Crossing from Peru into Chile was like a breath of fresh air. We loved Peru- the mountains, the llamas, the food, the ancient ruins, the kind people we met… but somehow it was the most difficult country on the trip for us. The overall vibe in many places we visted was a little sketchy and we felt that we always had to be extra careful with our belongings, with the van, and with where we camped. Maybe it’s just us, or maybe it was that I was mugged on the beach within hours of being in the country, but from speaking with other travelers it does seem that unpleasant incidents may be more common in Peru than other countries we have been to. I won’t even get started on the insane driving, the piles of trash everywhere, and the packs of stray dogs on top of those piles of trash. But enough of the bad, Peru is an absolutely amazing, adventurous, breathtaking country and before we knew it we had spent two months just skimming the surface.
Being in Chile feels a lot like being in California to us, from the landscape to the orderliness and modernity. In fact, we couldn’t help comparing every place along the coast of Chile to the coast we know back home. Northern Chile’s dry desert coast is very similar to Baja California and sits at the same latitude except in the southern hemisphere. As we made our way south, the dry Baja California landscape gave way to the scrubby chapparal landscape of southern California. It was like being home but opposite and we loved it.
Our tour of Northern Chile started with a few days of free camping on the beach in Arica, a dry city just half an hour south of the border with Peru.
We checked out the waves which included miles of decent beach break and a heavy wave called “El Gringo” or “The Chilean Pipeline” that barrels right over rocks off a small island connected to the land by a jetty. This was Arons first surf after a month in the mountains and he managed to snag a few but took a thrashing along with a body boarder who came out with a shredded wetsuit after his first wave. Ouch.
When the waves dwindled we took a walk up to “El Morro”, a museum and memorial on top of a steep hill overlooking Arica commemorating an important battle of the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) fought between Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. Before the war, Peru and Bolivia owned much of northern Chile (see map below). Long story short, Chile won the war and gained both these territories along with access to valuable mineral deposits such as nitrate and copper. Nowadays the north of Chile is home to lots and lots of mining, particularly copper which is one of Chile’s largest exports.
From Arica we headed south to Iquique, another happening coastal city known for it’s enormous duty free zone where everything from cars to camping gear is sold. Iquique is almost like downtown San Diego with high rise condos and such but with waves right in front. The beaches and the boardwalk that stretches around them invite all kinds of happy people out and about to surf, body board, skateboard, roller blade, ride bikes, jog, and walk their dogs in cute little sweaters. It was nice to see people with time for hobbies, just enjoying the beach and a nice sunny day.
We were having some problems with the van so we ended up stuck in Iquique for a week but we didn’t suffer much. Aron surfed every day and I ran on the boardwalk and swam in the ocean between visits to the mechanic. We found some nice mechanics that let us use their shop space and tools so we could diagnose why the van was acting up. Turns out the problem was a stuck intake valve that we think got gunked up from the dirty gas we’ve been running with for a year now. Luckily we had the help of Chris from Vanistan who re-built our engine before the trip. Following his advice, we added automatic transmission fluid into the gas and the oil in hopes that the high level of detergents would de-gunk the fuel valves as it ran through the engine after a few hours of driving. Perhaps that´s a little too much information- still awake?
While driving the van around trying to bathe the fuel valves, we discovered El Verde, a little fishing village half an hour south of Iquique consisting entirely of cheap seafood stands serving fresh ceviches and all kinds of delicious stuffed seafood empanadas made with fish and mariscos harvested directly from the ocean out front. We sat down at the first stand and started chatting with the Bolivian couple running the place as we munched on our fresh, hot crab and cheese empanadas. They insisted that we try loco, a sort of a Chilean abalone, and treated us to a plate- it was absolutely delicious! Seafood in Chile rocks.
After eleven months on the road our money is starting to dwindle, but luckily we have been able to do lots of free camping in Chile. At the end of the days spent in town working at the mechanics, surfing, running errands, and using the internet, we would drive ten minutes south of Iquique to camp each night at Playa Blanca with the lulling tide just outside of our windows.
Once we were certain the van engine wasnt a ticking time bomb, we made the long haul inland to the town of San Pedro de Atacama in the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world! We spent a day touring the sights in the area which include lakes, volcanos, salt flats, flamingos, and trippy looking stone formations. We started our tour at the Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile.
This expansive, salty lagoon was absolutely surreal. The white salt beneath the water and all around the shore together with the bright hot sun made for a brilliant, dreamy sight. When we pulled up there was nothing around but a lone flamingo strolling through the shallow lagoon. We waded in the cool water, crunching salt beneath our feet until our skin started to hurt from the saltiness.
We returned to town and hid from the sun during the hottest part of the day before heading out to see the famed sunset in the Valley of the Moon. We explored the valley in the still blazing evening sun and walked through a cool series of caves of crystallized salt that looked like glass. As the sun began to set and the moon began to rise, we hiked up to a viewpoint where we watched the desert sky turn pink and blue and cast shadows across the landscape.
Our original plan was to continue east from San Pedro de Atacama and cross into Argentina, but when morning came we decided we weren’t ready to leave Chile or it’s beautiful coast. So… back to the beach! We returned to the coast near Antofagasta, a mining town of not much interest other than waves for Aron but just north we stopped to see La Portada, a beautiful natural arch in the sea.
Chile’s dry northern coast began to give way to little shrubs and cacti as we headed to Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, a beautiful coastal preserve of rocky outcrops, sapphire water, white sand beaches, and an offshore island home to hundreds of Humboldt penguins. As the sun went down we found a nice campground run by a kind lady who sold us a giant bottle of wine and gave us all the firewood we could want, the makings of a perfectly lovely evening.
From Pan de Azucar we slowly meandered down the coast, checking every surf spot Aron had ever heard of and stopping at all the beautiful lookouts and beaches we passed. We wild camped on the beach whenever we found a nice spot which was practically everywhere on this wide open unpopulated stretch of Chilean coast.
Out of the many surf spots we checked out, Portofino was the best. Portofino is a tiny little town of just a handful of houses on an empty stretch of coast. The wave is a peeling left point and was working perfectly when we arrived. Aron jumped into the water and helped himself to wave after wave being the only one in the crystal clear water. You should have seen the smile on his face.
Further south near the big city of La Serena, we couldn’t find any freebie beaches to camp at but we did find the nicest gas station we have ever seen. Copec is Chile´s national gas station and they are everywhere. Many have hot showers, clean bathrooms, and even a cafe with wifi. This one had all of the above, plus a view of the ocean. We parked in the large lot in the back, overlooking the ocean along with a couple of giant trucks. We are convinced it’s the most scenic truck stop in the world.
That night our dinner in the van consisted of ramen and a can of choritos (mussels), one of our favorite Chilean discoveries, and we laughed at where we are after a year of traveling. Chile is expensive, with camping, hostels, and restaurants costing three times as much as in other countries we have visited. The only cheap thing in Chile is the wine, which nearly makes up for everything else. And did I mention gas costs $6.50/gallon or more? So, needless to say, we try to make up what we can by free camping as much as possible and by not eating out (although we do indulge on empanadas here and there, they are too good here in Chile to pass up). All in all, living the simple life in the van in Chile is pretty darn sweet.