Chile was an unexpected extra bonus in this epic trip through South America. It was through utter convenience that the three of us ended up here as the border crossing into Argentina was much more viable from this angle.
Crossing the Chilean border, a surreal experience in itself the bus drives thousands of meters down hill and stops in a small town called San Pedro.
Our initial plan was to travel straight from San Pedro to Santiago where we would cross the border into Argentina. However we soon realised this was another 24 hour bus journey and as we all vowed never to do that to ourselves again we planned a route that would take us south through a few Chilean cities and add a little to our ever expanding geography knowledge!
At first glance, San Pedro feels like it’s straight out of an old time Western film, set in the middle of nowhere in the center of the world’s driest desert. White one-story Spanish colonial buildings are mud-splashed from the deep red dusty roads. Where have we ended up?
Despite the fact that areas around San Pedro have never had rain in recorded history the region still bursts with life and activity. The town of San Pedro de Atacama has been built solely for tourists but there is an endearing charm to the dusty streets, slow pace of life, and mud-slabbed buildings. Somehow this tiny little desert town balances an odd mix of sleepy, remote border village and adventure capital of the Atacama Desert perfectly and tourists flock here no matter the time of year.
Tours through the Atacama desert revolve around long drives, early starts, freezing temperatures, boiling temperatures, high altitudes and intense landscapes – we were due a rest stop! San Pedro is the perfect, charming base to do just that!
The main road in town, Caracoles, is lined with restaurants and tour agencies – and while it could feel overly touristy, the quaint Spanish buildings make the whole setting just picture-perfect.
None of us will forget that first dinner in town, sat front row in a tiny restaurant attempting to sing and dance along to a live Spanish band. We fell in love with this little tourist trap and set us off nicely for the rest of our time in Chile.
After a long 18 hour coach journey we made it to our next stop, La Serena, Chile’s number one beach destination. However, as we were outside the summer months (December to March) the beach was deserted and the sea was FREEZING, so there was to be no sunbathing. Luckily for us there was much more to do here than just lay on the beach (even if that’s all we wanted to do).
La Serena’s city centre is home to a mass of disorganised high streets full of cheap clothes stores and empty restaurants however, amongst this sits beautifully traditional architecture and on every street corner there is a wonderful looking church that adds charm to the city.
Our saving grace was the charming hostel that we stayed at for two nights – Hostel El Arbol. A small and beautifully renovated house that made us feel as if we had been welcomed into someone’s home – waking up to an amazing breakfast in the morning was the cherry on top!
The plan for our only full day here was to hire bikes and cycle along the seafront to the next town along called Coquimba. The hostel helpfully organised bike hire for us so we sat back and waited for them to arrive.
The road bikes we hired were pretty funny – at first we thought they had no brakes, but the Spanish lady hiring them to us reassured us in broken English that you only had to pedal backwards and the brakes kick in! Nonetheless it took a bit of getting used to and it felt like I was learning to ride a bike all over again! I wouldn’t say it was the most scenic bike ride but it was nice to be back at sea level and riding along the coast.
Coquimba is known as La Serena’s ugly sister and I sort of understand what they mean. La Serena has attempted to make itself tourist friendly however Coquimba to my knowledge has made no effort and it is simply a town in which people live. There are a few tourist attractions here but we simply walked around the town and through the old port. It’s always nice to explore somewhere new but half a day here was enough time to see everything.
For the ride back we had the wind behind us and now with a full understanding of how the breaks worked we sailed back to our hostel with ease.
As a treat and maybe more of a necessity after travelling through South America for nearly a month now, we booked ourselves in for pedicures! Each of us are battered and bruised from the intensity of South America and our feet have taken the brunt of it. The ladies in the shop took one look at our feet and nearly refused to work on them, thankfully we were with our friend Catherine who speaks amazing Spanish and she was able to explain the pressure these poor buggers have been through so the ladies set to work making our feet a little more lady like!
An 8 hour bus journey South took us to our next stop – Valpariso.
Valparaiso is famous for its hills and this became evident to us right from the beginning of our stay! We managed to meet up with our friend Catherine again and she took us for lunch at a beautiful hill side resturant. It over looked the whole of downtown Valparaiso and was next to one of the many funicular lifts that helped people decipher the many hills Valparaiso had to offer. We took this opportunity to enjoy the sunshine and this Resturant was the perfect place! It had an amazing sun deck and the food was just as bright and inviting, we all had salad which was a healthy break from the bread Chileans love to serve with everything!! We explored the city a bit after lunch and stumbled into every cute little boutique shop and coffee shop along the way. We found the further down we got the more the city become much like any other city, the hills of Valparaiso where definitely where the beauty was. However we did find an ice cream shop … Shock!!!! This one hailed to be the 25th best in the world! We obviously tried every flavour before deciding we would come back in the eve!!!! (Fran and Leanne did go back and both recommend trying the famous Dulce de Leche!!!!)
The next day we decided we would give the famous walking tour a try, we had been recommended this tour by a lot of people so thought it would be worth our while to try. The company was called ‘tours for tips’ so the idea was to pay what you thought the tour was worth … A good concept really. We met our tour guide and descended down to the famous port of Valparaiso. He told us that this was actually the founding point of Valparaiso, however when it was first founded the port was much further back than it was now. Valparaiso has grown in popularity so the port is now much further forward and instead a grand plaza stands in it’s place. We then walked to one of Valparaiso’s most famous districts as it was known to be the most expensive neighbourhood to live in at one point. However now it is a bit run down and he warned us not to walk at night there!! We however did see an old Chilean lady standing at her door who still lives in one of the oldest building in Valparaiso.
Her family owned the most expensive hotel here and she still lives in one of the rooms, she rents the other rooms and floors to shop owners now as she doesn’t need a whole hotel to herself! (I don’t know why … I personally would love a whole hotel to myself!!).
Along from this we saw one of the oldest and tallest funicular lifts with the title ‘The hill of 1000 fires’.
It was actually named this because people joke that if you take the stairs instead of the lift your thighs will feel like they are on fire – hence the 1000 fires nickname. Luckily we didn’t have to walk them … We just admired the people that did tackle them. We did get to try one of the lifts and it was a great experience as we got a great over view of the whole city. The lift goes vertically up and is still operated by the pulley system. The hills or cerros (as they are known in Spanish) of Valparaiso are all set out very traditionally and this is due to them being UNESCO sights. All the buildings have to be built in traditional style, this may seem beautiful and quant but does explain why so many buildings look like they are about to fall down. It is hard to build in a traditional way in the 21 st century!!!! However the UNESCO parts are beautiful and so colourful you can see why Valparaiso is proud of that heritage.
The tour gave us great insight into Valparaiso and one of the things it is famous for other than the hills is it’s murals that all the streets and walls are littered with. These murals aren’t just graffiti they are beautifully constructed paintings that artists paint on the side of buildings in order to make the city look more colourful. This creative art form has become such a big craze that people are even being commissioned to paint for big companies in order to make their building stand out. We enjoyed walking round all the streets looking up in awe at the amazing art that was splashed all over the walls and free for us to look at!!!!
The bus from Valparaiso to Santiago was the most spontaneous journey of the entire trip, we packed up our bags and booked onto a bus with 2 minutes to spare! All that previous planning – what a waste of time!
Santiago used to have a reputation; never as popular as it’s neighbours and almost never a destination for tourists. Many people use it as a stop over before crossing the border into Argentina without exploring what the city had to offer.
Well we gave this big city a chance and boy how glad are we that we did! We visited during a bank holiday weekend so the usually bustling city had a sense of still and calm.
People say the Chilean capital is suddenly cool. It has an amazing charm about it when walking through the streets, in parts you could be walking through London’s Regret street with the old buildings above your head and the hustle and bustle of shoppers around your feet. Other areas give you vibes of New York with grand museums in front of huge spaces of green where people picnic, walk and ride their bikes. There’s really something for everyone here and we loved simply walking around the city and exploring what it had to offer!
We got the opportunity to ride on another funicular up to an incredible view point overlooking the entire city! Santiago goes on into the distance and from up there you’re able to really appreciate the scale of the place and why people tell you to travel on the subways!
A short walk above the view point is the San Cristobal – a church on the top of the hill! The views from here are incredible but you really wouldn’t look forward to the walk to church every Sunday!!
Continuing our walk around the city we stumbled apon the Mercado Central – a huge fresh fish market brimming with stalls! You can imagine the stench but the atmosphere and buzz inside made it well worth a walk around! Old Chilean men throwing huge fish, chopping heads off and scraping out guts while shouting in the fastest Spanish at the top of their voices trying to attract his customers.
We all agree that Santiago is up and coming but one day soon it will become a destination for travellers in its own right!
It’s time for our fourth country in South America but first we must jump on another bus and cross the border – off to Argentina!