Sunday, February 26, 2012

Chile by car

As we had to wait for our autopilot to be repaired and returned to us in Chile, we decided to rent a car and take a tour of Chile by land. We experienced such a variety of landscape, people, and temperature. Unknowingly, we were travelling during a festive holiday period and had a labourious time finding reasonable, if any, accommodation. Most towns and cities were packed with people and traffic, making it difficult to get around.

Chile has great roads and terrific signs almost everywhere - it would be hard to get lost along the roads (but maybe in some of the cities with much smaller and less frequent signs). Along Chile's PanAmerican highway, there are many toll booths and on our journey we paid a total of $82,100 Chilean Pesos which equalled about $160. We found hotel rates and general prices to be about equal to or higher than Victoria BC prices whereas we had been expecting cheaper.

Throughout our travels, we drove through many small crowded beach towns such as La Serena and Bahía Inglesa with its white sandy beach. We also went through 3 highly recommended cities (Valdivia, Valpraiso, and Viña del Mar) but because of all the people and traffic it was hard to really appreciate them so we did not linger long. We enjoyed Santiago, with its old colonial buildings right next to its modern sleek buildings - such a contrast - and we had a delightful quaint hotel that felt European; it was right beside a beautiful park that we strolled through.

So many people at Bahia La Serena...

A highlight was going through the Atacama Desert, the driest desert of the world with some areas of no recorded rain. Ever! It was not what we expected for a desert. The Atacama has such a varied landscape from sand dunes, totally smooth rolling hills of striated colours, flat areas with sage brush, and areas with moon-like sharp jutting rocks. The many colours we noted included black, grey, white, tan, green, pink, red, and even purple - a real eye treat! Even though we were travelling during the south's summer, the desert was only about an average daytime temperature of 27 degrees.

How many colours can you count?

Mining is also very, very extensive throughout the desert. Nitrates were highly mined until the Panama Canal was built but now copper is mined extensively. We saw areas of hillsides streaked with layers of chalk/gypsum and Jordan wrote on the road with it. Several old adobe mining villages were present. We also drove past huge mining projects that have changed topography on mountainous scales.

Jordan atop 1 of the smaller mining trucks

Upon reaching Arica at the northern border of Chile, we had planned on crossing into Peru to see the ruins of Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, the only border crossing between Chile and Peru was inaccessible due to the closure of the flooded bridge from heavy rains experienced earlier a ways upstream (Andes). We then decided to head towards Bolivia where we could cross into Peru from Bolivia.

Once again, no luck as upon reaching Bolivia, we were told that we could not take our rented car across the border as we did not have proper paperwork to take the car out of Chile. So we walked across the border - just to get our passports stamped with Bolivian stamps! That turned out to be a mistake as it then became difficult to re-enter Chile.

As it turned out, the Bolivian officials are not very concerned with officialdom. They had left for "lunch" to a city 1.5 hours away. But in actuality, they had left for the day to celebrate the festivities of the holiday period (Carnival). After a lot of driving and running around, we, along with a backpacking couple, finally found someone to stamp our passports with the required Bolivia "exit" stamp so that we could properly enter Chile.

We also found out that it was raining extensively in Peru and many people were stranded up on Machu Pichu because of washouts, etc. So all in all, it turned out best that we had not made it to the ruins. Maybe we will try again when we are on the Atlantic side of South America.

We returned to Arica for the night and then headed back towards Santiago, this time along the coast for part of the way where we saw several areas of seaweed being harvested. We stopped at an ancient cemetery beside the highway in the middle of nowhere where wooden structures were falling apart from age.

Sandy desert on 1 side, Pacific Ocean on the other

Driving by the ESO Paranal Astrophysical Observatory ( one day, we thought it would be interesting to check out but tours had to be pre-arranged so we were not allowed to enter.

Later, we walked along a beach where we collected a few beautiful purple sea urchin shells. The next day, we went to see the largest swimming pool in the world (S33°20'57" W71°39'10.6"). Several years ago, I had seen a picture and always wanted to see it for real. Situated in the private residential resort of San Alfonso del Mar in the city of Algarrobo, we were not allowed access but we did snap a photo from a distance. It is 1 km long and holds 250 million L of water. This man-made saltwater lagoon keeps fresh seawater in permanent circulation, drawing it in from one end and pumping it out at the other. With water so clear you can see the bottom even at the deep end of 115 feet. We saw a sailboat on it too! This pool is in the Guinness Book of Records.

Pool with ocean and beach sand in front - sailboat on left

Next it was back to Santiago where we would leave the car for a couple of days to catch a flight on the 28th of February for another adventure!

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