Features / Travel

In Chile with love: the trek south along the Pacific

Happy New Year and buy a hat

Happy New Year and buy a hat

BY: BARBARA MOSER & IRWIN BLOCK

Last winter, we spent four weeks in Argentina and Chile. It was our first trip to South America.

The seven-hour bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile from Pumamarca in northern Argentina was stunning, with desert, snow-capped mountains in the distance, salt lakes, and moonscapes.

Unfortunately we were overtaken by altitude sickness as we climbed higher and higher over the Andes, including nausea and fatigue. We went through customs easily and then began our most difficult search on this trip for a reasonable room—in part because we were sick, tired and cranky, the town was packed with tourists, and nothing was a bargain.

Finally, we found a pretty little place for $70 including breakfast right next to the bus station. We decided to leave the next morning because we were not about to trek to 5,000 metres or go sandboarding like the other tourists. We were having enough trouble breathing at 2,400 metres above sea level.

Sea of salt on route to Chile

Sea of salt on route to Chile

On the bus south to Antofagasta, where we decided to spend two days before heading to La Serena, we felt almost perfect.

In the Inca areas, people are proud and never have their hands out, do not hustle and do not want their pictures taken. They are friendly and loving to their children. They feed the many stray, people-friendly dogs, content to be part of the local scene.

Antofagasta was downplayed in our guidebook as uninteresting and seedy. But we were delighted to be in a real Chilean city with hardly any tourists, sprawled below the Andes, with its Pacific Ocean port.

Our hotel ($85) was off the downtown pedestrian mall, offering a view of a busy after-Christmas shopping scene, which I enjoyed hands on. Irwin observed. We had a suite, no less, and spent several hours watching good American movies on TV.

Yes, Chile is Americanized, with huge malls, the Big M dotting the downtown core, Pizza Hut, Coke, and designer shops at the mall. A thin layer of dirt coats downtown streets.

 Antofagasta at twilight

Antofagasta at twilight

We spent one day at a nearby beach, Mejillones, recommended by a young Chilean couple, but the bus trip was long and the waves high and strong. However, we had a great lunch in a huge and noisy seafood restaurant called Zlatar and Mario. The elderly owner, in between surveying the service of his clients and carrying around his baby grandson, asked where we were from and saluted us with “Viva Chile!” We communicate nearly exclusively in Spanish; almost no one’s English here is better than my mediocre Spanish. We did not see a single tourist.

Our taxi driver, by the way, said he wished he could have killed Augusto Pinochet with his own hands.

After a 12-hour night bus, we got to La Serena, which, as the name indicates, is serene, clean and has a seven-kilometre stretch of oceanfront and boardwalk 10 minutes from the centre of town, where
we stayed.

We spent December 31 watching the incredible fuss all were making over New Year’s Eve, buying funny hats, firecrackers, noise makers, various sprays, etc. We spent the afternoon at a nearby market with authentic little restaurants and lots of stalls with handicrafts. We decided not to go to the beach for the celebration, fearing there would be no way to get back to our downtown hotel. We watched movies instead in our hotel room. The centre of town was dead but we were not in the mood for a drunken, noisy debacle. It was the calmest New Year’s Eve we’d ever spent.

Antofagasta shoppers

Antofagasta shoppers

On New Year’s Day, we ventured to the beach at Coquimbo, a town just south of La Serena and even more serene, and spent the day there swimming and lucking into the best seafood soup Irwin has ever had. Then we returned to La Serena Beach where I was in her element at the artisan’s market. Japanese food on the beach was next, and believe it or not, it was fantastic. We also spent time at the beachfront casino with some slot-machine action and a vigorous game of chess or two.

As we sat in the Teatro café near the Plaza de Armas, listening to tango music, we could see an old stone church, a palm tree or two, and a friendly dog waiting for Barbara to feed him again, the same dog that followed us when we were looking for a hotel.

The next day, we boarded a midnight bus for the artist’s dream, Valparaiso, near Santiago, this time with full cama (beds).

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