Chile: “where the land ends”

I must admit, I had trouble focusing on writing lately. It was partially because of the pandemic‘s new wave and the course it took, and partially because I owe Chile more than the short visit I plan to tell you about. So, if you expect some glaciers and hiking in Patagonia, you can skip this post for now. That part of Chile is planned as a separate trip and an update will arrive accordingly. However, the places we visited are impressive too and you will discover that the longest country in the world has more to offer than Patagonia and chili pepper association in its name.

Atacama desert

In my previous post about Bolivia, you could read about amazing places we visited there and some quite bumpy ride to the border crossing with Chile. The story continues right there.
After some waiting at the Bolivian border, small white buses finally appeared on the horizon to take us further to Chile. It was such a relief to see them because it’s not uncommon that border remains closed due to bad weather and snowy roads. We were lucky. Let‘s check some basic information about Chile while my bags are being thoroughly checked at the border crossing. Don‘t bring coca leaves with you because they will probably be confiscated.

Country name: Republic of Chile (República de Chile)
Capital (and largest) city: Santiago
Population (2017): 17,574,003
Official language: Spanish
Currency: Peso (CLP)

When to go?
Considering the country’s length and geographical position, one can just assume the variety of the climate conditions between the regions. However, warm and cold season can be clearly distinguished: warmest time of the year is from October to April and the coldest from May to September.

Northern part (Atacama desert): desert climate with very little rain or no rain at all. Climate on the coast is mild and in inland higher altitudes a bit colder during the day. However, the temperature drops dramatically during the night causing sometimes even the frost.

Central part (Valparaiso-Santiago): similar to Mediterranean climate with mild and rainy winter.

Southern part (Valdivia-Patagonia): oceanic climate with strong winds the more south you go. Rain is common during the year, even in the summer season but somewhat less than during the winter. Patagonia is definitely better to visit in summer season.

We visited Chile in mid June, which is the winter solstice for the Southern hemisphere. The regions we visited are northern and central part where we had nice sunny days with cool evenings. Nevertheless, not so cold that we couldn’t sit in our jackets on the terrace and sip our wine with the view of Valparaiso. So, winter season can still be good, but you may encounter some of the attractions closed or even unapproachable (more on that later).

Where to stay?
Just like in my previous posts from South America, hostels and airbnb were our preferred options. You can book on the fly and improvise. Places were nice and clean, and we could get double rooms in most of them.

You can reach Chile by bus from Peru or Bolivia, as well as by plane. There are internal flights, which are not too expensive. To reach San Pedro de Atacama you should fly to the small airport near Calama. Santiago, the capital, is very well connected by air and is a good starting point for internal flights (e.g. to Easter Islands, Patagonia etc.)

Fun facts:

  • Chile is world’s fourth largest exporter of wine (after France, Italy and Spain). There are approximately 16 wine regions in the country, stretching from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean. The most famous ones are: Colchagua Valley, Maipo Valley, Aconcagua Valley, Casablanca Valley etc.
  • It is the world’s narrowest country (compared to its length ~4270 km). It is 350km wide at its widest point. Regarding the length, it is unclear if Chile or Brazil carry the title of the longest country in the world (N-S) because official information for Brazil is missing on the web. The information from Encyclopaedia Britannica says they share the first place.
  • Chile is home of two Nobel Prize winners for literature, both of them poets-diplomats. Pablo Neruda (1971), famous worldwide for his passionate love poems; and Gabriela Mistral (1945), who was the first Latin American author to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Her portrait is printed on 5,000 Chilean peso bank note.
  • The strongest earthquake ever measured occurred in Chile in 1960 with magnitude of 9.4 – 9.6. Its epicentre was south of Santiago and Valdivia was the most affected city. The duration of the earthquake was 10 minutes, which caused death toll between 1000-6000 people, millions of dollars of damage and tsunamis that affected Hawaii, Japan, Philippines and eastern coasts of Australia and New Zealand.
  • Chile is one of the few countries in the world which has an official committee for investigating UFO appearances. It‘s called Committee for Studies of Anomalous Aerial Phenomena (CEFAA) and was established in 1997. Prior to its establishment, several reports about curious aerial phenomena were reported by general public as well as from the crews of commercial, institutional and sports flights, which were published in media. Nowadays, Chile offers many UFO/stargazing tours around the country. You can find more information here.
Atacama desert

Unlike Bolivia, Chile was visa free for me and the passport control went smoothly. We could board the buses again and head to San Pedro de Atacama. On this side of the border was sunny with couple of snowy mountain tops as reminders that winter time is about to come. Mountains stretched for a while and slowly unfolded the view of the outskirts of Atacama desert. What caught my attention beside the nature was the condition of the new road we drove on and signs along. You could notice immediately that you came to much richer country than the one you just left.

San Pedro de Atacama

I was expecting San Pedro to be a fairly big town but I was relieved and positively surprised to find it small with only 4000 inhabitants (and probably 8000 stray dogs). New roads from the border crossing became dusty unpaved roads in the heart of the town. Nevertheless, I found the place quite cute. The main square was nice with tall trees making shadows over the benches and numerous cafés and restaurants around it.

Streets of San Pedro de Atacama
Doggo

You need half a day to day to see the whole town. It has to offer lots of small cafés and restaurants, bike rental services, booking of various tours, artisanal and wine shops, and compact supermarkets. It‘s dusty streets are usually aligned with narrow water channels and lazy stray dogs waiting for a bite of your sandwich or empanada.

This town is a great base for different activities and tours, which I will bring to you right after a well appreciated shower in the hostel and a lunch in a nearby restaurant called “Tierra todo natural”. That is where we discovered how expensive Chile is compared to Bolivia and Peru. It was not surprising though knowing that Chile has highest GDP in South America and above the average on regional and world level. Both coffee and food were great. The ingredients make such a difference and turn even simple meals into something extraordinary. We supplied ourselves with bottle of wine, avocado and spent an evening in the hostel with guacamole and card games. That is another great thing about the hostels. You usually have the kitchen at your disposal and can cook with your friends in the common area.

One of the bars in San Pedro

Our plan for the following day was mountain biking in the Atacama desert and a round trip to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) and Valle de la Marte (Mars Valley), which is often wrongly spelled as Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) even on some street signs. Apart from mountain biking, you can book various tours to Bolivian lagoons, even to Salar de Uyuni, stargazing tours, tours to the national Flamingo reserve and many others. There are lots of natural beauties worth visiting around this seemingly remote town.

Atacama desert

Atacama desert is commonly known as the driest place on Earth. It is definitely the oldest and the driest non-polar desert on Earth, but the driest place is actually McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antartica. Nevertheless, don’t underestimate the Atacama. Despite occassional sparse rainfalls, some weather stations in the desert never received a drop of rain. Therefore, it can still hold the title if we exclude the poles.

The day was perfect for a bike tour in the desert and we planned some good carpe diem from the early morning. Remember to start your day early if you come in the wintertime because daylight is quite short. We rented mountain bikes from a nearby store. They were solid ones, nothing special, accompanied by a fluorescent wests and pink helmets. We drove through narrow streets of San Pedro and in a blink of an eye, we were outside of this small city, going uphills to the Moon Valley. We reached the ticket office after 20 minutes of biking and got a map of the site. Round trip, as we planned it, was not possible because the main road was closed at the exit of Valle de la Luna. We will have to take the same road back, which is not necessarily bad. You get to see the same nature from a bit different perspective and under different light. Therefore, the landscapes are never quite the same. Hilly road, partially dusty and sandy lead us through the wonders of Valle de la Luna.

Moon Valley
Sand dune in Atacama desert

First hiking spot was the High Dune, a big sand dune with a nice view from the top. We skipped it and cycled to the next stop with better panoramic view, as it was recommended at the ticket office. It was indeed higher and better. A ten-minute-hiking revealed us an amazing view of the valley. We enjoyed our snacks and this lunar surface that surrounded us. Only the mountains on the horizon revealed that we were still on Earth, otherwise it was exactly how I would draw you the Moon, if asked to. It was so peaceful. Silence, not a single cloud on a bright blue sky and a landscape older than anything I’ve seen before.

View from our first stop, Moon Valley
View from our first stop, Moon Valley
Licancabur in the background

We took our bikes again and were instantly reminded how uncomfortable the seats were. We went all the way down the valley to see Tres Marias, the million years old rock formations, carved by the water and the wind. After admiring them and still reconsidering that number of zeros in our heads, we cycled slowly back and stopped to see Victoria Salt mines. It was a small salt mine with some old machines and several shafts left behind. After that we returned to San Pedro. Cycling under the desert sun and with butts that hurt so much because of the uncomfortable bike seats, we were happy to have a proper lunch and a power nap in hostel’s hammocks.

Tres Marias rock formations
Salt mine machinery
Salt mine

The plan was to go to Piedra de Coyote (The coyote’s rock) to observe the sunset. It was recommended as the best spot for such a thing. The catch was, we asked the bike renting guy how long does it take to come back from Piedra de Coyote to San Pedro and he said half an hour. We asked it to calculate the time and cycle back as early as possible to avoid cycling in the dark. Well, hearing that, we assumed that it takes half and hour to get there too. Still full from the lunch we got on the bikes and headed to Piedra de Coyote. The problem was, the road was going constantly uphills. It was never-ending steep street. There was no cycling path, just a street with cars overtaking us quite frequently. We passed the Mars Valley on the right and pushed further. To avoid throwing up everything I ate that day, I got off the bike and started pushing it. Alessandro did the same. Petra and Nico kept struggling. After every curve I had a light of hope – we are there now, only to be disappointed by another curve and road continuing uphills. At 17:20 exactly I lost my motivation to go further and stopped at an observation point before the final spot. Alessandro stayed with me and Petra and Nico continued. They made it at the last moment to the entrance gate only to be prohibited to enter because ticket remained in Alessandro’s pocket. After ten minutes they were with us again. Anyway, the view was still nice from the spot we picked and we opened a bottle of wine and enjoyed the landscape becoming red, pink and purple-blue with every minute that passed. It was beautiful. The sky was not as red as the day before but it was colourful, casting various shades of pink and blue over the mountain tops.

View below Piedra de Coyote
Sunset

They way back lasted exactly 30 minutes so we couldn’t be angry at the guy, just at ourselves because we presumed things that were not said. Me and Alessandro booked a tour for the following day. It involved visit to Piedras Rojas, National flamingo reserve, small salt flat and lagoons.

We woke up and got ready for the tour. The bus was in front of the hostel at 06:00. It was quite a big bus for only ten people. We headed to Piedras Rojas to be there at sunrise. It was a two-hour drive to get there. However the road was snowy from the night before and our tour operators didn’t check the situation before confirming the tour. Bus driver decided at one point to go a bit off road to avoid the snow. That is how bus got stuck. Rear-wheel drive was also the great option to go with on a snowy road. Everyone seemed chilled at the beginning so we even had breakfast outside of the bus in a cold sunny morning. Driver tried to get the bus out of the snow again and got it stuck even more. We helped as much as we could to dig around the wheels and put some stones but it wasn’t enough. Without winter equipment, not even a shovel, our guide realised finally that asking for help is necessary and he finally did it after two hours. So from 07:30 – 13:20 we were just waisting our time. The 4WD came to help. A guy in a T-shirt shovelled the bus out of the snow and dragged it to the safe part. We returned back with this great man to San Pedro. He was driving very fast and we got there half an hour before the bus.

Breakfast in the snow
Vicunas captured from 4WD driving really fast

This is what I meant when I said you may find some obstacles for the tours. Roads can be covered with snow, some tours cancelled in the last moment, some attractions closed such as stargazing. Spring or summer are better options if you want to be on the safe side. The positive aspect of the wintertime is less crowd in any case.

The afternoon with our friends saved the day. We bought a bottle of wine and went for a sunset observation over the Mount Licancabur. We walked to the spot just outside of the city by taking an alternative path we noticed while cycling the day before. Mount Licancabur is an impressive 5916m high volcano on the border between Bolivia and Chile. A 400-meter-wide summit crater contains a crater lake, one of the highest in the world. The last eruption is unknown but it was within last 10000 years. Such an impressive volcano in the front, Valle de la Marte behind us, best friends and loved ones by our sides, good Chilean wine, and colourful sunset setting upon the town was a small miracle we all wished for that day.

San Pedro de Atacama under Mt. Licancabur
Mt. Licancabur at the sunset

Valparaiso

The following day, after two and a half weeks in the highlands, we flew to Santiago from Calama airport. From above, I could observe the magnificent Andean mountains (Cordillera) I felt so small in front of. Flying south all along this mountain range revealed their vast size and beauty, perfected by the pink sunset sky and pink clouds floating around like cotton candies.

Andes from above

We landed in Santiago in the evening and took a taxi to Valparaiso. It is an hour and a half ride. You can also take the bus for a cheaper price. We took a taxi because we were tired in the evening and could split the price in 4 so it was not too expensive. If you decide to take the taxi, I suggest you to negotiate the price with several taxi companies and independent drivers before choosing. Alessandro was our expert for that. Our taxi driver was friendly and talkative man. We even arranged with him that to pick us up two days later and take us to Santiago, which was about to be the last stop of this incredible journey.

View from the loft, Cerro Bellavista
View from the loft, steep street

Morning was foggy and grey, which reminded me of Lima. According to the taxi driver, the fog should rise up by the noon. We had a breakfast on our apartment’s rooftop terrace and enjoyed the view of the surrounding hills, still sleeping under the thin layer of fog. First sun rays kissed the ships in the port and coloured the water in gold. Numerous murals on the surrounding hills were patiently waiting the fog to rise up to show us their radiant colours.

Valparaiso was built on approximately 42 hills. The lower ones are reachable with cable car system, and upper ones by public transport. The most popular ones for their landmarks and street art are: Cerro Artillería, Cerro Barón, Cerro Bellavista, Cerro Concepción, Cerro Cordillera, Cerro Florida, Cerro Santo Domingo. The city is also known as the “Jewel of the Pacific”.

We went for a walk around our neighbourhood (Cerro Bellavista) to explore the street art before the walking tour at 15h. Narrow cobbled streets lead their way between the most unusual colourful architecture and street art everywhere you look around. It is particularly interesting when you go down the staircase and turn around just to see a mural of a mother holding a baby on the stairs, abstract art or a rainbow. Strolling along the streets we found Museo del Cielo Abierto (or open-air museum), which exhibition showed early stage of the murals and their evolution through different periods of time. Not even a grey morning could suppress city’s charming vibe.

We went to see a Bethoven street for the piano stairway, which looked better on instagram photos than in reality but we enjoyed some much nicer pieces of art on the way there. We returned to Plaza de Armas (Plaza Sotomayor) where I managed to buy Pablo Neruda’s book of poetry on a local market, just before the walking tour started. The tour was organised by Tour4Tips and our lovely guides were Camillo and Emiliana who were very keen on introducing us to their home town. After they explained a bit the history of the city in Plaza de Armas, we proceeded to a nearby port with many fishermen boats that serve nowadays as touristic boats for 30-40-minute tour. Just behind them, big cargo ships were getting their loads of containers, ready to cross the open sea and bring the goods to their destinations. Apart from these giants, one could also see big military ships anchored nearby.

With the arrival of the Spaniards in XVI century, port was developing rapidly until it became on of the most important harbours in South America. However 1906 earthquake and Panama Canal inauguration made this port lose its prestigious status. It has never managed to recover it. One other port called San Antonio gained a bit of importance in the last seven years but nothing like Valparaiso’s golden era.

We returned to Plaza de Armas. As the name suggests, it is dedicated to the heroes of the Pacific war. Monument on the square represents war heroes and it’s not just a monument but a memorial too. Surrounding the statue, there are public institution buildings such as Fire department, oldest bank in Valparaiso, post office etc. All of these historical buildings (including the Bauhaus concept post office building) are now UNESCO protected. To get to the next point of interest from here, we had a true local experience – an old tram, and an elevator cable car, which is more than 100 years old system. Up in the hill we could admire the street art and incredible murals, comment on them, discuss the artist’s idea etc. We even met one of the artists, who was selling his artwork in one of the streets.

We passed many murals with political topics, social topics and analysed the symbolism. I liked it very much. We reached a colourful street with the sign indicating Paseo Yugoslavo. I was amazed. The name of the street derives from a Croatian man who lived in a nearby house. He was collector of artworks. After his death the house became Museum of fine arts. It is quite popular place but in winter it was not too crowded.

After the tour, we went for a pisco sour, which Chile claims as their national drink too. When the restaurant we read about was about to open, we ran to wait in front of the door because you could not reserve a place there and we didn’t want to take any chances of missing it. The restaurant was called Tres Pesces and it was the best dinner of this trip. As the name says, it is a fish restaurant and everything was so delicious that even Nico tried fish after almost 6 years of being vegetarian. I do not usually make recommendations in my posts, but this one truly deserves it. This bohemian city really won our hearts and it deserved even more time than we could afford to stay.

Santiago de Chile

It was about the time to see the capital. We arrived to our hostel next to (guess what) Plaza de Armas around 10 a.m. Foggy morning didn’t help much to the first impression, especially when we found out that it is not fog but smog. It was similar to previous year’s Beijing experience. Anyway, we were observing the square below, surrounded by big concrete and glass buildings and surrounded by palm trees. It looked actually nice.

Plaza de Armas

It was time for coffee and that is how google revealed us a local coffee place with great reviews to try. There was nothing strange at the first glance, just all men inside and some strangely dressed waitresses. Only on the second glance it hit us and that is how we drank coffee in a brothel. It was a café with special services on the 2nd floor. Since we were already inside, it would have been impolite to storm out. We were feeling awkward, waitresses probably too because they were probably not sure if we were there by mistake or because we are swingers. Anyhow, after the awful coffee, we left the place laughing about the whole thing and read that prostitution is legal in Chile. Now we recognised similar casinos or cafés.

Museum of fine arts

We joined a walking tour in front of the Museum of fine arts. After a boring first stop where we didn’t get anything properly explained, we ditched the tour and headed to San Cristobal hill, which provided a great panoramic view of the city and the surrounding mountains. It was a bit steep hike but we enjoyed a bit of nature under the golden sunset sky compared to so much concrete. It would have been a perfect sunset if the city hadn’t been so polluted. We couldn’t really see much. I suppose after the rain, when the air is clear, the view must be amazing. It reminded me of observing the Forbidden city in Beijing and not being able to see its end although it was so close. We descended with cable car and stopped at Patio Bella Vista for a dinner. We checked all the restaurants in this hidden little patio and went for the fish one. The food was great. I started and I ended this trip with ceviche.

View from San Cristobal hill, Santiago

I have to admit, I owe a second chance to Santiago. I loved Valparaiso so much that the big city kept disappointing me on every moment because I expected too much. One day is also not enough if you want to find out more about the city and catch its vibe. This shallow first impression was just a big polluted city and I know it has lot more to offer. That is why I said at the beginning of this post, it will definitely be updated.

What I left out this time due to the weather conditions and lack of time are following places/activities:

  • Stargazing in Atacama desert
  • National flamingo reserve, Piedras Rojas, Atacama salt flat
  • Patagonia hiking (anyhow planned as a separate trip)
  • Easter islands
  • Wine tour

Good to know

Here are some common sense tips and tricks for Chile, just listed in one place:

  • Sun protection and layered clothes are must for Atacama desert. Even in winter you can get sunburned. Don’t forget that it’s on 2400m.
  • Good hiking shoes and water- and windproof jacket, rain pants etc. if you visit southern part of the country.
  • Just like in every other major city in the world you must look after your bags and personal belongings. Pick-pocketing is not uncommon.
  • Carry copies of all your important documents including your passport.
  • Avoid walking alone at night on the outskirts of towns or in unsafe neighbourhoods. Get informed prior to your trip. You can find some examples in my posts about Bolivia and Peru, specifically Lima and La Paz.
  • Try carry a map with you and the address of the place you’re staying at.
  • If you travel to places away from cities, carry a first-aid kit with you and the names of the medication you may need, in Spanish.
  • If being robbed hand over your things and go straight to the police. Your life and your health are much more important than personal belongings. You never know how desperate or scared someone is and ready to hurt you because of it.
  • Check the weather conditions and if some of the attractions are closed prior to your trip. Don’t get surprised like we did 🙂
  • Enjoy this amazing country’s nature, culture, art and food because it will not ceize to impress you, and I just scratched the surface in this post.

This year was not the one for such plans and I hope that 2021 will give us the opportunity to catch up with our plans and activities, as well as to live in peace and health. Compared to health, nothing has higher priority so stay safe and healthy, be patient and take care of your loved ones. I wrote this post, as well as the previous two, to try to take you on a virtual trip with some funny experiences. I hope it worked put a smile on your face for a minute, and that you will find it useful in the near future when travelling becomes easy once again.

Atacama desert

Author: Milica Ljumovic

Electrical engineer. Undercover bookworm. Animal lover. Passionate traveller. Hobby photographer.

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