Blog #29 - Three Hot Chile Peppers!

Last we left you we had safely arrived in Santiago and had managed to check into our rented apartment in the Santiago neighborhood of Providencia.  It was super cute and definitely in a hip area.  The location was perfect for jogging along the park and hiking one of the large-ish city hills nearby. 

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Most importantly, however, Santiago is where we were going to meet Alex!  That morning we woke up at the crack of dawn (actually about two hours before sunrise) and jumped in a taxi to the airport to be her “welcome wagon”.   Since she was on her own we figured it was the least we could do.

She arrived without a hitch.  Well, other than being dinged for over a hundred bucks.  You see, all people flying into Chile have to pay a $132 USD fee of some kind, but to add insult to injury they don’t take US bills that have been ‘crumpled’.  Strange world.

Ok some background -- the three of us have been planning this portion of the trip for about a year now, and before we left Canada in December the three of us had the good fortune to sit down with Vince’s friend Paul who not only is half Chilean but was also a super-duper South American tour guide for many years.  Yes, he himself! 

So for many months now we’ve had the pleasure of knowing insofar as South America (SA) goes, we’re well ahead of the game!  We had our itinerary outlined for us by a presumably impartial and unaffiliated expert!  Awesome.

So, armed with too much knowledge, we wanted to do it all!  However, we had to pick our battles.  Alex had a month off work with us, and we wanted to get in as many of the major sights and activities of Chile and Peru as possible.   Our schedule was going to be tight.  In this blog, we only focus on Chile.

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First off, since it’s winter down here, we skipped all the beach towns.  Easy decision.   With the time we had at our disposal in Chile we saw city, valley and desert – all very cool.

So after a few days of wandering Santiago, catching up, enjoying the local wines and trying to figure out the food, we were off by bus to achieve goal number one … the city of Valparaiso. 

This was to be our shortest reposition in Chile as it was only an hour and a half bus trip from Santiago.  We left early in the morning to ensure we had maximum daylight to explore the port (i.e. gritty) town of Valparaiso.

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The town of Valparaiso has seen better days, literally.  Before the opening of the Panama Canal it was the richest city in SA.  And now, well, upon arrival, we quickly realized that we were in a rough, but artisano, town.  And the surrounding hills are so steep it feels like the town was built upon itself. 

Now, when we say hilly, imagine walking up a long curving 45-degree road, with 30 pounds of bags on your back, for about 20 minutes.  And it was hot!  Ultimately, we made it to our hotel after a rest break or two.  The only casualty was Vince’s shirt. 

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The hotel was a kooky surprise, as stylistically it was part log cabin, part condo-townhouse.  What was best was that almost the entire top floor of this hotel was a dedicated viewing area, with a wonderful view of the bay.  We were quite lucky they had a room to accommodate three adults.  It’s a little more work now that there are three of us but definitely in the end will save all of us a bit of pesos.

While in Valapariso, we had a must do on our list.  To join a walking tour of the city and learn everything we could about this quirky but endearing place.  Our hotel recommended a company that provides free English walking tours at 10am everyday.  Great!  Free and English?  And there’s a pamphlet!  We’re in! 

We walked ourselves down to the designated meeting point, and waited for the guide to show up.  He was supposed to be in a red t-shirt.  We waited and we waited and after about twenty minutes of waiting, Vince decided to use his broken Italianized Spanish to get one of the cafes to call and find out what was going on.

Well the guy on the phone was clearly woken up and let us know he would run over and be there in five minutes.  What kind of tour was this?  We waited another fifteen minutes and then called it quits.  The walking tour that first morning was just not meant to be.  When we got back to our hotel they threw out all of this guy’s pamphlets!

But the silver lining to this story is that there was a second company offering the same exact thing at 3pm called “Tours 4 Tips”.  In fact they were the original!  We were still smarting from being rejected but we mustered up enough courage to go to the meeting point at 3pm.  Not only was our guide on time, but it was the best tour any of us had ever had.

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Our guide Ben took us around Valparaiso on foot with twelve other tourists and gave us the most informative and funny lesson on this place, from its history to its current local culture, to its crazy street art and fabulous food.  He was an American backpacker from California who visited two years ago and just never left.  We could definitely see why, as we began to understand his passion for the place.

Architecturally, this city was like nothing any of us had seen before.  All of the important buildings in the old centre were 19th century, but all other buildings in the city were a myriad of different bright colours, often tattooed with street art. 

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That evening on Ben’s recommendation we went to one of the hippest restaurants to experience the local dish called Chorrillana which is basically stewed beef with gravy and onions, on top of a bed of potatoes all topped with a couple of fried eggs.  Definitely not something your dietician would recommend, but holy cow…amazing!

Well fed and well rested, we woke up on our second day and took a bus to a very famous destination in the area near Valparaiso, “Isla Negra”.  This is where the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda had one of his three houses.  We figured out a way to “hack” the usual joining of a tour and get ourselves there on our own using public transit, which saved us a bunch of pesos.  What a treat we did, it was a gorgeous day weather wise and there were few other tourists.

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It was wacky bungalow full of things he hand-picked himself throughout his life, and it was long and narrow and snaked along the coastline, just out of reach of the Pacific Ocean.  But what else would you expect from a successful poet?  A four-bedroom two-car garage in the suburbs?

It was certainly out of the way, but so well preserved and unique that it left an impression with each of us.  If you are ever in Chile and can get to Isla Negra, we highly recommend learning more about this Nobel prize winning poet, and visiting this site!  Fascinating guy!

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By the time we were just starting to get attached to Valparaiso, it was time to go, so we booked three overnight bus tickets to next stop – the Elqui Valley. 

Now this bus ride wasn’t any ordinary bus ride, its was Alex’s first overnight ride in a bus!  We were semi-pros at this from having travelled through most of Vietnam (and more recently Argentina) by bus, so we could certainly understand her slight anxiety and hesitation about putting your life in some bus driver’s hands as you try to sleep, for eight to nine hours.

You would have to ask her, but we think she only slept a couple of hours by the time we had arrived.  Yeah team!  With two and a half awake brains we arrived at La Serena before sunrise, burned a few hours in the bus station taking turns drinking instant coffee and going to the bathroom.  By 9 a.m. however, we three were on foot in an industrial park heading straight for the Budget Car Rental.  It was Vince’s brainwave (and need to drive after months of not doing so) that led us to rent a car for the Elqui Valley, and as such, we were now set to travel in style through some of the most beautiful mountain terrain you could imagine. 

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If you have never heard of the term “glamping” before, we are a true example of it.  Most backpackers work their way through the Elqui Valley by bus, but not us!  Since we are now operating with the collective power of three, and we were only in the valley for two nights, we dropped the extra money in order to make max use of our time.  And it was a good move!

The Elqui Valey goes inland from La Serena, and up.  Overall it is a route about 150 kms long, dotted with different towns along the way. 

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We drove far into the valley, past many towns, to our home for the night, the town of “Pisco Elqui” (yes it was named after the drink… ;).  Here, awesomely enough, there is an awesome astronomical-themed futuristic camping experience called the Elqui Domos.  Imagine huge dome shaped, loft-like, two-storey with full running water, electricity, and heater -- glamour camping at its best.  You are even able to unzip a hole in the roof to observe the stars of the southern hemisphere from your bed!  No alien sightings, however, and by the time the third bat flew past we decided it was time to zip up the roof!

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Either way, we were in the astronomy mood now.

Chile is home to many, many observatories, and some of the most advanced in the world.  Most of the reason is climate – the area of the Elqui Valley gets over 300 clear nights per year.  Prime sky watching real-estate.

The next day we were headed down-valley to stay in Vicuna, the big town in the region we had seen on the way up.  Before we did, however, we managed to squeeze in some horse back riding through the neighbouring valley of Cochiguaz.  This was even more rustic than Elqui Valley. 

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We hired our own guide and explored the nature like true Chilean cowboys.  Alex (experienced in the equestrian arts) and Steph kept the pace while Vince spent most of his time negotiating with his horse, which liked to wander and eat at inappropriate times.  We came to the conclusion that Vince got the perfect horse for him.  Payback maybe?  Hehe!

After the horse ride we got back into our car and headed into Vicuna for a short Pisco distillery tour.  Heck, after driving through grape fields for a day, you have to try the stuff, right?  Well, it was fully in Spanish, which made it fun.  However, Pisco tastes horrible, which wasn’t fun.  The stuff can be described as comparable to bad brandy, or maybe grappa for those Italians reading this, but overall Pisco really wasn’t our thing (especially Steph who gagged during the tasting and is still cringing at the thought of the stuff). 

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Following our distillery tour and tasting in Spanish (hehe) we checked into our hotel for the evening.  Wow, has no one in this town ever heard of insulation before?  We might as well have slept on the side of the road -- it was cold!  Also it was decorated like grandma’s old age suite at shady acres, at least it was only for one night and was actually perfectly positioned in the town for us to explore on foot.  

After we dropped off our bags, we drove over to the Mamalluca observatory for a real (like, with a telescope) star gazing observatory tour!

Vince and Alex were pumped to explore the southern skies with a guide and compare their pre-existing knowledge of astronomy, but Steph was far from enthused (she barely passed that course in University).  Well we were all delightfully surprised as all three of us thoroughly enjoyed the talk, and our guide was super-enthusiastic.  We even saw Saturn’s rings through the telescope…crazy! 

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Our days in Elqui Valley came to an end too quickly.  After we drove ourselves back to La Serena (150 km) to hand in the car, we spent the day in La Serena before we got on our next overnight bus to our last major stop in Chile, San Pedro de Atacama in the middle of the Atacama Desert, which, is the driest desert in the world.

We drove overnight (with Alex much more relaxed), and arrived 16 hours later around noon.  The ride felt quicker, as mostly we just slept.  The last hour of the drive was on dead-flat straight road, and finally when our bus pulled in to the bus station, we were taken aback.  Up to now, bus terminals normally had ticket booths, and at least some sort of info desk or map to help direct you when needed.  Not this time.  This time we were dropped off literally in the middle of the desert, just on the outskirts of this desert town, with nothing around except a handful of other confused backpackers.  It was eerie but kind of cool at the same time, and we decided to walk into town on foot (rather than taking the easy way out and jumping in a taxi) and join the others in our search for our hostels.

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Everything was the colour of sand, even the houses (which, thinking back, were made of sand brick…).  Everything was slightly covered in dust.  After dodging a few tumbleweeds we got to the centre of town and found the main drag.  There were lots of people!  It was actually busy!  In downtown San Pedro we found dozens of tour companies offering excursions that ranged from sandboarding to volcano climbing.  Alas, no need to worry.  Despite the fact there were no two-storey buildings in the town, we were going to be OK. 

From town we were told our hostel was another ten-minute walk through town, and we were given specific directions on how to find it.  No problemo.

Ten minutes later we arrived and were pleasantly greeted by the owner, and his 12 cats and 3 dogs.  This was bit of a surprise as we had read many good reviews of this place.  Don’t get us wrong we love the millions of dogs and cats roaming Chile as they are all actually pretty nice as you may remember from our Argentinian blog, but to actually have to sleep amongst them, this was another thing. 

We don’t want to be negative as the owner was extremely helpful in our planning of our three days in the desert and providing great tour company recommendations, as well as spot-on restaurant advice, such that in the end we were quite happy there but it was an animal crazy house which took a lot of getting used to.  Anyhow, we were hardly ever there. 

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By the time we had checked in, dropped off our bags, and went back to town, it was 2:30 p.m., and we were on a tour bus by 3:00.  Now that is some high-speed travel!  Here are the three tours we crammed in while in the desert less than 72 hours.

Tour #1 – Valle de la Luna:  which means Valley of the Moon and really lives up to its name, presenting a dramatic lunar landscape of wind-eroded hills.  Within this area we saw Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death) and Man’s Gorge (not sure the real name) to explore caves and watch the super colourful sunset.  Some of the best views you could ever imagine. 

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Tour #2 – Tatio Geysers: we had to drag ourselves out of bed at 4am, wait in the dark and freezing temperatures for our tour guide and then ride three hours on a bumpy road.  Was it worth it?  You bet your ascot!  We saw an amazing display of geothermal fireworks from the many geyers and underground blow holes.  Other than Steph maybe losing a few toes to frost bite, we had a super good time.  And breakfast? Yummy hot spring boiled eggs…delish!

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Tour #3 – Salar de Atacama: the largest salt flat in Chile, this area was formedby waters flowing down from the Andes which, unable to escape from the basin, are forced to evaporate, leaving salt deposits on the earth.  Its not white but its still pretty cool.  Its also where you can see three different kinds of flamingos.  Oh and did we mention the crazy lagunas we saw…fan-freaking-tastic.

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All in all our three days in the desert were amazing and filled with some of the most incredible nature you have ever seen.  We finish this week’s blog a bit differently than the rest.  Since we have Alex with us for a month, she has agreed to be our first guest writer.  Check out below Alex’s Corner.  We are currently on a twenty-four hour journey over the Chilean/Peru border with our next destination being Arequipa, Peru.    Adios amigos from the three musketeers!

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