June 2-3, 2019 Southern Chile
It’s hard to sum up a journey through South America in a few words, especially since it’s such a vast continent with so much diversity in landscape and culture.
My travels began in Santiago, Chile. I left my home in the Bay Area on June 1st. Seemed like a good time to start my journey. The semester ended late May and it gave me some time to prep for my trip.
Santiago itself is not that grand of a city. You will hear from lots of people “it’s no Buenos Aires”. I agree. However one should not discount what it has to offer. Some of the world’s best wine and the Bellas Artes neighborhood has some great bistros and cafes. Two days exploring this was sufficient. I lie. Only one day – the other day I took a trip to Valparaiso and Viña del Mar. These are not to be missed! Especially Valparaiso with it’s colorful houses perched on the hills overlooking the pacific.
June 4-7, 2019 Atacama Desert, Northern Chile
On June 4th I caught an early morning flight to the Atacama Desert from Santiago. I flew into a town called Calama. I was able to take a shuttle bus to the town of San Pedro de Atacama almost immediately. Boy, was it cold at around 8am when I caught the bus. I was joined by a group of six Brazilians and they seemed like they were freezing to death – obviously they are used to some nice weather in Brazil and this cold was very alien to them. It was pretty awesome to see Guanacos by the side of the road. The last time I had seen these animals was in 2002 on Cerro Aconcagua. I settled into my hotel, Hostal Desert, nicely as they allowed me to check-in as early as 10am! After a bit of rest and a shower I was able to get some lunch in town and got ready for the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna). It’s a pretty standard tour, but this is not to be missed. Walking along sand dunes and by rock formations that seem like they are on the Moon is a pretty surreal experience. Sunset was pretty amazing as well.
My second day in the Atacama I decided to sleep in a bit. Later, I fried my own eggs in the kitchen and had a nice breakfast while I chatted with Jasmin the housekeeper – she was a young lady from Bolivia and had moved to San Pedro with her father who is retired. She makes a good living and is able to support the two of them. They had moved here to Chile after her mother had passed away and she was able to legalize her status here in Chile. After breakfast I donned my bike clothes and tried to rent a bike. At about 11am I was equipped with a decent mountain bike, a lock, a pump and a spare tube…and a yellow vest that I was reluctant to wear, but the shopkeeper insisted I wear it as I would apparently be stopped by Carabinieri if I didn’t. First stop was Pukara de Quitor only 20 minutes north of town. I locked my bike and walked up the hill to the viewpoint for magnificent views all around. There were some ancient ruins in the form of terraces that were interesting.
It was a hot day – I was in the desert – it was expected. I carried on down the Quebrada (Gorge) towards La Garganta del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat).
I actually overshot it and ended up at a little white chapel. It was so out of place in this desert landscape, that to me it was a beautiful piece of art. I was glad to have made the extra trek out here to see it.
On the way back I made sure I turned left into the Garganta del Diablo.
And now began the fun! It was an incredible ride through this cavernous labyrinth full of twists and turns. The gorge narrowed to single track proportions in places and I relished the shade provided by the towering walls on either side. There were some drop offs and rocks to climb up and over every now and then. It seemed never ending! As in “The Blair Witch Project” – I wasn’t sure if I was lost, as sometimes the turns would look the same. But at some point I exited the canyon and dropped the bike and hiked the last bit up to the top. I was rewarded with great views of Volcan Licancabur.
Day three in the Atacama would be different. I got talked into waking up at 4am to see the Tatio Geysers at sunrise. I was not looking forward to getting up at this hour, but the geysers did not disappoint. It was one of the most out of this world landscapes that I have ever seen. Normally you stare into a vast expanse and go “Wow!”. But this was different. The earth was alive and in motion. Fumaroles spewing magical mist. With the backdrop of the sun rising, this was other worldly. Another gem in the Atacama. Do not miss this. One thing I have to warn you about is the cold. Do not underestimate how cold it gets. You are at an altitude of above 14,000 ft and the temperature was as low as -8 degrees Celcius (about 18 degrees Fahrenheit). Bring every layer of clothing you have!
Day four in the Atacama, I decided to take a tour of the Altiplano Lagunas (High altitude lakes) – Laguna Minique and Laguna Miscanti. It was well worth the trip as the drive was one of the most scenic drives there is in the region. On the way to these lakes we stopped at Laguna Chaxa – rife with Flamigos .
And we even got to cross the Tropic of Capricorn.
I got to see a lot of wildlife on this trip – flamingos, foxes, loads of vicuñas and other birds.
The lakes themselves were at the base of a couple of volcanos giving them some unique hues.
It’s always nice when you meet like-minded travelers and on this trip I met Natalia and Cristhian, a lovely couple from Santiago.
I was back in town by mid-day and there was one more thing I wanted to do – see the stars and the planets! Astronomy tours are a big thing here in the desert and on a clear day one can see a lot. I was in luck – Jupiter would be shining bright today. I signed up with “Una Noche Con Las Estrellas” (A Night With the Stars) and the company did not disappoint. We were taken to their own little lodge on the outskirts of town. We were given blankets to stay warm and fed wine, hot chocolate, cheese and snacks. We sat in lawn chairs as our guide used a laser pointer to show us the magnificent Milky Way and more. I am now an expert at spotting the Southern Cross! They had about seven or eight telescopes and I got to see Jupiter super clearly! And Saturn and it’s rings. And more…it was such an unforgettable night.