El Norte Grande

Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
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55
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Trip End Apr 16, 2011


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Flag of Chile  ,
Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Though we didn't regret it one bit, we had dallied for a while down south and were now faced with the prospect of many many hours on buses crossing the apparently mediocre middle section of Chile (well, we didn’t have time to see it so we will just assume this is so) or, abandoning our plans to traverse the entire continent by land and hopping on a flight. No prizes for guessing which we did.

From Pucon we headed to Santiago where we were meeting up with Sarah 1 again in order to catch a flight up towards the north of Chile where we intended to cross over into Bolivia for our fast approaching deadline to meet Claire (Sarah’s sister) and her boyfriend Richard.

We realised, upon wandering around the centre of Santiago (which we found pleasant but not overly beautiful or diverting) that we hadn’t actually been "tourists" in a proper sized city for some time. We had stayed with friends in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland so we hadn’t stayed in hostels in the city centres and had mostly imposed ourselves on and hung out with friends there. It felt strange. Sarah took the opportunity to pretend she was back home and go shopping in a mall – which even had a Zara.

After a trip up the hill to watch the sun setting over the smog-filled plain that is Santiago and a dinner of “ass” (not as weird as it sounds as it is actually cut up bits of steak served in a hot dog bun with so much guacamole that even Sarah had to wipe some off) on the streets below, and a couple of hours sleep it was time to get up at 5am and noisily pack, trying and failing not to wake the rest of our dorm room as we did (we still hate damn dorms!), and hop in a taxi to the airport.

Arica was a fairly non-descript town right in the north of Chile which claims to be the driest city in the world. We can’t say whether that is true or not but we can say that it was indeed very dry. It is about as close as Chile gets to beach resorts but, let’s face it, despite the amount of coastline it has Chile is not famous for its beaches. And there is a reason for that; they are mostly not very nice and the one in Arica was no exception, as we discovered after an hour’s walk from our hostel when we kept assuming that the next bay would be nice, then turning a corner to find a building site. The other thing about Chile that had surprised us given the geography was the distinct lack of seafood available and, when it was available, a distinct inability to cook it in a nice way. We had even seen posters talking about how seafood must all be very very thoroughly cooked....errrr, sushi anyone? We were determined to find a nice seafood restaurant and, following a recommendation from the hostel, we did finally track down some delicious seafood and feasted on prawns, ceviche and crab cakes (Los Aleros de 21 should you find yourselves in Arica and looking for a good meal). It was nice to see it did exist somewhere.

The next day we set off on the bus up into the Andes and the altiplano, rising very quickly to 3500m at the town of Putre: a quiet, dusty sort of place that we had decided to spend a few days in to visit the national parks and volcanoes in the area and acclimatise to the altitude. As we were beginning to think ahead to the Bolivian mountains we had decided to learn from our experience in Tibet and, firstly take things very slowly and secondly start taking some drugs to help prevent altitude sickness. Gordon, however, had misread the dosage on the drug we were taking and was unwittingly handing out an overdose to himself and the Sarahs...woops. The side-effects were quite interesting and included lots of pins and needles which no amount of flexing and stamping would get rid of, seriously large amounts of peeing (which was doubly problematic in Putre where this necessitated getting out of bed at least twice a night in the frigid room and crossing the arctic outside courtyard to pee) and making all fizzy drinks taste really weird (for 2 days we just thought all the Coke in the north of Chile had gone off). More bizarre though was that we tended to get the pins and needles in the same areas at the same time. So we would be sat in a jeep bouncing around the national park and someone would say “pins and needles- right hand” or “three smallest toes on left foot” and the other two would all realise that they also had it in exactly the same place. The weirdest of all though was when, upon getting off the bus we took into La Paz Gordon and Sarah both realised they had pins and needles in their noses. It felt like a cobweb was stuck there permanently and couldn’t be wiped away - very very odd.

From Putre we managed to arrange (after several rounds of negotiation with the scary hostel lady on price) two days of jeep tours to the surrounding parks.  The first day was a trip to the more famous Lauca park near Putre and whilst we saw some stunning scenery it was basically a bus trip along a road.  And unfortunately that road also happens to be the main route between Chile and Bolivia and so was full of lorries.  This didn’t make for peaceful sight seeing and meant we had to time our pictures carefully to avoid the dust clouds.  The definite highlight was the second day’s trip to the Salar de Surire across incredible plains, valleys and abandoned villages which massive 6,500m + volcanoes looming around every corner which made Villarica look like a little hill. This also included a dip in a stinky but awesome hot spring on the edge of the salt flats, sharing it with a couple of flamingos who were also having a bath.  A definite WTF moment! We were just beginning to lament the fact that we hadn’t booked a tour that included an overnight trip when we bumped into the only other tourists out there that day (itself an amazing thing given how beautiful it is) who were 2 Danish guys that had hired their own jeep and decided to camp out there, only to discover it got really really cold at night.  Their car thermometer had reported temperatures of -10oC and refused to start until it had been warmed by the sun. Thank goodness we hadn’t done that!

Eventually, having endured a meal out in one of Putre’s restaurants that was accompanied by very loud awful local music (heavy on the pan pipes but with hilarious videos) we jumped on a morning bus heading through Putre to La Paz where we were very excited to be picking up Claire and Richard and planning all of the activities we had in mind: hiking around Isla del Sol on Titicaca, cycling the world’s most dangerous road and, most exciting of all, our much talked about attempt on 6,088m Huayna Potosi...
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