Tag Archives: Chile

Strategic Arica

From San Pedro de Atacama I took a night bus to the Chilean costal town of Arica. I arrived there while it was still dark outside, so I waited for the sun to come out. The hostal was not far from the terminal and I arrived there just in time for breakfast. Here I also ran into Fabio from Brazil, who also had been on the tour through the Salar de Uyuni. We wanted to explore the city and two Belgian guys joined us.

In Arica I’m back at sea level after weeks of being high up in the Andes
One day was enough to see the main attractions of Arica

Even though Arica is right at the coast, it does get pretty hot during the day, as it is surrounded by desert. During the “War of the Pacific” it was the scene of an important battle between the Peruvian and the Chilean troops in 1880. Back then the “Cerro Morro”, a hill overlooking the city, was occupied and the former Peruvian city now belonged to Chile. Nowadays, there is a small military museum on top telling the story of the battle.

Arica used to be Peruvian territory until the “War of the Pacific”
The town with its strategic harbor is located in the middle of the desert

Back in town we visited the “Catedral San Marcos”, a little Gothic-style church made from cast iron. It was designed in 1870 by Gustave Eiffel, the French engineer, who would later provide the design for the Eiffel tower. After prefabrication in France it was shipped all around the globe to be assembled here on site. It’s now one of the nicest buildings in town and blends in perfectly with the colonial style architecture.

The “Catedral San Marcos” was designed by Gustave Eiffel
The church is mostly made of cast iron

After a quick stop at the indoor market for lunch, we visited a small pre-colombian museum, the “Sitio Colon 10”. The name of the museum is the address of this former town house. A few years ago the owner wanted to remodel the house and found several dozens of mummies from the Chinchorro culture (5000-3000 BC) buried underneath. The demolition was stopped and the house was turned into a museum.

The mummies at “Sitio Colon 10” still have thick hair covering their skull
Dozens of Chinchorro mummies were found underneath this town house

In the afternoon we also had a look at the harbor. During the morning hours, a large fish market is held here, but now there were only few fishermen left cleaning up the place. This attracts not only pelicans and other birds, but also several large sea lions, whose strategy is simply waiting. They know that sooner or later they’ll get their share.

Only a few fishermen were still in the harbor, cleaning up their catch of the day
The sea lions were happy to finish any leftovers

Back at the hostal I met Bastian from Germany, who also wanted to cross over to Peru the following day. That morning we caught a local bus heading for Tacna, the closest Peruvian town behind the border. Crossing the border was fast and easy, much to our delight. Just after, a young man entered our bus and started talking about bad eating habits and the diseases that come from them. We were fascinated about this free health education, but were a bit disappointed that it turned out to be part of the sales strategy to sell his magic products.

What seemed to be a free health education was in fact only a selling technique
The packages on sale were not legible, but supposedly contained stevia, a natural sweetener

Up close with the universe

We had decided to take the one-way tour from Uyuni, which brought us to San Pedro de Atacama in the very north of Chile. We reached the town in the early afternoon and were quite happy that it greeted us with the warmth and sunshine that we had been missing for the last weeks. At about 2400m, San Pedro is much lower than all the places we had been to since Cusco, so it was naturally warmer.

Strolling through the dirt roads of San Pedro de Atacama
The prominent Licancabur volcano reaches almost 6000m

In the evening we were still sitting outside in the courtyard of our hostel, when we heard some live music playing somewhere. As we went over to have a look, it turned out to be a “St. Patrick’s Day” celebration in the bar next door. And although we were a bit tired, we decided to join, which turned out to be a lot of fun. Unfortunately though we didn’t find the four-leaf clovers, which would have gotten us some free drinks.

The bar around the corner was celebrating “St. Patrick’s Day”

The next day we booked a tour to the “Valle de la Luna”, the moon valley. As the tour wouldn’t start before late in the afternoon, we walked around town for a bit and found a really cool shop just outside our hostel. And while Dani got a handmade top, Krissi went for a black and white picture on plywood. What made it so special was the fact, that the shop owner was burning the picture into the wood by using a simple magnifying glass.

Using the sunlight for drawing pictures
Krissi got one of the plywood pictures with her name engraved

The tour of the moon valley was very interesting as well, as it rained just before we had arrived in San Pedro. The rain had washed out the salt from the rocks and as the water evaporated, the salt remained on the surface of the rocks, creating a white cover that almost looked like snow in the desert. And although this is one of the driest deserts of the world, rain is not uncommon in San Pedro between December and March, however only in small quantities.

What looks like snow is actually deposited salt crystals
The bare landscape of the moon valley

During the tour we had a look at the different rock formations – steep crater walls, eroded rocks supposedly looking like three virgins, and high sand dunes. Somehow our tour guide always managed to avoid most of the crowds that were with us in the park, which we were quite happy with. Only the last stop seemed to be identical for all tours, as everyone turned up at a cliff overlooking the moon valley to watch the beautiful sunset over the desert landscape.

The craters and sand dunes were quite impressive
Sunset over the desert

The next morning, after two exciting weeks of traveling together, it was time to say goodbye – Dani and Krissi were heading over to Argentina, while I was about to go the other way, back to the coast and up to Peru. But before I continued, I went on an astrological tour to watch the night sky with large telescopes. Here we got to read stellar maps and got explanations for different objects, the most impressive being Jupiter with its four largest moons.

The last adventure with Krissi and Dani on this trip
Watching stars, planets and the milky way without urban light pollution (photo by Tour Astronomico Astrocoya) 

 Tracing Chilean history

We arrived in Santiago early in the morning and had the full day to discover the city. We started off with a free walking tour of the more unknown highlights of the city. This included several local markets with fresh fish and fresh meat, but also lots of fruits and vegetables. It was a true feast for the eye, especially after coming from Patagonia, where fruits and vegetables are not readily available and if they are, they are very expensive.

Visiting the fish market in Santiago
One of the big market halls has a decorative rooftop

The other part of the tour took us to the main cemetery, which is frequently visited by locals due to the lack of parks and green areas. It has large areas with multi story graves for people with a lower income, but also large mausoleums, where the rich and famous lie for their last rest. One of them is Salvador Allende, the first socialist president in the world, who was assasinated after a military coup in 1970, which was supported by the CIA.

The cemetery of the general people is often three storeys high
The cemetery has another section with huge mausoleums

We spent the rest of the afternoon discovering the city on our own. Besides from viewing the presidential palace, where Allende was shot, we visited the National Historical Museum. It gives a good overview of the history, from the indigenous people and the Spanish colonization up to Allende and his death. However, it doesn’t provide any information on what happened in Chile after 1970. The Human Rights Museum is supposed to be very impressive on the times during the military dictatorship of Pinochet, but I didn’t find out about that until later.

The Presidential Palace in downtown Santiago
View from the tower of the National Historical Museum on the Plaza de Armas

While Benno had to take his flight back home, I boarded the next bus to Valparaiso. This vibrant coastal city is less than two hours from Santiago and it’s downtown was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003. The colorful houses and the omnipresent street art definitely rectify this choice.

Tasting another Chilean invention – the earthquake cocktail “Terremoto”
Valparaiso has many colorful houses and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site
The street art is omnipresent

I used the afternoon to explore the city on another free walking tour. We learned about the national heroes – firefighters – which is an unpaid job in Chile. Only the truck drivers get paid, based on monthly donations by their fellow firefighters. It’s a weird system, but has been working for about 150 years already. Due to the lack of governmental funding, they’re looking for sponsors for their equipment, which is why they have many different fire stations: American, Italian and German among others.

Valparaiso also has a German fire station

The city is built on more than 54 little hills along an elevated coastline. Therefore, there are many steep roads and staircases leading up the hills. To make things easier, people have built little elevators to skip some of the ascend or descend. They operate on a daily basis from early in the morning until late and are quite cheap to use.

Elevators and steep staircases lead up the hills

. Up in the hills we visited the first two protestant churches in Chile. The “Saint Paul Anglican Church” was built before Chile introduced a law guaranteeing freedom of faith, which is why it had to be built without too many people knowing about it. From the outside it doesn’t look like a proper church, so almost nobody turned up for mass. The other church, “Iglesia Luterana de La Santa Cruz”, was built shortly after the new law and was allowed to have a bell tower and a cross on top. Somehow this worked better.

The “Santa Cruz” church can be seen from far away
Camilo, our walking tour guide, also knows some of the local artists

The following day I went on a tour of the less touristy spots of the city, where we took the “Rollercoaster bus” up into the hills to visit the former prison, now a cultural center offering various activities. During the dictatorship of Pinochet, many political prisoners were stationed here. And to add some personal relation to this dark history, our guide, Camilo, told us, how his father used to work for the army and became Pinochet’s personal butler during the last three years of his ruling.

The former prison is now a cultural center

Next to the prison are three graveyards of the city – “Cementerio 1”, “Cementerio 2” and “Cementerio de Disidentes”. However, this is not a graveyard for the political prisoners, but it used to be the only one for protestants, because the others were for catholics only. Eventually they were allowed to have their own cemetery, under the condition of this particular name.

The back wall of the “Cementario de dissidentes”

The adrenalin capital of Chile

Our next destination was Villarrica, a small town in the center of Chile. This time we took a direct bus to cross the border, which seemed to be much faster than the last time I crossed it here. One reason might be that the busses have a separate counter, but then the lines in general were not as long as they were about three weeks ago. It still took us the whole day to get to Villarrica and its famous volcano.

The lake and the prominent volcano bear the same name as our town: Villarrica

Our original plan was to climb the volcano right the next day, but we couldn’t get a spot on one tours. All tours leave from the neighboring Pucon, but most companies don’t have a pick-up service from Villarrica, which is much more quiet and less touristy. Instead we decided to have a look at Pucon and try out an activity called Hydrospeed, which was recommended to me somewhere along the way. And it stood up to my expectations, as it was a lot of fun to go down the river rapids (up to class III) with nothing but a small floatation device.

Hydrospeed is rafting without a boat!

In some places the river was quite shallow, so it’s not much of a surprise that we got a bit bruised during the tour. Maybe it was not the best idea to do this on the day before the volcano (we had managed to book one for the day after), but was still worth every bit of it.

The start of the trail to the top of the volcano was already above the clouds

When we got picked up early the next morning, the sky was covered in clouds. We picked up all necessary equipment in Pucon and continued to the base of some skiing lifts at an altitude of about 1400m. Here, we had a blue sky and sunshine as we were already above the clouds. Although most people took the lift, Benno and I decided to walk up. Tobias, our guide for the tour, and two other Germans joined us. It was actually quite nice to be the last ones, as it was really quiet and we could go at our own pace without being constantly overtaken by some of the other 250 people that were heading up that day.

The top is still clearly visible as we start the hike with about 250 other people
An old ski lift station that was destroyed by a landslide during the last eruption in 2015

At 2200m we had to put on crampons and get out the pickaxe, because we had reached the snow. By now the top of the mountain, which had been at clear sight for most of the ascend, was covered by clouds. We continued slowly but steadily until 2600m, about 200m below the summit, where we were completely surrounded by clouds. Here we decided to turn around, because we wouldn’t be able to see the inside of the crater, where supposedly lava can be seen most of the days. Additionally, falling rocks are posing a greater hazard with the poor visibility conditions.

We’re ready to tackle the snow, which covers the top of the volcano
The clouds appeared during midday and stuck around until much later in the afternoon

The way back down was much faster and much easier than what you may expect. The first 400m were a giant snow slide, where we sat down on a little plastic bowl and went down at a speed that was sometimes too fast to be comfortable. It was still a lot of fun! The rest of the descend was pretty easy, as we took a different trail, where the soil was loose. This allowed us to slide down a little bit with every step we took, which is also not as tough on the knees.

We used a giant snow slide for the first part of the descend

The dry and loose soil enables us to take a more direct way back

The perfect way to end the day was the bring-and-share barbecue at our hostel. In Germany, most of the times we bring our own meat and a salad to share with everyone. In Chile it’s different: Their barbecue consists mostly of meat, which is why nobody knew what to do with the pasta salad that Benno and I had made. Nevertheless there was more than enough to eat for everyone. We even got introduced to a typical dish from Chile – “Disco”, a mix of fried onions with chicken, beef, pork and mussels.

Real Chilean barbecue with Disco and lots of meat

We used our last day in Villarrica for a quick visit to “Los Pozones”, one of the many hot springs in the area. They consist of several natural basins with varying water temperature, from luke warm to really hot. It was quite relaxing, but involved a lot of hustle on the way back. Due to a huge traffic jam, the way back to Villarrica took almost four hours instead of two and we got to the bus station just on time for our night bus to Santiago.

More people had the idea of spending some time at the “Los Pozones” hot springs

Magellan and the kings

From Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas I took a flight to meet up with Benno, a friend of mine from Germany, who is joining me for about three weeks. Punta Arenas is located in the south of Chile, in a province called Magellanes Region, named after the famous explorer, who discovered the navigational channel between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, known as the Strait of Magellan.

Punta Arenas is located at the Strait of Magellan

It’s the southernmost city in continental South America and for sure has a climate that suits penguins. Just outside the city is Magdalena Island, which is inhabited by thousands of these little animals. However, I had already seen quite a few of them not too long ago on the Cape Peninsula in South Africa, so I opted for something different: A day trip to Tierra del Fuego with a visit to its king penguin colony.

Heading to Tierra del Fuego with lots of other tourist busses

After two hours of ferry ride we reached Porvenir a small harbor town on Tierra del Fuego. Here, we learned a bit about the Selknam, the indigenous group of about 4000 people that used to live here before the European settlers came in and killed most of them for pastures and through diseases, to which they had no natural resistance. In 1967 the last one of them died, and with her a proud tribe of people, who were tall, generally good looking and had managed to live with the strong winds of the area like nobody had before.

The museum in Porvenir has a little exposition on the Selknam people

From there we continued to the eastern end of “Bahia Inutil” (Useless Bay), which was only useless to the explorers, because it was too shallow for anchoring their ships. For the king penguins it’s just the right location for their colony, as the shallower water protects them from orcas, their predators. As excavations have shown, they’ve been living here for hundreds of years, but gave it up at some point only to rediscover it in 2007. Back then there used to be just a few of them, now their number has grown up to 150, about 50 of them were present when we visited them.

The main attraction for us was the king penguin colony

The royal inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego

On our way back to the mainland, we passed through the tiny town of Cerro Sombrero, which was built for the servicing of the oil and gas fields in the area. Unfortunately we could not have a look inside the oldest cinema in Chile, because it was closed due to the heavy winds. This meant, that we’d have to be lucky for the ferry back to the mainland, which doesn’t operate, if the waves are too high. But after about ten minutes of waiting we were able to enter the boat, bringing us safely to the other side.

Cerro Sombrero is all about servicing the oil and gas industry

Unfortunately it was raining too much to get a better look at this ship wreck

The next day we had nothing planned, because we wanted to take a bus to El Calafate (Argentina), but we only managed to get tickets for the day after. In the morning it was rainy and we didn’t do a lot, but in the afternoon it cleared up and we went for the Nao Victoria museum. The “Nao Victoria” was one of ships of Magellan’s fleet, which was sponsored by the Spanish king in hope for a new trading route to India. The Portuguese king did not believe in his mission and had denied him the funds for the expedition. The “Nao Victoria” is also the only one Magellan’s ships that completed the sail around the world and proved the theory of the globe. It even returned with enough goods that it paid off all the bills for the expedition.

A life-size model of Magellan’s “Nao Victoria”

On board of the “Nao Victoria”

Other life-size ship models in the museum include a ship to colonize southern Chile from the north, the “HMS Beagle”, which was Darwin’s ship for his expeditions, and the “James Caird”. This is the dinghy that played a key role in one of the mayor Antarctica expeditions, because it was improvised with a refit to suit sailing the rough oceans to get help after the main ship had been stuck and sunk in the antarctic ice. The rescue mission was successful and all men were rescued.

Darwin’s “HMS Beagle” seems to be the newest addition to the museum

The “James Caird” was a dinghy before its refit