Rubbish wifi and a jam packed schedule mean it’s been over a week since our last post. During that time we’ve completely passed through Chile, starting in it’s capital Santiago, and finishing in the stunningly beautiful Atacama Dessert. We’re currently writing from a cafe in Sucre, Bolivia but we’ll fill you in on that stage of the journey in the next post! There’s a lot to tell in the meantime so this might be quite a long one – bare with us!
Travelling from Mendoza to Santiago involved us passing through the towering mountain passes of the Andes mountains. Winding roads, snow capped mountains and shear rock faces that seem to change colour as the sun sets make this one of the most beautiful journeys you can do. The border crossing was equally stunning. Nestled in the midst of the Andes, you’re surrounded by 4500m mountains. There was a bit of a wait while we got through passport control/immigration but in all honestly we’d have gladly stayed there longer.
We arrived in Santiago, Chile’s capital, 7 hours later and were pretty surprised by what we found. In many ways Buenos Aires set the precedent for what we were expecting of all large South American cities. Whilst it was a fantastic city, it was also very rough round the edges and at times, slightly intimidating. Upon hearing that Santiago had a stray dog population of 1500 roaming it’s streets, our expectations were understandably low. We subsequently only booked 2 nights.
We regretted this for 2 reasons. Firstly, our hostel turned out to be a palace. Somehow, at a cost of £9 a night (the cheapest on hostelworld) we managed to bag ourself a stay in a 17th century mansion. Massive rooms, tall ceilings, original features, a swimming pool, a jacuzzi, and an outdoor bar. It may sound dramatic as we’ve been living in some pretty shoddy conditions for the past month but it genuinely felt like a 5* hotel. We were in heaven.
Secondly, the city was awesome. It was clean and modern with old town squares, cafes and bars on every corner. It had an almost European feel to it which, going by South American standards, is really saying something.
Our first morning was spent wandering the cobbled streets, stopping in cafes and relaxing in the shade of the parks. We also had a wander round a slightly underwhelming museum (everything was written in spanish) before joining onto a free walking tour in the afternoon. We leaned loads of cool stuff here 🤓
1. Stray dogs aren’t seen as a problem in Chile. They are cared for and fed by the locals and the council provides shelter for them in the parks. Subsequently the dogs are surprisingly clean and friendly and the city hasn’t had a case of rabies in 35 years. One of them actually followed our tour!
2. Until the military coup of 1973, Chile was seen as the shining light of South America, being the only country never to be ruled by a dictatorship. Our guide had some pretty strong views about the role that the Americans had in engineering the coup from afar by operating a trade embargo with Chile that left the economy on its knees. Slightly awkward for the New York couple who accompanied the tour.
3. Santiago has amazing ice cream. Many of its stores are ranked in the top 25 in the world.
The next day we both had different plans. I was keen to explore the Andes and climb the tallest mountain on the area. It involved a 9 hour hike which I couldn’t quite convince Lauren to accompany me on. She instead opted to spend another day exploring Santiago.
Manoeuvring a foreign city alone was a daunting but liberating experience. I had decided to climb San Cristobal Hill, Santiago’s tallest hill, and I grabbed a map and worked out Chile’s metro system in order to get there. It took only an hour and a half to climb but gave me stunning views of Santiago city as well as the surrounding mountains. As a popular sight for Pilgrimage, at the top of the hill there is a large statue of the Virgin Mary with many quiet places for contemplation whilst admiring the view. I spent a peaceful hour or so at the top with an ice cream and my book before getting the cable car back down. I then met Tim back at the hostel for an afternoon swim.
The hike was a big one. Covering a distance of 19km and an accent of 6500ft, I was advised it would take 5 hours to reach the top and 3 hours to get back down. This in mind, I left the hostel at the unearthly hour of 6:30am with my own body weight in water and snacks in tow (it was 36’c). I then jumped on the metro to a beautiful suburban town on the outskirts of Santiago (gated communities, nice cars – it was the Cheshire of Santiago) before getting on a bus that would take me to the start of the hike.
Everything was going swimmingly – the hike was well sign posted, i was ahead of schedule and the morning heat was nowhere near as bad as I feared. The scenery was also amazing (if a little hazy.. I’ll get to that later) as I had views of the snow capped Andes in front of me and a 180′ panoramic view of Santiago behind me. I was in my element.
I was about 3 hours in and probably an hour from the top (I could see it) when I ran into a group of Chilean guys who were on there way down after spending a night in the refuge at the top. We chatted briefly while we all stocked up on water before going our separate ways. 5 minutes of accent followed before I heard voices coming from below: ‘DECENDIA DECENDIA’. Now my Spanish isn’t great but I got their gist and began the decent. Upon reaching them they told me that they had received a call from the park ranger – there was a forrest fire 3 miles from our location that was out of control and heading towards us. The whole park was being evacuated and we had to get down ASAP. We didn’t need telling twice. Chile has been engulfed with Forrest fires for the past few weeks with over 50 million hectares being destroyed and 34 people being killed. we ran. We made it to the bottom in a record time by which time the air had gone from slightly hazy to being filled with black smoke. (Look again at Lauren’s pic of the city – the smokey haze is pretty clear)
I got back to Santiago 2 hours later, shattered and disappointed not to reach the top but overall relieved to be back in one piece. That evening was spent relaxing in the pool and having a few drinks in the bar before packing up for our early morning flight to Atacama the next day.
Us being stingey travellers we refused to pay for another nights accommodation in Santiago and made the bold yet poor decision to sleep in the airport assuming there would be plenty of nice comfy chairs to kick back in. This wasn’t the case. I’ll leave it to the pictures to tell the story of that night. Our flight left at 7am.
San Pedro de Atacama (Atacama Desert)
Upon arriving in Atacama we jumped on a coach that would take us the 1 hour stretch through the dessert to San Pedro. We’d read tonnes of accounts of the Atacama landscape before arriving and saw plenty of pictures and yet nothing really prepares you for witnessing it first hand. It’s baron, massive and beautiful. Both NASA and the ESA have bases there for testing their Mars rovers, and you can see why. It genuinely feels other worldly. The landscape changes from grey and lunar to bright orange and mars-like within minutes.
An hour later we arrived in San Pedro. Our hostel was small and by no means luxurious but the owners were incredibly friendly and immediately made us feel at home. Lauren also made friends with the hostel cat – I think the photo pretty accurately displays the one way nature of this relationship…
After dumping our bags we went exploring! The town of San Pedro is equally unique. You’re greeted by dusty streets, shanty town esq buildings and an enormous volcano that towers 5800m over the town. It’s an incredible place. With a population of 1000 locals, 2000 dogs and 4000 tourists it’s a place that is catered purely for travellers. The streets are littered with more tour operators than London, all offering excursions to San Pedro’s countless natural attractions ranging from Volcano climbing to high altitude Geysers. Unfortunately, these all come with pretty hefty price tags (as does everything in San Pedro) which meant we had to choose carefully as we could only really afford one. We decided to sleep on it and decide the following day.
That night the impossible happened. We were in the driest place on the planet (with an annual rainfall of less than 5mm it is literally the driest place on earth) and it rained. And not only did it rain, it was a full on thunderstorm that knocked out all the electricity to the entire town. Rivers ran down the streets, lightening crashed around us and thunder seemed to rock the walls of the hostel. Now our hostel, whilst it was comfortable and homely, was not built to European standards. I reckon Tim’s new shed would have been better prepared for such weather. Water cascaded down the walls as the owners ran around sporadically holding buckets as the tin roof seemed set to cave in at any moment. Slightly unnerving. We stayed up for a few hours watching the storm before giving into our tiredness and falling asleep.
The next day we woke up to dazzling sunshine – a welcome relief! And so with bright eyes and bushy tails we headed out into town to book the long list of excursions we had planned for the day (bikes during the day and lunar valley in the evening). Unfortunately San Pedro reacts in a similar fashion to rain as we do to snow at home. The whole town pretty much shut down. Over night a major road out of the city had collapsed meaning every tour had been cancelled. We were therefore left with a day to explore the city and relax. Slightly annoying but a welcome rest!
We were also advised that a few tours would be running the next day and luckily, the tour we had our eye on from the beginning was one of them. Las Piedras Rojas Tour was a full day excursion that took you all round the surrounding areas showing you 3 Lagoons, countless volcanoes and the Chilean salt flat, a popular breeding ground for flamingos. We also started to consider getting to Uyuni, Bolivia via the famous three day tour. We read reviews and spoke to fellow backpackers who had done it – they all couldn’t speak highly enough of it. After a bit of consideration we booked both.
Afterwards we enjoyed a nice meal before sitting down to watch the sun set over the city.
We then headed back to the hostel and joined a few other backpackers for some drinks (it had been an expensive day – we needed them!) . This went on until midnightish, when I decided to hit the sack knowing that we were up at 6am the next day for our tour. Lauren on the other hand, filled with one too many piscolas (local booze – delicious!) headed out with a few girls we’d met in our hostel. She returned later and dragged me out of bed to look at the stars. Admittedly, at first, being fast asleep, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the offer but after seeing them it was definitely worth it. We’ve never seen stars like it. The Milky Way and every other constellation you can think of were all as clear as day. Incredible. It was then we realised why the area was home to numerous observatories and some of the largest space telescopes in the world. After a few minutes we both returned to the hostel a little star struck (sorry) and absolutely freezing (it’s 35’c during the day and -5’c at night).
That night Lauren came down with a sickness bug that had plagued our hostel. She was up all night going back and forth to the toilet and even spent a 2 hour stretch in there. I felt pretty helpless but all the same I offered words of comfort from my bed and also surrendered my blanket to keep her warm. Not all heroes wear capes.
The next day Lauren was still in a bad way and refused my offer to stay and look after her. I therefore topped up her water, made sure all her drugs/medicines were at arms length and set out on the tour a man down. For Lauren’s sake I won’t go into too much detail about the tour. I’ll just say being the only Brit, I initially felt pretty lonely.. Luckily this didn’t last long and it turned out to be a really fun group. Overall it was an amazing day but I’ll leave it to the pics to do the talking.
Our remaining time in Atacama was spent getting Lauren in a fit state to embark on the 3 day excursion to Bolivia. During this time I went on a night out with a few guys in our hostel (one of which had a girlfriend who had also come down with the same sickness bug) to the bar that Lauren had gone to a few nights previously. This ended with an after party in the middle of the desert. Good fun but sad to be a man down!
Overall, we didn’t have the best luck in the Atacama Desert. Whether it be torrential rain stopping our tours or nasty sickness bugs, everything always seemed to be against us here. But at the same time, that didn’t detract from the magic of this place. The snow capped volcanoes that pepper the horizon, the fluorescent flamingoes that fill the lakes, the vastness of the dry open desert or the rainbow colours of the gaping landscape. There’s always something that’ll leave you speechless here.
So how to sum up. The Atacama desert is a land of extremes. Extreme hot during the day, extreme cold at night, extreme beauty in the landscape and the stars and extreme danger in the number of surrounding active volcanoes. They say that in 20 years there’ll be a man on Mars and in 50 there’ll be tourists going. What I say – save your money and come here (although it’ll probably end up costing about as much if you do the tours).
Next stop… Uyuni, Bolivia (and the 3 day road trip)