A hole in the ozone layer around northern Chile ensures on average just 5mm of rainfall a year; and my bones are warmed up (for the most part) after quite a cold spell in Peru and Ecuador. The majority of gringos travelling in this skinny but absurdly long country sport a burnt nose at the very least. I join them.
I’m bundled into a 2004-reg Mercedes coupe at Tacna International Bus Station (the last town in Peru before the Chilean frontera), and wonder about the legitimacy of the crossing ahead of me. I’ve just paid for a bus ticket, and the additional bus departure tax, but this is definitely a car. I reluctantly hand the driver my passport, and verify our destination with the other passengers. It is going to Chile. All 4 of them are locals, and have spent the day bulk-buying clothes for the dry season ahead and electronics to take back into their home nation: the first hint that I’m heading into a considerably more expensive country.
Across the border and in Arica, I try and beat nightfall by quickfooting it around the suburbs looking for the only hostel I could afford on Hostelworld. Should have booked; full. Around the block, I find another, but at $38 per night it’s way over my budget. Nightfall beats me, and after a few more blocks, I find the neon lights of a final hostel peering out at me through the dusty blackness. $24 for a dorm, but I’m the only guest in the whole place so they let me take the private room for the same price. A double bed will be nice, I suppose.
With these prices, I can’t stay in Chile for long unless I find a group of travellers who are vandwelling, so I have a whistle stop tour of Arica in one day before catching another night bus. I paddle in the Turtle Reservation area: cold waters despite the scorching weather, and no turtles that I can see, unlike Akumal beach of Mexico. I hunt for backpackers to share the day with to no avail, and fall back on what James and I would have done if we were still travelling together – climb to the highest point of the city. After Canon de Colca and Cerro de Siete Colores last week, the climb to Morro de Arica is a doddle, and I’m barely out of breath by the time I reach the flag adorning the summit. I spot Isla de Alecran with a lighthouse and a group of surfers waiting for the waves, so wander back down and across Calle Nelson Mandela (aptly named as it connects the mainland to the island in the same way Mandela united the black and white communities to beat apartheid, I suppose). The surf rental guy is honest with me and refuses to give me a board as the waves are too weak. I must look strapped for cash, “No malgastes tu dinero!” he says. By the time I walk back to town, all the other surfers have given up waiting for the swell. The northernmost town of Chile joins Ecuador’s Esmeraldas on the list of anticlimatic surf towns, for me at least.
I’m in San Pedro de Atacama, a highlight for backpackers on the Chilean gringo trail, and am stood considering if we’ve made a massive mistake. It was pushing 30°C a few hours ago, so 5 travellers and I packed a picnic and alcohol; setting off into the desert on pushbikes. 15km into the ride, we noticed a huge cloud of dust behind us. “Sandstorm!”, shouted Audrey. Crack, and a bolt of lightning struck the signpost just metres away from us. “Thunderstorm!”, yelled Matthias. The final nail in the coffin for our hopes of a picturesque sunset picnic was an onslaught of raining ice that suddenly started peppering the dust. “Hailstorm!”, hollered Cassie. Scratched by the sand, bruised from the hail and confused after a discussion about conductivity and it’s relationship with a metal bike on rubber wheels, we find refuge in a checkpoint, drink our alcohol and wait to be rescued by the park rangers.
San Pedro is on the gringo trail for a reason: the dusty one-storey high city is a great base for exploring the Chilean salt flats. Mariana, Cassie and I jump aboard a minibus and head 160km south to Piedras Rojos, a series of red rocks (due to a high iron oxide concentrate) which adorn a crystal blue lake, lapping around the feet of stunning, salty mountains. We stop off at Salar de Atacama, the second largest salt flats in the world, and marvel at the amount of wild Andean flamingos; as well as the Tropic of Capricorn line and two lakes in the Flamenga National Park. A full day in the scorching sun ensures we are asleep soon after dinner; the next day I cool down with a dip in the oasis that is Alberto Terraza pool, situated 3km into the desert and surrounded by sand.
Chile deserves a second attempt at impressing me with its surfing opportunities, so I’m back on the Pacific coast for what could be the last time this trip: in a town called Pichilemu. I check into SurfEatSleep hostel and join Paul, a German who looks a bit like Legalas, on a sunset surfing session at the main beach. It’s good to be back on a board and I stick to the promise I made myself in Panama that I’d only ride hardtops now having made the progression off the ‘beginner’ boards. The next day, the swell rises and creates waves 6 metres tall. Off-putting for everyone (bar one) in the hostel, so we sit in a rocky cove and watch the big-wave surfers battle to tame the monsters. In three days at SurfEatSleep, all we did was surf, eat (a delicious group barbeque one night, and another group meal of seafood pasta and hand-picked fruit crumble the next) and sleep. Aptly named.
The photos that I took on my GoPro in Arica, San Pedro de Atacama and Pichilemu. (‘Like’ and share Got Busy Living on Facebook to make me the happiest of backpackers!)
“Santiago? Mmm… there’s not much to actually do but its a nice city to walk around,” is the advice I got from someone at my last hostel. I head back up towards Chile’s capital. I have no idea how much walking/legwork I’ll actually end up doing.
There’s an above average amount of homeless people with only one leg on the streets of Santiago; and there’s a gringo using both of his to sprint through the busy pavements at dusk. Like most Latin America countries, no one seems to rush in Chile, so the presence of a Westerner drenched in sweat and panting “Disculpe! Permiso!” as he dodges in and out of the market stalls is a rare sight for most. But I’ve just had $80 wrongly taken out of my account and I’m rushing back to the bus station to try and get it back (having already walked it once that day with all my rucksacks), or at the very least get a ticket to Buenos Aires for my money, which is what I paid for on that dodgy Chip-N-Pin reader in the first place. I make eye contact with one wheelchair-bound homeless man, and for a moment feel grateful that I’m able to sprint, sidestep and dodge oncoming traffic at will while he has limited movement. I promise myself that I’ll buy him an empanada if I get my money back. I arrive at the station and have a heated argument in Spanish for the first time. Despite my newfound fluency (thanks, adrenaline!), I am unsuccessful and I return to the hostel without any money. I’ve seen a lot of Santiago on foot, have the perfect tank top tan and have tested my newly improved lung capacity after spending a month at altitude- but the delay has meant I’ve missed a pint that I’d arranged with Marcos (a surfing local I met on the water in Pichilemu). I make ‘the phone call home’ requesting help before an Englishman, Raf, lends me money to get by in the meantime. The homeless man has to make do with the few pesos that sit in my pocket rather than an empanada.
“Breathe. Don’t worry. Go for a walk”. My sister comes out with sound advice for someone with a few less laps of the sun than me. I wake up early and formulate a plan for the next few days, some 600m above the city, while it’s inhabitants sleep.
I never truly forgave Santiago for this cock-up, and spent the next 48 hours trying to recover my money, sharing stories of my late grandfather with Raf (from Kent- more stories were exchanged regarding Tunbridge Wells and it’s camping stores), his girlfriend, who had 24 mutual friends with one of my friends, and Taine, a New Zealander, who promised us a bed when Hannah and I visit his country, one day; as well as sitting upon the summits of more miradors, admiring the views and the astounding weather.
I think I’ve overstayed my welcome in Chile (no doubt I’ll return to Santiago en route to the Easter Islands, one day (those two words are starting to become reoccurring), and begin my countdown to the next country: Argentina, #42.
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