Chile - Patagonia Or Atacama Desert?
Obviously, as both destinations are very wellknown for breathtaking nature and landscapes - A paradise for every overlander and photographer.
We had the same thoughts, but needed to decide whether going up north or heading south. Both destinations in our 6 weeks schedule would have resulted in much too much driving.
"Read my article about our trip through Argentina first"
In another article I already wrote about our journey through Argentina, because we first drove through Argentinas west side along the Andes and crossed the border to Chile in the very north.
So for getting the whole story, it might be a good idea to read the argentinian article first, as our car was damaged by a fire and we were forced to drive first of all to a car workshop in Calama.
Arrived at the border to Chile we drove all the way along the "Paso Sico" for getting as fast as possible to the workshop, which still has been 294KM away.
After a few driven kilometers a pretty much surreal landscape revealed, which looked like the surface of a different planet. Lots of bigger and smaller volcanoes filled the greyish-blue area, temperatures have been superb and it was more or less windstill.
Again a few kilometers further, everything changed from greyish-blue to ocher and white, when we passed the Laguna Sico, which was surrounded by the astonishing mountain range "Cordillera Blanca".
(Cordillera Blanca is the highest mountain range (5700m) of the american continent).
Driving Chile By Bike?
We also passed the Laguna Tuyajto, where we did see the very first flock of Flamingos and dozens of Vicuñas.
We walked for a few hundred meters to the border of the lake, I took my 800mm tele-lens and made some beautiful photographs of the Flamingos and Vicuñas in front of the mountains of "Cordillera Blanca".
Fun has gone, when a flock of tourists thought, that it might be a good place for making some noise at the same place, where the photographer has been sitting on a small stool.
All the Vicuñas ran away and the flamingos did the same by flying away.
A young lady has been sitting on a wall, watching the scenary.
She was alone and only her bike has been by her side.
When she wanted to leave, I asked her, where she did come from and she said "Ich bin auch aus Deutschland" (I'm from germany too)
We talked a little bit and she told us, that she has been coming from the Altiplano (very north of Chile) and wanted to drive through Chile down to the very south... by bike... Whott?
We told her, that one of our main purposes to come to Chile has been, to photograph the milkyway and starry nights.
Later on, we decided to spend a night together, as she wanted to know more about our nightsky and we wanted to know more about her tour, so we watched out for a nice and safe place in the wild.
The night broke in, but for the first time on our route, clouds totally covered the sky, so we weren't able to see the milkyway as well as the "Big Magellanic Cloud"
We didn't know at this time, that we would spent a "few" more days with Luise and that she actually didn't expect some of our daily adventures 🙂
"From Worst To Still Worse... And Tourists... Millions Of 'Em"
After a nice night with great chats, we needed to take leave of Luise, as she was supposed to head further east.
We still had 170 KM to Calama and as soon as we entered the street, we determined, that Chiles Atacama desert wasn't as calm as we thought it would be.
Busses with dozens of tourists followed each other to the Lake Miscanti and other point of interests in the Atacama desert.
So in 1,5h we counted 30 busses or so, every single one of them transporting approximately 20-40 tourists... has been quite sobering 😉
At first we needed to drive to San Pedro Di Atacama for getting a working internet-connection and the coordinates of the workshop in Calama.
San Pedro is an active smaller city in the middle of the Atacama-Desert, starting point of all the tourist routes. That has been kinda culture flash, as we didn't see so many people for the last weeks, but on the other hand, we've been glad to be in some kind of civilization again.
On our way to Calama (still 100 KM to go), we passed the "Valle De La Luna" and we thought: No... doesn't really look like the surface of the moon at all, rather than just like one of those dozens of mountain ranges all around.
The way to Calama has been quite boring and once we got into this bigger city, we totally got lost, as the given coordinates didn't work at all.
A few hours later we finally arrived at the workshop, which should have been THE workshop for all the offroaders and overlanders in Chile.
I explained our problem to one of the mechanics and he immediately replied: "muy difizil". He tried to make us clear, that we needed to wait for a couple of days and asked, if we would have time?
What a question?
I called the rental company and made them clear, that I do not want to waste my time, by waiting for some fixing which could have been done in a few hours. I additionally told them, that I won't accept a dilletantic duct-taped car, they just need to place a seperate new power-cable from the front to the back and then need to avoid, placing it too close to the exhaust pipe again.
Well... after spending two days in a nice hotel, we got a call, that a taxi will bring us to the workshop for picking up our camper again. Sounded good, even if I really had my doubts.
After arriving at the workshop we examined the camper and my doubts have been confirmed. The minus-cable of the front battery hasn't been attached properly, as they didn't had the right screw (whott?).
They configured a new cable from the front to the back, more or less good... no... actually not really good, but acceptable. The fuse they used to seperate the front to the back, has been much too small, 10 Amps, rather than 30 Amps, which was built in before. Then they still put the cable very close to the exhaust pipe again, but I thought, I will fix it myself to the better later on.
They additionally put some kind of emergency-cable between the front and the back battery and told me, that if I disconnect it, everything will be shutt off. Later on I noticed, that if I pull this cable, actually nothing happened, apart from the fact, that all the switches have been working totally different. So when I switched on the pump, the pump didn't work at all, rather than a light on the ceiling, which turned on.
What a mess?
I tried to stay calm and to be honest, I really didn't want to care about it now, as I only wanted to get on the road again for not losing too much time anymore.
So within the next couple of hours, we bought food and water, filled up all the watertanks until we noticed, that once the tank has been filled up, the water was flooding the floor, the second battery and the fuse box.
Holy hell... really?
Shaking our heads, we dried everything and decided to not care about all this anymore, instead of finally getting on tour again.
"Chile? - OVERRATED"
Did I already mention, that we expected much more from Chile and the Atacama desert?
Coming from the vast and most beautiful landscapes of Argentina, Chile is much more developed, has less gravel roads, dozens of tourist busses and millions of tourists. We just didn't like it sooooo much.
Nevertheless we wanted to see the most common tourist attractions. So we've visited the "El Tatio Geyser", the "Laguna De Chaxa", "Valle De Marte", "Valle De La Luna" and the "Puritima Hot Springs", before we headed to a bigger city, called "Antofagasta", which should have a very nice beach and coastal strip - The "La Portada".
After visiting all the POI's, we've got a message from Luise again, who stayed in a hostel in San Pedro Di Atacama. We met up for a nice french breakfast and Luise told us, that she wanted to head further south. We offered her to go with us, as we also wanted to leave the Atacama desert.
The way to Antofagasta has been quite boring, but once we reached the "La Portada" coast, boredem has gone. A huge strip of about 12 KM offered a nice view onto Antofagasta, the portal (the actual "La Portada") and the beautiful ocean.
"Trapped In The Pan De Azucar And Digging In The Sand"
The next morning we visited the "Mano Del Desierto" or the "Hand Of The Atacama Desert". The Mano del Desierto is a 11m high cement sculpture and one of the main attractions in Chiles north.
It's a memorial for stopping the environmental sins, so that the earth won't become a desert everywhere.
Next stop has been the "Pan De Azucar" Nationalpark, 300 KM further south.
WOOOW! The "Pan De Azucar" or "Sugar-Pan" has been astonishing.
Endless coastlines, endless beaches, no tourists and the pure beauty of mother earth.
We drove along the highway for a couple of kilometers until we reached the "Playa Blanca". 8 kilometers of white sand, nobody around and after some offroading down to the beach, we did see, that the beach still is a few hundred meters away.
I watched the sand and did see lots of tire tracks. As of our adventures on Hawaii's Kauai, I already knew, what it means to stuck in the sand, so I courageously followed the tracks, not too slow and not too fast. Everything worked fine so far, until... we got stuck 😀
Not a problem at all , I thought. I already had some experience and knew what to do. The only fact, I didn't think about was the heavy weight and less power of our campervan and the additional weight of Luise and her bike.
At first I took the floor mats and put them under the tires... didn't work. Second we moistured the sand for getting more grip again... didn't work. Then we gathered lots of stones and put them under the tires ... didn't work. Last we let air out of the tires, but as we hadn't a pressure gauge nor a compressor, I was a little bit afraid... that didn't work either. The campervan just had much too less power and we weren't able to get out of the sand, whatever we tried... nothing helped.
With every try the car digged deeper in the sand until we reached a depth of 30cm or so. The groundplate already hit the sand surface and I again thought by myself: we could need some help 😉
Nobody of us was speaking a proper spanish, so I tried to get help over the internet by contacting some camp-sites nearby. I additionally messaged the "Carabineros de Chile" via facebook in hope, someone would read our message and send out some guys with a truck.
But as time gone by, the sun was supposed to go down, so we decided to wait until the next morning.
"Just Great Or Just Dumb? - 17h Until Our Rescue"
The next morning Luise offered to take her bike and to drive towards a smaller village - called Chañaral - for getting some help.
Fenny & me just waited, because it wouldn't have made any sense to further try to get us out of the sand. Half an hour later, Luise suddenly appeared, sitting in a small truck from which I thought: "won't work" 😉
It was a Nissan Navarra with two very helpful guys. Whatever they tried... it did not work as also their car has had too less power to pull us out.
But suddenly the Carabineros really arrived. Two guys and one lady came in their police car with flashing lights, driving all the way down the small offroad path.
We were quite astonished when they're offered their help, but they mentioned, that getting a truck or a service isn't their case, as these services are privatized.
They instantly began to dig the car out, by sitting in the sand on all corners of the car.
One of the officers asked me to let air out of the tires and I said, that I already did, but he replied, that more air needs to get out of them, so I did.
At a certain point I stopped, because the tires were already shortly before being flat, but the officer itself let all the air out of the tires.
Then they started the engine and tried to drive the car, but - I thought it in the very first beginning... didn't help either.
"The Pro, The Proud And The Toy"
Now we needed some good advice - and it started to get pretty funny.
The guys in the Nissan Navarra called another truck service in the meanhwile and sent him to us. These guys should exactly know, what they're doing, but they were expensive.
A few minutes later, a guy in a Toyota Hilux arrived and I thought again... "pleeeeease....stop it" 😀
But hey... this guy took some wooden planks, a big car lifter and after an hour or so, he drove the car out of the sand.
The police already left, but wanted to come back later on.
I asked the guy for the compressor, so that I could pump the tires up, but he said, that he hasn't any compressor, but the police had.
"OMG, hahahaha... ohhhkay"?
So we waited for the police again and a few hours later, they really came back. With a compressor not much bigger than a cigarette package 😀 (These cheap ones out of the hardware store)
It took ages to fill the tires with air and the police always asked me to be careful with not overheating the compressor.
Then he proudly posed for Fenny and her camera, being so proud of being of such a great help. Yeeehaaaw, hahahah 😀
"All's Well That Ends Well - The Christmas And The Greatest Scrambled Eggs In The World"
After 17 hours of laughing, wondering, tinkering and waiting we finally got rescued by very nice and helpful guys.
And as Christmas was just around the corner, I offered to prepare my "Super-Tasty-Scrambled Eggs".
We again searched for a nice beach, made a proper campfire and I began to cook. The girls spared no expenses and efforts to get all the ingredients, which I needed for my special eggs, whereas Luise as well made a special and tasty fruit salad.
"1000 KM Of Pure Boredom - But A Lapislazuli"
We had a perfect Christmas together. The night was wonderful... again lots of talks, stars, wine and good food.
But we knew, that the next 854KM would become very boring as we needed to drive the Panamericana all the way down to Valparaiso, where the new years eve firework should take place, which is supposed to be the biggest fireworks in South America.
For Luise and me, a lady tinkered a real Lapislazuli which came frome one of the Lapislazuli mines nearby.
What a nice souvenir, as most Lapislazuli are painted fakes.
"Valparaiso And The Biggest Firework In South America - And Tanja... And Hans"
We didn't know anything about the huge upcoming firework in Valparaiso until Luise told us about it.
After arriving in Valparaiso and exploring the surroundings, we finally decided to take part on the new years eve firework.
Therefore we searched for a great place to watch this spectacle and finally found a very nice spot for the next couple of days.
It has been above Valparaisos city roofs on a small hill, but with a sensational view onto Valparaisos harbor, where the firework should take place.
Apart from the fact that is has been windy as hell, the place was very calm and seemed to be safe.
At our first place - directly in Valparaisos harbor - we also met Tanja and Hans, a very nice and totally funny couple from denmark.
We shared coordinates and met at our desired place a couple of hours later.
As time has gone by, more and more people arrived at the hill, waiting for the firework, making lots of party all around.
Half an hour before its start and after a nice dinner we prepared for the night until we did see the first rockets been fired up.
By the way: The backgound of this huge firework is, that in Valparaiso fireworks inside the city aren't allowed due to security reasons. So the city council decided to let the firework take place along the 22 KM coastline from Valparaiso along the beaches of Viña del Mar. Now you can imagine, how big this spectacle should become.
And it was... WOW!
We never did see such an amazing and well prepared firework. It wasn't even just a pure firework rather than a big show of millions of lights.
They had placed dozens of ships inside the harbor, from naval vessels, battle ships, as well as huge cargo ships and fisher boats. And from all of them, rockets have been fired. It took 25 minutes and was just mind blowing.
This firework is truly a must-see and I'm glad, that we finally decided to watch it.
"Time To Say Goodbye"
Valparaiso itself is a very nice bigger cities in Chile, but should have lots of security problems.
We never had any issue, but there should be thieves all around and we've got warned several times, either by our rental car company or the police of Valparaiso.
The only thing we really didn't get, was the horrific traffic. Busses all around and people driving like crazy (like in nearly every country 😉 ) First obvious rule in Valparaiso: never look behind you, the faster you'll be, the safer you are.
Anyway, our time in Valparaiso ended and it has been 11 days now, since Luise stayed with us, but time has come to finally say goodbye. Luise was supposed to drive all the way south through Patagonia for finally ending her tour through Chile.
What a great trip and what a great person.
"Thank you for being with us and thank you for all this wonderfull influences , chats and adventures :)"
"Evacuation In The Middle Of The Night"
We still had a few days and drove further south, but just wanted to stay at the beaches for the last days.
Near Navidad we found a beautiful coastline, where we needed to drive a bit more offroad than wanted, and as for the fact, that the drive has been a bit too strainous, we decided to stay there over night.
I used the time to shoot some time lapses and when I was preparing my camera I saw a small banding of smoke at the horizon, which was coming from the left all the way to the right.
I didn't spend so much attention to it, as I thought that some natives just made a fire for burning their trash... but it came out different.
At 3:30 a.m. we suddenly woke up by a horrible and nevery heard sound of Fennys iPhone.
Because of a wildfire the area around us, should be evacuated immediately.
I instantly searched in the internet, what the message said exactly and watched our surroundings on Google Earth.
We weren't surrounded by trees and the wind came from the ocean towards the inland, so we should be safe. (And now I knew, where the smoke banding came from, when shooting the time lapse).
"Fire All Around - And No Way Out"
The message popped up several times and we still were a little bit scared, but felt safe somehow.
The next morning we didn't see any smoke anymore, packed our stuff and headed further south.
When climbing up the hills, I thought by myself, that it's pretty foggy today. But as it has been early, I thought this might be due to evaporation and condensation... but it wasn't!
When I wanted to get out the car for smoking a cigarette, my eyes and throat suddenly began to burn and I knew: that's smoke!
The more we drove further, the denser the smog became. We heard helicopters all around and cars came along, where the drivers were wearing respirators and masks. As we've not been on a tarmac road with signs, rather than on not signposted gravel roads, we didn't know exactly what to do, so we monitored our surroundings very well.
"Bomberos" (Chiles fire department) passed us, as well as police cars and bigger fire trucks.
Streets have been blocked here and there and we needed to drive forth and back several times.
So what happened?
It wasn't only one wildfire in a certain area, rather than 10 or 20 fires all around. Every single one was a few kilometers away from the other, but all of them in the exact area, we've been this day.
I must admit, that I totally wasn't prepared for such an incidence and I got a bit nervous. The more we drove, the deeper we got into the areas of fire and we needed several hours to accidently find a way out of all this.
"Questionable Adventures Over And Over?"
Sometimes you just don't need new adventures anymore and we decided to spend our last days in Chile in a more calm environment.
Therefore we headed to the "Embalse El Yeso", deep in the Andes, but still close to Santiago De Chile.
The way to the lake has been easy, but was a bit more challenging for the last 5 kilometers and quite some vehicles have had their problems getting to the lake.
We stood there for the last night and enjoyed the extraordinary environment, surrounded by the Andes mountain ranges.
Many overlanders have been camping there and were swimming in the lake, but for us it was just too cold. We rather liked to watch the stars.
For the next day we didn't really had a plan and were thinking about, what else we could do for the last couple of hours.
And I wished, we never had visited this very questionable area!
"Chilean National Zoo - Pure Cruelty To Animals"
Since the last 10 or 15 years we never visited a zoo. We rather love to see animals in their real habitat and we just gave up visiting those places.
But we still had too much time and thought could make an exception.
We really thought, that Chile is respecting wildlife more than other countries, but the opposite was the case.
The Chilean National Zoo is located on a hill in the upper north of Santiago De Chile and offers a very nice view onto the capital city. But that's all about it.
The entrance fee was cheap and early in the morning there already have been hundreds of tourists, waiting in a long queue for getting in.
From the very first minute we did see neglected animals, living their lifes in desperation, waiting for the moment, to be released from life.
Every single one looked sad and deranged and I instantly could feel, what they must have felt.
The more we walked along the pathways, the more I got tears in my eyes.
Lizards and Iguanas were living in small cages which - and I couldn't believe my eyes - were outfitted with plastic plants.
Hippos were trying to swim in much too small ponds, which already were filled with lots of hippo-poo.
Flamingos didn't live better. They were cooped in cages too, which were much too small for such a big flock.
Lamas, birds, turtles, bears and elephants. Every single one looked, like they wanted to die immediately.
When we then did see a deseperate camel with a big abscess in its face, we couldn't stand it anymore and had to leave the zoo.
How unbelievably sad all this has been and the worst is, that we couldn't do anything about it.
The only thing I always do is, to write reviews in Tripadvisor, Holidaycheck and other platforms to warn the visitors and to denunciate the responsibles.
These dumb asses deserve much more pain, than the one they do to "their" animals.
DO YOURSELF A FAVOUR AND NEVER EVER VISIT THIS ZOO!
"Chile - A Conclusion"
Apart from our last experience, Chile has been nice. Not so astonishing as we thought it would be, but great for one visit... or two... because Patagonia is still on our list 😉
We liked Argentina much more, but this is a different story which you can read here.
The chilean people are very hospitable and friendly. They do not speak any english word, which makes communiation a bit more challenging, but where there's a will, there's a way 🙂
The landscapes and nature in the Atacama region is breathtaking, but for us it has been too windy and much too dry.
For all who are planning to visit the Atacama region, it might be a good idea to take a flight into this region, as driving from Santiago De Chile all the way up to the north can be quite boring, if you don't know the surroundings exactly.
Distances are very long and exploring while driving will take much time.
Such rentals cars which we had, are pretty expensive and all rental car companies are offering the same vehicles, so it doesn't matter, which one you'll take.
Holiday Rent - our rental car company - did a more or less good job, but the car wasn't proper enough for driving through Argentina. It worked good for Chile though.
All in all we can recommend Chile. It needs to be on everyones bucketlist and we're already very curious about Patagonia.