Our final day in the Atacama desert was a trip to experience dawn at the El Tatio Geyser field. The trip is timed like this because the hot steam from the boiling water erupting from the ground looks particularly impressive when it condenses in the 5ºC high altitude dawn air and the rising sun makes it even more majestic. The chill air was a bit of a shock to the system after the day time roasting we had received up until now, but it was a very impressive display of nature.
On the way home we made a pitstop at the remote Andean community of Machuca, and we were lucky enough to spot some indigenous wildlife.
Photographs from our second day trip in the beautiful Atacama Desert. This time we were saw flamingos, and learned that they get their distinctive pink colour from the algae they eat from foraging on the waterbed. After that our bus took us to 4120m above sea level to see a volcanic lake, spectacularly framed by snow and volcanoes. Our final two stops were in the pretty Andean villages of Socaire and Toconao, to sample some traditional local food.
The Atacama Desert had some out of this world scenery so this is the first of several albums of photographs. The name “Moon Valley” comes from the salt glaze left behind by evaporating water, but we were also treated to an almost-full moon hanging majestically above the surrounding volcanoes.
We arrived in San Pedro de Atacama after dark so did not get a sense of the place until the next morning when our first view upon leaving the hotel was of a snow capped volcano cone. The town is 2400m above sea level, and the volcanoes much higher, but it still seemed slightly incongruous to see snow so close when the sun was so fiercely hot and the landscape so dry and dusty. The town itself is tiny: a tree-lined main square boasts three cafés with outside tables and then everything else the many tourists and backpackers could want can be found along a single street leading away from the square.
Our first expedition was a sunset tour to see Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). The name comes from the salt deposits left behind from evaporating water giving the surface a white glaze, and thus an other-worldly look. There was also a Mars valley of great red rock, and the guide told some good stories about why the area is supposed to be a centre of energy and other unexplained happenings. However with so many volcanoes in the vicinity a ‘rain of fire’ is an all too likely occurrence! The tour concluded with a fabulous sunset turning the white volcano cones a beautiful pink colour.
The Atacama has ideal conditions for astronomical observations with many of the world’s top research telescopes based here. This was immediately obvious to the naked eye with constellations that are hard or impossible to see at home being so clearly defined here as to practically leap out of the sky at you. Orion was a particularly good example of this. The fact that some stars are distinctly red in colour was also very obvious here. Stargazing tours are offered from the town but we read that the full moon in a few nights time meant that our first night was our only option to take one.
At 11pm we were dropped off at an open-air observation area just outside town and introduced to our guide, Jared, who had two 1.5m long telescopes set up for us to use. He gave an excellent explanation of how stars form, why some are red, and why some (appear to) twinkle. He then had us observe some examples of common types of star, as well as a superb close up of the moon and explained how the differing rates of magma cooling caused its alternating grey and white colour palette. We concluded with a look at Jupiter and Saturn, which the telescope turned from bright white spots indistinguishable from stars to objects that were very recognisable, complete with their stripes and rings!
The popularity of Chilean wine in Britain meant no trip to Chile could be complete without a visit to a vineyard for a tasting. Santiago is wonderfully placed within the Central Valley region with easy access to many wineries. When planning the trip we knew we would be hiking in the Andes the day before so chose to have a lazy morning and then an afternoon visit to Concha y Toro in Pirque on the outskirts of Santiago—an easy 50 minute metro plus £3 taxi ride from our lodgings.
Concha y Toro is the largest wine producer in South America, so we were not expecting a boutique tasting experience but Pirque is not only a magnificent setting with the Andes rising up in the distance but also where the company started in 1883. Visitors are taken on an interesting tour covering the history as well as some lovely gardens the original Señor Concha y Toro installed to appease his wife who did not want a view of vines from the house. The original 19th century cellar is also on the tour, the 15°C naturally maintained by being underground, and also the actual Casillero del Diablo (Devil’s Locker) which gives its name to one of their most iconic brands. The story behind this name is revealed on the tour but I will not spoil it here. A unique aspect of the tour I have not experienced before was the varietal garden—13 vines of the most popular grapes of each colour laid out for us to wander through and compare, and because it is harvest season there were whole bunches of grapes on the vine that we were allowed to pick and taste.
After wandering in the gardens we were invited into a shady terrace to taste (a generous) glass of Casillero del Diablo sauvignon blanc. With the mercury in the mid-twenties, a hot sun, and a backdrop of vines and mountains, this was lovely and refreshing, with just the right amount of zing. Later on we tasted a more expensive Terrunyo sauvignon blanc but that was trying a little too hard to distinguish itself from the crowd and I preferred the cheaper one. The other two wines included in the tour were the Marques de Casa Concha carménère and Gran Reserva Serie Riberas Cabernet Sauvignon which we were able to enjoy in a pretty tree-shaded courtyard.
We had arrived early for our tour with the intention of having lunch first but upon arrival they bumped us up to a earlier tour. Hunger kicked in as we finished our reds but the same courtyard has a lovely food menu so we ordered some tasty traditional Chilean food and settled in for a relaxing afternoon in the shade with our tasting glasses. Our tour had been a friendly eight people but some of the late afternoon tours seemed to be almost bus party sized so we were glad of our early slot. Overall it was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon and it was nice knowing that anything we tasted and really liked can likely be easily obtained at home instead of having to make a hard decision about which one or two standout bottles to lug about with us for the rest of the holiday.
When we told people about our forthcoming trip to Chile, there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for Santiago as a destination but considerably more for the nearby coastal town of Valparaíso with its UNESCO world heritage port area. We arrived in violent rain, which confirmed our decision to pick a hotel that would be easy to find by virtue of being both on the sea front and main road, as a good one. Hungry after our drive we set off up one of Valparaíso’s many hills in search of lunch and immediately noticed the colourful murals that gave a bohemian vibe quite different to the shiny glass towers and manicured parks of the Providencia neighbourhood in which we stayed in Santiago. Having seen practically no other tourists in Santiago, we immediately spotted quite a few on the streets and heard almost as many British voices as Spanish which was quite a turnaround. There seemed to be a large number of funky cafés here too—Valparaíso is clearly a way point on the international backpacker circuit.
After a restorative Italian-style pizza lunch we headed on up the hill to La Sebastiana, former home of Nobel prize winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Perched high on the hill, the rooms provide a spectacular view of the entire of the city spreading out towards the sea below, and Neruda was also an avid collector of unusual, interesting and beautiful objects which were artfully arranged throughout the house. The house was lovely, but it also felt like an oasis of calm and niceness after the walk through dirty and smelly streets covered in dog mess and grafitti.
The next morning we explored the old port area which is the reason for the World Heritage listing. The area definitely has character with its brightly coloured Victorian buildings but the majority were too shabby and run down to be called picturesque and without a guide to bring the place to life we sadly failed to find anything interesting on our own. It was not all bad though as every meal we had in Valparaíso was excellent. Café Vinilo served us a delicious dinner of ceviche and a traditional ham dish followed by home-made palm oil ice cream (which tasted a bit like maple syrup mixed the caramel) washed down with an excellent Carménère. At breakfast the rumour of soya milk caused Rosie to lead us on a pre-breakfast adventure to the Melbourne Café which did a fairly Chilean ham and cheese croissant but also a proper flat white. So we left Valparaíso with mixed feelings, great moments but perhaps not a place to linger.
Today we were hiking in Chile’s Parque Nacional La Campana. Charles Darwin hiked up the Cerro La Campana mountain in 1834, and from the top you can see the Andes on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. While we followed in Darwin’s footsteps up the mountain, it was sadly an overcast day and views were limited.
The Sendero El Andinista trail we took was well marked but it was a steep climb from car park at 400m to the peak at 1920m and the footing quite rough at times. With the cloud closing in and the peak hidden behind a cloud we decided to not exhaust ourselves and turned back after a tasty picnic lunch at 1270m—the last 650m of elevation was to be covered in just 2km of trail and the guide book had warned us this part was particularly difficult. While it was sad not to be able to see the full extent of the views, being overcast did keep the temperature pleasant and it was a pretty walk. As an added bonus we also had the trail to ourselves, seeing just one other group who appeared from nowhere at lunch and headed past us for the summit.