Saturday, 16 June 2007

The Atacama Coast

Leaving Copiapo, the road heads west back to the coast, with your first view of real desert on your right. If you’re travelling in the evening, you may have the good fortune to see the sun setting on the dunes and rocks. You will also come to a good place to spend a night: Caldera.

The small seaside town of Caldera has a number of what you will have now started to realise, on this journey, are attractions: a petrol station (at the road junction with the town), cafés, bars, shops and places to stay. As always, it’s best to fix up a room for the night before doing anything else, and among the recommended places is the Costanera, right on the front. It’s clean, cheap and they’ll let you park in their patio. A more upmarket hotel, 100 metres along the promenade, is the Puerta del Sol.

This road along the front is actually called Wheelwright, named after the British engineer who made the town a railhead for the export of minerals from the country’s vast mines. Today, the station has been converted into a dance hall, but the old railway lines and platforms are still there as a reminder of the past. This is just one of the many occasions when you’re likely to see the evidence of the part played by British and Irish individuals in Chile’s history.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Towards the Atacama

Travelling north from La Serena, the road veers inland and the scenery becomes semi-desert. If you’re extremely lucky, recent rainfall may have created the amazing but temporary spectacle of the ‘flowering desert’, with masses of brightly coloured wild flowers covering the apparently barren ground. The colours vary according the region, so it may be worth taking a detour off the main road, west or east, if the flowers appear while you’re in the area.

The only place of note in this section is Vallenar, and if you’ve had a slow morning’s drive (200 km) from La Serena it may make sense to stop here for lunch, and petrol. There’s not a lot happening in the town, but there are one or two pleasant places to eat. The Italian restaurant Bocatto, on Plaza de Armas, does a quick and tasty meal, and you can usually park easily nearby.

Carrying on up the highway, it’s another 150km to Copiapo, the last big town before the Atacama. The road runs through more arid terrain, but also down and up the side of wide river valleys, with some cultivation at the lower levels. The traffic will probably be much lighter now than it was round La Serena, so it comes as a bit of a surprise when the Panamericana takes you right through Copiapo, and you actually find yourself in lines of traffic waiting at the lights. There’s plenty of accommodation to be had, so you may want to stop here for the night. Or you may want to head west, along the fringes of the desert proper, to the Pacific.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Leaving La Serena

La Serena is the last major city before you reach the fringes of the Atacama Desert, so you might want to spend a further night there. With all the buses moving north and south stopping there, the large numbers of travelling young people help to make it quite a lively place in the evenings. It’s an attractive place, too, with some interesting street markets.

Sooner or later, though, you’ll have to hit the road again, but before you leave town it’s essential to fill up with petrol / gas. The next stage of the journey is the first of many where petrol stations are few and far between – perhaps hundreds of kilometres apart. The bigger towns marked on the maps usually, but not always, have one, but as a glance at the map will show, in many places there simply aren’t any towns.

Leaving La Serena, the road starts to twist and turn, and it’s here that you may well encounter a common problem along the Pacific coast: fog. The reason is that although you will soon be approaching the tropics, with warm or hot dry air inland, running up the coast is the cold Humboldt Current. This huge mass of moving water starts at the icy southern tip of Chile, flowing all the way up the Peruvian coast. As it does so, it cools the air above, preventing the formation of rain clouds (one reason the Atacama is so dry), but also creating mists and fog.

It’s best to take it easy on this stretch of road, even if you’re stuck behind a truck. Patches of fog can suddenly reduce visibility on bends to just a few metres, and if you’re overtaking and you’re unlucky that could be just the time another truck coming the opposite way suddenly appears. Remember that before long there will be plenty of opportunities to put your foot down on endless straight roads in blazing sunshine.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Views of the Elqui Valley

Before we move on, here is a picture of the reservoir just off the road to Montegrande, on the way to Pisco Elqui. Below is a view of the Elqui Valley. Both were taken in winter.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Along the Elqui Valley

The Elqui Valley
It’s a 200 kilometre (120 mile) round trip from La Serena east towards the Andes along the Elqui Valley – and well worth the relatively short time it takes. Follow the signs out of La Serena for Vicuña (the biggest town in the valley) and carry on alongside the river. You’ll see green fields, fruit trees and masses of vines, as this is one of the main areas for production of ‘pisco’, a kind of brandy made from muscatel grapes. As it’s the national drink, you’ll find almost every Chilean you meet will want to know if you’ve tried it once you tell them you’ve been to the Elqui Valley. Which is another good reason for sampling it.

Going inland, as the sides of the valley become steeper and the snow-capped Andes loom ever larger, you reach the end of the road at – appropriately enough – Pisco Elqui. It’s well worth stopping for a coffee, or lunch, by the pretty little square there. As in so many places in Chile, particularly outside the high season, eating out is inexpensive and the food generally of very good quality. It’s also one of the last opportunities you’ll have to pick and choose where you eat before you head into the sparsely-inhabited north of the country, where it’s often more a question of stopping off at the only roadside café for hundreds of kilometres.

On your return to La Serena, it’s also a good idea to stock up the car with food and drinks while you can. A good place to do this is the supermarket right next to the Panamericana, where parking is easy. You’ll need water in big plastic bottles and tinned food: try ‘machas’, big Chilean clams that provide an excellent protein source at those hungry moments when you’re in the middle of nowhere. And don’t forget the wonderful Chilean wine. I’d recommend taking ‘Gato Negro’ red, which tastes even better in its country of origin. Especially, would you believe, when you buy it by the carton.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Going north up the Pacific coast

Leaving Santiago

The first stage of your journey takes you into the heart of Chile’s ‘Norte Chico’, or Little North, a kind of transition region between the fertile centre of the country and the incredibly arid Atacama desert. Fill up with petrol and take the ring road around the north of Santiago, until you reach the intersection with Ruta 5, otherwise known as the Panamerican Highway. This road will take you all the way to the border with Peru and, if you wish, beyond.

Heading north
Once you have cleared the area round the capital, the traffic starts moving more quickly on this broad road. Be ready, though, to stop at traffic lights – this isn’t a motorway. As you drive towards La Calera, the road takes you through attractive hilly regions and towards the coast: see the picture, taken after heavy rainfall in August.

Moving up the coast
You should be making good progress now, as the traffic thins to mostly long-distance vehicles, but try to find time to stop for some of the great views of the Pacific along the way. Perhaps stop for lunch in a seaside town such as Los Vilos. Further up you come to signs for the Fray Jorge National Park, with its amazing section of cloudforest. Definitely worth seeing, but outside the high season it’s best to check opening times in advance. If you are travelling at any time apart from the Chilean summer, you may want to find somewhere to stay next to one of the wonderful, empty beaches that line this part of the coast. Prices are low, and there are some excellent beach-side restaurants in towns such as Tongoy.

Coquimbo and La Serena
If you keep going, you’ll come to Coquimbo, with its marvellous steel church designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel. But don’t go any further, on your first day, than La Serena: it’s the last big city for quite some distance. It’s also quite an attractive place (the second-oldest city in Chile) and has a good range of accommodation. One word of warning: try to time your arrival so that you get there before the daily buses from Santiago (see online timetables). Otherwise, you may well find all the rooms have been taken by backpackers.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Car rental in Chile

Arriving in Santiago
There are regular scheduled flights to Chile from Europe, North America and elsewhere in the world, with most of them arriving at Santiago’s Arturo Merino Benítez Airport. It is a modern, efficiently-run airport located to the northwest of the capital, making it well situated for journeys up the Panamerican Highway towards the Atacama, Peru and Bolivia. All the well-known international car-hire firms such as Hertz, Avis and Budget have desks there, and although it is of course also possible to rent in the city, this means having to find your way out of an urban area of over five million people – hardly the most relaxing way to begin your vacations.

Car rental
The best deals can often be obtained ahead of your arrival, either by booking directly through the car-hire firm or via specialist travel sites like Expedia, although it is also possible to rent on the spot. However you choose to do so, you will need – as in other countries – to be 21 or over, hold a full driving licence and be able to pay by major credit card, for example Visa or American Express. Rental charges, though not particularly low, should not be much higher than in Europe. Check that the price quoted includes insurance, VAT (IVA in Spanish) and unlimited mileage – the distances in Chile can be enormous.

Preparing for your journey
No matter how shiny and new your hire car looks, it’s best to check that, too. So as soon as you’re clear of the airport, get off the road and have a good look at it. If you’re at all mechanically-minded, make sure it’s in good working order. At the very least, check that the tyres (including the spare) are in good condition and properly inflated, the lights work and that there are some basic tools – enough, at least, to change a wheel. If not, take it straight back to the car rental people.

Find yourself a big, out-of-town supermarket and stock up. Get into the habit of doing this: from here on, as elsewhere in this immense and sparsely-populated country, you may not have another chance to do for hundreds of miles. Essentials include tins and packets of food that will keep during your journey, plus lots and lots of bottled water. Especially if you’re travelling in summer (December-February), this could save your life.