Northern Chile: Arica, La Serena and Valparaíso (Part I)

Slowly but surely I am catching up with writing for this blog. I apologize for not being more frequent in posting updates, but between countries, cities and the long bus rides, we’ve run into a few problems, including my Mac running out of memory (its getting old) and plugs and cords burning out, meaning we had to use café and hostel computers. You can imagine how frustrating that was.

It wasn’t until our last days in Santiago, Chile, where we were able to find a Mac store, get a new hard drive, and new power cords. After a few weeks of taking a break, we are back in business!

Thirty days in Chile just wasn’t enough!

This modern, shabby, chic, contemporary, romantic, historic, breath taking and delicious country has so much to offer. We could have probably stayed for a year and still not seen everything. We feel fortunate to have seen the little we did and get to know some amazing people along the way.

This posting will recap of our adventures in northern Chile, including seeing the oldest mummies discovered in the world in Arica, visiting the Observatory Mamalluca near La Serena, and uncovering the graffiti and street art in the oldest European city of Valparaiso. Part II, which I will publish next, will detail our time visiting our friends in the surfing capital of Pichilemu. Part II will be about exploring the enormous Capital city of Santiago.

Unlike Peru and Ecuador, the economy in Chile strong. Although it has its poorer sections, the country seems untouched by what is going on in the rest of the world. In fact, we found the cost of everyday living – food, gas and clothing quite expensive. In some cases more expensive than California.

In Chile, you will find that the people really care about the quality and value of life, their education, language, the environment and the country’s future.

The people proudly speak “Castellano” or “Castilian.” It’s Spanish, with a twist. They have their own words for almost everything. If you call it Spanish then you my friend will be corrected. Brandon and I, being so new to Spanish, had a difficult time understanding Castellano. However, we had good friends to help us. Plus, we weren’t visiting long enough to learn. We got around just fine.

Contrary to what you might have heard or read, Chilean food is quiet good too! Yes, of course, the hot dog is popular. There are hot dog stands and restaurants everywhere. However, the empanada is the more traditional food. And if you stay with Chilean friends, like we did, you will not only realize the differences in the language you will taste a variety of foods and spices, all of them good. Really good. And the wine, even better. I’m not complaining.

The geography of Chile is fascinating.  It’s a long and thin country stretching more than 2,700 miles along the southwestern coast of South America, a distance roughly the same as that from San Francisco to New York. At the same time, its width never exceeds 150 miles, making the country more than eighteen times longer than at its widest point.

According to a legend our friend told us, after the creation of the world, God scraped the leftovers together and created Chile. With vast dry desert regions, many budding up to the ocean and spread amid the Andes, magnificent volcanoes, jungles, pine forests and windswept natural grasslands, ice blue glaciers and rivers, hot springs and beautiful endless beaches, no other country combines so many contrasts in landscapes and climate zones as Chile. Regardless of how you travel through this country, you will experience these many different zones.

Arica, the most northern city on the coast in Chile, is located 11 miles from the Peruvian boarder in the arid Atacama Desert.

After another successful boarder crossing, which included two busses and a taxi, we arrived in Arica in the afternoon of May 22. The sun was shining, the beaches were clean, the waters were clear. We were back at the beach. Finally. We didn’t know how long we were going stay, however, we were excited to be at Sunny Days (our hostal costing us 9,000/pesos (P) or $18 USD per person per night).

Greeted by Ross, a silver-haired 60 year-old ‘kiwi,’ who runs Sunny Days with his wife, we quickly unloaded our bags, suited up (yep, the water in Chile is cold) and headed straight to the beach, only a 10-minute walk away.

Arica is considered a major northern port city. Some nationals think of it as a truck stop before crossing the boarder; we thought of it as a perfect place to unwind, relax, and get back on track.

At this point, we had been traveling for three months. It was starting to take a toll on us. We were tired, drained and missed our friends and family.

Brandon and I were talking about coming home. (Crazy right?!) We didn’t miss the rat race of California, we missed being in a routine, we missed the familiarity of our surroundings, and most importantly, being near our friends and family. The only difference between us is that Brandon missed working – I definitely did not.

Traveling is about new experiences, adapting to new cultures, taking risks and then absorbing it all.

In addition to our exciting adventures and discoveries, there were situations that tested us as individuals and as a couple. In these three months we had learned more about each other and what we want out of life than ever before. It may have not been the surf trip we planned, it ended up being just what we needed.

However, since Bandon and I had been on the go-go-go for weeks, we didn’t realize that we were on autopilot, not giving ourselves enough time to absorb and reflect on everything we had been through.

Since going home was NOT an option, we needed to just stop and stay put until we felt strong enough to get back on the road. So, that is what we did.

Our days consisted of morning runs on the beach, exercising at the local parks, surfing, walking around town, reading and relaxing.

After a few days of walking the streets in Arica, we could tell it has had some hardship. It stems from the constant land disputes between Peru and Chile that have been happening since the 1800s. Arica was originally part of a much larger territory called the province of Tarapacá, which was owned by Peru. In the 1880s, after the War of the Pacific, it was given to Chile. However, both countries still weren’t happy with the compromise. It wasn’t until 1929 with mediation of the US under President Hoover an agreement was made.

This agreement, called the Tacna-Arica Compromise, settled the land problems, dividing the Tarapaca region, giving Peru what is now Tacna and allowing Chile to keep Arica. However, by the 1970s Bolivia – that little country trapped in the middle of South America – decided it wanted a coastline. Ever since, new boarder disputes are happening. And they haven’t been nice.

As you can imagine, these disputes have taken a toll on tourism, forcing hotels to close and businesses to flounder. Yet, you will find a lot good food options and a bustling city center.

There are two popular beaches to surf in Arica: El Gringo and Las Machas. Many surf and body-boarding competitions are held at El Gringo.

Brandon says, “If you want a fast, powerful and hollow wave, El Gringo is your best bet. It is considered the pipeline of Chile. Otherwise, Las Machas is good if El Gringo is too crowded – or if you are a beginner.”

With water temperatures in the mid-60s you definitely need a wetsuit.

Overall, the weather stayed in the mid-70s. It is known to fluctuate maybe 10 degrees throughout the year. The wind can be strong in the afternoons though and businesses close early, maybe around five, each day.

After a few days in Chile, we not only felt much safer than in Peru, we found a lot of similarities to home. Shoot, there is even a Wal-Mart, called the Lider, in Arica. It had a lot of household items and brands we are used to seeing in the States. And, at the local markets, we found a huge selection of fruits and vegetables, many we hadn’t seen or eaten since we left the States.

Venturing out to learn more about the history and culture of Chile, we discovered that some of the oldest preserved mummies in the world (dated between about 5000 to 500 BC) belonging to the Chinchorro people, are housed in a museum in San Miguel de Azapa, located about 10 miles outside of Arica. We had to see them. The day we visited we were the only people at the museum. We were able to take a few photos; here is one of our favorite pictures of a father, child and mother.

Chinchorro (meaning ‘small boat’) were fisher-hunter-gatherer Indians who lived along the coast of the Atacama Desert of northern-most Chile and southern Peru. The earliest sites of the Chinchorro probably date to 7,000 BC in Acha, and the first evidence of mummification dates to approximately 5,000 BC, in the Quebrada de Camarones region, making the Chinchorro mummies the oldest in the world.

After eight days in Arica, we were ready to get back on the road. So ready that we took a 26-hour bus to La Serena.

To spend 26 hours on a bus and not go crazy is a painstaking acquired skill, nurtured over time. We have acquired it slowly and gradually with every ride longer than the next. Passing time includes people watching, gazing out the window, daydreaming about your last or next adventure, switching off between iPods, waiting for as long as you can before picking up that book just to put it down after a couple of pages as the road is just too bumpy or because your driver is speeding around corners, passing cars like a Nascar driver. And now you feel nauseous. Then what? Maybe a catnap, a snack, or both.

Located on the Pacific Coast in central Chile, La Serena is about 300 miles north of Santiago and has a population of almost 200,000 people.

Founded in 1531, it is the second oldest city in Chile. You can’t help but fall in love with its attractive 18th Century Spanish neoclassic architecture reflective in its buildings, homes and churches. The city is also popular for its distinguished universities, trade schools and galleries. And like most cities we’ve been to in South America, it has a Plaza de Armas in the city center, which fills with hungry people and tourists by noon.

The housing in Chile is larger and much nicer than what we saw in Peru, however, much smaller than we are used to in the States. The homes in La Serena are very European, with many having big wooden doors, small living spaces and closets, and stylish and classic décor. We stayed at the beautiful Hostal El Arbol (11,000/P or $22 USD per person, per night).

After a 26-hour bus ride, it was just what we needed. It opened early January, which means the beds, showers, kitchen and furniture were new. It was more of a bed and breakfast than your typical hostal. It was small, with three rooms and a tiny casita in the back of the house. It was incredibly clean and comfy, and the owner, Isabel was so helpful and kind. We loved the house so much that we just didn’t want to leave. However, because the prices in Chile are much higher, we only stayed three days and two amazing nights.

We walked around the city, admired the architecture, cooked at home and took long walks on the beach. One day we rented beach cruisers and spent a few hours riding along the coast, stopping to enjoy an empanada and churro for lunch.

The beautiful Andes Mountains sit outside the city and contain some of the highest concentration of major astronomical observatories in the world. These features make La Serena one of the best places to visit and study astronomy in South America.

The Mamalluca Observatory, located only an hour from La Serena, houses one of the biggest telescopes in South America.  It’s one of the most popular attractions for tourists visiting La Serena.

Most hostals will organize a night tour for around $35 USD per person (30,000/P). The tour includes transportation to and from your hostal, a yummy snack, and a guide. Brandon and I do not know much about astronomy, but thought the tour sounded romantic and interesting. So we went!

Located in the city of Vicuna, we left our hostal around 7:30 pm and headed northeast, through the beautiful Elqui Valley, up winding hills with a moonlit back drop of the Andes.  Beautiful. We arrived around 10 p.m. There was a slight chill in the air, the stars and moon were shining bright and we could even see the Milky Way with our naked eye. Our guide, an astronomer of 17 years, was hilarious. Using a few different telescopes, he showed us several constellations and a close up of the moon and Saturn. Since there was a full moon out that night, we didn’t have much visibility to see other planets. But, we still loved the tour and highly recommend it.

After La Serena, we headed south to the picturesque and multi-colored European city of Valparaíso. It’s the ‘little San Francisco’ and vibrant cultural center of Chile.

Valparaíso (Spanish: Valley Paradise) or ‘Valpo’ as the locals call it, is a city and region located on the coast, about an hour west of Santiago. It is the third largest populated region in Chile where the cities make up a combined population of more than 2 million people. The region hosts a multitude of agricultural lands, wine producers, and industrial activity such as copper mining and cement.

The city of Valpo has the country’s most important seaport. It was developed as a trans-oceanic rest stop for fishing ships, sea cruise-liners and international naval ships. Since the second half of the 19th century ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, crossing the Straights of Magellan, would stopover for the sailors to recharge and refuel. Therefore, a large proportion of residents have a variety of national origins, ethnic groups and cultures.

Valpo has Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department (yes, firefighters are unpaid volunteers in South America), Chile’s first public library and the oldest Spanish language newspaper in continuous publication in the world, El Mercurio.

It is an eclectic and unique city with multi-colored urban housing and businesses – surrounded by brilliant street art and beautiful graffiti (even cars were covered in graffiti). The steep cobbled streets are long, narrow and winding, and are spread across 40 hills, all connected by hidden staircases and ancient elevators still in use. It is a sight worth seeing.

There are several wonderful sites to see by simply walking through the city. Staying at the Hostal Luna Sonrisa (11,000/P or $20 USD per person per night) in the Cerro Bellavista area, known as the most favored residential area in the city, we were walking distance to just about everything.

Since we were only in Valpo for two days, we did a lot of walking. We visited the old prison of Carro Carcel near the top of Subida Cumming. It closed in 1999 and since then parts have been refurbished and converted into a modern museum. We were still able to see some of the crumbling remains of the cellblocks and exercise yards.

From there, we headed south, toward the city, stopping to see the famous Cemeterio 1 and Cemeterio 2, where the tombs are above ground and some even mirroring mini-palaces. Walking through the city, we stopped for a snack before riding the oldest elevator, Ascensor Concepcion, from the lower end of Cerro Conception (the middle of the city at sea level) to Paseo Gervasoni, above the city near our hostal.

Our days were full of walking and exploring and our nights consisted of slightly splurging on food. Our favorite meal was at Cafe Kabala, where we each had a plate of muscles (at least 40 on a plate) cooked in white-wine and butter, then topped with parmesan cheese, served with roasted potatoes and a cheesy dipping sauce. To drink, for the first time we had a Kross Chilean beer, and then shared a bottle of Arenal 2009 Sauvignon Blanc.

It was the best meal we’ve had yet!

Next stop, Pichilemu, Chile!

For more pictures of our adventures, visit our Facebook Fan Page.

Until next time, keep shredding and living. Much love, Katie and Brandon.

4 thoughts on “Northern Chile: Arica, La Serena and Valparaíso (Part I)

  1. A mother always believes her child is the cutest, smartest, most learned: proof is in the writing. Good job baby girl! Your writing is brilliant- luv u 2-

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