Finally back in South America again. We had kept a fairly high phase travelling and crossing borders for a while, buzzing in and out between Hong Kong, China and Macau, then Japan, Australia, Vanuatu and New Zealand in a short space of time…getting a bit tired of taking flights and filling in customs forms. Now it’s time to slow down – no fixed dates on the itinerary for nearly six months until the end of March. The long sliver of land that makes up Chile will be our home for the next two months. We’re starting in the middle, somewhat awkwardly, as the country is as long as from Norway to Niger, but will make one return journey from Santiago to the deserts of the north first, waiting for spring to arrive before making our way through the forests and fjords of the south towards Tierra del Fuego and eventually crossing in to Argentina.
We landed in Santiago with the worst jetlag of our life after the 11 hour flight… I never used to get jetlag at all but travelling east is always worse as you loose hours. Also I think it might have something to do with the entertainment kits on the airplanes being too good now with a hundred movies to pick from so you don’t sleep.. We arrived in the morning, slept the whole day, most of the night, then until 5pm the next day again. During the 4 days we stayed in Santiago we managed to at least visit one museum though, a very nice one with pre-Columbian art. It had many artefacts from places we visited on the last trip like Chavin and Tiwanacu – including some of the few gold pieces that escaped the conquistadores. It’s great fun to be back in South America after so long in Asia, for example the different attitude towards public affection….we saw a spectacular makeout session in a cafe in Santiago during one of our first days, and even more funny they were actually part of the staff!
From Santiago we got a 12 hour day-bus north, and just after dark we arrived in Copiapo which is the loudest place on earth (Chile had just won some sort of important football-thing..). Copiapo lies just at the southern edge of the big deserts – the Atacama stretch on for the next thousand kilometers north – and through the hostel we found a driver who could take us up towards the salt-flats and the altiplano the next day. Ovideo picked us up at 8am, and being a very competent desert driver he had already whisked us up to another four kilometers in altitude by an hour before noon. Between gasping for air we looked out at guanacos and vicuñas and reddish hills and mountains stained in a rainbow of colours from different minerals…browns, reds, green for copper, yellow, orange, and grey on the high Ojos de Salado volcano. On the lower hills before entering Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces we passed some abandoned settlements and several copper mines (Chile is the worlds biggest exporter). We stopped for lunch by a mirror-blank Laguna Santa Rosa, full of flamingoes, at one end of the much bigger Salar de Maricunga salt flat. Climbing on towards the Argentinian border later we reached an even more stunning lake – Laguna Verde at 4500 meters – with a radiant bright green-blue hue it’s the most spectacularly coloured high-altitude lake we’ve seen anywhere. It’s a real other-worldly place, the air thin and biting cold, the lake surrounded by bright white salt-crusts with an equally bright-white mummified cow completing the eerie scene.
We decided to go on another trip with Ovideo the next day – to explore a national park on the coast instead. But first he took us to try out his new truck in the big sand dunes north of Copiapo. He knew all the tricks – emptying out most of the air from the tires first for better grip – then when we left the road again refilling them from a spare tire on the back he’d pumped to double pressure beforehand. Great fun going up and down the huge dunes, like an improvised roller coaster without a track! There was a bit of fog hanging over the desert landscape in the morning as well, so we could see even less where we were going. When we were done laughing we set off along the coast, towards the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar. Ovideo stopped in a small fishing village on the way to buy himself a couple of the Conger Eels that you see on every menu in Chile – delivering us another round of laughter watching a big group of pelicans fight for the pieces as the fisherman skinned the fish. The man saved the best leftover cuts for his cat though.
Into the park next – a strange landscape of yellow hills and cactus which seemed out of place covered in fog and being right on the coast. From a second viewpoint we were looking down from sea-cliffs 700 meters high but couldn’t even see the ocean below, with wave after wave of thick cloud sweeping in over the cliff to cover us in a fine mist. Cactus and fog makes a surreal combination. We stayed for a while, fighting the temptation to share our sandwiches with a cute desert fox, and watching the tall cactus around us appear and disappear into the fog.
On the way back to Copiapo we stopped in a place where the coastal desert had come alive with a thousand flowers in different colours. Desierto florido is a special phenomenon here, happening every 4-8 years, where the whole desert wakes up for a brief moment in spring – I’m not sure if this is a good year or not, but this particular spot at least was very nice.
From Copiapo we headed on deeper into the desert to San Pedro de Atacama, for the next post.