supposed to be aperitif! The chips were pretty anaemic, so he left those but we both agreed we needed another pisco sour to wash all of this down while having a lot of fun with this huge friendly dog who joined us at our table. We meandered back rather tipsy giggling away (pisco is between 38 to 48 % alcohol). We did our best to enjoy our salads which were delicious, they put avocado in everything here: I love it!
I had been afraid I would fall asleep before our 21:30 pick up but with all the activity I was fine. An all-French audience in the minivan which made it really special. They were all quite a bit younger than us and had been travelling extensively through the country and like us had heard of Alain, the French astronomer settled here who gave celestial exploration tours. We chatted on the way to his property just outside San Pedro and were shocked to hear the Valle de la Luna was closed and the Valle de la Muerte and they had also temporarily shut the El Tatio Geyser, basically all the things we had come here to see. But we decided to park all of that for now to at least start with enjoying tonight
Alain is 66 and came here 20 years at first for a few months mission to escape the pain of a divorce and fell in love with the exceptional skies and never left. Kylian had already told us that the Atacama Desert was famous for its incredible skies and was used by many space agencies for their telescopes. He now owns seven hectors of land and very many huge telescopes, some he uses and others he services for organisations or individuals around the world who monitor them at a distance.
He’s up all night and then sleeps in the morning, over a cup of tea at his house he explained how prior to Covid he would have around 17,000 visitors a year. What an exceptional evening which we started talking about space, philosophy, culture, and even politics whilst his lovely Spanish wife served tea.
He is a real character pollution here at all. You can very clearly see the Milky Way with your naked eye. He patiently took us through the basics of astronomy: stars, planets, nebulas, supernovas, et cetera. We find the sky exceptionally clear but he explained it was actually less than usual as the whole Southern hemisphere was affected by the ash in the air from the explosion on Jan. 15, 2022, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai off the coast of Tonga in the South Pacific Ocean.
Alain would point his laser at the sky and say, okay, we’re going to look at this Nebula and his assistant would roll the telescope into different positions and we would take it in turns to climb high up the metallic ladder and do our best to recognise whatever he had been talking about, It was not always obvious since none of us knows anything about stars, I wasn’t even sure if I was focussing it properly most of the time but it was still an entirely exceptional experience. You could see haloes and a red star and dying stars.
We spent hours out there and he had a wicked sense of humour and enjoyed poking fun at me for being British. It got really cold, about 5 degrees so I was glad that he had told us all to bring warm layers. Back in for another cup of tea and more fascinating talks before the minibus dropped us all back off. It was 1;30 am!
No one answered our increasingly frantic rings at the gate of our hotel which had us quite worried for a moment, but we did get in, filled with wonder at this incredible, action-packed first day here in San Pedro. Straight to bed we went but it took me a while to unwind, I was just so full of everything that we’d just seen. The room and the bed are absolutely perfect.
Chile day 4 San Pedre de Atacama – Valle de la Luna
Utter bliss to wake up to the sound of the wind in the high bushes, outside our window, so peaceful until my brain woke up and started worrying about quickly getting to town to secure some excursions. Olivier had his shower outside, which he very much enjoyed.
There is a lot to be said for thatched roofs, the temperature inside is perfect despite the heat outside. Another beautiful, dazzling blue sky. Delicious breakfast with, as I had thought, little fruit considering we are in the desert but some delicious dark brown homemade rolls and “quinoa raisin cookies” with barely any sugar or fat. Scrumptious.
Off we then set to the tourist information centre Sernatur where they were extremely helpful, and we are just so lucky! The Valle de la Luna was indeed shut for two years (Covid) but reopened 2 days ago, and the El Tatio Geyser is re-opened too! She gave us a map and recommended some of the operators (even though she is not supposed to officially) and we now know where to get cash. Quite a few things here do need to be paid for in cash. (She also told us where the public toilets are – crucial as intrepid Fabulous after Fifty travellers – and Olivier said they were very clean).
We started with visiting the operator where we had reserved the El Tatio excursion to check everything was OK (name operator) and we are all set for in two days. They do not do the other trips we were interested in but she recommended a colleague (name) and guess what; they have a Valle de la Luna expedition at 4pm today and still have two seats! I could have kissed her! And she in turn knew where we could do the Piedras Rojas tour I had wanted to go on when our trip was planned for November and that we had been told was no longer operational. This operator was called Magic Atacama. It was a long queue but well worth it. We only have one full day still free and yes, they have a trip exactly that day and room for two! Sometimes I could just burst with gratitude like the little bird in Shrek, which sings until it bursts like a balloon!
The feeling of pleasure when a plan comes together and this one just fits perfectly! We bought hats, you have to be careful with altitude and the fierce sun here and some postcards and came back to our little paradise and settled on our terrace in the shade.
I uploaded my weekly podcast (the miracles of technology) and subscriber mail and updated my travel journal (I write by hand, the record, then when home upload the script which I edit). Bliss to be able to swim and lounge knowing we have everything all organised.
At 4:30pm the tour operator in a 14-seater, air-conditioned and pristine state minibus picked us up with a driver (Miguel???name) and a guide (Alexander). The tour is in Spanish but there were two other foreigners with us, so he also translated the gist of it into English. Masks are mandatory and they spray your hands with disinfectant as you board. Just before leaving San Pedro, there was a patch of sunflowers which seemed close to miraculous here.
Destination: Valle de la Luna (20-minute drive to park entrance) with on the agenda, the big dune, the amphitheatre, a mine, the 3 Marias and we will be at the mirador before sunset to enjoy the lunar desert landscape infused with pink while we enjoy a pisco sour and some snacks. Yay!!!
Once at the park entrance we all exited and approached the temperature check machine and got talking to the Swiss guy and Patricia from Germany who are both travelling alone.
Here we are at the El Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), 3 kilometres west of San Pedro de Atacama on the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain range) which is part of the Reserva nacional Los Flamencos. Interesting fact: A prototype for a Mars rover was tested here because of the valley’s dry and forbidding terrain.
The Cordillera is 110 kilometres long and made of gypsum, salt and clay. It is still growing due to the pressure in the ground. You can see shiny crystals of ciliate in the soil which twinkles like little diamonds. The soil is volcanic and 12,000 years ago, the sea was here which seems very hard to get your head around. That is why there are so many salt flats. Above 4000 metres, in this area of Chile, they have what is called the altiplanic winter where, though it sometimes only rains once during the summer months of January to March, the clay in the soil prevents the water from filtering down, causing flooding which adds to the strange formations. You can clearly see the different soil layers as if different coats of paint have been applied one on top of the other. The sand come all the way from the Cordillera des Andes.
It is called Valle de la Luna due to the salt and the pockmarks the rain leaves that make it look like the Moon. We regularly stopped and walked, and guide Alexander made us weigh the sand in our hands, which indeed it is heavier than our beach sand due to all the volcanic minerals within it.
Next stop was the Mina Victoria which used to be mined by eight families from San Pedro. They extracted salt to be used in the hydrolysis process to extract copper from stone using sulphuric acid and electricity. It is no longer operational but some of the equipment remains.
Approaching your ear to the wall of rock in this area, you can hear it crackle (a bit like rice crispies in milk) and that is due to the salt contracting with the sun and shade in the rock.
We stopped for a few photos at the Tres Marias formation as the three rocks look indeed like three praying Marias. All these formations are created by wind and rain and are quite amazing.
We also walked up the Duna Major (the main dune) which made for great photos, that we all duly took for each other, before walking around the ‘amphitheatre’. How lucky we are to see this. You cannot help but be in awe at the immensity of the landscape, the splendour of the contrasts in height, in colour, the copper stone, the sand, the blue sky, the crystallised salt, the deep quiet. The connections were also lovely, these snatched conversations with Patricia who was due to travel with her partner who caught Covid two days before departure. I admired her for doing all of this alone, she admitted it wasn’t always easy as she is not one of those intrepid travellers.
We are also surrounded by volcanoes. Notably the venerated Licancabur which proudly stands at 5916 metres and is 2/3rds Chilean and 1/3 Bolivian. It holds the highest unfrozen lake in the world in its crater due to its last volcanic eruption 1900 years ago and is considered a holy mountain by the Atacameno people.
Then it was time to prepare for sunset at the miradors of Kari (with its coyote formation) and Ligantai where Alexander set up a table with cheese and fruit and little glasses of pisco sour to celebrate the spectacular sunset in this most amazing of places.
It was lovely to chat with the other Chilean visitors. Everyone was interested in who we were and where we were from and had advice and recommendations on where to go and what to do on our other stops around the country.
Covid means they have barely seen a foreigner for the past two years.
These excursions are great to meet people, to really see what needs to be seen and you learn so much. Alexander, our guide, was terrific; he knew so much and had a genuine desire to share. We often both walked ahead chatting about his love of nature and the hikes he goes on around South America.
Back at the hotel by 9pm, we went straight in for a salad before a much-needed shower and a careful preparation for tomorrow. Departure is 4am and we will be rising above 4000m. Exciting!
Chile day 5 El Tatio Geyser 4270m
Sprang out of bed at 4am with trepidation and after a quick shower layered up and had time to admire the miraculously starry sky before boarding our minibus. Same format as yesterday, though today they are all Chilean tourists.
Today’s guide is Lorena who also spoke some French and Manuel is our driver. We were thankful first to be left to sleep a bit during the drive there (80 kms, 1,5 hour), then the information started coming.
The Geyser we are going to see is the third largest in the world behind Yellowstone and one in Russia.
The El Tatio area has around 80 geysers, four of which are huge, including El Assassino which killed 9 people in 2015 (they fell in!!!).
We arrived before dawn as it makes for the most spectacular viewing as you see the thermal activity even better, but it was minus 7 and boy did it feel cold.
There are 4 layers in the ground : the lowest being magma at 60 kms under the ground, next layer up is rock, on top of which is water and then the soil we stand on forming the very top layer.
So how it works is the vapour from the water heated by the magma pushes up, eroding the soil till it breaks through. Water also boils faster here due to the altitude.
The air feels thinner but also because it is freezing but so far so good, we are all feeling fine in our group at 4270m though Olivier got a nosebleed which looked scary through the mask which we have to wear everywhere. (Same routine as yesterday, hands disinfected before entering bus and temperature check on entering park).
It is the minerals in the water that give the geysers their individual shape, we saw for example La Concha (the shell).
What you need to imagine is darkness, small groups of people all wrapped up walking and stopping barely talking. Huge outbursts of boiling water and vapour left and right, a strong smell of sulphur, the noise of the water bursting up and the looming volcanoes you can sort of feel around you …it is very hard to describe how magical it is, very surreal. The boiling up comes in cycles, there is like a water pouch underneath and when it is full it bursts up, when empty the activity dies down and then it refills and the cycle repeats. How long it lasts depends on the size of the water pouch. Some continued boiling for 15 minutes, others sort of rose and then fell.
We also heard for the first time about this amazing unicellular microorganism, a micro bacterium which colours things orange. It eat the Co2 which dominated in the air at the beginning of our world, creating oxygen which is what led to the development of planet Earth as we know it. It is a sort of algae, called I think Diatomeya which is then actually our ancestor! As Lauren said: “the most important is often invisible:” Shrimps eat these micro algae which are then eaten by flamingos which gives them their pink colour. (Flamingos are grey when born, then turn white, the pink aged 5 years,
The conical geysers are the oldest. El Tatio (the oven in native American) is the geo thermic area but also the volcano throning in the background (nicknamed the crying Grandpa as it looks a bit like one).
We wandered around taking in the different geysers, their activity and shape. One place was bliss as the ground was hot, so we all crouched down to release the piercing numbness in feet and hands. As she said, one day where we stand will also be a geyser as the vapour continues to push upwards eroding the soil.
There used to be a natural ‘swimming pool’ here you could bathe in, but it is shut due to Corona. The idea of a hot bath is inviting but I do not feel like removing any clothes!
This is the true definition of extra ordinary. I liked the smell and was breathing it in deeply, imagining all sorts of therapeutic properties till she pointed out it was actually toxic! Cough, cough!
And then the cherry on the cake and the grand finale, we watched the run rise behind the volcano, urging it, and its promise of warmth on. It was magnificent, divine, the rays mixing with the vapour revealing the whole scene and it immediately felt so good on our bodies. No one talked we just all stood awe-struck and did our best to take it in. What an unforgettable experience.
We can also see snow-capped Licancabur from here.
On our way out we saw the now disused geo thermic station which had made electricity from copper and was abandoned in the seventies. And a viscacha which is best described as “a short-tailed chinchilla crossed with a hare, although it isn’t in the same family as rabbits or hares” (thank you Wikipedia).
By then it was 8 am and we exited the park as due to Corona rules we can no longer eat there. We drove up to a viewpoint and enjoyed the breakfast the tour had brought outside (tea or coffee, big white doughy sandwiches with ham and cheese) in the Sun. Bliss. We are so lucky. Our guide Lorena actually used to be an English teacher who fell in love with the place and preferred becoming a tour guide. The El Tatio park was shut 1,5 years during the last wave of Corona and re-opened in June. She also was telling us about the importance of not feeding the animals – which sadly too many tourists are tempted to do. The foxes (zorros) then started coming out on to the roads to beg and got run over.
We’re the only non-Chilean tourists. It was a very friendly group. She got us all to introduce ourselves and everybody was very willing to share information and tips on Chile. Like yesterday, it feels like a school trip, everyone chatting and sharing and enjoying and pointing things out to each other. We were all relieved we had done well with the altitude, a lady fainted in one of the other groups.
We then had a 30-minute drive to a mirador in the wetlands with a view on the active volcano Putana. The landscape is dotted with little yellow bushes, which is what the Vicuñas eat. The vicuña or vicuna is one of the two wild South American camelids, which live in the high alpine areas of the Andes from 3500 to 5000m), the other being the guanaco (with a black face), which lives at lower elevations (up to 2500m).
The Vicuñas are beautiful, so elegant, and fine and their wool is the most expensive (1000$/kg) in the world and amazingly soft. Hunting or raising them is forbidden but they do catch them, to shear them.
They look so vulnerable but are actually pretty fierce as the male need to get rid of the other male to become the alpha male and they do so by biting off their testicles. The expelled male then has a solitary life, some survive, others don’t.
We saw lots of birds from Alaska who migrate here in their winter, and the sandpiper which cleverly makes a nest which it then eats in winter. We viewed some flamingo andino which are black and the flamingo chileano which is pink. It is suddenly such a different landscape and full of wildlife. The wetlands lie in the valley, and no one is allowed down to not spread bacteria. I had the feeling Chile was very environmentally minded, but Lorena spoke of big environmental issues here, oil spillages, disappearing activists, not much sorting of rubbish.
Enjoyed looking at more viscachas which do very much look like rabbits or hare but with a longer face and jump like kangaroos, they call it the Pikachu of the Altiplano.
On to the village of Machuca, a traditional village of shepherds with llamas you used to be able to visit but which is now in self-imposed quarantine. It has a very picturesque church, which is at least 300 years old. It used to be Bolivia here.
I like the fact that the locals call the shots here. The valle de la Muerte for example near our hotel was shut to tourists at the local’s request. They only tolerate small groups and at each area have one of their own supervising.
Lorena also mentioned a big issue with cancer in the region due to the five lithium mines which also use a vast quantity of scarce water. The companies replied it was the tourists who used the water, so they did some research, which revealed that tourists used eight litres of water per second, and the mines 1100 l/sec.
She also pointed out a herb called yareta which only grows three millimetres by year. People from the countries around used to come here to harvest it as it burnt better than coal (it looks like green, fluorescent moss) which made it practically extinct so now harvesting it is forbidden. And a cactus that was first used for construction but is now also protected as it grows merely 4 cms/year.
As we approached San Pedro, we realised there is a sort of shanty town on its outskirts.
It feels like a full day, yet it was only 11am when we were dropped off at our hotel. There is a saying in French that life belongs to those who rise early! Once changed, we headed back to ‘town’, enjoying feeling the now hot Sun (27-28 C) melt down into our bones. On to the bus station to check our bus into Calama for tomorrow. We are going to miss our lovely hotel breakfast yet again!
We also wanted to do some ‘souvenir shopping’ before leaving this area. Got some interesting stones for the children and some coca leaves. Just as were trundling back in a sudden dip, we came across found the mushy artisanal and bought the kids. Some Coca leaves to chew on, and some stones suddenly were very hot and tired and felt a bit of a down. But… I saw the traditional Chilean restaurant that she’d recommended as (Adobe) and we spontaneously decided to lunch. It was absolutely perfect.
Shaded but open sky, live Chilean music with the pan flutes and singing. A gentle breeze and was soon packed.
We stated by sharing Calamari’s (squid) then I had a warm salmon salad and Olivier a steak cooked in wine with patatas bravas, which were absolutely delicious. We did, in the joy of the moment, get carried away with pisco sour. (Mine like the other day with rica rica and Olivier tried the aji) version. By the time the meal came it was long gone, so we had another one with the meal and then there was some confusion when the waiter removed the empty glasses and we ended up with a third!)
Great fun and lots of giggles but I already knew I would regret it later and tomorrow we are going up high again and they strongly recommend not drinking the evening before as dehydration increases the risks of altitude sickness. OK this is lunch and not dinner but still….
Unfortunately, our paths crossed the Art shop I had noticed on our way back and we got into a very enthusiastic discussion with Adrian from South Africa who recommended going to Humbertstone when we are in Iquique, where there is one of the biggest geoglyphs in the world El gigante de Atacama (86 m). We noticed a little sculpture of it which we loved, but it was 1500 euros and thankfully we were not too far gone to find it too much. We settled instead on an adorable lama, also by artist Jesus Valencia and also made of a solid piece of oxidised copper, mounted on a solid piece of Algarrobo (carob tree). Relatively it was of course cheaper but still 350 euro, but we do love it! I was playing with a gorgeous stone egg which was on the counter as we chatted which Olivier then also spontaneously bought me for Valentine’s Day. It is Combarbalita and I love it. It is the national stone of Chile and also said to have calming, anti-anxiety properties
Crashed by the pool, which was lovely. But after that, I really could do nothing apart from eat all sorts of crap in a desperate attempt to sponge up the alcohol. Am angry at myself for lack of control as I can’t get my head around anything and tomorrow’s excursion is a whole day and high and I want to be my best to enjoy it. No point however crying over spilt milk! I took 2 paracetamols and lots of water and tried to just let go and get some sleep.
Chile Day 6
Bounced out of bed at 6am full of nervous energy and excitement. I really love these excursions but also worry about managing to go to the toilet before leaving, (always a weak spot for me when I travel, having to follow a set agenda etc.) Chanted to stabilize and it really did help. Love it when we are collected first, like that we can choose our seats in the bus and are sure to sit together!
Fourteen of us on the trip to Piedras Rojas today and once more we are the only foreign tourists. Fun group today with a very entertaining guide (David) extremely enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and passionate about this region and the driver is Samuel.
A fun happy family outing again where we all had to introduce ourselves and say how we met. Of course, we attracted a lot of attention and it meant that the whole day, everybody just went out of their way to make us feel welcome, to give us tips about what to do in Iquique, Arica etc.
David explained that 10 days ago there had been a tsunami warning because one of the Chilean submarine calderas had erupted, and that was what was actually giving us the spectacular red sunrises we had been witnessing. He also pointed out the morning star, Venus, which you could see very well.
We drove up to 3000 meters, to the village of Socaire where we had our official check of pase de mobibilidad, temperature, and hand disinfection. There are literally roadblocks at the entrance of some villages. Such a fantastic, empty road with the sun rising behind the mountain range and such an intoxicating feeling of space.
David is also set on educating us music-wise and has a whole selection of Chilean music he explains to us and there is a lovely lady sitting in the seat in front of me who is becoming the ‘mama” of the group, dishing out hankies and sweeties etc who claps along and shows us videos of the dances that go with the different rhythms. 3000m, 3340 m, so far so well. We stopped for breakfast, and they made tea and omelette and had brought gluten free bread and lactose free yogurts for me and fruit, so kind of them.
We then drove on to the main point for us today which is the park of Piedras Rojas. He pointed out the yellow bushes of grass the vicunyas eat and the volcanoes, Chiliques, Lascar and Putana. He mentioned it takes thousands of years to determine whether a volcano is active or dormant, most are in the middle
He pointed out foxes (zorro) who eat the viscachas and there was some link with the Inca God Viracacha which I did not get and who appears in the history of the Altiplano.
We admired the spectacular view while enjoying the music of Los Jaimes and as we got higher, came across many herds of vicuñas. We saw one with a damaged leg, apparently probably attacked by a Puma or indeed, as mentioned yesterday, thrown out of the herd by the alpha male who may or may not have bitten his testicles off with their razor-sharp teeth (they are like scissors with 2 incisors in the front and 2 molars at the back. They have three stomach compartments which enables them to drink and filter salt water, so can flamingos. They gestate for 11 months. It takes a baby 15 minutes to stand during which time the mother has to decide whether to stick around and risk being prey to a fox or puma, or to run for it and leave its baby to fend for itself. Quite a hard call for these incredibly gentle looking creatures! If it had not been for the conservation plan, vicuñas may well have ended up extinct which would have been such a shame as they are so lovely to look at. We were also extremely lucky to see a Suri (Andean ostrich) as apparently it is rare to see them this close, and then another four or five of them. They are doing their best to share environmental awareness. This is THEIR habitat which our road crosses. They usually live in groups of 6 to 8 and it is the male who is in charge of keeping the egg and raising the chick. Bravo!
Next group was music from the North, which is also a dance called El Caporal, nice and lively (and something to do with celebrating the Virgins!) They like their festivals in Chile. They have the carnival of course and the Limpia de Canales and the floriamiento. All clapping away to the rhythm of the Salaille by 4,130 meters.
So glad we are fine with the altitude, no more nosebleeds for Olivier. I just notice that my nose mucous gets very dry.
Passed by the Salar de aguas calientes (hot water salt flats). To have a salt flat, you need water and minerals from a volcanic eruption. Basically, the water here is also from 15,000 years ago and the initial glaciation. We stopped at the laguna y salar de taler and walked around. There was no one else and I do not think there was a single person amongst us who was not deeply moved by having this spectacular place, a miracle of nature, imbued with indigenous spirituality just for us. After registering, we set off towards the laguna, stunningly reflecting the towering volcano on a little path, stopping for David to pick up a piece of broken off Koa which is a bush, which grows on the ground and which they burn to clean your soul and help you breathe. We also saw chacacoma which they use as infusion for nausea, headache, and altitude sickness.
We all wandered in our own tempo, awed to silence. The air is thin, the sun is warm, the turquoise of the water, the majesty of the volcanoes, the blue of the sky and indeed the red rocks everywhere 9hence the name)
Loved listening to singer Violetta Parra 1917 – 1967 (must download some when back) who was also the first Latin American artist to have a solo exhibition in the Louvre. Listen to gracias a la vida.
Seeing so much worthy of wonder today. The volcanoes Miscanti and Minique with lake Minique between them…a sky of the deepest blue, contrasting against the brownish volcanoes with caps of the most pristine white snow and between them the turquoise waters with a darkish border (apparently where the animals do their business though it does not make for a very poetical end of sentence!) It must be of the most photogenic places I have ever been. With of course the white salt looking formations and the deep green of the Tollares bushes. We saw pumice rock (which I know from removing callouses in the bath!)
Someone commented on the piles of stones we could see in some places (you often see them on new age postcards and actually I think I have a photo of one on my website!). These are apachetas, (translated as “cairn” or “wayside shrine”, these are offerings and sometimes you can see a glass bottle of alcohol in the stone towers too. A clear distinction needs to be made between the apachetas ancestrales (the really old ones) and what David called the apachetas New Age. For the Incas, there are three worlds. The Underworld, the world of the dead represented by the Snake; the world of the Living represented by the Puma; and the Upper World, the world of the Gods, represented by the Condor. You could bridge the worlds via the Andean cross. The Ancestral piles were built by the Yadini (shamans), who (after taking drugs) turned into animals and were like a portal to cross over into the different worlds.
Alcohol was left as a gift for the Gods to help the person offering resolve their problems. Before alcohol could only be consumed by the Incas, the sons of the Sun.
We then entered la reserve nacional Los Flamencos at 4250 meters. David explained that up an observatory they had found like a drawing of the sun with 4 rays. It turns out that the 4 rays each lined up with one of the 4 volcanoes visible, la mano del Gigante which had probably been used by the Inca as a star observatory.
One thing I particularly like here is how environmentally conscious they are, small groups, you have to strictly stick to the paths.
We could see volcano Llullaillaco from here, which with an elevation of 6,739 m is the second highest in the world. They found bones of an ancestor of the whale at 2000 metres.
At one point Manuel stopped the bus so we could witness the electromagnetic range created by subduction (the sideways and downward movement of the edge of a plate of the earth’s crust into the mantle beneath another plate) which made our bus travel gently backwards by itself.
Next stop was on the Inca trail which travelled from Venezuela to Santiago. Looking at the path extending far ahead I thought how lovely it must be to walk it. Here again you stick to the path and if you feel the need to build an apacheta then destroy it after so archaeological truth can be preserved. I charged on ahead to be able to enjoy a few minutes alone and wished I could have more. The road cuts into the Inca trail and some of the tombs have sadly been vandalised throughout History.
Everything in the Altiplano was used. The large spikes on the cactus were used to crochet and weave ponchos for example. Interesting fact: Atacama actually means meeting point.
From here we can see Licancabur, the spiritual protector of San Pedro de Atacama.
Next stop the tropic of Capricorn where he made a valiant effort to explain how the planetary system works, comparing the earth to a spinning top with four movements: rotation, translation, precession (the slow movement of the axis of a spinning body around another axis due to a torque – such as gravitational influence – acting to change the direction of the first axis. It is seen in the circle slowly traced out by the pole of a spinning gyroscope, and nutation (a periodic variation in the inclination of the axis of a rotating object). Earth moves around the Sun and the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn are the percentage in which the Sun appears to move. He also explained about the trade winds caused by the evaporation of water from the Amazon, the lungs of the world.
And about the Capacocha or Qhapaq hucha which was an important sacrificial rite among the Inca that typically involved the sacrifice of children. In 1999 three mummies of children were unearthed in the bowels of the volcano Llullaillaco, probably the best conserved mummies in the world, dating back to around 500 years ago.
Time for a big round of applause for our fantastic guide David who actually had started off studying physics in Santiago, then visited Peru and became interested in astronomy and came here, a bit like Alain to work on the celestial adventures before becoming a guide.
By then it was 5pm and they dropped us bunch of happy campers off on the town square and after exchanging many well wishes and waves we went our separate ways. We passed by the acclaimed artisanal ice cream shop downtown and Olive enjoyed a lemon, ginger and cactus one, which I tried and was absolutely delicious.
This part of the trip for one has been all I ever dreamt of. Time to arrange pick up tomorrow and enjoy the pool in the 6pm sun writing our cards and sipping on a freezing Diet Coke.
Re-packed then enjoyed a last salad in this wonderful hotel as tomorrow we leave on a new adventure.
Chile day 7 San Pedro – Calama- Iquique
Slept like logs till our 6.30 wake-up, showers and shoved last bits in bags. They do have an issue of water pressure here; it was the same in Santiago. Flushing the toilet took a lot of patience. Grabbed our breakfast bags the hotel had kindly packed for us and took a 10-minute taxi drive to the bus station.
It is cold!! Well, we are wearing shorts and it is early morning. There is a whole bunch of very friendly women wielding clipboards sorting out the buses and passengers. Beautiful thick black hair mostly in plaits and burnt caramel skin. They pointed out the hot air balloon (fixed) from which you can see the cordillera. Next time… No tourist in sight but many locals as this is their main means of transportation. Everything is perfectly organized and very enjoyable: huge comfy chairs which can recline all the way back, air conditioning toilets, etc. First part is from San Pedro to Calama (roughly 1, 45min).
There’s a huge number of dogs and beautiful dogs, mostly big ones like German shepherds and Labradors and all that which seem to have a rather wonderful life roaming free, flopping in the sun. None of them appear malnourished and they actually seem to rule the place, walking in and out of restaurants etc and are always greeted with kindness. There is no kicking or shooing them away. is very gentle with them. They don’t, there’s no aggressivity or kicking them, et cetera.
Yesterday I forgot to add the bit yesterday about the three sorts of indigenous art they have here. The Geoglyphs which are huge, mostly made of stones and which you can see from up high, the petroglyphs which are chipped into stone and rock Art (on the stone).
Arrived in Calama at 9:15 perfectly on time. Here again, friendly and organised and we can leave our luggage and walk around as we have a small hour wait before our next bus to Iquique. We found a colourful pedestrian boulevard but absolutely everything was shut. It is early, and a Sunday. We then happened across a little, very local cafeteria and I was desperate for the loo, but they were out of order, so we settled down for scrambled eggs made and served in a little metal pan, and tea. It was lovely and I forgot to resent Olivier from managing to pee everywhere.
Back at the bus station I managed to convince the driver to let me use the bus loo, so it ended well, and here we are again settled upstairs front row and it is like being in the cinema. I have seen quite a few murals on stopping violence against women. I can imagine it being quite an issue here.
There is no sense of respecting others regarding noise here. Everyone cheerfully has their phone on full blast, beeping away, watching films, which seems to disturb no one. We had a quiet giggle at the not so young man to our right who was watching some Walt Disney musical and the couple behind us who were totally engrossed in some creepy telenovela involving zombies. Very good for our Spanish all of this. This applies to restaurants and cafes too, but you get used to it and after having children you become adept at making abstraction (sorry Kids!).
So here we are cruising off on our 5-hour trip to the coastal town of Iquique. Why the bus? One because it is more environmental. Two because you see an awful lot more and three, it is actually a lot more relaxing than all the queues and checks ins etc at the airport. It was perfect, right temperature, so much room my legs were straight out, water, food, toilets, and you get to see all the changes in landscape etc, and we can both relax. You can also reserve online exactly which seat you want (thank you Olivier) and the price quality is excellent (40 euro each!)
Here too there are many outside playground areas and sports areas where you can do step and push-ups and stuff like that and when you look up there is the most incredible jumble of electrical wires. You forget fast that our cities used to be like that too (I daresay some of them in Europe still are).
As we approached Calama, the fact Chuquicamata is the largest open pit copper mine by excavated volume in the world, was clear. It has been operational since 1910 but shut at various moments during the Corona pandemic to prevent spreading. Such luxury to just sit and discover so much, as the countryside unfurls before your eyes as you sit there infinitely cosy and comfy. There must be a lot of road accidents here despite the good condition of the roads and the fact they are practically empty, as there are many shrines on the side of the road with flowers and candles, sometimes photos and flags, many quite large and covered.
So far, we have felt perfectly safe with our bus drivers. They are limited to 100 kms/hour and the speed is relayed to passengers via a screen.
We also stopped in Maria Elena where there was a large “Monumento nacional del patrimonio salifrero”. It used to be a large mine of saltpetre which is another name for potassium nitrate which was destroyed in the 2007 earthquake. It did indeed have the forlorn appearance of a ghost city whereas I can imagine it having been such a vibrant city.
One amusing in a way detail is that the road frequently cut the now disused railway tracks and the bus would come to a full stop before crossing, even though you can see for miles on end either side and in some places the asphalt actually covered the tracks, so it was pretty clear it was unused.
Suddenly, in the middle of the barren emptiness, along these never ending deserted, dusty roads there are signs like “Buen viaje dicen las familias pampinosas, somos vida en el desierto”. (Safe journey from the pampas families, we are life in the desert).
Then suddenly the road started descending, at times quite abruptly, towards the coast. No more straight lines, lots of tortuous curves, with many signs of “beware, danger” and green zones (OK descent) and yellow zones (danger, steep descent) and our driver was thankfully cautious. And suddenly there is the Pacific! What a change! We stopped in the coastal city of Tocopilla (when I say “stop” in all these places, we do not get out, passengers do, and others climb on board) and there is a copper concentrate plant.
You drive for hours in absolute desert with nothing but dust in sight and suddenly in front of you is the big, beautiful blue, Pacific. From here our road followed the coast, which was absolutely beautiful though rather nerve-wrecking as the road is sort of chiselled out the mountain and there is a sheer drop to the sea.
They are redoing this part of the road, and it looks as if they have had a lot of stone slides so there was a traffic jam as each side took turns passing but in no hurry. There seem to be lots of ‘settlements” along the coast, but it is not clear if these are holiday homes/ shacks as it does not look like they have either electricity or water.
Then there was a ‘customs’ stop which had us most intrigued until we found out later that the town we are heading to, Iquique has a duty-free status, it is a tax haven
And before you know it, you are parachuted into civilisation, into glitz and glamour and boulevards and chrome and glass high rises, palm trees and fountains and beaches with all you could need when at the beach, parasols, deckchairs, volleyball nuts, Baywatch stations and showers. If feels vibrant, and very modern.
Arrived at the Rodivario bus station and took a taxi to our marvellously decadent, five-star Gavina Sens hotel, perched straight on the beach and as glamour as you can get. We had decided for a one-night treat – $180 including sea view and what a view! We did get a few looks at the pristine reception as we emerged from our city taxi all scruffy and dusty as if we had taken part in the Paris-Dakar! But hey!
Our room is on the sixth floor and we both literally yelped with joy on entering our huge room with floor to ceiling windows opening out on to our terrace and the sea and the infinity pool below. The sound of the waves breaking on the rocks is deafening, and the sea brumes totally intoxicating. Waouw.
After my usual acclimatization angst, which I found particularly hard after the connection and peace I had felt in the desert surrounded by nature and the spiritual heights of Attacama, we grabbed our swimsuits and headed straight down to the pool where we spent the rest of the day. It didn’t take long for Julie the socialite to return, perfectly at ease among all this ‘beau monde” though I am increasingly clear which world I prefer and could at times imagine wanting to become a sort of hermit, just surrounded by a few of significant people.
But for now, it was time for swimming in this glorious pool looking over at the sea and lounging in the sun with a cool drink. So far, no tourists spotted but lots of wealthy Chilean families. It looked as if often the fathers and mothers were taking it in turns to mind the children while the other worked on a laptop at the nearby terrace before switching. I wonder what they do? You would certainly need more than your average salary for whole families, often including a glamorous looking Grandmother to stay here.
The dining room is astounding with ceiling to floor glass windows, overlooking the sea on two sides. I had already done prep work and convinced the charming young man in charge of reservations that since we had come from so far and were only here for one night, we deserved the best table, in the corner, where you feel you’re hanging above the sea. And we got it.
By the time we had showered and settled there as the Sun was setting. I was feeling rather uncomfortable at the locals down there looking up at us before reflecting that I was probably being very arrogant, imagining they were wishing they were up here, whereas chances are that they were looking up and thinking ‘poor woman up there in her glass cage with all her rich person worries’. Anyway, I then stopped musing and taking millions of photos of the spectacular sunset which was painting the whole coast in incredible shades of orange and red and then purple and focussed on our delicious Pisco sour followed by the acclaimed delicious red Carmenere wine. “(Carménère (“car-men-nair”) is a medium-bodied red wine that originated in Bordeaux, France, and now grows almost only in Chile. The wine is treasured for its supple red-and-black berry flavors (in a similar style to Merlot) and herbaceous green peppercorn notes.”
Since we were going all the way, we ordered starters and main courses, but the starters were so huge, we rapidly regretted it. I had a crab “bake”, seriously tasty crab, in a rich, cheesy sauce served in a little font pan. It was seriously delicious; my mouth is watering just writing about it! Olivier had a huge dish of chunky octopus served with patatas bravas. We then both really appreciated the tuna, which was just seized on each side, cut in mouse bites above a hill of a quinoa with, I think it was roasted fennel and hearts of artichokes. Yum. We were going to go for an evening walk but were so full we decided to go up and make the most of our room instead. We opened the bay windows wide and lounged around on this yet again, absolutely huge King of emperors sized bed writing, reading, and chatting (among other things). I am glad there is comparably little to see and do here (apart from buy a Ferrari duty free) so we can have a pause and let all our impressions catch up with us. I am glad I have this journal to download, otherwise I fear I would explode with all these new experiences. We slept like babes and at some point, I did shut the window. As the crashing waves were leading me to have some rather weird tsunami dreams.
Day 8 Iquique – Arica
Such utter bliss, lying in bed, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks below… Life is so wonderful. I then did my chanting on the balcony, grateful for these many benefits manifesting in my life and did my daily 12 sun salutations. Breakfast in the same dining room was just as magical as last night, the view on the sea, the bay. The buffet was varied and superb, catering also for gluten free, lactose free etc. We then took our coffees to the outside terrace where we could get a better view round the next bay until it got too hot, and we took our musings to the pool. There is nothing quite like slow and powerful laps in an almost empty infinity pool suspended above the sea. Check out is 1pm which was a great excuse to lounge the whole morning reading, writing and just being. Back up to ‘enjoy” the room a last time (at least once per hotel, haha! Julie rule) and pack last items.
We then dropped off our luggage at reception and set off on a long and lovely walk along the boulevard that stretches right along the coast. They take really good care of everything. The boulevard is clean, no rubbish, the gardens are well kept, flowers pruned, grass watered. The beach is of darkish sand with all the amenities you could wish for, chairs and parasols, showers, Baywatch stations, surf lessons, volleyball nets…We wandered all the way to the end, made use of the pristine public toilets and back again before stopping on the terrace of side café for a ‘warm sandwich’. Mine was vegetarian with cooked onions, mushrooms, peppers tomatoes etc. very tasty before stocking up on water for the next leg of our journey, another five hours by bus to the northern coastal town of Arica, well known also as surf spot.
I asked our taxi driver, on our way from the hotel to the bus station, about the tsunami zone signs we see around, and he explained the procedure: an alarm goes off and everyone leaves their home and cars and walks up to a higher area (designated) and gathers there. They have about 15 minutes to do so. Ambulances then collect the elderly and handicapped. Apparently, it does happen quite regularly though often nothing happens. The last time was only a few weeks ago when the volcano in Tonga erupted. There were no consequences here.
In 2014, however, the water did rise to the designated area. I am thinking then that they are not the huge tsunamis which cover whole cities. He was talking temperature and mentioned the coldest it gets here is around 12 degrees.
Perfect organization again at the bus station, few people and we are on top again in our amazing seats with a view.
One hour or so into the journey we were wondering what all the banging and shouting was and turned out the second driver (there are always two) had smelt pot and was hammering on the toilet door till a shame-faced, pot smoking young man sheepishly emerged and took his seat.
Up we go again to our arid desert to another outstanding road. A lot of wind and dust gusting across the road, looks like the Wild West and you can certainly feel the gust when we overtake lorries. I noticed they also have some toll roads and there ar areas where you can test your brakes which certainly makes sense here. I see we are close to the Cuesta Chiza (17 kms away) and past the mirador Chiza. There are very few petrol stations on these roads, so I guess you learn to plan accordingly.
Once more we needed to stop and one of the drivers did some paperwork as we exited the duty-free zone.
The canyons are now breath-taking, and the scenery very rugged. Again, very many shrines to travellers who have perished on this road. Thankfully the road is in perfect condition and there are three roads.
Arica is only 20 kms south of Peru so we are heading for the extreme North. We also passed an area with plastic greenhouses. When I looked it up the main economic activity here was still mining, (fishing in the coastal part) and tourism so not quite sure what they were growing there.
I’m glad we are not doing this trip by night. And our Mr Naslo Freddy Castro, does not indicate his speed but it is clearly above the reglemented 100kms/hour.
On the other hand we turned up 30 minutes early in Arica “Ciudad de la eterna primavera” (city of eternal spring)
We found a lovely grandfatherly taxi driver who was set on making sure we were kept safe. Lots of concern here apparently about this wave of Uruguayan immigrants who, he claimed, were making the town unsafe and keeping tourists away. He also warned us of the particularly strong effect of the Sun here and the need to protect our fair skin. He hated the idea of us getting ripped off and gave us some ideas of taxi fares so we would be in the know.
After our luxury bonanza we, (I), was worrying about what a three star would be as it is our last step and they have no swimming pool but the second we saw it, it was clear why we had chosen it. (I chose the locations and number of nights and Olivier researched the hotels using mostly booking.com). Once more it is directly on the beach, but this time small, only two floors, entirely made out of wood and ecological. Our room smells of the sauna, is decorated with Northern Chile ancestral tapestries and our balcony opens straight onto the little beach and the sea. It is simply amazing, and the staff are wonderful friendly and helpful. There is purified water in the room, you can re-serve yourself and to coffee and tea all day, the decoration is beautiful and perfectly matches the environment and you eat directly above the sea. One part covered, the other not.
So again, surrounded by the sea crashing on the rocks, the birds, an ecological paradise. The bedroom is a dream, a huge, bed surrounded by a mosquito net (though we saw no mosquitoes), the shower has an open ceiling as it only rains 0,03 mm/ year here! And perfect Wi-Fi, and I enjoyed a lovely chat via WhatsApp with my daughter Shannon from the balcony. The hotel is called “Apacheta”.
At 8pm we settled overlooking the sea and enjoyed the best Pisco sour yet (with egg white foam and ice chips), a pizza and a salad. Olivier likes his desert and ended-up with this amazing huge slab of something very sweet, sort of caramel and coffee between layers of puff pastry (like a millefeuilles) with also oats and nuts and even when I sacrificed myself to help him, we battled to finish it off.
We were saved from death by indigestion by a lovely herbal tea which helps digestion called Luisa, which was very soothing and then crashed to our bed, lying there with the balcony door wide open just metres away from the sea and just lay there in a state of absolute bliss.
Chile Day 9 – ARICA
I could lie in bed admiring the view all day; it is truly magical. I chanted on our wooden terrace, permeated with gratitude and wonder. Moreover, it only got better. On passing the reception; the lovely Jaime announced he had managed to book us a trip to Lauca for the next day which I had been so very much hoping for! We were brought a lovely breakfast as we sat soaking up the view, the sounds, and the smells of the sea as the waves broke on the black stones of our little lagoon. Fresh peach, mango and banana, little glasses of yogurt with cornflakes on top and a dash of something like maple syrup, a dish of eggs, a toasted cheese sandwich and warm white doughy bread buns with butter and jam. My temperamental stomach is sure to not agree to all of this, but I certainly enjoyed it.
Today we visit the charming, small, coastal town of Arica, walking along the boulevard, past the port and the vibrant fish market before taking a steep climb up to Museo de sitio Colon 10 which has a rather interesting Story. In 2004 they were doing excavations for the foundations of a house when they discovered over 20 Chinchorro mummies dating back to 7 or 8.000 BC. Since 1917 over 200 Chinchorro mummies have been found at various locations in and around Arica, making it in a way a graveyard of these members of the Chinchorro culture. These mummies are 2000 years older than the Egyptian mummies! These 20 they chose to excavate and leave here making a museum out of the site. They are covered with a thick window of Plexiglas and now here we stand, staring down at them in the museum. They are incredibly well conserved. 29% (of the 267) were mummified naturally and the others following a detailed procedure: “small incisions would be made to a body, the organs taken out and the cavities dried while the skin was ripped off. The Chinchorro people would then stuff the body with natural fibres and sticks to keep it straight before using reeds to sew the skin back on. They would also attach thick black hair onto the mummy’s head and cover its face with clay and a mask with openings for the eyes and mouth. Finally, the body was painted in a distinctive red or black colour using pigments from minerals, ochre, manganese, and iron oxide”. It was impressive.
From here, we continued our climb up the steep trail to reach the viewpoint of the city. First the shrine to Santa Maria Carmen and then up to the Morro de Arica, which is a steep hill, 139 meters above the sea which served as bulwark of defence for the Bolivian troops which garrisoned the city during the War of the Pacific (1879–1883). Here you can find a war museum commemorating the 50-minute battle when Chile reconquered the city and throning over it all a huge statue of Jesus, also called the Christo de Concordia celebrating the love and friendship between the two peoples. He stands with open arms, inviting people to think about a world without national differences. The bronze statue weighing 15 tons, 11 m high and 10 m wide, has an inner steel frame and a plaque. It was designed by Raul Valdivieso and brought to Chile from Madrid (Spain) in 1987.
In 1971, Morro de Arica was declared a national monument of Chile.
The views on both sides are amazing and the flag of Chile must be one of the biggest flags I have ever seen.
Down to the little cathedral San Marcos designed by Gustav Eiffel. This Gothic-style church has a threefold claim to fame. First, celebrated Parisian engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, before his success with the Eiffel Tower, designed it. Second, it was prefabricated in Eiffel’s Paris shop in the 1870s (at the order of the Peruvian president) then shipped right around the world to be assembled on site. Still more curious is the construction itself: the entire church is made of stamped and melded cast iron, coated with paint. He also designed the nearby Casa de Aduana, now a cultural centre.
Finally, we have found a post office to send our postcards, we could not find mailboxes anywhere, nor did the hotels want to take them. 10 days he said (they turned up over a month later).
From here, we wandered along the packed pedestrian 21 de mayo road with tons of shops and restaurants and mind-boggling queues outside every back. I thought it was maybe pay day but we met a lady in our hotel who works for the bank and said it was like that all the time, that there was still a deep distrust of doing financial transfers etc. online. I rapidly had enough of all the hustle and bustle and made our way back to the sea front where we found a little restaurant with a terrace straight under el morro.I had a salad and Olivier a burger and we enjoyed two huge glasses of delicious fresh passionfruit juice (maricuya con agua). Back to the hotel where the electricity was down (the municipality is working on the street) and being an Eco lodge, they are keeping the generator till tonight, so I joined Olivier on his trip to the surfing beach. We took a taxi to the playa (beach) macha. The first surfing school was shut but in the second, they rented surfboards, so he set to it. I was nicely settled on the beach to write, read, and enjoy. I am so glad there are no rocks here as the waves are impressive! Arica is well known as surf spot and in September every year they have international surf and body board competitions. They take place in the waters around a little island we just walked past at the port, which creates perfect conditions. The waves arrive from 3 sides, and one is called El Gordo and can reach 10 m high!
We spent a lovely afternoon and then had a drink in the surf shack/cafe, so prettily decorated. The woman there was great fun and very friendly and helpful. We asked where we could get a taxi and she insisted she call us instead an Uber (much cheaper) to get back to our hotel.
Easy evening as we want to be fit for Lauca National Park tomorrow. We showered, prepared our stuff, and had a lovely dinner on the terrace chatting indeed with the lady who works at the bank. Loving it.
Chile day 10 Lauca National reserve
I have been so looking forward to this though a bit concerned about altitude as today we go straight from 0 to over 4500 metres and there are many stories of headaches, vomiting, fainting etc. We decided to do it the local way and drank infused coca leaves last night and again this morning.
It started quite funnily. The receptionist (woman this time) called us that our bus was here, and we hopped on board though it later turned out this was another tour to the same place which was supposed to collect two different passengers from our hotel, so we had to meet up and have an “exchange of prisoners”. It also meant that we were last on-board and had cramped seats just behind the driver, but my consternation did not last long as the guide in this bus is so much better!
His name was Ivan Fernandez, and the driver is Manuel. All Chilean tourists again. Off we set through different sorts of vegetation from the Costa (coast) through the pampa (plains), then the pre-cordillera and then the Altiplano (high plateau). We followed the river and valley of Lluta as he also discussed the various cultures, the nomads, the pre-Hispanic then the Spanish. The water is salty from the mineral sediment, but they still grow onion and alfalfa, used as fodder. On the other side, there is a valley and river with pure water where they grow tomatoes and bell peppers.
He pointed out a huge geoglyph we can see from the road “El gigante de Lluta” The giant of Lluta, made from stones as was common on the caravan roads.
Ivan also explained how the Andes Cordillera (a mountain range in South America running 5000 Miles along the Pacific coast) blocks with its height the clouds coming from the amazon which isa what creates the desert here. There is also a cold currant coming from the ocean which keeps the temperatures low which is why in Arica it is never over 30 degrees and is known as the city of eternal spring.
First official stop was the lovely village of Poconchile. Indeed, the concept of a village is colonial. The nomads just settled when the conditions were right before moving on. We saw the beautiful 18th century church of San Jeronimo. It has a closed atrium with adobe walls, a rectangular plan, two wooden bell towers on its façade, and a trapezoidal truss roof. Here is home to the Aymara people.
We all shopped from the little stands held market style by the colourful women. We bought coca leaves, which were very bitter, foul actually. I was then stuck in the bus with a mouth full of green gunge I didn’t dare swallow – Oliver swallowed his and lived. I spat it out when we stopped to admire some huge cacti where of course I charged up to get a closer look and did not dare come down as it was steep and slippery and was rescued yet again by my valiant hero. We also bought coca sweets (which were much nicer), and little pencils and a typical woven bag. Seems only fair to thank them for letting us enter.
80% of the Port activity in Arica is from Bolivia and indeed all the lorries we passed seem to be bearing Bolivian number plates. There was a railway till 2001 when it was carried away by water and never rebuilt. The borders with neighbouring Peru and Bolivia are open to lorries but shut to cars and people due to Covid-19 pandemic. It makes it less frustrating that we can’t just hop over the border.
We passed by terrain which looked as if the rocks had been squeezed so hard it made like little hills crushed together as you could imagine having if you crushed paper in your fist.
Impressive demonstration of the magnetic field. When placed in neutral, our bus gently travelled backwards!
We then arrived at the pre-cordillera, like a front piece before the cordillera proper and entered the province of Parinacota. The Spanish arrived here in the 16th century and set about converting the indigenous, making them work building villages etc. The influence of the Incas here is considerable. We saw a little house made of stones around 1500 where they rested and bathed as they passed through. We still have the Inca trail as well as mentioned on a previous day and the terrace culture with vines etc that we still have in Europe.
From here we can see the beautiful, snow-capped volcano Tacora, majestic at 5980 m.
Next stop is the mirador de Putre (viewpoint) offering a spectacular view over the valley and the town of Putre. Now at 3,500 meters and going strong. Here again we clustered around a few stalls of local produce held by small, wiry, elderly local women with shiny dark eyes and thick plaits of hair. I tried a few alpaca ponchos but the very local things often end up in a cupboard so I settled on a grey and blue jumper poncho style which I certainly can imagine wearing.
We are now in the Cordillera des Andes and no more tall bushes as the altitude stunts their growth.
The national parc of Lauca covers 1,379 km2 of altiplano (high plains) and mountains. It is a biosphere home to unique flora, with endemic species, some of which of great medicinal importance, as well as to fauna that include vicuñas, guanacos, vizcachas, foxes, quirquinchos, pumas, tarucas, suris or ñandús and a great variety of birds such as flamingos, guallatas, etc. It gained Unesco status in 1981.
A little stream seemed quite incongruous amid the barren landscape, which, you know, seems quite incongruous. Then our friends the vicuñas in the marshes and pink flamingos. We are above 4000 so in the Altiplano.
We stopped for breakfast in Putre at the ‘international hotel’, sort of youth hostel where other groups were also enjoying their breakfast. It was an interesting choice of bread (huge chunk of white bread) with margarine, or margarine and ham, or just ham. I went for bread and margarine and sprinkled with sugar from the tea as apparently sweet is also good against altitude sickness. And tea of course, the “mate de coca” delicious and the best medicine.
It has rained a lot in the last three years, so there is a lot of water in the plains, and we saw lots of pink flamingos, but no pumas.
Next stop is the colonial village of Parinacota where we had a guided tour of the lovely 18th century colonial church, where you could still see the original paintings on the inside walls, made with animal blood and vegetable fibre. We are now at 4,392 meters. This church comes with the legend of a table that arrived in the village of its own accord floating through the air with a lit candle at each corner. Each time it stopped in the village, someone died. So, they caught it and attached it in the church which was the only safe place, and they say that you can still hear it banging and rattling the chains that secure it to the church wall.
There is the main church, considered “feminine”, and a building next to it, which is the bell tower, seen as “masculine”. Women do not climb the bell tower, and if they do, they shall not marry.
Then we arrive at lake Chungara, the cherry on the cake, located at merely 13 kilometres from Bolivia. Located at 4,517 meters, it is 37 meters deep and stunning. A turquoise lake, surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes, crisp against a deep blue sky, which reflect in the still waters. The feeling of calm and quiet is overwhelming though there are many birds. We have 30 minutes to enjoy, quietly and respectfully this sliver of paradise.
It is about 12 degrees but does not feel cold, and we are all so enraptured by the magical aura of the place our other senses are probably somewhat dulled. Quite a few members of our group are suffering from the altitude at this point. There is little oxygen in the air, and you need to breathe very deeply and quietly which we had no problems doing. I felt sorry for those feeling faint, suffering from headaches, or literally vomiting that they had come so far but could not fully enjoy.
Olivier and I wandered side by side along the shore, stopping frequently to breathe it all in, in an attempt to imprint this incredible landscape forever in our memories. Beautiful and most extraordinary.
We then gently came back to now in the bus as we headed for a viewpoint to take some photos from afar and then down for lunch in a local cafeteria. Same idea as breakfast, a pit-stop for the various groups. This one doubles as a local, rather rundown hostel. A tasty soup to start with, followed for the others by rice and meat; rice and eggs for me which was lovely. There were bowls filled of something red and yellow on the table, which I took to be sauce and asked the family sitting with us. Actually, it was dessert and exactly the sort of jelly they have in England! It was a fun opening to chat with the family that actually live in the South of Chile near Torres del Paine. We also covered the topic of Corona, they are here on their fourth injection and indeed now is their summer holidays, and the new school year starts in March.
After lunch, we wandered around the village and got chatting to an interesting guy from Quebec, traveling alone for now. He does it the rough way, with rucksack and tent and was telling us that last night he had been up to 4,800 meters and had camped by a thermal area (thankfully as it is brutally cold at night). He did mention that he had found it tough and had realised he was pushing his limits. I can imagine it being pretty terrifying, entirely alone, pitch black, freezing and feeling the effects of altitude sickness…
By 19:30 we were safely back in San Pedro de Atacama, with a big thanks to our orange travel association. Dusty, shattered, and full of gratitude and wonder, we had a shower and enjoyed a well-deserved Pisco sour on the balcony, watching a lovely little wedding taking place on the beach below. We then took our time over dinner on the beautiful open-view restaurant terrace, overlooking the sea on two sides. We both enjoyed a seafood risotto, mine with quinoa, Olivier’s with rice, topped, with parmesan and a divine sauce, finishing off yesterday’s bottle of wine, sharing our impressions of the day.
It is so lovely here. We collapsed in bed delighted and doing our best to hold off thoughts of our approaching return. Tomorrow is our last full day in Arica before our return flight to Santiago. Thanks to this wonderful hotel, we can keep the room until we leave at the end of the day. Kind gestures like that make me so incredibly happy. Life can be simple.
Day 11 Final day Arica and back to Santiago
And day 11, final day Arica. How did it go so fast? Such a pleasure to not have to bounce out of bed and lie, admiring the view, the sound and the smell of the waves crashing 200 meters away. Chanted with a heart bursting with gratitude and enjoyed our breakfast, especially the passion fruit.
We certainly have indulged in some delicious food and drink and my shrinking clothes are letting me know it.
The acclaimed Cuevas de Anzota (caves) are just round the corner, so we jumped into a taxi and set off. They are a lot more spectacular than we’d even imagined.
You actually have to wear a hard hat in case of stone landslides but can make your way around independently during a 40, 45-minute walk around the coast. There is not just one cave but many, and the combination of black cliff, aquamarine water, white spray, and indigo-blue sky make the site extremely picturesque. One of the caves is actually quite far up which is puzzling. Everything is well signposted; there are stairs, handrails, and paths to be kept to. I even had a flashback to school geography lesson as I was looking at the huge amounts of cormorant poop, guano indeed (Guano is the accumulated excrement of seabirds and bats. As a manure, guano is a highly effective fertilizer due to its exceptionally high content of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium: key nutrients essential for plant growth). There actually used to be a large factory here, which closed in 1977. It isn’t very clear to me how they harvested it…scraping it off the rocks does not seem very efficient… We did pass the gigantic Omega factory (supposedly one of the biggest in South America) which may, or may not, be responsible for the foam that sometimes accumulates in the little lagoon opposite our room. There is also a very large fish factory here; maybe Olivier could change industry. I would not mind living here, loads of jobs I could do.
On the way back we decided to ask the taxi driver to wait, gathered our gear and set back off to the surfer’s beach of las machas, like that we do not get back too late and can pack up without rush. We returned to the same lovely surf café for Olivier to get a board. The waves are huge. I settled down happily with books, sun cream among the other families and watched Olivier get thrashed (and sunburnt the top of my feet). There has been so much mention of social unrest, criminality but to be honest all we have seen is peace and friendliness. Olivier then exchanged his surfboard for two body boards, and once I had overcome my initial panic at the idea, boy did I love it!
Though the waves were 1,5 to 2 metres high, I think I was more worried about the huge jelly fish.
I rapidly forgot about them as it was amazing, thrilling. The second one I caught was fabulous and just took me far, far, far, far, and by then I was hooked. The rush of lying just perfectly on the crest of the wave, feeling its power and speed, and riding it out all the way to the beach is hard to describe. You just feel so alive! The current is strong, and it was hard work wading back out against it to try and catch the next one. After 45 minutes I was shattered! Back to the terrace of our surf café for a cappuccino in the sun drying off and comparing heroic stories! The water is not cold at all, and the jellyfish must have stayed far from me, as I did not notice them. We had a great chat with the owner surf dude not much younger than we are, who also surfed in Hossegor and Biarritz and arranged a taxi back for us. One of the main take backs from this trip is how incredibly friendly the people are.
Paradise. Back at the hotel I uploaded my podcast, chatted with Shannon who was full of the sniffles, and I guess having her mother gallivanting around the other side of the world, all brown, doesn’t help. By 18:30, we were showered, dressed, packed, and having our last meal with a glass of chilled white wine.
This has been a perfect stay. The staff all deserve full marks with Jaime at reception and the wonderful waiter Manuel so full of wisdom, life philosophy, and spirituality with whom I had beautiful talks on karma, incarnation and more. I cherish these moments; they give meaning to my life. I thrive on connection.
Another deep talk with the taxi driver to the international airport of Chacalluta, only 6 kms under Peru. Main topic again was immigration and the contrato social. That two years ago there was so much social unrest due to the influx of this new generation, of immigrants that the government brought in more carabineros, but they continue to enter illegally through Bolivia and Peru and get by on crime and violence.
Chacalluta airport is tiny, which made it a lot less overwhelming than our domestic flight to Calama. We’re traveling with Sky airlines this time. It is the second largest airline in the country behind flag-carrier LATAM Airlines and the first airline to operate under a low-cost model in the country.
Just one queue and our usual dose of excitement as they at first could not find us on the flight as we had inversed Surname and Christian name.
A small airport is greatly beneficial to my bank account though I was disappointed as I really wanted one of the typical rugs, plaids that are common to Northern Chile, Bolivia, and Peru.
It is quite amusing to see what some people travel with; the woman in front of me had huge bags of something very light and you cannot help noticing the large size of many people. Olivier and I can certainly feel the weight we have put on here but compared to the majority we are stick insects, which is rather counterproductive for trying to resist temptation.
Anyway, we were graced with an amazing last red sunset as generous goodbye. 2,5-hour flight back to Santiago. I am enjoying writing all of this so much. It pushes me to focus on my surroundings and will make for great memories even if no one else is interested in reading it. Usually when I travel, I do one Facebook posting at the end, but for some reason I started doing one at each step of the way and have accumulated quite a following from my friends all over the world, which has been really lovely and special.
Take-off and landing on time, luggage came straight out, and we immediately found a taxi for the set rate to our NH Ciudad. Another one dismayed by the increased violence in the city and who warned us to avoid the area of Bella Vista, for example.
I thought we had only taken a suite on arrival since we knew we would be confined, but we have another and this one is truly spectacular, on the 12th floor, much more design. I could get used to all of this luxury.
Chilled till 1:30 am then time for some beauty sleep so we ca make the most of our last day and Santiago tomorrow. Hopefully, the PCR test will not take too long.
Day 12 Santiago de Chile
So, today is our last day here: Friday, the 11th of February, which also happens to be my parent’s 55th wedding anniversary. It is so lovely to see the many reactions to my FB postings on this trip, some people have followed the whole journey! This the animo I needed to follow up on my next pet project which is writing travel journals as “Fabulous after Fifty” and who knows, someday I may arrange trips too!
Anyway, we had a lovely breakfast with loads of fresh fruit, et cetera, and the lovely waiter remembered I took soya milk.
Today is our one and only day in Santiago and we also need to have our PCR done for our return to the Netherlands. So off we set to Metro Salvador. I am now more aware that women really do hold on to their handbags, crossed over their shoulders in front, or tightly tucked under their arms. We really have not felt any danger but there obviously is a concern. The PCR centre was a model of efficiency, cleanliness and friendliness, a queue per time slot. It flowed effortlessly, and we were in and out in less than 10 minutes. Only one nostril done here (fascinating all the differences per country) and we get the results in 4 hours.
We took the same Metro back, exiting one stop further than our hotel in the one area all taxi drivers told us not to come to: Bella Vista. I am sure they meant at night as this is the famed night spot as we saw by the rows of cafes and bars and funky destroy-looking clubs. I can imagine it heaving till the early hours! However, it is now 11am and dead as dead can be. We are on our way up to the Cerro (hill) San Cristobal to the huge statue of the Virgin of Immaculate Conception keeping watch over the city. The funicular is being repaired so we took the panoramic bus instead. It is also a lovely walk and a sport spot for the whole city, however we do have time constraints today, so we contented ourselves with admiring all the walkers, joggers, and intrepid cyclists as it is a long and steep climb, 600 or 800 meters, I think. Nice to see the large amount of extremely fit Chileans too. The Chileans actually seem quite big on bikes, everywhere we have been there have been cyclists, mostly on mountain bikes but also race bikes with helmets and the total lycra gear, often blaring music. The pedestrian paths are also cyclist paths which is a bit confusing, and they also share the same traffic lights.
We got off at the first stop to have at least some walking too. Here is the absolutely amazing open-air swimming pool, situated halfway up the mountain with stunning views. From there, we took the teleferic all the way up. Two of us per “bubble” and as clean, friendly, and efficient as always.
This really is a different Latin America to the one that I’ve visited so far (Mexico and Guatemala more than 20 years ago). Made it all the way up to the stunning pristine statue of the Virgin Mary from where you can see far on all sides despite the pollution and the fact it is quite overcast today. We walked el camino de las 7 cruces (the path of the 7 crosses) bordered, as the name indicates, with seven crosses made by various artists and varying greatly in style, ending at the Virgin Mary’s church, beautiful and serene. The huge statue is impressive, though it is a shame it looks as if she has an aerial protruding from her head. This is where pope Jean Paul II said mass, in 1984 I believe. There are also walls for urns, I wonder who is allowed to place their ashes here, some are very recent.
It certainly feels like a cosmopolitan city, many high rises, including the highest skyscraper in Latin America.
The park here, Parque metropolitan, is really lovely, with forest areas, playgrounds, trails, sports area and has recently celebrated its 100th birthday.
You can also take the teleferic down but to another part of town but our next stop is Plaza de Armas so we went down the same way and took a quick glimpse at Pablo Neruda’s city house which is now a museum “la chascona” (which means wild mane of hair in homage to his mistress Matilde Urrutia).
Back through Bella Vista. The city feels so vibrant and cheeky in a way. Beautiful old colonial buildings and also a lot of graffiti, street art depicting protests, workers’ rights, anarchy. Quite a bit supporting the gay community (there were poems about a murdered lesbian) and transgender and advocating veganism, it certainly makes it very picturesque. Once we exited the arty area, we found ourselves on royal, large avenues bordered by all the top end shops and some stunning buildings.
If I understood well Plaza de Armas is basically the city centre, a big green square of over a hundred Palm trees bordered by bars and terraces. We chose the terrace of Barra Chalaca for a delicious fresh, cool fruit juice (mango, passionfruit and banana, a meal in itself) and settled to people watch, listening to the live music and taking in the effervescence of the place. We feel slightly bewildered by all the people, noise, and activity after 10 days mostly in nature. They have security guards in bullet proof vests who also wander among the tables which to me seemed out of place but must indeed not be so. When we had had our fill, we escaped to the calm serenity of the beautiful 1750 neo classical cathedral. Outside is hot, 28 degrees C.
From here we wandered the paseo metropolitan punte, a pedestrian street full of people, of shops and stands on to the Mercado Central. I love these sorts of places. It is a covered market, with lots of wrought iron, Jugendstil? With heaps and heaps of fresh fish and seafood with restaurants where you could enjoy it. We weren’t hungry but it seemed a shame, so we actually chose for one of the outside terraces opposite parque Venezuela (where all the immigrants stay) and had a delicious I was going to say seafood salad but since it was warm it was more of a stew, and a glass of white wine, making the most of every minute. This time tomorrow we will be in the plane! Time really is a very strange concept.
Took the calle (road) 21 de mayo with stand after stand of the most random stuff. Herbs, jewellery, salads, masks, kebabs, hats, telephone accessories.
We can see the PCR results are in but can’t actually open as we have no Wi-Fi. I wonder what we do if they are positive? The idea of staying here another 10 days is tempting though of course we will not be allowed out…
Some areas of town seem to be able to be shut off with large gates…not sure what for… Arriving at Plaza de la constitucion, palacio de la moneda is pretty impressive, rather royal with impressive building guarded by what looked like women only soldiers in bullet proof vests, a dazzling white large esplanade with flags.
On to the cultural centre that I’d seen in my guidebook as a good place for local artifacts in a sustainable way as the money goes straight to the village. It is a huge and beautiful building, ultra-modern, light, and spacious with shops but also exhibitions, a library, and workshop rooms and of course shops. Now we know they also make chocolate in the South of the country and of course had to try it. I sadly did not find the plead I was looking for, but I did fall in love with a stunning, long beige poncho in alpaca. It’s absolutely beautiful. Pricey but falls in the category of things I keep and wear forever. We wandered through the design exhibition and photo exhibition.
Now it is time to take the huge Avenida Higgins till the cerro (hill) de Sta Lucia, sweating buckets as we climbed to the top. A lovely Chilean man who had lived in the US then set about explaining the significance of the place to us. Basically, this is where the Spanish first camped, when they took over the city and they used it like the Inca did before them as a place to watch the stars. Walking down was easier, there is a lovely park full of couples sitting on the grass reading (and smoking a lot of dope by the smell of it), fountains with mosaic benches around them and again some lovely views.
Next is the atmospheric area of Bario Lastarria, mega funky. A bit like arriving in a commune full of young alternative people with tattoos and piercings and died hair. Music and chatting filled the air like at a huge youth festival, with stands everywhere where they were selling clothes, creative jewellery, works of art, candles, T-shirts, plants. Found a great rooftop for a pisco sour in the evening sun. We are shattered but happy to be packing it in and getting a feel for the town despite the lack of time. We can rest tomorrow during our 14 hour flight. Insanely happy with our walking shoes because neither of us feels a thing after all these kilometres.
Everywhere we have been they have been playing 80s rock! It is uncanny! Eye of the tiger, Toto, radio star, 99 Luftballons…surreal!
Interesting talk with the waiter when I checked where the closest metro station was from here. He said metro Universidad but that it might be closed due to the large demonstration there about the state of the country, the crime, the immigrants as usual. It really is a huge, country-wide issue.
In the end, the metro station was open and we got off one step further than our hotel in the middle class residential area of Providencia, no sights but plenty of restaurants.
We took a side alley and found many fun places with music and terraces and got pulled in to a charming Cockteleria with a really fun waitress who insisted on taking a photo with us. Pisco sour presupuesto! Olivier had a hamburger and I seafood in parmesan sauce and yet another Pisco “La Der des Der” (the last of the last in French). I was going to write that I was dreading going back but it’s not true. I look forward to a bit of routine and work, writing all of this up and putting into practice all the intentions I have formulated this holiday to go back to the gym, meditate daily, look creatively at how I can use my passion for words, people, and travel to make a living and create value.
We then set off to our hotel walking the wrong way so took the metro back to our hotel and packed up, delighted with our day!
Day 13 Santiago – Amsterdam
The good thing with pisco sour is that it does not seem to give me a headache. By 7:45 we were in our last taxi direction airport. The driver asked us a higher amount than usual, and we asked him why. It turns out the hotel had thought we had a lot more luggage which was not an issue and he rectified the amount immediately. What was interesting to see however was how incredibly important it was for him to keep excusing himself as he hated us to think he had been trying to rip us off.
We had thought they were rather generous with saying we needed to be there 3 hours before our flight, we were there almost 3,5 hours before, but it was tight. First a very long queue to check in to drop luggage off even though we had our boarding passes. You can even print out and attach your luggage labels yourself, which we did. Then last check paseo de mobilidad and PCR results. And finally, customs where we needed to hand in that little slip of paper (PDI) I had mentioned not to lose and that we had needed to check in to each hotel. So nice to have a stamp in our passport!
The basic hand luggage check was quick enough, you could leave liquids but had to remove all electronics.
We then literally had time to dash through duty free grabbing a bottle of Pisco and downed a coffee and fruit juice for breakfast before walking to our gate. We thought the 20 minutes’ walk needed was probably an exaggeration but not at all! Straight to boarding. Flight totally full again and another distraught little child, screaming its head off, but thankfully not too close to us and nobody vomited on me this time. We had a very pleasant return flight with KLM, a lovely meal with wine, et cetera. Olivier watched the latest James Bond, and I watched Dune and time to sleep.
We landed at 5:00 AM Dutch time, which is actually 1:00 AM for us. We were shell-shocked anyway. Everything was really fast and efficient, luggage etc. Our train to the Hague was absolutely packed with partygoers because there’d been an illegal opening of many nightclubs in Amsterdam as protest against the ongoing Corona regulations.
At HS station we realised there were no trams for another 30 minutes so hopped in a taxi and happily entered our lovely little flat.
Once we had unpacked, put machines on, reconnected with friends and family we walked hand in hand in the sunshine to the beach and along the pier grateful to have somewhere nice to come back to.
Our San Pedro de Atacama artwork (named Pedro) happily installed in his prime position, we prepared for the week ahead. Not exactly “life as usual” as you come back somewhat changed, somewhat extended with new insights and learnings.
Indeed, to quote Hans Christian Anderson “to travel is to live”.