Because what more in life could you want?
Chile is well worth myriad blog posts, but because it is late and I am lazy, I will wrap it all into one. I guess though, our trip kinda mirrored this sentiment – we spent less than a week in Chile and managed to wrap all of the best bits into one incredible, whirlwind trip. Being the longest and narrowest country in the world, there’s naturally going to be several drastic changes in altitude and temperature, which means you’re basically visiting a bunch of different climates at once anyway.
Between the sprawling Santiago, the colourful Valparaiso, the mostly-drunk-while-visiting La Serena, and the otherworldly San Pedro de Atacama, we seem to have covered a lot of ground, too.
Also: If you’re thinking of visiting any other way than crossing the Andes from Argentina, think again. In Bolivia? Don’t care, drop down to Mendoza and go around. In Australia? Fly to Mendoza first.
After the rush that was the winding drive through snowcapped mountains and unforgiving terrain that dropping in over the Andes from Mendoza gave us, we were well-primed to get us a piece of Santiago. Crossing a border at 3,000m will do that to you.
From word of mouth on our travels, we’d basically been told that Chile’s capital was a smog-ridden hellhole we were not to spend very long in. However, we arrived to crisp mountain air and a pleasant, mountain-lined surrounding. Far from hellhole at the very least.
San Cristobal Hill should absolutely be one of the first sights you tackle here, not only to get your bearings (optimistic, you’re unlikely to get them anywhere to be honest), but also for a good puff of air in the lungs whilst conquering a fairly small hill for a decent view over the sprawling city. You’ll find a large statue of the Virgin Mary atop this hill, much akin to Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer. However, you won’t find the hordes of tourists up here; quite the opposite actually, it’s a peaceful sanctuary for reflection.
Your next highlight will probably be the food. Avocado exists in ample amounts in this country, which is good news for every hipster and health freak (and bandwagon jumper = us) that ever existed. Everything from hamburgers to hot dogs to pisco sours will have lashings of the green stuff. Santiago’s Central Market is a great place to get your fill of avocado and fresh fruit and vege.
A 90-minute bus ride from Santiago, which absolutely should not be traveled to on a public holiday because it will cost three times the price and twice the time, Valparaiso is widely-known as the preferred city to visit over the capital due to its amazing street art scene. However, on first impressions, we weren’t taken with the colouful city. Our hostel was basically backed onto a slum, and we’d yet to see a piece of art that wasn’t just blatant graffiti.
However, after a decent sleep and careful locking of the door at 8pm until 8am, we finally saw the city for what it really was; a rustic, artsy city with an underlying hipster vibe (the cultural hipster, not the narcissistic one).
First on the agenda was obviously a Free Walking Tour of the street art – a three hour wander through the streets of Valparaiso with a guide who aptly described every inking on every wall, and the meaning behind it. Tip generously.
To be honest, there’s not much else to do in Valparaiso. It is truly beautiful, but a couple of days is probably enough for a decent look around.
We’re not going to lie to you here, the only reason we went to La Serena was because its in the vicinity of a lot of pisco valleys, and because there’s actually a town named after the alcohol. Consider us sold.
La Serena is a small coastal town, which is essentially the gateway to pisco wonderland. We took some cheap accommodation here and used it as a jumping off point to get a local bus to Pisco Elqui, and to be honest the pitstop was worth it for the drive out there alone. Flanked by rugged mountains, the cliffs drops down quite severely into a valley where just about every edifice is covered in grape vines and pisco distilleries. The actual town of Pisco Elqui features a number of distilleries, where you can go in to sample some pisco, or take a load off in one of their terrace bars.
San Pedro de Atacama
It’s not often that you truly fall in love with a town (we say this, having just used the most cliche term any traveler uses to describe just about any town they’ve recently been), but San Pedro de Atacama was out of this world. Actually quite literally, because the whole time we were basically convinced we were on the moon.
The Atacama Desert is an unforgiving climate, as arid as they come, but also has the clearest night sky in the world. It is also the driest non-polar desert in the world. Whatever that means. It’s punctuated by four volcanos, dirt roads and valleys, and and endless array of things to do.
The town itself consists of little other than little shops, restaurants and tour agencies, meaning it’s effectively marketed at travellers, but it was a captivating place all the same. It’s also clear that the marketing works, because all caught up in our excitement we were, suddenly we’d parted with $200NZD and booked ourselves in for three tours and five days worth of activities. Oops.
Valle de Luna tour
This one kicks off in the evening, where you’ll hop in a van and be driven around some incredible sights – one of which would have been the sole point of the tour seemingly anywhere else in the world.
Coyote Rock, Valle de los muertes, another valley that probably sounded just as ominous… you’ll be out scampering around the rocks and desert like it’s the only chance you’re ever going to see such a climate (not us, we’re eying up Richard Branson for a spot on his ship. Just whenever he feels like sponsoring us… we’re sure he’s reading…). Eventually, you’ll scale a few sand dunes and perch yourself atop one for the sunset at Valle de la Luna. It’s a bit of a combination of Mendoza and Huacachina – sandy and dry, rugged and grainy all at once – but a truly charming introduction to the area at the very least.
El Tatio Geysers
Another of the ‘-est in the world’, here we found the highest elevation geyser field in the world, or one of them at the very least. Regardless, it requires a 4.20am alarm clock so for that, it had better be special.
After several hours in the back of a van, we’d reached the geyser field. However, from the confines of our heated vehicle we could quite clearly see a temperature gauge that informed everyone that in no uncertain terms, was anything outside warmer than minus 10 degrees. This meant breakfast – which was otherwise an entirely enjoyable spread of heated chocolate milk, biscuits, breads and plenty of coffee – was a weird game of ‘see how you can last next to the outdoor table’, before dashing mid-bite back into the van.
After the initial shock of the cold wears of, however, the geysers finally became worth a wander around. At 4,300m high and constantly spurting clouds, and surrounded by volcanoes, it was quite the sight to behold. We’re torn if we’d say it was worth the 4am wake up call and minus 10 degrees, however.
You stop into a traditional village and a cactus plantation on the way back, also.
Our next, and final tour, was over the Salar de Uyuni, but you can read about that here.