As I mentioned in my last post, I am documenting our two week trip to Chile from March of 2016. It’s not technically part of our current “round-the-world” trip, but the experiences and photos are definitely worth sharing. So if you’re following along with our current journey, there will be some Slovenia posts coming at you very shortly. In the meantime, you can follow us on Instagram to keep up with our travels in real time.
Chile’s Atacama Desert is the driest non-polar desert in the world, and it is located in the far north of the country. For most travelers, visiting the Atacama means going to San Pedro, a small town in the northern portion of the desert. From San Pedro there are tons of very popular tours and excursions that you can take to see the surrounding area.
We, however, were traveling with our friend Michelle who has lived in Chile for three years and regularly takes groups of students to San Pedro. She wanted to go somewhere different, and we were happy to come along for the ride. We settled on a town called Caldera, which is much further south but still part of the Atacama Desert. We did not have a particularly concrete plan prior to our arrival. Really we just had a flight, rental car, and hostel booked, and all other details were up in the air.
Here we are at the Santiago airport super early on a Friday morning before our flight. Don’t we look thrilled?
See that coffee in my hand? We had just waited in line for literally 45 minutes for that crappy Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. And about 30 seconds after we took this photo, I dropped mine on the floor, and it spilled everywhere. Traveling can be so glamorous sometimes. 😉
Coffee disasters notwithstanding, our journey to the north was smooth overall. We flew into Desierto de Atacama Airport, which is TINY. There are no gates, just one central waiting area, and you walk directly off the plane onto the tarmac.
Our first step upon arrival was to pick up our rental car. When we got to the Hertz desk, we were informed that they did not have any regular cars available. Instead, we would be getting a pickup truck but for the price of a car. That turned out to be extremely fortuitous because, as you will see, roads are not always paved in the Atacama. So that’s how we ended up with our beloved Big Red Truck. Matthew could barely contain his excitement about driving that thing. I was a little skeptical at first, but my appreciation for this truck quicky grew once we hit the road.
We had booked a hostel for the weekend in Caldera, and its central location turned out to be perfect for checking out the three main sights in the area.
1. Bahía Inglesa
Most people who travel to Caldera are there to spend time in Bahía Inglesa. Essentially, it’s beautiful beach with a cute little town around it. There weren’t any other foreign tourists when we were there (with the exception of some Argentineans), but the town seems to be popular as a vacation spot for Chileans. We spent our first afternoon relaxing on the beach, enjoying the sun, and drinking delicious fresh juices. We also ate a lot of seafood while we were there. Obviously.
Our most adventurous food experience was going to a little shack off of the road between Caldera and Bahía Inglesa to buy ostiones. (It’s a little unclear what exact type of animal ostiones are. The word appears to mean different things in different countries. I am fairly confident that the ones we had were a type of scallop.) You get to pick out your own (live) ostiones, so you know they’re fresh. So fresh, in fact, that when the person running the shack gets done opening and cleaning them and hands them to you on a platter, they are still moving. When we touched one, it would pulse like a heartbeat. This led to a lot of shrieking and second guessing whether we actually wanted to eat these things.
I, being a total coward, made Matthew and Michelle try the ostiones first. We covered them in salt and lemon juice, which seemed to make them stop pulsing. Thank goodness. Still, it didn’t go that well for Michelle or Matthew.
Matthew was bothered by the texture and couldn’t stop thinking about it trying to move inside his mouth (It didn’t). Michelle, afraid to chew it, swallowed her ostión whole and almost gagged herself. Meanwhile I photographed the whole thing and cracked up. When it was my turn, I had the benefit of learning from their experience, so I just chewed it like normal. While I was a little freaked out about the fact that it had been pulsing on the plate two minutes before, it actually tasted fine. I mean, I like scallops, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.
One other must-do at Bahía Inglesa (or any beach for that matter) is seeing a beach sunset. Bahía Inglesa itself is in a little cove area that faces south, so for the sunset you have to drive around the bend to get a west-facing view. We found a quiet little spot, perched on some rocks and watched the sky change colors as the sun sank below the horizon.
2. Pan de Azúcar National Park
Our second day in the Atacama Region, we made the one hour drive from Caldera up to Chañaral, the gateway to Pan de Azúcar National Park. Everything is so remote in this part of the world. In between towns there’s pretty much nothing but desert.
When we reached Chañaral (pictured above), we followed the signs for Pan de Azúcar, and it was about ten more minutes to the park entrance. The road to get there is gorgeous, and it just gets more beautiful as you go along.
The landscape made me feel like I was on the moon. But then I would look to one side and see the ocean. It was so surreal.
I read in the Lonely Planet guidebook for Chile that there are guanacos (llama-like animals) living in Pan de Azúcar, and seeing one immediately went to the top of my list of goals for our visit. Less than ten minutes into the park, we spotted this guy:
With that checked off my list, we spent the rest of the day admiring the views. There is only one road running through the park, so it’s impossible to get lost. You just keep driving straight and then when you’re ready to leave, you turn around and go back the way you came. There are some hiking trails in the park that we had planned to check out. However, it turned out that the employees of CONAF (the National Forest Corporation) were on strike that day so the trails were closed. On the plus side, we didn’t have to pay the entrance fee to the park because there was no one there to collect it. Tradeoffs.
There’s not much in the park except for a few campsites and a beach with a little restaurant and some bathrooms.
We had brought our own picnic lunch (bread, cheese, turkey, and apples we picked up at the supermarket that morning), so we plopped down at a picnic table to enjoy the beauty and solitude while we ate.
There is a small triangular island offshore called Pan de Azúcar Island that is home to Humbolt penguins, otters, and sea lions. It’s a protected area, so you can’t actually set foot on the island. However, you can pay the local fishermen to take you out on their boats to see the animals. Unfortunately, the sea was too rough the day we were there, so the fishermen weren’t going out. That was disappointing for sure, but your disappointment can’t last long when you are surrounded by beauty like this!
On our way back out of the park, we continued to stop for photos every few minutes because seriously, everything is beautiful. Every time you round a bend you are faced with yet another stunning vista. When you’re calculating driving distances in the Atacama, I recommend adding on 50% to whatever Google says because you’re going to want to take a picture of everything.
3. Playa La Virgen
For our final day in the Atacama Region, we decided to check out a remote beach called Playa la Virgen. This beach is only for the truly dedicated because, as Lonely Planet says, “the roads are rough.” Basically you drive into the middle of nowhere for a while…
In the picture, it doesn’t look that bad, but I assure you, it is. We could only go about 10-15 miles per hour, and the bumping up and down was shaking the truck and our bodies so hard that we could barely hear each other talk. See the tracks leading off the road on the right? That was made by the many cars before us who realized that driving in the sand is way smoother and less uncomfortable than driving on the road. Initially I didn’t want to do it because I was paranoid that we would get stuck in the sand. Eventually I caved because it was just that uncomfortable. The terrible roads are only the last 10-15 minutes or so of the drive to Playa la Virgen, but it feels like longer. However, it was absolutely worth the (literal) headache.
At Playa la Virgen, you can either drive down to the beach and pay to park or park higher up for free and walk down to the beach. We chose the cheap option. As you can see, the parking lot was absolutely overrun with cars.
As you make your way down the path to the beach, you finally understand why people go to the trouble of getting to this ridiculously remote location.
Isn’t the color of that water spectacular? We could not get over it. We didn’t bring our swimsuits, so we were just there to enjoy the solitude and the beauty of nature. We brought another picnic lunch and found our own little secluded spot. It was so peaceful with a breeze blowing and the waves crashing against the rocks. We probably could have stayed there all day.
Sadly, we had a plane to catch, so eventually we had to make the short hike back up to our truck and head out. The Atacama still had a few more adventures in store for us though. Like when Google Maps tried to take us on a road that didn’t actually exist anymore. You can see below a street sign sticking up where the road used to be.
And here’s where the road picks back up on the other side of the river. Needless to say, we had to turn around and find a different route.
We also almost missed our flight because Google Maps tried to take us to the wrong airport. Or rather, Google doesn’t know that the original “CPO” airport closed ten years ago and the CPO airport code was reassigned to the newly opened Desierto de Atacama Airport. It tried to direct us to the closed airport. As we drove (in the completely wrong direction), we felt like something wasn’t right. But there aren’t a ton of places to pull over and ask for directions in the middle of the desert. When we got to a toll booth, we asked the attendant and she told us we needed to turn around. That involved Matthew having to navigate in reverse around all the cars waiting in line for the toll booth amidst a lot of honking. It was stressful for sure, but ultimately we made our flight and all was well.
Matthew and I are both so glad we got to experience the non-touristy side of the Atacama Desert. It was a weekend full of adventure that we probably would not have braved without the help of our wonderful friend, Michelle. Going off the beaten path allowed us to have a unique and unforgettable experience. I’m hopeful that our memories of this adventure will push us outside of our comfort zone as we continue on our journey around the world.