We’ve made it to Chile, our longest stop in South America (both physically and temporally)! After reading and re-reading many other travel blogs detailing the bus crossing from Peru to Chile, our own journey went over rather smoothly. After arriving in Tacna, Peru at 5am via our first overnight bus from Puno, we hopped in a collectivo (think shared taxi with personal Sherpa to guide you through the border) and made it to Arica, Chile. During this crossing we magically gained two hours, which left us with about 12 hours to kill in Arica. All you need to know about these 12 hours:
- “Pienso que la respuesta es no…pero es posible para pagar en Soles?” I tentatively asked the woman at the hostel across from the bus station when we had yet to take out Chilean Pesos. Surprisingly the answer was yes, along with stifled laughter as I was clearly giving her a tad more than the actual cost. Such a win-win situation.
- In said hostel, we streamed the BBC to watch Teresa May’s unsurprising win of the no confidence vote. No, Jacob Rees-Mogg, you did not win.
- Food. Okay. So here’s the thing. Well, three things really. First, Chilenos don’t speak Spanish. Or at least when it comes to their food they speak no Spanish I’m aware of (you can’t say that “Allied” and“Deputy” are sandwiches…they’re not!) Second, there was a used napkin in my salad at lunch. “No, senorita, no es una servilla, es parte de la lechuga,” the waiter claimed when I brought it to the counter. “No, no es lechuga. Definitivamente es una servilla. Tocala.” A look of horror spread over his face. Third, after a fruitless search for vegetarian food before our bus, I ultimately had a piece of bread and an apple for dinner. That’s Arica for you.
Needless to say, when we boarded our overnight bus to San Pedro de Atacama and snuggled into our cama seats, we were pretty jazzed. Although I found it odd we had to hand our passports over to the driver for the first two hours of the journey and then disembark, usher our bags through customs and re-embark our bus at 3am in the middle of Chile (just to state the obvious: this bus journey was solely through Chile), the bus ride was smooth and we made it to San Pedro no problem!
While walking from the bus station to our Airbnb, dogs roamed the desert streets as if they owned them. And when I say “streets”, it’s a generous term. Focus more on the desert part. All streets in town are unpaved and lie somewhere on the scale from: “imagine walking/driving through a hot sandy beach” to “so this is where they got the inspiration for the Indiana Jones Disneyland ride”.
Our Airbnb was a great home base (there was toilet paper and soap in the bathroom! And…wait for it…you could flush said toilet paper down the toilet!) and led to a wonderful conversation under the stars with fellow guests, a couple from Santiago, as we noshed on our classic pasta with tomato sauce and tuna. They explained that Chile is the UK of South America (think emotionally and socially restrained) and had no answer to our question of why the Chilean Peso has so many zeros ($1 USD = 684.60 Chilean Pesos). They did, however, mention a drink called “terremoto” (earthquake) that Dom and I quickly checked off our Chile bucket list on our last night in San Pedro (real question: why can’t pineapple sorbet be the ice of every alcoholic drink?).
We booked three half-day tours (honestly more like transportation to and from plus a pit stop with bottled pisco sour and an assortment of chips) to explore the desert that had one common factor: they were all swimming excursions (two salty, one not). We also booked an evening astronomical tour to round off our time in the desert.
We started with the Termas de Puritama, a collection of seven thermal pools that snake down a river hidden in the midst of the desert. Although the Termas are the culprit for my first sunburn of the trip (Yes, I did put on sunscreen. No, I did not wait 15 minutes before going in the water.), I enjoyed them thoroughly.
That evening I summoned all my non-Randi like habits to stay up for our astronomical tour. We were picked up at midnight and whisked off to an even more remote part of the desert with no light pollution (except the moon, which was rudely at 40% full). While reclining in lounge chairs and bundled in sweatshirts, our guide pointed his laser into the sky to trace the constellations. Fun fact: Orion and his dog (along with all the common constellations) are upside down in the southern hemisphere. This really is a northern hemisphere-centric world (but as Dom pointed out, only 10% of the population live in the southern hemisphere…).
After observing more stars with the naked eye than I have ever seen before, we began two rounds of viewing with five telescopes trained towards star clusters, nebula, mars and the moon. Did you know such thing as binary stars exist? Maybe if we revolved around two suns I finally wouldn’t be cold at all times ?I came away from the evening thinking (a) it makes complete sense people dedicate their lives towards exploring space and (b) there must be other life out there, but when and where we will probably never know. Such an incredible evening.
The next day we headed back through the desert to find another oasis, this time a rather salty one. The Lagunas Baltinaches, also known as Las Lagunas Escondidas (The Hidden Lakes), are a set of seven salty lagoons (two of which you can swim in) nestled amongst a rather lunar landscape. I honestly can’t describe what it felt like to slide into the lagoon only to immediately bob to the surface. Even when you’re “standing” with your arms glued to your sides, you float above the surface. So freakin cool! While walking along to observe the other lagoons, the salt encrusted our bodies and swimsuit. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, but it was pretty novel.
As our tour van sped off back to San Pedro, we inevitably got a flat tire—or, more accurately, our car performed a magic trick where the tire disappeared almost entirely. I’m actually quite pleased with this. As I see it, we’ve already experienced theft (Dom’s phone in Lima), severe stomach problems (me in Arequipa and Puno) and now a vehicle incident. Now we don’t have to get in a crash at any point!
For our final excursion, we unknowingly booked a second saltwater adventure! (We knew the water part, didn’t realize the salt part.) But that’s okay, because who doesn’t love very salty water? When we arrived at Laguna Cejar it was rather overcast, which was good because we weren’t allowed to sunscreen (something about polluting the water) but definitely made me less inclined to stay long in the lagoon.
As was the case with our previous two excursions, just as interesting as the attraction itself was the incredible desert landscape. This time the lagoon was surrounded by encrusted dirt laced with small green plants while Licancabur Volcano towered behind.
After our float at Laguna Cejar we made a brief pit stop at Ojos de Salar where Dom (and a few other brave souls) leapt into the small muddy lagoon while our tour guide yelled “Let’s goooooo Britaaaaain!”.
As seemed to be a theme of these tours, we made one final pit stop to drink pisco sour and munch on some chips and biscuits as the sun (very slowly) set. This time our backdrop was Tebinquinche, a massive salt lake (more salt, less lake). Most excitingly, this is also when I discovered Cheezles, quite possibly the best chips ever. Once you have them, you’ll never look at Cheetos the same way again.
I’m extremely glad we visited San Pedro and basked in its stunningly varied desert landscapes and overly salty waters. There’s so much more I could write about and so many more pictures I could share (e.g. my excitement over fresh vegetables, the number of dogs I befriended, swinging in our Airbnb’s hammocks, etc.), but you’ll just have to visit to experience it yourself. We’ve now made it to Valparaiso, so stay tuned for more…