Atacama Desert: Lakes, Llamas, and Flamingos

I’m struggling a little bit to describe our time in the Atacama Desert. It’s breathtaking, beautiful, extreme, and vibrant. Our daylong excursion to visit high plain lakes and low lying salt flats did not disappoint. The Atacama Desert was far and away the best place we visited during our time in Chile.

It was another early morning for us in San Pedro de Atacama as we waited in the dark for our tour operator to pick us up. Ahead of us was a roughly 170 mile ride with stops at incredible sights along the way. The drive in and of itself was breathtaking. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen so many colors across such a diversity of landscapes.

Piedras Rojasred rocks and blue lagoon at piedras rojas chile

We stopped to eat breakfast and learn a bit about the geology at Piedras Rojas.  Altitude does such weird things to my body. I don’t have an appetite and I have to force myself to eat. Our travel doctor prescribed Acetazolamide, for me, which has made a huge difference. I can actually hike without searing headaches and fatigue. Woo!

At Piedras Rojas we had broad views of the surrounding volcanoes, a pale blue lagoon, and we spotted our first flamingos. A pair flew over the lagoon as we were walking by ourselves taking photographs and enjoying the landscape. It wasn’t even 10:00 a.m. and my day was made!

Lake Miscanti and Lake Meniquesflamingos in lake meniques chile

From Piedras Rojas we climbed higher to visit two altiplano lakes. Altiplano essentially means “high plain.” We also had our second flamingo sighting of the day at Lake Meniques, a deep blue lake ringed by yellow brush and towering volcanoes.

Lake Miscanti and Lake Meniques are fairly close together and were separated by a lava flow from nearby Miscanti Volcano. From the high plain, we could see at least five different volcanoes, one of which is still active. Chris and I’ve already talked about coming back to hike a dormant one someday.

Chaxa Lagoon (and Flamingoes)close up of flamingo in atacama salt flats chile

Viewing flamingoes in the salt flats was the number one thing I wanted to experience in the Atacama Desert. Three different species of flamingoes live in this totally bizarre climate and I had to see them for myself. According to our guide, flamingos can live more than 30 years. The birds we found at Chaxa are pretty used to being photographed. So, we were able to get up pretty close while they were feeding in the lagoon. It was a day filled with National Geographic moments.

Who Let the Llamas in?man pets llama on head

Finally, on our way back to San Pedro, we stopped in the small village of Toconao to stretch our legs and visit a church with a roof built out of cactus wood. (This is a big deal because the species of cactus used only grows one centimeter per year).

Anyways, while we were sitting outside the village square debating whether or not to buy some ice cream, we saw two llamas dash inside a local market.We both started laughing as the shopkeeper did his best to shoo them outside.

Our tour guide was completely unphased. He walked right up to them and gave them each a pat on the head. A few minutes later, the shopkeeper came outside with two large buckets of food. So, apparently they just popped their llama heads into the store to let everyone know it was time to eat. Does anyone else feel like they need a pet llama in their life?

It was sort of the perfect end to a brilliant day in the high desert. Have you visited the Atacama Desert? Where did you go? Where should we go when we go back?

Atacama Desert: Moon Valley and The Highest Geysers on Earth

We landed mid-afternoon in Calama and hopped on a shuttle for the 90 minute drive to San Pedro de Atacama. This is a small mainly tourist town located in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert on the planet. The Atacama only gets 1 millimeter of rain on average per year. In some places, rainfall has never been recorded.

We booked multiple excursions to various places in the desert, including Valle de La Luna and Geysers del Tatio.

Valle de La Luna

On our second day in San Pedro de Atacama, we took the Valle de La Luna tour. We signed up with Desert Adventure and wound up using them for all three tours we took in the Atacama Desert.

Our first stop the Valle de la Luna tour was Muerte Valley, which means “Death Valley”. This is not the correct name. The original name was Marte Valley, which is French for Mars Valley. The name given was based on its resemblance to Mars by a Belgian Priest that had settled in the area.  The locals mispronounced the name, and thus Death Valley stuck. The local parks group is trying to correct this mistake, even posting a “Marte Valley” sign right at the entrance.

From there, we went out to an area in the Salar de Atacama, or Atacama salt flats. We got to climb up right next to one of the biggest sand dunes, saw an example of what the old salt mines looked like, as well as the type of accommodation where the miners lived. All I can say is I am glad I never had to mine salt for work in such a harsh climate.

One of the more intriguing parts of this trip was that we noticed the desert looked a little wet. As it is an El Nino year, the Atacama had a little rain each day for 10 days straight. This is very rare, and had occurred only a few days before we arrived, which is why you could still see remnants of the rain.  

After seeing the old mines and workers accommodations, we went up to a look out over the Valley de la Luna to watch the sunset. It was a pretty nice sunset that we shared with a few hundred new friends.

Geysers del Tatiosteaming geysers in the atacama desert

The final tour with Desert Adventures required us to get up well before the sun. We were picked up at 4:30am for the 80 minute drive to the highest geyser field in the world, El Tatio.  Most folks slept on the way up, but I have never been one that does well sleeping sitting up. I tried to observe the surroundings as much as one can before sunrise.

We arrived at the Geyser fields and had a quick Chilean breakfast (white bread, ham, cheese, cookies), and then we were set to watch the sunrise. Unfortunately with the temperature being a bit cold, and Geysers containing water at ~86oC, which at that altitude is the boiling point of water, there was too much steam to really get to see the sunrise. The steam production was a pretty cool sight to behold.

We continued to explore the rest of the Geyser field, and for the more insane souls, there was an opportunity to take a dip in a thermal bath. We had heard the day before that the pool wasn’t that warm and that a lot of the tourists take advantage of this opportunity. Emily and I had much more fun walking around and checking out the other Geysers.

Llama Kebabsman eating llama kebab

On our way back to San Pedro, we stopped in a small village called Machuca. The town is supported via tourism alone, so they were ready for all the tourist busses. We had a chance to try a Llama kebab. One word: delicious. Of course, it didn’t make eating it easy for Emily when not 30 feet away from the BBQ, there was a baby Llama that you could pet and take photos with for a small fee!   

We ended up back at our hostel around noon and took a nap.  We proceeded to get our last lunch in San Pedro after we woke up. As we discussed the past few days, Em and I agreed that this location has been our favorite thus far. I think we would both come back here, and encourage you all to check it out if you can.

Stars, Pisco, and Biking in the Elqui Valley

After a relaxing few days on the beach in La Serena, Chris and I made our way to the village of Pisco Elqui in the stunning Elqui Valley. With Chris behind the wheel of our “micro machine” we wound our way up the Ruta de Las Estrellas into arid hills and bright green valleys.

I first read about this area of Chile in a post from the Globetrotter Girls. It’s worth reading the post for more detail about the valley and villages dotted throughout the region. I thought it would be a great place to do a little exploring, get outdoors, (and the photographs looked beautiful). Plus, it was a chance for us to taste pisco right from the source.

Producing Pisco

The Elqui Valley is the center of Chilean pisco production. So, what the heck is pisco, anyways? Pisco is produced from grapes and distilled into a brandy. We’ve had a few pisco sours (delicious) in Chile that have knocked our socks off. There are a few different ways this drink is made between Chile and Peru. It usually includes a combination of pisco, lime juice or lemon juice, egg white, and bitters. We really enjoyed our time in the valley. It was a great place for mountain biking, pisco tasting, and exploring the small villages throughout the area.

Finally, we participated in a stargazing tour, which was all in Spanish, and believe it or not, we’re able to pick up a decent amount. Does this mean our Spanish is improving? I hope so. One quick tip. If you plan to travel to the Elqui Valley, check out the lunar cycle. We were there right before a full moon, so the stars were a bit out shown. The stargazing would be out of this world during a new moon. Check out this feature from the New York Times travel section if you dig astronomy and want to learn more about all the Elqui Valley has to offer.

Up next we head to the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world. Keep your fingers crossed I spot at least one flamingo.

La Serena: A Seaside Escape (With All of Chile)

We’re a little bit behind on posting, but here’s a recap of our time in La Serena.

As we rode the bus back to Santiago, Emily and I discussed how much fun we had in Valparaiso. The vibrant colors and graffiti murals were amazing. The journey back to Santiago was quick as both of us were deep into our respective books. We changed buses at Terminal de la Alameda, and were off to the airport.

Spotting a Supertanker

We did have a small highlight waiting to board our flight. A large red and white plane with the tail number 944 landed. I noticed a lot of people getting up to take photos of this plane. Emily and I assumed the plane belonged to the Chilean President, as President Michelle Bachelet had been visiting the regions affected by wildfires. We were both wrong, it was in fact the 747 Supertanker airplane from the United States that was sent to help drop water onto the fires.

Exploring La Serenachurch in la serena

In La Serena, we hired a car and thus I got my first opportunity to drive. Observing the way people drive up to this point, I was slightly nervous. You definitely have to be aggressive and pay attention to your surroundings. Overall, it has been fun…and nerve wracking!

La Serena is the second oldest city in Chile (after Santiago), and is the Capital of Region IV or Norte Chico. The local population is roughly 200,000, but it is also one of the most popular beach vacation destinations in all of Chile. And since we are here in the middle of summer, we are vacationing just like the Chileans!

We had two different hotels in La Serena. This was because we had to make some changes to our original itinerary. The wildfires we wrote about in our Santiago post were starting to affect areas near the Colchagua Valley. We had planned to spend a couple of nights in wine country and decided to adjust our plans because of the fires. When we went to rebook our accommodation, we discovered there were hardly any rooms available in La Serena.

The first hotel was located right next to the Plaza de Armas in the center of town. The city center is home to a lot of small churches and a very quaint place. There were some local markets in the Plaza de Armas, and we strolled through these. We also discovered Chileans love their freshly made fruit juice, and for good reason as the temps hovered in the mid to high 80’s F. There were natural juice stands on pretty much every corner.

Beach Timesunset in la serena chile

Hotel number two, Cabanas Vegasur, was about a half block off the beach, and it was great. We were able to check in and then head down to the beach. The beach at La Serena is very long. Over the course of the next two days, we walked approximately 12 miles along the beach. Now this figure does cover the return journey, but if you cut that in half, that is 6 miles of sandy beach, and we didn’t walk all of it. On a whole, our stay here was nice and relaxing. Having lunch next to the Pacific Ocean, watching a little bit of the under-16 and under-18 National Surf competition, and of course enjoying our vacation with what seemed like 50,000 people on the beach. Emily and I enjoyed our first sunset together on this trip as well, and she took some great photos.

Tomorrow we head inland about 100km to the Elqui Valley, home of the famous Pisco grape growing region. I’ll also get a chance to see what this little Chevy Spark can do. (Emily has started referring to it as the ‘micro machine.’

Finding Color and Culture in Valparaiso

Okay, guys and gals. We escaped the heat of Santiago and made our way to the port city of Valparaiso. I have to admit something. I am not having a love affair with Chile. Chris wrote a little bit about our initiation by fire in Santiago. The city was hot, busy, and the Spanish here is very different. My Spanish isn’t great, so that’s my own fault. But in Chile, they speak very fast and there is slang for everything. Even basic questions like, “Where are you from?” are different here. I completely recommend getting your Spanish in order before coming. Google translate, to the rescue.

Chris is amazing and just rolls with it. I, on the other hand, have been dealing with some pretty major culture shock and anxiety. It’s loud, busy, and chaotic here. All the time. People are more animated than Minnesotans are at a Vikings game. There is construction everywhere. People shout on the street. The seagulls constantly cackle. Street dogs bark and fight. I’m sort of getting used to things, but I’m mostly wondering what we’ve gotten ourselves into. I’ve turned into a little bit of an anxiety-ridden coward in Chile. But, onward…

Tours in English: Muy Buenohouses in valparaiso

Valparaiso was a welcome transition from the insanity of Santiago. On our first full day, Chris and I did a walking tour with Tours 4 Tips. If you’re coming to Chile and nervous about anything, take one of these tours! I wish more than anything we had done one in Santiago. It probably would have made me feel more comfortable in the big city.

We had a fantastic bilingual guide named Camilo on the tour. He was awesome. One of the best things about the tour was that we took public transportation including a bus and streetcar with help from our guide. It was like “Public Transportation in Valparaiso 101.” It sounds stupid, but when your Spanish is already bad and the Chilean Spanish is harder to understand, the “how to take public transportation” training wheels was beyond helpful. Thanks to Camilo’s advice, we took a city bus to nearby Viña del Mar with zero problems.

American Influence in ChileEmily with street art in Valparaiso

Camilo is young, just twenty five years old. He has only known democracy in Chile, but his two parents lived through the dictatorship and hold very different viewpoints. His father served in the navy and for a short time worked closely with Augusto Pinochet. Camilo’s mother had a brother who was taken and tortured. The film “No” is one on our to watch list after hearing Camilo’s stories.

As much as this is a giant cliche, travel really is something which opens your eyes. I won’t get overly political here, but it’s a bit disconcerting when you learn how much your government has done to influence another sovereign nation. I learned about the Pinochet dictatorship, the American CIA’s role in overthrowing Salvador Allende, and “the disappeared” in high school. Watching a documentary is a completely different thing than meeting people who have been affected by things your government has done.

I’ll save the anecdotes about how often we’re seeing our current president splashed all over Chilean media…

Colorful Valparaisostreet art valparaiso

But, yay! Pretty houses! Camilo showed us another layer of richness to an already colorful city. Valparaiso experienced its golden age during the second half of the 19th century. Before the opening of the Panama Canal, people from all over Europe stopped in Valparaiso on their way to California during the gold rush. In just one of the city squares you could see French, German, British, and Italian architecture.

The city is well known for its colorful houses, antique elevators (acensores), and brilliant street art. I’ve never experienced anything quite like wandering the narrow streets and staircases on the hills of Valparaiso. Even after the tour, we spent a lot of time exploring the streets and taking in the artwork. We also checked out a craft brewery and had our first pisco sours. The city also has an abundance of stray dogs. I wanted to adopt all of them.stray dog in valparaiso

We really enjoyed our time in Valparaiso. It had a great vibe, was less intimidating than Santiago, and there was plenty to keep us busy. Next, we’re headed to La Serena for a few days on the beach before taking some time in the Elqui Valley. More to come!

Santiago: An Overwhelming Chilean Introduction

After a long flight, we touched down in Santiago on Thursday morning. Immigration was pretty straightforward, though we did have a little bit of a scare with customs. As we were walking to have our bags X-rayed, one of the customs dogs gave Emily’s day pack an extra long sniff. We clarified we had no food, but had to have the bag searched after the X-ray. The culprit? Vitamin C cough drops that smelled like oranges! I think the pooch had an ulterior motive; wanting to play fetch with me.

We had a shuttle arranged to take us to our apartment at Altura Suites. Our driver, Enrique, was very kind. We had a nice conversation (in broken Spanish) along the way. We talked a bit about the forest fires plaguing the Central region of Chile. You can read more about the devastating fires here. Altura Suites was located just a few blocks away from the Plaza de Armas, and Cerro Santa Lucia, two of the main attractions. It was nice being so central to the city and was a great base for exploring.

Heat and Hazeview from cerro san cristobal

The biggest hurdle for us to overcome (other than the language barrier) was the heat. Though Minnesota had been unseasonably warm for January, it was above 90F each day in Santiago. We didn’t have AC in our little apartment, so it felt like we couldn’t escape the heat the entire time we were there.

The heat and haze made us both feel a little jaded about Santiago. It’s the height of summer, so air quality in the city isn’t great. Most of the buses and trucks are diesel powered and not equipped with the latest pollution control technologies. So, we didn’t get to see the breathtaking views of the Andes mountains that you see all over Instagram. It would be better to visit Santiago during the spring or fall.

Cerro San Cristobalcable car cerro san cristobal

However, this did not deter us from a bit of an adventure at Cerro San Cristóbal. The largest urban park in all of South America is pretty amazing, even with the haze.

Instead of taking the funicular (cable car) up the hillside, we thought we would walk to the top. The path we chose wasn’t far from the funicular, but little did we know it was closed! So, what was supposed to be a 3 mile walk turned into an 11 mile adventure, complete with a stop at a local swimming pool near the top of the park. While the entrance fee was a little steep, it was nice to cool down in the pool.

Unfortunately the Cerro San Cristóbal experience wasn’t completely rosy. When we stopped at the base of the park, Emily sat on a bench with both of our bags. I was less than 20 feet away looking at an interactive map. An older man approached Emily, and pointed at pesos he had thrown on the ground. While he was attempting to distract her, his partner picked up my bag and got about three steps before Emily realized what was happening. She saw him with my bag and yelled at him. He dropped the backpack and they both took off. It was a big reminder that even in a very crowded area with families and lots of small kids, you have to pay attention to your surroundings. Lesson learned….

Making the Best of Santiagocerro santa lucia

Despite the heat and the bag snatching scare, we absolutely made the best of our time in the city. Santiago’s architecture is a unique blend of Spanish Colonial style and modern buildings. The Palacio de la Moneda (Presidential Palace) is not to be missed. This is where Salvador Allende vowed to stay instead of going quietly into exile during the 1973 Coup d’état. The Plaza de Armas is a great place to go and people watch, and if you are fortunate, take a peak inside Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago.

Santiago’s parks are also incredible. We loved walking through Cerro Santa Lucia and Cerro San Cristobal. The parks were clean, full of beautiful gardens, and lovely fountains.

Tomorrow we are heading west to the port city of Valparaiso, a unique city full of street art and colorful houses.