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Strip country

I call Chile ‘Strip country’ as it’s a country that’s as barely wide as a thin strip of velcro on a world map. Yes my comparisons are a bit far stretched, but let’s move on.

We had planned to make the coastal city of Vina Del Mar our first destination in Chile, thus running past Santiago on our way from Mendoza, Argentina. The bus ride was punctuated with breathtaking views of the Andes as we crossed the Argentina-Chile pass and then dry terrain as we made our way towards the Pacific coast.

View of the Andean range en route to Chile from Argentina
View of the Andean range en route to Chile from Argentina

Chapter 1: Bienvenido a Chile y Couchsurfing en Vina Del Mar

We were arriving into Vina DeL Mar with not a clue as to where we would be staying as we were yet to find a Couchsurfing host, but upon checking into an internet cafe on arrival we were pleasantly surprised to see that we had been accepted by Eduardo and his roomie Aymeric. Little was I to know the mayhem that lay ahead.

We got onto a microbus, named appropriately as it barely fits all of your body in along with those of another 25 or so. We had our backpacks strapped on our back and front and hence were struggling to stand straight in the aisle. What transpired next is one of the reasons why I love the people in Latin America. The people in front of us grabbed our daypacks of our chests and offered to hold it on their laps. Another 2 people stood up and made space for us to sit despite us stating that we were alright. I sat next to an elderly gentleman who I struck up a conversation with on how the weather was, how Chile’s economy was faring and why Chileanos are extremely ‘amable y agradable (kind and generous)’. The latter was justified soon as when he helped us get off at our stop, he handed me a US $1 bill stating that he wanted me to keep it was a present and remember our encounter. Que chevere y genial (how cool and great of him)!

We were greeted at Eduardo’s place by his mate Diana and him and given the ravishing hunger we had been carrying with us for the past few hours, quickly set up about his kitchen to whip up a chicken masala curry which the lot of them reveled in. In between all of that, we also managed a walk down the beautiful coast to catch the sunset.

The quiet little town of Vina Del Mar
The quiet little town of Vina Del Mar
A dog takes a nap basking in the sunset
A canine takes a nap basking in the sunset

Overnight, a few local revelers, namely the star of the night – Kote walked in and the rest of the night was spent experimenting with making the famous and correctly named ‘Terremoto’ (earthquake) drink, made of ice cream and fermented sweet wine. Definitely leaves you shaking at the knees!

Los Locos at Vina Del Mar
Los Locos at Vina Del Mar

The next night we did it all over again with yet another fiesta at Valparaiso which was followed by a phenomenon termed ‘The After’. Now this is how it works; you might think that the ‘after’ is merely an after party at yet another bar or discotheque, it’s a gathering of all party goers who are still keen to keep the night going at a destination that needs to be found on the rooftop of a residential building. Yes, you read that right, you have to keep your ears open to locate the source of the music and then ask a few smug people who seem to have just walked out from buildings that appear to have no doors where the entrance to the ‘after’ is. Once we got past the Ali Baba like entrance onto the terrace, it was time to rumba all over again. We had a memorable first few days in Chile and it was all thanks to the ‘loco’ coastal gang.

Chapter 2: Santiago

After resisting strong urges to stay back at Vina Del Mar, we were finally bid goodbye by a very hungover bunch of people and boarded the 2 hour bus ride down some very windy roads to Santiago.

As I had seen in pictures, it was a massive city surrounded by mountains on all four sides. We were staying at Johan, a US diplomat’s place along with his roomie Leo and another couchsurfer from Germany – Marc.

Now Dee is renowned for her culinary skills in most parts of the world where we have couchsurfed as well as back home in Sydney. However, I feel that it is Santiago where she received true global recognition as she was cooking for groups of upto 8-9 people from different parts of the world, all oh whom were in absolute awe of the dishes she kept churning out. For future reference, it is here where it all began for her.

The 26th storey apartment we were staying at had a magnificent view of the entire city and the views at night were especially breath taking. Once again, the hospitality of the couchsurfing community was in full display as we were given the apartment to ourselves for our 4 day stay there. Plenty of terremotos were downed there as well along with the rest of the CS community.

With the gang at Santiago
With the CS gang at Santiago
With the magnificent skyline behind us
With the city lights behind us
The boys at Santiago
The boys at Santiago

Chapter 3: The End of the World at Valle Del Elqui

We were recommended by a few CSers in Santiago that Valle Del ELqui was the place to see in the northern part of Chile and in addition it was the home of Pisco Sour, so we needed no further invitation to go there.

Valle Del Elqui should be renamed Valle de las Estrellas (Valley of the stars). It’s reputed to have the clearest night sky in the world and even though we arrived there well past midnight post a 16 hour bus ride on Dec 21st 2012, the moment our hostel owner mentioned that he was going to climb the nearby mountain to take in a view of the night sky, we jumped onboard. The climb was a steep one with just our flashlights showing us the way, but the view atop the mountain was priceless. Never before had I seen the entire milky way take shape before my eyes and it was a sight to behold and if there was at all any place in the world where the beginning of the end would commence, we’d have seen it first!

The entire Milky Way on display welcoming 'The End of the World'
The entire Milky Way on display welcoming ‘The End of the World’

Our next destination was San Pedro Atacama, but our route to there was carved via La Serrena and Coquimbo, two little coastal towns where our mates Eduardo and Aymeric would be stationed for Christmas! So off we went with massive smiles on our faces to meet these two blokes and had a fantastic them with Eduardo’s family and shaking a leg at a salsateca later that night. Love those times when you get to bump into people you’ve grow fond of in a different place, unplanned.

Chapter 4: The youngest desert there is

We got to the youngest desert in the world, San Pedro de Atacama on an extremely dry, hot afternoon post yet another 12 hour bus ride from La Serrena. The long distance buses in Chile, Argentina and Peru are extremely comfortable, almost like the first class section on an airplane, so you quite don’t feel that tired at the end of one of these journeys across the center of the earth.

The town itself has not much to offer but the surrounding attractions are what makes it a best seller to the tourist market in these parts. There’s the gorgeous Valle De Luna, Laguna Cejar – with 72% vol. salt (hence you float!) and the volcanic geysers. We bought ourselves a tour package that covered all of the above and would highly recommend it to one and all.

A girl walks past the geysers at sunrise atop the Volcano
A girl walks past the geysers at sunrise atop the Volcano
Treading the salt flats
Treading the salt flats
The contrasting landscapes around the desert
The contrasting landscapes around the desert
Bringing in the sunset with some pisco sour
Bringing in the sunset with some pisco sour in Chilean style!
Salt covered after a dip at Laguna Cejar
Salt covered after a dip at Laguna Cejar

The Facts

  • Visit Vina Del Mar and Valparaiso – the best time to do so is new years where Valparaiso houses the second biggest display of fireworks on its harbour after Rio De Janerio in South America
  • Make sure you go to atleast one ‘After’ in Chile. It’s something else.
  • Visit San Cristobar in Santiago to take in aerial views of the city.
  • Valle Del Elqui should be a must on every travelers list. Make sure you climb atleast one mountain nearby .
    San Pedro de Atacama is a gem of a place. Make sure you take the tours to Valle De Luna, Laguna Cejar and the Geysers.
  • Trips to the salt flats at Uyunni start in San Pedro de Atacama, and I would highly recommend going with Atacama Mystica. Professional drivers (hard to find in those parts) and reasonably priced as well. Strike up a conversation with Julio Caesar, the boss, and you’ll get a good discount
  • Next Stop: Bolivia

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