SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA
We had a very early transfer booked at 6.30am on the 12th to pick us up from the hostel to the bus terminal for our onward bus. Our lovely hostel manager Elizabeth kindly made breakfast early at 6.15am for us, but at 7am our transfer still hadn’t shown up! We’d heard Elizabeth calling up a couple of times to chase where it was, and we think they must have forgotten about us. Eventually at 7.15am our transfer turned up and we got to the bus terminal with 5 minutes to spare to pick up our tickets and load our bags in the bus. It’s just over a 6hr journey to get to Puerto Natales including the border crossing, which went relatively quickly and hassle free, despite us choosing the slowest guy to stamp us in to Chile. Around 7 people had been stamped in next to us before the first of us had made it through, we had started to think maybe they weren’t going to let us in!
Puerto Natales is another small town, used as a gateway to the Torres Del Paine National Park. When we arrived we were informed that the weather in the park for the 13th was not going to be very good for visibility but fingers crossed it was looking better the days after. Therefore we used the 13th as a prep day to research where in the park we wanted to visit, sort out our transport to the park & buy and cook our meals for the next few days to take with us.
We also had a quick wander around the towns main square, which houses a random steam train, and the sea front.
The easiest way to visit the park with the most flexibility is to rent a car, and we decided this was what we wanted to do. Our hostel helped us arrange the hire and at 9.30pm the car was dropped off and parked up just outside our hostel ready to set off early the next morning...
CAR CRASH OF A DAY
At 5am Lisa woke to knocking on our bedroom door, and answered it to find the hostels night receptionist. He asked if we had a hire car, straight away this wasn’t going to be good and he quickly confirmed this suspicion telling us someone had crashed into the car. He said the police had already come but they didn’t do much just took a picture. We asked if it was bad, and if the person who did it was there... yes it was bad, no the person drove off!
Not entirely sure how to process this we eventually got up to go out and see the damage for ourselves. First off we were confused as it was now perfectly parked up in a completely different spot it was the night before, heading around the front of the car we could see how... it wasn’t good!
We text the guy we’d hired the car off just to let him know as soon as possible, then unable to do anything else ourselves, attempted and failed to go back to sleep. At 7am the hostel manager had arrived and she knocked on our door for us to say the car hire guy was there. Luckily the hostel had cameras outside, so we all huddled in the office to watch the CCTV footage. The driver was clearly drunk and on the complete wrong side of the road, driving head first into our car, and pushing it roughly 50m up the road. The cars then get stuck together and the driver has to reverse back loads to get his car free. Then he drives off! Because the front of the cars are stuck together you can’t see any plates.
We were then told, that unfortunately because they don’t have who had done it, we were liable for the £800 guarantee/excess. Not what you want to be told that early in the morning. Our only hope was to find the driver and that didn’t seem too hopeful. Although we did know they were driving a Suzuki as their cars logo had come detached and left behind!
The hire car guy was going to get someone to come and evaluate the car before we knew if it would be the full amount - but we knew it was a write off just looking at it. Pretty glum we had some breakfast and waited for the guy to come back to discuss what was going to happen next, and mourning what was going to be our day one in the park.
Around midday we went to chat to the hostel manager and as we were a taxi pulled up and she ran out saying she thought he knew something. She showed us she’d posted the CCTV footage of the crash all over Facebook and in every group to do with Puerto Natales. The taxi driver had seen the post and seen what he thought was the other car! So we jumped in our hostel managers car and headed out to track it down. After driving around and down different streets in the area for a while, we spotted it!
After taking pictures we jumped back in the car and whilst the manager made a call. We thought she was calling the police, but it turns out she was just calling the guy from the car hire. Whilst waiting for him to turn up the driver came out his house, clearly having seen us taking pics of the car and spoke the the manager. She told us he said he’d seen the Facebook post himself, and felt bad but wasn’t in a state to do anything about it earlier that morning. Even from the back seat we could smell the alcohol off him.
The car hire guy turned up and after long talks in Spanish which we didn’t understand (all of which was being filmed by the hostel manager), the driver shook our hand to say sorry and then made the payment to the car hire guy for the total of our guarantee. So thankfully we were off the hook! We still lost the cost of the car hire but at least we weren’t a further £800 down!
In disbelief at such a crazy day, we reluctantly booked ourselves onto a tour of the park for the following day so we could at least still get to see it!
TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK
The first stop on the tour to Torres Del Paine is at the Mylodon Cave, named after the Mylodon, a now extinct giant sloth. The remains of a Mylodon were found in the cave in the late 1800’s. There was also believe to have been saber-tooth tigers here. The Mylodon went extinct around 10,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. Scientists still don’t fully know why this animal went extinct, but suspect it is due to a mix of temperature changes in the area, and the first settlement of humans here, which would have been competitors for food as well as potentially hunted the Mylodon. The cave was pretty impressive, having been formed during the last ice age when the glaciers melted to lakes and the lakes eroded the limestone. The roof of the cave was a different structure having been formed when the whole of this area used to sit at the bottom of the ocean, so held in place. Lots of remains of animals as well as humans have been found in this cave, although sadly none are on display. But they still find new bones when they get funding for new digs.
Next stop was at a lake just outside the park, which is supposed to offer a view of the (three peaks). Sadly the clouds were so low, you couldn’t see a thing. You couldn't even see that there were even mountains the other side of the lake. This pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day.
There were several stop offs at viewpoints which ordinarily, and in pictures we’d seen, be absolutely stunning. But unfortunately the further into the park we went the worse the weather got. We got to see lots of guanaco and rheas close up, but sadly no pumas. Although the guide had shown us pictures of Puma's he'd seen a few days before in the park.
The final stop was to lake Lago Grey, at the end of which sits another huge glacier. The Glacier isn’t visible from the viewpoint by car, only by boat, but there are icebergs visible. It’s a 30/40 minute round walk to get to see the lake from where the bus stops and despite the now freezing tipping down rain, Lisa was determined to see it, and forced a reluctant Dan to make the walk. Moaning the whole way the end view of an iceberg on a grey lake whilst cool to see, doesn't really show up how big it was in pictures, and maybe wasn't worth it... especially as we were both soaked through by this point. But at least we saw it.
Sadly we just weren’t meant to see Torres Del Paine between the car crash and the weather, which was a shame as we were both looking forward to seeing this park properly and had a number of treks planned. Maybe we’ll just have to come back one day when it’s Chilean summer!
It was time to head to our final Patagonian stop heading to our most southern point of the trip Punta Arenas. It was a 3hr bus journey, and we made it to our hostel by mid afternoon. There was blazing sun the whole morning, blinding us on the bus, so once we were checked in we decided to head out to explore the town, which was much bigger than either of us had expected. But in true Chilean Patagonia style, and fitting with the rest of our experience here, about 2 minutes after leaving our hostel it started pissing it down! Determined to not let it beat us, we walked for 30minutes past the very windy, wet & cold sea front to reach the ship wrecks we’d seen pictures of. Literally no clue what happened to either of them but they looked cool!
TIERRA DEL FUEGO
We’d made a little boo boo in our planning of Punta Arenas. We had to fly out of here to get to our next destination (unless we fancied another 29hr bus!), but in our minimal research of the place we’d seen lots of pictures and blogs about going to visit Magellan Island where there is a large colony of penguins. So we decided to spend one day here to see them. Our boo boo comes in to the fact we hadn’t actually looked any more into this tour than just the pictures, as turns out the penguins migrate to Brazil in March! So with a whole day to fill, we looked for other tours we could do, and chose one to the island of Tierra Del Fuego.
We started with a two hour ferry across the straight of Magellan watching a nice sunrise.
The first stop was in the small town of Porvenir, which for a very short lived time in the beginning of the 20th Century experienced a small gold rush. The arrival of white men though, as always, spelled bad news for the Selk’nam, the indigenous Indian tribe who had called this island home for thousands of years. By 1920 the Selk’nam tribe was completely wiped out through genocide, killing around 3-4000 people. The immigrants would pay people to hunt and kill tribesmen, and the pay would be based on what they managed to bring back, i.e. head garnered the highest price or an eye etc! This history has only just started to be acknowledged and written into the history books of Chile. Porvenir has a small memorial to this tribe, as well as a museum with artefacts and pictures from the tribe. The Selk’nam had a distinct coming of age ritual for the males and they would paint themselves in red and white (from whales and Guamaca’s), naked and use wooden masks to represent gods. The below picture is from google but gives the idea!
After a quick lunch stop we headed towards Parque Pingüino Rey, home to the only colony of King Penguin's in South America (excluding the Falkland Islands). The whole journey was bright sunshine and we were actually getting pretty warm in the bus, but in true Patagonian style, the second we got out the minibus is started painfully hailing, with a wind which was literally blowing us over! It was so lovely to see the penguins, especially as they had very fluffy chicks, but with the wind and hail we couldn't stick around for as long as we'd have liked to watch them. We risked getting the camera out for a few pictures, but it was difficult to get many as the hail would smear the lens!
The next stop was of a tiny town, that was literally made by a petrol company, for workers to live. It has only 400 inhabitants, however as incentives to come and work for the Petrol company, they had built an Olympic sized swimming pool, a bowling alley, indoor football pitch, and a cinema which seated 500 people! Although this was cool, we weren't tempted as it was literally in the middle of nowhere!
It was then time to catch another ferry back to the mainland, this one only 20 minutes. There was a small panic that due to the winds this would be cancelled, but our luck was in and we had a lovely sunset for the return journey.
The final stop of the day was a bit of an odd one. We were told we were going to visit one of the oldest estancia's (ranch) in the area, which used to be owned by the wealthiest family in Tierra Del Fuego. Expecting a working ranch, we pulled up to a bunch of abandoned buildings, barns and a couple of shipwrecks. With no explanation, we jumped out, took a few pictures, and got back into the warm of the minibus none the wiser!
We had a very mixed time in Patagonia, we loved it in terms of how incredibly beautiful it was (or we could see it would be) but luck wasn't always on our side when it came to seeing certain parts of it. Just an excuse to come back one day, and somewhere we'd both recommend anyone we knew coming - just maybe in the summer!
We had a morning flight to Puerto Montt, which is roughly level with Bariloche in Argentina - the 2hr flight was definitely easier than the 29hr bus! It was then only a 20minute shuttle bus to the next town of Puerto Varas where we are staying. Weirdly it was the same cost for 1 or 2 people to get the transfer, odd but no complaints from us. Driving to Puerto Varas could have been driving in the English countryside. For the first time everything was very green! Until we arrived in the town and the first sight is a 3 volcanoes the other side of the lake. Less quintessentially English after all.
We spent the afternoon wandering around this very scenic town, and sorting out onward travel for the next week or so. In the evening we'd seen an incredible looking fish & chip restaurant, which as Brits it would be rude to walk past. We compromised by going for their traditional Chilean chips, which are made from blue potatoes - they were delicious and the fish very fresh. We headed down to the lake side to watch the sunsetting over the Volcanoes whilst we ate. It was very idyllic, although got very cold very quickly!
LAKE TODOS, PETROHUE WATERFALL & VOLCANO OSORNO
The hostel we were staying at offered private tours of the area, and as we only had one day to properly explore, we decided to go for it. The tour was run by the hostel owner, a German who moved to Chile almost 20 years ago. As it was also the Easter holiday's in Chile, he had his son, who was only 7, staying with him, so he came along for the tour too. And much to both our delight, so did their 7 month old puppy, Lena.
As we set out the clouds were dominating the sky, but we were told the weather was supposed to improve so we kept our fingers crossed. Due to the cloudy start, we first went to the lake, which normally gives you a view of all 3 volcanoes in the area, however only 1 was on view. We took a nice boat ride around the lake, there was a lot of big tour boats but as this was a private tour, we ended up on a small little boat, mostly driven by the boat drivers 7-10 (who can guess kids ages!?) year daughter!
Next stop was to the Petrohue Waterfalls. The falls were created about 600 years ago and are located on basalt lava from Volcano Osorno, which sits as the backdrop to the waterfall. And the clouds had started to part just for our arrival! The water is so turquoise which makes it even more impressive, even if they were actually low water levels at the time of year we visited. Sadly, as the falls are located within the Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, Lena wasn't allowed in with us. So while our guide and company stayed by the entrance, we walked along the many trails leading to different viewpoints of the waterfalls as well as crazy rapids.
The final stop of the day was to visit the Volcano itself! We got driven up to the ski center base, which is at 1240m. From here there is a ski lift you can take, or you can hike up through the lava fields to different viewpoints. We chose to hike... plus we had a dog to walk!
Throughout the walk, there were incredible views and you could see right out over Lake Llanquihue (one of the biggest lakes in South America). On our right hand side on the way up you could even see the Andes and the Volcano Tronador (which erupted 4 years ago, but the wind blew the ash over to Argentina, so it didn't really affect the town!).
After walking around the "red crater" we got to a nice sheltered spot where we were provided with a late lunch and tea! We were also handed a hip flask with the phrase "for your tea". Thinking the guide knew we were English and therefore obviously have milk in our tea, Lisa innocently poured a load in, only to find out that it was Rum! Dan enjoyed the tea a bit more after that!
The walk offered endless views throughout and probably took us a lot longer as we kept stopping for pictures. We asked whether you could get to the top of the Volcano, and you can as long as you have proper equipment such as crampons etc, but so many people die attempting it... so not one to add to our to do list!
PUERTO VARAS & TRAVEL TO CHILOÉ ISLAND
The majority of today was spent travelling to Castro, the capital of Chiloé Island. The bus wasn't until 2pm, so we spent the morning wandering around Puerto Varas again. The clouds were low again so the volcanoes weren't on show, but we went for a short stroll along the lake, and then checked out the Easter Markets.
We'd met a girl named Julia in our hostel who funnily enough lived in Chiswick! We bumped into her again in a cafe so exchanged travel tips over an empanada and a slice of cake.
The bus to Castro was just over 4hrs. It was another 'luxury' bus with huge seats so we settled in very comfortably for the journey. We arrived in Castro around 9pm, and had a very steep downhill walk to our hostel!
CHILOÉ NATIONAL PARK
We caught a local bus over to Cucao on the west side of the Island which is the gateway to the National Park. The buses are like small mini vans, and luckily we got the last two seats left, as it was around an hour and 30 minute journey.
There are lots of small walks to do in the park, so small in fact we were able to do them all in the day there! Although obviously the whole park is huge so we were only exploring the south west section, you'd need a car to explore the whole thing.
The first small walk we did started off on a boardwalk through what was technically rain-forest, although nothing like the rain-forest we were in in Brazil! When the boardwalk ended the path got pretty muddy... thinking there would be a viewpoint we carried on through the thickening mud (much to Dan's disgust which was constantly verbalised), however the viewpoint never came and the mud got even worse!
The next walk was a bit more interesting as it went through a very old forest named Sendero El Telpual. It felt like you were in a fairytale forest and we were expecting a witch to appear any second!
Though funnily enough there was a section of our map of the park which spoke of Trauco... one of the Islands many myths/superstitions. Trauco was a short man, very ugly faced but sweet, sensual and alluring... of course! If a young single lady became pregnant it was said to be by Trauco! Chiloé has many similar legends, and when we (genuinely) saw a red eyed bird in the forest we nearly started to believe them ourselves!
After stopping off for a quick picnic, we headed towards the coast and Dan enjoyed picking stones out of the sea... Lisa had to talk him out of taking over 10 large ones with him to carry around and convinced him 3 small ones were enough.
We eventually got the bus back to Castro, although the bus was so overfilled every one was packed in like sardines. Luckily we got on early and managed to get a seat right at the back but this still involved bags being rested on us to make room for people. There were local families transporting huge crates of dried seaweed and we were impressed that travellers with their huge backpacks even attempted to get on... we would have waited an hour for the next one! Every time we thought the bus had reached it's capacity, it stopped to let more people on. The sign which said max 24 people got ignored!
CASTRO & DALCAHUE
We had been told by someone at the hostel that Dalcahue was a good day trip to see a different town and try some local food. So we again headed to the bus stop to catch a local bus to the area. This time it was only a 20 minute drive.
As soon as we arrived we realised it was a lot smaller town, which we managed to walk around in under an hour. Chiloé island is know for its 16 UNESCO World heritage churches, although there are actually 70 churches throughout the island. Dalcahue has one of the UNESCO churches, so this was great to see.
Other than this, there wasn't too much else to see in the town. However we did get some excitement as we saw a few sea lions playing in the sea by the boats - rudely they didn't stick around too long for any pictures!
Due to not finding many restaurants open, we settled on a cafe where we got a hot chocolate and home made local biscuits before heading back to Castro.
Back in Castro we went to see their UNESCO church, which was very colourful! It reminded us more of a child's princess castle rather than a church!
One of the main reasons we had wanted to stay in Chiloé was due to being able to stay in one of the Palafito's that come out over the sea. We stayed in one of the main areas for this (constantly seeing tours stopping to take pictures), so we decided to get a few of our own. You can see our hostel right in the middle of the line up, with the boat in front.
Being an island, Chiloé is a great place to eat sea food. We decided to treat ourselves to dinner, luckily we only had to go a few doors down to another Palafito. They specialised in Cerviche, which although is a Peruvian dish so much access to fresh fish makes Chiloé island another hot spot for this dish. It was absolutely delicious and tasted as fresh as you would expect. It made us very excited to try more of this in Peru.
For our main course we tried Chiloé islands traditional dish of Curanto. It consists of seafood, meat, potatoes and vegetables and is traditionally prepared in a hole in the ground. Ours was a "Gourmet" version, so we are not sure if it was prepared exactly the same way, but we still really enjoyed it!
To keep it traditional, we washed it all down with a glass of Pisco Sours.
PUCON & TERMAS GEOMETRICAS
The 23rd was spent traveling 9 hours on a bus to Pucon, with not too much to report!
We woke up to a lovely view of the Volcano from our bedroom window - we had booked a room with a Volcano view, so even laying in bed you could see this view...
After spending the morning exploring abit of Pucon town center and then cooking ourselves a nice brunch (in the best kitchen we've come across so far!), we arranged a transfer via our hostel to the Termas Geometricas. The Termas Geometricas are situated in the Billarrica Sur National Park which was a 2 hour drive from Pucon. There are 17 pools, all varying in temperature, between 6 degrees to 46 degrees. The 6 degree pool was located at the base of a waterfall, Lisa stuck her foot in but thats all she could manage! She did somehow manage to submerge herself into the 46 degree pool - Dan tried but couldn't get his full body in, two feet burning was enough!
We were actually stunned by how beautiful the area was, you were surrounded by forest and towering rocks, all going up the mountain face. We were worried that it was going to be a tourist trap with hardly any pools to get in, but maybe we lucked out on a quieter day as most the time we managed to get into a pool ourself! We think the pictures do the talking for how beautiful the place was! With 3 hours to spend here, we definitely came out pruned!
We were actually stunned by how beautiful the area was, you were surrounded by forest and towering rocks, all going up the mountain face. We were worried that it was going to be a tourist trap with hardly any pools to get in, but maybe we lucked out on a quieter day as most the time we managed to get into a pool ourself! We think the pictures do the talking for how beautiful the place was! With 3 hours to spend here, we definitely came out pruned!
WHITE WATER RAFTING
One of the main activities we both wanted to do in Pucon was White Water Rafting. Pucon is world renowned as a top destination to White Water Raft and has grade IV runs. As it's off season we didn't need to book in advance, but we were at the mercy of enough people booking on to fill the boat. The weather on the 25th was really rubbish, it had rained the whole night previous and it was so cloudy you couldn't see the Volcano - you wouldn't even know there was one there! Given Pucon is a town full of outdoor activities and mostly based around the views, it meant that the town and tourists all sort of came to a standstill for the day.
The morning boat for the White Water Rafting didn't manage to fill, therefore we had to just wait to see if the afternoon one would, and we wouldn't find out until around 3pm. Due to this we went and sulked in town and treated ourselves to some lunch, along with everyone else! After getting back to the hostel and hearing nothing, we resigned ourselves to the idea of having a chilled afternoon in the hostel. But just as we settled ourselves in, one of the hostel staff came over saying it was going ahead and we could get picked up in 10 minutes if we still wanted to do it.
Fast forward an hour and we're stood at the edge of a freezing cold river in wet suits (made even more freezing by the fact they were already wet when we put them on)! The run we were doing consisted of grade III & IV rapids. Being the only two who couldn't speak Spanish, we ended up being put at the front of the raft, as we didn't know that's what they were asking for volunteers for when every one else went very quiet. Overall though we think we had a much funner experience at the front, even if it was a wetter one.
One of the guides would jump out occasionally and take pictures as we rafted ourselves through some of the bigger rapids. So you get to enjoy our rather hysterical collection of facial expressions...
Half way through there was a section that was too dangerous to raft, so we had to hop out and walk along for a short while. What we didn't realise was at the end of this there was a 5m ledge we were prompted to jump off to get back in to the raft!
Back in the raft and it was time for the grade IV rapid. Our lack of Spanish really came in to play here. We navigated ourselves down half the rapid, when the raft got lodged on a large rock. There was a lot of shouting, and every one else on the boat started climbing to the front, then to the back, so we quickly followed suit very confused as to what was going on. Just as we'd climbed to the back, the boat unlodged itself. With all the confusion, Dan wasn't quite sure where we were supposed to be within the raft, and whilst the rest of us were ducked down in the boat, Dan was still on the edge. Unfortunately the same edge that tipped first into the rapid as the boat got free, tipping Dan in with it! Luckily for all the moment was all caught on camera if you look close enough...
Thankfully when falling Dan managed to keep hold of the rope around the edge of the raft. Unfortunately where he fell there were still two waterfall areas to pass, so he was kept underwater until the rapids calmed. Swallowing a lot of water he finally managed to surface and was dragged back on board!
The rest of the run was luckily less eventful and Dan managed to stay in the boat. We both really enjoyed it and after our morning of sulking were so glad it went ahead!
4x4 LAVA FLOW TOUR OF VOLCANO VILLARRICA
For our last day in Pucon we were torn whether or not to attempt the hike of Volcano Villarrica, the most popular activity in the area involving a 5hr ascent of Chile's most active Volcano. This also meant that this is the most expensive activity in the area. Due to the weather being bad the day before, the tour company weren't able to say whether the hike would be safe to do until 6am the morning of, and even then, until you reached the base starting point, it wasn't guaranteed to go ahead. If this was the case you still lost a hefty portion of the fee. Due to this, and not wanting to waste another day if it didn't go ahead, (and also having plans felled by the Chilean weather too many times already), we decided to leave this trek for another visit and opted for an alternative way to see the Volcano.
Surprisingly few alternatives exist (unless you have a car but funnily enough we weren't tempted) to properly visit the Volcano unless you trek it. The travel agency attached to our hostel did have an option, which they recommended - a 4x4 private tour with the owner of the company, who drives you actually through the lava flow canyons and around the Volcano, giving you information and history throughout.
The owner (Ben) was French and had lived in Pucon for 12 years running the tour company. He picked us up at 9am, and we headed out towards the Volcano.
First stop on the tour was seeing the lava flow rivers. Ben explained to us that these were caused when the Volcano last erupted in 2015. The rivers hadn't actually been lava, it was from the glacier at the top of the Volcano being melted from the eruption - along with rubble and debris. These rivers lasted for 2 days but amazingly didn't effect the town at all, as the rivers ended up flowing straight into the lake next to the town instead!
He explained that due to how active and popular this Volcano is, there is a lot more monitoring of its activity. Therefore they will know if there is an eruption due. However they will not know what size this will be and exact date of eruption. They were warned of the 2005 one, but waited a month before it actually erupted. The eruption happened at 3am, so many people missed it! In terms of tourism for the town, it took 9 months until you were allowed to do a trek up the Volcano again, so it took a big hit.
After a bumpy off-roading journey up the Volcano, we arrived at the next stop, which was the ruins of the first ski resort built in Pucon. This resort was destroyed by an avalanche in the 1940's, killing two people that worked in the building.
Around this area you could also again see the lava flow rivers, along with a stunning views back down into Pucon and at the surrounding mountains, which are all technically Volcanoes however not active.
More bumpy off-roading got us to the highest point of the tour, underneath the ski lifts you would take to start the hike. The ski lifts haven't been updated since installation - they didn't even have bars across! As Ben explained, who would really want to pump money into a ski resort on an active Volcano, it could be destroyed at any moment!
We took in the views with a cup of tea and some biscuits, while Ben gave us more fascinating facts about the Volcano - too many to mention here! One rumour that stuck with us was that during the dictatorship from 1973 to 1990, enemies of the state were supposedly dropped into the Volcanoes open crater via helicopter - doesn't sound the best way to go!
After getting dropped back into town, we spent the afternoon on the lakeside black beach as it turned out to be a nice day. We managed to find a big wooden stand that we could lay in while overlooking the lake. It was a relaxing way to spend the afternoon before catching our overnight bus to Santiago.
SANTIAGO - CERRO SAN CRISTOBAL
The overnight bus actually went relatively quick - Dan fell asleep straight away and Lisa managed to finish her audio book. It wasn't as comfy as other overnight buses we have been on, but was fine for just a nights sleep!
We arrived in Santiago around 8am and headed straight for our hostel to drop off the bags. As always we werent able to check in until 2pm, so feeling gross we headed off to explore and grab some food. Although this is the captial of Chile, we were walking around and finding nothing open - which is weird compared to London, where everything is always open! We stumbled across an entrance to a park that looked like it had a walk up, so decided to follow it (we didnt have a map on us at this point). Totally unaware, we were actually hiking up the main park in Santiago, which consists of different hilltops which give panoramic views of the city. The one we were walking up was Cerro San Cristobal, which is a 880m ascent and the second highest peak in Santiago. So totally unprepared for the steepness of the walk, we made our way up amongst loads of local runners and cyclists, obviously up for a more active morning than us!
At the top there is a large statue of the virgin Mary, named the immaculate conception. Around this is a church and seats around the statue for worship. Chile is a largely Catholic country and on 8th December, up to 50,000 people make their way up to the statue to celebrate the date of immaculate conception. We had to Google this as it didn't sound right and apparently this date is celebrated as her conception date, being born on 9th September.
Looking around you could see an incredible view across the city, however at this time of the morning it seemed there was a lot of fog that hazed up a lot of the buildings and surrounding mountains, so decided we would come up again to try and get clearer pictures. We actually found out at a later date that this haze is smog from pollution.
Luckily there were little cafes open at the top, so we took this chance to grab some Empenadas for breakfast.
We spent the afternoon chilling in the park until we could get into the hostel. Both feeling pretty gross and knackered from the bus ride the night before, we spent the afternoon recovering in the hostel.
WALKING TOUR OF MARKETS
There are different walking tours you can do throughout the city, we wanted to start with one that took you through the local markets and off the beaten track locations first. We first went to 5 different markets all in close proximity to each other. There was a fish market, a flower market, a fruit and veg market, a meat market and the largest market of them all sold everything you could possibly imagine! Our tour guide took us around each one and gave recommendations on what you could come back and see/buy at each one. They were all crazy busy with locals, all of whom ha suitcases or granny trolleys to cart around their goods. We didn't get many pictures due to how chaotic it was, but heres some pictures of some fresh fish...
The fish market was actually ranked by national geographic as the 5th best market in the world, which they proudly has a plank on display showing this at the entrance. Like all markets, there was different deals going on for the time of year. Due to it being at the end of the strawberry season, we saw a deal for 7kg of strawberries for around a £1 - sadly didn't have enough room in our bags for these!
From the markets the tour continued onto main cemetery in Santiago (cemeteries seem to be a big attraction in south America for some reason!). This one was even bigger than Recoleta in Buenos Aires, you could fit 179 football pitches into this one! The whole cemetery was designed like a city, with street names and you could drive through most of it. Each country had their own multistory building of crypts that you could go in and walk around. The guide told us families would come and visit the crypts and spend time having BBQ's outside them, toasting a drink to their dead relative! They really celebrate the afterlife and isn't something they are afraid of. Whilst there were some very impressive crypts owned by the upper classes, most were in multi stacked rows, that went down streets. You could rent a coffin space for a minimum of 5 years, or buy the space for around £5000 - £7000. If you had brought the grave, it would have PERP or Perpetuity written on the stone. If you rented and your family didn't renew the payment, they would remove your body, cremate it and put the ashes right at the back of that coffin space. Then a new coffin would be placed in with a new body! So you could often see multiple names on the stone. If the stone was blank, it meant the owner hasn't died yet.
As with Recoleta, it was almost a competition to have the biggest and best crypt, so people would hire architects to design their crypts for them. A lot of the time they would come in styles that wouldn't even be to do with the person. For example this one below has an Aztec theme, but the guide told us the people were Chilean!
The afternoon was spent walking around the city Centre in the areas we hadn't yet seen, with maybe a bit of accidental shopping for bits we needed to replace! On the way back to the hostel, we stopped off at a really nice restaurant we had seen in the central park that morning, and luckily managed to get in even though you normally needed a reservation!
We obviously had an evening in to watch GOT!
SANTIAGO HIGHLIGHTS WALKING TOUR
Dan spent the morning rather excitingly getting his hair cut, after lots of research on where to go and the help of Google translate, all went well and he's not had to keep hidden under a hat! He even said it was one of the best haircut experiences he'd ever had and Lisa had to spend too long listening all about it.
The afternoon tour of Santiago took you to the key touristic points of the City. We started off towards the main square stopping off on the way to see two large murals painted within the past year, both to reflect the past sufferings and show that Chile is moving forward. One of the Murals was by Inti Castro who was born in Valparaiso, our next destination, and who has many murals there which we can look out for.
Neither of us actually took a picture of these so the below is taken from Google just for reference.
The main square (as all main squares in Chile) is called Plaza de Armas. This marks the central point in the Valley that Santiago sits in, and was strategically placed when the Spanish first settled here, so the mountains could protect it. A man named Pedro de Valdivia founded the City in 1541, and it was built out from Plaza de Armas in a check-board style of blocks. One of the main reasons for settling here was that he was sent South from Peru to search for Gold (which never existed in Chile). The journey passes through the Atacama desert, the driest place on earth, and then through the Andes. So once Pedro got here and found no gold, he couldn't be bothered with the journey back so stayed put!
The first thing you see is the Cathedral which takes up a whole side of the square, with a very modern glass building juxtaposing next to it, and the other very old buildings that make up the square.
Next we got to go in the Cathedral, which is the biggest in Chile. 68% of the country identifies as Christian so the Catholic church had a lot of sway in the countries politics, and to this day still affects many decisions. Our tour guide played a game with us of 'Legal' or 'Illegal' to show just how much religion has had a sway on human rights issues in the country.
For example, abortion was only made legal a year and a half ago, prior to this it was one of only five countries worldwide which didn't. Even still it is only legal in extreme cases such as rape, or when there is a danger to the mother or child. Another example would be their laws towards same sex couples. Civil Partnerships are legal, however adopting as a same sex couple is illegal. Last year a married couple adopted a baby from Peru, and at the border were arrested, and later tried and convicted for human trafficking. Our guide went as far as to state that she is fairly certain that even if these issues went to a public referendum to legalise any changes would not be voted for.
On the other hand Prostitution is neither legal nor illegal, it's only illegal to be a pimp. Prostitution can be seen at nightfall quite openly in Plaza de Armas. Similarly smoking weed is legal in private spaces but still done quite openly and tolerated in public spaces.
After a couple more stops we got to the Presidential Palace. The building as we saw was rebuilt in 1981, after the original Palace was completely bombed in the Military Coup that started a 17 year dictatorship in the country.
The below is what we can remember from the talk, so you'll have to excuse any mistakes!
In 1970, the country elected Salvador Allende, the first Socialist President ever democratically elected. He actually only got 36% of the vote, but this was still enough to win! Simply speaking he believed in taking from the rich and giving to the poor - he was hugely popular with the working classes. The fact that he was a Socialist however greatly upset the American President of the time - Richard Nixon, as this was in the height of the Cold War. Under his command, the CIA plotted to bring an end to Allende's reign. They secretly bribed truck drivers to go on strike, under the excuse that they were striking against Allende. Therefore this stopped any and all food or medical supplies reaching the City. This went on for two months and the guides likened it to the current crisis in Venezuela. The strike caused the Chilean Peso inflation rate to rise by 1000%. For example a loaf of bread went from costing 800 peso to 8800 peso. To help tackle this, Allende started printing money, causing the Peso to crash and the country to go into an economic crisis.
Again with the backing of the CIA, a Military Coup was organised to overthrow Allende. On the morning of this happening, all the ships that protected the country at sea in Valparaiso, turned in to face the shore. Upon seeing this a friend of Allende alerted him that something was wrong. Heading to the Presidential Palace, Allende called the head of the Military, a man he had placed in that position, named Augusto Pinochet, Pinochet informed Allende that the coup was going to overthrow him, and he was giving him a chance to escape the country to Mexico with his family, before bombs were going to be dropped on the Palace at 10am. Refusing to give up his position, Allende managed to make a last Radio speech to the country, where he explained what was going to happen and saying goodbye to his supporters. In the radio transmission you can hear bombs started to fall on the building before it cuts out.
Allende's body was found with bullet wounds to the head, and it was reported he committed suicide. A post-mortem 30 years later confirmed this, however this is still widely debated due to the fact it was with an AK47, which would be hard to turn on yourself, and a suicide would be a much more beneficial death for the Military Coup than a murder.
Pinochet ran the country under a dictatorship for 17 years. During this time, he did manage to steady the countries economic crisis out, turning it completely around, and many argue is solely responsible for why Chile is in such a strong economic state today, especially when compared to the rest of South America. He also wrote the constitution which the country still lives by. However as with every dictatorship, there was a lot of blood shed, political prisoners and disappearances, with 17 years of crimes against human rights. Due to these conflicting facts of his rule, there is still a huge divide within Chile with support for either Allende or Pinochet.
The Dictatorship ended in 1987 with Pinochet's own constitution working against him, and him overestimating that no one would dare vote against him with the threat of becoming an enemy of the state. Interestingly after he was voted out, one of his last acts of power was to give himself and the army indemnity for all the atrocities they committed, and he was therefore never prosecuted or punished for his crimes. The Brits almost managed to get him when he visited London, but Margaret Thatcher was a supporter of his and argued he should be tried in his own country, where he was welcomed back a hero! He died peacefully in his own home, his death was met with half the country in deep mourning and half the country celebrating!
That was a super brief over-view and we definitely missed loads but gives you the gist!
Finally, we hopped on the tube (handily in the direction of our hostel) and visited the cultural center. This building was actually built in Allende's reign, and when an architect told him it wouldn't be ready for a huge conference they were building it for, he appealed to the public to help out with extra hands making lighter and quicker work. Surprisingly, and highlighting his popularity with the working class, two thousand volunteers turned up and the building was finished in time. During the dictatorship this building was used as the Presidential headquarters, and nowadays has been transformed into a cultural center housing art exhibitions, theatre, music, and practice areas for the arts.
PRE-COLOMBIAN ART MUSEUM, TIO WILLY & SUNSET UP CERRO SAN CRISTOBAL
After seeing the surrounding mountains turn a beautiful shade of pink at sunset in between the buildings the night previous, we decided we wanted to be back up at Cerro San Cristobal for sunset today. Therefore we had the morning and early afternoon to fill, so thought we'd be cultured and spend it visiting a museum which was recommended on the walking tour.
This was the Pre-Colombian art museum, showcasing various art works, pottery, clothing etc from varying civilizations pre Spanish invasion on South America. There was a lot of interesting pieces to see however sadly not too much information or history on the civilisations themselves, just on the artwork you were seeing.
We were particularly hoping for a little more information on the Mapuche, a civilisation who managed to actually fight off the Spanish invasion and keep their lands. They organised themselves differently to other well known civilisations such as the Inca's, and rather than working in a Pyramid society, had tribes who were all equal. When the Spanish invaded, all the main tactic behind their successful conquest was killing off the leader of the other civilations, causing the people to follow the next in commands rule, even if the Spanish. The Mapuche however would attack in waves of tribes, i.e. one tribe would go in and attack, then before the Spanish could rest the next tribe would attack. As a result the Spanish actually created a treaty with the Mapuche people allowing them to keep their lands in the South, creating a border. When Chile gained it's independence, the new Chilean government took back these lands and to this day there is still conflict between the Mapuche people and the Government.
Whilst the museum touched on this and showcased some of their clothing and traditions, overall we expected and hoped for a bit more information over all!
During the first walking tour we'd been recommended a local restaurant within the fish market. After a bit of persuading Dan to go to this one over the many tourist orientated restaurants in the same market, we decided to head here for lunch.
We weren't the only tourists taking on this recommendation and luckily they had English menu's (we had received Spanish ones first and had no clue what anything was)! Being next to the market which sells all the fresh fish, Lisa wanted to try a bit of everything and so we went for a trusted Ceviche dish which came with so many different types of fish and shell fish neither of us can actually remember what was on the menu. Here's a picture of the aftermath - the plate was piled up and we're surprised we got through as much as we did!
By this point it was time to start heading towards Cerro San Cristobal. To get a different perspective, we wanted to take the Cable Car up, which starts from the opposite side of the park which we walked up. We were actually pretty shocked when we got there that it only cost £5 for both of us to get up there, assuming it would have been a bit more expensive if this was London! We only brought a one way ticket as we thought we would walk back down after sunset.
We made it up for around 5.15pm, perfect timing for a 6pm sunset. We scoped out a few places and finally (Dan) decided where was best to get some pictures from. We were lucky that the sunset was the same as the day before and lit up the mountains beautifully.
After the sunset, we ended up staying longer than planned as the lights started turning on around the city, creating a panoramic light show!
While enjoying the city lights, we stayed up a lot longer than planned and still had a long walk down on what would now be a pitch black track. Deciding we didn't really fancy this, we went over to the Funicular which luckily was near where we were, to see whether we could still buy tickets down. As we got over there we saw the ticket office was now closed. As a last resort we went and asked the people running the last one down. Very kindly they said as it was the last run it would not be full, so let us jump on for free! Lucky escape from a long, dark walk down!
To get to Valparaiso we first caught the Santiago underground to the edge of the city, and then took a bus from there. We luckily timed it very well and managed to buy a ticket and jump straight on a bus as soon as we got there. The journey was only an hour and a half and went very quickly!
Valparaíso is a port city on Chile’s coast. It's known for its steep funiculars and colorful, clifftop homes. As soon as we arrived we were amazed by how colour and street art there was! The first we did after dropping our bags off was go for a wander to check this out.
After walking around we stumbled across a cafe which had an incredible view of both Valparaiso's hilltops and beach front. To make it even better it was called Brighton! So in honour of Rhian we had to make a stop off for a beer here!
We had wanted to do a walking tour at 3pm, however we weren't too sure where the meeting point was, as we had left the leaflet in our bags. We were resigned to not doing this and instead buying a few beers and chilling on the balcony at the hostel (hard life!). Sadly as we got to the supermarket it was closed due to it being a public holiday. Good news was as we left the building, we noticed everyone getting together to start the walking tour, so we ran over and joined up!
We started at the port, where it was explained Valparaiso used to be the biggest port in South America for a short time, due to sailors using it as a stop off on the journey to California (they used to have to go down to the bottom tip of south America, then back up!). This brought in a lot of English and German immigrants to the town . The town quickly became quite built up and became a very rich town. A mixture of earthquakes and the opening of the Panama Canal in the early 1900's meant the town went into an economic decline, which it still struggles with to this day. The port is still working industrially today, as well as lots of tourist boats. We saw a seal bathing on the port in the distance, which Dan got really excited about and ruined Lisas picture (see hand pointing to see seal).
From here we made our way towards the touristic area of the town. To get into the hills, there are Funiculars running at the bottom of the main ones. These were super steep and all made in the 1880's, so a little scary to use! They did look really cool however and was a nice way of getting uphills!
We walked around some more street art, lots of it we'd actually seen during our own walk earlier that day. There was a huge mural depicting a time line of the history of Chile, which was explained to us and super interesting. This is a small section of it below as it was so big we couldn't get it all in one picture.
The tour continued around lots of interesting art and architecture. The houses are all made from corrugated iron, left over from shipping containers. The reason the town is so colorful, was that the iron would rust, due to the sea air, so people realised painting the corrugated iron with the paint used on boats would protect it, as well as improve the aesthetics. The houses were painted with any leftover pots of paint, which is why most of the houses are multi-coloured.
Graffiti tagging became a huge issue on all of the buildings in Valparaiso (looking around there is still a lot of tags everywhere, in Santiago too). To try to combat this, people realised that there was a sort of honor amongst Graffiti artists, and that if there was already art on the wall, most people wouldn't ruin this. Therefore many building owners started to commission street artists to create huge murals on their buildings to protect them from the tags. This is how Valparaiso became so colourful and artistic.
Funnily enough even though this is the case, street art has actually been an illegal activity since the dictatorship, as they didn't like the political messages associated with graffiti. Nowadays the government commission street art festivals, despite still technically being illegal.
VALPARAISO - DAY 2
We headed straight to the morning walking tour (we had to rush a bit as breakfast took a little longer than we'd thought!) but made it just in time for the start. This tour was to take you to the 'off-beat' parts of Valparaiso and see a different side to just the tourist hills.
The first stop involved walking straight to an area which the hostel (and all other guides/hostel's) advise against going to. We never really got a full reason as to why they so strongly advise not to head this way, the tour guide told us it was safe and even recommended a bar to head back to. We believe it was due to this area being a lot poorer, and therefore more of a risk for affluent tourists.
We were told a bit more history about the town before catching a bus to the top of the hills.
Bus drivers actually get a very basic minimum wage, and they make their money based on how many passengers they pick up for their journey. They get a percentage of the daily fares for each passenger, and so many drive incredibly fast and aim to overtake each other in order to get the most passengers. If they don't get to their end stop on time, they are docked pay! Due to this we were warned the ride could be pretty bumpy and it didn't disappoint.
At the top of the hill we got to admire the views.
One of the main stops was at the Parque Cultural de Valparaíso, a former prison built in the early 1900's, which today has been transformed into a cultural hub for artists. There is also a huge building built in the early 2000's which currently houses a Gaudi exhibit.
The prison was originally built on the outskirts of the town, however as Valparaiso grew, it ended up being dead centre. Built to house only 400 inmates, at it's maximum it held 1400 during the dictatorship, holding many political prisoners. To the joy of the neighbours it was closed in the millennium and moved to a spot which is now out of town. They renovated the Prison into different studios where people can go and dance, sing, paint etc for free, there is even a semi professional recording studio. The outside has been transformed into a beautiful garden and we saw lots of locals relaxing there and working on it.
The tour obviously took us around more street art, as well as a small urban park, which had been designed by an artist who specialises in mosaics. He designs the patterns and then enlists the help of local school children to complete the mosaics.
After the tour, we headed back to enjoy our hostels balcony for a late lunch, then went back out for a walk of our own to get pictures of some of our favourite street art and skylines.
We were then treated to an incredible sunset from our hostel balcony while enjoying a cup of tea...
BACK TO SANTIAGO & FLIGHT TO CALAMA / SAN PEDRO
The 3rd was spent enjoying the last of our balcony in Valparaiso and catching the bus back to Santiago. We went back to the same hostel as before and found it was even bigger than we'd thought, our new room being in a totally different part we had no idea existed. The most exciting part of our day was going for a curry in the evening, which we'd both been craving due to the fact South America so far doesn't seem to believe in spice!
Our flight to Calama on the 4th was originally supposed to be a morning flight but in true South American style had been pushed to the evening. We hadn't bargained to have a spare day in Santiago and had already done everything we'd wanted to (without spending a lot of money) so used the opportunity to catch up with friends at home, on the blog and do a bit of research into what we fancied doing in San Pedro de Atacama.
Eventually we grabbed an Uber to the airport and made it there hassle free. The driver however had made a few comments which made us curious; first of all he made Dan sit in the front of the car, something we'd read happens in Argentina as the local taxis frown upon Uber so saves any issues. Next he told us if he was pulled over we were all friends and he was simply being nice dropping us to the airport, he was not our Uber driver. The whole journey consisted of back roads rather than on the main road leading straight to the airport. We googled this and it turns out Uber sits in a legal gray area in Chile, where it's generally considered illegal. Uber drivers can be fined and have their cars taken off them if they are caught! Transport police are constantly on the lookout for them and the dodgiest route is to the airport. Good job we didn't know this before we booked it as it was a much cheaper way of getting to the airport!
San Pedro de Atacama, is an hour and a half drive from Calama, and we just hopped in a shuttle bus very quickly. Looking out the window was incredible you could see the whole milky way!
SAN PEDRO TOWN &
PUKARA DE QUITOR
San Pedro is 2408m above sea level, and is the start of our next month at heading into higher and higher altitudes. Even though we'd already been at this altitude in Tilcara back when we were in Argentina, we did feel the effects slightly more here, we think because it is so much hotter! San Pedro de Atacama is the worlds driest non-polar desert and the day time here, especially when there is no cloud, is HOT.
We spent the morning slowly getting reused to the altitude, enjoying a cup of tea and making friends with the hostel's cat whilst looking out over the incredible view from our hostel's garden.
Around midday we headed to explore the town, which basically consists of one very long street lined with tour agencies for all the many day trips available from San Pedro. If someone just dropped you here with no explanation you'd think you'd ended up in Tatooine in Star Wars, all the buildings are just made from clay!
Before heading out on a short trek, we decided to boost our energy with a little lunch. Ordering what we both thought would be a ham and cheese sandwich, somehow this turned out to be a HUGE burger, topped with ham, cheese, and an egg. Not quite what we were after but at least it definitely filled us up!
We'd read you could do a short walk from the town to get to a pre-Columbian archaeological site called Pukara de Quitor, which we thought would be a good acclimatisation walk. This short walk ended up being roughly an hours walk to get there, along a very dusty track and then a further 45 minute uphill to get to the viewing point. The views along the way and especially at the top were definitely worth it though! From the top we had incredible 360' views over the town as well as over death valley, and the Andes mountains which separate Chile, Bolivia & Argentina.
Our evening consisted of cooking as much veg as we could for dinner to make up for our burger mistake, and of course watching GOT!
CYCLING TO THE DEVILS THROAT
We had decided after doing some research that some of the places we could get to ourselves without a tour, by renting a bike and cycling to them instead to save some money. One of these places was a park not far from where we had gone to the day before, so we roughly knew the route anyway!
There are so many rental companies in the town, however we went for one purely as they give you all the extras needed, such as high vis, helmet, flat tire pack and lock. There was an option between a £4 bike for 6 hours or a £7 bike for 6 hours. We both decided to go for the cheaper option - something in hindsight we wish we hadn't done. Dans bike didn't want to change gears without the chain falling off and Lisas bike seat fell to the lowest position whenever she moved! With thee faults not becoming apparent until we had already got out of town, we decided just to power through with the day!
The road to the park (as we had found from walking the previous day) was very rocky and bumpy, often getting stopped completely by a deep pocket of sand. There were also the occasional bridges literally made of planks of wood we had to tackle to get over the rivers.
It was a 8km journey to the start of the park. Once we paid to get in, we set off for the first stop off, which was a tunnel which was made in 1930 that went straight through a mountain. This tunnel was part of the old route to get to Calama, the town we flew into. However this was no longer used due to flooding causing damage.
After around 15 minutes of walking to the tunnel, we couldn't believe this used to be an old route - we were both out of breath and boiling due to the pure uphill path. However the journey through the mountains produced some amazing scenery.
Finally we got to the tunnel, after a quick picnic and shade stop! We didn't realise how long the tunnel was actually going to be, and when you saw the amount of loose rock above it, it was a little unnerving. Walking through the tunnel definitely gave us sweaty palms! Once you got to the center, it was pitch black and we had to get our torches out. Pictures make it look alot lighter in there than it actually was!
Once we got to the other side we were greeted by a mass of open desert. It was quite eerie being the only people in a massive expanse of land. Dan was excited as this side of the desert produced lots of crystal like rocks, so a few more to add to his growing collection from this trip!
Jumping back on our bikes, our next stop was to "Garganta del Diablo" or "Devils throat". This is a vast valley through the red rock mountains that surround the area. You can cycle right through to the otherside, however we decided to park our bikes just outside and walk through - we were glad we did as at some points you would have needed to duck! Again walking through this valley of towering rocks was like walking through another world, it reminded us both of what Mars would probably be like on the surface. Again we had the who Valley to ourselves!
We had to leave around 4pm due to needing to returning the bikes. So we set off back to the town, hoping our bikes would hold out the rest of the way! On the way back we also headed to the agency we had booked our stargazing tour with. Sadly it had been cancelled due to cloudy weather. We reserved places for every other night we are here, in the hope that one of the nights will be clear!
Due to still wanting to see some stars that evening, we waited till around 10pm and headed out ourselves with a camera anyway. We were told that if you followed the main road until you stopped getting streetlights, you would be able to see the milky way. After a 15 min walk we finally reached darkness, and as if someone had flicked a switch to turn it on, the milky way was there! Sadly as told earlier, it was a little hazy with some clouds, so we didn't get a perfect view, but was still good enough to get a few pictures.
We had a spare day scheduled into our stay in San Pedro to get everything organised for our salt flats tour. After originally thinking we would do another bike ride on the 7th, we decided against it after waking up with both our bums not able to take another solid day of cycling! So we decided to push this to the 9th, and use the 7th as a prep day - so not really any pictures to show, apart from maybe this one of Dan trying to research, and the local cat having other ideas!
LAGUNAS ALTIPLANICAS & PEIDRAS ROJAS TOUR
As we had decided to try and do as much of the tour activities ourselves, we thought if we were going to do one we should make sure its a big one that you see a lot with. Because of this we booked on to the the Lagunas Altiplanicas & Peidras Rojas tour. Also dude to the fact that both these places were a lot further afield and couldn't be reached by ourselves.
After a 5.45am wake up for a 6.30am pick, we ended up being picked up at 7.45am - which wasn't a great start to the day! To make matters worse, as we were heading to the van, the guide asked Dan whether he had brought any trousers with him (as he was currently wearing shorts), as we were heading into mountain heights covered in snow from the night before! Neither of us were particularly dressed for cold weather and were made to feel even more nervous about this when we got in the minibus to see everyone else wrapped up warm! We thought the desert was supposed to be warm!!
Feeling a little conscious about this, we set off towards the snowy mountains. This was a pretty surreal thing to see, being in the desert but looking ahead and seeing snowy mountains! On the way to the first stop, our guide (who was very informative throughout the day) was telling us about the area and got onto the topic of telescopes. He pointed out the buildings where ALMA telescope had been sending the information to put together the picture of the black hole that was recently released. The actual telescope was a little further over the mountain but sadly couldn't see this. He explained that 70% of the worlds research telescopes are based in the Atacama desert, due to the lack of moisture in the air, so you get the clearest images. There is going to be two new telescopes being brought to the desert within the coming year - both bigger than the Hubble telescope!
To get to our first stop, Lake Miscante, we had to get up to a height 4200m. One the way up we were told about the different fauna and how it changes as you get to different altitudes. There are 188 different mammals, 97 species of birds and 2 types of fish in the area. We saw a fox hunting within the rocks on the way up, so only 187 mammals left to find! When we got to the top and saw Lake Miscante, it was a breathtaking view of the sun reflecting off the lake, surrounded by snowy Volcanoes. Luckily, it wasn't as cold as we had been expecting!
After marveling over the lake, our guide pointed us in the direction of a walk we could do - which he would be at the end of preparing breakfast. We set off along the trail that was actually very strictly marked out, with people working for the park watching to make sure you don't stray off the path. This is mainly due to tourist damage of the national park over the years, so now they try and keep it as preserved as possible.
As we followed the path over the hill, we were greeted by another amazing view of Lake Miniques, again surrounded by volcanoes. Even better, we could see in the distance our van, with breakfast being prepared!
After eating a delicious breakfast of eggs, biscuits, cake and chocolate milk we were off towards our next stop, Peidras Rojas. On the journey towards them, we past incredible landscapes, carved out by the surrounding Volcanoes. We even ticked another mammal off the list, seeing a pack of Vicuna.
They may look friendly, but were were told that they go around in packs with only one alpha male. The babies will stay with the pack until 1 year old, at this point all males will be chased away by the alpha. In order to make them leave the alpha will kick, bite and bite off their testicles! He said the main reason you would see a young dead Vicuna is due to bleeding out from the testicles - you just cant imagine it looking at the friendly face in this picture!
Whilst traveling through the landscape, we did see extreme weather due to being at such high altitudes - at one point even seeing a flurry of snowfall! Again it felt so out of place seeing it in the desert!
When we arrived at Peidras Rojas, we were again greeted by stunning scenery. The red rocks mixed with the crystal blue water made for a vivid landscape.
The guide explained that you used to be able to go down onto the red rock and take a walk around. However recently they have changed the rules and now we could only see it from a viewpoint. This is because tourists were ruining the area, writing graffiti on the rocks, using it as a toilet and one guy even kite surfing on the water there! That was the last straw and they closed off the area completely.
We were then given a geography lesson about the different rocks that are created in the area from the volcanoes, which Dan loved and lead to more questions about what crystals he might be able to find in the area.
On the way to our next location, we stopped at an ancient Inca town which nowadays has less than 200 inhabitants, whereas when the Incas had lived there it was well over 4000. You could still see the platforms that the Incas had made on the mountainsides for farming. The Incas had lived in these mountains and throughout a lot of South America for over 100 years before the Spanish came and killed them all in the name of conquest and Religion. With killing them, died a lot of knowledge about the area, for example the Incas had worked out when floods were going to happen and used it to their advantage with farming. The Spanish would always build Catholic churches on top of Religious sites in towns they took over, with church being an example of what they had put in this town.
Next we headed to the San Pedro Atacama salt flats and lake Chaxa. Unlike the salt flats in Bolivia we are visiting in a few days, these salt flats were never created due to oceans being there in the past. These salt flats were made via a weathering process over time with the 3 mountain ranges sitting around it all feeding different minerals into the ground. The water is constantly evaporated due to the amount of sun, leaving behind the minerals. In these flats Lithium is mined. Chile is a part of Lithium Triangle along with Bolivia and Argentina where 70% of world’s Lithium reserves are placed. Chile’s salt flats reserves are about 7,5 million tons, making the country the richest in economical proven reserves. This is obviously coming at a cost to sustainability to the area, especially to the Flamingos that call the salt flats home. Our guide mentioned that this year the Flamingo flock is around 400 less than normal, as they have looked for other places to breed, and the ones that have stayed are laying less eggs due to the conditions not being as good as before.
We were shown what Flamingos eat, which Dan found really funny as they were "Sea Monkeys" he used to get as a child for Christmas. He asked the guide what they were and they are called Brine Shrimp. Dan laughed as he remembered getting them for Christmas one year and growing them big, until his mum got scared they were Bacteria growing and flushing them down the toilet! The guide funnily enough said they used to get them as kids aswell!
We learnt about the Flamingos nesting patterns and were then set free around the flats to take some pictures of them on the lagoons. Sadly as we walked around we realised they were a lot further away than they can be. Even with our long lens on, we couldn't get close up pictures of them. We got some that we could, then ran in for some lunch and shade - it was boiling hot on the flats, exposed skin felt like it was burning as soon as the sun touched it!
Our last stop was a bit confusing as we didn't get the explanation in English - the guide ran out of time before we got there! But atleast we got to go and see some baby Vicunas, and give them some food and a stroke.
Every single night we have been here, minus the first night (annoyingly would have been the best night), we have tried to do a stargazing tour with telescopes. Every night so far it has been called off due to cloud, and tonight was no different! We are keeping our fingers crossed for our last day here!!
The night we got back from the tour Lisa wasn't feeling great and sadly she was very ill overnight. We still aren't sure whether it was food poisoning, a bug or the altitude tablets we had started taking for the Bolivia salt flats tour.
Understandably we couldn't do our bike ride to Moon Valley on the 9th and we had to push back our salt flats tour by a day, meaning spending an unscheduled extra night in San Pedro. Unfortunately our hostel didn't have an extra night available, so we chose the cheapest and nearest hostel to ours, which was luckily around the corner!
These few days was Dans turn to be the nurse, to pay Lisa back for her looking after him in El Chalten!