Chile and Peru 2009

Plaza de Armas

Jan 06, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009

Plaza de Armas

Back in Chile it was a beautiful summery day. I had only an afternoon and a morning before heading back to Europe. News from home was that it was the coldest winter for years, and London was in chaos as a few inches of snow caused a kind of mass panic. All that was thousands of miles away and I found it hard not to feel a little bit of schadenfreude as I relaxed in the warm sun. I sat in the Plaza de Armas, enjoying the relaxed vibe. An eccentric old man sat down next to me and started chatting. It was good to practice my Spanish, and at first the conversation was quite sensible, but later it became more surreal and confusing. When I could no longer understand what he was saying, I got up and left.

My trip ended badly. I got ill on my last night, and felt horrific the next morning. I felt so bad that I thought I might not make it to the airport, but after a morning doing nothing but sipping water I decided to give it a go. I threw on my pack and staggered out into the heat of the day. I managed to walk in the wrong direction for a few minutes, turned around wearily and shuffled along to the Alameda. As I reached it I felt horrific, and ended up having to throw up in a bin. Two passing tramps asked me if I was OK, then asked me for some money. I wasn’t feeling charitable and I think I told them to piss off and leave me alone, or something like that. I sat down, took some deep breaths, and then found the airport bus.

At the airport I could hardly stand up, and I slumped against the check-in desk, deathly pale and shaking. I thought I probably looked like I was a heavy drugs user on a major withdrawal, and wondered if I’d have problems at security, but luckily I got through with no problems. And whatever was wrong with me passed within a few hours. By the time we landed in Europe I was feeling pretty OK again. I thought I was hearing things when the pilot said it was -8°C in Paris, but sadly I was totally compos mentis and it really was 40°C colder than it had been when I got on the plane. The short hop back to London took us over a countryside under deep snow. It was a brutal transition. Even before we landed I was longing to go back to South America.

La Silla alternative view

Jan 06, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009

La Silla alternative view

I headed to the airport at 5.30am. Only when I got there did I realise that my flight was not non-stop but would actually involve three legs, touching down in Iquique and Copiapó. I knew that between Copiapó and Santiago we’d fly over La Silla, and I wanted to look out for it. We flew over central Iquique, and I looked down nostalgically at the places I’d been a few days earlier. Then it was mostly cloudy from Iquique to Copiapó as the morning fog rolled in off the Pacific.

I started dozing just after we left Copiapó, and soon fell fast asleep. Suddenly I woke, infuriated with myself because I was sure we must have passed La Silla. I looked out of the window over the incredible expanse of the Atacama, and right below me, as clear as anything, were the domes of the observatory. It was good to see them again.

Lago Chungará

Jan 05, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009

Lago Chungará

We took the road towards Bolivia, which rose steeply into the Andes. I was fine at Putre, 3,500m above sea level, but started to feel the effects of the thin air as we got higher. By the time we reached the shores of Lago Chungará at 4,500m above sea level, I was feeling pretty spaced out. I staggered along the shore, struggling to remember how to operate my camera. My head felt like it was full of cotton wool, and every step was an effort. But despite this I could appreciate the spectacular scenery, with Parinacota and Pomerape volcanoes towering over the lake, their summits more than a mile above the shores.

We went to Parinacota village, a hundred metres lower down but still the highest inhabited place in Chile. I bought some Bolivian-style popcorn and some sopaipillas, and felt a little bit better for eating. There was a brief rainshower and a few cracks of thunder, and I took shelter in the tiny church. A small table is tied to the wall here; legend has it that the table once got up and walked to a house, whose inhabitant then died. It’s been tethered ever since to prevent anything similar happening again.

Then we went on down to Putre. The bus driver said that now we were at just 3,500m again, we could “run, jump, dance and play”. And it was true – I felt much better for the slight descent. We stopped here for some food and I chatted to some of my fellow passengers. Most were Chileans on holiday here from other parts. I spoke to one couple from Santiago, who were interested that I’d come to Chile to work. They’d heard it said many times that Chile had the best skies in the world but they said they’d always wondered if it was actually true. I assured them it was, and said they should check out the skies around La Silla or Paranal some time.

We descended back to sea level. Exhausted by the altitude, I slept a lot of the way. I got back to Arica late at night, and I had an early start the next morning to catch a 7am flight back to Santiago.

Poconchile cemetary

Jan 05, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009

Poconchile cemetary

I went on a day trip to Parque Nacional Lauca. The journey would take me from sea level to 4,500m in just a few hours, which was certainly going to be a major mistake, more or less guaranteed to give me altitude sickness. But I wanted to see the Altiplano wilderness and this was my only way of getting to the park. So at 7am I got on the bus and we headed inland.

We stopped at some places en route. The first was Poconchile, a small town not far from Arica. The cemetery there is famous for its decorated grave markings, and we stopped for a look. It reminded me a lot of the Arctic cemeteries I’d seen in Greenland a few months earlier. In both places, the graves surrounded by savage lands made the place feel like it was on the very limits of where human beings could thrive.

Tacna

Jan 04, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009

Tacna

Just a few miles north of Arica was the border with Peru. Colectivo taxis plied the route, leaving from near where I was staying. I’d planned to spend three days in Parque Nacional Lauca, but was thwarted by arriving on a weekend and could only spend one day there, so I had time to spare and decided to spend an afternoon in Tacna.

The journey was short, with half the time being taken up by border formalities. I got to Tacna in the early afternoon and with nothing particular to do, I just wandered into town. I passed through the long distance bus station, saw buses going to Cuzco, Arequipa, Lima and other places, and felt outrageously tempted to abandon my flight home and disappear into Peru for a while instead. Touts shouted destinations at me, assuming I was on my way to somewhere. But I decided to be sensible, and carried on into town, via some money changers who swapped some pesos for soles at an acceptable rate.

Tacna was astonishingly different from Arica. The difference of 20 miles made an appalling difference to the lives and chances of people on one side of the border compared to the other. Arica was a bit grubby and noticeably poorer than places further south, but Tacna was far, far worse off. Every time I sat down I was surrounded by shoe-shine children, desperately trying to make a little bit of money. If they’d only been born a little bit further south they might have had a childhood. It seemed horrifically arbitrary and depressing.

It was grey and overcast when I arrived, but later the sun came out, and Tacna’s cathedral looked quite nice in the evening light. I got some food in a Chinese restaurant, where I had trouble finding an option without meat. I asked the waitress and she said they could do me chicken chow mein without the chicken. I said OK, and she shouted to the kitchen “Chicken chow mein without the chicken!”.

As it got dark I thought I’d better head back to Chile. I walked back to the bus station and got in a taxi. Again the border was most of the journey, and I didn’t make things easy for myself by misplacing my entry card, which I’d only got few hours earlier. I rummaged in every corner of my backpack, embarrassed to be causing delays. The border guard muttered something about marijuana, which I thought was a little bit harsh. He said I could pay 9 soles if I couldn’t find it, but luckily I did, and got out of Peru without further incident. We passed through customs, and a Peruvian girl pointed out that one of the pockets of my backpack was open. We started chatting and she was shocked that I’d spent only one day in Peru. I told her about my previous trip where I’d travelled the whole length of the country, and that placated her. She was from Tacna but had lived in Cuzco and we chatted about places there.

And then my taxi was ready to head off. I got back in and crossed finally into Chile. As we approached Arica I saw a sign that said “Santiago 2085″. I was quite glad I’d booked a flight and would not have to cover that enormous distance in one single journey.

El Morro

Jan 03, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009

El Morro

I was sad to leave Iquique, but I took a lot of good memories with me. I didn’t have much time left now before my flight home, and I still wanted to make it up to the very top of Chile. I got a bus to Arica, the northernmost town in the country.

Arica wasn’t as cool as Iquique, but I still liked it a lot. It was a lot more run-down looking, with low houses sprawling over a huge area. The hostel I stayed in was quite a way out of the centre, so I walked for many miles during my few days here. The first day I was there was a Sunday, which was a shame because it meant all the travel agents were closed, and my plan to spend three days in Parque Nacional Lauca was impossible. So instead I wandered around the city, eventually finding my way up El Morro, a huge headland which towers over the centre. I got there as the sun was setting, and climbed up it for some amazing views of the Pacific sunset. In the other direction, looking east I could see two giant snow-capped Andean peaks, so far away they were only just barely visible on the horizon.

I watched the sunset and then watched the city lights come on. Arica felt like a good place to end my travels and turn back south. I would do that in a couple of days, but I was so close to Peru here that I decided I couldn’t leave without a quick look across the border.

Iquique

Dec 31, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009

Iquique

I got a bus to Iquique. It was a great journey through the desert to Antofagasta, and then up the coast. A stunning moonrise over the Andes felt like a sign that this was a good direction to be heading in.

And Iquique was fantastic. The weather was awesome, the setting of the city between the desert mountains and the Pacific was incredible, the place I stayed was great, the people I met were fun, and I was in a great mood. It was New Year’s Eve, and I had a few things to sort out. I needed to buy a flight from Arica to Santiago, if I was going to make it up there and still get back in time for my flight home; I needed a new bag because mine was falling apart; and I needed an FC Iquique football top. I had a great Spanish day and accomplished all my tasks with a minimum of misunderstanding.

My errands run, I went for a walk on the beach. I kept on getting into random conversations with friendly locals – someone from Santiago visiting the north for the first time, and enjoying the weather, a local who told me there would be fireworks later on, and a very, very drunk guy who was more or less totally incomprehensible. The vibe was good. I sat down in the sand to watch the sun set on 2009, and then went back to the hostel for a new year party.

2010 was a good few hours old before I got up to see what it was like. I hung around in the hostel for a while, brewing Turkish coffees and chatting to travellers. Eventually I got hungry, and headed out to see what was going on in town. Almost nothing was going on – the streets were deserted and the shops were shut, but eventually I found a shop that was open, and bought some food. Then I went to the beach, which was where everyone was. I wandered through the crowds and found a small patch of sand to sit down, watch the waves crashing on the shore, and listen to music.

El Tatio

Dec 29, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009

El Tatio

I’d liked El Tatio the last time I was here, four years earlier. The geothermal activity was impressive and the Altiplano scenery around it was staggering. This time I didn’t like it so much. The weather was pretty bad, with thick clouds drifting over the place when we arrived. On my first trip it had been savagely cold; it wasn’t so bad this time, but the clouds really made it look much less impressive.

So I walked around the geysers, thinking I should probably have gone somewhere else instead of returning here. The 4,300m altitude and a slight lack of caffeine worsened my mood. But suddenly, startlingly, just as we were leaving, the clouds dispersed. Within a couple of minutes, the Altiplano had emerged from the gloom, and the sun shone on the wisps of steam from the declining geysers, which only erupt for a couple of hours after sunrise.

We drove back to San Pedro, via Machuca, where a white adobe church shines brightly under the Atacama sun, and where locals sell handicrafts and food. Last time I’d been here, we’d had a puncture and a long wait to change the tyre. I’d been suffering with the altitude and had not felt good. This time I was OK. I bought an empanada and a coffee, and enjoyed the stop.

Back in San Pedro, I decided it was time to pack up and head on further north.

Dessication

Dec 28, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009

Dessication

I headed back to San Pedro. The scenery here was really mind-blowing, with the horizon fringed by giant volcanoes and in the foreground, the wild rock formations of the Valle de la Luna. Sometimes these volcanoes erupt; Lascar had erupted only a few years earlier, and Putana was smoking. I hoped that one day I’d be able to come here and see an eruption.

In the evening I cycled out to the Valle de la Muerte, much closer to San Pedro than the Valle de la Luna. I stood on a hilltop looking out over the surroundings, as a strong evening wind blew down the valley. Night fell, and I cycled back into town. It had been a tiring day, and in normal circumstances I might have slept late the next morning. But I had to be up at 3.30am, because I would be returning to El Tatio.

Atacama cycling

Dec 28, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009

Atacama cycling

I’d been to San Pedro before. It’s nice enough despite being amazingly touristy. All backpackers in Chile come here at some point on their journeys, and I was no different. I wanted to see some of the desert sights here again before pushing on further north.

I’d cycled in the desert last time, and I decided to do the same again now. I don’t really like riding bikes that aren’t mine, but the flat-pedalled, slightly too small machine that I hired would suffice for a few tens of miles anyway. I headed out into the desert.

I cycled to the Valle de la Luna. Most people come here at sunset; I arrived in the powerful heat of midday. The advantage was that I had the place entirely to myself; the disadvantage was sunburn so bad that it was visible for weeks. But that would only affect me later. On the day, I enjoyed it. I walked down some canyons, up some rock formations, and over some sand dunes. I spent a while in the silent desert setting up my camera to take photos of me cycling by. And eventually I reached Las Tres Marias, a strange rock formation quite a few miles away from anywhere. I sat in the desert and pondered for a while, enjoying the solitude.