1st Dec 2011 - 5th Dec 2011
San Pedro de Atacama, Pan de Azucar National Park, Vicuna, Valle de Elqui, Petroglyphs.
San Pedro makes a good jumping off point for a variety of activities in the area including the Laguna Cejar and Valle de la Luna which we headed off to the next day with our new tour guide Yerson. A real charmer he introduced himself and went to shake our hands while simultaneously itching an itch in his nether regions. He’s probably the most disinterested guide we’ve had and even full on confrontations from our Dutch fellow travellers failed to arouse anything other than a shrug, impressive when you consider what he had to deal with: “what is this place, a bunch of dead cactus, would you want to see this? This is shit.” The Dutch failed to last the course jumping on another bus at a gas station without a look back. We think they were a little harsh and actually quite enjoyed the trip down to Santiago.
The Valle de la Luna and the Laguna Cejar were cool, although we were starting to long for some lush scenery. Don’t under estimate how sparse the landscape is in Northern Chile. We were only allowed a 30min stop at the Laguna, which is so full of salt that you can float like the Dead Sea, however this actually turned out to be more than enough because the salt dries your skin so badly. As our other fellow tour bus traveller pointed out “you don’t want to be going in here if you’ve had a wax or shaved anything in the last few days”. This was recounted along with a story about the last salt lake she’d been to and been in trouble because she’d had a recent bikini wax: another charming introduction considering this was about the third thing she said to us. Bearing in mind her wide travel you’d hope for a better attitude than complaining loudly about our driver being the most dangerous she’s ever seen while he was sitting next to her. All became clear when she said she had worked for Lonely Planet, which is fast getting a reputation as “the book of lies” with travellers we’ve met because almost everything is inaccurate. Later that afternoon, following a sprint though a salt cave, we trekked through the Valle de la Luna to watch the sun set over the horizon. It’s aptly named and really does feel like you’re on the moon.
The next day we started our trip south towards Santiago. We had a brief stop in one of the many mining ghost towns that dot the countryside. The town was abandoned when the Germans invented a synthetic nitrate during the war and no longer needed to buy the organic stuff from the town. So they dismantled it and sold the supporting steel beams to them to make weapons with – nice. Our Dutch travellers were already irritated because they’d been promised wild camping so, after a 10 hour bus ride with only one random stop (conveniently located beside the road), they were not pleased when we rocked up in the Pan de Azucar National Park to find small pitches with BBQ and fire pits. We thought it was the bees’ knees and had an awesome nights camping right next to the seashore. The next day brought another 10 hours travelling with the infamous departure of the Dutch to the fast bus (well 10 hours) for Santiago. When we finally got to Vicuna we were pleasantly surprised to be camping in the hotel garden with lovely fruit trees all around, like our own private campsite. An older version of Javier Bardem seemed to be in permanent occupation at the hotel and wasn’t so old he didn’t have a naughty twinkle in his eye. The apricot trees also supplied the breakfast table with fantastic homemade jam – yum. On our day in Vicuna we visited Pisco Elqui and went to a Pisco distillery for some sampling. B and I like the 68% one the most but it’s illegal to sell alcohol above 40% in Chile so we bought a bottle of the watered down version. All gone by the second day in Santiago! After this we had some lunch and chilled by the pool before heading off the birthplace of Chile’s only Nobel Peace Prize winner and also the home of the last working pulpit in Chile (odd). While I examined the handicrafts B had struck up a conversation with Yerson about my love of cider. Yerson seemed impressed with this and said they had a lot of that grown in the region and that there was a vineyard we could visit to taste some. I was thrilled by this as cider has not been easy to find and so was the rest of the bus when I told them. So we trooped off to the vineyard for our cider tasting. Now perhaps we should have caught on when he said we were going to a vineyard because as everyone knows cider is made from apples not grapes but due to sheer excitement we didn’t clock a thing. It wasn’t until we were sitting down tasting wine not cider and the sommelier said this one is a blend of 80% ‘Syrah’ that the penny dropped that actually it was Syrah that was locally produced not cider after all. We didn’t have the heart to tell Yerson and the samples were interesting to try anyway even if they didn’t quite float our boat. The whole vineyard was reverberating to Italian opera as they think it makes the wine better, which to the cynical sounds like a selling ploy but nevertheless made for an atmospheric tasting.
Next day it was back on the vibrating bus, which incidentally vibrated so much it took the reflective coating off my specs while they were lying on the seat next to me, and on the final leg of our trip to Santiago. We had a brief lunch stop at supposedly the best place in Chile for empanadas, which as they were only cheese of the processed variety, were a bit lacking in flavour for us cheese lovers. We had one small stop in the afternoon in a park which was not the one on our itinerary (this happened a lot!) to see some ancient petroglyphs chiselled into the rocks using Lama stomach acid and to hear a bit more about the cactus and their fruit before heading into Santiago. Did you know that a cactus fruit has more vitamin C than oranges and that it tastes similar to a Kiwi fruit, no neither did we but now you know.
Last stop Santiago and an unexpected relief to be out of the desert.