Several months of traveling through the northern portion of South America we weren’t quite prepared for the prices we found in Chile. Our three day tour through Salar de Uyuni and southern Bolivia ended just across the Chilean border in the town of San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro was a cute little tourist town with narrow streets and adobe buildings. There was an abundance of natural beauty in the area and the town seems to have sprouted up to become a jumping off point for any number of tours. Having just come from three days of lakes, mountains, and salt flats, we had a hard time justifying paying comparatively high prices to see similar landscape. As a result, our time in San Pedro ended up being briefer than we had expected.
From San Pedro de Atacama we decided to head towards the coast and then hop from town to town as we made our way south to Santiago. Our first stop was Antofogasta which was a rapidly expanding port city. It wasn’t much of a tourist location and we spent most of our time there sitting in outdoor cafes and walking along a picturesque promenade that spans the length of the coast line.
Our next stop was the tiny town of Chañaral. Sadly, Chañaral was the site of severe flash floods in March of 2015 that caused the destruction of many streets and buildings along with claiming several lives. Navigating around the town proved difficult and many of the places we had found online were borded up or completely washed away. After a couple hours of searching we found a small hotel with vacancy for us.
Finding a place to eat was also difficult. We ended up at a tiny hole in the wall that seemed to serve a variety of food. When our food arrived we realized that they got both our orders wrong. Kevin received a completely different sandwich than he had ordered and Lisa, who had asked for a pizza “without meat” ended up with a small pizza layered with both bologna and large chunks of sausage. When the waiter was questioned about the pizza, he confirmed that it was correct, pointing at the sausage stating “that isn’t meat, it’s pork.” This was yet another reminder to Lisa that to get vegetarian food in South America often requires more explanation and patience.
Our main reason for staying Chañaral was to visit Parque National Pan de Azucar. It is a unique park where arid desert meets beautiful beaches. Logistically, it isn’t the easiest park to get to. Initially, we tried to get a shared minibus to take us to the entrance of the park. Unfortunately, the minibus was already full, so we were going to have to find a different way to reach the park. Lucky for us, as Kevin was explaining to the maid at our hotel that we would need to find an alternate transportation source, a young couple sitting near by told us that they were heading to the park in a couple of hours and they were more than willing to give us a ride.
This turned out better than we could have imagined as this young Chilean couple let us tag along as they made their way up the coast in the park, stopping at each beach and lookout. We walked down a couple of the long stretches of beach and stopped to eat our lunch while watching the waves.
Another advantage to befriending people who had a car was that everyday at 3 pm the park rangers take whoever is interested on a guided caravan through parts of the park that are normally off limits to cars. We thought this was a great idea until our new friends’ rental car got stuck in the sand on one of the turns. We were too far to turn back, so once we managed to push the car to slightly sturdier ground, the four of us all piled into the back seat of the rangers’ truck. This made for an interesting ride as we bounced along the trail with too many people crammed into the hot vehicle.
Even with the minor congestion of our vehicle we were very thankful to have the chance to see the various landscapes of Pan de Azucar. It seemed that every 20 minutes we crossed into a new terrain. Periodically, our guides would stop the caravan and we would all get out to listen to a short lecture about the land and plants in that area. The park rangers who led our trip were some of the most passionate conservationist we had ever met.
The tour culminated in a steep climb to a vista point on the cliffs where we could see the park sloping towards the ocean and the Pan de Azucar island rising out of the sea. It was a beautiful view and a great way to end the tour. On the way back down we stopped and reclaimed the rental car and thankfully made it all the way back to the ranger station.
With another stroke of luck, our Chilean friends were headed to the town of Caldera that evening and offered to give us a ride. As it was the next spot on our itinerary, we jumped at the chance to not have to coordinate bags and buses. They even arranged for us to stay in the same hotel once we arrived. It was fairly late when we arrived in Caldera so we took them to dinner to say thank you for all their generosity, walked around town for a bit, and then called it a night.
The next day we spent a bit more time exploring Caldera and then headed to the nearby beach of Bahia Inglesa. We had read that it was known as being one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Chile, with white sand and turquoise water. When we arrived at the waters edge we were surprised by how many people could squeeze on a small section of beach. It was a beautiful beach with rock formations jutting out of the water. The rock formations also created a tranquil bay for tourists to splash and play in the smaller waves. Though the bay was pretty, it surprised us to realize that just beyond the rocks surrounding the tiny bay, the beach stretched on for many kilometers and was virtually deserted! The rest of the beach did not have the turquoise waters or the protection against the big waves, but we were still surprised to see so much beach so desolate next to the overcrowded beach next door. We walked for nearly an hour down the beach and barely made it half way.
That night we learned that Lisa’s sister Rebecca had gotten diverted on from her trip to Buenos Aires and instead would be in Santiago for a few days. We decided change our itinerary a bit and take a bus directly to Santiago to meet Rebecca so we could spend a few days together before Rebecca had to be back in NYC.