After three weeks of backpacking in Patagonia, we headed to Santiago, the capital of Chile. Santiago lies in a valley bordered by the Andes Mountain on the east and the Chilean Coastal Range on the west.
Since Jenn only had a few hours in Santiago before catching a flight back to the States, we headed to Cerro Santa Lucía to get a view of the city. Built on a hill, Cerro Santa Lucía park hosts a 360 degree view of the city and the Andes beyond.
After sending Jenn off to the airport, we headed to La Vega, a large market featuring a wide variety of fruits and veggies. Since we were staying in an Airbnb apartment with a kitchen, we stocked up on groceries for some home cooked meals.
For a more expansive view of Santiago, we took the funicular to the top of Parque Metropolitano, the largest urban park in Chile. A statue of the Virgin Mary sits atop the summit of the park.
We happened to be in Santiago for Christmas. As we wandered the streets on Christmas Eve, many locals were partaking in last minute shopping and the streets were full of vendors. Our apartment was near the Plaza De Armas which contained many unique holiday decorations and even some live entertainment, captured in the video below.
Being in a foreign city during a major holiday can be weird, but luckily I happened to know someone in Chile. My friend Sarah has called Chile her home for several years and graciously invited us over to dinner with her boyfriend and her mom who was visiting from Colorado. We were so grateful to enjoy a lovely and tasty Christmas dinner with friends!
The day after Christmas, Dan, Nettie, and I embarked on a 20+ hour bus ride to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Spanning over 41,000 square miles, the Atacama Desert is the driest non-polar desert in the world. This desert has been commonly compared to Mars and NASA even tests instruments for future Mars missions here since the soils and aridity are so similar.
The Atacama also is one of the best places on Earth to view the stars. Crystal-clear skies, dry air, high altitudes (2400-4300m) and low-to-zero light pollution create an unparalleled stargazing experience. This desert is home to several cutting-edge, high budget observatories, most of which are off limits to the public.
Our home base for the week was San Pedro de Atacama and we decided to do day trips into the Atacama Desert region surrounding the town. As a Denver, Colorado (aka the Mile High City) native I didn’t think much about traveling to a city residing at 8,000 feet. On our first day there, however, I started to feel the effects of mild altitude sickness. These effects would continue as we continue our climb in altitude in Bolivia 😦
Our first trip from town was to Los Flamencos National Reserve and to Laguna Chaxa to get our first viewing of flamingos. From Laguna Chaxa we headed to Socaire, a small town to see how the locals irrigate crops in one of the driest regions on Earth.
Our next stop was to las Piedras Rojas and the Salar de Talar. Sitting at 13,000 ft elevation, the Salar de Talar is home to a mint green colored lake surrounded by colorful mountains.
Following Piedras Rojas we headed to the Miscanti and Miñique Altiplanic Lagoons, a pair of picturesque bright blue lagunas surrounded by volcanoes. Here we also saw herds of vicuñas, a South American camelid that lives in high alpine areas. A few days later we saw a herd of guanacos also – the other native camelid. See them both below.
From San Pedro de Atacama we rented bikes and rode to Pukara de Quitor, a pre-Columbian archaeological site nearby. This site contains a 12th century fort built by the Atacameño people atop and along a hillside.
The following day we biked 10 km to the Valle de la Luna (moon valley). We set off in the scorching heat of the afternoon intending to watch sunset. The Valle de la Luna is appropriately named since the landscape is out of this world. This valley is actually one place that NASA uses as a staging area for testing instruments and vehicles to be used in future Mars missions.
Our last adventure in San Pedro de Atacama took us to Valle del Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley). Before the Valle del Arcoiris we stopped at Hierbas Buenas to view hundreds of petroglyphs created by the atacameño people in the 12th century.
The Valle del Arcoiris is a series of hills that display a myriad of colors (hence the name rainbow valley). The rocks here have been hydrothermally altered and display colors ranging from browns and yellows to pinks and greens.
From San Pedro de Atacama we crossed into Bolivia on a 3 day road trip to see amazing volcanoes and colorful altiplanic lakes on our way to the world’s largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni.