September 20TH, 2018
Today on this first day of spring here in the southern hemisphere, we arrived at the Chilean border at 12:51 pm where there was a line up and we were told by a tourist in one of the vans ahead of us, that they’d been there two hours already. Within an hour we were “in” the building and got immigration done and then the TIP for Tigger done in about 30 minutes. After an inspection by two Customs officials looking for contraband and fresh fruit, veggies, meat, dairy or honey, (we sacrificed some pineapple and they didn’t find the stuff we hid!) we were on our way and the road was paved!
Chile is a skinny string bean of a country separated from the rest of the hemisphere by the world’s driest desert to the north, the second-highest mountain chain to the east and a giant expanse of coastline to the south and west. It ranks 38th in the world in size and covers about the same land mass as the state of Texas. It is also an agricultural powerhouse (think getting fresh fruit in Canada from Chile in our winter!). It stretches along South America’s western edge, with more than 6,000 km / 3700 m of Pacific Ocean coastline on the west and the Andes on the eastern border (it only averages 177 km / 110 m in width). Chileans will tell you “that when God created, Chile, he had a little bit of everything left over and strung it down the west coast of South America to make their homeland”.
It borders Peru to the north, Bolivia to the northeast, Argentina to the east, and the Drake Passage in the far south. Chilean territory includes some Pacific islands with the most well-known being Easter Island. The arid Atacama Desert in northern Chile contains great mineral wealth, principally copper. The relatively small central area dominates in terms of population and agricultural resources, and is the cultural and political centre from which Chile expanded in the late 19th century when it incorporated its northern and southern regions. Southern Chile is rich in forests and grazing lands, and features a string of volcanoes and lakes. The southern coast is a labyrinth of fjords, inlets, canals, twisting peninsulas, and islands.
Like most of the rest of South America, Spain conquered and colonized the region in the mid-16th century, replacing Inca rule in the north and centre, but failing to conquer the independent Mapuche who inhabited what is now south-central Chile. After Chile declared independence from Spain in 1818, Chile emerged in the 1830’s as a relatively stable authoritarian republic. In the 19th century, Chile saw significant economic and territorial growth, the end of Mapuche resistence in the 1880’s and gaining its current northern territory a war from 1879–83 after defeating Peru and Bolivia (this was the war in which Bolivia lost its coastal land but was granted free rail access to the Pacific). In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the country experienced severe left-right political polarization and turmoil. In 1990, a centre-left coalition ruled and the country stabilized. Chile is today one of South America’s most economically and socially stable and prosperous nations, with a high income economy and a high standard of living. It leads South American nations in rankings of human development, competitiveness, income per capita, globalization, state of peace, economic freedom and a low perception of corruption.
- The currency of Chile is the Chilean peso which has 666 pesos to the US dollar; 520 pesos to the Canadian dollar.
- The price of gasoline here was somewhat of a shocker: ranges from $4.93 a gallon to $5.25 depending on octane. At least it’s not as hard to come by as in Bolivia and there is no “foreigner” price.
- The beers, at least up here in northern Chile are Escudo, Cristal and Austral; all lagers but Doug has discovered that his favourite beer: Stella, is actually cheaper than Corona which is still only about $1.50 US.
- Time zone: we have jumped ahead an hour here in Chile so right now until North America “falls back” we are on Atlantic time – which really makes no sense cause we are south of Peru on the Pacific!
Our first stop in Chile is San Pedro de Atacama – located in the Atacama Desert which is considered the driest place in the world. This is one of the three most popular tourist destination in the country with Torres del Paine and Easter Island being the other two (we plan to hit all three of these).
We had two possible camping spots in mind but both claimed they were full so in our attempt to find a third, we saw a camper parked in a Lodge parking lot so we pulled in and after a bit of negotiation, Doug settled on a price for at least two nights. Lodge Las Rocas has hot showers, bathrooms, slow internet, power and fresh water. Just what we needed after a few days of no water (we’d dumped our tanks due to the cold nights but not soon enough as in the town of Uyuni, it got way colder overnight than we’d anticipated and we damaged our new hot water heater!).
We met our neighbours, a couple from France/Argentina who were having mechanical issues with their rented camper truck and while Fran set up, Doug went into the village to get money and a new power adapter for the electricity here.
Friday morning we went to the recommended mechanic here about the two new noises we’d been hearing under Tigger the past few days. We thought Julio had fixed one of them but it had returned. Just prior to this we dropped off our laundry in town.
Maxim took Tigger for a test ride, figured he knew what was going on; he reworked the front shocks and tightened the skid plate. When we left, we took it a for a test and one noise was gone but not the second one We returned to Maxim’s and Doug took him out again and upon our return he diagnosed a problem in the front that he said he couldn’t get the part for and recommended we go to the Chevy dealer in the nearest big city, Calama where we had to go anyway to fill our propane tank. (We could not get propane in Bolivia as they will not sell to foreigners and our tank was not empty enough for a gravity fill when we did find someone who would help us so we used propane sparingly.)
We parked near the main street of San Pedro which is a pedestrian street, went for some lunch and to inquire about tours – there is a great deal to see in this area but much of it is similar to the landscapes we’d just seen in Bolivia. Many of the streets here are dirt or paving stone. We have been told the town wants to keep its “charm” and all with no paved streets, does not allow any buildings over one story and the main street is pedestrian only. Many of the homes are built of adobe and you won’t see a neon sign here. Also, there are a huge number of Chilean flags flying.
We decided on which tours we’d like to take (less bad roads for Tigger and no more nights at high altiutude!) and after checking a few agencies (there are SO many), we found one that gave us the best price for all three.
This meant, we were leaving for our first tour in 30 minutes, so after paying, we walked back to Tigger, Fran grabbed what we needed and Doug drove back to the Lodge to park Tigger so we wouldn’t have to do it afterwards when it would be dark and it would be safer (we’ve had several people tell us that in Chile, in many places, you don’t want to leave your car unattended in parking lots).
So our first tour of three was the Valle de la Luna. This is a park outside San Pedro with “moon like” features and a cool tunnel and cave walk. You do this late in the afternoon in order to see the sun set.
The skies here in San Pedro are very blue and clear; great for star gazing so the sunset is not as spectacular as we’d hope as there are no clouds for the colours but we enjoyed most of the tour.
Upon returning to the village around 7:40 we picked up our laundry and walked back to Tigger to get to bed early as our next tour was the next morning with a pick up time of 5-5:30!
It’s very warm here during the day, but being in the desert it does cool off at night considerably – mid to high 20’sC / 70’s F during the day; single digits C at night / low 40’s F.
So Saturday morning we were picked up at 5:15 am to head out to the El Tatio Geyser site – the largest geothermal region in the southern hemisphere. Took about 90 minutes to get out there and we had to dress warm as it’s located up at 4300 m / 14,100’. We’d just come down from almost 5000 m in Bolivia to 2400 m here in San Pedro and no we were going up again (another reason we didn’t want to drive ourselves here is because the geysers are best in the morning which would have meant another freezing night up high!)
Now this site is no Yellowstone but pretty impressive in the morning just watching the number of fumeroles. We were taken to spots to get close to a number of them, then given breakfast (French bread, ham and cheese, cereal/yoghurt and hot beverages before wandering over to see the largest ones while some of the group went in the hot water pools (we opted not to do this for two reasons: the water was not hot enough on our opinion (30C/85F) and because it was morning, getting out of the water would be quite a jolt to the system!). We walked with a young American girl doing a semester abroad in Chile and checked out the last few geysers.
After we all packed back in the van, we drove through the desert, saw vicuna,
And some viscucha – a rabbit like creature but actually part of chinchilla family – we’d seen four at the hot pools a few days ago but did not have a camera with a good zoom with us.
Then it was on to a town which all of us opted out of going into (very tiny and not impressive)
in favour of checking out a canyon on the Puritama River.
Then it was back to San Pedro by 1pm.
We’d heard from a young couple we met in Sucre, Amber & Lucas, about a great camp spot outside San Pedro, more in the desert and decided to join them there today after two more expensive nights at this Lodge. We had also heard from Angela & Graham that they too are in San Pedro now and they said they’d join us tomorrow maybe…
We are now camped about 10km outside San Pedro at a place called Andes Nomads Desert Camp & Lodge and there are about seven other rigs here and a few motorcycle overlanders. One of the latter is a Canadian named Paul from Vancouver!
There are solar hot showers here, bathrooms, a common room with slow internet but it’s cool inside and lots of space for campers. We are paying half the price we paid at the lodge!
Sunday morning we took our third tour: Rainbow Valley. We were picked up at the gate of Andes Nomads and then Mattius, our driver/guide went along picking up others. Our first stop on the tour was petroglyphs.
Where we also had breakfast with yummy French bread, cold cuts and cheese, tea, hot chocolate and cookies.
Then it was off to the main attraction. Enroute we saw a small group of guanacas.
Fun fact: Guanacos are the animals which were genetically modified into llamas and vicunas became alpacas.
Now there are not as many colours as the Rainbow Mountain in Peru but it is a much larger site and the weather was perfect to see the colours which are mostly green (from epidite), chocolate brown, some teal, blue and white. We spent about an hour there walking and taking pictures before returning to San Pedro.
When we arrived back at Tigger, Angela and Graham had arrived. Unfortunately, that day, the power went out a few times, the Wifi was crappy and the washing machine did not work that well. We were not impressed. While this is a much cheaper place in town, the amenities leave something to be desired; turned out to be the weekend and the volunteers at the hostel don’t work weekends so bathrooms and camping sinks not cleaned and one bathroom stall was out in the ladies. The showers are solar so no hot water in the morning!
Anyway we enjoyed a long happy hour with Angela, Graham, Amber, Lucas and Paul
and the next morning we packed up and headed north to Calama. There is the world’s largest open pit mine there (yes bigger than Rio Tinto in Utah!) and it’s a good sized city so we can get some stuff done.