A Travellerspoint blog

Northern Chile

sunny 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.

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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.

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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!

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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....

Posted by duncan-alice 12:34 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

South Chile

sunny 10 °C

Pucon (18th August - 22nd August)

Pucon is one of the more touristy towns in the Chilean Lakes District. It is situated on the banks of Lake Villarica with the Villarica volcano looming over the town. Given it was such a beautiful day when we got off our nightbus we decided to walk to a waterfall in the afternoon however for the first time I can remember on our trip we got lost and never made it there having walked out of town the wrong side - it had to happen eventually!!

The next day it was 2 for the price of 1 for skiing on the volcano so we deceided to take advantage of that offer. The snow was perfect but the weather was miserable and at points we could hardly see 5m in front of us. Moreover it was bitterly cold to the point that Alice gave up skiing at one point to try and warm up. Due to a lack of public transport, we had our first hitchhiking experience getting back to town. Two Chilean brothers picked us up within 5 minutes and thankfully my Spanish was good enough that we could have a bit of a conversation - they even dropped us off directly outside the hire shop even though it was out their way!

The next day we took a bus to the Huerquehue national park and did a short walk into the mountains to see the 3 lakes. It was a beautiful scenery and as it had snowed overnight we were walking on a thin layer of snow which was also covering the trees. This made navigation difficult at times as we were the first people up there and snow covered the paths. We also got to see some monkey puzzle trees which I had never seen before.

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While we were in Pucon we were keen to climb the volcano (2850m above sea level) but the weather wasn't good enough for the first three days so instead we went for a walk to see some waterfalls and other lakes.

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Finally, on our 4th day the weather was judged good enough to attempt the volcano. The guide came to brief us the night before and picked us up at 0630 the next day. He provided all the equipment and we went to the bottom of the ski field to start our ascent. The first hour was relatively easy as we walked up the side of the ski piste. At the top of the ski piste it then became slightly harder as the wind picked up and made it more challenging. The wind was blowing all the fresh snow across us so we were walking on almost ice - despite this the guide didn't think we needed crampons! Eventually after we asked him 3 or 4 times for crampons he stopped us where we were (on a steep ridge with drops either side) and got us to put them on. To say the least, our guide didn't fill us with much confidence. It got easier with crampons and we climbed to the top of the chairlift for a break. The wind had picked up and blown all the fresh snow away so we would be walking on pure ice - at this point the guide said we had to go back as it wasn't safe. Although we were both bitterly disappointed to have to turn back the guide didn't fill us with confidence and the other people in our group weren't the fittest / most adventurous of people. On the way down we slid on our bum as much as we could which was great fun. Given we now had the afternoon free we eventually made it to the 85m waterfall we missed on the first day. On the way back we hitchhiked in the most unroadworthy car I have ever been in - the windscreen had about 80 cracks, no number plates, exhaust hanging off etc etc but we made it back to town safely and it saved us an hour walk!

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Puerto Varas (23rd August - 25th August)

In the morning we took a 6 hour bus to Puerto Varas, further south into Chile but not quite Patagonia. In the afternoon we explored the town, situated on a lake again with a view of two volcanoes on the other side - very picturesque.

The next day we took a bus to a national park and did a walk along the side of the Osorno volcano. It was very pretty. On the way back we stopped at some impressive waterfalls before getting a bus back to town.

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As it was marathon day in town on the Sunday we hired bikes and did a 64km cycle ride to the small town of Frutillar. The track started off beside an old railway track and was not fun as it was so bumpy and narrow but soon we were on quiet country roads cycling beside the lake. At Frutillar we stopped for kuchen (German for cake). The town had a lot of German immigrants and we had two slices of amazing cake before cycling back. At night we got a bus north to Santiago. We had considered going further south into Patagonia but with it being winter and the distance / cost involved we decided not to, and to spend more time exploring warmer Northern Chile...

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Posted by duncan-alice 15:58 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Santiago and Valparaiso

sunny 22 °C

So we are finally on the last leg of our tour, South America! Although still looking forward to hopefully another 6 months of travelling before we get that final flight home...

Santiago (13th August - 15th August)

Arrived in Santiago from New Zealand to bright sunshine and a lovely warm temperature. Spent a couple of days in the capital exploring the city. We felt a little overwhelmed at first to be back in a non-English speaking country, without our own transport, and with no good tourist information office to help us out. It took us a few days to get used to this again, but we are back to being true backpackers again now!

The first day in Santiago we visited the Bella Vista district which was cool with lots of funky graffiti on the walls of the brightly coloured buildings, and also hiked up Cerro San Cristobal from there to get fantastic views across the city. I had not realised how close Santiago was to the Andes, and it was very impressive to see the snow-capped mountains rising right from the city edge. The city centre had some interesting old buildings, particularly around the Plaza de Armas, but not much to keep us entertained for long. We also had our first introduction to Chillean food - forget vegetables, it is heavy meat and carbs for almost every meal! We had completos (hotdog with tomato and avocado), chorillana (fries with beef and onion on top), empanadas (like a cornish pastie), all pretty tatsy and very filling. Also went for a meal in the Central Mercado, where small restaurants surround the fish market and sell some delicious seafood meals. The final day in Santiago we visited the "Museo de la memoria y los derechos humanos", a museum describing the years of the Pinochet regime in Chile with a memorial to the "disappeared". It was interesting to learn about Chillean history, something I knew little about before, and thankfully they had an English audioguide for me, although Duncan decided to practice his Spanish and go without. Santiago had some interesting sights, but 2 days wandering around the city was enough for us, so we moved on to our next destination, Valparaiso, 2 hours north on the coast.

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Valparaiso (15th August - 17th August)

We had heard that "Valpo" was a great place to visit, but also had the highest level of crime against tourists in Chile. On arrival we were not too impressed, the city had a rundown feeling with graffiti everywhere and lots of dogs wandering around (much to Duncan's dislike!), and we didn't feel particularly safe. We didn't stray far from the hostel on the first night. But, the next day we started out with a "Tour for Tips", a city tour that you only pay what you think it was worth at the end. This changed our opinion of Valparaiso, the guide was so enthusiastic about the city, told us of its interesting history as one of Chile's biggest ports, and most importantly showed us the interesting areas, like Cerro Conception and Cerro Bella Vista, and safe, more touristy, regions of the city along with some pretty cool street art and great views of the coloured houses sprawling across the hilside. With a more positive attitude we set out alone in the afternoon to explore further and had a really great day in Valpo. The second day we started with a trip to the local market and then went to another region of the city, Cerro Polanco, to see some street art recommended by our guidebook. On arrival in the Polanco district we could already tell it was not a touristy district, but we ploughed on looking at the fantastic graffiti art on the buildings...that was until as we wandered down the street both an old lady and a policeman within 2 minutes of each other told us to put our cameras away and get the hell out before we get robbed! Needless to say we made a quick exit back to the more central areas of town, and thankfully didn't lose any of our belongings on the way! After our little scare in Polanco we took the bus up the coast to the nearby Viña del Mar, a stark contrast to Valpo. Clean streets, modern buildings and much safer. Spent a nice afternoon wandering along the beach there, then back to Valpo for the best empanada yet from "Empanada Famosa", a highly recommended place with huge, juicy, empanada pinos.

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From Valpo we got onto out first night bus, 15 hours heading south to Pucon in the Lake District. Thankfully Chillean buses are pretty good: comfy seats, blankets, TV, a toilet on board and even a little snack and breakfast. Plenty more hours on these buses to come!

Posted by duncan-alice 15:03 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

New Zealand

sunny 11 °C

So since we are soooo far behind with our blog we are not going to give you a blow by blow account of our travels in NZ, and instead will just tell you the high (and low) lights. We spent most of our time in NZ living in a campervan again...29 days in total. I thought this was more than enough, but I think Duncan fell in love with our van and is likely to buy one when we get back! I think it is more for summer, as to get the most out of our days we were up at sunrise and going to bed shortly after sunset most days which made for a lot of sleeping time in Winter! WE stayed in a mixture of tourist and government campsites, although I was not so keen on the government ones as they had no shower, a long drop, and were inevitably in the middle of nowhere and pitchblack at night giving me nightmares about serial killers in the woods!

We spent 14 days on the North Island, the highlight of which was the time we spent around around Rotorua and Taupo, particularly the day we spent hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This was a 19km walk across the Tongariro National Park, in the snow and ice. We had a lot of fun learning how to use crampons and ice-axes, and sliding down slopes for over 200m on our bums! The weather was perfect and the whole route had amazing views of teh surrounding mountains and volcanoes. Also enjoyed learning about Mauri culture, and seeing geothermal activity around Rotorua. Whilst in Taupo Duncan also decided to be an adrenalin junkie and braved his first skydive! He seemed to enjoy it, and came out smiling and ready to go again.

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Checked out the North Island cities of Wellington and Auckland, but didn´t enjoy these as much as the other places. I think we are definitely more outdoor adventure than city people.

The other highlight of North Island was a black-water rafting trip at Waitomo. This is basically white-water rafting but in a cave. The day was really fun, we got to abseil down 30m into the cave to start, then went caving adn crawling through impossibly small holes for a bit, rafted down the river underground with glowworms lighting our way overhead, and then finished the day with a rock climb back out. Exhausting and freezing in the water...but really fun!

Moving on to South Island, starting with a great ferry ride across the Cook Strait in the sunshine and into Picton via the Marlborough Sounds. We did a lot of walking in South Island, but the 3 particularly big ones we did at the Marlborough Sounds, Abel Tasman National Park and on the Fox Glacier were by far the best. Marlborough and Abel Tasman had fantastic views across the water and bays in alorious sunshine, whilst the Fox Glacier with its glacial ice formations was incredible and like nothing we had seen before as we walked along crevasses and slid down moulins.

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Further South, near Queenstown, we climbed our highest mountain at 1578m...in a morning. Unfortunately managed to do damage to my legs in the process, as Duncan waltzed up and down at a speedy pace. Duncan again embraced his adventurous side with a 43m bungy jump off Kawaru Bridge, where this crazy sport all began. Again he came up smiling, but I do have photos of him lieing in the rescue boat looking less happy and purely relieved! We also drove ourselves down to the Milford Sound from Queenstown, with some breathtaking views along the way, when the cloud cleared. The Sound itself was very beautiful, but for us didn´t quite live up to the hype of being ´the most amazing place on earth´.

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The final highlight of our trip was the day we spent skiing. This was a last minute decision but turned out to be a great choice. We were pretty nervous at first as Duncan has only skiied for 2 days before, and I am a nervous skiier and certainly no expert who should be in charge of a beginner. But, everything turned out ok, and we had one of the most fun days of our NZ travels, with both of us surprising ourselves at how well we were doing. We soon made it off the beginners slopes and on to the intermediates, covering everything but the expert runs by the end of the day. Annoyingly though Duncan was whizzing past me by the afternoon and telling me to hurry up, despite having started the day doing snow-plough turns!

Overall we both loved NZ, and it surpassed both of our expectations. The most impressive thing was the stunning scenery at every turn, which made just driving around really enjoyable...a good thing as we spent a lot of time in the van getting between places!

Posted by duncan-alice 16:59 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Cairns & North Queensland

semi-overcast 20 °C

The flight from Cairns to Brisbane turned out more eventful than we would have liked when an elderly man in front of us had a seizure 10 minutes after takeoff, which meant we had to turn back to Brisbane leading to over an hours delay. The only good thing to come of our delay was some free food and drink!

We hired a campervan for a week in Cairns and picked it up the next morning - within 30kms a warning light came on the dashboard. The manual recommended going to a garage straightaway, but when we phoned the rental company they told us to not worry about it as the vehicle was old. Therefore we continued on, with the fear we would be stranded in the middle of nowhere if it did break down. We started by going to a small, touristy, market village called Kuranda just outside Cairns. The views of the surrounding countryside on the way up into the hills was impressive but the town was a bit tacky. In the afternoon we continued to Port Douglas, a posh seaside resort full of Australian families on their winter holidays and then to Mossman gorge which was a bit of a disappointment.

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On our second day we headed to Cape Tribulation, but the weather was horrible with low grey cloud and rain showers all day. We had planned to climb Mt Sorrow, the biggest mountain in the cape for great views of the area but as we couldn't see the peak of it we stayed on the beach. With the weather still bad we decided to leave earlier than planned and head north to Cooktown in the afternoon.

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We spent a couple of days in Cooktown; on the first we walked up Mount Cook to give fabulous views of the coast, followed by the stereotypical Aussie bbq and beers at our campsite in the lovely sunshine. On the second I had a horrific pain in my abdomen which stopped me from doing much, including walking. Alice went to the James Cook museum while I had a lie down and eventually took her advice and took 2 ibruprofen which solved the problem!

For our last 2 days in the van we went to the Atherton Tablelands region to visit the small towns and see the countryside. We were lucky enough to see platypus on 2 different days which really pleased Alice. I also had to pay a visit to a doctor as I had a horrible infection on my foot resulting in all the skin peeling off - yuck! Thankfully some antibiotics sorted it out.

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Back in Cairns we spent a day on the Great Barrier Reef diving - the weather was atrocious and the company was encouraging people to come back another day if they could. As we were flying out a couple of days after we had no choice but to go on that day. The crew strongly recommended everyone took motion sickness tablets as the seas were very choppy. I was glad we both did as we were one of the few couples / groups who weren't sick on the way out! The diving was hard work as there were strong currents but we saw some incredible fish including a maori-wrasse, which was very friendly, and a turtle.

Our last day in Australia was a bit of a drag, Cairns city centre was not very exciting and it was grey and wet again, but soon enough we were back at the airport moving on to New Zealand.

Posted by duncan-alice 16:47 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

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