After Iquique, it’s a quick stop in another seaside town, although this one is not nearly as pretty. In fact, it’s a bit of a dump to be honest. We’re only stopping on our way across to Peru, there’s really no other reason to stay here.
We arrive around 9pm and try and get tickets for the bus the next morning but they are already sold out, so we are stuck here an extra day. Never mind. When we check into the hostel, the guy tells us that we’re actually better off getting a local bus across the border and then getting an onward connection once in Peru – it’s much cheaper apparently. So the next day we head back to the bus station and get a refund (85% anyway) on our tickets.
The next day and we decide to explore town since we’re stuck here for a day. There’s not a whole lot to recommend – there’s a church made entirely of iron which was designed by Eiffel (of Parisian tower fame); an old steam train; and some excellent ceviche (raw fish marinated in lemon juice), which you can buy from the local fish market. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can head up onto the hill where there’s a religious museum but we’ve had a bit too much Jesus lately.
Monday morning and we’re up bright and early to catch a local bus to Peru. According to our friend, it’s best to go between 8am and 10am so at 9am we head to the bus station only to be greeted with the biggest queue in history. It might be because it’s a public holiday, it might always be like this, I don’t know, but all of a sudden the tickets we cashed in look much more attractive again. Not wanting to stand in line for hours, we decide to grab a collective (shared taxi) across the border instead – it’s twice the price of the bus but still only £4 each. We also decide to rebook a bus on this side of the border – if the queues are this huge we don’t want to risk it.
The queues are just as big at the border but they seem fairly efficient and have a lot of windows open so we only have to wait about half an hour at each side, which is not bad considering the volume of people crossing through. Once we get to Tacna in Peru, where we are catching our onward bus, our taxi driver escorts us into the terminal, shows us where we can change money and buy food, and drops us at the desk of the bus company.
It’s true – if you buy the bus ticket on the Peruvian side you will save money. But we’re on a bus within half an hour of reaching the bus terminal and it’s pretty full so I don’t know whether we would have got seats if we’d waited. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter, we made our choice, and we’re on our way to Arequipa. New country, our tenth so far, exciting stuff! We’re also heading closer to the equator so the temperatures should start to rise, although we’ll be at altitude for a little while yet so the nights will still be freezing!
We’re booked onto the Inca Trail for the end of August so we’re in no real rush as we make our way up Cusco. So after a few days in San Pedro we decide to stop off in Iquique, a seaside town in the north of Chile famed for its surf.
We’re staying at the Backpackers Hostel, mere metres from the beach. Although we arrive at the ungodly hour of 6am they let us check into our room early and catch up on some sleep. It’s actually one of the best places we’ve stayed at, with nice rooms (duvet, yay!), great common areas and one of the biggest and best equipped kitchens we’ve come across.
There’s not a whole lot to do in Iquique unless you’re into surfing but it’s a pleasant enough place to chill out for a few days before heading across the border into Peru. The Georgian architecture is stunning, but in the off-season quietness it gives the place a certain surrealism– you almost feel like you are walking onto a film set, especially when the old tram rattles past you at a snail’s pace. On other streets, you feel more like you are in the Caribbean, with the brightly painted, ramshackle wooden houses. A bizarre mix of styles but somehow charming.
After a wander through town and some delicious empanadas (corn and pesto, chorizo and cheese, chicken and vegetable, yum), we head back to the hostel for a lazy afternoon of blog writing and kindle reading followed by a barbecue organised by the hostel. It’s another chance for a delicious steak – we really must start eating healthily soon!
The next day is even lazier – Rich does some geeking, we watch some films. We’re working our way through the Swedish versions of The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo trilogy – not bad but some of the fight scenes are a bit amateur to say the least and the guy who plays Blomkvist is nowhere near as hot as Daniel Craig, so looking forward to the Hollywood version. Sorry, I digress. Back to Iquique.
That night we take advantage of the excellent kitchen and make ourselves dinner, nothing fancy, just some pasta, although we opt for pesto, as opposed to ketchup which we see one couple using as pasta sauce – I’m all for eating on a budget but that takes it a step too far in my book.
The following day and it’s back on a bus, heading up to Arica on the Chilean/Peruvian border, but not before we head down to the beach to check out a local body boarding competition. A couple of lazy days in a lovely hostel – if you’ve got time to kill you can while away a day or two but if you’re in a rush then don’t worry too much, you’re not missing a great deal.
Our bus from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama left at 1am and we knew in advance it was going to be a bit punishing – 13 hours heading over the Andes, up to around 5000m, with outside temperatures dropping to well below freezing.
Hostels usually provide somewhere secure for bags once you have checked out, and will happily let you hang around the place/use the kitchen until it’s time for your onward connection, but in this instance we splurged and booked at extra night at the hostel so we could shower and have a bit of a snooze before heading to the bus station.
Our bus was with the Chilean Pullman company and cost us around £20 each (not bad) but food provided would be basic so as usual we stocked up on snacks and water. This along with the steaks is the reason why I’m struggling to maintain my 34in waist. On the road it’s difficult to be healthy, it’s either ham and cheese rolls or junk or nothing. There is no point in bringing fruit as you can’t take it across most South American borders and we just don’t know at what point in the trip the border controls start.
The trip started well enough, usual comfortable semi-cama seats, but it only took an hour or two before the temperature on the bus was cranked up to over 35c, it was like a sauna. This together with a huge altitude hike and it was almost unbearable. I did manage to sleep, but made the mistake of leaning against the window, waking to find the left side of my face frozen to the glass. Thankfully, a few seconds of gentle easing saved my skin. Leah found this very amusing.
After 13 hours we eventually arrived at the Chilean border, the journey took longer than expected as we had to wait for a police escort to take us through a few passes that were hit with a recent snow storm. It was obvious why the roads were closed just a few days ago, a number of times the bus was forced to go off-road onto the desert floor to avoid obstacles.
San Pedro de Atacama, or more accurately, the desert around it, is honoured with being the driest place on earth. San Pedro itself is not, as we have nice hot showers. We are staying in a dirt cheap hostel about 10 minutes outside town, but although it had great reviews the place was not that great and full of obnoxious American university students…
“We like university because we get to talk to people who are actually intelligent”
“I’m going to be a professor; I’m not sure in what, I want to share my gift of knowledge with everybody else”
“Yes, I am reading sheet music over lunch; I’m currently fascinated by early Spanish Romany musical structures”
We checked out after one night and found a spot right in the middle of town that was even a bit cheaper.
In town, we hook up with some guys we met on the bus – a couple of English lads, a Canadian and a guy from the States. We spent the first beer- laden afternoon in a local restaurant enjoying the sunshine. Then we booked ourselves a star gazing tour for later that same night. Some of the group were getting geek jibes from friends on Facebook but it’s just one of those things you have to do if you come to the Atacama Desert. Due to the high altitude, incredibly low moisture levels and distance from any major light pollution, it is THE best place on earth to practice astronomy. When I was little, I remember a bright red telescope on a tripod I was given for either Christmas or my birthday. I spent many hours staring at the moon, and almost as many hours peering into my neighbours’ windows. I’ve been looking forward to this.
The tour cost £20 so it wasn’t going to break the budget. Around half nine, we head into the middle of the desert, and spent the next half an hour being given the dummies’ guide to astronomy by an enthusiastic Canadian ex-pat. There are ten telescopes on site, ranging in size and type and we spend another hour shuffling round them, gazing at everything from gaseous clouds, ring nebulae, and distant galaxies to close ups of our very own moon and Saturn. We even get the opportunity to take a few pictures of the moon through a special set up provided. After a cup of Earl Grey (we’re English don’t you know?) we head back into town and home to bed – it’s been a long day.
The next day, fresh into our new hostel, we spend the morning around town. San Pedro is undeniably a beautiful oasis in the incredible desolation that is the Atacama Desert, but don’t be fooled, it is very much a tourist town. It consists of only a few square blocks, in the centre of which is a lively town square, together with a church and even free Wi-Fi access. It’s said to be the most expensive town in Chile, but we’re not complaining. The skies are deep blue, the temperature is up in the late 20s and it feels like we’re back on holiday again.
That afternoon, together with the four blokes we met on the bus, we decid to get some exercise and rent ourselves some snowboards for an afternoon on the dunes. Now, I’ve never been skiing, or snowboarding. I did once go to a ski resort in Spain for a weekend but spent the whole time in restaurants and bars, so my first tentative (goofy) steps (apparently I’m one of the few who prefer to board right foot forward) were going to be on the scorching sands of the Atacama Desert – what could possibly go wrong?
To my surprise, I wasn’t half bad for a novice. For two hours, I nervously boarded my way down the dunes, a few mouthfuls of sand, obviously, but I was good enough to have fun and even try a few turns here and there. Leah, having snowboarded before, got back into it, although had some spectacular tumbles. I could get into this, although we had to walk up the dunes every time we reached the bottom, which was shattering. The views were stunning, the heat was relentless, next time maybe I’ll try it in the snow instead.
That night we all went out for a meal, but unfortunately we were sat inches from one of those annoying tourist bands that do the rounds at restaurants, so conversation was limited. Knackered, we call it a night.
We were due to leave San Pedro the next day, but the weather was far too nice to leave so early so we decide to extend our stay by another day. Leah topped up her tan at the hostel whilst I took a walk into the desert alone apart from a local mutt who decided to come along. I bought him some fried chicken.
I think San Pedro is missed by some travellers who instead go north into Bolivia from Salta or alternatively down from Peru into Bolivia which is a shame. It’s a great little spot, although pricey but definitely worth the visit. We loved the place.
We are not spending that much time in Chile, it’s said to be the most European of all countries in South America, which is not really what we’re after, so our next stop is going to be Iquique, a surfing Mecca up towards the border of Peru, on the Pacific coast.
Short and sweet, a little video of us heading over the Andes. We managed to bag the best seats on the bus for a great view, although some of the more precarious corners on the road left us looking a little pale. Unfortunately, the video doesn’t do the stunning landscape justice but hopefully it gives you a taste of how incredible it was.
We are only in Chile for four days. We’re coming back, but this time it’s a quick return trip from Mendoza over the Andes. Destination: the Lollapalooza music festival being held at Parque O’Higggins in the centre of Santiago. We decided not to take a camera with us but instead made a little video of the shenanigans. The public arena turned out to be alcohol free, so our first mission was to talk our way into 2 VIP passes worth over $200…
This video will go no way towards convincing my mother I’m not turning into an alcoholic…sorry mum.