San Pedro de Atacama & Piedras Rojas – Chile


We saved ourselves the 24 hour bus ride from Santiago up to the Atacama desert in the North of Chile and instead decided to fly (because it wasn’t too dissimilar cost-wise). We flew to Calama, the closest airport to San Pedro and then took a shared minivan an hour and a half to the town. Landing in Calama had to be one of the strangest flights we’ve done, we looked out the window and there was just desert for miles and we couldn’t even see the tarmac to land on. The drive to San Pedro as well was very surreal as we just kept driving on and on through this one straight road surrounded by cracked earth, sand, rocks and dust. A desert landscape is one that neither of us have ever seen before (other than the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, though that was quite different).  The Atacama desert is considered the driest place on earth and the landscape is truly jaw-dropping.

We chose a great place to stay, Hostel Ayni, and we arrived too late in the afternoon to do anything properly so we just enjoyed the sun from the hostel’s garden and had a poke around the town which is basically one big strip with all the tour agencies and restaurants. All the tour companies offer similar trips and try and compete for your custom by discounting if you book multiple tours. The tours are all a bit pricey, and though there are loads of things to see and do, we narrowed it down to just one tour which included our top attraction; the flamingos on Lake Chaxa. We opted for the Piedras Rojas tour through the Flamingo Travel Agency (the most legit looking one on the strip). It was initially priced at $45,000 pesos with an additional $5500 pesos entrance fee to the parks but we got it for $35,000 each and entrance was only $2500 pesos; making it about £50pp for a full day (7am -6pm) including breakfast and lunch, a trilingual geologist tour guide and 400km worth of driving to altitudes of 4000m! Not bad really.

Our first stop on the tour was to Lake Chaxa, a salt lake where three types of flamingos live; the Andean flamingo, Chilean flamingo & James flamingo. The lake is surrounded by the salt flats (Salar de Atacama); the third largest salt flats in the world! Lake Chaxa sits at 2300 metres above sea level. We had an amazing geologist tour guide who gave in depth explanations in Spanish, English and French, so it was quite good language practice for me too. He explained that the salt comes from the volcanoes underground and mixes with the underground currents. Though there are multiple volcanoes in the Andes; the Atacama plain only has one active volcano; Lascar and we could see the steam rising from it. As the Atacama basin is surrounded by different mountain ranges, the water has no drainage outlets and is continually evaporating to create the natural salt crystal phenomenon. We absolutely loved seeing the flamingos and that was without a doubt, the highlight for us. Seeing them in person, they are such bizarre creatures with their stilt-like legs. They basically stand in the water and constantly do shuffling 360 degree turns eating the food that they disturb. We weren’t sure whether we’d see any close up but we were thrilled to see a few who were only about 20 metres away. And we did see a huge flock (the collective noun is actually a flamboyance of flamingos) in the distance moving as one and we caught sight of a few actually flying against the backdrop of the Andes. We also saw an Andean Avocet, a white and brown bird with the craziest pointed beak (see below!).

Next up was the main attraction of the tour; las Piedras Rojas or the Red Stones. Situated at 4000m above sea level, there’s lake Miscanti (altiplanicas) which is only 30-40cm deep and was covered in strong ice that you can walk on. Around the lake, there are red rocks that are actually lava stones flung kilometres from the neighbouring volcano Aventura! The reason they are red is due to the oxidised iron within them. I started to get my first ever taste of altitude sickness though, I had such a bad headache it felt like my brain was going to explode out of my head. Also throughout the time in San Pedro, I seem to have started to get a bloody nose which I never normally never have and apparently its a symptom of altitude sickness too. To give you a comparison of how high we were, Machu Pichu is only 2430m! Only 10km further along, we stopped at Laguna Tuyajto, also at 4000m above sea level. It was another salt lake and the aqua colouring reminded us of the glacial lakes of New Zealand.

Throughout the tour, the guide pointed out some wild, desert animals to us. We saw a couple of Vischachas who belong to the chinchilla family except they look like rabbits with long tails and very long whiskers! We also saw quite a few Vicunas which are similar to llamas and alpacas but they are the proper, wild, mountainous versions. Finally, we even saw a Gray fox, native to South America (all photos below!)

We then pulled up to the place that marks the Tropic of Capricorn; the imaginary line parallel to the equator on the Southern Hemisphere. It’s also the start of the Inca trail which goes all the way North to Cusco in Peru. I suppose it was a fun photo op in the middle of the desert that denotes such renowned co-ordinates, but not much else to say on it really. Our last stop was Toconao, a small village where ancient traditions and crafts are kept alive. The town is built with Liparita which is volcanic stone. The town is tiny so there isn’t much to do, we just got an ice cream there and looked at the Bell Tower built in 1750. There were also some giant, phallic cactuses. Apparently the inside of the cactus is used as a type of wood-like material and was used to build the door of the local church.

The next day we had a fairly slow morning after the day before’s jam-packed day. We headed to the town’s French bakery for some great croissants for breakfast. Mine had Manjar in it which is another food that is really popular in Chile. It’s made from condensed milk and it sort of tastes like salted caramel and it is heavenly. We had a few admin bits to do like book our onwards bus journey to Argentina for the following morning and then we went to rent bikes. You can get them for around 3000 pesos for 6 hours or 5000 for a full day. We chose one that cost 4000 for the 6 hours just because it was conveniently located near our hostel. They are supposedly ‘mountain bikes’ though there is no suspension on the back. We planned to cycle to Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) but it was a bit of a disaster really. I’m not the most athletic person anyway, but with the altitude, the mid-day sun of the desert, and crap bikes, it was awful. We followed a view point on our map and ended up pushing our bikes up a gravel/rock/dirt track hill. At the top, there was a giant cross which gave a tiny bit of shade, the only shade for miles – we’ve never been so grateful for a religious structure. Despite the horrific push-bike-up-a-hill-fiasco, the view was amazing and so iconic to Atacama. We then went back down the same disastrous hill and actually cycled through the valley and then back in to town. The loop wasn’t far at all but my god, our arses were so bruised by the end of it.

In the evening, we did perhaps the stupidest thing we’ve done this trip. Atacama is notorious for star gazing and though there are astrology tours that take you out safely in the night with telescopes etc, we decided we’d try and walk out of town where there are no lights to try and see the stars ourselves. We basically took a very dodgy route and were walking in some very sketchy backstreets, not even streets really, just back dirt roads. Just as we were both starting to feel properly on edge, there was this blood-curdling, high pitched yelp from right next to us which was a dog behind a fence. We absolutely shat ourselves. Fortunately, all was ok, but we decided to walk back on the main road instead. Oh, and in terms of stars, we did managed to see them a lot better without the town lights but there still weren’t that many/ that bright. There is a photo below, though not very impressive given that it was taken hand-held without a tripod. We hope we’ll get a couple more chances at stargazing in other parts of South America.

Thanks for reading, join us in Argentina next time!

Sophie & Dave

Valparaiso – Chile


We decided to do a little weekend trip to Valparaiso after our Spanish course. The bus from Santiago was a pleasant surprise; super cheap (£5pp) and quite fancy with the bus company Turbus. Valparaiso is a seaside city, formerly the main port of Chile. Now it is infamous for its coloured houses on steep hills, street art and being a UNESCO heritage site.

We’d been told to only stick to a very small area because Valparaiso is supposedly very sketchy, but we didn’t really stick to that. I was a little cautious and didn’t walk around constantly with my DSLR round my neck but other than that, it was fine for us and we felt quite safe. Even our hostel was a little bit separate from the normal ‘safe zone’ tourist area and it was lovely. The woman who runs it was so kind and helpful and really patient chatting with me in Spanish. We also became best friends with the cat, literally the nicest cat in the world that only wanted to sit on our laps and have cuddles. We were also fairly high on a hill so we had an impressive view of the port and surrounding hills from our window.

We arrived fairly late in the afternoon, so we just pottered around our area, starting to take in the magic of the street art and went for dinner at Cafe del Pintor. It had the most impressive art murals of any cafe/restaurant we’ve ever seen (see photos below). In Chile, most places offer a set menu of starter, main, desert and drink for a fixed price, this is ‘menu’ in Spanish as opposed to ‘Carta’ which would be our version of a menu with all options. Not only the art but the food was great too.

The next day, we headed to the house of Pablo Neruda, a world renowned Chilean poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. We rode the number 612 bus to get there; notorious as an experience in itself because it goes at break-neck speed through the windy hill roads of the residential section of Valparaiso. The bus driver had one hand on the steering wheel and one on the pole to support himself when he turned corners. Pablo Neruda’s house can only be described as quirky. The shape of the house, the rooms, the furniture; everything was quirky. They had an English audio guide which was a little disappointing as I was expecting more information about his actual poetry but the tour focuses on the design of the house, how he chose to decorate it etc. It was still interesting nonetheless and had some of the best views of Valparaiso from its’ different floors. After the house, we walked through ‘the dodgy’ part of town (perfectly fine) to get back to the city centre.

In the afternoon, we did the 3pm walking tour with Tours 4 Tips. Our guide spoke perfect English and was really passionate, one of the best walking tours of this year I think. We hadn’t yet rode any of Valparaiso’s infamous funiculars that take you up to the top of various hills. Throughout the tour, we stayed predominantly on Cerro Alegre (happy hill) & Cerro Concepcion. Just like Santiago, there are so many stray dogs and cats, there were even 2 stray street dogs that followed us for the whole 3 hour walking tour. Our guide led us down some beautiful alleys where every inch was covered in some sort of art. He was knowledeagble about the street artists names though I can’t remember them now. He led us to one of the more recent murals created about a month ago which depicted all the different types of people/professions/influences in Chile – there’s even a Donald Trump in it. What was most interesting though was the firefighters at the top; apparently they are regarded as the most valiant among the Chilean people as in Chile, it is an entirely voluntary service and given that Valparaiso is a city very prone to fires, they are all the more important. He said the firefighters raise funds through raffles and that nearly everyone always donates to it.

We ended our time in Valparaiso with empanadas and tea in hand, sat on the steps of a hill with a view of the sun going down over the port.

Join us next time as we fly from Santiago up to the driest place on earth; the Atacama desert in the North of Chile.

Thanks for reading,

Sophie & Dave

Santiago – Chile


We left Auckland, New Zealand and flew direct to Santiago, Chile on an 11 hour flight. New Zealand is 15 hours ahead so with the time difference, we arrived before we had even set off. It was a little bit of a struggle working out how to get to our hostel. We thought we could get the metro direct from the airport, but turns out you have to get a bus to the metro first and it was all in very fast, overwhelming Spanish, but we got there in the end. Whoever says jet lag isn’t real is unequivocally, lying. Neither of us had experienced jet lag anywhere close to this before. We were nocturnal and completely useless for about 3 days! Our first two nights were staying in a hostel near Parque Forrestal. Santiago is a huge city with very little green spaces so this park is always packed with people and pets alike. Our few excursions during the jet lag days were to the park. We then moved hostel to a slightly different area. Our room was on the first floor with a balcony and at 3am, whilst we couldn’t sleep with jet lag, Dave heard something, got up and pulled back the curtain to see a man about to attempt a break in! He put his leg over and jumped off the balcony when he saw Dave. A bit of an uneasy start to South America!

Our first proper outing led us to Castillo Hidalgo, an old castle on a hill in the city centre. There are a quite a few steps to get up to the top but it did give an impressive view of the city surrounded by the Andes mountain range in the distance. Santiago has so much pollution that the mountains are obscured in a sort of haze. The real highlight of the castle for me was catching sight of Hummingbirds! I have only ever caught a brief glimpse of one in Barbados but here, in the middle of a concrete jungle, there were about 5 feeding on the nectar from a red cactus – see photos below! Google tells me that they are green-backed Firecrown Hummingbirds. In the evening, we stumbled upon an amazing restaurant in the Listeria area called Bocanariz, well, its predominantly a wine bar with over 300 types of wine. Dave said the Red Carignan he chose was the best wine he’d ever tried, but it also had delicious food including the best empanadas ever – a staple here in Chile.

I took Spanish for 2 years when I was 15/16 (8 years ago now!) and I was quite good at the time though now it is very rusty! Dave could only say hello and our first few days in Santiago made us realise by far, this country spoke the least English we’d encountered yet. This isn’t me saying I expect all countries to speak English (why should they?), it was just quite the shock. Especially considering Dave usually does 100% of talking to strangers, checking in, getting directions, recommendations etc. I’m very shy and prefer to just loiter usually with my camera around my neck. But here, roles are reversed and it’s bad enough I have to converse with strangers, but now I have to converse in Spanish! Anyway, point being, we decided we needed to take some Spanish lessons ASAP; Dave to learn the basics and me to brush up and get some confidence. We did a bit of research and enquired whether there were 2 places available to start the following Monday (in 2 days time). They replied promptly and so we enrolled for a week course with Escuela Bellavista.

You can book accommodation through them, either a hostel or a Chilean family exchange but we decided to just book our own apartment for the week in Santa Rosa where we were up on the 11th floor (fortunately no more break ins) and with a perfect view of the skyline and the spectacular Santiago sunsets – see below! There are 5 levels in Escuela Bellavista; complete beginner (Dave’s class), Basic 1, Basic 2 (my class), Intermediate and Advanced. We completed a quick online test before starting and had a meeting with a Spanish teacher before being sorted in to our groups; I think we were both put in the perfect levels. There were 7 people in Dave’s class and 8 in mine, so fairly small groups. Though we could definitely have done with at least 2 or 3 weeks of classes, I do think it was really good for basic practice for me and basic words for Dave. We did a few activities with the school after classes too which gave the opportunity to practice a bit more Spanish. We went to a traditional Chilean restaurant as a big group where Dave tried a ‘Teremoto’ which is a local drink translated to ‘Earthquake’ which is apparently the effect it has on your head once you’ve had too many. It’s essentially cheap, sweet, fermented wine with pineapple ice cream to be consumed in large quantities. We then did a city walking tour with one of the teachers; perhaps not the greatest walking tour we’ve done but interesting nonetheless and we walked round places we had not yet been such as the Palace Moneda which has been restored after it was bombed during the military coup and Plaza de Armas. On the last day of our classes, we joined a Pisco Sour making class. It was more about being handed multiple glasses of Pisco sour and chatting than actually making it. Funnily enough, after not really drinking alcohol for 6 months and having 6 cocktails, my Spanish was the best yet!

In our own time, we climbed Cerro San Cristobal. You can get a funicular up but we decided to walk. At the top of the hill, there’s a 14m statue of the Virgin Mary. Some people go up for the religious element, but for us, it was more about going to see the views of the city. Unfortunately, the pollution haze made the visibility quite poor but nonetheless a spectacular site seeing the juxtaposition of snowy mountains and a hugely built up city.

Our final stop in Santiago was the Museum of memory and human rights. The museum is free but we decided to pay the $2000 pesos (£2.50) for an English audio guide. It’s very heavy with 70 ‘chapters’ to listen to throughout the museum but it was really educational. Neither of us were particularly knowledgable about Chile’s history of dictatorship under Pinochet from 1973-1990. It was very moving and interesting to learn more about the initial military coup, hear from survivors, understand the role of the media, see the impact of cultural censorship and the condemnation from other countries. I think the most interesting part for us was listening to the former president Salvador Allende’s final speech broadcast to the nation on the radio before he killed himself on the day of the coup after the parliament had been bombed. We were reading the translated subtitles, but I imagine listening in Spanish would have been all the more powerful. It’s absolute madness that he remained so composed and delivered such an inspirational speech to the Chilean people moments before his death.

Join us next time when we go to Valparaiso, the street art capital!

Thanks for reading,

Sophie & Dave