27.08.2013 - 06.09.2013 22 °C
La Serena and the Elqui Valley (27th August - 29th August)
Spent a very relaxing couple of days in La Serena and the Elqui Valley. La Serena had a very laid back atmosphere, and loads of really nice churches and old buildings to look at. Spent a morning wandering around the town centre, then headed down to the beach in the afternoon. The beach was nothing special but we had a little walk along the promenade. Next day we took a bus to Vicuña, the town at one end of the Elqui Valley, an area famed for it's Pisco (Chilean brandy) production. We took a walk up the nearby Cerro de la Virgin for great views over the town and valley full of vineyards, surrounded by steep desert hills covered in cacti. Also visited the Capel distillery for our first proper taste of Pisco and a tour of the production process. It was interesting to see the production process, but the tour was in Spanish so I didn't understand much and Duncan's brief translations left a lot to be desired! Our first taste of Pisco was not great, we both quickly realised that straight brandy was a little too strong for us, but the Pisco sour cocktail (the classic way to drink Pisco with lime juice and some sugar) was much better. We spent the evening in Vicuña at the Mamalluca observatory gazing at the stars...yes this does sound a little geeky, but it was pretty amazing. We had a perfectly clear night and got to see the rings and moons of Saturn, different coloured stars, and far off galaxies through a 300x reflector telescope, pretty cool! Next day we travelled farther into the Pisco Valley, taking the bus up to the small picturesque village of Pisco Elqui, and then hitch-hiking even further up the valley to another, smaller, distillery, Los Nichos, and the village of Horcon to visit a handicraft market, which turned out to be mostly shut. The valley was very pretty and after a delicious lunch back in Pisco Elqui we enjoyed a wander back down the valley for a couple of kilometers to the next village before hopping on the bus back to Vicuña to pick up our bags before heading further north to Calama on an overnight bus.
Calama - Chuquicamata Copper Mine (30th August)
Arrived in Calama at lunchtime after an exhausting 15 hour bus journey, and headed straight on to our Chuquicamata Mine tour. This is the largest copper mine in the world, and a major source of Chile's wealth. The tour started with a tour of the now deserted town of Chuquicamata, which was evacuated only 6 years ago due to it's close proximity to the mine and associated environmental risks. It was a complete ghost town, and felt like it had been empty for far longer, especially as all of the buildings were from the 60's and hadn't been updated since. Next up we headed into the mine itself, and were intially amazed by the size of the trucks and machinery used there...this was put into perspective when we reached the mine and the trucks looked like miniture toys compared to the size of the hole in the ground! The tour ended with a drive aorund the processing plants, which was not so interesting as we were not allowed to go inside and the explanations of the process was not very clear, but for a free tour it was pretty cool!
Headed back to the bus station immediately after the tour and on into the desert to San Pedro de Atacama.
Atacama Desert (31st August - 3rd September)
The Atacama desert is probably the most impressive and memorable part of our travels in Chile. It has the most different scenery to anything we have seen before on this trip, and we had some really good tours and cycling trips there. San Pedro made a good base for exploring the desert, but was a town catering purely for tourists, so althought the whitewashed buildings were quaint, they only really contained a string of expensive restaurants, souvenir shops and tour operators.
The desert was fantastic, we went on two organised tours, one to the Valle de Luna (Valley of the Moon) just outside San Pedro, and one to El Tatio Geysers, high up in the Andes near the Bolivian border. The Valle de Luna was amazing, with a mixture of salt rock caves, huge sand-dunes, cool rock formations, and a huge crater whose surface looked similar to the face of the moon (hence the name), and is used by NASA for testing out space buggies destined to land on the moon and Mars! This tour ended with a beautiful sunset watching the Andes mountains change colour as the sun went down.
The El Tatio geysers tour did not start so well, waiting outside the hostel at 4am for the bus to pick us up, and then a freezing 2 hour bus journey to the Geysers with ice forming on the windows! We arrived at the geysers at dawn, just as they started to let off steam and start bubbling. The first hour was bitterly cold, and I was pretty miserable with painful hands and toes. We couldn't even walk around fast to warm up as the geysers were at 4300m, at which altitude we got breathless if we walked more than at a snails pace. Finally the sun came over the hills, making the geysers even more active as the warmth melted the ice allowing water to flow over the hot rocks, and warming me up enough to enjoy the tour! After exploring the geyser field we were taken to some 'hot pools' for a swim, a great chance for me to warm up..or not as it turned out, 'hot' meant about 17 degrees, not really warm enough to spend more than a few minutes in there. Duncan also managed to drop my camera in the pools (whilst taking photos of some other girl in a bikini I might add!), so not a great end to the tour. Having said that, it was defintely worth the early start and the cold etc as the geysers were pretty impressive.
Our other two days in the desert we hired bikes to visit some of the outlying sites on our own. One day we did a long, but thankfully very flat, bike ride to the Cejar Lagoon and another lagoon (whose name we don't know) further along the road. The lagoons were beautiful, clear blue with the mountains reflecting from the background and even some flamingoes hanging out there. Though about having a swim at Cejar to cool off after the hot desert cycle, but the high salt levels made this less appealing (I didn't fancy the cycle back covered in a crusty layer of salt), and I settled for paddling instead. Our other cycle ride took us North of San Pedro into a river valley and along a canyon. The valley was pretty, with little villages and a chapel along the way, but the route was not really designed for cyclists as the road was quite rocky or sandy at parts and we had to wade across a fast flowing river several times. The route back through the canyon was cool, with the rock faces towering above us either side, but again not really a cycle path, with lots of rocks we had to lift the bikes over. Still a good day out though, and we rewarded all our efforts with a huge, delicious portion of chicken and chips when we got back to San Pedro!
Iquique and Arica (4th September - 6th September)
Spent our last few days in Chile in the Northern cities of Iquique and Arica. Both are popular beach resorts with Chileans, but didn't hold much to keep us entertained for long. Had a good day trip out of Iquique to visit the old nitrate town Humberstone out in the desert, another ghost town, similar to Chuquicamata but much older. Humberstone was abandoned in the 60's when the Chilean nitrate boom ended, and it hasn't changed since. The town had an eerie feel to it, which was increased by the fact that there were hardly any tourists there and we were often wandering around the abandoned streets and factories on our own. You would never find something quite like this at home, we were free to roam the site, with no health and safety warnings, despite all the industrial machinery still lying around, and the roofs and floors of some of the houses collapsing!
We are now in Peru having headed North across the border from Arica, more on this to come....