I recently returned from a weeklong trip that had me travel 1,300 miles north and then return south again with various side-trips along the way. Departing from Victoria I headed up to Santiago, caught a flight to Calama, and then bused south to San Pedro de Atacama. Meeting up there with some fellow volunteers, we spent only two days in the desert before heading south to La Serena. Forays from there included an observatory in Vicuña and a visit to Pisco Elqui, out in El Valle de Elqui. We next proceeded farther south to Valparaíso where we spent the last two days of our trip before returning to the colder south. In all, it was easily more than 2,800 miles and perhaps north of 3,000. Of my seven nights on the road I spent three of them in hostels, four of them on a bus. It was way to many hours of travel for such a short trip (time-wise), but it was well, well worth it.
It felt a little strange having winter vacation in the middle of July, but that’s just the way things are here in the Southern Hemisphere! And obviously, I welcomed the break. I didn’t really know what lied in store, but I knew that the trip would be a special one because it truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In addition to seeing new parts of the world that I’d never seen before, there were two other things that I thoroughly enjoyed. One was the company of the fellow volunteers that I traveled with. The sharing of this volunteer experience has created a lifelong bond between us. This trip that we shared is another unforgettable memory that we’ll always carry with us. The second thing I enjoyed was the warmth.
Our first full day was spent in the somewhat touristy, desert town of San Pedro de Atacama. It was honestly breathtaking. The sky was a pure, crisp blue; the desert surroundings were a stark and stunning contrast from the landscape of the south; and the town itself was an antiquated yet enchanting snapshot of the past. The streets were a mixture of clay and mud, routinely turned up and pressed down by city workers. The buildings were adobe structures with wooden accents. The fare consisted of artisanal shops with traditional merchandise, fireside restaurants with open-air roofs, and tour agencies with tickets to sell, mountain bikes and sand boards to rent. I was sincerely taken by the town and wish I could’ve spent more time there. I wouldn’t hesitate in going back.
The excursion of the day was something I will never forget. Four of us decided to brave the desert sans tour. We rented four bikes and two boards and headed out into the sunny, sandy surroundings. Because we opted to trek it alone we were tasked with the challenge of lugging the two sand boards along with us. On the way there, the uphill way, I had the pleasure of toting the backpack strapped with two boards. We rode about a mile on a paved road before making it to the trailhead, which was a narrow but gorgeous ravine. Towered on both sides by craggy desert rocks we snaked our way through the canyon. The sand on the ground made riding bikes a little tough in some spots, especially since it was gradually uphill, and I was a bit weighed down. I’d estimate it was about an hour ride from there until we made it to where we were going. It was, at least for me, a grueling ride; perhaps one of the most physically demanding things I’ve done since running a marathon. But I was glad to do it, and it was beyond worth it.
We ended up at this expanse of hills and mountains that seemed to endlessly rise and fall. We could see the tracks where the tours once were, but we wanted more than that measly bunny slope, so we decided to hoof it through the sand in search of a better hill. What we came upon was a massive blanket of sand draped over a steeply inclined hill. It was real trippy because my eyes had absolutely zero depth perception. The sand was so dense, so pure, so overwhelming that it appeared 2D. I knew, staring up at this beast, that we had found our hill. We trekked another ways to reach the spine of the hill before heading for the summit. My shoes became sandbags and the hike to the summit of the sandy mountain was another effort. But once I caught my breath, I set the board down and stood up straight. I slowly spun in a circle, completely in awe of what I was beholding. I was entirely surrounded by desert sand, hills, mountains, peaks, crags, and off in the distance was a chain of Andes volcanoes capped with snow. I couldn’t even see the girls anymore because the climb was so steep and they were below my sightline. It was just me and God’s creation, and it was magnificent. More land and open space than I could fathom, and there was literally not another soul in sight. It was surreal.
What followed was just as incredible as we proceeded to sand board down the massive blanket of sand. Because of the effort required to reach the peak, we only boarded down twice. It was quite different from snowboarding because the sand is much heavier than snow. I figured out that I had to pick an angle and stay on my line, a little off center. It was such a blast, and I don’t know that I’ll ever get the chance to do that again, but I will never forget the feeling of the desert wind on my face or the sensation of dragging my fingertips through untouched sand as I plunged down the face of a sand monster. It was awesome.
After San Pedro I sort of feared that I had already experienced the high of the trip, and perhaps I had, but each place that we went had something so unique to offer that it didn’t seem to matter. The next place that we went was La Serena. The bus ride was eighteen hours, which is way too long, especially after an exhausting day of sand boarding that didn’t allow me to shower. Nevertheless, the trip continued. La Serena reminded me of home because the climate and the landscape greatly resembled parts of SoCal. I really enjoyed the town as well. It seemed a little cleaner and nicer than other big cities I had been to. The architecture was also unique and seemed to have quite a bit of European influence. From talking to a local I found out an interesting fact about the city’s architecture regulations. Apparently, there’s a building code that prevents them from building more than two or three stories high because you’re supposed to be able to see a church tower from anywhere in the city. I thought that was pretty cool.
We went to a cool outdoor market the first night and I bought an alpaca jacket with llamas on it. And yes, it’s legit. That evening we took a bus up to Vicuña where they have a hilltop observatory. We lucked out and got placed in the smallest tour. This allowed us to talk more with our guide and to see more stars, planets, clusters, etc. through the telescope. I got to see Saturn, its rings, and seven of its moons, a few star clusters, various constellations, and, of course, the moon. It was really neat, though it would have been cooler with a new moon because we would have been able to see more stars. The moon was only a few days past full and therefore super bright.
The next day we took another bus out through El Valle de Elqui. It was really pretty and reminded me of parts of the Sierras. We winded endlessly through mountains until we finally got off at a tiny town called Pisco Elqui. It’s known for its production of Pisco, an alcoholic drink widely sold here in Chile. We found a cheap tour of a Pisco factory and then ate some freshly made ice cream, which was quite scrumptious. We also got to relax at a restaurant and enjoy each other’s company, which was much needed after a long day of walking. When we got back to La Serena it was dark, but we walked to the beach anyway before boarding our next overnight bus.
Our final destination was the picturesque city of Valparaíso, and picturesque it was. The city sits in the nook of a bay and drapes itself over a chain of hills. In Spanish they’re called ‘cerros’ and if I remember correctly there are 42 of them. They each have a different name, which I think is pretty cool. The city itself is incredible. It’s a labyrinth of color. There are buildings tucked everywhere, both new and old. No building is painted the same color as the one next to it. Every surface in the city is an art canvas. The ground has art, the walls have art, the poles have art; there is no inch untouched by inspiration. The colors are so vibrant and striking and, unfortunately, it was impossible to capture with a camera. You’ll just have to go there yourself.
We went to various places of interest such as the Museum of Fine Arts, the Natural History Museum, and the Open-Air Museum, but the best part of Valpo was just walking around. You don’t need to go into a museum to find art when it’s literally all around you. It’s such a unique city, there’s probably nothing like it in the world. At night it was a little sketch, but during the day it absolutely beautiful. You could wander for hours looking at graffiti, street art, murals, houses, benches, lampposts, cobblestones, streets, shops, you name it, and never see the same thing twice. It was truly a remarkable place to visit.
All in all, it was an exhausting but incredible week, worth every penny and every second that I spent on a bus. The places that we went were each so unique and it was such a welcome break from the south of Chile. As much as I enjoy the south it was just nice to get a taste of a different kind of beauty. It truly makes me appreciate everything that I’ve seen. The company that I had on the trip made it that much more memorable. They’re great friends that each added something special to our group dynamic. Without them it wouldn’t have been the same trip. As for the places we went, they each showed us a new side of Chile that we hadn’t seen before. They reminded me that there is more than one kind of beautiful. Whether it’s the desert, the nighttime sky, the valley, the beach, or the city, they each hold something unique. They each have stories to tell, secrets to share, hidden gems to be found. And thankfully, I was able to write those stories into mine, to weave those secrets into my fold, and to treasure those gems in my heart. This goes without saying, but it was a week that I will never forget.