Our next journey was what should have been a six-hour bus ride up to another coastal town called La Serena. This is where we experienced our first and only bus breakdown, costing us three hours of wait time on the side of the road. Luckily it wasn’t hot outside, and we were stranded on a luxury coach bus with comfy seats, and our computer was loaded with movies to keep us occupied. Without a doubt, could have been way worse.
When we finally arrived, it was already late, so we checked into our hostel and went out for a quick bite to eat. We had only planned to be in La Serena for one day because we wanted to take a tour of the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve. We were both super excited about it, as seeing wild penguins was high on both our lists, only…things didn’t work out so well.
I did my best with internet research prior to getting to La Serena and thought I had it figured out. There was one bus each morning that took you to the town of Chorros where you could then find a local to take you on a boat tour of the reserve to see those classy little penguins. I figured out where the bus would be and when, and I assumed we were good to go. That morning, we began walking and as I pulled up my google maps, I quickly realized that I forgot to download the map so I could use it offline. At that point, we only had five minutes to make it to the bus, which wasn’t enough time to get back to the hostel and use WiFi. I couldn’t find the place where the bus supposedly stopped until about 15 minutes after it was set to leave, so we were out of luck. It was a bummer because we couldn’t spare another day to try again since we were on a tight timeline, so we both agreed we would just let this one go. I guess we would just have to go see wild penguins some other time…
Instead, that day we ended up exploring the town. A walk through the historic district is always a good way to see what it’s all about, but to be honest, this town was pretty standard. At least the Centro Historico was. We were much more impressed when we stumbled upon the Japanese garden, Jardin del Corazon, just outside of downtown. Built in 1994 with the support of Japanese mining companies in Chile, and designed by a renown Japanese architect, it brings a touch of flare to an otherwise basic town. Filled with cherry trees, koi ponds, and little streams & bridges, the place is like entering another dimension.
It was as we left the garden that we began building our wolf pack. We were walking across the town to find a café, and one after another we would pick up a friend on the walk. It was the strangest thing, but after walking maybe ten minutes, we all the sudden were surrounded by a pack of seven stray dogs. We didn’t feed them or give them anything, and they weren’t even begging from us, they just decided to join our crew and take a walk. They would wait on street corners for us to cross the street, stop and hang out when we would stop, turn where we would turn, you name it. They followed us for what must have been two miles! When we finally got to a café, we had to hold them back from following us inside, and when we closed the door, they just sat there and stared in at us. I mean, I’ve had some stray and random dogs latch on and follow me around from time to time, but this was another level.
When the wolf pack eventually scattered outside, we continued our walk down to the beach. It was another spot you can tell gets super busy in the summer time, but in the off-season, it was practically a ghost town. There was a cool lighthouse built like an old castle that was undergoing repairs, and other than that, just beach that stretched out for miles. I would be interested to see what it’s like around there during the busy season, but for now, we were ready to take our party elsewhere. Just an hour or so inland from La Serena sits the Elqui Valley, where we were headed to do some stargazing for the next couple nights.
A short bus ride took us from the beach to the desert, just like what you would see going from San Diego to El Cajon, if you are familiar with that part of the country. We arrived at a little desert town called Vicuña and loved it right away. It felt very familiar to us, a lot like Joshua Tree village, only bigger. The two main draws to the valley are the stargazing and the pisco, Chile’s national spirit. The valley is known to have some of the clearest skys in the world, making it one of the most renown spots for looking into deep space. We planned to get our share of both the stars and the pisco, and got set up with an amazing Airbnb to help us with that mission.
On our walk to the rental from the bus station, we had another ridiculous encounter with the local perros (dogs). This time, we picked up a smaller wolf pack of two super friendly pups that decided they would walk us 20 minutes to our accommodations. As we started to get away from the main town and into the outskirts, we started passing by fenced-in property after fenced-in property, each full of other dogs that were not happy that our escorts were in their hood. At one point there must have been twenty dogs through these different yards barking so loud and aggressively you probably could have heard it from the coast. They were so aggressive that we both felt uncomfortable, not knowing if any of them might find a hole in their fence. Meanwhile, our escorts were just trotting along beside us, as though no dogs were barking at them at all, just proudly accompanying us to our destination. It was weird. Back to back extremely odd dog encounters, must have been a full moon or something…
The property we booked was done through Airbnb, but it was more of a boutique hostel that used Airbnb as a platform to rent out rooms. Since I knew it would be a slim chance for us to ever return to this part of the world, the decision was made to splurge on a super unique dome cottage. It was two stories all to ourselves, with a kitchen, living room and bathroom downstairs, and the entire top level being the master bedroom. The obvious highlight of the accommodation were the windows that circled the ceiling, giving us an amazing view of the starry night from the comfort of our super comfy bed.
This ranks up there with the cabin in Salento Colombia and the hobbit hut in Cotopaxi Ecuador as one of the coolest places we have stayed on the trip. Making the stay even more incredible, the proprietor of this place also happened to be a space nerd with a badass telescope and offered a personal stargazing tour to his patrons. The more common tours were done through one of the local observatories, but while those may have stronger telescopes, they are done with up to twenty-five people and you end up getting only 10-15 minutes of viewing time. Doing both would have been fun, but that wasn’t in the budget, so we opted against the observatory.
On our tour, it was just Lindsey and I, so we had the telescope all to ourselves. We took turns looking into deep space at all the different nebula’s, star clusters, and planets that he taught us about. We spent about two hours checking it all out, the highlight being the rings around Saturn, as well as the colored stripes on Jupiter, it was very cool. On top of all that, he also included a delicious Pisco Sour for us to enjoy while staring into space. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be happy with this tour over the observatory, but after the experience that we had, there is no question that this was the best way to go. The dome was obviously way more than what our budget allowed for, so we couldn’t stay long, but the time we did was great. If by chance you are reading this and plan to visit the town, here is the link for the property – Hotel Tukun Mapu.
During the day, we took a bus a bit deeper into Elqui Valley to the town of Pisco Elqui, the supposed birth place of this national beverage. I say supposed because there are some conflicting stories between Chile and Peru. Both countries claim to have originated the beverage, and both countries claim to have the best. Nothing like some good alcohol-based competition between nations!
Regarding the booze, it’s made by distilling fermented grape juice into a high-proof spirit. As with most spirits, there are many levels of quality along with slightly different colors to the spirit, all depending on distilling processes and time of distillation. In the end, the final product is most commonly used to create the famous beverage, the Pisco Sour. A Pisco Sour is a blended drink based with lime juice and sugar, as well as egg whites, depending on who you are asking. We also discovered they can be made in a variety of flavors, including but not limited to assorted fruits, ginger, basil, or mint.
During our little day trip to Pisco Elqui, we did our best to expand our Pisco knowledge base by trying as many different Pisco Sours as we could. For me, the basil was best, but if you ask Lindsey, the ginger was the clear winner. Either way, after three of these delicious beverages, you are certainly loose and bound to be a big fan of any flavor
While the different sours were certainly a delight, the little village of Pisco Elqui was also quite lovely. It was very small, only a few streets made up the entire town, but it had that familiar feeling we had earlier, and very much reminded us of Joshua Tree. The attractive little plaza was surrounded by a handful of unique cafes and eclectic restaurants, we really would have loved to spend a few nights just relaxing around the area and admiring the milky way. But, once again, we had the issue of time along with our hefty list of places we still wanted to go, so hopefully we get back there sometime down the line.
A great time to visit, which obviously wasn’t working out, would have been July of this year, because there just so happens to be a full solar eclipse that will be passing through this small section of Chile. It’s pretty crazy that this small sliver of the country that just so happens to be the stargazing capitol of the world is going to be the focal point of a full solar eclipse. It will be a powerful time to be out in that desert, that’s for sure.
We had another day in the area to explore before heading further north, so we spent the day wandering around the town of Vicuña, which had some charm of its own. There was a nice central plaza that was surrounded by laid back cafes and bars, but one of their claims to fame were the ice-cream stands. Handmade ice cream is quite popular all throughout Latin America it seems, but the stuff we tried here was something special. We tried a couple different flavors and each one was easily the best of its kind we’ve have ever had. Sometimes it’s the littlest things that make a place we visit memorable, and besides those incredible skies of course, I will always think of Vicuña Chile when I think of the best ice cream ever.
For the next leg of our Chilean adventure, we had to make our way back to La Serena and take an overnight bus 14 hours up to the Atacama Desert. We had to check out mid-day and the bus didn’t leave until 11pm, so we planned to go and catch a movie at the local mall near the bus station. We could have booked an earlier bus and been on our way, but we planned for the later one just so we could go see the new Avengers movie. Since we had four hours to kill, it was perfect, or it was in theory at least. One thing about traveling abroad for long periods is your bound to run into national holidays you may not be aware of. When we got to the theater, we came to find out it was Labor Day in Chile, and the movies where all sold out! Mind you this was the beginning of May, so not something we thought we had to worry about. Out of all the days, we just happened to plan this on Chilean Labor Day, ugh!
Now we had four hours to kill, and nowhere to go, because all the other businesses were closed. We ended up sitting in a food court of a mall where no food vendor was even open, until we got kicked out and had to sit at the bus station for a few hours. I don’t know, but something about La Serena just wasn’t vibing with us. First the missed Penguin experience and now this, we were ready to move on to say the least.
Things were about to get much better though, and it started with the bus ride. We decided to splurge for the downstairs first-class cabin, and it was fantastic. Big comfy leather seats, quiet, free blankets and pillows, everything we needed to let go of our travel woes in La Serena and enjoy a relaxing journey to the far north of Chile and the Atacama Desert. For only a couple extra dollar each, it was amazing.
San Pedro de Atacama
Now typically, an overnight bus ride takes us out of the game for most of the next day, at the very least limiting our activities. This time around, as a result of our cushy first-class accommodations on the bus, we had both gotten better sleep then some nights in hostel dorms. We had to still deal with a second shorter bus ride from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama, but even after all that, we felt much better than we had on any other overnight journey. That first class really pays off.
It’s a good thing too, because as soon as we landed in San Pedro, the plan was to hit the ground running. We were crossing paths yet again with a friend we made on the sailing trip from Panama to Colombia. Ashley was traveling south from Bolivia with her friend Becky, and they had arrived in San Pedro the day before us. They picked out a fun party hostel on the outskirts of the town where we all planned to crash for the night. It didn’t take long for us to make a run to the liquor store and start to get loose. On top of our happy hour cocktails, the hostel was featuring a mojito night, where it was ten bucks to buy in and you had unlimited mojitos all night. In the end, it wasn’t really as good as it sounded, mostly because you can only drink so many super sugary mojitos back to back, but also because our alcohol tolerance was quite low, and we really only needed a couple drinks for a good buzz. Since we had paid good money though, I, of course, had to get my moneys worth. While it was a good time getting a drunk around a bonfire with a bunch of strangers, I’m not sure my hangover was worth it.
After one night in the party hostel, we were over the dorm life. Since we had a group, we decided to find a nice cabin for rent on Airbnb for the next few nights. The spot we found was a little closer to town then the hostel was, but still far enough away where it was extremely quiet and peaceful. The kitchen was modest, but that didn’t stop us from going all out with our meals each night. Sometimes having our own space with friends to hang out and cook meals together is just as great as doing these bucket list excursions and adventures. Especially when our Airbnb has a smart TV capable of broadcasting some channels in English. Over the past few months we had watched all seven seasons of Game of Thrones, and now we could watch Season 8 air live with new friends while enjoying a delicious Salmon dinner and a few bottles of Chilean red! I would do that over a touristy excursion any day!
Another benefit of having a group of us was it made renting a car affordable. In San Pedro de Atacama, there are lots of things to see and do, but they all require a tour or your own vehicle. The cost of going to each spot on a tour was far more expensive than splitting a truck for a few days and going to check these places out on our own. Plus, we had the freedom of being on our own and not under the confines of a group tour. Not to mention, we had the distinct pleasure of driving around in Big D! for three days.
As you may have guessed, Big D! was our faithful Chevy pickup, and she was a beast. No Poppins, obviously, but fun to rip around the desert with none the less. Our first excursion took us about an hour from San Pedro to a cool salt flat in the middle of the desert called Lagunas Escondidas. The area consisted of seven small lagoons scattered through this small salt desert oasis. Unlike most of the other lagoons in Atacama, two of the seven allowed swimmers to enter and float on the icy water. Much like what I have heard about in the Dead Sea, the salt content of the water is so high that your body bobs on the surface like a cork. It was the strangest feeling lounging like I was in a hammock but floating on water. I had heard about how people can do this in the Dead Sea, but I had no idea we were going to be doing it ourselves in northern Chile, really an incredibly fun surprise!
On our drive back we got to enjoy some absolutely incredible landscapes as the sun began to sink in the sky. Just outside of town, there is a small reserve called Valley of the Moon, and it was the perfect spot to watch a sunset. We found a little pull-off on the side of the highway and parked Big D! to hike in and watch. As the name implies, the landscape was wild, something you would expect to see on the surface of the moon. That is, if the moon was red…
That evening we did our best to pack it in early, because the next morning we woke up at 5am to make a ride up to the Geysers de Tatio. They say sunrise at the geysers is the best time to go because the temperate change brought on by the sun creates the most amount of steam from the geysers. The hour and a half drive wasn’t all that bad, but the second we stepped out the of vehicle, we couldn’t wait to get back inside. It was brutal cold, like painfully cold, even while wearing every layer we owned and wrapped in a wool blanket. The geyser field was impressive though, you could walk up close to most of them, as they were only spewing steam and not actually boiling water. It was a great way to keep warm!
With your entrance ticket, you also got access to a hot spring pool, and while the thought of taking my clothes off in subzero temperatures wasn’t very appealing, I had to get in. Unfortunately, it was the most underwhelming hot spring ever. It was luke warm at best. The only spot that was bearable was right next to the hot spring source, but floating there I would get waves of scolding hot water, there was just no winning. When the sun finally peaked over the surrounding mountains it was delightful. The temperature immediately rose to something a bit more tolerable, and the sun shining through the thick steamy geysers was a beautiful sight. It wasn’t the easiest experience to bare, but the juice was worth the squeeze.
A benefit of doing an excursion at the crack of dawn is that you have the remainder of the day still at your disposal. We headed back to the house first to relax and have a nice breakfast, then hopped back in Big D! for some more adventuring. We spent the afternoon exploring the desert, visiting the larger lagoons found in the middle. The area is a protected flamingo reserve, which seemed odd to me. I mean, why would flamingos hang out in the middle of the driest desert in the world? Sure enough, when we arrived, there they were. Not lots, but a few flamingos, strutting around and just doing their thing. Wouldn’t be my first choice if I was a flamingo, but to each their own I guess.
That night we cooked another nice dinner, and then spent some time outside admiring the sky. Being just on the edge of town, the skies were clear of most light pollution, and on top of that, we got lucky with a new moon, so the stars were intensely vibrant. The milky way stretched across the desert sky over head with the unmistakable southern cross constellation smack in the middle. My phone’s camera didn’t quite have the power to take a photo, but Becky had a nice camera that I played around with and eventually figured out how to take our own astro-photos. I got a little obsessed with getting it just right, but the results were worth every second of my time.
For our final day with Big D! we decided to take a longer drive to the south end of the desert where we hadn’t explored yet. I had read about some high-altitude lakes that sounded cool, and as it turned out, they were amazing. The drive to get there was a highlight in it of itself. As we began to ascent into the high plains, what was barren land with no signs of life gradually turned green and yellow with bushes and plants. The brightness of the yellows contrasted by the deep blue sky was like painting, I had never seen anything like it.
As we cruised along, I spotted what at first seemed to be bushes, but turned out to be wild ostriches! Well, they’re actually called rheas, the South American cousin of the African ostrich. Either way, I had no idea this was an animal we would be seeing on our journey. It was an exciting surprise for us and another exotic animal encounter to check of the list!
When we finally arrived at the lakes we were simply stunned by the beauty. We were at about 4000 meters, or 13,000 feet in altitude, and being that high, the atmosphere is thinner, creating a deep dark blue sky like nothing you have ever seen. With the backdrop of snow-covered volcanoes towering over these pristine lakes, plus a pack of Vicuñas drinking from the water’s edge, it was a majestic sight.
It was a little sad returning Big D!, she was great, and we just started getting comfortable having our own car again. Since Becky and Ashley were taking off a day earlier than us, our final day in San Pedro had to be car-less. We also switched accommodations to a hostel in the heart of the town so it would be easier to get around.
While the surrounding area of the Atacama Desert is huge, the town of San Pedro itself was very small, only a few long streets where most everything was, but we loved it. The streets were all unpaved, just packed dirt, and the buildings were all single story white washed Puebla style structures, darkened into a faded off white from the years of dusty build up. It was a touristy place, but not in a bad way. Yeah there were a ton of tour agencies and souvenir shops, but there were also lots of cool little dive bars and unique little restaurants. Travelers always seem to complain about a place being touristy, but the way I see it is if it wasn’t touristy, there wouldn’t be anything there for you to enjoy, right? Why go to a town in the middle of nowhere if they didn’t have some cool spots to visit while your there? Obviously, there is a balance to that, but I liked the level of touristy you find in San Pedro de Atacama, in fact its one of my favorite little towns in Latin America.
There was one last excursion we wanted to do, so we set it up for our final day in town. The plan was to go sand boarding down the giant dunes just outside of town in the Valley of Mars. It was one of the activities I was looking forward to most on the South American trip, and for me it lived up to the expectations and then some. The valley was gorgeous, filled with giant dunes surrounded by jagged red rock formations that made you feel like you were on…you guessed it, Mars! They really nailed it with some of these names.
As though they could make the experience any cooler, the schedule takes you out there just before dusk, leaving you to take your last couple rides down the dunes during an incredible sunset over the red planet. It was an amazing way to cap off our visit to Atacama, and even better way to say goodbye to Chile before heading north to the highly anticipated country of Bolivia.
Our route to enter Bolivia from San Pedro de Atacama was a bit abnormal since our plan was to meet up with our friend Jess again to do the salt flat tour. Usually travelers just start their tour of the Salar de Uyuni from San Pedro de Atacama, taking it one way and ending up in the city of Uyuni Bolivia. We did it a little backwards and headed north to Uyuni, and then south again to tour the flats. It ended up being one of the more interesting boarder crossings we had dealt with.
First of all, the requirements for an American to enter Bolivia are outrageous. We are required to get a visa that costs $160 dollars, which we are the only country that fee is imposed upon, and to get the visa, you have to provide a stack of documents. Print ups of passports, two extra passport photos, bank statements, proof of accommodations in Bolivia, proof of exit plans out of the country, and $160 American dollars’ worth of perfect bills. Really, they had to be perfect. If a bill had any writing on them, rips, or stains of any kind, they wouldn’t accept them.
Thankfully Jess had already gone through this issue coming from Peru and gave us a heads up, or we would have been screwed. The border crossing we went through was in the middle of nowhere, and there would have been absolutely no way for us to print any of those documents, get photos, find perfect bills, nothing. If we hadn’t known and got everything together before hand, we would have been forced to take the bus six hours back to Calama where we could get that stuff together. Really dodged a bullet there, thanks to our hero, Jess Wajda.
As much of a pain as it was to go all the way up to Uyuni for the tour, it was absolutely worth it to have done that tour with Jess. Traveling is amazing, but its that much more amazing when you get to meet up with friends in other parts of the world and make memories in these incredible places. Over the next few days, there would be definately be no shortage of memories to be made…