Chile, Atacama Grande

We arrived late in Antofagasta on the coast after experiencing our first taste of the real Atacama desert. Another large city! We went just north to Juan Lopez, a small coastal resort, to look for a place to stay. Arriving after dark with headlights blinding us on the way, we had no idea where we were. We eventually stopped outside a crowded pub to see if we could get help. Solveig asked a policeman. He suggested we spend the night right where we were parked, there was no problem and we would be safe. We did just that and had a few drinks and made supper.
We awoke early after a good night’s sleep, emptied the potty into gutter and drove to a beach and cliff area to make breakfast.
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The natural beauty of the coastline around Antofagasta was another onslaught on our senses.
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Words cannot express how this trip has turned out.

Everybody we encounter is so friendly and helpful. Including the truck drivers! The Pan American highway made this journey into an experience we’ll never forget. The distances melt away. The frequent rest zones, which I’ve mentioned before, and safe places for us to shower, ablute and sleep after a long day’s drive, shared with dozens of truck drivers, make the trip so much more enjoyable.
There were a few more places to explore at the coast before going to San Pedro de Atacama.

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Isla de Santa Maria, a small coastal town which has recently been turned into the largest container port in Chile, and also serves Bolivia, still has retained its old charm. We wild camped on the beach nearby.

On the way we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn…..

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Our trip to San Pedro de Atacama took us off our route north. The town was a must see in the guide books because of its amazing landscape. We didn’t want to miss it. Along the way we came upon this large wind farm.

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En route we had passed many of them located in windy spots. Much of Chile’s electricity is generated this way. With absolutely no impact on the environment and a continuous supply, Eskom could learn a lot from Chile and put in more wind generators than planned. In fact there’s much that South Africa could learn from Chile, but you could write a book on that subject alone.

The trip was heavy going with many steep passes. The brakes started to make grinding noises. We’d have to sort it out in San Pedro.

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I think that when one flies into a new area it makes more impact because your perception of the place changes immediately. By driving overland the change is gradual. So when getting to San Pedro we found just another tourist town….

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It was Sunday so we had to wait to have the brakes repaired the next day and spent the day exploring the town. Unfortunately we couldn’t visit any of the nearby attractions as we were grounded. The camping manager suggested a repair shop, the only one in town. We were horrified by what we found. An oil soaked dusty dump. No way we’re we going to entrust our safety by using them to repair the brakes! I decided to rather return to Antofagasta. We took it very slowly, using the gears to do the braking. Arriving there just after midday we saught help at a filling station. A truck driver came to our assistance and drove in front of us to a nearby ‘frenos’. What amazing people in Chile! In no time at all we had new brakes fitted, and at a price far cheaper than in South Africa too. We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn again and headed north as it was still so early. Wild camped at Hornitos on the beach.

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Hornitos was an amazing upmarket seaside resort, very private with some lovely homes.

After a sound nights sleep having been calmed by the sound of the sea and gulls, we continued on up the coast to Iquique. Had a wonderful hot shower on the road at a truck rest stop. Amazing what Chile does for its truck drivers. What you give out you get back. The truckers are better behaved on the road than we’ve experienced elsewhere before.
Camped once again on the beach, this time at Iquique, virtually in the city.

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On our way to Arica, the last town in Chile before the border with Peru, we dropped in at Humberstone. During the Nitrate boom the north of Chile had mines springing up everywhere that Saltpetre could be found. Today this has resulted in a number of ghost towns, Humberstone being one of them.
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Arica was similar to the other coast towns in the desert. Much bigger than expected. Met young Canadians in a 6 litre Ford Van with high roof which had been converted into a 4×4 camper by Robbie, the owner while we camped on the beach yet again…

We refuelled, restocked and had our vegetables confiscated at the border the next day….. AGAIN !! Will we never learn????

Chile, The Atacama Chico

The region north of Santiago is known as the Atacama Chico which literally means the Small Atacama, not quite true desert yet but more like Namaqualand in summer. We left Santiago late so stayed overnight in a truck stop again. They’re really so convenient, always clean, have hot showers, often better than “real” campsites. We were heading for the coast again but were also trying to put some distance behind us.
The 29th of December we managed to cover a great distance on the Pan American Highway, Ruta 5, which is dual carriageway most of the way through Chile. It will be interesting to see how much we’ve spent on tolls by the time we exit Chile. The quality of the road, the ease of which one is able to cover great distances – considering the number of trucks, the safety features and roadside facilities make it all worthwhile.
Much of this section of highway was on the coast, which became more and more arid the further north we progressed. We were left breathless at times by the shear beauty of the coastline. No photograph could share the feeling it invoked.

The distances just melted away and before we were aware, it was heading towards night again. We’d passed by so many small bays and beautiful beaches we could have stayed at, but suddenly found ourselves in La Serena.

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All the activity took place near to the Plaza in the centre of the town.

With nowhere to camp, it was the Copec petrol stop again! Most of them have extremely clean toilets and hot showers too,  a fast food restaurant, ice – for our drinks at night, good coffee and sometimes free wifi too.
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The 30th took us inland again after we’d stopped to make ourselves coffee at Los Hornos, a small fishing village.

We missed the amazing coastline. The desert was becoming dry and harsh, similar to the area around Ai-ais in Namibia. We were approaching the Atacama Grande. Mountains of bare, weathered rock lined the highway. The day was very hot with a strong desert wind blowing from the side, making driving more difficult.  We came upon this geological feature of volcanic rock. 
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Of course it had been turned into a shrine!

I was thankful when the road eventually turned towards the coast again, where it was cooler, almost cold actually, brought on by the cold Humboldt ocean current. We camped at a “proper” campsite for R200 at Roca Negra in Bahia Inglesa which didn’t come up to the standard of either of the two previous nights.
We choose to keep to the coastal route, Ruta 1, for a change as we enjoyed the coast more than inland, stopping at the small fishing villages dotted all along the coast. In Caldera there was even a fish market where I enjoyed a Fruta del Mares. Black and white muscles, oysters, crab and fish served in a pickle juice with coriander and lemon.
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Deliciously tasty and fresh from the sea.
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Solveig waited outside taking photos of boats, pelicans, gulls and seals. For those that don’t know, Solveig grew up eating fish for nearly every meal and was turned off for life!

We continued further up the coast looking for a suitable place we could wild camp for New Years Eve. We found a place where we could pull off the highway and take a dirt road down to a point with a small bay at Balneario Flamenco near Chañaral.
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May your new year also be as special and peaceful as the beginning of ours! The words of the song ” What a wonderful World” come to mind.
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Along the coast we often came across small villages with colourful houses.

At Chañaral we turned inland. A long climb of over 1200 metres the next 100 km. Fortunately we had a tail wind helping Michelle along. The desert landscape is so much of the same when away from the coast so after about 200 kms we took a turn off to Taltal.

Not a pretty town unfortunately, very industrialised with a large port to export minerals mined in the desert. Had lunch at a restaurant on the pavement. Ian had fish. Very tasty and fresh, but unattractively served, six pieces of fish on some lettuce leaves. The cost….about R200
We carried on to Antofagasta…. to the start of the Atacama Grande.

Chile: The Central Valley

We were longing for the sea again and detoured to Conception on our way to the Central Valley. Quite frankly it was a total waste of time. With roadworks the whole way from Ruta 5 to Conception and lots of stop / go control points operating.  It turned out to be just another busy city! However, we did find a few fittings we needed at a huge hardware store to get a Chilean camping gas cylinder compatible with our USA camper. I performed a successful bypass operation when our Argentinian gas ran out!
We left Conception for inland using a different route, but not knowing where we’d stay that night. Back on the Ruta 5 we opted for a filling station! But our preference, Copec,  wouldn’t allow us to sleep there. We went further down the highway to a Terpel garage and slept around the back under some lovely trees. It was quiter there away from the traffic. Along the highway are stops where you can purchase snacks and cooldrinks. You are alerted by these colourful flags.
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We wanted to visit a market in Talca, highly recommended in guide books. It looked exciting as we drove past with many picture opportunities. It was impossible to park anywhere! So once again we had to abandon any attempt to do anything in a large town.

We changed our plans for Christmas and headed off Ruta 5 again towards the sea, hoping to find a quite venue. We arrived at a large campsite at Los Cabras next to a beautiful lake, and luckily there were only two other couples there. The camp manager warned us that on Christmas day it would be almost full with day visitors. True to his word, it filled up as the day progressed.
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So we also enjoyed a wonderful Christmas Day and Solveig’s birthday just chilling. So different from home where Christmas has always been a hectic day of cooking and eating.
We’d done about 3500kms since Buenos Aires and I needed the break too.  That night, as the crowds returned home, we had a hot meal for Christmas; Bacon, Eggs, Tomato and Banana on toast! The birthday girl’s choice!! It tasted so good too.
Since being in Chile we’ve noticed that the drink and drive laws whicht don’t allow even one drink, have other benefits too. People are well behaved, there’s no swearing, unruly behaviour, and there’s far less littering in public spaces.

The route we’d chosen to the coast was a good one. The road wound it’s way through the beautiful Central Valley. Trellised wine lands and fruit trees the whole way. What a treat! 
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There were lots of farm stalls along the way and the roads were lined with trees, hydrangeas and other familiar flowers.

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Like the thistle!

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We even came across a farm growing proteas in tunnels!

We’d selected a campsite near to Valparaiso on a peninsula at Lago Verde. Very “rustic”. It was like wild camping! But the setting made up for the lack of finess.
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In the small town of Lago Verde we came across this park filled with exercise equipment. Solveig and I both needed the exercise as we spend so much time just sitting while travelling.

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Valparaiso was stunning
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Lots of old buildings.
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and much more manageable than we imagined it would be, considering it was the Saturday after Christmas.
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The hills in Valparaiso are steep and there are lots of them.
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We continued on to Vina del Mar, a few kilometers north. Often at traffic lights there’s entertainment while the lights are red.
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Everybody was in such a good mood.

We figured that the Sunday would be a good day to visit one or two places in Santiago while everyone was on holiday, and headed inland. We camped in Olmue,  about 45 km out of the city.  Sunday turned out to be a good choice as it was quiet.

In the centre of the city was this fruit and veggie market in a park.
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We really enjoyed Santiago. Not wanting to experience the usual razzmatazz of big cities, we were looking for something unique and special. We chose the Pueblito Artesanal Los Dominicos.
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Repuditally, with the best upmarket Crafts market in Chile. Didn’t buy anything though…. but enjoyed looking.
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Early afternoon we headed north once again in the general direction of Los Vilos on the coast. It took longer than expected and we opted for a rest stop on the way. Rest stops, found alongside the highway, are grassed and treed, have braai areas, tables and chairs, and toilets with hot showers.  They are frequented by truckers, although many families stop there for awhile to let their children unwind on the jungle gyms, swings and roundabouts. It also made a good, safe overnight stop for us. And it was for free!