Chile

Chilean road trip: journey to the driest desert on earth

Sunset over the Atacama desert just south of La Serena on our Chilean road trip

Jan, 2016: I don’t know about you guys, but I LOVE road trips, especially when they’re through epic scenery in the driest desert on earth.  While Chile is a very skinny country often no more than 100km wide, it is very long (over 4300km long) and basically runs over half the length of the South American continent.  Adding to this, it traverses some amazing, rugged scenery and for the most part has pretty damn good roads.  With all this in mind, on our way to Valparaiso Fi and I hatched a plan to hire a car and take a Chilean road trip from Valparaiso all the way north to San Pedro de Atacama. However, to make the 1600km mission economically viable we needed some partners in crime.

Enter Jenn and Tom, two legends who hail from Newcastle in the UK, and Bernie O’Higgins, a gun metal grey, Mazda 3 weapon! Jenny and Tom also happened to be considering a road trip north into the driest desert on earth.  After a few quick Facebook exchanges we had found our road trip partners. A good amount of online research and a dubious visit to EuropCar Chile later we had our car and were off, headed north as fast as our 1.6L chariot could manage.

Bernie O'Higgins and Tom on the road north

Bernie O’Higgins and Tom on the road north

 

Lunch in Con Con

While once again, our 5 day Chilean road trip occupies a decent chunk of my diary I’ll try and keep this relatively short and focus on the highlights!  After picking up the car, we left Valparaiso and headed for the beach town of Con Con where we had heard rumour of an outstanding seafood restaurant named Alto Mar by La Gatita.  Even at 3pm on a Thursday afternoon we were told there would be an hour wait so went for a stroll around the coast. Luckily we didn’t have to wait too long and after an ice cold beer in the sun, we had our table next to an awesome old couple from Santiago.  Over the next 1.5 hours we made our way through a seafood platter and then followed it up with Merluza a la Pobre (a thick steak of succulent Barracuda shaped fish, battered, topped with caramelised onions, 2 fried eggs and a liberal serving of chips), Tuna al Pil Pil (a massive, rare seared tuna steak marinated in chilli and olive oil) and an ice cold bottle of delicious Chilean sauvignon blanc.  All this followed by a couple of espressos and a decent tip came to a lazy £35.  Did I mention I love Latin America!

First meal of our Chilean road trip. Merluza a la Pobre at Alto Mar.

First meal of our Chilean road trip. Merluza a la Pobre at Alto Mar.

 

Valle de Elqui

The aforementioned awesome lunch set the tone for the rest of the trip.  We got a good dose of beach, sand and seafood with quality stops at Maitencillo, Zaballar and Bahia Ingles.  The beautiful Valle de Elqui enchanted us with it’s soaring rocky canyons and verdant, green, oasis like valley filled with Pisco vineyards and orchards of stone fruit and quince.  We tasted some of the local product with the local Pisco bootlegger who runs an illegal Pisco still virtually 24/7 in order to create varying concoctions from Almond and Apricot, Plum, Celery or marijuana.  We fired up our host’s wood fired hot tub for an evening of star gazing and pontificating the ills of the world while sipping on pisco bought from aforementioned bootlegger.  In Vicuña, we got a little bit country, sipping tinnies of beer at a local rodeo and then got a little bit hipster smashing a couple of delicious craft beers from the Guayacan brewery.  We even got a little bit nerdy with an outstanding star gazing tour just outside of Vicuña where we tried in vane to follow our Astrophysicist guide’s explanations of the earth’s origins, nebulas and white dwarves.  All in all Valle de Elqui was well worth a visit and we would thoroughly recommend it.

Sunset over Maitencillo beach on day 1 of our Chilean road trip

Sunset over Maitencillo beach on day 1 of our Chilean road trip

 

Love this photo, horse versus steer at the Vicuña Chilean road trip: Rodeo in the Valle de Elqui

Love this photo, horse versus steer at the Vicuña Rodeo in the Valle de Elqui

 

Joys of the journey

As our Chilean road trip continued north, arguably my favourite part of the trip was the road itself.   The end of day 2 saw us leave the coastline and head slightly inland towards La Serena which is Chile’s second oldest city.  This was our first taste of seeing the desert colours change. As the sun set over the giant cacti and little roadside stalls selling fruit, whole goats and delicious fresh cheese, the desert changed rom sun – bleached browns, reds and greys to rich maroon, purple and the softest blue. It was stunning.

Chilean road trip: Sunrise brings about a profound change in the colours of the Atacama desert

Sunrise brings about a profound change in the colours of the Atacama desert

 

After we left Bahia Ingles on day 5 we had the opposite effect as the desert dawn lifted the cloak of darkness. As the sun warmed up it revealed a beautifully rugged coastline where little fishing villages shared the craggy rocks with communities of Shags and Pelicans.  Finally as we left the coastline on day 5 we got blasted by the intense emptiness of the Atacama desert where no plant life could be seen and where the far off hills of the altiplano seemed to float like some kind of eery apparition.  Every now and then on that final day we would also be reminded of humans efforts to bend nature to our needs as we passed humungous copper mines and were forced of the road by road trains carrying the backs of giant tip trucks.

San Pedro de Atacama

The end of what became some 2000km of road tripping took us to San Pedro de Atacama, a dusty little tourist town surrounded by some of the most dramatic scenery the desert has to offer.  We spent 3 nights there where the daytime heat of 35 + forced us to do little during the day.  Instead we would venture out to watch epic sunsets across a landscape more akin to the moon or a Star Wars movie set then our humble earth.  Our trusty Bernie took us on a pre – dawn drive up over 4300m to see the Geysers of Tatio which is apparently the 3rd largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere.  The geysers themselves weren’t that impressive but the drive back down in the early morning light was epic. The road down took us pass old indigenous ruins, puffing volcanos and plunging canyons while our little car would often startle a surprising abundance of wildlife including flamingoes, vicunas and llamas.  By the time we got back to the campsite around midday we were completely knackered but the adventure was well worth the effort.

Another amazing sunset at San Pedro de Atacama to mark the end of our Chilean road trip

Another amazing sunset at San Pedro de Atacama to mark the end of our Chilean road trip

 

Those few weeks in Bernie O’Higgins were definitely a highlight of the trip.  We were very stoked and lucky to be able to share our Chilean road trip with the awesome Tom and Jen who were always up for a good laugh and more than happy to participate in our stinky chat.  So, after some 1800km of road tripping and missioning around the desert this chapter of the blog comes to a close.  Hope you enjoyed.  Talk soon!

Chilean road trip travel and feasting tips:

  • Doing one way car hire in Latin America is exceptionally expensive and is often over double the cost of a round-trip rental. Don’t get lulled into the first price you see on a website, read the fine print and really push the rental company on one way fees.
  • Alto Mar by La Gatita (198 A Morales 100, Con Con) seafood restaurant in Con Con just north of Valparaiso. Expect to wait for a  table so grab a beer, sit in the sun and enjoy the view while you wait. It’s not the easiest place to find but persevere as it’s well worth the visit.
  • We stayed in an awesome hostel 10-15 minutes drive outside of Vicuña in the Valle de Elqui called Hostal Al Yaras (128 Vidal Escudero, La Campana, Vicuña, https://hostalalyaras.jimdo.com). Fire up the BBQ, have a wood fired hot tub under the stars or enjoy the awesome breakfast of homemade jams and yoghurt while listening to stories from the charismatic owner Richard.
  • Drop into the Guayacan Cerveceria just outside of Vicuña for some pretty damn tasty craft beers, especially the IPA (Calle Principal 33 Diaguitas, Valle del Elqui, http://www.cervezaguayacan.cl/index.php)
  • We hired pre-setup tents with big fat blow up mattresses at Camping Altos de Quitor (http://www.altosdequitor.com), 10 minutes drive outside of San Pedro de Atacama which was cheaper than most of the places in town and really enjoyable for it’s laid back vibe and really friendly owners. Not so convenient without your own transport but you can always rent some bikes to get around.

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