A Travellerspoint blog

Caldera to San Pedro de Atacama

Atacama; Dunes, Lagoons and Desert Moons

sunny 10 °C

Monday 26 - Friday 30 June

Bright and early on Monday morning, the overnight bus from Santiago dropped us by a seemingly deserted restaurant on the outskirts of Caldera. We waited a while with no pick-up in sight, before venturing inside to seek help. Just as we did, the restaurant's phone rang to say that the bus was on its way...

Caldera is a charming but sleepy fishing village,

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but after the bustle of Santiago it was nice to stroll in the sunshine and take in sights such as the pretty church and the harbour at our leisure.

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After lunch at Caldera's best known empanada restaurant (an empanada is a bit like a cornish pasty, traditionally filled with meat, egg and olives), we made our way to the evening's rest stop - a beachside holiday camp at nearby Bahia Ingles.

Tuesday 27 June

Today's final destination would be Antofagasta, but in order to get there we first had to cross the most arid stretch of the Atacama Desert - parts of which have not registered rainfall in fifty years.

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Here, the landscape is markedly different from anything we've yet encountered with the dusty-brown earth and mountain backdrop standing vivid against a deep blue cloudless sky.

Nitrate mining provided a large part of Chile's income during the nineteenth century, and abandoned reminders of the industry - such as this cemetery for miners -

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can be found across the desert. The cemetery is slightly unsettling; a contrast of decorated headstones and simple wooden crosses, punctuated by the occasional partially open grave revealing a booted foot or a glimpse of white bone... we didn't hang around too long.

From the unsettling to the unreal; some way further on we encountered an enormous hand rising from the desert floor!

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Known as the "Mano del Desierto" (Hand of the Desert) this 11 metre high sculpture by Mario Irarrazabal was installed in the desert in 1992.

And so to the large city port of Antofagasta, and our lodgings, but not before a quick visit to "La Porta" cliffs at sunset. Why does this remind me of Australia's Great Ocean Road?

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Wednesday 28 June

Setting off from Antofagasta, it wasn't long before we came upon another reminder of Chile's nitrate-mining past at Baquedano; an abandoned yet perfectly preserved train yard (no rainfall means no humidity and therefore no rust). This place brought out the kid in all of us, as we climbed all over these magnificent old trains!

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Drawing ever closer to San Pedro de Atacama, we left the PanAmerican Highway, turning instead onto a road made of compacted salt. In fact we were heading toward the bed of a dry lake, now the Atacama Salt Flat; the largest in Chile. Beds of brown rock-like salt gave way to a vast expanse of flat white salt stretching as far as the eye can see:

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We took time to inspect the geometric salt formations close-up.

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Our last stop for today before San Pedro de Atacama was the Los Flamencos Natural Reserve, where you can see - what else? - flamingos in their natural environment. For us it was a good chance to further our wildlife spotting, and a good excuse to take many more sunset shots. Sorry.

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Thursday 29 June

The low-rise desert town of San Pedro, whilst pleasant enough to look at, is undeniably tourism-oriented. Here tour operators, internet cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops and all grades of accommodation sit cheek-by-jowl, and make San Pedro seem little more than a good base for participating in the many activities locally available.

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The town square, San Pedro de Atacama

There is more to San Pedro though, as we would discover a little later. For now, we took in an evening excursion to the nearby salt caves,

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and another amazing desert sunset at the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon).

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Friday 30 June

Among the various activities on offer at San Pedro we spied a brief four-day tour of Bolivia which took our fancy, and so - in between watching World Cup games - we booked ourselves onto the tour which was to leave the following day. Stefan and Karin were continuing with the Chile tour for a couple more days, and so we swapped email addresses and bid them a fond but sad farewell.
After our quick break in Bolivia we would resume the remainder of our Chile tour when we returned to San Pedro the following week. Everything seemed to be going so well; nice hot weather, new countries to explore, adventure, excitement... what could possibly go wrong?
That evening, we had no inkling as to just how soon that question was going to be answered.

Posted by andymoore 15:06 Archived in Chile Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Santiago, Chile

Two Gringos who don't speak the lingo.

sunny 18 °C

Monday 19 - Sunday 25 June

The guidebooks we’ve read and the travel documentaries we’ve seen suggest that for the novice traveller, Asia represents the greatest culture-shock. Not so for us. Asia is a breeze; everything is easily accessible, the majority of folk speak English and are friendly and helpful, and getting from A to B is rarely a major problem.

Nope; South America is the real culture-shock. The cities look nicely westernised and the people familiar, but if you don’t speak a word of Spanish, bewilderment soon reigns and the limitations of your phrase book quickly become apparent. OK, I'm generalising a bit here (how you fare depends enormously on the country you’re in and the people you encounter) but arriving in Chile and trying to negotiate our way around really opened our eyes… and tested our sign-language capabilities.

When I began this blog back in January I described our sense of awe at stepping off the plane in Cape Town, South Africa and being confronted by Table Mountain. We've been a bit awed by aspects of our world trip almost every day since, BUT - even before you step off the plane in Santiago your gaze is gripped by the Andes in all their majesty. Time for me to reach for the dictionary in search of new superlatives.

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Santiago and the Andes

An apology; if my Santiago narrative seems sadly lacking it's because the bizarre time-zone hopping properties of our flight from New Zealand eventually left us thoroughly jet-lagged and incapable of taking decent notes and photos. Ian, our patrician host at the hostel La Chimba, is well used to greeting zombified lodgers and cheerily informed us that recovery would take at least three days. We held this thought as we duly fell into bed and passed out.

Already painfully aware of our non-existent Spanish skills, we had booked into a one-week intensive Spanish course through the hostel; two hours per night for five nights, and two five-hour 'practical' sessions out on the streets of Santiago at the weekend. The course turned out to be great fun, thanks to our enthusiastic tutor Phillipe, and the other 'students'; Stefan and Karin, and Cordula, all from Germany. We soon became good friends.

We spent our waking moments during the week exploring as much of Santiago as possible beginning with a climb up Cerro San Cristobal, a huge hill atop which an imposing statue of the Virgin Mary overlooks the city.

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Like many capital cities, Santiago is huge, sprawling, busy and traffic-heavy. The predominantly dry and dusty conditions leave a pall of yellow smog hanging in the air; only after heavy rainfall does the air temporarily clear.

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But a closer look reveals tree-lined parks, elegant architecture, many beautiful sculptures and statues, and a couple of fascinating museums.

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And so our week passed, and on Friday night we embarked on a debauched night out to celebrate the completion of our last 'formal' Spanish lesson. Unfortunately, we massively over-celebrated, leaving the first of our practical real-life tutorials on Saturday a somewhat muted affair.

Attempting to recover the situation on Sunday, Phillipe asked us what we would like to do for the second real-life tutorial. An imaginative group vote secured a lunchtime trip to the pub to see England play Ecuador in the World Cup! For us, the scenario was surreal; an English couple, sitting in an Irish pub with a group of Germans, surrounded by Chileans, watching England versus Ecuador whilst eating Indian food. England triumphed, but our Spanish learning suffered...

Keen to get out and explore Chile, but hampered by our lack of the language we signed up for a ten-day tour of the country which would give us a taster of the highlights in a gringo-friendly package. We had to forego the first two days of the tour in order to complete our Spanish course, but taking an overnight bus from Santiago to Caldera would enable us to join the tour on the third morning.

Stefan and Karin were joining us on the trip, and so on Sunday night we bade a sad but fond farewell to Cordula and said au revoir to La Chimba (we would return for one night after the tour), headed for the bus terminal in downtown Santiago and journeyed into the night.

Posted by andymoore 17:48 Archived in Chile Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Taking flight to South America

'Would Sir like to choose from the wine list?' Surely some mistake...?

20 °C

Monday 19th June

A painless journey to the airport and a parting with our trusty RAV4 later, we found ourselves in the LAN Chile check-in queue. We both like airports; they signify change and excitement and pastures new, but today my enthusiasm was dulled by the prospect of an eleven-hour flight - I can get pretty cranky on long flights as the lack of leg room in economy-class makes it almost impossible for me to sleep.

Waiting in line to check-in, we noticed an airline official talking discreetly to one or two people ahead of us. We paid little attention until he approached us. "Excuse me Sir, we may need to upgrade some passengers today. Could I take your names please?"
The idea of a free upgrade on a long-haul flight was far beyond the hopes of a pair of scruffy travellers like us, and a sudden rush of excitement was dispelled when we reached the check-in desk and were presented with the expected economy-class boarding passes. Our friendly official no-longer seemed interested in us.

After whiling away the afternoon browsing in the duty-free shops, we sat in the departure lounge. Suddenly, my name was called over the tannoy and I was summonsed to the boarding desk; we had been upgraded to Business Class! Nothing could quell my good mood after that, and the flight was a comfortable dream.

However, just when our body-clocks had become adjusted to New Zealand time this flight threw a previously unencountered spanner into the works. We took off from Auckland at 17:25 bin the evening on June 19th, and landed in Santiago, Chile, at 12:45 in the afternoon on June 19th!

The sheer excitement of arriving in a new country on a new continent merely postponed the effect that this time-zone tomfoolery would later have on us...

Posted by andymoore 17:01 Archived in New Zealand Tagged air_travel Comments (0)

Tongariro National Park - Waitomo - Matamata - Hamilton

Mount Doomed, Hobbiton hurried, but happy in Hamilton

sunny 15 °C

Thursday 15 - Sunday 18 June

The 'Lord of the Rings' exhibition we saw at Te Papa (see Wellington entry) prompted us to seek out some more of the locations used in the films during our final week on North Island. Where better to go then - unless you're a Hobbit - than Mount Doom itself? Better known as the volcano Ngauruhoe, this landmark sits with two other active volcanoes - Tongariro itself, and Ruapehu - in the Tongariro National Park. Awarded 'World Heritage Site' status in the 1980s, the park presents a number of great walking opporunities including the 'Tongariro Crossing'; a full day's hike which takes in crater lakes, lava flows and more thermal pools.

On the way, we broke the drive from Rotorua with a visit to another volcanic reserve; Thermal Wonderland at Wai-O-Tapu. Here, we witnessed the spectacle of an erupting geyser!

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In addition to another fine collection of colourful thermal pools and lakes,

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we also found everyone's favourite... the bubbling mud pools.

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We'd enjoyed sunshine whilst exploring Wai-O-Tapu, but as we progressed toward the national park the sky darkened and a heavy mist descended rendering the impressive scenery, including Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom), all but invisible as we arrived.

Friday 16 June

Any thoughts of exploring National Park today quickly expired as soon as we opened the curtains; it was as though a dark grey blanket had been throw over the entire landscape, with the threat of torrential rain never far away. We'd looked forward to attempting the 'Tongariro Crossing' but alas our hopes were dashed and we were faced with the possibility that our last few days in New Zealand might be washed out.

Fortunately, our accommodation (Howard's Lodge) was modern, comfortable and warm - not so bad if we were forced to stay indoors. First though, we headed out with the notion of taking some photos of Tongariro's magnificent scenery. Not a chance! The surrounding mountain range was shrouded in impenetrable gloom. Almost inevitably, as we wandered around the tiny village, the heavens opened. Naturally we headed for the local pub, 'Schnapps'.

The rain showed no sign of stopping, and so we fled back to the lodge, grabbed two huge mugs of steaming coffee and perched ourselves in front of a roaring log fire. (Do log fires really 'roar')? We spent the rest of the day struggling with a fiendish 1500 piece jigsaw...

Saturday 17 June

Frustrated by our failure to follow in Frodo's footsteps up Mount Doom we set off for what we hoped would be the next best thing; the tiny town of Matamata which has been thrust into the tourism limelight by its proximity to the location chosen by Peter Jackson to represent 'Hobbiton'.

A diversion from this morning's journey was a visit to the caves at Waitomo. The huge cave systems here offer opportunities for 'black-water' rafting and caving, but we were interested in seeing glow worms! Deep underground, we were led through chambers containing stalactites and stalacmites of varying lengths and ages until we reached an unlit underground river. Here, we climbed into a boat and were paddled a short way into the darkness... and, as our eyes adjusted we saw thousands of tiny lights - the roof and walls were covered with glow worms. The overall effect was magical; like looking into the galaxy on a perfectly dark night. For obvious reasons, flash photography wasn't allowed.

Arriving at Matamata a sign proudly proclaims 'Welcome to Hobbiton'!, but beyond the gift shops there is little to inspire Tolkien fans. The film-set itself (you can take the inevitable tour) now bears little resemblance to the detailed and picturesque village seen on screen. The standard of our accommodation - normally commendably high in New Zealand - was disappointing and so...

Sunday 18 June

... on a whim, we chose to spend our last full day in New Zealand in Hamilton. This seemed sensible as Sharon had no desire to navigate her way into and out of Auckland for the sake of one night's accommodation and Hamilton, a largeish city, is a manageable distance from the airport.

It was a good choice. Our hostel, the Eagle's Nest Backpackers, is modern, friendly and clean and situated a short walk from the city centre. After the disappointments of the national park and Matamata, we were happy to spend a day in (hooray!) sunshine just shopping and browsing and preparing ourselves for the following day's eleven-hour flight to Chile.

We enjoyed hospitable Hamilton and, as we rounded off our last evening with a couple of pints and a good Thai meal, we knew we would take with us happy memories of our time in New Zealand, and a desire to return.

Posted by andymoore 13:45 Archived in New Zealand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Lake Taupo (briefly) to Rotorua

Lord of the Springs

semi-overcast 12 °C

Sunday 11 - Wednesday 14 June

Leaving Napier on Sunday morning, Lake Taupo,

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My one-and-only non-rainy Lake Taupo photo

was to be our next stop. From here we intended to head to the Tongariro National Park to do some more serious walking. Again though, atrocious weather forced us to alter our plans. (At Taupo, we told a friendly waiter in the local cafe that we were heading to Tongariro. Taking one look at the weather outside, he said, "No you're not!")
Instead, we decided to sample the many attractions of Rotorua, as we could easily backtrack to Tongariro a few days later without disrupting our schedule.

Monday 12 June

I agonised over the subtitle for this blog entry; runners-up included "Smelly Geysers", "Smells like bean spirit", "Hoof Hearted?" and a couple of similar flatulence-related but unprintable efforts. Why? Well, to be honest, Rotorua smells. Don't get me wrong - it's a terrific town surrounded by natural beauty, but the presence of many thermal springs and pools lend an unavoidable sulphurous whiff to the place.

Lake Taupo's foul weather followed us all the way to Rotorua Central Backpackers (a large and comfortable old house, with spacious rooms and baths!), and we got soaked just moving our stuff from the car . Exploration of the deceptively large town was thus postponed until the evening, and was rounded off with a visit to (yes, another) microbrewery pub called the 'Pig and Whistle' which is housed in Rotorua's old police station and has walls which are eighteen inches thick!

Tuesday 13 June

This morning was overcast but dry so we set off early for the short drive to one of Rotorua's most active geothermal attractions - Hell's Gate.

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This reserve contains a number of natural hot springs and pools, with the water temperature in some reaching average temperatures of 105'C - so it's probably best to obey the warnings:

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"Hell's Gate" was the name given to a large thermal pool and surrounding area by the playwright George Bernard Shaw on a visit here in the early 1900's. Steaming pools nearby such as "Devil's Bath", "Devil's Cauldron" and "Sulphur Lake" are equally aptly-named, and it's easy to see why:

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We spent a long morning exploring the reserve, but as we returned toward the entrance the rain began. About to leave, we spotted a workshop where a man was busy intricately carving a large piece of wood; introducing himself as Ben, he beckoned us over and invited us to try traditional Maori carving for ourselves! I don't think Ben has anything to fear from us...

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Ben the woodcarver with Sharon

A slight detour from Hell's Gate allowed took us to the nearby Blue and Green Lakes. A forested path took us right around the shore of the Blue Lake and onto a small promontory which gave a (somewhat obscured) view of both lakes simultaneously.

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The Blue Lake, Rotorua

Having made the most of what was to be one of our last 'fair weather' days in New Zealand, we took a slow drive back to downtown Rotorua.

Wednesday 14 June

Since ariving in Rotorua, we still hadn't really explored the town properly and so today we combined a few necessities (a haircut each, a visit to the Tourist Info centre, postcard purchases etc.) with a good look around. As a base for a few days, Rotorua works well; the town has every kind of shop you might need as well as plenty of decent bars and restaurants, and the many attractions and activities in the region are easily accessible.

Posted by andymoore 18:23 Archived in New Zealand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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