Chile has the strongest economy in Latin America and by far the most expensive. They have surprisingly high standards of organisation and cleanliness. Its long Pacific coast and largely flat terrain makes it accessible for trade, and is also easy to govern, especially as most of the population is concentrated in the middle. Chile is very tourist-friendly, however, it is not the most popular country amongst other Latinos. There is often hostility between Chile and other Latino countries, perhaps for its past behaviour; geographically cutting off Bolivia from the sea and supporting the British over Argentina in the Falklands War (Malvinas) are still wounds which still have not been forgiven.
We will not feign to be experts on Chile, but what we have seen is certainly worth talking about. San Pedro de Atacama is Northern desert region, close to the Bolivian and Argentinian border; and Valparaiso is a little piece of heaven just outside of Santiago.
Valparaíso is a quirky, colourful alternative to the mechanical capital of Santiago. Valparaiso is unique in its set up; most Latino cities, thanks to the Spanish, are composed of neat, uniform blocks of perpendicular roads leading out from a central main plaza and church. However, you will find no right-angles in Valparaíso. Valparaíso is made up of rolling hills where roads organically follow the topography of the land, curving and zigzagging up and down, with pedestrian paths and steep funiculars connected like snakes and ladders. Traditional, painted wooden houses line the green hills with a kaleidoscope of colours. Graffiti art and murals can be found everywhere, no wall is left uncovered; Valparaíso is an open air gallery, where you will be graced with stunning views at every level, of the streets, against the sea and sky. Valparaiso is a heaven for hippies, lovers of the shabby-chic and home to the nicest Chilenos in the country!
If you are more into the high life, Viña del Mar is probably more your cup of tea. Home to the most famous Cinema Festival in South America, the Latino equivalent of Cannes, Viña del Mar is a modern beach city, with high-end restaurants, bar and hotels. It is just 15 minutes by train or 1 hour from Valparaíso. Whichever you prefer, it is definitely worth visiting both for such a striking contrast and poetic juxaposition of neighbouring cities.
SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA
San Pedro de Atacama is the most arid non-polar region in the world. Many choose to finish the Uyuni salt flats tour across the Chilean border in this small desert village, where you can visit some unique natural phenomena by day and stargaze by night.
WHAT TO DO
Valley of the Moon & Valley of Death
The two valleys are so called for their strange rock and sand formations. Wind and water erosion has left pockets of volcanic depressions across the area, in combination with crystallised salt drying on its surface created the lunar landscape effect of Valle de la Luna.
Rumour has it that it was originally called Valle de Marte (Marte), but a Belgian priest mistakenly baptised it Valle de la Muerte (Death), and so became known as such thereafter. You can visit these with various tour agencies, although some nutters decide to cycle there in the desert heat!
Garganta del Diablo – Devil’s Throat Gorge
You can rent bikes to explore the Garganta del Diablo, which you can easily reach from the village. This lovely route follows the river, and will take you to a dry desert canyon through a labyrinth of fun twists and turns between strange rock formations. At the end, you can climb a small hill for a breathtaking 360 view of the surrounding desert landscape. There are one or two shallow river crossings so be prepared! If you are not into cycling, you can do the same route walking.
Floating On Water
Laguna Cejar is a salt lake with the second highest concentration of salt after the Dead Sea, making the water very dense and consequently you float to the top. The water is freezing cold, an extremely refreshing dip in the heat of the desert sun. It is also a natural spa, as you get out of the lake and the your skin dries, leaving a layer of salt – the perfect exfoliator! There are similar lakes you can go to, such as the Lagunas Escondidas, a smaller version of the Laguna Cejar, which is a cheaper option and actually better in a way because it is much less busy.
San Pedro is home to the most important observatory in South America. It geographical isolation makes it an incredible place for stargazing and the astronomy tour is extremely interesting. The stars are always out, and depending on the time of the year, you can see the moon and the planets too. The tour lasts around half an hour, and you will be taught about the constellations and the solar system, viewing the night sky through a giant telescope. Don’t expect to be able to see the planets like in the movies, but be amazed by how we can actually witness what goes on outside of our planet, millions of light years away.
Geysers del Tatio
El Tatio, from the Quechua word for ‘oven’, is a geyser field in the Andes at over 4000m above sea level. It has over 80 active geysers, which can be observed at sunrise. Steam rises from boiling hot pools of water, which are around 2000m deep, on hot rocks heated by magma – a phenomenon that exists in only a few places on Earth! Furthermore the journey takes you through stunning mountain landscapes where you can see llamas, vicuñas and other wild animals. Tours also include a visit to Machucha Village, good for a little empanada snack and a peruse of an old church. There is also the possibility to swim in geothermal pools, depending on the tour agency. Temperatures in the early morning are sub-zero, so wrap up warm if you don’t want to catch hypothermia.
Wandering around San Pedro itself lovely, with its unpaved streets and mud houses, peruse the handicraft shops. One observation that is worth mentioning is that San Pedro de Atacama is expensive – expect European prices. Everything from transport, hostels, restaurants and even groceries are costly in Latin American terms. It is no surprise, therefore, that you will find many Europeans and very few Latinos. If you are financially constrained, it is best to spend just one or two nights.