Tag Archives: backpacking advice

The Mountain That Eats Men: Potosi and El Cerro Rico

After our 4×4 convoy escaped Uyuni we finally made it, albeit a few days late, to the city of Potosi. It is capital of the Potosi province and also one of the highest cities in the world at 4090m (14,318 feet). As our only experience of Bolivian civilisation so far had been Uyuni, Potosi came as a bit of a shock. The city was once considered the richest in the world due to the huge silver deposits in the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain). The silver meant that the colonial families were hugely wealthy and were able to build luxurious houses, churches and monasteries that still exist today.

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Whilst we’d travelled up to 5000m crossing from Chile, we wouldn’t say we were acclimatised. By normal standards the streets in Potosi wouldn’t be called steep, but in our oxygen starved states the 2 block walk from the plaza to the hostel was exhausting, then we found out our rooms were on the second floor…

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The city of Potosi has been shaped by it’s relationship with El Cerro Rico. When the Spanish discovered the quantity of silver in the mountain, around thousands of metric tons were mined, funding much of the Spanish empire. This meant the city became one of the most important in South America. To this day, although most of the silver is gone, a large chunk of the male population head into the mountain to mine for the remaining minerals, mostly Zinc and Tin.

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With the silver flowing out of the mine, the Spanish crown established a royal mint in the city that still exists today. The 2 hour tour of the mint is well worth a visit and teaches you not only history of Potosi but also explains a lot about the history of money in the western world.

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Tours of the mines can be easily arranged all over town, although Koala Tours is considered one of the best. Whilst we originally had little interest in visiting the mines, as it seemed a bit voyeuristic considering the dangerous nature of the work and the fact that millions of lives had been claimed by the mountain, we were lucky to have come at the right time of year.

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A few times a year the miners make a sacrifice to the god under the mountain, Tio. This meant that during our visit their were no men working in the mines. for us to gawp at. Tio was originally an invention of the Spanish but the locals couldn’t pronounce Dio (God in Spanish) and so Tio was born to keep the miners in check. The llama sacrifice is a very important occasion for the miners who have a very real belief that if Tio receives the llama blood then he won’t ask for theirs. He is both their protector and the enemy under the mountain.

Before heading to the mines it is customary to visit the miners market. This is both a place that the miners can pick up tools and food and also where tourists can collect gifts for the miners. As we were going for a party and no one would be working we were told not to buy one of the most common gifts, dynamite. Instead we loaded up with beer, coca leaves and the miners favoured 96% alcohol and headed up to the mine, another 500 meters above on the slopes of the Cerro Rico.

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Of course as you’re going into the mine, you’re expected to dress up in the appropriate safety gear…

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The first stop on the tour is one of the refineries, the machinery is very simplistic but clearly does the job as our guide was happy to smear some newly refined silver on our hands.

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We were next given a lesson and explanation of the coca leaves. Coca leaves are the source of cocaine, however most of the leaves contain less than 0.25% of the alkaloid and therefore have none of the effects of the drug. Coca leaves are deeply ingrained into Bolivian society for both social and practical reasons. The leaves are one of the easiest ways of treating altitude sickness, either through tea or by chewing a large wad in your mouth as the miners do.

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The miners also use the leaves for another reason, they believe it increases their strength and endurance. Whether this is true or not, during their 14-18 hour shifts they will only chew coca and won’t consume any food that day until they leave the mine. Tough work on empty stomachs.

The llama sacrifice saw 16 llamas lined up outside the mine to be sacrificed to Tio…

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This little boy was saying goodbye to his llama by giving it a pat on the head.

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The blood of the llamas is splashed across the entrance of the mine as an offering and the heads and feet are buried in a special pit outside of the mine.

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The rest of the llama is efficiently and rapidly butchered and barbequed ready for the party.

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As we headed into the mine past the now fairly intoxicated miners they let us join in the ceremony by smearing llama blood on our faces. I found it was best to smile and stick your cheeks out as trying to avoid the blood led to them being far more liberal with it.

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All the mines are owned by collectives of between 3 and 40 miners, the smaller collectives hammering the dynamite holes by hand and the larger using pneumatic drills. The miners are assigned areas by the government but since no maps of the honeycombed mountain exist accidents are common.

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We of course had to pay our respects to Tio on the way out. Each mine has its own Tio statute that the miners leave offerings at.

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As we left the mine the party was in full swing and the smell of cooking llama wafted in the mountain air. The now heavily drunk miners were keen to grab unsuspecting Gringos for a dance.

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If you’re interested in learning more about the Potosi mines, hunt down a copy of “The Devil’s Miner.” This documentary is about the children who live and work in the mines and shows you the conditions and society that the miners live in.

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Iain’s Birthday Blockade: How to escape from Uyuni…

After our four wheel drives had successfully managed a three day Salt Flat Tour over bumpy terrain, without so much as a broken part or a flat tyre, we didn’t imagine we would find ourselves stuck in the desert in yet another 4WD only a few days later. On Iain’s Birthday no less. With our wheels spinning in the sand to no avail and an angry farmer waving a stick or possibly a shotgun quickly gaining on us, after we sped past him only a few moments ago, our hopes of reaching Potosi were dwindling.

Welcome to the Real Bolivia. Clarkson take note.

Like most we had settled on the customary one night in a hotel in Uyuni after our three day tour across the Salt Flats. As temperatures had reached -25 degrees and with the accommodation having no heating or hot showers we were dying for a bit of Bolivian luxury when we reached Uyuni. The next day showered and refreshed we headed to the “bus station”, or rather the row of ticket sellers that line one street, to secure some tickets to Potosi. Finding all but one of the ticket booths shut, we made enquiries with the only willing seller.

The closed ticket offices should have been our first clue but we quickly established no buses would be running from Uyuni today. When we enquired as to why the response was one word…”Bloqueos” or roadblocks. Accepting this as a good enough explanation we booked tickets for the 10am bus the next day and settled on another night in our hotel and the seemingly quiet town of Uyuni. Queues for the bank can be pretty lengthy in such a small town….

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The next day, bags packed, we boarded our bus and waited. The bus left promptly but paused on the outskirts of town. When our police escort joined us we knew the “Bloqueos” were more than simple roadblocks. The only road to exit town was lined with seemingly not so menacing protestors…mostly elderly Bolivian ladies. However as we approached and the large sticks, poles and rocks became apparent we knew something was up.

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Suddenly our police escort was nowhere to be found and the little old ladies did some fairly serious damage to our bus and only narrowly missed the driver. Windscreen cracked and driver’s window broken we retreated back to town.

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These roadblocks and protests had been apparently going on for some time. The government want to build a new bus terminal and the locals disagree with its location as far as we could establish. To make their point the town was on lock down – nothing was going in or out by road.

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Our bus company assured us they could get us to our destination and so a few hours later after a few botched repairs and a town meeting we set off once more.

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This time we were heading off road, with our curtains firmly shut to hide us and to protect us from any broken glass. We were now navigating the local rubbish dump, in a 3-coach convoy. And this is the three drivers discussing what to do next when our coaches inevitably got stuck…

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Back in town once again we decided to give up on the coaches and take our only remaining option. The prospect of spending yet more time in a 4WD didn’t thrill any of us but nor did staying in Uyuni…we had eaten in every restaurant and drank in every bar already.

Failing to secure any 4WDs from the tour companies we began trudging the streets. The local taxi drivers were promising us they could traverse the desert terrain and get us to Potosi but having experienced the coaches attempts we held out. Thankfully that’s when we bumped into Mariam, an English speaking Bolivian trying to get home to Sucre, who had been on our bus earlier. With a few phone calls and calling in a few favours, she managed to secure us four 4WDs to transport us, herself, and the gaggle of foreigners we had acquired in the panic.

The drivers looked nervous as we crossed the rubbish dump and they looked even more worried when we started to make our way through a valley. Even the little dirt roads through this wilderness had been blocked with stones and tyres by the protestors – cue some heavy lifting from the boys.

Upon seeing the aforementioned angry farmer waving the nondescript object, our driver, who is in the lead, decides to floor the accelerator and try to skip round the next set of tyre blockades. Stuck and the track now blocked by our own transport, the four drivers set off to reason with the farmer. Thankfully they return successful and the said farmer begins instructing us all how to orchestrate our escape…

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(The farmer is in a blue jumpsuit and green hat)

After some huffing and puffing, mostly from the boys I’ll admit, we were eventually free and back on the dirt track. After some further tense moments and deep intakes of breath we made it to the open road. Top Gear Bolivia Special Eat your heart out…

After arriving in Potosi we later learnt that things in Uyuni got considerably worse over the next few days. No transport was able to leave, protestors had quadrupled in number, the police force had abandoned the town, and the dirt roads were more successfully blockaded. Dribs and drabs of people made it out by 4WD but the drivers were forced to become ever more inventive with their routes. These protests are common in Bolivia, so we are told, so we will just have to kick back, relax into it and enjoy the rest of the journey. Wish us luck!

Salar de Uyuni: The Bolivian Salt Flats

So spending 3 days bouncing around in a four wheel drive may not sound appealing to most but if you’re travelling in South America it’s likely the Bolivian Salt Flats are on your “must see” list. For us this was certainly the case.

When we mentioned temperatures of -25 degrees and no showers to Sam, who usually travels with a 3 star minimum, we were worried he would be on the first plane home but even he’d admit roughing it was worth it.

From San Pedro we boarded a mini bus and made our way to the Chilean boarder. Although there was a bit of a wait, as all the tours leave at a similar hour in the morning, crossing it was a breeze. But once we crossed we fully appreciated just how much snow had fallen in the desert…and so did our driver who was willing the van up every slope, wheels spinning away. We made it to the Bolivian border…that’s if you can really call a few huts a boarder crossing.

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It really is as remote as it looks and for many of us this stop was also our first use of the “Baño naturale” that we would become very familiar with over the next few days. After our friend Victoria enquired as to the location of the bathroom, the guard pointed to the vast expanse of snow around.

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Passports stamped, next job was to transfer all our baggage to the 4WDs…

Thanks to Victoria for the picture!
Thanks to Victoria for the picture!

Then before we had chance to catch our breath, and at over 4,000m we really needed to, we were on our way with our excellent driver Jorge (Hor-hey) at the wheel. In a convoy of three we sped across the flats leaving a dust trail behind.

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During the 3 days the scenery was breath-taking and changed dramatically from sandy desert to of course salt…lots of salt.

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We toured the many lakes, from frozen to Flamingo filled…

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Only stopping briefly to warm up in a thermal spring…

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We admired mountains and rock formations…

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And gawped at geysers and boiling mud…

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We watched the sunrise over the salt flats and admired the cacti…

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We traversed train tracks…

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And like many before us we spent hours playing with our cameras on the Salt Flats…

 

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The Four Ramblers

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We finished up at the train cemetery; a truly fascinating place to explore…it brings out the kid in everyone…

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The food along the way was beautifully prepared and presented by our drivers…

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And the accommodation and facilities were basic but beautiful in their own way…

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It’s fair to say we spent every second of driving with our faces pressed against the windows barely blinking and we made some good friends along the way.

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We knew we would be roughing it but after 3 days our hearts sank a little as we pulled into the town of Uyuni and we realised the trip was over. Though the prospect of a warm shower and central heating was pretty appealing…

Preparing for your trip

We had heard some horror stories about some of the companies that operate on this route, so on our arrival in San Pedro we careful researched the companies. With a few recommendations we settled on Cordillera.

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This blog post isn’t meant as a plug for their company but we were happy with our experience and would recommend them. They are not the cheapest but you get what you pay for. Our drivers were safe, a lot of fun and looked after our every need. But even though with paying a little more for quality and safety here’s what to expect…

Cold weather – we cant emphasise this enough! Although it may not be the case all year round bring lots of layers, as our nights got really cold! You may not appreciate these layers until you are trying to sleep in minus 25 degrees with no central heating. We slept in about 3 layers with blankets piled high and we rented the extra optional sleeping bags!

Basic accommodation – with no showers for at least the first night! When booking with Cordillera you are pre-warned of this fact. Also this was not a problem for us as the last thing we wanted to do with freezing temperatures was take off our layers! The second night is spent in a salt hotel, were the bricks are made of salt and the floor is scattered with the stuff. I had to stop myself asking for some salt with dinner…

Basic food – it was plentiful but basic. Vegetarian options were the meals minus the meat but you serve yourself so you can fill up on the veg and carbs We stocked up on lots of snacks and really appreciated these as we bumped along in 4WDs.

Altitude sickness – our experience wasn’t as bad as some stories had made out but at nearly 5,000m on the first night the chances are some of you are going to suffer from it a little. Iain got his headache before bed whereas I got mine when I woke up the next morning. Stock up on some painkillers and cocoa leaves before you leave San Pedro and force yourselves to drink water as much as possible. If you wake up in the night, drink some more!!

You will be Vamos-ed! – with a lot of ground to cover expect shouts of “Vamos!” or ‘Lets go!” at regular intervals. The drivers were happy to stop and pull over for any photo opportunity but also need to keep to their schedule. We never felt rushed and our group began shouting “vamos’ ourselves to much hilarity…we blame it on the altitude.

Sunburn! – You are at altitude so despite it being very cold, wear some sun cream, especially when on the white sun reflecting salt flats! Or like Sam expect to be called “Ruby Lips” for the next week!

But most of all enjoy! It really is worth it!

 

Chile in Photos…

Cycling and Sandboarding in Valley de La Muerte

Having spent one of our days in San Pedro touring the Moon Valley we decided to get a little more energetic for our remaining two days. We had heard the Valley de La Muerte was worth a visit so on the first day, spurred on by the boys enthusiasm I committed to an afternoon of sandboarding.

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As I stood at the foot of the sanddune and looked at the height regret started to sink in. As I reached the peak, puffed from exertion and altitude, vertigo kicked in and the prospect of fixing my feet to the board filled me with panic. You can see from the pictures below that some of us were more confident than others…

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Yet after watching Iain and Sam go first and after some spurring on from our instructor I took the plunge.

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I look about as confident in this picture as I felt at the time. Though after the first run and the first few falls I really started to enjoy it! Even if I was a little uncoordinated and tried to take out those walking up the sand dune…that’s me on my arse…

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It’s fair to say I never looked quite as elegant as this pro, who made it look so easy…

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But on the flipside I didn’t fall quite as spectacularly as the boys did either…

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And nor did I end up with teeth full of sand…

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To finish off the afternoon…as if sandy teeth and acing ankles weren’t enough…we were treated to a couple of pisco sours and were once again whisked off to watch the sunset at Moon Valley. The drinks and the view were well earned and made a perfect end to the day!

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We choose to go sandboarding with Inca Tours, who are located on the main square in San Pedro, and we can’t recommend them highly enough. Unlike other companies they provide you with an instructor, instead of just dropping you off with the sandboards and picking you up a few hours later, and you get a short video of your best runs and falls thrown in for good measure.

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Having been amazed at the beauty of Valley de La Muerte on the previous day, on day two we decided cycle there once more and explore further. The cycle to the valley is a pretty flat tarmacked road…

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But once you’re in the valley the scenery really speaks for itself…

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Surprisingly for a desert there was a lot of sand flying around in the wind, so my wardrobe had to be adapted accordingly…

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But don’t let that put you off, as the scenery really was amazing! Words do not do it justice so here are a few more photos…

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The cycle to the valley was about 30mins and the entire return journey was about 3 hours. Rent a bike and give it a go!

Walking the Moon: San Pedro de Atacama

Our night bus from La Serena saw us rolling into San Pedro de Atacama at about 9 in the morning. As we awoke and peered through the curtains for our first glimpse of the desert, we were all a bit bemused. The Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on the planet was covered in snow. This rare event occurred two days before and due to the low temperatures there was plenty around to play with. Sam had survived his first overnight bus despite a brief spike of fear when he found out he was sitting in front of a 10 month old baby.

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San Pedro de Atacama sits at around 2,400 metres on the Bolivian and Argentine borders. This tiny little town sits on an oasis and is one of the biggest traveller hubs in Chile. The town has a dizzying number of natural wonders within easy reach and it’s proximity to Bolivia makes it a popular stop for backpackers heading out on to the Bolivian Altiplano.

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From the moment you get off the bus, you get the impression of the old American wild west. The setting of the tiny town is on an oasis, with small single story buildings and one long main street. There are plenty of horses wandering around and numerous rustic drinking establishments. The only thing missing was a gun duel…yet the whole effect was somewhat ruined by the snow…

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The whole town is set up for tourism. Tours operators, hostels, hotels, restaurants and tourist shops are found all down the main street. Most importantly there are plenty of places to buy those supplies for your trip in to Bolivia. San Pedro might be rustic by Chilean standards but compared to the three day salt flat tour it’s luxury.

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Tours and excursions can be arranged all over town and we quickly set up our expedition to El Valle de la Luna. Moon valley is well named as the landscape is surreal. The whole valley is a national park and there are wardens to make sure you don’t walk (or sandboard) on the giant sand dunes. All that perfect sand is incredibly tempting but the lack of human marks really does make it a stunning view.

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We spent 3 hours travelling around the valley running down our camera batteries before heading up to the cliffs that overlook it for sunset. As the sun sets the shadows and colours change all across the valley. After the sun has set you get the incredible colours all along the mountains that form the Chilean – Bolivian border.

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Whilst it was warm in the sun, the moment it set the temperature dropped sharply. We bundled back in our bus and headed back to the hostel. Like most of Chile, the hostel of course had no central heating. Our fears were calmed when a wheelbarrow full of wood was rolled out, lit and everyone cosied up around it. Plentiful Piscolas (pisco and cola) definitely helped as well.

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The next day we’d booked on for a stargazing expedition. Even just standing in the lit streets of San Pedro the nights sky is stunning with the full sweep of our galaxy clear to the eye. We’d managed to be in San Pedro when there was no moon (intentional of course) so the spectacular sky was even more visible. We’d be viewing the stars from a spot just outside of town. Upon arriving we were served some of the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had by the worlds most enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. Over the next two hours we looked through the two powerful telescopes at nebula, white dwarves, star clusters, the rings of Saturn and even other galaxies.

Tune in to see how we got on on the Bolivian Salt Flats…

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Drinking Pisco in the Elqui Valley

After visiting Santiago we intended our next stop to be San Pedro de Atacama. However the prospect of facing another 24hr plus journey didn’t appeal to any of us. Also since Sam had only just joined us in Santiago we figured we had better break him into South American bus travel slowly. So the three of us, with the advice of our good friend Tomas, settled on breaking the journey in lovely La Serena.

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La Serena is one of Chile’s coastal cities. Situated about six hours north of Santiago, it made the perfect place to break our journey. It is Chile’s second largest city so offers the usual supply of city comforts, decent restaurants, shops etc. As well its fair share of beautiful architecture and churches.

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During the summer people flock to La Serena for the beaches. It being winter we choose to admire the empty beach (and the wind) only briefly. Nevertheless the beach and the walk from town are definitely worth stretching your legs for.

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Apart from being a base to frequent the beaches, La Serena is also used as a base for exploring the Elqui Valley. So on our full day here we set off on one of the many tours.

Upon greeting us, our guide inquired if we all spoke Spanish – “Hablan Español?” I jumped in and replied “Hablo un poquito” or “I speak a little”. Understanding me, the guide unfortunately took the others silence to mean they were fluent…most were not.

First stop was to a Papaya Farm. Unlike the Papayas that spring to mind, these Papayas are smaller, sour and are used mainly for tenderising meat or making many Papaya based products: Jams and chocolates etc. For my benefit alone the guide continued to speak his clearest and slowest Spanish. However as Iain and I understood more than most of the Brits, at this first stop on the tour we quickly became interpreter for the group…

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Further into the Elqui Valley we stopped at a hydroelectric dam for a few photos. The electric station was a bit of an eyesore but the view over the valley was worth the visit.

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Next stop was the Aba Pisco distillery. It is one of the smaller family run distilleries in the area but gave us a good overview of the Pisco making process. Fermented from grapes and often matured in oak barrels it is not unlike the wine making process.

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Naturally we took the opportunity to stock up on a few bottles after the tasting, thinking we’d try our hand at making Pisco Sours later…

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On route deeper into the Elqui Valley we stopped at a viewpoint to admire the vineyards growing in the base of the valley. Having gorged myself on Avocados whilst in Chile and Argentina (they are 100 times better than any in the UK) I was interested to learn they grow on the mountainside in the valley, note the dark green triangle in the picture below.

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A quick stop off in the sleepy towns of Vincuna and then Pisco Equi concluded the tour. Over lunch in Pisco Elqui the “fluent” Brits were exposed. The guide asked our friend Sam where he had learnt his Spanish and the game was up. The guide, of course, was fluent in English and thought it was fairly amusing that none of us had had the heart to correct his assumption.

After lunch there was just enough time to take in a few sights and the Gabriela Mistral Museum. Gabriela Mistral is Chile’s Nobel Prize winning poet born in the Elqui Valley.

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It’s also worth noting the Elqui Valley is one of the worlds top star gazing destinations…unfortunately for us, our trip to one of the many observatories that evening was cancelled, as we had managed to visit on one of the rare cloudy days! This would have made the day perfect but we hear there are plenty of other star gazing opportunities in San Pedro, so look out for the next blog!

 

10 days with Captain Latin America in Santiago

Some good friends from London recently moved back to South America and settled in Santiago, so as we arrived into Santiago bus station we were so excited to see some familiar faces. The endless generosity of Teresa and Tomas made it so hard for us to eventually leave Santiago and ensured we saw all the best bits of the capital city. Thank you both again if you are reading!

Their six year old son, Matias, kept us constantly entertained throughout our stay. He had a fancy dress outfit for every occasion, from Batman to pro-footballer, and for the duration of our stay his outfit of choice was Captain (Latin!) America.

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With a superhero by our side we were invincible…even when we were all squished into the back of a Taxi…

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Half way through our stay in Santiago another familiar face made a surprise appearance. You’ll notice Iain is absent from the picture above and instead Sam a good friend from London is trapped in the middle of the pile. For the next few weeks or possibly the near future Sam will be joining us on our South American adventure. He quit his job and like us booked himself a one-way flight…and people, travel really is as simple as that…well once you’ve read our blog on financing your travel of course.

Naturally with good friends in tow much of our time was spent exchanging stories and generally catching up but here are a few of the other highlights from Santiago that we haven’t already blogged about. Valparaiso and Concha Y Toro are not to be missed but here are a few other suggestions for your stay in Santiago…

Visit La Moneda and Plaza de la Libertad

Our first foray into Santiago saw us getting off the Metro at La Moneda, the presidential palace. Unplanned by us we had arrived just in time to catch a flag raising and military ceremony.

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Also a popular protest spot, there were many groups at La Moneda protesting everything from water conservation, to students and native rights…as far as our limited Spanish could tell. We had no idea what their chants were, but they were incredibly catchy. The side effect of the chanting was that all the stray dogs were drawn from miles around. Upon reaching the picket lines each dog picked a side, some fancy themselves as fellow protesters or others as police backup.

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Plaza de Armas vs. Plaza de la Constitucion

The guidebook had promised Plaza de Armas to be a great place to relax, drink coffee and people watch. This might be true, however, if visiting any time soon unfortunately all you will see is corrugated iron. When all but a thin sliver of it is closed for renovation all you can really do is try and push through the bottleneck.

However the Cathedral (also under renovation) was still open so we crept inside for a quick look.

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Wanting to bask in the sun, drink a coffee and people watch we instead headed for Plaza de la Constitucion and admired the Palace, the guards and the people.

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Mercado Central and La Vega

Having explored Mercado Central and its fish market only briefly, our friends insisted we revisited and tried the produce, and so grabbed us all a table at “Donde Augusto”. If you go, make sure you try the ceviche, as it is amazing!

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On our first visit we experienced a slight sense of De-ja-vu as the markets metalwork roof is almost an exact replica of Spitalfields market in London. Be prepared the restaurateurs will gleefully tell you again and again that the metalwork was in fact made and assembled in Birmingham, whilst not so subtly dropping in an invitation to sit down it their restaurant. Nevertheless it’s worth a visit.

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Across the river is La Vega Mercado, which is the best place to buy your fruit and vegetables in Santiago. Also a great place to people watch…I picked up a friend who wouldn’t look out of place in the East End of London.

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If you fancy some authentic street food then the bridge between the two markets is covered in locals selling ceviche and noodles out of supermarket trolleys.

On the subject of food…

Have a Sandwich at Tip y Tap

After picking Sam up from the airport our friends Tomas and Teresa took us to a restaurant that sold traditional Chilean sandwiches.  Sam doesn’t like excess sauces or greenery in his sandwich and was pleased to find many are just meat and cheese. What arrived was a mountain of meat between two pieces of thin bread…apparently a traditional Chilean sandwich should collapse under it’s own weight whilst you’re trying to eat it. This annoys Mati who likes his sandwiches to do as they’re told. So be warned if you’re expecting it to be a light snack!

Los Dominicos and the Costanera Center

When it comes to shopping, with these two destinations Santiago has it covered. Los Dominicos, on the end of Line 1, is one of the best Artisan Markets in South America.

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And if you’re lucky during your visit you may even catch a glimpse of Captain Latin America wrestling a fierce cat.

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And if you’re hankering for all the modern comforts and purchases of say Westfields then look no further than the Costanera Center. This, the largest shopping center in South America is easily found by heading towards the tallest building in the city…seriously you cant miss it. We stopped in at H&M followed by Lush to resupply on socks and soap…very exciting.

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Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

One of our highlights was the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, so if you have some time then we’d thoroughly recommend a visit. Covering many of the different South American civilisations it’s a real eye opener as to the level of craftsmanship that existed on the continent for thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived.

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“Coffee with Legs”

If you fancy some more modern Santiago then head for some “coffee with legs.” Iain entirely missed the point with this the first time we passed a coffee shop. Assuming the “legs” referred to the fact that you had to stand up to drink your coffee, I surprisingly had to point out that the “legs” might in fact refer to the waitresses in the heels and very short skirts. Sorry no pictures.

Santa Lucia and Cerro San Cristobal

In the center of the city is the Santa Lucia Hill which is somewhere between a park, castle and stately home. Climbing to the top of the tallest tower will give some nice views of the city and a pleasant wander through the gardens. Beware it’s a bit of a hike up but worth it.

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If you fancy a more panoramic view of the city then taking the funicular up Cerro San Cristobal gives the best views of the city and the Andes behind. Be aware though that due to the low rainfall and light wind, Santiago often suffers from smog that hangs above the city, so try and pick a clear day.

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Final Thanks and Advice

Santiago is a brilliant city so all that is left for us to say is thanks again to Tomas, Teresa and Mati and leave you with a final piece of advice…

Get a BIP card! This little piece of plastic will make travel around the city much easier and can be purchased and topped up in any metro station. Best of all multiple people can use the same card.

Stalking the Street Art in Valparaíso

As mentioned in our previous post we took a few days away from Santiago and travelled to Valparaiso. Valparaíso is one of Chile’s major cities and seaports.

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A section of the city is now a UNESCO world heritage site and in recent years more and more artists have taken residence here. With stunning architecture and street art to be discovered on almost every corner, it was hard not to spend every afternoon strolling around and photographing everything.

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From Santiago, Valparaíso is about 60-90 minutes away on a bus. We recommend taking the Metro in Santiago to Pajaritos and taking one of the buses from just outside the station. (This way you skip a lot of the Santiago traffic!) They are very frequent, about every 10 minutes, so unless you are travelling at peaks times there is no need to book in advance.

Once in Valparaíso we stayed just inside Cerro Conception, the UNESCO area. Some choose to stay in nearby Viña del Mar, famed for its beaches and connected to Valparaíso by local bus or metro, a great day trip if not staying there, but we preferred the rugged charm of the Fischer Steps.

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Apart from taking a day trip to Concon, read more about that here, we spent many hours exploring the hills. There is so much street art it is impossible to find it all, but certainly during daylight hours Valparaíso is safe enough to explore to your hearts content. Here is a handy map to get you started – this map can be picked up in most hostels and tourist information desks.

Map of Valparaiso

It’s hard to do the place justice in words, so here are a few of our favourite finds in photos.  In our next blog look out for our very own walking tour of Valparaíso street art, which will tell you where to find some of the below.

Sandy Shoes: A Visit to Concón and Las Dunas

After the snow, wind and rain of our days in Patagonia, we were pleased to find the sun shining in Santiago. Naturally we did the only sensible thing and made our way to the coast, to Valparaiso one of Chile’s major cities and seaports. With its UNESCO status and with street art to be discovered on almost every corner Valparaiso is a charming place to visit. Valparaiso and all its charm deserves an entire blog to itself so for now here is just one of the things we got up to during our stay…

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On the advice of a good friend, we decided to take a trip to Concón to visit Las Dunas (The Dunes). Although not mentioned in our guidebook we were keen to try out a local’s recommendation, as often these turn out to be the best and most memorable experiences…and this was definitely one of those times…

One morning we jumped on a local bus marked Concón, paid for our tickets and hoped for the best. We had no idea where to get off or if the bus would take us to the dunes but we figured we would work it out as we went. The bus driver was clearly running behind schedule, so we held on tight, closed our eyes on the hairpin bends and made it to our destination in half the expected time. About 30mins.

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Despite our fears, you can’t miss the dunes. When you see them jump off the bus near the Jumbo supermarket (they all seem to take the same route) and cross the road and you’re there.

It doesn’t look like much but once we began to ascend the first dune our excitement grew. It was a bit of steep scramble…

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But once we made it over the top, our perilous bus journey was forgotten, and our jaws dropped in amazement.

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Naturally we filled our afternoon photographing and pulling our best poses.

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Boys will be boys…

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With water reserves running low we started to wonder if we would ever find civilisation again….

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Truthfully we were never more than a 30-minute walk away from the main road, but once on the dunes enjoying the silence it was easy to forget.

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All posed out, we made our way down the opposite side of the dunes, towards the sea, and took in the views of Valparaiso and the rocks.

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We also took the opportunity to free ourselves of the extra weight we’d picked up along the way, before flagging down another bus back to Valparaiso.

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Part 2

When our good friend Sam joined us in Santiago we decided he had to visit the dunes so once again we set off for Concón.

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This time we picked up a dog along the way…

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Cue more posing…

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A break for some lunch…

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Then some motorcycles ruined the peace and quiet. But the puppy thought chasing them was great fun! And honestly we quite enjoyed watching them…

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We were amazed just how much the landscape had changed the second time around. It certainly proved to us sand dunes really do move a lot in a few days. Take a trip and see for yourself!