He took us to a wonderful hostel. A little more expensive than we wanted, but it was safe. The hostel was run by a very nice family. It was so nice to feel like we finally arrived safe and sound in Chile. We walked to el centro that night to find some food. That´s when the culture shock hit us. El centro was an outdoor shopping strip, like they have in the states. It reminded me of Santa Monica, California, especially because Arica is also a beach town. I didn´t expect Chile to be so developed compared to Peru. It blew my mind. We walked back towards our hostel, and although it was a straightforward walk, we managed to get turned around. Luckily, the owners of the hostel happened to be standing outside smoking their cigarettes, apparently on the lookout for us, and one of them shouted out Mallory´s name and ran half a block to steer us back on the right direction. How embarrassing, haha. The Chilenos made a very good first impression on us. They´re so nice! They´re a lot harder to understand, but they are so nice.
Next stop: Iquique. Our real first stop. We spent 2 days taking a break from bus traveling. The beach was 1 block away from our hostel. Shortly after arriving, we had dinner at a small restaurant & the waiter surprised us with complimentary dessert, an amazing chocolate cheesecake, on the house! It´s official: the universe is on our side after all. In the morning I ran at sea level for the first time in 6 months along the beach. My lungs felt amazing. I felt like I could run forever... on sand even! Iquique is a really nice beach town. Still culture-shocked by the high-rise condo buildings, paved streets, professional taxis & buses, and drivers actually following lanes and giving way to pedestrians. Looming over the town and the beachfront is a giant sand dune, called Cerro Dragon. Iquique is known for body boarding, surfing, paragliding, and sandboarding off of Cerro Dragon. I have never seen the desert and the ocean so close together. There were palm trees and cacti growing side by side along the beach. The historical center of the town was really quaint with a boardwalk lined with colonial, saloon-style buildings leading to Plaza Prat, the main square. We got tan and sunburned.
Exercise park along the beach
We work out!
Time to explore the Atacama desert! We traveled on to San Pedro de Atacama, the driest desert in the world, located in northern Chile, bordering Bolivia and Peru. Our first day we rented bicycles and rode 18 km to Laguna Cejar, which consists of 3 salt pools. The Atacama landscape looked like a pastel portrait of a mountain range with volcanoes in the background, and the sandy/salty desert flatland in the foreground, against a clear blue sky. So many shades of purple, blue, and pink! At Laguna Cejar, we got to swim in one of the pools. The salt to water concentration is so high that you are forced to float! It was the weirdest, but coolest sensation to be buoyant against my will. Floating around in that salty water was really fun. When we got out, the water evaporated and left our skin and hair super salty. We rode back to town during the sunset and watched the spectacular landscape change colors from light pastel colors to deeper shades. It was the most colorful sunset I have ever seen.The next day we rented bicycles again and rode out to la Valle de la Luna. We explored a salt-covered cavern and a sandy canyon, and biked to the giant geological rock formation, called el Amphitheatro. The area used to be a thriving salt mining community until the 1970s. Only a couple of the miners are still alive to tell their tale. The economy of San Pedro switched to tourism after the salt mining industry ceased because the country switched to mining sal de mar (sea salt) instead of sal de gema (rock salt) which was mined here.
Laguna Cejar salt pool 1
Floating in Laguna Cejar salt pool 2. Look, mom! No hands!
So buoyant I can walk on water! ;-P
Picturesque landscape. Volcanoes in the background.
Valle de la Luna: el Amphitheatro
The Atacama desert has 360 days of clear skies per year. That makes it an ideal place for stargazing and astronomy. That night we went on an astronomy tour with SPACE Agency. We drove 15 minutes out of town to their observatory. It was a perfect, clear and moonless night. I could see the cloudy wisp of the Milky Way across the sky. We looked at the stars, constellations, Saturn, star clusters and nebulas through the observatory´s 9 telescopes. The telescopes were not that big. I mean, they did not take up an entire building. Especially compared to the ALMA Project being built here. ALMA = Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array telescope. It is the second largest science project in the world. It is an international partnership to build the biggest telescope ever, consisting of a circle of 66 telescopes with a diameter of 16 km!
La caverna in Valle de la Luna: salt everywhere!
Bicycling in Valle de la Luna
Although we have only been in Chile for a week, San Pedro de Atacama is my favorite so far. It is so enchanting. I could stay a week to see all the sights it has to offer, such as the geysers, thermal baths, and other geological formations further out of town. Alas, we don´t have the luxury of time. We are trying to get to the Patagonia before it gets too cold. Winter is coming ;-)
P.S. Peru has the shortest average height in the world. Now that I´m in Chile, I am not average height anymore.