Pachamama walks on the moon and mars
Trip Start Nov 15, 2012
25Trip End Jul 10, 2013
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Apart from the things we have seen, we have been lucky enough to meet a fantastic group of people who we have recently travelled up through the Bolivian Salt Flats with (more on that in the next blog). Our apprehension of who would be joining us on our Pachamama Tour up north, brought on by the somewhat "different" group of people we travelled down south with, was quickly absorbed and forgotten about approximately three hours into our adventure after meeting James, Adam, Hannah, Rosie and Neena. All English peeps, all incredibly funny, down to earth and great craic to travel. It's funny how much of a difference meeting great people can make to an adventure.
So off we went up north towards our first stop, La Serena. It was a long day on the road but along the way we stopped at Pichidangui, which means small raft in Mapuche. It's a cute little beach resort and whilst only busy during the summer months it was Easter weekend and so packed with holiday makers. We had a delicious empanada in a cosy little restaurant overlooking the harbour and visited a little church right on the cliffs.
A good few hours later we arrived in La Serena, Chile's second oldest city, founded in 1544. Sadly the city was attacked by English pirates on two occasions, burning down most of the city on both occasions. They have now moved the city more towards the hills. We visited a little market called La Recova which had some lovely Chilean handcrafts, restaurants and regional products.
That night we stayed in a hostel which was previously the French Embassy. It had huge rooms with high ceilings but the tiniest kitchen ever so it was here that we began to bond most with our fellow Pachamama crew. 12 people in a kitchen all cooking different meals, can get interesting. Along with this, we had to move around the tiniest old lady who had one eye and a hunchback - the hostel owner. She kept muttering to herself whilst trying to prepare food for her three legged dog, and it took everything in us not to giggle uncontrollably.
Next morning we set out early towards Bahia Inglesa. Our first stop was Punta de Choros, a small fishermen village. The weather was a little bleak, overcast and a spitting a little, so the thought of a three hour boat journey across the sea from the National Reserve Pinguino de Humboldt to the islands of Isla Damas and Isla Choros was not at the top of everybody's list. However, we were kitted out in our life jackets, jumped into our small boat and little did we know that we were about to embark on an awe inspiring, seldom witnessed whale watching moment.
The guides tell you that it's possible to spot sea-otters, sea lions and different sea birds including penguins in the summer months. There is also a chance of spotting a pod of bottle nose dolphins who usually cruise around the islands. There is no mention of the whales because they have never spotted them the before. We saw it all, from penguins to sea lions to sea otters, to dolphins and the luckiest of them all, three hump backed whales.
This was not just spotting whales in the distance though, they were right by our boat! They swam towards the boat, under it, hit it with their fins, disappeared for minutes at a time and suddenly appeared in a different place, spurting water from their blow holes. It was fecking terrifying and magnificent all at the same time. Chris and other boys were in their element, the girls all a little frightened as it felt like the boat was going to tip over every time they went underneath it, but what a wonderfully special and incredibly lucky experience.
We were only supposed to spend 2.5 hours at sea but were stuck waiting for the whales to finish playing with the boat and couldn't switch the engine on until they had, so four hours later we arrived back to shore safe, sound and on a complete high! We swapped pics and videos from our day as we made our way through to Bahia Inglesa, arriving late that evening due to the extra time at sea.
Bahia Inglesa, known as "English Bay" after Edward Davis, an English pirate who arrived at the bay in 1687, is a busy summer beach resort, sleepy the rest of the year, but has a great camping ground right on the beach with cabins. Here for two nights and excited by the fact we didn't have to rise early the next morning, our little group bonded over pisco sours, beer, wine and a hysterical evening of charades.
On our free day we checked out nearby Caldera, the first mechanised port in South America. It used to export minerals from Copiapo and it is connected to Caldera by one of the first railroads in the Southern Hemisphere. We checked out a fish market that sold shark, eew and watched the sea lions and pelicans go into a frenzy as fish heads were thrown at them to munch on. That evening we had a Chilean barbecue and settled in for a decent nights sleep before our next long journey to Antofagasta.
The Atacama Desert was upon us, the scenery and landscape changed as we made our way towards Antofagasta and the first signs of what mars must look like came into view. We crossed the driest place on earth, where meteorological stations have never registered any rain in over 50 years. It was hot, arid and no signs of life what so ever, very eerie yet break taking. We stopped in Oficinia Chile, which is one of the many abandoned nitrate mining operations, and visited a spooky graveyard where some of the graves has been dug up and you could see pieces of human bones and teeth.
Later that afternoon, and thought the driest part, much to our relief as was getting a little too warm, we arrived at the "Mano del Desierto", the hand of the desert. You see pictures of this all the time in travel books, other people's blogs, documentaries etc, so it was quite surreal to be stood right next to it finally. Unfortunately the hand gets graffitied from time to time but its still totally worth the stop.
10 hours of driving and stopping later, we arrived in our place for the evening, Antofagasta, but to before visiting the spectacular La Portada Cliffs, a rock formation in the sea shaped like a gigantic arch. Antofagasta doesn't have much to write home about apart from the fact that it is the fifth largest populated city and the main urban centre in the desert. It was here that the Pacific War was started, after being originally established as a Bolivian port for the export of nitrate and silver, but the occupied in 1879 by Chilean troops. The Chileans won and it has since been run and owned by them. The strangest thing about it is that it's on the coast and yet you are in the middle of a desert!
Next day it was on to possibly one of the best days of the whole trip. Leaving early again we headed to Baquedano, where we visited a train cemetery. The engines were used to transport minerals and workers through the desert in the times of the nitrate mining operations but nowadays everything is abandoned. However, due to the lack of humidity the engines have resisted erosion and so we had some fun messing about in the trains, taking pics and generally being childish.
On to the next stop, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, we arrived at the Atacama Salt Flats. They are quite magnificent, though nothing on Bolivia! We laughed hysterically when Neena decided it would be a good idea to walk along one of the flats, only to realise that it was more like sinking sand and we ended up having to pull her out sans her shoes, which she then had to go back in to find. We took hundreds of pictures and watched whilst a lorry tipped salt from the top of a "salt mountain" down, not knowing whether it would actually manage to stay upright and not end up half way down the mountain.
We travelled for 150km along the flats and arrived in the small oasis village of Peine, meaning Vase in the Atacameno language. Peine is an oasis founded by Atacamenos as a defensive position. After and during the Inca period it was one of the most important stops on the Inca road and there are a few rock pools there where it is possible to go for a dip. The boys jumped in whilst the girls made lunch and we stayed there for two hours, hanging out in the sun, dipping into the pools every so often and learning more about the road ahead.
One more detour into the salt flat, this time to visit Natural Reserve Los Flamencos. This reserve was created in 1992 to protect the habitat of the Pink Flamingoes. In all honesty, they aren't actually pink, but a more grey colour, however still beautiful to see. We hung out here for an hour or so, checking out the birds, learning about the volcanoes that surround the reserve and the being fascinated by the little sea monkeys that the birds live off.
An hours drive more and we finally made it to our destination San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro is 2438m above sea level and the Archaeological capital of Chile. The town is built mostly in adobe and has always been a cross road. Firstly for caravans of Indians trading goods from the Bolivian jungle. It was also a stop along the Inca Road, used as a base for the Spanish conquista of Chile and as a stopover for the cattle driven from Argentina to Antofagasta. Nowadays its used by gringos all over the world as a crossing point into Bolivia and heading further north.
We felt it as soon as we jumped off our bus, a little altitude adjustment was needed and what better way then to get down with the locals for a night out. Our entire group went for dinner in a great restaurant along the high street - and by high street I mean, a road made of sand and dust,with a hundred little handicraft shops, tour agencies, bureau de changes, and restaurants along it. Starting off with a pisco cocktail for each person, and ending with shots...it was a good evening and much felt the next day! The craziest thing was that we bumped into five people we had met along our trip so far, whether it was in Bariloche or Santiago...it's totally cool and weird how this happens as you make your way around South America.
A much needed lie in and a day of chillaxing before going for an afternoon swim in the salty Laguna Cejar. The water is so dense you float like a cork and we were given 5l bottles of water between two people to rinse all the salt off afterwards, as it gets super itchy. It was then off to the salt caves and Moon Valley to watch the sunset. Moon Valley, named quite obviously because of what it looks like, is magnificent and totally worth the fact that you freeze your ass off as soon as the sun goes down. The way the sun sets over the valley gives the valley a different look at each point, it's beautiful!
Back to our hostel that evening, Chris made our little group a delicious spaghetti and chorizo dinner and we settled into bed at a decent hour, eager to get up early and check out the tours for the Bolivian Salt Flats, which we had been umming and aahing about for the past two or three days. It was here in San Pedro that we had the option of jumping off the Pachamama bus and heading into Bolivia for a few days.
We had pretty much made up our minds that it was far too much of a ricky and scary thing to do, due to the copious amounts of horror stories we had heard and read about. The Bolivians are well known for drinking and driving, particularly on these tours, as well as speeding across mental terrain. There are probably more bad then good reviews about each of the tour companies that do the tour and the conditions along the way are somewhat dodgy as far as hygiene goes. However, we had met such awesome people and had spoken about the possibility of doing it with them. A tour takes 6 people at a time, and we were six, it made sense, we all got on fabulously and we would get through it together.
So, after much research of each of the various companies we decided to embark on the four day 4x4 tour through to the Bolivian Salt Flats and back...check out the blog and pics on this.
We are now back from our Bolivian tour, safe and sound in San Pedro and will hop back on our Pachamama bus on Friday morning. The current north group arrives this evening, as we did last week Wednesday, so will have a few days to get to know them, and we then make our way south again towards Santiago. We only arrive back in Santiago on Monday evening and so get to see a good few things on the way back down, such as Pan de Azcur National Park, Pisco Elqui, and the Valle del Encanto. We are also going on a guided astronomy tour which I am so excited for as the stars out here in the desert are just spectacular.
On Wednesday 17th April we leave Chile, flying to Buenos Aries. It will be with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to this country that has given us so much. We will have been here for almost 7 weeks once we go and to think we were going to be in Santiago for two days, how much we would have missed out on. So many people skip Chile on their South American adventure, it doesn't seem to be spoken about too much amongst other travellers, apart from it being a starting point into Bolivia and Peru.
We will treasure the memories we made here, the things we saw, the people we met, the way of life, forever. I for one, and I know Chris will too, recommend the world over: Forget about the other places for now, THINK CHILE and then decide on where else from here, you will not be disappointed, she will blow your mind over and over again...