in this post, I am taking you further down in South America. After my short but very nice stay in Bolivia, I am now going to explore Chile.
The first stop of the journey is the city of San Pedro de Atacama. This is one of the most touristic place in Chile, as it is the starting/ending point of the tours to/from Uyuni in Bolivia and a good base to explore the Atacama desert.
After almost an hour drive, the mini bus that picked us up at the Bolivian border drop us off at the Chilean immigration office just at the entrance of San Pedro.
The atmosphere is quite relax for a border. The employees are dressed in tshirt and jeans and are listening to reggaeton music. However, I am surprised by how strong the control of imported fruits and vegetables is (which is actually a very good thing) as I have to explain myself to the immigration colleague during 10 min about why I have an apple in my bag. Luckily for me this time, the story ends well and the immigration officer simply confiscates it without making me pay any fee.
San Pedro de Atacama is located almost 1600m lower than the plateau in Bolivia where my Uyuni tour ended and so I am happy to find there warmer temperatures.
The first afternoon is quite relaxed. After a quick check in at my hostel, I walk a bit in the main street to find a place for lunch. After that I stop by at some tourist agencies to gather information about the different tours offered in the region and the prices.
Chile is very well known as the astronomer’s paradise. North Chile counts several of the biggest telescopes in the world, operated by European and American scientific organizations. It was one of my dream to visit one of this superstructure but public visits are proposed only during weekends and are fully booked several weeks in advance. Too bad for me, but still, I book a tour in the evening at a small tourist observatory near San Pedro to take a look at the perfect sky.
The tours lasts 2,5 hours but it is so interesting that time goes too fast. The guide, a Canadian astrophysicist, introduces us with humor to the history of astronomy and explains us the different stars and constellations visible from our viewpoint. After that, we have access to 9 telescopes pointing to different objects. We get to see among others craters on the moon, but also the Saturn rings or a double star in Alpha Centaury. Finally, the last part of the tour is also very cool, as the guide explains us how to configure our cameras to take pictures of the sky. Unfortunately, as I don’t have my tripod with me, I struggle a bit to have clear pictures.
Day 2 is also relax. I spend my time organizing a bit my next days and I also make my laundry. In the afternoon, I finally decide about the tours I want to join and visit again several tourist agencies to find the best prices.
On day 3 I wake up early in the morning to join a first tour going to the Lagunas Altiplanicas. Those 2 lakes, Miscanti and Miñique, are located about 90km far from San Pedro and are at an altitude of 4000m. They are part of the national park Los Flamencos and are very scenic. The combination of the surrounding mountains and volcanoes and the color of the water and the vegetation offers an amazing postcard like view. The parks are also the home of different types of birds, the biggest one being the flamingos.
The drive is also very scenic as we pass through the salt flats of Atacama, the third biggest in the world, after Uyuni in Bolivia (2nd) and the Salinas Grandes in Argentina (1st). The surface looks very rough and rocky. This is due to the fact that the soil is very dry, compared to Uyuni where the soil is constantly relatively humid.
In the afternoon, I visit a place called Valle de la Luna, the valley of the moon. It is also located in the national park Los Flamencos and is a nice collection of salt and sand formations. Those formations, which remind a bit of the landscape that can be seen on the moon are the source of inspiration source for the name of this valley.
On day 4, I wake up at around 04:00am to visit the Geysers del Tatio. This geothermic area is located at the foot of the volcano El Tatio at an altitude of 4280m. The peak of activity of the geysers is at sunrise. The drive to get there takes about 2h but I manage to sleep almost 01h30. I am only woken up by the polar temperatures: the guide tells us that we are lucky to have a warm day. Indeed the outside temperature is -14°C instead of the forecasted -20°C. Yeahhh 🙂
Nonetheless, the view is quite spectacular and the sunrise light has a nice effect on the water of the geysers. We also have the opportunity to spend some time in a natural hot spring. However I spend far less time in this one than in Bolivia. Indeed the temperature difference is so high between the pool and the source that the water doesn’t mix and we end up moving between layers of freezing and burning waters. Before going back to San Pedro, we make a short stop at a small village where we can try Alpaca brochettes and empanadas.
In the afternoon, I join a tour heading to the Laguna Cejar. There’s not a lot to report about it. This lake, also located in the Atacama desert is very scenic and offers a nice view on the volcano Likankabur. It is a famous touristic destination thanks to its neighbor, the laguna piedras. This lake has a very high concentration in salt and so people enjoy floating hours on the surface. Due to the freezing temperature, I just stay 30s in the water before coming back in the warm sun. After this refreshing bath, we enjoy a nice pisco sour watching the sunset on the mountains.
On the next day, I wake up at 06:00am to take the bus to La Serena, further South on the coast. I arrive at 06:30 at the bus station and am surprised to find the door of the bus station closed. I decide to walk to another place in the city center where I thought could be another bus stop, but there’s nothing there either. I ask a guy in the street, who points me to the first bus station and tells me there is no other one. On my way back there, I ask another guy to be sure if I am going to the right bus station. The guy is completely drunk but seems to want to help me. He walks with me in direction of the bus station but suddenly wants me to turn in a street with him. I refuse and walk to the bus station. Now, there is another man there (also drunk) and I ask him if I am at the right bus station. He assures me that I am at the right place and that I should be patient as long distances bus often have delay. The first drunk man becomes very insisting about following him but the other drunk man intervenes so that he leaves me alone. They start having an argument that I don’t understand (I still don’t speak drunken Spanish fluently). After 5 min, the bus station opens and the employee lets me enter the waiting area, forcing the 2 drunk guys to stay outside. After about 20mins, I ask the bus station employee why the bus is so late and he tells me that it is actually not. He starts smiling and asks me if I forgot the time change… F*** I didn’t know about that and so I woke up 1 hour too early!!
The bus drive is very long (17h). I arrive in La Serena shortly before midnight.
As I am exhausted by the bus drive, I wake up quite late the next day. It is really ok as I didn’t stop here to spend time visiting the Elqui valley but only to cut the long bus journey to Santiago in 2. As I speak with the receptionist of my hostel about what to do for the rest of the day, I learn that the biggest touristic observatory in Chile, Mamalluca, offers stargazing tours every night. The touristic agency working with the hostel is a bit reluctant to sell me a ticket, as they offer the tour only for a group of minimum 2 persons, but finally, they accept to privatize the tour for me in exchange of a small additional fee.
Pick up time is at 19:00. The driver, Ignacio is a very nice guy. It takes us one hour to reach the city of Vicuna where we make a short stop to buy the tickets to the observatory. We speak about a lot of things. He tells me about his former career as professional football player. The guy is very down to earth and it is very interesting to hear a realistic view about the life of a professional player, especially the difficulty to make ends meet when you’re not a superstar, the management of the injuries or the reconversion post career.
The tour starts at about 20:30. Ignacio joins the Spanish speaking group, I join the tour in English. The visit is a bit strange. The guide seems completely unprepared, he just selects stars randomly on the electronic telescope and makes us take a look at them with the minimum of explanation. Sometimes we even get only 2 comments: What you see here is an old star. It is beautiful. … :))) Fortunately for me, I remember almost all explanations from the stargazing tour in San Pedro de Atacama and I am happy to be able to see the same objects but with a far better telescope.
After a bit more than 1 hour in the dome, we go outside to get some explanations about the visible stars. As the explanations here is also chaotic, I move a bit aside from the group to practice taking pictures from the sky. This time I have my small tripod, and I succeed to take very nice shots of the milky way and the moon.
The day after, I take the bus in the morning for a 7 hours ride to the city of Valparaiso, near Santigo on the West coast. Valparaiso is a rather small city (a bit less than 1 million inhabitants) and is known for its hippie character. On the first afternoon/evening I walk a bit in the city center and along the coast. I finish the day sipping wine on the terrasse with other people met at the hostel.
On the next day, I visit the part of the city located around Cerro Alegre and Cerro Conception. This is the artistic part of the city and a lot of artists and students are living there. I like walking around the small streets to enjoy the street art.
In the evening, I take part in a diner organized at the hostel where only organic food is served. It’s really fun to discover new vegetables and new flavors. At the end of the diner, we move to another place to continue discovering nice flavors but this time during a wine tasting. The wines served are all Chilean wine produced from grapes imported from France. It’s very interesting for me to discover the taste of French grapes grown in different conditions than in France (different soil and weather).
The day after, I take the bus once again to my last destination in Chile, the capital city Santiago de Chile, where I’ll stay a total of 4 days.
On day 1, I walk a lot in the West part of the city and the city center around the Plaza de Armas. Those area are nice for a short walk and offer several beautiful churches to visit.
On day 2, I spend the morning walking in the parque metropolitano from where I have a clear view on the city and the surrounding mountains. In the afternoon, I come down from the hill and spend a couple of hours shopping in the big Costanera mall.
On day 3, as I am a bit tired of doing only sighseeing, I decide to be a bit more active and take a shuttle to go skiing in the Valle Nevado station. The weather is very nice and I am really happy to hit the slopes as I couldn’t do it last winter (I was in South East Asia). My rental gear is not so good. I booked the cheapest skis and they are missing some grip especially on the ice in the lower station. The snow conditions are ok but not optimal, as we are at the end of the season. In terms of equipments, the station is similar to a small ski station in Germany. There is only one telecabin and 3 or 4 chair lifts. The other pists are only equipped with ski lifts: a nightmare for snowboarders 🙂
I finish the day at around 16:30 with both my shoulders at the right place 😉 At the end of the ski day, there’s no apres-ski like in Austria. Instead of that, people open the back door of the car on the parking lot when they change clothes and play party music 🙂
The drive back to Santiago is quite a strange experience. The van driver is driving very fast and pass other cars in the curves with no visibility.
However what I think is the worst is the music he’s been playing in the van. Indeed, the guy converted all his Dance Machine CDs from the 90s in mp3 and was dancing and singing on ALL the songs. When we were dropping off people at their hostel, he was also getting off the car to dance 5 mins in the middle of the road before coming back behind the steering wheel :)) Crazzzyyyy!
To give you a taste of all the titles he played, here is a mix (this one is good) of old Dance tubes from the 90s:
Nothing special to report about my last day in Santiago. I just spend some time organising a bit my next days in Argentina and doing some paperwork.
After 4 full days in Santiago, it is time for me to say goodbye to Chile. I am taking the bus in the moning for an almost full day trip to the next country on my itinerary: Argentina.