Note this post covers the 11th – 12th of Feb
Because of the flooding and landslides in Peru that happened a couple of weeks or so before we were supposed to go up to Maccu Piccu, that part of our planned trip had to be cancelled. Instead, Fran and I figured we could visit some parts of Chile we hadn’t been to. The advice given was to visit the desert in the north, by going to this small town called San Pedro de Atacama.
After looking into flights, we decided that we would take the bus up to San Pedro (and the plane back to Santiago) because they were so expensive.
The bus ride up to San Pedro takes about 17 or 18 hours in total to do, which is about 1,100km non-stop. We’d booked ourselves onto an overnight “Salon Cama” bus, which is a two level job, with wide seats that fold down almost completely horizontally, the idea being that you can sleep comfortably on them if you want.
My issue was, I have incredible trouble sleeping in moving vehicles – this applies seemingly to buses, cars, airplanes, boats, everything. So while Fran managed to sleep a good portion of the night only slept maybe 2 hours if that. By about hour number 15, I was incredibly over it, and because of the fact that if we stopped somewhere, it was only for a few minutes, it was quite hard to work out where we were at any given time, and how far away from where we were going. The bus had a toilet on board, and my nightmares will be haunted by it for quite some time to come.
Finally arrive in San Pedro in the morning, but with no indication at all where the hotel was. Google maps failed us on this one – it had only shown San Pedro as having two streets, and clearly there were more than that.
After doing a quick scout around, and worked out the street and some street numbers and fully laden with bags, we start walking in what we thought was the right direction to the hotel, in the searing heat. It doesn’t take too long to for us to pass the boundary of town, and basically we’re heading out into the desert. Eventually we get tired (and more than a little suspicious of our progress), and flag down (one of the two in town) a taxi that was passing us. He tells us our hotel is in the opposite direction to where we are heading, and he takes us there.
We check in, and wander into town. The plaza is really nice, and there’s this awesome little old church, which apparently whose first recorded congregation was in 1650 something. It was full of very old and cute paintings and statues. I liked this one much better than the grandiosity of Coquimbo.
We had an incredible lunch at a cafe in town, both amazing Salmon dishes, and some drinks and dessert. We wander around some more, and eventually book some tours for the next day. Because we mis-calculated, we realised we only really had one day and evening to do anything in San Pedro before we had to leave, so we filled it chock full of activity. It’s was going to be a very very busy time. Since the first tour was starting at 4am, and was going to be right up in the Andes at very high altitude, we went to the markets to I could get a warm sweater, and Fran could get some sunglasses. Utterly knackered by this stage, we head back to the hotel and off to bed.
Note this post covers the 10th of Feb
Next morning we went up to the utterly massive cross they’d built recently on a high hill in Coquimbo. They’re big on religious symbolism in South America it seems. The cross itself was very impressive and imposing, and the view from up near the top inside it was spectacular.
At the base of the cross, before the elevators to take you up to the viewing area in the horizontal beams, there was a very large and ornate church, and a museum full of jewellery, goblets, fine robes and art, including giant paintings of the last couple of Popes (the current one really does look evil). The thing that struck me about this was all the people living on the hill around the cross, were in a state of total poverty, living in buildings which were often no better than shacks. Personally, I found it incredibly distasteful. My cousin later mentioned the same thought to me – I was glad I wasn’t the only one who felt that way about it.
Note this post covers the 8th and 9th of February 2010.
After the markets and icecream, we spent much of the afternoon just sitting in the sun, eating, catching up on emails, uploading photos, that sort of junk. It was really quite plesant and relaxing.
We then had an invitation to have drinks (mainly of vodka) at Laura’s house that night; we got dropped over there, and then went down to the local bottle store, which we were told is set up as a front for the local drug-running mafioso, and because of this, and their not caring too much about making money, prices are kept, shall we say, quite low. A wonderful night was had by all four of us, and the conversation in half English / half Spanish flowed very well.
On Wednesday, we went for a trip up to Pisco Elqui valley with Paulina. That is where the local spirit, Pisco, is made; it’s very strong grape liquor and is a little bit like a brandy.
To get to there, we had to take two busses, firstly to Viquña, then from there to Pisco Elqui. The busses were of the small and rickerty variety, and filled to the brim. We had to stand up in the second bus for some of the way, as we barrelled down the road at well over 100km/h in the heat.
We passed through small and picturesque village, and finally reached Pisco Elqui after a couple of hours. We wandered around the town plaza, and through the small markets and around town for a bit.
After a while we got hungry (and not just a little overheated), so we found a neat restaurant a distance away from the main part of town. It was called “La Esquela” (The School), as it was apparently converted from an old schoolhouse. We ate Pastel de Choclos, which I hadn’t had myself in many years, and for desert, this crazy traditional drink which was peach juice, with dried peaches floated on top of a bed of wheat grains. While very tasty, they were also huge, and we couldn’t finish them.
After eating, we walked down the road, through to a set of cabins owned by our Aunt and Uncle, and down to a riverbank at the bottom of the property, the idea being to get away from the heat; maybe dip our feet in the water or go for a swim. However recent heavy rains had apparently changed the shape of the river considerably making this unfeasable, so we just rested in the shade for until it was time to go on the distillery tour at 5pm.
Although it was entirely in Spanish (and the guide punctuated every sentence with ‘ya’ which I found funny), the distillery tour was pretty cool. Pisco is a liquor made from a particular kind of grape, and then distilled and aged. It tastes a bit like a rum I guess. Pisco Sour is the most common cocktail made with it, and the ones on offer here were much better than any I’d had back at home.
Coqiumbo at night
After arriving back in La Serena after our Pisco trip, we had a quick dinner and were then told that we were going to be driven out to Coquimbo for a few drinks, with our cousin and aunt and uncle. After a very slow trip driving along the beachfront road (traffic was horrific); we made it into Coquimbo at maybe 10pm or something like that.
Downtown Coquimbo was pretty lively, there were a number of bars around the central area filled with people, street performers in the plaza, and a bus with the label “Tourist bus” on the side; a double-decker lit up affair with an open roof, music blaring out, and people dressed in various costumes (barney, mickey mouse etc) dancing on top of it.
We found one street that had been blocked off to cars, with bars down one side of it, and filled with tables and chairs. Three of the bars had bands set up in front of them, and each band was taking turns at doing their sets. We managed to find a table in the crowd eventually, sat down and ordered a round of mojitos. One of the bands was seemingly playing traditional classics and every body in the crowd was happily singing along:
After some incredibly tasty nibbles including palm hearts, cheese bits, amazingly tender beef, and spicy sausage, and another round of mojitos (darn those two for one specials, haha), we were treated to some latin beat freestyle rapping curtosey of one of the audience members and his friends:
All in all, an exhausting, full on, and fun day had by everyone.
Note this post covers the 7th and 8th of February 2010.
This morning it was announced that we would be going to the beach yet again, but this time to one a bit further away from town, in a place called Tongoy.
When we arrive, we are taken to a restaurant just a few meters away from the beach, where the entire extended family are already waiting for us (plus a few others we hadn’t met the other night, and whose relationship I have to, still remains completely unknown).
After the ordeal of ordering food for 20-odd people has been sorted out, it started to arrive. I had two kinds of cheese empanada, one was palm hearts (yum!) and the other was scallops. I don’t normally go much for seafood, but these were utterly delicious. I suspect everything at this restaurant had probably had been swimming in the ocean nearby no more than a few hours before we ate it.
More fresh fish, salads, ice-creams and beer followed. Very pleasent indeed.
As a huge group, we then all went in search of a beach to lie on for a good few hours. There is a smaller, prettier beach we were trying to get to, but once we arrived, we realised that about a million other people had the exact same plan as us that day, so we diverted back to the larger beach.
After 3 days of laying in the sun, I’ve started to develop quite a tan by my standards, yet I am still easily the whitest guy on the beach; also it will surely all revert back to it’s usual pastiness within a week of my return home. Ah well.
A quiet day
The next day, we kept things pretty quiet. We wandered down to the markets again for a little while, picked up a couple of presents for people, stuff like that. I especially liked these spiced peanuts which are a local thing apparently; they’re pretty much just peanuts with chili powder and some other things on them.
Paulina took us to an ice cream shop, that does super sold school traditional ice cream. My cousins used to go there when they were little children and their grandmother was friends with the lady who runs it, who is still there, and still selling the exact same ice creams she’d been selling for decades. There are only ever 4 flavours available on any given day, but they’re all delicious. I had Strawberry and Cinnamon. Mmmmmmm.