Category: Chile

Bye bye – San Pedro and Chile

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The wonderful Ludopatas de la Seduccion (Gamblers of Seduction) playing in San Pedro de Atacama’s town square

Today we crossed the Andes into North West Argentina.

It’s sad to leave Chile. We’ve had such a special time here and can thoroughly recommend it as a holiday destination. There are outstanding sites to visit, the people are genuinely friendly and you feel so safe. What is there not to like?

Likewise, San Pedro de Atacama has been a great base for the past five days. We will miss the little shop that sold amazing avocados, the bands in the main square, the full moon over the desert and our charming hostel where we spent very lazy afternoons.

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San Pedro de Atacama is back-packers’ world in miniature; agencies, bars and bike-hire outlets
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Hilary at Pukara de Quitor – a crumbling 12th century fortress – with San Pedro in the distance.
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On our bikes in the gorge

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For £15 we hired a couple of mountain bikes and headed out of San Pedro. Taking the road northwest into Quebrada del Diablo (Devil’s Gorge), we were on our own in what the Lonely Planet guide calls “a serpentine single track that mountain bikers dream of”.

The gorge was a joy to explore with overhangs, high peaks and very narrow gaps.

We were out for about four hours – and on the way back had cute Llamas for company.

Geyser del Tatio

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El Tatio is the world’s highest altitude geyser field and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Its geysers erupt to a height of around 1m with the highest eruption being around 6m.

We got up at 4am to join the tour, which arrived at the site just before dawn. At high altitude it was literally freezing. Thank goodness the sun soon came up.

Our guide told us all about fatalities due to the high water temperatures. Apparently one lady fell in a geyser not so long ago and was boiled alive.

And we have more geysers to look forward to. The largest geyser field in the world is Yellowstone National Park; we plan to be there mid May.

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Hilary’s purple bobble hat is keeping her warm but also drawing comments. What do you think? Wacky or fashionable?

To the Lagunas Altiplanicas

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Menique Lagoon at 4300m altitude close to the Argentinian border. Behind is Menique Volcano, as high as Kilimanjaro

115 km south east of San Pedro de Atacama are the two high altitude lagoons of Miscanti and Menique. The perfect end destination of today’s organised tour.

The lakes were formed less than a 1000 years ago when an eruption of Menique Volcano blocked the streams that used to run freely down from the Andes.

The silence is total and we’ve never been surrounded by so many volcanoes. A unique experience.

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On the way we stopped at Chaka Lagoon with its crystallised salt formations
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Miscanti – the larger of the two Lagoons –  in front of the active volcano of the same name

In the Atacama Desert

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This evening we took a short mini-bus trip into the Valley of the Moon and Death Valley; a landscape of salt and clay shaped by water and wind over millions of years. The beauty defies superlatives.

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Although one of the driest places on earth, it had rained recently and it was rare to see this view in Death Valley

Baquedano Street

For the past five nights we’ve been staying at hostels along Iquique’s historic main street. It’s now pedestrianised; the sort of place where you feel instantly at home.

Dating from 1880-1920, the American Georgian-style buildings built by the wealthy owners of the Nitrate factories are made of imported Oregon pine wood. A long way to ship it but there are certainly no trees here.

To one side of the street there’s an attractive boardwalk; today perfect for skateboarders. Unfortunately, whilst we have been here, the tram hasn’t been working.

Last night, in one of the street’s many cafes, Roger had his first ever Pisco Sour.

The “Tuna” music tradition

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Last night we were introduced to traditional Spanish Tuna singing; with groups from Peru, Bolivia and Chile taking part in the 32nd festival in Iquique’s main square.

Originally Tuna groups were penniless 13th century Spanish students out to gain a few pesos or court some pretty Spanish signorita. Today it’s all about keeping the tradition alive, and the evening had a similar feel to a gathering of English Morris Dancers out for a beer, a sense of comradeship and fun.

Main instruments accompanying the singers on stage were bandurrinas, lutes, guitars and tambourines. And we are glad to say we saw one female group performing.

Ghost towns of the Atacama

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The factory complex at Santa Laura – its production period was from 1916 to 1960

A short bus ride from Iquique are two UNESCO world heritage ghost towns – the Nitrate factories of Humberstone and Santa Laura. We had the eerily preserved schools, theatres, workshops, swimming pools, power rooms etc etc pretty well all to ourselves.

In the first half of the 20th century ‘Chilean Nitrate’ was the in-demand fertiliser for crops all around the world. But then air sourced Nitrates came along and these plants in the desert couldn’t compete any more; both closed in 1960.

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At Humberstone – named after it’s English founder – the workers lived in segregated housing separate from the managers
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The Humberstone factory complex viewed from the waste hill

As examples of our ability to create working communities in the most extreme environments, its great to see these sites listed, but UNESCO views their status as still endangered.

Up north in Iquique

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It’s Cavancha Beach and uniquely duty-free shopping that brings the tourists to Iquique. February is the peak holiday time here

It took us 36 hours to go by plane and then bus from the south to the north of Chile. It was not without drama – the bus broke down in the night and we were all stranded in the middle of nowhere until a replacement bus could be called out.

The fun, touristy town of Iquique is our base for the next few days. After hours of the empty Atacaman desert it’s frankly amazing to find here a booming city of over 1/4m people.

Temperatures have rocketed up, shorts have replaced our hiking clothes, and for the first time in Chile/Argentina we took a siesta.

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This full-scale replica of the Esmeralda tells the story of Captain Arturo Prat’s 1879 death in the ‘War of the Pacific’. Despite sinking, it’s the Chilean equivalent of HMS Victory
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We sat down for an hour to watch the sun set over the Pacific – beaches that face west are always the best