3 Weeks in Chile: Part 1, The Atacama

Posted on February 17, 2023 in Travel

Volcan Licancabur sits on the border between Bolivia and Chile.

Volcan Licancabur sits on the border between Bolivia and Chile.


Day 1: Flights from Halifax to Santiago all day and overnight.

Day 2: Land in Santiago and fly to Calama. Pick up the truck and drive to San Pedro de Atacama and check in to accommodations at Don Raul.

Day 3: Valle de la Luna. Tulor. Laguna Tebinquinche. Sunset at Mirador de Kari - Piedra del Coyote.

Day 4: Drive highway 27 up into the mountains to visit Monjes de La Pacana and whatever we see.

Day 5: Rise early for the Tatio Geysers. Machuca. Petroglyphs. Drive to Calama and fly to Santiago. Check into an airport hotel.

Day 6: Drive to Santa Cruz and check into Hotel Terraviña. Afternoon wine tour at Viña Maquis.

Day 7: Drive to Pucón. Check into Hotel Vientos del Sur.

Day 8: Guided hike up Volcán Villarrica.

Day 9: Termas Geometricas.

Day 10: Drive to Salto Las Cascadas. Check into a hostel in Puerto Octay.

Day 11: Parque Nacional Alerce. Drive to Ancud and check into the hostel.

Day 12: Hostel arranged and guided tour to Islotes de Puñihuil. Drive to Quellón and check into Hito Cero Apart Hotel. Evening beach walk.

Day 13: Ferry from Quellón to Chaitén. Check into Cabañas Michimahuida.

Day 14: Hike Volcán Chaitén. Hike in Pumalin Park to view the hanging glacier.

Day 15: Ferry from Chaitén to Puerto Montt. Check into Courtyard by Marriott Puerto Montt.

Day 16: Shop in Angelmó. Drive to Corral for forts. Ferry to Niebla. Check into hotel in ValdiviaPunta Curiñanco

Day 17: Punta Curiñanco. Beer in Valdivia.

Day 18: Drive to visit Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta, which closed due to fires. Drive to Concepción. More fires.

Day 19: Drive to Valparaiso. Check into the Winebox.

Day 20: Free tour by locals.

Day 21: Viña del Mar sand dunes, and beach.

Day 22: Check out and drive to Santiago for a walk and explore. Overnight flight.

Day 23: Arrive in Halifax in the evening.

A used SpaceX Rocket at Space Center Houston

A used SpaceX Rocket at Space Center Houston

Our first day on the ground in Chile

It took two days to travel from Halifax to San Pedro de Atacama, the town central to most of the tourist operations in Northern Chile. Although the flights were long we had a long layover in Houston that provided us with the opportunity to visit Space Centre Houston. Being a busy weekend, we didn't get to do a tour of the training facilities or Mission Control Center. We did see many great exhibits. Back in San Pedro de Atacama, where the streets were very narrow, void of pavement and full of people and dogs. Our accommodations at Don Raúl were very cute and friendly. We had a tiny cabin in the corner of the walled-off accommodations. Close to the courtyard featuring trees, a cold pool and defunked hot tubs. Parking was in a locked compound, and we later realize, everything everywhere in Chile is behind a gate or wall. In fact, this is common in Latin America apparently but I'm not entirely sure why. We checked out the town a little by walking the crowded narrow dirt streets lined with restaurants, shops, and tour companies.

The narrow, dirt streets of San Pedro de Atacama.

The narrow, dirt streets of San Pedro de Atacama.

Valle de la Luna - Tulor - Laguna Tebinquinche - Sunset at Mirador de Kari - Piedra del Coyote

Our first real activity in the area was Valle de la Luna, a desolate area of high cliffs, sand dunes, cool rocks and no plants. It's a park area, run by the government with a fee(10,000 pesos each) to enter, like most places we encountered. the trails were not too long and rewarded us with awesome views. We went in the morning when few others were out yet. Definitely recommend this activity. After a couple of hikes here we ventured to Tulor(5,000 pesos each) to check out the ruins of an ancient village. Not a lot to look at as it was just mounds in the ground with a couple of replica buildings to wander through. The walk is short and not a far drive from town so a worthy activity for those interested in cultural history. We were equipped with a Volkswagen Amarok pickup truck to tour around with to keep our schedule flexible. Our third stop for the day was a longer drive to one of the lagunas. We're not sure we picked the best one. The dirt road was bumpy as hell and a bit slow in places. After some driving we had to pay some more money (5,000 pesos each I think) to a booth to enter. We headed down to the salt flats on trails that kept us from going where forbidden. Wildlife was not presenting itself. No swimming was allowed. All we saw was white planes. It was a bit boring and hot to be honest. It definitely had a cool factor to it, but after the next day's activity, this seemed lame. Included with the admission to Valle de la Luna was access to a viewing spot back up the main highway. It was aparently the place to be for sunsets, and on some evenings, maybe it is. On this night it was not, but what is was not short on were tourists and tour vans. Skip it. Be in a bar drinking beer instead. The beer is really good in Chile BTW.

Tour Vans at the Sunset Sunset Tour Vans, So Many Tulor Valle de la Luna Sand Dunes in Valle de la Luna Hotel Don Raul Lagunas

Into the Mountains

This day, was a day. Not only was this my most stressful day, but also the best. All I wanted to do was drive up into the mountains and see how far we could go, look at mountains and volcanoes, and whatever we find. We fueled up the Aramok and started up the hill. I'll note that there seems to be two main paved roads in this region. One was the highway from Calama, the nearest larger city with the airport and hour away and Highway 27 to Argentina up into the mountains. The rest are gravel roads in very poor condition. Even all the roads in the town of San Pedro de Atacama were dirt and bumpy. We followed highway 27 up and up and up, stopping many times to take photos of Alpaca's, guanacos, volcanoes, and the clouds below us. The scenery was stunning and I was in a state of awe, but it was evident soon in our paved road climb that oxygen was lacking. Parking and running across the road for a picture was a serious workout.

Camanchaca clouds in the high plains of the Atacama

Camanchaca clouds in the high plains of the Atacama

At some point near our highest elevation of about 16,000', we found wetlands on the side of the road of a fair size among the Mars-like landscapes, full of birds, guanacos, donkeys and tourists. The flamingos which we expected in the Laguna the previous day were numerous here along with many other birds. Walking on the grass here is strictly forbidden, as this wildlife habitat is severely limited in this area. getting out of the truck to grab the camera and change lenses was a bit of a job. I had to walk slowly, and getting up after kneeling from using the big lens was a lot of work with the limited oxygen. I think we both had a headache and could barely move. It was a bit eye-opening. I had been at high elevations before in Crested Butte and Moab for mountain biking, but this was much higher and much harder to function.

After some time with the birds, we continued on, toward Argentina. We were not going to cross the border as it's too complicated to do in a rental. We were looking for some dirt tracks to take us to a laguna off the beaten track. We saw a tourist van turn off at a non-descript location, but we kept going to another wetlands area, not near as good as the first. We passed where we think we should have gone and turned around to check out where this van went. Just over the crest were some very cool rocks and scenery but we kept going. The road deteriorated and we dropped out of sight of the tourist vans in the distance behind us. At some point, we were heading downhill, in the sandy substrate and realized the road was not a road so much of a track of another vehicle and after turning around we were stuck in the sand facing uphill. We didn't have a vehicle equipped for off-road use. No 4x4 or 4motion on this Volkswagen truck. Some panic set in as we were quite far from the main road, with no cell service, and out of sight. We dug out the wheels and lowered the tires pressure considerably and managed to get the truck moving again, which was no easy feat in the high elevation with the lack of oxygen reminding us with every movement. We kept RMPs high (thankfully had a manual transmission), and speed high as we sped up the hill dodging and sliding between truck-sized rocks in what would look reckless in normal circumstances. We were not going to be stranded in the world's driest desert. We managed to get back on some more solid track where we came from and made our way back down to San Pedro de Atacama with only a damaged ego. In the panic and stress, no one thought to use the camera!

This day was full of excitement of wildlife, mountains, and lack of oxygen. Stunning scenery and what seemed like a great escape from reality. Highly recommend the drive up here if you find yourself in the Atacama.

The day way up into the mountains

A Very Early Start to Check Out the Geysers

All the guidebooks and online resources said to be at the Tatio Geysers at first light, so that's what we did. Checked out of the hotel at ass-crack-o'clock and hit the road for a two-hour drive uphill on some very shitty gravel roads in the dark. All the tourist vans departed San Pedro de Atacama around the same time so we were not alone on this drive. It was uneventful, bumpy and dark. They really need some regular graders to keep the road smooth. I don't normally say good things about roads in Quebec, but their gravel highways are beautiful in comparison. But ya, I know, I shouldn't compare infrastructure in Canada to that of Latin America.

The geysers were very cool(hot) indeed, but I was not blown away. They were the first I had ever seen too. No towering spurts of water here. It did bubble up and spit and the colours on the rocks were amazing for sure. There was no swimming here unlike what all the internet resources said. There was a pool, but it was non-functioning. After some walking around, photos and whatnot, we headed back down the mountains and were again greeted with breathtaking scenery!

Panorama of the mountains near Tatio Geysers

Panorama of the mountains near Tatio Geysers

On our way down we were again greeted by a beautiful roadside wetland teeming with birds, alpacas, guanacos, and a rodent that fooled us into thinking it was a hare. We also stopped in the high alpine farming town of Machuca, where only a few people live. They sell tourists crafts and alpaca kabobs.

Alpaca Kabobs in the high alpine town of Machuca.

Alpaca Kabobs in the high alpine town of Machuca.

Vegetation Andean Goose Giant Coot Guanaco A large rodent called a Viscacha

Wildlife on our trip back down to San Pedro de Atacama

Yerbas Buenas - Petroglyphs

Next up was a visit to the petroglyphs on our way back to Calama to catch an evening flight to Santiago. Unlike those at home in Kejimkujik National Park, these are a self explore, unsupervised experience. We didn't catch much literature about them and the staff only spoke Spanish obviously so our ability to learn was limited. We walked around taking photos of everything, burning our skin from the sun and checking out lizards and cool plants too.

From here we drove to the airport in Calama to end our stay in the desert and begin the next chapter in our Chile vacation.



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3 Weeks in Chile: Part 2, Santiago to Chaitén

3 Weeks in Chile: Part 1, The Atacama

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