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From Smog to Sand: Visiting Chile's Capital City and the Atacama Desert
March 7th 2014
I got the itch to visit Chile after going to Argentina in 2009. The middle region of South America is a perfect place for me to visit during March coming off of the summer season. One thing I love about visiting South America is that it is a virtual unknown to most Americans. It seems that most planes flying out of the States don’t get farther south than Jamaica. My original destination was to be Torres del Paine but while in the planning stages I opted to do that on another trip. I definitely prefer lush green landscapes with mountains, rivers, waterfalls, etc. but I thought I would try something different this trip by going to the driest place on Earth.
Being that we are in the middle of the semester I only had about 9 days for the trip. I ended up splitting my time between the Santiago area and San Pedro de Atacama in the north. Knowing what I know now I would have flown straight to Puerto Montt and then to Calama to connect to the Atacama. I wasn’t impressed with Santiago itself, but I’m not much for crowded cities anyway. The smog is ever-present over the city and quite evident if you head up to the San Cristobal lookout over the city. The one plus was that I got a great apartment for $65/night on Merced Street from ChileApart. I would highly recommend this place if you are going to Santiago. I had a newly designed room, with great security, cooking facilities, huge bed, and great service. Luis, who works at the desk, is incredibly helpful and made my stay much more pleasant. Also, if you are going to take in the attractions of downtown I can’t imagine a much better location.
I was able to take in most of the major sites of Santiago in a couple days – and mostly by walking. The subway is another option. It is pretty efficient but can be terribly crowded. I typically prefer to walk the neighborhoods if I have time. As I mentioned, San Cristobal offers a view over the city and it is on most lists for visits. The view is ok but what I remember most is the haze suspended above the city. I actually enjoyed walking up hill in the Santa Lucia park a bit more. While the viewpoint is at a much lower level it offers an interesting getaway in the middle of the city. To get up to the top you have to follow a winding pathway up a number of nooks and crannies before you are rewarded. Just one small piece of advice – avoid the granita sold on the first elevated level of the park – there are better options below to cool you off on a hot day. One such option is the Solarium de Rosa located at a corner of Merced near Santa Lucia. There you can get a number of flavors of ice cream including dulce de leche. I can’t put the ice cream here quite on the level of Italian gelato but it is still worthy of a visit.
I really enjoyed visiting Pablo Neruda’s house, La Chascona, in the Barrio Bellavista area. You really get a flavor for how Neruda lived when you visit his houses. The layout of the house is really amazing going from the “ship-like” quarters of the dining room to the living room with the great view over the neighborhood. The house is full of items that Neruda brought from his travels across the world. When you visit you get the backstory on how he had the house built to spend time with his lover Matilde. Overall, I think this was the most interesting and informative site that I visited in Santiago. The narration device that you are provided with gives a nice overview of Pablo’s daily life but also his relationship with his country and the political and cultural issues going on in Chile at that time. The Bellavista area also has a restaurant row that is very popular for dinner. I tried Ciudad Vieja and enjoyed their Olympus sandwich (it’s grande!) and found their popular lemonade infused with herbs to be an interesting drink.
Also in the downtown I took a walk through the Mercado Central to see the fish market, however I didn’t spend long there. I also did a walk by La Moneda, the Presidential Palace. The Barrio Brasil has some interesting graffiti lining the streets and I enjoyed checking that out. If you are looking for some exercise a good place to run (or walk) is in the park that runs through the middle of downtown along the main thoroughfare road Costanera.
I was also able to away for a day to Valparaiso via the bus system. If you attempt this I found it just as easy to walk for 20 minutes from the bus station in Valparaiso to the downtown/historic area than to figure out the bus system. You can jump on a city bus from the station to take you but the system isn’t very clear if you aren’t a local – I found this out on my way into the downtown. Also, I had incredibly bad luck and was inexplicably bumped from my bus going back to Santiago and had to wait for the last bus at night getting back after midnight (the trip is about an hour and a half). I wish I had had longer to explore the hills of Valparaiso but I did enjoy the time I had. I especially liked seeing a second of Neruda’s houses. This one, La Sebastiana, is significantly different from the one in Santiago but again an amazing and original design with an unrivaled view of the city and ocean in the distance. Jump on the O Bus at some point and it will drop you off at Ferrari Street (ask the driver) so that you can explore La Sebastiana. Also, if you want to enjoy some really tasty empanadas at an established local joint try out Empandas Famosa on Donoso Street at the bottom of the hills near the water. I especially recommend the version with cheese and shrimp (camaron queso).
My most enjoyable day while in Santiago was actually a two and a half hour trip outside of Santiago to the Juncal Glacier Park led by Andes Explora. Matias, one of the two owners of the company, will provide you with the much-needed fresh air escape from the city. The park was provided to Chile through private owners and is located near the Argentinian border. We did a 22km hike through a valley to the glacier and were the only ones on the trails. The views were magnificent and Matias was great at providing information and also a hefty bag of snacks. The day will cost you $170 (varies by number of people; we had 3) but that gets you the long drive and 4-wheel drive vehicle to get you to the trailhead. Andes Explora is currently the top rated listing on Trip Advisor for “things to do” under Santiago so you know that they provide consistently good tours.
The trip then took me to the north of Chile by plane to Calama and then to San Pedro de Atacama via van transfer. When you land in Calama and start taking in the landscape you might feel as if you have just arrived in Tatioone from the movie Star Wars. The dry desert sights are quite a stark contrast coming from the green North Carolina forests. The closest thing I can compare it to is northern Arizona and southern Utah. The roads and views are wide open with mountains and volcanoes in the distance. Pulling into San Pedro for the first time is also interesting – a thriving little one-level adobe village that is supported by the tourists coming in to see the desert sites. I felt fortunate to get a little room in Hostal Sonchek. I only paid 11,000 pesos per night (about $21 US) without an in-suite bathroom. The common bathrooms were cleaned constantly throughout the day, the location was excellent, and the owners and employees were very friendly and helpful. San Pedro itself serves the many visitors that pour into town. Therefore, as you walk up and down the few main streets the buildings just alternate between hostels/hotels, tour agencies, restaurants, and shops. Unfortunately, I found my favorite restaurant on my last night. I would highly recommend starting with Adobe on your trip. Instead I ate a couple times at Las Delicias de Carmen because it was right next to my hostel and also got decent reviews. However, I had Lomo a Lo Pobre one night there and then had Pollo a la Pobre my last night at Adobe and the difference was like night and day. I have pictures of the two meals and when you put them side-by-side I guarantee you would pick the one from Adobe. The quality of the food (and taste) was just much better. In addition, the bread and salsa that they brought out before the meal was also light years ahead.
I was able to do most of the popular tours with the exception of the Geyser tour. That one requires a departure time of 4am and is also very cold but apparently seeing the geysers at dawn is a pretty nice experience. My two favorite tours were to the Altiplano Lagoons with Andes Wide and to Tara with Grado 10. Sandra, the tour guide for the Altiplano trip, made the day as she was so willing to share her knowledge of the area in addition to helping out with products to buy and even getting us the best croissants on the way out of town. The Miniques Lagoon is almost mystical as it sparkles at its high altitude location with vicuna mulling around the area. And the Chaxa Lagoon is a good place to take in the flamingoes. Unfortunately, most of the flamingoes were at a distance when we were there but it was still a nice stop. Lunch (El Paso restaurant) was also good at the little village before the ascent to Miniques Lagoon as I had a tasty Peruvian chicken dish. We also saw a couple of the oldest churches in that region and it was fascinating to see how they would use cactus plants to make the ceilings and even the staircase for one church going up to the second level.
The trip to Tara was a great chance to get off road in the high altitude. This was the most expensive tour I took in San Pedro (approx. $90 US) and this is because you travel into the higher elevations in a Land Rover. Salar de Tara is located in a corner of northern Chile very near both the Argentinian and Bolivian borders within the Los Flamingos National Reserve. Cruising around the reserve is a lot of fun as there are really no roads. Over every crest you had to be on the lookout for a pack of vicuna or, in one case for us, two rheas (ostrich-like birds) trying desperately to hide from us. In this case they went down on the ground hiding their long necks and legs until we were very near them in the Land Rover at which time they jumped up and sprinted away at a very high speed. Tara also presents some great chances to see flamingoes, particularly of the James variety. We saw the Chilean and Andean flamingoes in Chaxa on the Lagoon tour. There were times I wish we could have stopped in the Land Rover to get out and snap a few closer shots of the flamingoes because my best photo opportunities got away from me. Overall, this tour and company was good with the exception of the ‘lunch’ that was provided – quite frankly it was awful (cheap melted cheese,
cheap lunchmeat that didn’t look appealing, etc.) so bring some snacks if you choose this company. The landforms and high altitudes sites and fauna make this trip very enjoyable.
The other two trips I did were pretty standard for visitors including the Valle de la Luna and the salt lagoons including Laguna Cejar, Ojos de Salar, and Laguna Tebinquinche. The Valle de la Luna is just outside of town and the tour provides you a few overlooks and then you climb this giant sand dune to watch the sunset. The view of the valley from on top of the dune looking down over the white, salt covered ground surrounded by rock formations and mountains is quite a sight and one not to be missed. The salt lagoons offer you a chance to jump in the water and float just as you would in the Dead Sea. The salt is so concentrated that it will be lightly caked on you after you emerge from the water. This tour then takes you to Tebinquinche to see your shadow stretch across the white surface of what looks like a lake but is actually salt. The sunset here also presents an amazing view.
If I were to go back to San Pedro I would like to go to the Valle del Acoiris to see the layers of colors on the rock formations along with the petroglyphs. I would also like to rent a car and travel about without the restraints of a tour schedule. However, pricing on cars was a little steep ($75 plus gas, and not sure about insurance) so if you have multiple people along that might make it a better deal.
A special thanks to three Chileans: Sofia who is now living in Chapel Hill and also to Val and Helen in Chile for their help along the way on my journey. I am already looking forward to my return trip to Chile. At that point I would like to fly in to Santiago and straight on to Puerto Montt. From there I would like to begin a journey going south into Patagonia.
So long for now Chile, see you again soon!