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louis San Pedro de Atacama - A travel report by Rafal
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San Pedro de Atacama,  Chile - flag Chile -  Antofagasta
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louis's travel reports

Echos of the history

  11 votes
Back in the days, Northern part of Chile had its time of glory. At the beginning of last century, huge reserves of saltpetre caused a money fever and in this inhospitable region of America emerged a wealthy way of life where many people earned fortunes. report of the month contest
Oct 2011

Andes mountains
Andes mountains
Chile is sometimes called the Switzerland of South America. Is located in the edge of the continent, along a 4 300 kilometres narrow stripe (the distance from Lisbon to Moscow) and includes also the Robinson Crusoe Islands and the Easter Islands in the Pacific Ocean. It is also a part of the Pacific Ring of Fire (together with Japan, Indonesia and the Western Coast of United States) and, because of that, earthquakes are very common there. The last big one was in 2008, when the whole city of Conception was completely devastated. Santiago de Chile is the capital. Other big cities include Valparaiso, Conception and La Serena. The climate of the country is very diverse, changing from the dry Salar de Atacama (the driest place in the world) to the cold Glaciers area in the southern edge of the country. Economically, Chile is a wealthy country. The Chilean Peso is the national currency (1 USD = 520 CLP). The country is the biggest producer of copper in the world (and it was the biggest producer of saltpetre in the beginning of the XIX century). Fishing is another important source of income. The history of the country is as rich as its natural resources. Firstly inhabited by Mapuche Indians, it was afterwards discovered by Ferdinand Magellan. The Spanish F. Pizzarro and Pedro de Valdivia conquered Chile and founded the capital - Santiago de Chile. The country gained its independence at the beginning of the XIX century and, in the XX century, suffered under Augustin Pinochet’s rule. The country achieved its final and current form after wars with its neighbours. Until today, relations with Peru and Bolivia are fragile. Travelling around the country is easy: Lan Chile, the national airline, has an extensive network but, unfortunately, tickets are rather expensive. Buses, which are comfortable and inexpensive, are a very good choice. As the tourism is growing, many new facilities appeared. This was my second visit there. On my first visit, I was in Santiago and Valparaiso.

Favourite spots:
El Tatio geysers
El Tatio geysers
To get there we had to wake up early, it was dark and cold outside. The bus came with delay and took us to one of the greatest Chilean attractions - El Tatio geysers. They are the most impressive during the sunrise. Loads of hot stream in the morning cold makes the view stunning. The geysers are located between the Andes Mountains at 4.200 meters above sea level. The place looks like a huge open-air kitchen with thousands of pots of boiling water. None of the 80 active geysers erupts very high - from 5 to 70 centimetres. After sunrise (when the geysers are no longer that attractive), I could see the beauty of the surrounding area. The huge altiplano covered with gold grass and the high snowy peaks in the background. Groups of alpakas (animals like lama) can be seen nearby. As it was my third day in Chile, I got there an altitude sickness. Our guide gave us some tea with coca, but it did not help me that much.

What's really great:
Quebrada del Diablo
Quebrada del Diablo
After 35 hours in a bus, we reached San Pedro de Atacama. Tired but curious, I did not want to lose the afternoon, so I decided to rent a bike and go to Quebrada del Diablo. The road was very scenic, running between the high mountains that had an ochre colour under the sunshine. Because of the big streams, sometimes we had to carry the bikes. One of the streams was so deep to cross that forced us to go back to San Pedro. When returning, we stopped to see Pukara de Quitor, an Atacameno fortification built in the XII century, but we needed a very rich imagination to see something there. Because of the time spent in Quebrada, we didn´t have time to see the nearby Vale de la Luna. The name of the valley comes from its lunar-like landforms eroded by eons of flood and wind. The landmark of San Pedro is the small Igreja San Pedro, a delightful little colonial church built with indigenous or artisans’ materials. The church dates from the XVII century, but acquired its present shape in 1745.

Example of abandoned house
Example of abandoned house
Humberstone and Santa Laura are two abandoned ghost towns in the middle of the desert. They built their richness on sulphur and during its age of glory, they reached a few thousands habitants. The city owners built a theatre, church, hotels and shops. However, with the sudden end of the sulphur fever, the workers left immediately. It is even possible to see a train filed with sulphur. Now, both towns are in private hands and were included in UNESCO List, so there is a chance that they will survive. Another interesting place to see is Chuquicamata - the biggest and the second deepest open pit copper mine in the world (depth 900 meters). The mine was nationalized in the late 1960’s and now state company Codelco owns it. You may organise visits through the local tourist office. And anybody that saw ”The Motorcycle Diaries” will recognize Chuquicamata as the place where young Che Guevara was deeply affected by the poor life conditions of the people trying to find some work in the mine.

San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama
Chile is very well prepared to receive the tourists. You may find hostels, hotels and guesthouses for every price offering not only the sleeping place, but also entire tourist services - trips to interesting places, laundry services, and bike and car rentals. Some Spanish words will be very helpful. Hostal La Ruca was the place where I stayed in San Pedro de Atacama, Casa Maria in La Serena. In Santiago de Chile, I slept in La Casa Rioja and it was one of the nicest backpacker places I ever stayed in. All of them had great, helpful and friendly staff.

Beach in La Serena
Beach in La Serena
San Pedro is a quite small town, so you should not expect a lively nightlife. Still, most of the restaurants and pubs are open until late and offer life music to its guests. How to spend the evening in San Pedro de Atacama? The answer is very simple: go and watch the sunset in Vale de la Luna. The fantastic shape of the rocks, the amazing colours and the surroundings will make the evening unforgettable. Sunset in La Serena beach is also stunning.

El Morro rock in Arica
El Morro rock in Arica
Another interesting place that I had a chance to see was the city of Arica. It is one of the most important places for Chilean people. The town became a part of the country because of the War of the Pacific with Peru. Soon after that, it became one of the main sulphur ports and extremely rich. Some rumours have it that during those times in Arica and Iquique, more champagne was consumed than in the entire Peru and Brazil. Soon after the sulphur boom, Arica became a duty free port and, again, good times came to this town. Nowadays, Arica is a calm town with a church (Iglesia San Marcos) designed by Gustav Eiffel and the famous 110 metres high El Morro rock (the site of the dramatic, crucial battle in 1880 between Chile and Peru). Because I reached Arica from the Bolivian border, I had a chance to see the amazing Luta River Valley. If one has enough time, one should try to see Museo Arqueológico San Miguel de Azapa, where they keep the world’s oldest Chinchorro mummies (7000BC).

Lluta River Valley
Lluta River Valley
Chilean food is delicious and the wine is one of the best in the world. I think that Chile is one of the few countries where someone wrote poems about food (Oda al Coldillo de Congrio by Pablo Neruda). As the country has an extremely long shore, seafood and fish are a must - octopus, sea barnacles, urchins, crabs, salmon, oysters are only a few examples. 'Ceviche' is one of the most typical fish dishes - raw fish or shellfish cooked in lemon juice. 'Empanadas' are the national quick eats. It is a large pastry turnover baked or fried and fulfilled with cheese, meat, pino (ground beef with a taste of hardboiled egg and olive). Another Chilean food speciality is the meat, with 'lomo a la pobre' being the most well known.

Wine is a subject for a separate report. With many sunny days (250 days per year), summer temperatures and lack of grapevine pests, Chile is a paradise country for making wine. The best types of grapes are the Syrah and Merlot, but you should not forget to try Carmenere.

Other recommendations:
Chile Bolivia border in Portezuelo de Cajojn. Lincancabur Volcano in the background
Chile Bolivia border in Portezuelo de Cajojn. Lincancabur Volcano in the background
One of the best trips via San Pedro de Atacama is a road to the Bolivian town of Uyuni. It is not easy to organise it, but some travel agencies take the tourists through the border. From the moment that we left San Pedro a great show behind the window started. High and colourful mountains (Cerro Toco, 5604m), deep canyons and valleys. After two hours, we reached the border, which itself is a great adventure. The border is in Portezuelo de Cajójn (altitude of 4480m), just next to Lincancabur Volcano (5916m). We had breakfast there, switched from minibuses to 4WD cars and went to Uyuni. Close to the Chilean border, we found the Laguna Colorada - a stunning colourful lake full of flamingos. After that, for some hours, we didn’t see any people, only the high mountains, unpaved roads and the wonderful nature. The last stop before Uyuni was in Mallcu Villa Mar, a village in Bolivia where I saw the wreck of a plane. But, not knowing enough Spanish, I couldn’t ask about its interesting history

Published on Tuesday October 11th, 2011

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Mon, May 21 2018 - 06:23 AM rating by delfster

Fantastic report... I can't wait to go there and stargaze. Gracias Rafal.

Sun, Dec 18 2011 - 01:46 PM rating by magsalex

Excellent report!

Wed, Nov 23 2011 - 08:13 PM rating by mistybleu

Great report Rafal and congrats on getting ROM.

Fri, Nov 11 2011 - 10:36 PM rating by eirekay

What a wonderful trek and quite deserving of RoM! Congratulations!

Wed, Oct 12 2011 - 07:19 PM rating by recaro94

Reports like this are my favourite! I've always wanted to see Chille, but reading detail like this just makes it all the more irresistible!

Wed, Oct 12 2011 - 06:27 AM rating by pesu

Rafal, great report! I agree with Krys. :)

Tue, Oct 11 2011 - 04:21 PM rating by krisek

Beautifully written, superb photos, plenty of personal experience and practical advice. Definite candidate for the Report of October 2011 Award! I smell a winner here... A great piece indeed, Rafal. Many thanks for sharing.

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