The border crossing from Peru to Chile was great with a relatively quick process, clean and organized areas, as well as very helpful staff members. Chile is known to be extremely strict on what foods they allow to enter the country so we were a little nervous about Pedro being searched through very closely. Our confiscation list was luckily short and we only said goodbye to our honey, fresh garlic and a bag of dried black beans. The beer, butter, and granola were all safe. The men searching were nice and even joked about drinking the beers secretly in the car while on the job. I’ll say it again, we are so happy South American borders are the opposite of Central American border hell.
The first town we stopped in was Arica. We stocked up on groceries and almost cried with joy in the liquor aisle when we saw the INCREDIBLY low prices of delicious Chilean wine. We left with 7 bottles and could barely contain ourselves. From there we went to find our campsite. Sadly it was another iOverlander fail and everything was closed for the season. From the quiet and cloudy town of Arica we made our way into the first of many days in the Atacama Desert in Chile. The expanse of nothingness is immense and barely any living thing exists until you reach small towns or tiny pockets of green valleys, filled with farms and livestock. Our stopping point was a CONAF campground southeast of Iquique, in the Reserva Nacional Pampa del Tamarugal. The section where we camped is known for the artificially planted trees. They survive in the middle of the desolate Atacama area due to the region’s aquifer. The landscape looked a bit like camping in Arizona. The area was basically a little fenced corral for each camper, even though we were the only ones there. We had an adopted dog for the evening and the quiet was only interrupted by an occasional fly over of a B52.
The following day we continued to make our way through the desert in the general southeast direction towards the town of San Pedro de Atacama. From this place we would take our short jaunt into Bolivia. We drove through the huge mining area of Calama. While we didn’t stop to tour the mine, we could see the massive amount of earth that had been removed from the area as a result of the mining. We later viewed the mine on Google Earth which was incredible. Seeing the depth and layers of what mining has done to the area was something we had never seen before. After what seemed like more endless sand dunes we neared San Pedro and the landscape began to change. The hillsides were vibrant red and we had a view into the famous Valle de Luna. The town was much smaller than we expected but it was wonderful. The place is very touristy as there are so many things to explore and see in the area but the town keeps it’s little adobe appearance with no building exceeding 2 or 3 stories and dirt roads throughout the town. Our little camp spot was outside of a great hostel. The best (and worst) part of our location was the bakery right next door. We ate amazing chocolate croissants daily and had a baguette with every meal as well. You might think I would complain here about the massive bread intake noted above, but no. The part that made it the worst was the music which played from 10 pm-6 am every day. It took all my energy not to go kill the bakers creating our delicious snacks. Besides that, San Pedro was awesome, definitely better than we had expected.
We spent four days touring southern Bolivia which will be in a separate post!
After our return to Chile we made our way back to the coast and ended up in Antofagasta. The town turned out to be way better than lonely planet made it sound. It was a clean area, with super friendly people and amazing empanadas. From Antofagasta we drove south to the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar. We had to go the long way since the original road we tried had been washed out recently but we were so glad we did. The views were incredible and the rocky beaches were some of the most beautiful we have seen in South America. We found a camp spot right before dark and fell asleep to the sound of the ocean. Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe was our next stop. We loved the surprise of driving through a huge olive and olive oil producing area on the way to the national park. We found a great spot and met a couple from England who are traveling around the world, but took a month break and purchased a car to camp and find the best surf in the area. We are hoping to catch up in Buenos Aires before flights home for steak and beers. The CONAF official who came by to collect our fee was (as usual) perplexed by Pedro. He immediately jumped in the back and started explaining and acting out how it would be a perfect vehicle for his empanada business. Sadly, we had to tell him it was already sold, slightly crushing his food truck dreams. Before reaching Valparaiso we stopped in La Serena. Unfortunately, we were a bit disappointed with the town. While it was on the water and had a large bay, we didn’t find the charm. Luckily, Valparaiso made up for it tenfold.
We rented a little Airbnb apartment in Vina del Mar, a small area to the north of Valparaiso. We had a few days before meeting the Szymanski’s in Santiago and enjoyed some time in one place, just the two of us. There were small neighborhoods nearby with lots of bars and restaurants and we also chose to stay and cook in the apartment as well. The metro stop to reach the main area of Valparaiso near the port was right down the block and it only took about 10 minutes. The older parts of the town are set on steep hills. The buildings are painted bright colors, street art is encouraged and the area seems to promote the small, artistic cafes, shops and boutique hostels. We found a great little art studio, made sure the empanadas, coffee and beer in the area was good and rode in their famous funicular railways. The steep railway and its tiny cars were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and you can tell. It was a fast ride but the whole time you’re crossing your fingers that everything stays solid. Overall we loved the feel of the town and could’ve wandered around for days.
From Valparaiso, Santiago was only a couple hours away. We found our place in the city (big enough for four!) and set out linens, snacks and wine for the Szymanski’s who would be arriving the next morning!