Chile – a land of contrasts.
Chile – Seems like a strange place for a vacation. However, Chile is a misunderstood country by most North Americans. A long slender slice hanging off the western edge of the Andes against the Pacific, isn’t the first place most people have in mind for a vacation. Chile is more than this description. A small island in the Pacific, with enigmatic stone heads is also part of Chile – Easter Island. This isolated island had long been on Peter’s bucket list, and therefore any trip to Chile had to include Easter Island. Patagonia at the bottom of the slender slide was on Marg’s bucket list. However, doing both in April seemed a bit of a stretch, especially as Patagonia would be in the early stages of Fall and likely not very accessible.
Chile’s wine country centered around the capital Santiago, and therefore would also be included in any trip we took there. A quick search of various websites and guidebooks revealed that one of the most visited sections of Chile was the Atacama Desert and the area around San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile, near Bolivia.
It was settled, we would visit the Atacama Desert, Easter Island and Santiago and its environs. These three places were completely different, the world’s driest desert, the most isolated inhabited island, and one of the most modern metropolises in Latin America with 6 million people, surrounded by mountains and vineyards.
The Mercator projection of maps distorts the reality of flying north to south. Chile was a long way south. The main international gateway of Santiago was half way down the country. Our journey from Vancouver, via Dallas and Santiago, backtracking to Calama, and then by bus to San Pedro took 24 hours door to door. This was a long as travelling to Bali with much less jetlag.
The Andes are never far from your consciousness when travelling in Chile. The world’s longest mountain range is always in view no matter where you are on the mainland of Chile. We first saw the Andes at sunrise on our way to Santiago, and then hugged them as we retraced our steps North to Calama, gateway to the Atacama.
The Atacama Desert, is home to the mineral wealth of Chile, and the main economic driver for Chile with its abundance of copper and lithium, the mining of both visible from the air. Calama airport has a frontier feel, with a relatively new terminal and runway laid down at the edge of the desert. The flight from Santiago mainly full of men – miners, executives, and astronomers heading to seek fortune or fame in the desert. The newest radio telescope, ALMA, was to be opened while we were visiting and was reputed to offer the best signal gathering capabilities of any radio array on Earth.
I had a false impression about English fluency in Chile based on planning for the trip. The hotels and tours that we booked were all done by email with people who were fluent in English. All deposits were done by electronic banking or PayPal, and led us to believe that a lot of English was spoken. However, outside of the hotel and tour agency that we went with, this was not true. Nevertheless, we got by with sign language, basic Spanish and a sense of adventure.
One of our favorite restaurants in San Pedro, Baltinache, was a mix of indigenous and Spanish food. The menu of the day was a reasonable $14 for a three course meal. While we could understand most of the words on the handwritten menu, some of them stumped us. The owner, trying to explain what one of the meats was, put his hands up next to his ears and said in broken English, “Bambi”. Ah got it – venison! Other people, like the woman at the airport desk for the bus company, barked at us in Spanish, that we had to pay $40 for the return trip, and then we were to go out side turn right and head to Line E. This took about 10 seconds to register with me, as I tired to retrieve my high school Spanish and decode the words that I understood. However, we managed to get by, and never ate anything that was too strange or got ripped off when purchasing anything.
San Pedro, despite being an oasis in the middle of the Salt Flat, was small enough that it was not protected from the wind that blew the desert sand and dust into the town. We couldn’t keep our clothes free of dust for more than a few minutes, and finally gave up trying. Everyone else was in the same position as us, so we did not look out of place.
The main sights to see were all out of the town, in the desert and surrounding mountains or badlands. Some had ominous sounding names, such as Valley of Death and Valley of the Moon, while others were more benign, like Miniques Lake and Flamingo Lake. Millions of years of basically dry climate with the occasional flash flood, had carved canyons, left large flat sheets of white salt deposits, and created aquifer fed lakes next to towering volcanoes, sitting under a mainly cloudless sky. A diverse natural environment had emerged, including different types of desert flora, flamingo colonies, shrimps in the lakes and a settlement of Atacamenos people following the last ice age.
Well organized tours left at dawn from San Pedro to tour the salt flat lakes, the nearby volcanoes, the Valley of Death, Valley of the Moon, before ending at the plateau overlooking the town and nearby Andean range for the ritual of photographing the setting sun. The high desert climate ensured a wide range of temperatures from single digits in the morning to the mid 20s in the afternoon, with periods of strong wind and of course the sun was out in full force all day with hardly a cloud in sight. For the more adventurous, sand boarding down the dunes of the Valley of Death or mountain biking in the canyons of the Valley of the Moon offered a departure from the standard tourist buses. We chose a tour that spent more time walking in the various landscapes, so that we could enjoy being in the environment longer than most other tourists.
Unlike Peru where a lot of indigenous people were employed in the tourist industry, San Pedro’s tour companies seemed to be staffed by Chileans of mixed race or white. Alex, our tour guide, indicated that the southerners had a better work ethic and understood foreign tourist demands better.
One of the most pleasant surprises was the quality of the food. Even in the desert, we ate very well – too well, and enjoyed, empanadas, ceviche, salads, chicken dishes and corn pies. This was washed down with Pisco Sours, Patagonian beer, or Chilean wine. We also indulged in a daily ice cream, which included some local flavours made from rica rica, a native bush which ahs a minty flavor with a bit of anise mixed in.
San Pedro is a stop on the backpacker circuit of South America. The town had an interesting mix of foreign and Chilean backpackers who were hanging out, sand boarding, checking out some of the nearby landscapes, and generally passing through on their way to and from Bolivia. There were also some high end resorts nearby which catered to the destination spa tourists, and was probably 20 years behind Palm Springs in developing this sort of tourism. Unlike most touristy towns, this one had a range of high end outdoor gear shops, and tour operators, interspersed with restaurants, bars, convenience stores and pharmacies. Peter needed something for his sunburnt skin and went in search of Aloe Vera. The pharmacy did not have any, but suggested the natural pharmacy down the street which specialized in more natural products. This place had a range of natural goods, including aloe vera from Argentina, which proved to work very well in alleviating the sun/wind burn.
However, it wasn’t all tour companies, restaurants and bars. There was a diversity of cultural sights that included the Archeological museum of the land and people of the area, documenting the geographical formation of the desert more than 120 million years ago, and its settlement first by the Amerindians (Atacamenos) and then the Europeans later on. The artifacts had been collected by a Belgian Jesuit priest, Fr Gustavo Le Paige starting in 1955, and later expanded to its present site in the 1990s.
The dry climate and lack of rivers to erode the rocks resulted in many meteorites that fell in the area remaining in tact. 70 of them have been preserved and are exhibited at a dome tent style of museum.
The Atacama is also known for its clear dry nights, and amazing starscapes. Some enterprising astronomers offer tours of the night sky most nights, and the night we went was no exception. The moonless night allowed us to see about three magnitudes of stars dimmer than what we could see in Vancouver. This resulted in constellations such as Orion being crowded with other stars that we don’t normally see. The Milky Way and Southern Cross were also distinctly visible above us.
There were 10 telescopes set up to view Saturn, the Orion nebula, the Sombrero Nebula, a Globular Cluster, Alpha Centauri and Sirius. The conditions are so stable that they can view planets in the daytime!
San Pedro was definitely an interesting mix of desert landscape, indigenous culture, excellent food, and lots of sun, for us wet coasters.