On our way from Santiago to Talca, we stopped off at Rancagua, home of the O’Higgins football team, site of a Massacre of revolutionary Chileans in the war of independence, supplier to the largest underground copper mine in the world and birthplace of my Dad. Obviously one of these things is more impressive than the other three.

Weaving through the city streets, we spiralled towards the old Aggleton homestead (thanks again to Chile’s pathological obsession with one way systems) hoping that a) there’d still be something there and b) it wasn’t some ghastly tower block now. We finally found our way and parked up one road away at the Stadio El Teniente. Sadly we had failed to count on c) the big gate blocking the road off and not allowing us in. Bugger. Anyway, through the cracks it looked nice and it certainly wasn’t a tower block!


We arrived in Santiago to a warm welcome in Vitacura at the house of an old friend of my Dad’s (cheers Dad, y ¡muchas gracias Roberto y Marisa!). Santiago is a pretty cool city, very European, with a pleasing backdrop of always being able to see the Andes in the background. The contrast in wealth here compared to the north is stunning. Gone are the arid, 2nd world shacks and shanty towns in Arica and arrived are malls, highways, parks, gleaming office towers and far, far better coffee.

After a couple of nice days discussing the variation of Castellano, Chilean and Uruguayan Spanish with Roberto and Marisa, it was back on the road though, a european city is a nice comfort, but there are valleys, lakes, volcanoes and glaciers ahead!

Two cities a grand total of about 3km apart on the coast west of Santiago, Viña del Mar and Valparaiso are extremely different places. Most information seems to say that Chileans prefer Viña, but for me Valpa has far more character. From the huge Naval presence and Armada building to the creaky lifts carrying you up to the hills that surround the city, Valpa is far more colourful. Many streets have large murals covering walls and the houses themselves have a a tendancy toward the brightly coloured. The geography of it, as well as the scent of bohemia lead to inevitable comparisons with San Francisco (which is one of my 3 favourite cities in the world, so that’s a positive for me).

After a whistlestop tour of Viña/Valpa, we headed down to Isla Negra – the most remote but undoubtedly the prettiest of Pablo Neruda‘s houses. The place is filled with maritime inspiration, parts of the garden are set up to look like a ship (mast and all) and there are figureheads, globes, maps and wheels throughout. Neruda was a wonderfully earthy poet and his ability to tie the land and the sea together are writ large in the make up of his house.

Most etymology discussions of the word ‘prat’ describe it as an old English word for ‘buttocks’. So a pratfall is literally to fall on your arse.

A Prat in Chile, however, is somewhat different. Virtually every single town and city has an Avenida Arturo Prat (not to mention the equally ubiquitous Avenida Liberador Bernardo O’Higgins). Prat is pretty much Chile’s most popular hero and the worship of him particularly appeals to my British sense of a valiant loser.

Prat is unlike most Chilean military heroes. O’Higgins, while commander at The Disaster of Rancagua was ultimately a key part of the successful liberation from Spain and the eviction of Spanish power from Peru. Jose de San Martin led the overall liberation armies in Argentina and Chile. Lord Thomas Cochrane successfully took Valdivia and led the Chilean Navy to sack the Port of Lima. Prat however, is famous for the small part he played in the Battle of the Pacific (a war between Chile and Peru/Bolivia). While blockading the port of Iquique with a small wooden ship, Prat’s ship was rammed by an ironclad Peruvian warship. While this was ultimately the end of their part in the war, Prat and his men jumped aboard the Peruvian Huascar with swords drawn. Their heroic deaths inspired so many young Chileans to join the cause against Peru, the tide slowly started turning in their favour and ultimately Chile won the war.

Apparently there’s just been a 7.7 Magnitude earthquake in Chile north of Antofagasta. This was barely 5 miles north of the road we drove on a week ago from Iquique, via Tocopilla.

Scary shit.

I hate driving in  pretty much any city.  It’s exhausting and stressful – and that’s when you know where you’re going.

We’re currently in Valparaiso, just west of Santiago. Yesterday’s evening arrival in Viña del Mar was just haunting. There are cars coming at you from all directions, the signs are non-existent and the maps generally non-helpful. There’s also an obsession with one-way systems in Chile that borders on religious fanatacism. Basically, you’ve no idea until you actually get to a street whether you can actually  turn the direction you want on it, and in the few milliseconds it takes to check this out and work out what to do next, someone behind you is honking at you, lest you delay their rush to get home.

I’m pleased that we decided to do this trip by car – it’s allowed us to get a much better feeling for the expanse of Chile and it’s features, and it’s also given us a lot more independence. But I won’t be too sad in 12 days when we have to part with Shakira and make our way on public transport again.  Ultimately it’s a lot less stressful.

If this post is slightly insane, we’ve spent over twelve hours and nearly 1000kms traveling from Antofagasta to Vicuña, via Bahia Inglesa (very pretty), Copiapo (dullsville), Vallenar (a good source of cash points) and the La Serena of this title. I’ve been trying to work a ‘Reality Bites’ pun into this blog, but I’m too tired and lazy. I’m sure those of you at work have nothing better to do, so I’ll leave it up to you.

Anyway, in Vicuña we’re staying in a cute little hostel run by a very grandmotherly German lady. Today we’re going to a Pisco distillery and then to an Observatory this eve for more star-gazing.

We headed out to see some Flamingos as we left San Pedro de Atacama. The Chilean Reserva Nacional Las Flamencas is plit into 6 or 7 different sections, but most host up to three different types of Flamingos. All in all, it was pretty cool. After this we headed directly into the salt lake of Atacama. The terrain’s pretty strange, large chunks of irregular rock and salt in a vast flat plain surrounded by mountains. Nevertheless, Shakira dealt with it spectacularly and we ploughed on towards Antofagasta. While doing this trip, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn three times, skirting along it through the whole way. By the time we finish in Chile we’ll have made it nearly down to the Antarctic Circle.

Flamingos AtacamaSalar de Atacama

We arose at 4am, which is a pretty evil time in anybody’s book, dressed and waited outside in sub-zero temperatures for a minibus to pick us up and takes us to El Tatio Geysers. The kind people had provided blankets, so we crashed out for the good couple of hours it took to get there. The geysers were pretty awesome it has to be said. Pics are below but they don’t really do them justice.

Geyser at SunriseSteaming GeysersReflective GeysersBig Geyser

After the geysers we had a fairly perfunctory breakfast and headed over to the hot springs for a quick dip. In very cold temperatures. At 9am. Fortunately the desert warms up very quickly, as can be demonstrated by this short self-portrait montage:

8am:Loz 8am El Tatio

8:30am:30am El Tatio

9am:Loz 9am El Tatio

We got back to town around 12:30 for a quick hour’s kip before heading for some lunch and then sandboarding. Having spent a good, ooh, 2-3 days on a snowboard, I figured this would give me a short headstart (especially compared to cacophonous, barely post-pubescent yanquis girls who had joined us on the endeavour). Sadly I hadn’t counted on:

a) I suck at snowboarding
b) Sandboarding is nothing like snowboarding anyway
c) We were doing it in the middle of a sandstorm

We climbed to the top of a dune with our boards and were each given a candle. I was kind of expecting a liturgy at this point, or at least some prayer. Anyway, the candles were to wax our boards. It became rapidly apparent how important this was as without waxing every single run, you just went nowhere. And then you fell over.

It was softer than snow and ice, but a few days later and we’re still cleaning sand out of things. Here’s some pics, plus Dave showing the proper way to wear MC Hammer pants.

Dave BoardsSandboarding Dune

After this we went to Vallee de la Luna, an area so called because it’s similar to the landscape you get on the moon. I think this one may have been the brainchild of some Chilean marketing genius. Anyway, it was a pretty place to watch the sunset, albeit while being scarred with sand.

Vallee de la Luna Sunset

After a nice trip down the costal road from Iquique to Tocopilla (with a minor diversion over a mountain as a tunnel was closed) we then cut across more deserted pampas and into the Atacama desert. Here we arrived at San Pedro de Atacama which is a little oasis village primarily set up for tourists. Fortunately it’s pretty chilled and lacks most of the standard tourist tackiness. After checking in, we rushed around the centre booking tours here, there and everywhere. More on El Tatio, Vallee de la Luna and Sandboarding to come…

After a nice meal (this place probably has the best food we’ve come across in Chile so far – which is not particularly difficult) we put on our jumpers and hats and headed out to the desert for 2-3 hours of star-gazing. The Atacama is the second driest region on the planet (and is distinctly more hospitable and accessible than the first – Antarctica) and so makes for an excellent place to see the sky. The Milky Way was visible in all its glory, along with the ex-galactic Magellanic Clouds. Along with shooting stars aplenty and the far off thunderstorms in Bolivia, our host went through the origins of the universe and the various human fallacies that have been disproved over the last few millenia with regards our place.

Anyway, his website is at spaceobs.com and is well worth a visit for star maps of all regions of the earth.


May 2019
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