The first piece of advice I would give anyone planning a trip to Chile would be to check whether your time there coincides with a national holiday. As we crossed over the border from Bolivia and made our way to the town of San Pedro de Atacama, little did we realise that we had entered the country at the start of a six day fiesta. We also didn’t realise that this would seriously impact our plans to take our time travelling down the spine of Chile, stopping off at towns such as La Serena, en route to Santiago. So on our first night in San Pedro we were blissfully unaware of all the problems that were to come: instead we had a great night celebrating with two of our friends from the Salkantay trek who we’d met up with again on the Salar de Uyuni tour and who crossed over the border with us. After Bolivia, Chile seemed impossibly exotic and cosmopolitan (coffee from a machine! Toilets that you could flush the paper down!), and we had a really great evening, eating delicious food, drinking Escudo and celebrating with the Chileans. It wasn’t until the next morning that we thought to actually check the exchange rate, and here is the second piece of advice I would give: always, always check how much a Chilean peso is actually worth before you go crazy on ordering beers.
The first hint of the transport issue came later that day, Saturday, when we found out there were no long distance buses available out of San Pedro until the following Monday. Undaunted, we decided to get a local bus to the next town across, Calama, which was on the main highway and therefore, we thought, more likely to have a better choice of buses to the capital. Waving goodbye to Guido and Marc, we set off to the town that Lonely Planet describes as “the shithole of Chile”. Now, I do feel that Calama has been somewhat maligned in this statement, as it’s not nearly as bad as LP would have you believe, but it’s still not a place you want to spend three days in. And that’s what we discovered when we got there: that the next bus to Santiago wasn’t available until Tuesday; that it would be a solid 24 hours of travel, with no time to stop off at any of the charming places we had blithely plotted out, and then the reward would be just one day in Santiago. So it was stick around in Calama – which was almost completely deserted due to the fiesta, and even at non-holiday times was never going to be the most happening place – or bite the bullet and fly to Santiago. Man, we dithered over that decision. We walked between the bus station and the LAN office and the bus station again, and we queued up for bus tickets and then pulled out last minute, and then queued again. Finally, the thought of 24 hours on a bus and 72 hours in Calama made us make a final walk to the LAN desk, wince as we handed over our credit card, and book two single flights for a price I do not want to record for posterity.
That still left us with over 24 hours to kill in Calama. So we did what anyone does in a town where there are no museums, no shops open and nothing to do. We went to the supermarket.
We wandered around the aisles of what was the Chilean equivalent of Tesco, managing to use up a couple of hours, as well as buying a (pretty tasty) picnic dinner. That evening we sat in our (really depressing, really expensive) hotel room, watching Priest and The Woman in Black (thankfully we found an English language channel), eating tinned mussels and salmon with hastily improvised coleslaw. This was the highlight of our time in Calama.
Our flight wasn’t until late afternoon the next day and we had planned to leave our luggage at the hotel and take a two mile walk to a river where there was a swimming hole. This was scuppered when the hotel refused to let us leave our stuff there, thus meaning we ended up sitting on a bench for three hours in a small park in the middle of the town. To add insult to injury, we didn’t even have any books to read to pass the time due to the Peruvian Kindle thief.
However, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and we eventually made it to Santiago, where we had four days to enjoy the capital’s sights. As with Calama, a lot of stuff was closed until our very last day, meaning we didn’t see the best of Santiago, but what we did see I liked a lot.
We ate chorrillana…
… visited the coastal town of Valparaiso, which is a UNESCO heritage sight and famous for its graffiti’d houses…
… and saw two of Neruda’s houses.
Although our time in Chile wasn’t what we expected or planned, it’s a place I’d like to go back and see more of. But I’d definitely check the holiday dates first.