Chile: A Chilean wonderland

I wrote this week’s post in an Argentinian artisan beer bar filled with football fans watching the match in their very reserved, quiet way. Dean informed me it was a fairly uneventful match anyway but really all they did was a few polite claps when a goal was attempted or saved. Messi’s last minute goal did create a momentary surge of excitement; acouple of people even stood up! Reassuringly we did witness more enthusiastic celebratory car horn honking, cheering and wayward fireworks in the town later in the day though.

I still retain my disinterested stance regarding football but it is kind of cool being able to catch snippets of matches in different countries with their fans. Dean also made a score predicting spreadsheet for us (in an attempt to engage me which it has!) so I am slightly interested in the results and am currently beating Dean 🙂

Our first of two stints in Chile was a fantastic few days split between Arica (on the Peru border) and San Pedro de Atacama in the Atacama desert. You might assume the desert would be a boring, monotonous place but I found the colours and textures of these unfamiliar landscapes irresistibly inspiring. There was also something very calming and surreal about the lack of human influence for miles around.

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In Arica we signed up for a 12 hour tour in a bus covering 400km (weirdly we think in kilometres now instead of miles!). It might seem an odd choice given how many hours we’ve spent on buses recently but it’s the only way to properly experience the area’s amazing natural beauty. Plus we were pretty tired! The trip was one of my favourite days in a long time and was a gift from Auntie Jane and Anthony: thank you!

The initial few stops were the warm up act. First we saw some mosaic petroglyphs high up on a distant hill top. They took the form of people and animals and the nearby plaque said parts were 50m long and that they were created somewhere between 1100 and 1470 AD.

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Next was the small Spanish-built church of San Jerónimo, built in the 17th century, and its colourful graveyard at the back.

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There was also a short stop to admire a cactus typical of the area! I think they’re called Browningia Candelaris. I say ‘I think’ because the tour was in very fast Spanish which we couldn’t really follow most of the time so any names and facts you read here are from my subsequent research.

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We began our ascent into the Andes and found ourselves enveloped in thick cloud. This was a little disheartening until moments later we emerged above it and glimpsed the first really impressive sight: a lake of clouds! It was huge and very surreal to look at. I’m not sure the photographs can do it justice.

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A while after this, the altitude was starting to make itself known so we made a much-appreciated stop at a little cafe for bread and pineapple jam with a choice of black tea or coca tea (commonly drunk or chewed in leaf form or as sweets to help with altitude sickness). Another stop gave us a view over some mountains that look like they need a good iron (Dean’s photo) and the next offered a panorama over the town of Putre (3371m) where we returned for ‘lunch’ much later, around 4pm.

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Most of the rest of the journey was through Lauca National Park, a 1379km2 area of mountains and altiplanos. Ice and snow appeared from time to time on the otherwise yellow-brown terrain.

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I wasn’t expecting much in the way of wildlife but actually we saw plenty of bird life, wild vicuñas (first collage), domesticated llamas and alpacas and the long-tailed, long-whiskered rodents called vizcachas.

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This llama was taking a dust bath!

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As Dean will tell you, I profess to not particularly enjoy views for the sake of views. However really I think it’s probably more that I don’t like having to hike up long, steep mountains to gain said views. Being driven to them in a bus is another matter altogether so this trip allowed me to enjoy the scenery with very minimal effort! These volcanoes, Parinacota (6348m) on the right and Pomerape (6222m) on the left I believe, were awesome.

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Then there was also Guallatiri with its continually active fumerole, made famous by Top Gear’s Bolivia special apparently.

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Next we paid a visit to the hamlet of Parinacota which sits at an elevation of 4,400m and (in the 2002 census) has only 29 inhabitants.

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I didn’t think the views could get any better but I was wrong. Our final stops were based around what I think were Cotacotani lake (first photo) and Chungará lake, at the highest point of our trip, 4500m. Snow-capped volcanoes and blue skies reflected in a still lake: stunning. They gave me a good excuse to try out the panorama setting on our point and shoot camera too.

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The Atacama Desert is commonly known as the driest non-polar place in the world. The average rainfall is about 15 millimetres per year, although some locations, such as Arica (the starting point of the last tour) receive 1 to 3 millimetres a year. To explore the desert we travelled south (on yet another night bus) to the dusty, very touristy town of San Pedro de Atacama. It’s the kind of place where it’s really hot in the sun but incredibly cold everywhere else, especially at night. It really felt as though we were in the desert, especially since our hostel was on the outskirts of the town.

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There are loads of tours you can do but we splashed out on three, courtesy of Kay Blake’s wedding present to us. Thank you very much.

The first was selected mainly so that we could see the salt flats however there were a couple of stops before we got there. On the face of it, the first destination, Valle de Jere, doesn’t look much; just some brownish trees and and little stream. However when seen in the context of it being a canyon containing a desert oasis, the only trees and water for miles and miles around, it becomes much more impressive. The bits that look like bushes on the hillside are actually the tops of trees covered by tons of sand! All the rock you see is pumice stone.

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It’s a valuable source of fruit and herbs for locals from nearby Tocanao, our next stop. We took a very short walk around the village and popped into the adobe church of San Lucas with a staircase and roof made of cactus wood.

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Then I played fetch with a very enthusiastic dog for a while! (Dean’s picture)

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This was one of the many dogs which have painted markings on them, presumably in place of collars.

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Finally, we arrived at the main event, La Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos. We already knew it wasn’t the best time of year for seeing the salt flats in their completely dried out state but that didn’t really matter as they were still really unique and home to three kinds of flamingo (flamenco). Neither of us could stop taking photos!

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To show the salt, a photo of our silhouettes and some very far away people plus a close up of the setting sun’s rays illuminating it.

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The sunset was incredible. On one side of us the sun descended behind a volcano, over the flamingo silhouette-filled Chaxa lagoon turning from blue to gold to orange. Whilst simultaneously on the other side, the pink and purple sky bathed the mountains and the rough salty ground.

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Awe inspiring creation!

Another day, another tour. At 2:30 we were collected for our next tour to the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). The landscape was different again, being mainly clay and salt shaped by wind and water with the ever present horizon of volcanoes.

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Salt crystals made the ground sparkle and the towering contracting and expanding rocks creaked in a slightly alarming manner!

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There were a few smaller formations pointed out to us: the two and a half Marys (used to be three until a Brazilian tourist broke one); a dinosaur; and a priest.

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We also saw this enormous sand dune…as inviting as fresh snow. Unfortunately our very strict guide wouldn’t let us anywhere near it!

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At times you could definitely see how the place earned its name.

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The other part of this tour was spent in Death Valley where we watched the sun set.

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Tour number three unfortunately has no pictures. We went stargazing! Because of its high altitude, absence of clouds, dry air, and lack of light pollution and radio interference, the Atacama desert’s night sky is breathtakingly beautiful. The only time I’ve seen anything close was while hiking the Inca Trail. We could see Mars, Saturn and literally thousands of stars making up the Milky Way. Out there, it’s common to see at least ten shooting stars an hour so we saw plenty.

What made it a ‘tour’ was that a Canadian astronomer gave us a very entertaining hour-long or more talk about mankind’s knowledge of space throughout the ages plus loads of interesting facts – mostly big numbers I can’t recall! Then, using a laser torch, he showed us various constellations and how to identify them.

Next he explained their ten big telescopes which were all trained on different things in the sky before giving us free reign to use them. The coolest one was seeing Saturn and its rings and moons – very small granted, but incredibly clear. Others allowed us a view of Mars and various other clusters of stars. It was amazing to see that different stars have different colours: blue are the hottest and red-orange the coolest.

The evening ended with a Q&A session with hot chocolate around a campfire! Now I want to be an astronomer!

The next day we took another long bus ride east into Argentina. The scenery was amazing including cacti, snow, mountains, proper dry salt flats on the Argentina side and multicoloured rock formations. These were all taken from the bus window (hence the wonkiness of many) but give you an impression of what we saw until the winding mountainous roads rendered me incapacitated with motion sickness!

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At the start I said this was the first of two visits to Chile. We’ve hit three very spaced out Argentine destinations since then and in a day or two we head back to Chile – Santiago and then Valparaiso – where, as a few of you have enquired, I will spend my 30th birthday. (Yikes!) Then it’s south to the lake district, back into Argentina, up to Buenos Aires, Iguaçu falls and then our final country, Brazil.

Enjoy your Sunday everyone!

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One thought on “Chile: A Chilean wonderland

  1. Amazing ‘views’ …. Really stunning and the ones with flamingos look fab too! I would’ve loved the stargazing! Emma too!

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