22 – 31 January 2012

After three days in a 4×4 cruising the salt plains of Bolivia, we made it to our first stop in Chile, San Pedro de Atacama. Though the border between the countries was not marked, we knew we´d entered Chile when the roads changed from dirt tracks to modern motorways.  Chile is certainly much more developed than its northern neighbour, and I must say it was nice to re-embrace some of the modern conveniences we had been missing (fast internet, decent showers etc). Unfortunately, these conveniences come with a price tag, and we found our costs (especially for accommodation) literally quadrupling overnight.

San Pedro is a tiny town, home to just a couple of thousand people, on the edge of the driest desert in the world. Despite its size it attracts hoards of tourists, and its narrow, dusty streets swarm with visitors. We set out to explore the area on mountain bikes, taking ourselves to an ancient Atacamenan fortress built into the hills and later on to a rocky pass, known as the Quebrada del Diablo (Devil´s ravine). It certainly felt like the devil had a hand in things as we climbed the rocky trail in the blistering heat, but the effort was worth it as we free-wheeled back down the twisty ravine at great speed and cooled off in the river at the foot of the pass.

San Pedro de Atacama has plenty of attractions for visitors, including geysers, thermal pools, moon valley etc. However, we felt we had seen similar sights in the Bolivian desert and so we continued south to La Serena, a city about a 17 hour bus ride away.

La Serena is a coastal city located in the Elqui province. The area is known for its Pisco (a grape brandy) production and so we opted to take a tour of the Pisco Elqui Valley to find out more. We passed Papaya and Chirimoya farms and stopped at the roadside to buy some incredibly sweet, freshly picked, grapes. Later we made a stop at a traditional Pisco distillery where we learnt the process of producing the liquor and were able to taste samples. Let me tell you, it is strong stuff!

That same evening, we headed up to the Mamalluca observatory, close to the town of Vicuna. Chile boasts a number of world-class observatories, all funded by other nations including the US and Europe. As our guide remarked, “Chile has the skies, but not the money.” The Mamalluca observatory is a European project, with the various parts of the telescope being provided by different EU countries. In return for hosting the telescopes, Chile is entitled to a certain amount of free usage. Our guide for the evening, Luis, was fantastic – anything he couldn´t tell you about the night skies was probably not worth knowing. The skies were lit up with thousands of stars, so clearly visible thanks to Chile´s unique and dry climate. We gazed at Jupiter, Venus and the moon, learnt how to use the southern cross for navigation and saw two other galaxies. It was simply amazing, and made me feel very small in such a vast universe.

We spent some more time in La Serena, exploring the city, sunbathing on the beach and relaxing in the very tranquil Japanese garden before it was time to continue south once again. Our next stop (another overnight bus) was Valparaiso, formerly one of Chile´s most important seaports and a town with a long history of European immigration. The city is a jumble of multicoloured houses covering every inch of its steep hillsides. To access the highest parts of the city, a series of old funiculars, dating back to the 19th century is in place and for a few pennies you can save your legs a lot of effort. Our visit to the city coincided with a music and arts festival so, as we wandered round the historic centre we came across a number of live performances, which was a great treat.

Just along the coast from Valparaiso, is another seaside resort, Vina del Mar. We walked the five or so kilometres that separate the two to spend some time sunning ourselves on Vina´s beaches. The two towns, despite their proximity, couldn´t be more different. While Valparaiso has a very bohemian feel and seems to lack structure, Vina is a city of wide boulevards, manicured gardens and order. It was nice to experience both, although for me, Valparaiso had so much more character.

After a couple of days on the coast, it was on to the country´s capital, Santiago. Santiago is a beautiful and elegant city and, though it is home to several million, it has an intimate feel and is easy to get around by foot. On our first day in the city, we took a walking tour to get to grips with what the city has to offer and learn a little more about the history of Chile and Santiago´s turbulent past. We also learnt about an interesting phenomenon in the city – “coffee with legs”. Apparently, coffee shops didn´t originally take off in the city, so one entrepreneur decided to put a spin on the concept to try to boost sales. He employed a staff of female barristas, wearing very skimpy skirts – not surprisingly, the idea was a hit, especially given the coffee shop´s location in the city´s financial district! Now there are several of these cafes on offer, where invariably you can find the local financiers holding their important business meetings…

One of the reasons we included Chile on our itinerary (and we did think about cutting it a few times) when we were planning our trip was its reputation for producing good wine. So a trip to one of the area´s vineyards was a must do while in town. We chose the Concha y Toro (you probably know them as the producers of the Casillero del Diablo label) site for our visit. First off, we toured the company´s vineyards, learning about the different grape varieties they grow all over the country. This was followed by a tour of the cellars and the inevitable tasting. It was a rather rushed tour and we would have been disappointed, had we not booked in for the additional sommelier tour. Here we sat down with a professional sommelier, who took us through a detailed tasting session, answering all our questions, advising us which wines go well with which foods (and cheeses) and giving us a great insight into the subject. If you find yourself in Santiago, I would definitely recommend this experience.

Later that day, we headed to the city´s Human Rights Museum. This is a very worthwhile and interesting museum but it’s also very unsettling as you learn about the coup which removed Salvador Allende from power and the ensuing regime under General Pinochet. The museum explains about the disappearances which took place during this period, the violence and torture that many were subjected to and the fight of the Chilean people to restore democracy to their country. We listened to first hand testimonies from people who were interrogated as well the impassioned speech Allende gave to the people shortly before his death, and came away with a new perspective on the country.

On a lighter note, before we left Chile that evening, we were sure to try the local alcoholic specialty (other than wine) known as the Terremoto (Earthquake). It was a delicious, sweet cocktail of pisco, grenadine and pineapple ice-cream. The pineapple masks the strength of the alcohol, which is why it feels like the ground is moving under you when you stand up again after drinking it!