When we left you, we were heading north out of Valparaiso, the city of awesome council-sponsored graffiti, on a 7 hour bus ride to La Serena, further up the coast. One thing about Chile which has really impressed us, in fact, is the long-distance bus system. Not being ones for travelling National Express in the UK we have very little to compare it to, other than our 'can I bring my chickens along?' bus experiences in Asia! We were expecting something reasonably similar from Chile but, as it turned out, could not have been more wrong! The buses would be called 'executive coaches' at home, in which the top of the double decker looking like you would expect but with the downstairs section playing home to Jim'll Fix It style leather armchairs, which recline into sleepers should you wish them to. Naturally, we selected the downstairs option, taking leg length into account and the fact that it was only about £6 more expensive each. Bargain!
When we got to La Serena, we were greeted with another atmosphere entirely from that which we had found in Santiago, Valparaiso or Viña del Mar. A town in which spaghetti western meets modern high street is the best we can do in describing it! On our first day we spent some time exploring the town itself and became aware how precious the Chileans seem to be about their post. You can only buy stamps in the post office, which is also home to the only post box in the whole town and which sees fit to be closed for three hours in the middle of every day! Perfect postcard sending conditions! Having navigated our way around the postal system, we then happened upon a student protest - like in every country they were complaining about fees - in which, having been spotted by one of the leaders of the pack, we ('turistos') got a mention in one of the chants, something along the lines of 'even the tourists know the fees are a joke' we think! We even got an invite to join the protest as it wound through the streets but, with our student days long behind us, we felt a polite decline, a smile and a wink was the best way out!
Then it was off to the beach, but don't get too jealous, as the Cook Islands it most definitely was not! Firstly, to get to the beach, you had to walk past a large, roofless, concrete construction which, from the unbelievable smell, found itself most useful as the toilet for any local tramp or hobo. In the area's favour, there was a lighthouse to look at, and some lovely birds for Nick to enjoy watching as they foraged in the lapping waves, but sadly little else, and it wasn't even warm! We did, however, get our first glimpse of the reasoning behind quite a useful saying for young Chilean women: stray dogs are everywhere in Chile, literally everywhere. When people realise they cannot look after their big dog, they drive to another city and dump it. The dogs are incredibly calm, very chilled out lounging around in the sun and not at all a nuisance but nothing is done about them so they really are everywhere you turn - including the beach. Now, the ones on the beach (like many dogs we have seen since) seemed to take exception to the 4x4s, which occasionally drove along the sand. We subsequently found out this was because they don't like the movement of the wheel and their solution is to run alongside the moving vehicle, barking as loudly as they can at the wheels until the car drives off the edge of their patch. They don't touch the car at all, they just bark incessantly, giving rise to the excellent phrase used by many Chilean women when they fin aly give an admirer the go ahead…..'You are like a dog with a wheel, when you get to me you don't know what to do'! Love it.
Once we had exhausted all La Serena had to offer, we decided to jump on a couple of day trips to the surrounding areas to see what more remote parts of Chile, away from the towns and cities, had to offer. Our first was a trip into the Elqui Valley where the house of Gabriella Mistral, another of Chile's literary Nobel Prize winners, was first on the list. Then we were taken to a huge dam that had been built to negate the possibility of a massive drough,t similar to the one experienced a few years ago in the region. The views from the top into the valley were stunning and it was really interesting to learn how the local people take it in turns to pump water up to their land, as the flow of the stream isn't enough to sustain everyone at once. Next on the list was a visit to a Chilean papaya orchard. Chilean papayas are no ordinary papayas we have now found out, oh no! They have very strong anti-inflammatory properties, so much so that you cannot eat one raw, unless you want your whole mouth and tongue to go numb. The juice of these is frequently used in ibuprofen we found out - who knew?? Also on the agenda was a tour of the major pisco distillery in the region. Pisco is the local firewater and is made by distilling grape juice. It was, of course, interesting to see how it is made, but the highlight was, naturally, the pisco sour (the famous cocktail made with the spirit) tasting session - delicious!
Our second trip was to the Humboldt National reserve, about 100 miles further up the coast from La Serena. Incorporating islands which play home to hundreds of Humboldt penguins, our only way to reach them was by boat…a very little and very open boat, which was set to take us 10km across open ocean, very swiftly leading Nick to re-evaluate his 'I don't mind boats' claim. Once you got used to the boat's engine struggling to chug you up the steep side of the huge waves and then the lurch in your stomach as you dropped down the other side though, it was a dream! Indeed, as a reward for our scary sea-faring antics, we were treated to countless sightings of sea lions and beautiful sea birds, as well as penguins and the more rare sea otters which live in the area. A picnic on a remote island followed, where the birds were so tame they would happily venture up to Nat, looking out for a stray crumb from her sandwich and finally taking the bread that she offered in her hand without flinching at all.
With Middle Chile under our belts, there was nothing for it but to once again jump in our Jim'll Fix It chairs and make the 17 hour overnight journey to San Pedro in the Atacama desert. Up here, there is no attempt whatsoever to add western culture to Chile's very fine display of its own. Quite the opposite, in that it relishes its desert atmosphere, embracing sandy streets, frequent power cuts and a feeling that any minute everyone will slam their shutters closed and 2 poncho-wearing, gun-toting cowboys will challenge each other to a dual in the street. Bottom line though is that we love it! The town square is an oasis of green (and pavement!) and the eateries and craft shops are high quality and numerous. Being in the middle of the desert however, there simply is not the option of travelling around independently so, once again, we have hopped on some fabulous tours to get a taste of this, the driest place on earth.
Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley for those of you for whom MFL is not your life!) and Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley - thanks to a bloody battle that took place there once between the locals and the Spanish conquistadors) were top of our list and they gave us our first taste of what the Atacama is really like. When you hear the word desert, you instantly think 'sand', but not here. This desert is made of salt and that salt is covered in so much dust that it just looks like rock. In a word, it is incredible. The immensity of the Andes, which rise up from behind the desert, and the scale of every view you encounter is breath-taking. We hope the photos give you some idea, even though they cannot begin to capture how small these unbelievable vistas make you feel. We also spent time visiting some lagoons, which sit in the mountains, at a very altitude-y 4800m above sea level. Given that anything above 2500m can cause altitude sickness, and that neither of us had been higher than that before, we really had no idea how we would be affected, but thankfully, apart from some breathlessness when asked to do anything other than sit in the car, and a couple of nasty headaches, we have generally been fine. This all bodes well for the next stage of our trip, where we will reach 5000m in Bolivia and July's Inca Trail, which will require us to exercise at an altitude of about 3500m - nice! All of that aside, the lagoons were extremely impressive, playing home to flamingos and other Andean mountain birds to get Nick's juices flowing. The next day however started at 3am, yes, 3am, so that we could drive for two hours to the El Tatio geysers to see them doing their thing at sunrise. Sadly the roads were far too bumpy to have a cheeky nap on the way so it was wide eyes for the whole journey, until we reached the geysers. Setting foot out of the minibus we were greeted with -10 degrees, which made us extremely grateful for the huge warm puffa coats we had seen fit to buy in La Serena 'just in case'! You can see the geysers for yourselves in our photos, and see how impressive they look, steaming away as the sun rises over the Andes.
Onwards and upwards however, literally in our case, as we contemplate the next stage of our trip, heading into Bolivia, where nothing is lower than about 3200m above sea level. Naturally, we will be keeping our eyes peeled for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.