The desert slowly changed as we flew from Peru into Northwest Chile. You don’t notice it at first, but after a while the sand dunes disappear and the desert takes on some amazing colors. Red, orange, yellow, purple and everything in between were on show during our flight. The great thing about flying at relatively low altitudes is that you can really see how a particular landscape is formed. The folds and uplifts, valleys and cliffs are wonderful to see.
After a fairly uneventful entry into Arica (apart from the required fumigation of the plane by the agricultural guy, who reached into the plane with an aerosol can and sprayed a few times), we decided to head up to San Pedro de Atacama. We had great intentions to start with, head up into the mountains and find a remote place to land and camp out for a few days. We have done this at home in the Southwest, and given the right conditions, its a great way to camp and enjoy the deep desert. What we found, however, was a beautiful desert that was hot and windy and difficult to access by small airplane. The turbulence kept getting worse. Also, the mountainous terrain towards Bolivia put the capabilities of Emcinco and the pilot to the test. The airport just outside of San Pedro has a paved runway and not much else. Just a strip of asphalt in the desert with a small ramp for parking and a covered open air waiting area. We landed there first and had lunch, sitting behind a low wall to get out of the wind.
After lunch, a quick flight out to look for camping was unsuccessful; the wind had increased, the turbulence was terrible and the airplane performance was marginal due to conditions. Back to the airstrip we went. I have never felt worse after a flight. The nausea from the prolonged turbulence really got to me, and I spent 30 minutes lying flat on the ground (on a tarp and pillow actually) trying to recover. After we both agreed that we didn’t have it in us to try to get into town and find lodging, we scoped out our options and decided to just pitch the tent and see what happened. Well…..nothing!
No one knew we were there and no one came by to bother us. The night sky was amazing from our poached airport campsite. Giant peaks on the Bolivian border flanked the valley to the north and east. Salt pans ran down the valley to the south. It was a beautiful setting but when the wind blew hard it became pretty dusty and frustrating. We were happy we had done some good sightseeing as we were scouting for campsites.
It is perfectly obvious why people visit the Atacama. The barrenness, the colors and the rock formations are so unusual. Pair that with turquoise blue hot springs, salt pans and geysers, and it’s a pretty otherworldly place. In truth, the rock formations of the Atacama that are very like parts of Utah. If you can’t get to Chile, just go to Utah!
After only one night it was time to push on further south. Through some research we found out about a valley running from the mountains out to La Serena on the coast. There is a small town called Vicuña in the Elqui valley and they had an airstrip there. Perfect, lets go. After weaving our way past the numerous observatories that favor the clear Atacama desert, we found the airstrip and landed.
The person at the strip told us that it was actually a private airstrip and that we needed to email the person in charge to get permission. We were concerned that this could take some time, so we fired up and buzzed over to La Serena a short hop away. At the Aeroclub there, we saw the best topiary ever…
Two days later, with permission granted, we returned to the Vicuña airstrip and caught a bus into town.
The Elqui valley is a perfect example of an oasis in the desert. There is enough water to turn it green. Known for it’s grapes, the region has become one of the biggest producers of Pisco, a distilled brandy type drink made from the grapes grown in the valley. Table grapes, some citrus and pomegranates are also grown, mostly for export. The vineyards blanket the valley and lap up the sides of the desert hills.
We were pleased to find a nice hostel in a wonderful old ‘Casona’, a traditional home built around an interior courtyard. Hostel Valle Hermoso was just perfect for us; with comfortable beds, a great breakfast and warm hospitality, we settled in happily.
Since the area is known for its’ many observatories, we wanted to take the opportunity to do some star gazing. We bought two tickets for Mamalluca, the nearby tourist observatory up on the hill close to town, hopped in a van and headed up a dusty road towards the telescope just before sunset.
The main telescope is housed in a dome which takes a bit of getting used to when it’s dark and there are 20 other people inside. Soon enough though we were looking planets, star clusters, constellations and nebulae. There were smaller scopes outside of the dome and those seemed more fun to play with since you could zoom in on the Magellanic clouds, track man made space objects and see the smaller constellations too. The evening ended with a short presentation on our galaxy, the universe and the size of the planets. It left us with a lasting impression of how insignificant the earth seems when compared to the rest of the universe, and that we humans are just specks of dust!
Renting bikes is a great way to explore the Elqui valley. On a warm sunny day we rode past Pisco vineyards (but declined the distillery tasting!) little towns, and lots of greenery. We did visit a brewery and sampled some of their products. The Cervecera Guayacan in the little town of Diaguitas made great beer plus sparkling non alcoholic drinks made from fruit or flowers. Their patio was shady and made for a nice stop midday. Rested, we rode on and had lunch at a restaurant where all of the food is cooked using solar ovens. They were a bit overrun and it took a while to get our lunch, but the goat stew was great. We pedaled back to Vicuña, returned our bikes and spent the evening drinking wine in the hostels courtyard- a perfect day!
We really enjoyed our time in the Elqui valley and Vicuña. We felt like we got to know the area a little and the sisters who ran our hostel felt like family.
Even though we love desert landscapes, the central part of Chile has tons to offer too. We left Vicuna and set course for Laguna Torca, and an Aeroclub just inland from the coast in the Maule region. The flight was pretty much straight down the coast offering up nice views of beaches and towns along the way. Things greened up as we went south and the aero club we were trying to find was set amongst eucalyptus trees along side a lagoon. We landed in a squirrelly wind and shut down on a perfectly manicured grass ramp. The caretaker came out to greet us and allowed us to camp there after breaking the ice a bit. Finally, a proper campsite under the wing and out of the wind! We spent 2 days there, hanging out and birdwatching on the lagoon.
One afternoon 2 young guys came by to check out the plane, they were both aspirational pilots and had tracked our plane using an app. They had never seen a Maule before and asked lots of questions. It was fun talking with them.
At this stage of the trip we were biding our time as we waited to go hiking with a guy we knew who lived in Santiago who we met in Panama months earlier. Dani had given us lots of great info on Chile over beers one night. We had kept in touch with him with hopes that we could meet up once we got to Chile. We reconnected, and planned to meet just after Christmas for hiking / backpacking. We just had to figure out a place to park the plane and to intercept with Dani and his friend Nico.
From our camping spot on the lagoon we moved on to a town called Talca. Not a tourist town by any means, we spent Christmas there at a pleasant enough place that rented little cottages around a pool. Having made friends with the couple in the cabana next door, we had a Christmas dinner of wine and snacks with them. She was a hairstylist, and she even colored my hair the next day after a visit to a store to buy color! We love the random things that happen when you let them…
The day before Christmas we spent a great afternoon visiting a 4th generation family owned vineyard in the neighboring town of San Javier. A classic vineyard tour and tasting, with a twist. There are enormous crumpled aluminum vats on the property. We had to ask. The vineyard lost tens of thousands of liters of aging wine during a terrible earthquake in 2010. The original buildings were badly damaged and they lost many of the older vintage bottles in their cellar. Our guide also lost her house. The town of Talca was also badly damaged, but people are resilient and things get rebuilt. The tour was great, our guide was fun. Again, the best part of traveling is the people you meet along the way.
2 days after Christmas, we met up with Dani and Nico. We crammed all of our camping gear and ourselves into Dani’s car and headed off to a hostel near the trail that Dani and Nico would backpack, and that we would hike in part.
The plan was this: Nico and Dani were backpacking a 4 day trip. We would begin the hike with them, then peel off to complete a day hike as they kept on. We would camp for 3 days, driving Dani’s car to the other end of their trip to meet up with them, shuttling Dani’s car, and allowing us to access camping in places we otherwise couldn’t get to.
The hostel near Molina, called Fuente de Agua was comfortable and fun. A pool and a hot tub made it easy to relax. There were some Brits and an American woman there who were resting up after climbing Aconcagua (23,000 ft, 2 weeks on the mountain, yikes!) The host Mauricio was known for his huge feasts
and over dinner that night as the wine flowed, I heard a few words of Swahili. As it turned out, the young American woman had recently lived in the same small town in Tanzania where we had spent several months in 2001. Even more strange, she knew our dear friend David, who lives there. Talk about a small world!! The next morning we departed early for our hike, still marveling at the coincidence.
We all started out together, hiking to the Sendero Enladrillado through beautiful forests of huge beech trees. Coming from the Southwest, we loved being in a forest of big hardwood trees. The light was so nice.
After some discussion about where to meet at the other end of the hike, they went straight, on to the “Circuito de los Condors” and we went right, up and up some more until we topped out on a plateau that offered amazing views of huge mountains and Volcan Descabezado (headless volcano). Our hike was 9 hours, we hoped to meet up with them 3 days later!
That night we camped in Reserva Lircay and on the 3rd day we drove Dani’s car to the pick up spot in Reserva Nacional Radal Siete Tazas. Known for the incredibly clear Rio Claro, its waterfalls and the 7 cups which are a string of falls and pools carved out of the rock, it is drier and rockier than Lircay, and busier with visitors.
Our search for an unoccupied campsite became eventful when Paul backed Dani’s car into a tree, denting the trunk. !?@#%! We found a spot and set up camp. Paul was pretty grouchy!
The next day we hiked the trail that Dani and Nico were supposed to come out on. After a few hours we heard a shout and there they were, tired but happy.
Their hike had taken them over volcanic moonscapes, to hot springs and through shin high ash and pumice. They had occasionally been short on water and had hiked very long days. They loved it. That afternoon we drove back to Mauricio’s hostel where we ate well, and the guys soothed their tired muscles in the hot tub. The next day they dropped us off at the plane and we parted ways. They are great guys and we hope to see them again some day.
Miles to date: 6,450 NM