First Time in Southern Hemisphere - Chile (2011)

In truth it was a first time for me. Mike actually went to Chile with his friend Sergey last year but really wanted to go back and show the beauty of this country to me :-)

So let's start from the beginning because a trip was full of adventures! We were flying from JFK and of course (!) the flight was delayed by 2 hours due to rain and then a long take off line. We were "lucky" enough to have only 2 hours window between this fly to Santiago and our next flight so we were quite disappointed as one could imagine. We flew on LAN Airline (Chilean) which ended up being very pleasant experience with good food, personal in-seat entertainment and friendly staff. The plane flew faster so we ended up having 40min window between flights and were determined to make it. We notified a flight attendant who put us in the first class during landing so we could get off the plane first and then we literally ran to get visa, pass a passport control and customs, then security and, with a help of LAN personnel, were able to make an international to a local flight connection in 30min! They pretty much held a gate open for us.

And it was so awesome because this flight was to the Easter Island!!! Yes, it is the most remote island in the world and is the one you saw on a travel channel, at least I did when I was a girl. So we couldn't wait to get there and see famous statues (called Moai in a local language) ourselves. This flight is another 5hours, I had no idea the island is so far away...
On 7/30 we landed at the Easter island around noon time, got to the hotel (previously booked) and rented a car at Oceanic with a help of a hotel staff. A hotel is called Ana Rapu and was recommended by the Rough Guide to Chile however it is bad. The rooms are in bad condition, a breakfast was as simple as it could possibly be and its staff wasn't very helpful. They even forgot to pick us up at the airport as previously arranged. So we were disappointed by the book's recommendation. Anyway, we rented Suzuki Jimmy (manual transmission), a small SUV but quite capable of riding on unpaved roads across the island; we did like it. We were able to cover most famous sites this afternoon, before darkness. Most of Moai have fallen down because of earthquakes, tsunami and fights between local people a while ago however there are few awesome sites still :

Rano Raraku - a picturesque green hill with many Moai, an actual former quarry where statues were made
Ahu Tongariki - a restored platform with 15 Moai on a beach, great sunrise location
Ahu Akivi – the only group of inland standing Moai, in the center of island
Anakena - nice beach with a few well preserved Ahu Nau Nau moai with hats
Orongo - a village where traditional celebrations took place, great view of a main town and a Ranu Kau volcano crater
Tapai – a cerremonial site with 3 ahu, one is a very noteworthy and well preserved Moai with white eyes and a hat

Hanga Roa is the only town on the island and its main street is filled with stores and restaurants. We had fresh seafood and it was yummy but not cheap. Mike loved local beer, especially pale ale. Later in the evening we went to see famous Kari-Kari show ($20 for hour long show). It was worth every cent! Note there is another show next to it, not sure about the quality of that one.

Next morning, 7/31, we woke up at 6am and drove immediately to see sunrise at Tongariki. The sunrise was at about 7am. It was magnificent and clearly should not be missed. We arrived quite early while it was pitch dark and watched stars waiting. As you can guess, there are so many stars...

After that we went to visit Orongo village that is located on a top of old volcano. A view at the Pacific Ocean is breath taking. One could actually see that the Earth is indeed round ! Next we visited a tiny local museum but it is not worth visiting unless you can read Spanish. However the best part is a small Moai site, very close to the museum. One sculpture still has eyes so it's super cool. Then we dropped the car and got to the airport (1 mile from the rental place). A note about the airport - it's tiny and opens only during flights that is once or twice a day only :-)
The weather was so nice, about +25C (+75F), and the island was so green that I wish we booked a longer stay but... We flew back on time and arrived to Santiago by taking a cab at the airport.

The prices are regulated so it's nice, you know you are not being ripped off by taxi drivers.
In Santiago we stayed at SOHO Santiago apartments. The place is very nice, looks like a rental company just rents one bedroom apartments as hotel suites. They put a small breakfast for us in a fridge every day. The location is also awesome, very close to the city center. See my review here.

August 1st. We had one full day to explore Santiago. We visited downtown and a main square with local artists and a grand cathedral, quite beautiful. Then we went to see the presidential palace La Moneda and its gallery downstairs. La Moneda's museum is simple but cute, has a bunch of coffee shops. We even got a personal tour at a museum store selling different crafts made by different Chilean native tribes and localities. Then we head to a fish market Mercado Central to have lunch. It has MANY fish restaurants and they are good, every restaurant tries to grab a tourist for lunch. After lunch we took a taxi to Cerro San Christobal as it was quite far. There is a magnificent view of the city and mountains and a big Madonna stands on the top. We rode a funicular both ways as apparently a cable car stopped working two years ago (don't blindly trust Rough Guide!). We were not tired yet so we took a long walk to Cerra San Lucia. It was a tough walk up the old stairs but it was quite worth it. Another great view of the city and a beautiful fountain and gardens. Our plan was to rent a car tomorrow and then drive all the way up north from Santiago to Iquique. So Mike insisted on getting quite expensive but very detailed maps as GPS was not enough :-) Now I can say the maps were useful but GPS was precious too.

In the evening we went to a great Peruvian restaurant, Dos teseros del Inca, Monjitas 795. Mike had their soup and loved it. We both enjoyed fresh seafood ceviche so much that we had to have it few more times again. A funny note about their menu - "Wantan" actually means a simple Chinese Wonton :) We closed that evening by having coffee at the Caribe cafe. It is a bare espresso bar. No food, no stools, no thrills - just good coffee and cute coffee serving girls. Maybe this is a south American thing, never seen such a bar before. Seems to be quite popular with locals as they even sell 10+ visit cards.

Next morning, 8/2, we went to a Hertz rental office and successfully rented new Grand Vitara. Surprisingly they had our reservation and a staff was nice and efficient. The car is not economical but looked capable to Mike as we planned a lot of off-road driving. Of course with a manual transmission, meaning no driving for me, haha! Santiago's traffic is pretty busy but manageable so we got out of the city quickly and were on the highway heading north. Pan Americana is an excellent highway, of course you have to pay and so as a result expect many tolls. And we did pay a lot. Our first stop was Zapallar, a magical small town on a coastline. Clearly a nice summer vacation spot where people could rent an apartment. However it was a winter time so it was quite empty but still very green and picturesque, just the weather was not hot. Mike purposely brought me here to have lunch at the best seafood restaurant in Chile. Well now, I can say, it's probably one of the best seafood places, period. El Chiringuito is expensive, expect American fancy restaurant prices but this place does serve best fish dishes in the world of local, just caught, fish and various seafood. The restaurant is located right in a bay, with a terrace overlooking ocean and a town, so imagine a very romantic and picturesque setting...
After a yummy lunch we headed to Thermas de Socos resort, a remote and quite empty (during winter). It is a hot spring resort offering hot baths, massages and etc. A hot bath was nice but its rooms were pretty much run down especially for a quite high price we paid. Nevertheless they were clean and a dinner served was good. See my review here.

On 8/3 we woke up early again (this would be our usual schedule in the next week :-) and started driving to Vallenar. Mike was very hungry so we had to stop and eat breakfast at a roadside cafe which had a good food actually. We both had Paila de huevos con Jamon, basically an omelet with ham Chilean style. After a hearty breakfast we started driving thru the mountains, imagine a road swirling and turning around mountains and of course unpaved. However Mike said this road to Rio Hurtado is easy. Naturally things got worse when we started to climb even higher. At about 2000 meter altitude a road was already covered by melting snow. And here we realized this car needs better tires. Default tires suck and so we got stuck while going up in the snow almost at the top! Mike got upset as we could not go thru the overpass to see his final destination – an astronomical observatory. Still we climbed up ~150 meters to the lookout and made lots of photos of grand Andes mountains . A view was magnificent! Then we had to turn around and drive back to Samo Alto (very curved road again!) and then took a side road to Andocollo. The fun part was driving thru a herd of goats, quite a challenge. This last road was lower, maybe 1200m max, but a few places were challenging and scary enough so taking a side road might not have been the best idea. Had a lunch at Andocollo, very expensive for a such simple meal but again the local soup was very good.

Finally drove to Vallenar and got there after dark. Surprisingly all hotels were booked, and it was a regular mid-week day. Mike found a LAST room at some residential house (Hosteria). A parking and getting out required significant effort and help from me and local folks. Basically 4 cars were parked in a tiny indoor backyard; I think Mike still might have nightmares about parking there :-) Lastly we had a rewarding dinner at Arriero, Prat 1061. Table Calente for 2 people is plenty and highly recommended! Otherwise Vallenar is nothing special.

Next morning, 8/4, we left for Copiapo. Had a hearty breakfast with eggs at the hosteria. There we noticed local people were eating bread with avocado instead of eggs for breakfast and so we tried it later too. It's so yummy that Mike now buys avocados and eats them home the same way. Again we had a long driving trip in mind for tomorrow so we had to buy extra gasoline container to take with us as there are virtually no gas stations on the way. In general, gas stations are quite rare in Chile, except for big cities maybe. Mike found a big Home Depot-like store at Vallenar. Its personnel was very helpful and so we bought the containers. Then we enjoyed an easy drive in a valley to Parque Llanos de Challe. It's located on a beautiful coast, with sandy beaches. It was a first time we encountered llamas, I was so excited! Mike said we'll see even more later. The cactuses were big like trees there, we obviously made a lot of pictures. Arrived to Copiapo before 6pm; it's a big town with a few hotels and again they were all FULL! Gosh! Luckily got help from an English speaking hotel staff and landed at comfortable but expensive Diego de Almeido. It's an upscale place with English speaking stuff, awesome breakfast buffet, big beds and sparkly clean bathrooms. Had a good dinner at the restaurant Bavaria on Plaza Prat. Their homemade ham was awesome. Copiapo has many stores, few good restaurants, an university and many mines around it. Apparently miners and different consultants live all year around and that's why hotels are fully booked all the time...

In the morning of August 5th we had a nice breakfast at the hotel, a plentiful buffet with meat and cheese selection, fruits and pastries. Filled up a tank and two gas containers (+20liter reserve) for a long drive. While leaving the city we noticed tires burning on the side of a road and a police officer nearby however didn't pay attention as it didn't look like anything significant (but wait!). So the goal was to drive across the Atacama Desert, through the Domeyko mountains and Andes to see Laguna Verde. It's located very close to the Argentinian border. The driving was not so hard but still had a few challenging places. We can say this road was well maintained. The snow started around 3000m and got worse but the road itself was cleaned. Our highest point was 4333m altitude. When we finally reached customs office, a carabineer was very surprised and did not let us go further because of too much snow in the mountains. He said we need a bigger car and probably chains, Grand Vitara is a capable car but once again stock tires suck. So we had to turn back again and drive back about 180km. Overall, the drive was unbelievable scenic, we saw wild horses and mules, beautiful birds and llamas. A note about a gas. The gas smelled terrible :-( At first I complained and then Mike had to agree it's really bad, especially the higher we climbed. We poured it in on the way back and the smell got better however the car still smelled as the containers were still dirty... It took us ~2:45hours to get from Copiapo to a customs checkpoint and then about the same amount back. On the way back we had to drive through Copiapo again to get to the main highway. Strangely the road was crowded, police cars were redirecting cars to a different side of a road, many police officers...Hmm, then we saw many stones on the road like someone was throwing them and finally we actually saw a full SWAT team storming an university campus and throwing tear gas across the fence. Understandably we didn't linger and continue to drive. Later that evening we googled and found out there were students riots in Santiago and few other cities across Chile, rallying for free education and social programs and against the current wealthy president. So now we understood why there were burning tires in the morning...
In the afternoon we arrived to Caldera, a tiny seaside town . It looked very empty as it was off season. We walked around, saw several cool graffiti and had a yummy dessert at a museum coffee shop. At night we had a dinner at El Peronde Ora (recommended by Rough Guide as well). We were the only customers … but their fish was great however we also tried locos, supposedly a famous Chilean seafood, and they tasted very strange, no desire to try again.

Next morning, 8/6, we left early as usual and Caldera looked like a dead town. A drive from Caldera to Chanaral was quick and easy. We filled up a car and had a simple but tasty breakfast at a food shack kiosk by the gas station. This meal marked a start of a fast-food day :-) Shortly we arrived to the Pan De Azucar. The beaches at the Pan de Azucar are gorgeous, I wish to visit them in summer. We hiked a mile to a mirador (scenic outlook) on the top of a hill . A view from the mirador is breathtaking, one can see an ocean with an island and a coastline on one side and a big valley with cactuses and mountains on the other side. Afterward we crossed the park and drove to Aqua Verde, filled up a car again and had a simple but hearty lunch for mere 6000 pesos at the restaurant on the highway (We were the only non-Spanish speaking people there). A road to Antafagasta consists of mountains and an endless Atacama desert. Mike loves it but it looks kind of the same to me. Our goal was to take photos of the famous Mano del Desierto, a sculpture of a huge open hand. It stands very close to the highway and is a real masterpiece . Made many cool pictures there. Then we arrived to Antafagasta which is a big industrial city, doesn't have many attractions but a good place to buy little things or do banking/currency exchange if needed. We decided to try a local fast food chain for dinner called “Don Pollo Don Loco” (Chicken and Beef). This place was weird as it offers just burgers and looks totally like McDonalds but it has waitresses, so one could order to a waitress or at the counter but a waitress will bring food to your table anyway and then you pay at the end like at a diner. So all three meals were fast-foody this day and I was a bit afraid. Of course next morning my stomach was reminding me how stupid I was eating that stuff but it wasn't too bad.

In the morning of 8/7, we filled up gas tanks and headed to San Pedro de Atacama that is located on the other side of Atacama desert. Mike was very hungry so he bought road side cheap empanadas that tasted quite bad and Mike felt really bad in the evening afterwards... Our first stop was to check out The Tropic of Capricorn. The road side sign is just a big piece of rock, very easy to miss, I was able to spot it when we almost lost all the hope. However the monument is nothing special. Then we headed to Baquedano train station that is a blast from the past. It's an old train depot, a superb place for any kind of photo shootings. Mike was there last time as well, he loves this place and it does look very cool. I've climbed on top of couple trains there for fun.

Then we drove across Atacama dessert thru Domeyko mountains. In Mike's words: “ A road across Atacama desert is a masterpiece. It is alone worth a trip to Chile.” We drove to Laguna Chaxa that was a big surprise . It's located inside a desert, a beautiful blue body of water where one could see many kinds of flamingos; it is something special. Imagine a pond of water in a desert with flamingoes standing and Andes mountains in the background. Beautiful! Later we ended up at San Pedro de Atacama, it is a small super charming town. It has nice restaurants, tiny art shops and local craft stands of course. Our plan was to stay here for 3 days and visit nearby attractions. In general looks like most tourist fly here and then just take bus tours organized by numerous local tour companies. We found a spacious and well stocked room at “La Casa de Don Tomas”. It is expensive $133/night for 2 people but totally worth it. You really need a place to relax after all desert's trips. In general, San Pedro has a huge variety of hotels from cheap hosterias at $30/night to very expensive resorts in $300 range. Valley de la Luna park was majestic at sunset, we climbed on the big dune to see it but our enjoyment was interrupted by unhealthy empanada :( Then we had a dinner at Blanco, it was superb but expensive. In the evening we found out about an emergency situation with Mike's mother, but we didn't know how serious it was...

Next morning, 8/8, was a big day as Mike has planned to hike to the Lascar Volcano which he tried last year but failed as it was too late and he had no water. So we had a yummy breakfast and headed to the volcano. A second attempt to get to the Lascar failed miserably... We got stuck twice in a snow. First time it was really scary because we had to dig car out with our bare hands and we had to turn it around. There was a point when a car couldn't move neither forward nor back and we started thinking of a prospect of walking 15 km to the closest village at about 3800m altitude... Imagine standing alone in a snow (without good snow boots) surrounded by mountains and no chance of a car picking you as there were no tire tracks on the road whatsoever :-/ At least Mike told me 'Sorry'... Luckily we were able to turn around. Second time, just a few hundred meters from the first place, Mike misjudged a surface and we got stuck again! Dug out the car again and then according to Mike “only Jane's mighty push saved us” :) Later at night we spoke to a tour agent and found out a trip to the Lascar Volcano is a 5 hour adventure with satellite phones (!) and it costs about $200pp. If we had time we'd have done it but …

Our next destination was Laguna Miscanti. Just a few kilometers from it, at altitude 3800m, we encountered melting snow mixed with mud and decided to turn back as one more time being stuck in one day would have been too much. On the way back we saw a herd of very cute llamas and made bunch of pictures there. So instead we went to Laguna Cejar. It is located just 10km of road 23, quite close to San Pedro. After going through dust, sand and road bumps we landed at a marvelous place. It consists of two parts, one is just regular smelly salt laguna and the other is something special, looks like a bottomless pit of salt water. A water was freezing cold to swim but at least I walked with bare feet in it little bit.

As we knew we don't have much time we tried to squeeze as many attractions in one day as possible so we just had a bread and ham bought at a tiny local store for lunch (cheapest lunch ever) and headed to Baños de Puritama. They are located about 30 km north from San Pedro via not a difficult road, phew. Baños are created by a warm river originating at the geysers valley. They consist of several natural ponds surrounded by a lavish greenery and mountains. Swimming in warm, thermal spring in the middle of a desert at altitude of 3500m is experience out of this world! We had one pond all to ourselves, it was so great!

Later at night we had awesome dinner at La Estaka: carry de pollo, ceviche, and delicious tres leches at the end. Bought some gifts for kids and family. Then we called pretty much everyone to find out about Mike's mother situation and it looked like she has to stay in a hospital longer so we decided we need to cut trip short and change tickets somehow.

We had to visit El Tatio geysers as it is the biggest attraction around here but we didn't want to take our chances driving and being stuck in a snow again so we booked a tour. On 8/9, our alarm sounded at 3:15am. It was hard to get out of bed and pack, because a hotel manager has asked us to move to another room (later on they told us that we can stay, so it was a nice drill for us)... At the desk we found a nice bag with breakfast and Desert Adventure's bus arrived right at 4:05am. A bus was Valero W8 for 26 people and it was packed. The seats were comfy but tight, so a typical American perhaps needs two of them. After two hours a bus has arrived at a park entrance where we had to go outside and pay entrance fee. OMG! It was so freezing outside even with a jacket, gloves and a hat. Ten minutes later we got kicked out to a geyser's field. It was unbelievable! You are actually walking across steaming field with holes, there are no trails like in Yellowstone . We froze almost to the bones however after walking for about 45 min we were surprised by a breakfast with boiled eggs, hot coffee, milk and cocoa. Everything was cooked/heated by geysers! The next stop was at geothermal hot baths. A damn agent, she did not warn us, so we did not have swimming suites and, most importantly, towels. So, we just had to watch how after going through a pain of undressing at cold others were enjoying a hot bath. I'd jump in my underwear if I had a towel at least... The altitude was 4300m, apparently a hill which Mike and his friend Sergey had climbed a year ago was at the same height as Mont Blanc (~4600m)! When a sun rose higher a temperature started to raise quickly so it got a lot better. After 45 min we got to the bus and started navigating through a desert to Machuca, a small typical Andean village. I think it has about 10 people actually living there. The villagers were selling fresh made pastries so Mike got hot sopapilla and I bought fresh empanada con queso cabre. It was the best one ever, right off a frying pan! The village had a little church located on top of a hill that I quickly climbed however I immediately felt dizziness and weakness in my legs... you are not supposed to run at 4300m altitude. And I got a chance to feed little llama a bottle of milk! We then saw more llamas and cool birds on the way back to San Pedro. Overall, the tour was awesome, with a knowledgeable and friendly guide. Most importantly guides know all roads as some of them doesn't exist on even the most detailed map. It looks like Mike and I collectively already drove to all interesting attractions that could be reached by a rent-able car, so next time we'd take a bus and local tour guides.

After arriving back to the hotel we've spent 2 hours talking to hospital officials, relatives and a doctor, canceled our last night at the hotel and drove to Calama. We tried to change tickets at the airport but it sounded like high math to them and they sent us to a main office. Then we spent 1.5 hours at LAN office changing tickets, apparently this is very tricky and required supervisor participation! In the end we couldn't get tickets for today but at least got it for tomorrow morning, so we'd fly to Santiago from Calama and then to New York. Calama is a busy nondescript town so we went back to San Pedro to spend last night there; luckily for us La Casa de Don Tomas still had an empty room for us. Did some last minute shopping for more gifts, I got upset for following Mike's dumb advice about not bargaining as we found out later the prices do vary a lot. Our last dinner was at Casa Piedra, we had very good thin crusted Chilean pizza. According to Chileans, avocado goes with everything and we agree. They put avocado in almost every dish and it's so yummy! Also confirmed ATMs do work even in San Pedro :-)

Next day, 8/10, started at 6:00am as we had to pack and clean our car. We threw out gas containers a day before hoping to get rid of gas smell, thankfully it did help. Again a breakfast was excellent, La Casa de Don Tomas was a right choice. BTW, my review could be found here. At 8:45am we've arrived at Calama airport, dropped a car with 3300km (in 9 days) on it. LAN check-in was quick and painless, they even promised to transfer our luggage to JFK flight, so we were set to go. A flight was delayed by 40min but security and general boarding procedure was very simple and easy, almost like a bus; we then arrived to Santiago at 13:00. We dropped one bag at the luggage storage for $5 and took an official taxi to Mercado de Central for 15000 Pecos (~$30US) . Not cheap but quick. As soon as a taxi door opened several people started offering their restaurants but we wanted to try a not so fancy place with normal prices so we landed at the Mar del Chile. It's still at the fish market but more on the outer side of it, has less tourists and more local people. Most of the expensive restaurants are right inside, they do look very touristy. Our fish was awesome and tasted homemade, ceviche was great as everywhere in Chile. In fact it was 15th wedding anniversary, so this was our mini celebration. Then we strolled through Plaza de Armes, purchased a very cool and unusual small painting on the way and then stopped at La Moneda museum again. Cafe Torro provided an excellent coffee and pastries. Our next challenge was to find a bus to the airport, a very kind driver at a bus station gave us directions and in few minutes we were riding local express bus which costed only $4US pp! After 30 min and a few stops we arrived at the airport. The best part was that check-in was not needed as a lady at Calama did check us in for the second flight too so we had boarding passes already. We spent our last cash shopping at a duty free stores as we had some time to kill... Boarding was stress free and quick, a plane was in good condition again. So we were all set to kill time watching movies :-) After 3hour flight we landed at Lima. Almost entire plane got out, only about 10 passengers remained. It took little bit more than an hour to clean up a plane (it was interesting to see how efficiently a cleaning crew works) and load passengers, and we were back in the air on a way to JFK. We arrived on schedule at 8:20am on August 11. Of course we were disappointed that we had to cut the trip shop but were glad to be back to see kids and help Mike's mother. We missed kids a lot...