Chile – Santiago, San Pedro de Atacama and a little bit of history

Itinerary: 

  • Days 1-2: Fly from Lima, Peru to Santiago, Chile (via Mexico City, Mexico…)
  • Day 3-4: Santiago Chile
  • Day 5: Fly to Calama and bus to San Pedro de Atacama; Tour of Moon Valley
  • Day 6: Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos and Lagunas Altiplanicas
  • Day 7: Salt Lake and Salt Flats
  • Day 8: Geysers
  • Day 9: Fly from Calama to Punta Arenas via Santiago

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ CHILE→ Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina →  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: February 9-14, 2014

Our Odyssey: 

I’m sitting here in Punta Arenas, Chile in a warm and comfy bed at our hostel, still a little bit in awe of how far south we are right now (hint: picture a map of South America, now picture the very bottom tip of it- we are basically there). We just got here today on an overnight flight, so we’ve spent today relaxing and catching up on laundry (which in our current lifestyle means, taking our dirty clothes in the shower with us).

Last I wrote we were in Lima, Peru, heading to Santiago, Chile the next day. Since then, we’ve spent about a week getting to know Chile’s capital city and some of the northern desert landscape around San Pedro de Atacama. We only spent one full day in Santiago before flying to San Pedro, but thankfully we come back to Santiago in April for a week before flying to London, so we’ll get to explore more of this fascinating city then.

For those who don’t know, as Tim and I didn’t really know, Chile has a very interesting recent political history. The short story is that in the 1970s, when the country was in a state of bankruptcy and poverty and the president’s leadership was weak, a group of armed men overtook the presidential palace and opened fire on the building. The day ended with the president found dead due to a gun shot wound to his head- there is some debate over whether it was a suicide or whether he was killed in the coup. Personally, I think he was murdered.

For 48 hours after the coup, there was a general curfew where most stayed inside. When the curfew was lifted, the man who had led the coup had established himself as dictator over Chile. This dictatorship lasted until the early 1990s.

During this time, the dictatorship arrested anyone suspected of socialist or communist beliefs (and from my reading, it sounds like the net was cast very wide here). These people were tortured, held in makeshift prisons (some mansions converted into torture camps), and most often killed. Some of the torture tactics I’ve read about are very unsettling so I won’t go into them here. Additionally, many people were either banished or exiled, or went into hiding. The dictatorship aimed to establish fear in the Chilean people, and it seems they succeeded.

Since the end of the dictatorship, Chile has been stable and prosperous in general, electing presidents in a democratic process and more or less alternating terms between more conservative and more liberal leaders. They even had a female president, who was also the first to be re-elected for a second term.

Learning about this history gave me a deeper appreciation of and curiousity about the people here. Everyone my parents’ ages lived through a coup and a transition into a dictatorship that violated human rights, and everyone my age was born under this dictatorship. When I’ve thought about these types of regimes previously, I’ve generally thought of them as further back in the past – but this happened so recently. I have of course heard about such atrocities in the Middle East or Africa, but in school or in media, I never learned about South America’s history in this way before.

Much of what I learned above I gathered from a novel I just finished today by a Chilean author, Isabel Allende, and from a free walking tour we took in Santiago with a great tour guide named Franco, with whom we hung out with for a beer after the tour and exchanged contact info so we can hang out with him when we come back in April.

After our brief introduction to Santiago and Chile’s fascinating past, we flew to Calama in northern Chile, and from there took a bus to San Pedro de Atacama, in the Atacama desert (the dryest desert in the world). Nestled near the borders of Bolivia and Argentina, San Pedro de Atacama is a small tourist town with no paved roads that is a launching point for a number of natural wonders.

We stayed at a quaint and modest hotel run by a very kind family about a 15 minute walk from the town center. After checking in we walked into town to book tours for our handful of days in San Pedro. We were able to get a great deal with Andes Tours (one of 55 tour companies in San Pedro), getting 4 days of tours for just under $100 per person total.

Our first tour was that afternoon, to the Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley, called such because of it’s unique landscape that looks like something out of Star Wars. Our tourguide, Francisco, did a great job educating us about the desert and how the landscape formed. Our tour started with a brief trek through a cave whose walls were composed of crystal exposed for us to see and touch during the trek. We also got to hike up a sand dune and we learned that while we often think of sand dunes when we picture desert landscapes, they are actually very rare. Lastly, we went up to a lookout point where we watched the sunset over the “lunar” landscape.

The next day we got up early for a day long excursion to Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos and Lagunas Altiplanicas. Francisco was our tour guide once again. The first stop was to see the flamingos who feed in a lake in a salt flat terrain- it was really cool to see them in their natural environment. The only other times I’ve seen flamingos have been at zoos or amusement parks. We then rode in a bus for a few hours up to see two lagoons that sit between some mountains and volcanoes. We also saw some vicuynas (a camel/deer-like animal) drinking from the lake. The scenery was pretty, but this was admittedly a longer, more boring tour.

Our third day was my favorite- once again we had Francisco as our guide. We started by visiting a salt lake (Laguna Cejar) that was 20 meters deep, but so salty that when you get in, you just float. It was a really cool experience to be sitting in such deep water without even having to try to stay afloat. Afterwards Francisco showed us how to use the mud by the lake as a skin treatment – it had a really bad smell, but my skin was admittedly much softer after. At this point Tim and I, and everyone else on the tour, were very salty. My swimsuit was drying into a salty crisp. Our next stop on this excursion was to a lake set 10 feet or so into the ground filled with freshwater. Many people, myself included, jumped in – aside from the adrenaline rush, it was great to rinse off all of the salt. The last stop was to a salt flat, which actually looks like a frozen lake or a snowy terrain, but instead of snow and ice, it’s salt. This was a really fun place to stop and get a little playful and enjoy the sunset and pisco sours with the tour group.

We got to bed soon after we got back to the hotel that night since the next morning was our earliest yet- we had to be ready for a bus to pick us up at 4am for our last excursion to see the Geysers del Tatio at the third most active geothermal field in the world (the first is Yellowstone). Seeing the geysers was cool, but it was a freezing morning and the ride there was long and uncomfortable and the fatigue combined with the cold made the morning kind of miserable. Thankfully, after seeing the geysers, we went to a thermal pool and while we didn’t get in the water, just standing in the steam and on the hot rocks helped to warm us up.

We spent the rest of our time in San Pedro de Atacama relaxing, eating watermelon and homemade guacamole and drinking fruit juice. All in all, a very nice week seeing a lot of unique sights.

Our next adventure is hiking the W Trek in Torres del Paine national park starting on Wednesday! Adios!

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