Trip Start Aug 31, 2012
17Trip End Apr 30, 2013
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So, to retrace our steps a little, after the misty magic of Machu Picchu (some weeks back now, or is it a thousand years…?), we topped off our jaunt in Peru by heading south to the country’s second most populated city of Arequipa (‘ara-keepa’ if you like to sound them out)
So, it wasn’t too long before we’d packed ourselves off into the surrounding mountains, and to the (perhaps dubiously proclaimed) deepest canyon in the world: The Colca Canyon (actually the second deepest, runner up only to another canyon next door), home to Condors, the sight of which seems to draw pilgrims from every corner of the planet, crowding onto the hillsides in droves for an opportunity to photograph what is essentially only a bird sitting on a rock. It was a pretty bird, don’t get me wrong, but nothing I’d want to spend hours on a bumpy bus for. I guess there’re some things that just don’t impress me. You might feel the same way about colossal faces of steep rock, which for some reason fill me with feelings of ageless awe. At more than four thousand metres at its greatest depth, the Colca Canyon is boastfully more than twice as deep as The Grand Canyon, yet (thankfully for those of us who want to hike into it) without such famously steep sides.
We set aside three days to climb into and out of it, and found it to be a beautiful and invigorating trek, with only one brief, teeth-chattering moment of panic in the whole three days, where the path (thankfully not at too dizzying a height here) became a narrow and crumbly strip of what felt like tottery tightrope walking, but for what lasted probably less than a minute
On the second day, after a breakfast of cold pancakes, we hiked on, mostly staying close to the bottom of the canyon (but still high up enough to marvel at the surrounding views) to an oasis called Sangalle (‘san-ga-yeh’), where we spent our second night. This place is a surprising sprawl of lush lawns, palm trees and dazzling flower gardens in the otherwise barren yellow cliffs of the canyon; visible as a deliciously furry splat of green from many of the canyon paths above, it beckons teasingly - as an oasis might – to all hikers otherwise baking in the blasting sun. All the sweating and panting of the previous hours is forgotten as you enter its shady cool pastures to discover a paradise of grass and swimming pools, freshly filled from water pouring magically from the rocks. After a night here, we awoke at five o clock in the morning and took the “shortcut” back to the top, completing our circuit with what was actually a three hour climb straight up the canyon side at a near exact equivalent (in height) of the tallest mountain in Britain (so not very short)
So, as a farewell to Peru, Colca Canyon was a sweet and crunchy icing on a most delicious cake. The day after all that huffing and puffing we found ourselves on a bus and continuing south. Our original intentions after Peru had been to explore Bolivia, but at almost the last minute we decided to change our plans (don’t you love swerving right when you’ve been indicating left) and chase the coming summer as far south as we could, saving Bolivia until later, probably after Argentina and Brazil. So, we hastily read our Lonely Planet South America guide to see what Chile had on offer.
Our first stop was Arica, a seaside town close enough to the border to make not stopping there seem a little stupid. We had hopes of more sun-soaked sands and raw, lemony seafood, but were unfortunately none-too impressed with our first Chilean stopover. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with Arica, but the only two things worth remembering about the town were a small church designed by a Monsieur Eiffel, of otherwise rather widespread fame for some tower in Paris (to find the work of such an artist in this little backwater burg on the opposite side of the planet was a little strange), and another pleasing sight of a family of huge sea lions frolicking and idling down on the dock front (obviously made fat and soft in their affluence by the daily feeding of scraps by fishermen). Otherwise, Arica had little to offer us but the chance to be confused by the deciphering of a brand new currency and strange menus. To go from paying about eight Peruvian soles for a short taxi ride through town, to being charged one and a half thousand Chilean pesos for the same thing can at first give one the impression of being a little cheated and can cause some initial disgruntlement
Our residence, then, in The driest desert in the world (or Universe, for all we know!) was actually in yet another oasis in the midst of all this dryness, hotness and sunnyness, a town called San Pedro De Atacama (Saint Peter of the Atacama), a small, whitewashed mud-brick town that looks like something out of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, and is a hop, skip and jump away from the peaks that mark the Bolivian border. Approaching this town via bus was quite an amazing spectacle, the terrain being like nothing we’ve seen before outside of sci-fi movies and cartoons
We went on a very interesting tour of The Atacama, climbing dunes, crawling through caves, and being taken to an isolated and silent area to listen to the snap, crackle and pop of minerals in some cavernous wall; sounds that brought to the imagination visions of the entire cliff above us fissuring open and crumbling down on top of our heads, but which are apparently completely normal noises for a desert to make if you can find a quiet enough place from which to listen (this really was a very strange and exciting experience which did sound just like pouring milk into a giant bowl of Rice Crispies)
The last and most intriguing trip into this desert was to the Laguna Cejar, a small round lake that is reputed to be as salty as the Mediterranean’s more famous Dead Sea. This was definitely one of the highlights of the desert, mainly due to its wonderful novelty value. I’d always imagined those Dead Sea floaters to be kind of faking it, knowing that some people just float easily in water, while I’ve never been able to do so without at least wafting my arms and/or legs a little. This salty water was oh so different; as soon as you try to plunge under, it forces you back up as though you were made of cork, or trying to swim in half-set jelly; an immediately entertaining feeling, and one that caused us to burst out in giggles as we floundered clumsily about. It actually made swimming much more difficult, but it was very cool to be able to just lie back without any danger of sinking. The salt content became clear as soon as we stepped out of the water and into the relentless heat of the sun combined with the cold bite of an early evening wind: As soon as the water dried on our skin (after about five seconds), we were left looking like we’d been rolled in something white and sticky, which actually began to chafe and itch if left un-rinsed
From the instant tanning salon of the Atacama, then, we took a sixteen hour bus south (ever southward) to a town called La Serena, the second oldest town in Chile. This coastal city sports nearly thirty churches, and that’s about all there is to spout about. We decided to go to the nearby town of Coquimbo (‘co-kim-bo’), and stay in a beautiful old house-turned- hostel which once housed the French consulate, and is now run by two wonderful old ladies, who potter around keeping the place clean, and who seemed to take great pride in offering smiles and assistance in anything we asked for, whilst equally fawning over the resident dogs and cats. If you are ever in this area of the world, we urge you to go and spend at least a night in Hostal Nomades, which we felt privileged to call home for a few wonderful days. These two old dears were also more than happy to look after the majority of our luggage while we sojourned to the nearby Valle (‘va-yeh’) De Elqui (Elqui Valley) for a couple of nights camping in vineyard country. This place is most famous for its production of local tipple Pisco (of Pisco Sour fame), which we first sampled in Peru, but which is equally popular here in Chile. Valle De Elqui is also renowned for its many observatories and star-gazing opportunities, but - in a mild stroke of rare misfortune - we seemed to be visiting on the two single days of the year when the skies weren’t fabulously clear, and all observation tours were cancelled
The other thing we were advised to do whilst in the Valle De Elqui was to take a tour of the vineyards and Pisco breweries, and so we took a stroll one hot midday to discover just how this concoction is created. Unfortunately the tour was only available in Spanish, and so by straining our ears to the max we learned that the grapes were collected by hand (we understood that) and left to ferment for thirty days (we just about understood that) and then, though, there are these big copper vats with port holes, and lots of coppery coils and pipes and things, and there are probably some hubbly-bubbling noises and one final ringing ping
So, upon excitedly arriving back at Hostal Nomades to the warm greeting of our newly befriended dogs, we repacked our bags and booked a ticket for the six or so hour journey to this nation’s capital, Santiago, where we are currently residing. You’re falling asleep at the back there, so we’ll save this slide show for the next time.
The typically said thing about Chile by most travelers is that, coming from Peru, for example, one might wonder what happened to South America. The buildings have more of a European style, ranging from the bright, seaside stucco look of the Mediterranean, to more Eastern European-looking almost- castles. It’s also more difficult to tell apart a good many Chileans from Europeans, being that much of the national ancestry is derived from the immigration of Germans, British, French and Italian as well as, of course, the Spanish “conquistadors”; so spotting a tall-and-blonde amongst the short-and-darks does not necessarily mean spotting a westerner here. The culture certainly seems daubed with influences from worlds that we at least partly recognize (one of the most popular local foods is the ‘Italiano’ hotdog, proudly flying the green, red and white on so many street corners by serving thick layers of mashed avocado, tomato and mayonnaise over a small sausage), but can certainly hold its own in a contest of identity (they seem proud of the fact that even other South Americans cannot understand the rapid babbling of Chilean Spanish)
So far it’s been easy to love Chile, and there’s a heck of a lot more to see…