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The Central part of Chile should not be overlooked: most travelers focus on
Atacama and Patagonia,
but also in this part of Chile there are unique landscapes and towns.
If you have not read them yet, have a look at the travel information and the complete map
of the itinerary in Chile and Argentina here: www.wildtrips.net/chile-argentina.htm.
Here you will can find lots of photos and the fascinating travelogue.
Deserted roads, boundless landscapes, blue skies.
This is the least you can expect from a trip to Chile (and it would be enough!), but during our travel itinerary we found much more: exotic fauna, spectacular hiking trails, kind people, fresh seafood and views so unusual that it seemed to be in the set of a science fiction movie whose director was addicted to hallucinogens. Most importantly, we lived on the road for twenty-five days.
We arrived at Santiago del Chile the morning of the 15th of December. We immediately collected our rental car, a typical camioneta booked from the local agency Chilean Rent a Car via Auto Europe. Price was 800 euros for 17 days.
It was a Nissan Terrano four-door pick-up, an ideal vehicle for a travel itinerary on the dirt roads on the Andes. Excited by such a characteristic car (and by South America in general), we drove to the nearest mall... which sounds sad, but we just wanted to buy a cheap tent and some camping equipment. We found everything at the well-stocked Lider hypermarket.
We drove north. The Panamericana highway here was fast and pleasant: in some places it skirted the Ocean, in others it was surrounded by cultivated fields and barren hills where only cactuses could grow. While we were proceding northward the vegetation became more and more sparse.
We left the highway for a break on a beautiful stretch of coast that featured a sandy beach that formed a 5-kilometer arc and undulating sand dunes. I was already in awe: the Pacific Ocean and some wild nature, just beyond the highway.
A couple of hours later we arrived at La Serena and Coquimbo, populous and busy cities. We left the coast and we entered the Elqui Valley, the first destination of our travel itinerary in Chile. We were soon fascinated by the vineyards on the valley floor and by the sourrounding red mountains where only cactuses grew. We stopped in the quaint town of Vicuna when it was late afternoon.
We spent about a hour wandering its streets, then we continued up to Pisco Elqui. We found a room in a small hotel, we settled and at 9:15 we went out for dinner.
Unfortunately, we were given the tragic news that the restaurants were already closed. We cried many tears, so, to make up the loss of fluids, we entered a nice bar and we tasted the local red wine and the famous Pisco Sour, a cocktail made with Pisco, the local liquor. Together with the drinks we shared a "tabla", a plate with lots of grilled meat. Just to let you know about the prices in Chile, we spent about 35,000 Chilean pesos (roughly 45 Euros) for the double room and 6000 each to eat and drink, not bad.
The next morning we were again exploring the beautiful Elqui valley.
After lunch we resumed our drive towards the North of Chile. We didn't have a clear plan, but San Pedro de Atacama was still 1200 kms away and we wanted to get there quite quickly. We drove a lot, that day, on roads surrounded by more and more deserted deserts. We were also slowed down by more extensive roadworks in human history: hundreds of miles of roadway under construction or renovation.
At 5 PM we were approaching Copiapo when we decided to stop at a service area in the desert. You can imagine our surprise when the engine of our car would not start again. There were two road workers and we asked for their assistance. They were extraordinarily kind and friendly, but the camioneta, stubborn as a mule, would not move even by a inch. We spent an hour under the hot sun, in the desert, with sadness in our hearts, when we realized that it was all my fault. During the trip I had disconnected the annoying keychain from the car keys: unfortunately it was an anti-theft device and without it the car would not start. Problem solved. We were happy to have made acquaintance with two very kind Chileans. It was an interesting adventure, but we were a bit late. We unleashed the camioneta along the Panamericana.
We reached the coast at 8 PM and we decided to sleep in one of the beach resorts north of Caldera. It wasn't a smart idea, because the towns that we had seen on the map were nothing more than messy crocks of abandoned shacks. The few campgrounds and hotels were closed. Moreover, there were other long roadworks in progress. So we stopped in a tavern for truckers, where we ate fish for 5 euros (the seafood soup was huge, but not very tasty) and where we slept for 12 euros each. Not the cleanest hotel, but it was ok for one night.
The next day, the coast was shrouded in mist. So, we abandoned the idea of visiting the Parque Pan de Azucar and decided to travel to San Pedro de Atacama.
The Panamericana here was straight and empty, across a flat and boring desert interspersed with bare orange and red hills. In some points the landscape was most beautiful and we had a break along a dirt road near an abandoned mine. For lunch we stopped at Baquedano, a small and apparently anonymous town, certainly unknown to the tourist guides. Instead, it was very interesting, not only because we ate well for a few pesos in a typical tavern, but also because it had the atmosphere of a frontier village. There was a train station that was almost completely abandoned. We crossed the tracks mostly covere by the desert sand and we explored trains and buildings that were falling apart.
From Baquedano we drove to San Pedro de Atacama, where we spent an amazing week, visiting wonderful and unforgettable places, described here: Atacama Desert trip report.
After the week described at this link, our impromptu travel itinerary took us to Antofagasta, big and animated harbour town where we walked for a couple of hours through the streets of downtown and the fish market. The latter, in particular, was really quaint and there were delicious crab and seafood empanadas. After the wild itinerary in the nature of Atacama, we were happy of that destination (the Chilean cities lack notable monuments, but we liked the atmosphere and liveliness).
We drove for kilometers along the coast to get to Taltal, small seaside town not much frequented by foreigners. The place was nice. On Christmas Eve, all the restaurants were closed, so we had dinner at a tavern together with the workers from a nearby mine. It was the only place where the owners were rude and the atmosphere a little gloomy: they all wanted to be with their families to celebrate, I think.
Continuing our journey south along the Pacific Ocean (avoiding the Panamericana), we arrived the next day at the Parque Pan de Azucar. It was Christmas, so everything was closed. The information center of Caleta de Azucar didn't inform, but didn't ask for the payment of an entrance fee either. Then, suddenly, a bar on the sea opened and we had lunch with some tasty empanadas. Too bad it was rather foggy, which seemed inevitable on that stretch of coast.
After the empanadas we walked along the beach, among imposing gray rocks, and then we organized a boat trip to the island inhabited by the Humboldt penguins. We managed to gather enough tourists and we contact a local fisherman. The cost was 6,000 pesos each once you got the right number of people, and, fortunately, of the 20 visitors in the Park, 12 wanted to see the penguins. The trip was nice because there was some penguin plus many pelicans and several sea lions. It seemed strange to see penguins at that latitude (we were almost at the tropics), but these were particular penguins, a bit hippy.
It was almost five when the sun appeared. The landscape brightened.
So we decided to take the time to visit El Mirador, the viewpoint with the most spectacular views of the Pan de Azucar. From Caleta de Azucar we drove for a few miles alog the main road and then on a dirt road. We became friends with a fox, then we walked between yellow hills sprinkled of thousands of cactus. We arrived at the Mirador, a terrace overlooking the sea which offered a breathtaking view.
Back to Caleta de Azucar, we decided to camp right on the beach. We pitched the tent, lit the camp stove and spent a wonderful evening with the sound of the waves in the background.
Unfortunately, the next morning we woke up in the mist again, so we decided to abandon the seaside and drive towards the interior of Chile. We made a long way that day, but we crossed picturesque villages and extraordinary landscapes.
We were again in the Andes, in particular in the Park Nevado de Tres Cruces. Overcoming imposing canyons and steep gravel roads, we reached a point of control of the Carabineros (we were almost at the border with Argentina). Luckily they gave us some information, because, unlike the area around San Pedro de Atacama, there was no-one, not even an information office.
With the camioneta we reached over 4000 metres of altitude, at the Laguna Verde. It is a beautiful mountain lake swept by the wind. We were speechless, also because otherwise the fresh wind would cause us an immediate sore throat. The Laguna Verde was similar to the lagoons in the mountains around San Pedro, but a peculiarity was that there were some hot springs. The only pool that was spacious enough, however, was inside a shelter on the shores of the lake, where it was conveyed one of these streams of sulphurous water.
Surprisingly, there was someone in the shelter and it just happened to be a group of Italian people. Their goal was to climb the highest mountain of Chile and the highest volcano in the world, the Ojos del Salado. That shelter was a good starting point to settle in and to wait for the best weather conditions: the wind was very strong and strangely the Italians didn't like to be thrown to the ground by 200 km/h gusts. They looked rather pessimistic.
We had already met at the airport in Santiago two Canadians with the same mountaineering goal. In short, the Ojos del Salado was definitely a temptation, but you had to be ready to face bad weather.
We visited the area and then drove back towards the Laguna Santa Rosa. Lots of travelling, that day, but it was worth it, because this spectacular lagoon reflected the mountains and was inhabited by hundreds of pink flamingos.
Moreover, there was a stark wooden shelter scenically positioned on the shores of the Salar. There was no-one inside. Since it was late afternoon, we immediately elected that shelter to our "hotel" for the night. The free hotel with the best views in the world, I dare to say.
On the camping stove, we cooked stew and mashed potatoes that we had bought in the morning. Then we created a comfortable bed with our winter sleeping bags, that turned to be very useful as at night the temperature dropped below zero. At dawn, we looked outside. It was exciting to see the lake just in front of the shelter and the flamingos and all that huge panorama of mountains only for us, while we hugged to avoid freezing.
"We could move here," I proposed. It really did not make any sense, but for a moment it seemed a beautiful idea.
We walked along the lagoon, admiring the reflections of the mountains, photographing flamingos in flight and playing on the flat, wide and white expanse of salt pan.
Later we resumed our travel itinerary towards Copiapo, along a different road. We drove through an impressive valley, surrounded by sandy mountains, sort of huge gray dunes with green and yellow shades. It was a pleasure to roll down those dunes.
At Copiapo we had lunch with some delicious raw seafood and we lived to tell. In the afternoon we arrived at Bahia Inglesa. This seaside town is described very positively on the Lonely Planet travel guide, but it wasn't that special. The beach is pretty, English-style, but the wind that evening and the mist the next day prevented us to enjoy it. There are numerous bars on the short promenade, so we took the opportunity to drink beer and eat some panoramic fried squids.
The place is far less picturesque Pan de Azucar without offering much more (a little bit of nightlife and a kayak rental, but windsurfs or sailing boats would have been much more useful). The positive thing was that we found a quiet "cabana" with a pool for just 30000 pesos (high season would begin in January) so we could rinse and relax after the night in the tent and the one in the shelter.
When we left Bahia Inglesa we followed the road along the coast, to the south. It was stilly foggy an we didn't find anything particularly interesting along the way, just some small towns off the beaten track. In the end we slept in a B&B south of La Serena.
The next morning we could visit the towns along the Chilean coast immediately north of Vina del Mar. We really liked Papudo and we were glad that when we got to Vina the mist finally disappeared. The skyscrapers on the beach had their own charm, but we were most attracted by an extraordinary show on the sea.
As we ate some empanadas, in front of us thousands of seagulls and pelicans were flying and diving into the water. In the sea there were hundreds of seals. The fish in there was having a bad time...
In the early afternoon we got to Valparaiso. We drove into the town center, on the hills, between narrow streets, colorful houses and beautiful views. We were lucky to find a cheap double room in a hostel and a free parking place on the road. We were on Cerro Concepcion, the most picturesque and touristic hill.
That fame was well deserved: those streets were special, a work of art (as confirmed by the UNESCO, and if they say so...). We walked to Cerro Concepcion, Cerro Alegre and Cerro Carcel and we often stopped to admire buildings, murals and views on the houses packed on the hills that sloped gently into the sea.
For dinner there was plenty of choice, so we opted for the the restaurant with the menu of the day that most inspired us.
The day after we concluded our visit to the huge Valparaiso, then we drove away from the usual morning mist on the Pacific Ocean and we visited the Chilean countryside.
It was the 30th of December: we were closing to the end of our travels in central Chile. Reading information here and there we decided to visit Pomaire, a quaint village not far from Santiago del Chile, where there were terracotta handicrafts at a good price (I bought a nice piggy bank, big as a ball, for 1500 pesos) and excellent restaurants. We had lunch with tons of meat and we took away the leftovers. They would come in handy.
From Pomaire our impromptu travel itinerary led us to the Cajon del Maipo, a charming valley crossed by a raging river on which it is possible to go rafting. A feature of this valley, as well as other attractions near and south of Santiago, is that they are more reachable for Chilean tourists and therefore richer of services compared to many locations in the deserted north of Chile.
The Cajon del Maipo was very nice. After fifteen days in which we had seen only cactuses, we were surprised by the abundance of vegetation.
We quickly visited some villages including San Jose del Maipo. In San Jose there was an information office where we were recommended some destinations. In particular, there were beautiful walks and natural spas. We travelled through the valley by car: going up, the climate became colder and around us there were snow-capped peaks. The first spa we met had red waters. We were about to camp near these pools, but in the end we decided to go to the top, at the Termas de Colina. It was an excellent idea. The landscape in the mountains was spectacular and the spa is absolutely remarkable, a sequence of ponds of water heavenly sloped along the side of a hill.
Those pools remotely resembled those of Pamukkale. We were amazed at how this attraction was just mentioned in the Lonely Planet: in fact, it deserved a visit much more than all the other spas accurately described by the guide, at least in the part of Chile we visited. (The spas in Puritama were nice, but not like Termas de Colina, and more expensive and cold; at the Laguna Verde there was just a puddle; and Socos, south of La Serena, had only some bathing tubs in a hotel).
It was allowed to camp near the spa. After an initial dip in the natural hot waters, rich in minerals (the temperatures ranged from 60 degrees Celsius in the highest point to the 24 degrees in the lower pools) we pitched the tent on the side of the hill, not far from the ponds. The weather was cloudy and windy, with some rain, so after we had finished dinner (rice and meat cooked on the camp stove) we decided to sleep in the camioneta, which turned out to be very comfortable. Before going to bed, however, we had a night bath in onw of the hottest natural pools.
The next morning the sun was shining and the view was even more spectacular. We enjoyed another thermal bath. While we were boiling in those wonderful pools, a kind man plunged into "our" pool.
We had some difficulty understanding his Spanish (well, we usually don't understand much in general), but we think he said that he worked in Santiago in winter and near the spa in the good season. We could hardly believe him because around those natural spas there was nothing but a hostel -/ shelter, then we remembered a shack right on the dirt road leading to the Termas de Colina. He recommended his wife's empanadas.
So when we left that wonderful place, at 11 AM, we stopped at the booth of the old couple. He was at the oven, she was in the kitchen and shouted orders to her husband, who executed the orders peacefully and only occasionally answered testily. We got two empanadas with queso (cheese), really delicious, the best of our trip to Chile. They weighted about 700 kilos each and they left us full in the stomach and in the heart.
We drove down into the valley looking for a new attraction for the afternoon. There was a trek up to a glacier, but we gave up because the gorge where we wanted to go hiking was filling up of black clouds: it could be bad fot the views and for our health. So we opted for a horseback riding trip of a couple of hours, starting from the town of San Alfonso, in the Cascada de las Animas natural park.
Cloppete cloppete, we followed the guide up a steep path that led us to enjoy beautiful views over the valley and the particular vegetation. I had been riding a horse just once in my life, in Indonesia: also this time it was really fun as well as very typical and natural.
From riding a horse to driving a camioneta, we drove down the Cajon del Maipo looking for a restaurant-hotel where to have dinner (it was the 31st of December) and sleep early, because the following morning at 6:30 we had to be at the airport to fly to Punta Arenas, Patagonia.
After 17 perfect days, however, things did not go the right way. Everything was closed or not suitable to our needs. We drove for miles and miles, going towards the airport and telling ourselves: sooner or later we will find something! But we found nothing. In addition, we got stuck in an endless queue near Santiago: we didn't expect it because it was almost dinner time, but probably in Chile they had different habits from ours in regard to New Year's Eve. I think many were going to Valparaiso to see the fireworks, but I don't know if they would make it in time! So, at 9 pm we found ourselves at Santiago del Chile airport, hoping that there was a hotel and restaurant in the area.
Unfortunately, the Hilton and another luxury hotel asked us over 130 Euros for a double. The amazing thing, however, was that in the second hotel the concierge, seeing us unhappy about spending money that way, recommended us a cheap motel nearby. He described us how to get there and we thanked him for such kindness. Ten minutes later we were at the motel: the price for a nice bungalow with breakfast was 32,000 pesos.
It was a weird 31st of December, the one we spent in a motel room rented for 12 hours. It was funny.
The next morning we drove early to the airport in Santiago, where we returned the rental car... it was a sad moment, after 6000 kilometers traveled together.
We flew to Punta Arenas. To continue the travel itinerary in chronological order, click here for the Patagonia trip report.
On January the 7th, at dawn, we left Patagonia and we flew from Punta Arenas to Santiago. For little money a bus took us to a metro station, from which, in a few stops, we arrived in the rich and well-kept center of the Chilean capital. We wandered through the central streets and we walked to the fish market, which was nice but not as picturesque as not as cheap as the one in Antofagasta nor as cheap.
We had a lot of seafood, then we went to the departure of the cable car leading to the lookout point on Cerro Concepcion. Since there was a queue, and despite the heat, we walked up to the top of the hill, from which it was possible to see the city and, through the smog, the Andes.
Later, we found out that the quarter surrounding Cerro Concepcion was very lively, so we sat at a table of a bar, just on the road: a liter of beer Escudo came for 1300 pesos, a clear invite to getting drunk. We had a tabla, walked to the center, got back to the metro and then, by bus, to the airport. It was evening when an American Airlines flight took us to Miami.
We landed in Miami at dawn. By a cheap bus - payed by credit card because we had no American dollars - we arrived to South Beach. After an expensive breakfast in a luxurious bar whose owner, we found out later, was Italian, we rented two bikes for an hour and we explored South Beach and Miami Beach, between the glitz of the skyscrapers on the enormous beach and views of the ocean waves. Many were practising sports and the city seemed rich and vibrant.
Then we also visited Little Havana, the Cuban neighborhood: nothing special, but a lot of quite interesting cigar factories and cigar shops.
Back to the plane in the mid-afternoon: Charlotte, then London Heathrow, then the subway, then from London City Airport to Milan. We were back to Italy, tossed, tired and satisfied. The landscapes of Chile would stay forever in our eyes, in our mind, in our hearts, in our pancreas. By comparison, the rest of the world seemed a bit faded, the Italian political situation grayer than before. I thought that after that trip, a tax on good memories would cost us a fortune; however, there was no figure that could equal the emotions experienced along those 8000 kms on the streets of Chile and Argentina.
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