South America | Chile – Down the spine of Chile
If you know your geography, you’ll know that Chile is a long thin country stretching down the side of South America. The skinniest country in the world. And so I spent the last few days travelling down the spine of Chile until about half way. I actually didn’t realise I was covering a lot of distance in not a lot of time.
Dry and dusty San Pedro
After finishing the trip through southern Bolivia, I got dropped off at San Pedro in northern Chile, right in the driest desert in the world, the Atacama. San Pedro is a tiny dusty village with sand everywhere. The lifestyle here is very laidback indeed, reflected in the slow service in restaurants and cafes. It’s the kind of sleepy hippie town where stores shut for a three hour siesta and the answer to most questions is “ma?ana”. For most of the time I caught this lazy feeling and just chilled out and did nothing. I sat in the square observing the locals and the numerous dogs that shared the town. Meanwhile, some nut in a Spider-man outfit saunters down the dusty street like it was a perfectly normal thing to do. But no one bats an eyelid.
Walking on the moon
San Pedro happens to be a backpackers’ mecca because it offers numerous trips and adventures to the surrounding desert. One afternoon I took a trip to the Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon. This astounding valley apparently resembles the surface of the moon, with its eroded rocks and landscape. Some smart alec quipped that this must be where they filmed the hoax moon landing in 1969.
Part of the excursion also involved a hike through Mars Valley. With its reddish sand and rocks I could barely just imagine that it might be like walking through a Martian landscape. Provided you had the right amount of squinting, imagination, and travel agents convincing you that it was so.
On arrival at the Valley of the Moon, we climbed a giant sand dune to the top of a cliff to see the sun set over the valley. As the sun gradually dipped behind the hills, we could see the colours change in the plains and mountains opposite. Nature was putting on a rather awesome show tonight, for the landscape changed from their natural brown to yellow, then red, then orange, then pink, then blue, then purple.
Mountain biking through Devil’s Gorge
The following day I decided to go mountain biking into the surrounding region. I biked all the way to Devil’s Gorge, then continued cycling inside its twisting paths. The name alone sounds like something out of an old spaghetti western. “Yeap, I reckon Billy the Kid is holed up in Devil’s Gorge; let’s get us a posse and go flush him out, sheriff.”
The canyon was narrow at parts, but I had a great time exploring this silent sandy maze with rock walls rising up on both sides. It was eerily lonely in the gorge, with few other hikers on this particular day. It also got rather cold when the sun started to sink. If I got stuck in there for the night they probably would have found my body the next day.
A day in Copiapo
After San Pedro, I left for Copiapo at night via an eleven hour bus. At least the roads are quite good here in Chile and the buses quite impressive. I had a semi-sleeper, with a leg rest and reclining seat. Of course as I was travelling at night I couldn’t see anything out the window so I went to sleep, with a rather large guy in the seat next to me. Yes, one of those people who always take up the whole armrest.
I arrived in Copiapo early in the morning, but it was a Saturday and there really was nothing to do in town except browse through the shops with the locals. I observed that the composition of the people here are also quite different from Peru and Bolivia. In those two countries, the vast majority comprised indigenous descendants, while in Chile the populace is made up mostly of Spanish or European settlers from years ago.
Serenity in La Serena
I left Copiapo immediately the next morning via a quick four hour bus further south to the neat little town of La Serena. It was my first time travelling during the day, and I could see that the landscape in this part of Chile has a lot of brown arid hills on both sides of the highway.
La Serena was really pleasant to spend some time in, with traces of colonial buildings left behind as well as numerous churches. It also has all the trappings of modern living, containing a few malls where trendy Chilean youngsters with cellphones can be found hanging around. Just twenty minutes walk away is the beach, with a palm tree-lined avenue leading up to it. The beach is also where the landmark El Faro lighthouse is, which can be seen on most postcards of La Serena.
Seeing that Chile has such as long coastline it was no surprise that seafood is one of the top selections on their menus. I managed to indulge in some very affordable and excellent samples from the sea, from abalone to shrimp to succulent fish. If I ordered abalone back home it would have cost me a fortune.