Unexpected Chile: from Santiago to the Atacama Desert
Since I started travelling, I’ve always been naturally attracted towards East. After living for two years in Australia (read about my experience downunder), where I also travelled extensively, every time I choose a new destination, I ended up in Asia.
You can then easily imagine that Chile was not on my to-visit list and I would have never expected to travel from Santiago to the Atacama Desert, until one of my best friends Elisa announced she was getting married to her Chilean boyfriend Ian in Santiago.
There we are, planning a trip to a destination we knew nothing about and never even considered for our travels.
We asked suggestions on the best places to visit in Chile to Ian’s family who still lives in Chile, whereas Elisa and himself have been living for years in Germany.
The suggestion we received from Ian’s sister was to go North, because the landscape is strikingly different to what we are used to in Europe.
That’s how we booked a week holiday before the wedding in the Atacama Desert.
It turned out to be the best choice as we found ourselves positively surprised. We also took few other days after the wedding to explore Casablanca valley, Valparaiso and the Andes beyond Santiago, taking back wonderful souvenirs of a Country that, unless we had had a wedding to attend, would have remained under the radar for us.
From Santiago to the Atacama Desert
We flew by the national airline LAN (today called LATAM) from Santiago to Calama, the world capital of copper, where a population of mainly mine workers live. We hired a car at the airport and drove for 100 kilometers through the desert towards San Pedro, a small village located on the Atacama Salt Flat at 2400m a.s.l.
There isn’t much in the village itself, but it is the ideal spot from where to explore the surroundings and here you can find all necessary services such as ATM, pharmacy, travel agencies to book tours in the Atacama Desert, and a good choice of bar and restaurants.
We stayed for 4 nights at a cheap and quiet guesthouse approx. 1 km from the village Hostal Candelaria, because we preferred to stay out of the buzz of the centre. Besides the tour to the geysers I had pre-booked via internet, we hadn’t planned anything else so we picked up some leaflets from the local info point and with the help of the Lonely Planet guide, we decided day-by-day where to go.
Things to do in Atacama Desert: Lagoons, flamingos and volcanos
Laguna Cejar, flamingos and floating on the lake
The only information about the Laguna Cejar we found where on a small leaflet we took at the info point so we thought it could have been an under-the-radar sight, exactly what we were looking for to start our tour of the Atacama Desert.
The landscape was simply spectacular boasting vivid turquoise water in contrast with the surrounding white of the salt crists and the pink flamingos.
There were only a bunch of visitors around (maybe because it was only 10am and the site had just opened :), so we first took a walk around the lagoon and only when we spotted showers and changing rooms we realized we were allowed to swim in the lake.
Due to the high concentration of salt, you can effortlessly float, apparently even better than in the more popular Dead Sea, as you can tell from Miles laying on his belly with feet and hands up 🙂
Mind to keep your eyes shut, don’t stay long in the water and rinse properly afterwards! The place is well equipped with changing cabins, toilets and showers.
There weren’t any bars nor restaurants around the area (otherwise it wouldn’t be a proper desert), so luckily we had brought some food with us as I tend to become pretty hysterical when I’m hungry! We took the habit each morning to buy some bread, cheese, avocado and tomatoes to prepare our sandwiches for lunch.
Toconao village, a oasis in the desert
Close to the Laguna, you can spot a sort of green oasis in the middle of the desert. We decided to stop and had a walk around the small village of Toconao, a very ancient settlement built with volcanic stone whose first inhabitants lived here in the 11000 BC. Today it counts no more than 700 people living on fruit growing, handicrafts and mining activity.
Miscanti and Miniques volcanoes and lagunas
We read about gorgeous landscapes dotted with volcanoes and lagoons, so we headed to the Miniques Volcano, a complex of peaks and craters towering on two lagoons separated by a lava flow: Laguna Miscanti and Miniques, located at 4100m a.s.l.
Luckily the road was good enough for our rental car as we didn’t opt for a 4×4, however you need to pay attention as the last part consists in a winding dirt road.
There was nobody at sight, that’s one of the advantages of travelling in Chile in November that is a shoulder season with few tourists.
The contrast between the dry landscape and the emerald lakes was absolutely stunning.
Mind you are at more than 4000 meters above sea level so you need to wear warm clothes and a wind jacket!
Things to do in Atacama Desert: El Tatio geyser
This was the only tour we had booked in advance since we rode it was a pretty popular destination. We booked our tour of El Tatio Geyser with the Lonely Planet-recommended tour company Cosmo Andino and had a smooth and enjoyable experience.
The steam of the geysers is better visible early morning because it gradually disappears once the sun comes out. This means you have to wake super early as the tour collects you at 4:30 in San Pedro in order to reach the site by 6 am! If you are car-sick be prepared as the road is pretty winding.
Luckily, I had read some reviews warning about the low temperatures because compared to the 35 °C we were used to during the day in San Pedro, El Tatio was unexpectedly freezing, being the biggest geothermal park in the world located at 4300m a.s.l.
The funny thing is that on the bus we took off our jackets and wool hats and were wondering why some of the other participants were dressed up to their nose. We got scared when, once we reached our destination, we saw the front rows adding a second layer of puffy jackets and extra pair of gloves. The temperature was actually ok (-9 °C when we got off the bus) as long as we walked around the 64 geysers and became even more bearable once the sun rose.
The only “mistake” was, in our opinion, to serve breakfast after the visit to the geysers and right before jumping into the hot pools where the 80 °C water coming from the geysers mixes with iced water. The real problem was that the hot pools were actually not that hot, being the water temperature around 24°C while outside it was still below zero.
Anyway, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to swim in the highest hot pools in the world so Miles jumped straight in while I was trying to get acquainted.
I later regretted this bravery as on the way down by bus I collapsed and woke up laying in the central aisle of the minibus with a Spanish guy holding up my feet 🙂
Everybody thought it was due to the altitude, but knowing myself well (and my stomach in particular) I was sure I had a congestion. Not a big deal as we were already on our way back to San Pedro, but we didn’t know there was an extra stop, a sort of surprise, along the way.
I felt not well enough so I decided to stay on the bus but insisted that Miles joined the group. Luckily he did, as Guatin turned out to be an incredible place, one of our highlights of the week!
Things to do in Atacama Desert: Salar de Atacama, Guatin and the Moon Valley
Atacama Salt Lake and the flamingos of Laguna de Chaxa
Laguna de Chaxa is located on the Eastern side of the Atacama Salt Lake that covers a surface of 320,000 hectares. The lagoon is divided into several lakes where you can walk on footpaths among salt crusts and spot flamingos (approximately 4000 specimens between Andean, Chilean and James flamingos have been recorded around the Atacama Salt Lake).
Guatin, a green oasis with giant cactus
I was very disappointed I had missed Guatin as Miles really enjoyed it, so he decided to drive me there the following day. Thanks to Miles’s excellent orientation skills we could find our way back there without following any road map. I still don’t know how we could find the entrance since it is not marked and there is only a small inlet where you can park your car but from where it is impossible to guess what is expecting you beyond that point.
Guatin is a gorgeous canyon run through by a fresh river lined with gigantic cactus, just like the ones you imagine when thinking of Arizona and the parks in North America (at least for me that I have never been to those places yet, this is how I imagine them to look like 🙂
A green oasis in the middle of the desert only 40 minute drive from San Pedro.
We came back to the hostel around noon, the temperature was hitting 38 °C with no breeze whatsoever, the streets were empty and everybody was taking a “siesta”, which is what we did as well after a light lunch.
Sunset colours over the Moon Valley
In the afternoon we went to watch the sunset over the Moon Valley, so called for the lunar landscape you can enjoy from one of the lookouts along the main road that connects San Pedro to Calama (only 10 minute drive from the village). There is also an entrance lower in the valley from where you can explore it on foot, though you can only get the real sense of it from above.
Opposite, on the other side of the road is the less popular but nonetheless spectacular Valle della Muerte.
Things to do in Atacama Desert: Archaeological ruins of Tulor
Before leaving San Pedro, we paid a quick visit to Tulor, the oldest sedentary archaeological site in Northern Chile, dating back to 800 BC.
The ruins clearly show the structure of the precolombine settlement that was characterized by a series of interconnected circular huts. You can also see a reproduction to better understand what it looked like before the climate change and sand dunes withered the settlement. The archaeological site is managed by the indigenous Coyo community.
From Santiago to Atacama Desert: the Casablanca biodynamic wines
If you are driving from Santiago to Atacama Desert, I suggest you to stop in the Casablanca Valley, popular for its white wines. We visited the Emiliana winery producer of biodynamic whites and reds.
What is a biodynamic wine?
It is a wine produced according to organic agriculture with no use of pesticides nor synthetic fertilizers and with the help of nature only, to secure a fully balanced and healthy product.
How this is turned into practice?
- Free range chickens are used to fertilize the vineyards, moving them from place to place with the support of cute wheeled wooden huts.
- Specific plants and herbs are planted among the vine lines to create the balanced ecosystem that can secure a healthy growth to the grapes.
- Finally, since in this area there is quite an important temperature excursion at night, they use hot air fans to keep a mild environment for the vines avoiding them to suffer from low temperatures.
The wines are excellent, we tasted them paired with some crackers and cheese, which every other participant envied us for as they all opted for a wine-only tasting 🙂
From Santiago to Atacama Desert: Valparaiso, (not) love at first sight
Another suggested stop on the way from Santiago to Atacama Desert is Valpo, as locals refer to it, an harbour city on the Pacific coast 120km north-west of Santiago.
The city experienced a wealthy period thanks to the naval commercial routes between Chile and North America making it the second biggest harbour in the Country. However, little is left of its grandeur due to the fast decline caused at the beginning of the 20th century by an earthquake first, and later by the opening of the Panama Canal, that changed the maritime routes. To preserve the historic buildings that characterizes the city centre and with the hope to enhance tourism, Unesco enlisted Valparaiso among its World Heritage sites.
We didn’t realize how big Valpo is until we arrived without any gps nor map and tried to look for our b&b. We drove up and down its cerros (hills) asking people on the street until we found the correct place (I would be still driving around if it was not for Miles’ exceptional orientation instinct).
We spent 2 nights at El Mirador, a well decorated b&b with a lovely view over the bay, as the name suggests. As we are used to do, we left our luggage and immediately head down to city centre, but found ourselves puzzled once we got there. Most of the Chileans we had spoken to, told us how beautiful Valpo is, but we had hard time to find anything “beautiful” in this city , that to us appeared to be just chaotic with most of its buildings falling apart.
Quite disappointed, we returned close to our b&b to have dinner with some empanadas (sort of meat pies considered one of the national dishes). After dinner we took a couple of blankets from our room and a cup of tea, sat on the little balcony of the guesthouse and looked at the shimmering lights of the harbour, wondering about what we were missing to understand this controversial city.
Luckily, we don’t get discouraged so easily and the following day, after we found a leaflet in the breakfast room advertising some free walking tour of the city, we decided to give it a try!
Tours 4 Tips is a company that offers free tours in Valparaiso (you can also find them in Santiago and Vina del Mar), asking for tips instead of a set price. You only need to show up at the meeting point, look for the guides dressed up like Wally and, at the end of the tour, leave a tip if you are happy with the tour.
I work in tourism and I know tour companies complain about this sort of “free” tours considering them to ruin the market, but I must admit they made our day!
In the end, I can tell they are getting the right amount of money for the value they offer as the tour was well planned, the guides were knowledgable and funny, we had a couple of “surprises” along the itinerary (which I won’t tell you just in case you want to join them), so everybody was happy and paid good tips!
Main thing was that they helped us to change our first impression of Valpo and by the end of the tour we loved the city!
Valparaiso highlights and curiosities
- Murales: one of the main attractions of the city is certainly its street art, boasting more than 200 murales and graffiti, that add up to the characteristic colorful houses. The main concentration of murales is in Cerro Alegre, Cerro Concepciòn and Cerro Bellavista.
- Elevators: since the city is built over 42 cerros (“hills” in Spanish), Valpo is also the city of the elevators (or better to say funiculars), some of which historic as the Ascensor Concepciòn, dating back to the end of the 1800s.
- Urban mtb downhill race: did you know that the steep lanes of Valparaiso are the setting of one of the craziest urban downhill ever? Watch the video of the Red Bull Cerro Abajo
- Neruda’s house museum: Pablo Neruda was a Chilean poet of the beginning 1900s. Though he was not originally from Valparaiso, he bought a house called La Sebastiana located on the Cerro Florida, that today has been turned into a Museum open to visitors.
- Alfajores: I had tried alfajores (chocolate-dipped caramel cookies) before because every time Ian came to see my friend Elisa used to bring us some. But the artisan ones we had in Valpo were absolutely mouthwatering. I couldn’t tell how to find the doorway of this little shop hidden along one of the many narrow lanes of the city as we stopped here on our 3 hour walking tour with Tours 4 Tips, so if you want to taste them (and also discover all about Valpo history, economy, graffiti and more) just book one of their free tour of Valparaiso 😉
Things to do in Santiago: “spring” hike at El Morado Monument, glacier & hot pools
Being hiking enthusiasts travelling in Chile, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to spend at least one day in the Andes. We then booked a hiking tour to the El Morado monument, located in the Andes Mountains of the Maipo Valley, approx. 100 km from Santiago, with an ecotourism company called Eco Chile (no link since I wouldn’t recommend them).
Our guide Joaquin picked us up by 4×4 in the city centre where we were hosted by Tami, one of Ian’s sisters. We had a slow start as we headed to the other side of Santiago to collect another participant but unfortunately being 8:00am was a total disaster as the city is super hectic at that time so we spent more than one hour stuck in the traffic. In the meantime, I started to feel a light tachycardia due to the mate de coca I had for breakfast (the local remedy against altitude sickness), so Miles and I started to laugh about the crazy situation.
We reached our destination (and even further by car because it was getting late), after a stop at the petrol station, one at the cashmachine since our guide needed to withdraw money and one at a local shop along the way where we got our lunch from. We were starting to get annoyed, but hey, we were on holiday, so we decided to just sit back and relax along the drive (nonetheless, once I returned home, I wrote a bad review onTripadvisor as I found the guide not really professional, and not very knowledgeable either).
Once we got there, we had another bad surprise! In fact, November is shoulder season that corresponds to the European spring time. This means that normally the snow should have already melted and the landscape boasting a lake surrounded by green meadows as featured in the tour company brochures. Well, this is what we found:
Not only the snow was still abundant and the lake completely iced, but we walked immersed in a light snow storm with strong wind (that’s why we are wearing those ridiculous Blues Brothers’ sunglasses).
We were not exactly equipped for this sort of weather but luckily we had brought some warm clothes and wind jacket so we managed to reach the glacier at 2500m a.s.l. , where we ate quickly our boxed lunch, before walking back to the car. The hike was not very long, around 3 hours, but we understood it was not the usual itinerary since the guide decided to adapt it due to the time and weather.
Next we stopped at the Termas Valle de Colinas where we could warm up while watching condors flying over our heads. In fact, contrary to El Tatio hot pools, the water here was comfortably hot (there are 7 open-air pools ranging from 35 to 55 °C), coming directly from the Volcano San José. It is accessible to visitors 24h and it is possible also to camp (entry fee includes hot pools, camping permit and parking slot). There are basic services onsite (toilets and changing rooms). Mind it is supposedly pretty popular among the locals, though when we visited there was nobody around 🙂
International wedding in Santiago
I met Elisa at University in Milan but our friendship definetely bonded during our experience abroad in Dublin. Few months earlier Elisa had met Ian in Germany during their Erasmus semester. It was just the beginning of the sweetest love story I am lucky to have witnessed. Despite the first doubts of her family for a foreign guy they knew nothing about, their relationship managed to defeat time and distance taking them to Germany again, where they still live today.
When they told us they were getting married at Ian’s house in Chile, though this Country was not on our list of travel destinations, we immediately booked our flight tickets.
Chile surprised us with its unexpected landscapes of which we treasure fantastic memories.
Being there to celebrate the wedding of our closest friends in such a special place together with international friends and family was a true gift of life that made this trip to Chile even more special.