So the last time we spoke, I told you all about Nick stealing a seat from the poor pregnant woman with a broken leg who paid more for the luxury tour of Bolivia’s flamingo-filled lagoons. At the conclusion of that tour, all the participants were dropped at the border with Chile, our next destination. Where Nick and I went wrong was in thinking that the woman who stole our money and sold us a fake tour back in Uyuni had done her worst. No, no, no. She promised us the tour included transit to Chile, but neglected to tell us we needed pre-printed tickets for that, or give us the tickets. So Nick and I had to literally barter our way across the border, paying an additional fee and waiting around for about 2 additional hours until someone would take us. But once we were safely across the border, in San Pedro de Atacama, we found ourselves instantly able to put our blinding rage behind us because everything was so damn beautiful. Our time in Chile was divided amongst three destinations, all of which were incredible.
I. San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro is a small town located in northern Chile, which is the southern end of the Atacama desert. It’s dependent on tourism and offers visitors the chance to take advantage of the desert’s magic. The town itself is rather cute, small with plenty of restaurants and cafes, but there’s not much to do. What you really want to do here is partake in desert-related tourism. We had actually already done most of these activities in Peru (remember the oasis at Huacachina with the terrifying sand buggy ride? That’s the same desert). If you find yourself here, definitely take advantage of the chance to: visit the salt flats, visit sand dunes, watch the sunset over the desert, and go sandboarding or sand-buggying (at your own fucking peril). The primary reason Nick and I made sure to stop here, though, was the stargazing tour. I’ve always had a fascination with the stars, and stargazing in Israel’s Negev Desert is amongst my top memories, actually, so I was pumped for this. I’m firmly convinced New York is the best city on earth, but there’s no question not seeing the stars is up there on the list of things I’d change about it.
Anyway, we only spent one night here because we were really only there to do a stargazing tour. It’s known as one of the best places on the globe to see the stars, and there’s a big international observatory located nearby (where sciency people look into a fancy telescope and predict sciency things about stars). The tour we booked included a coffee break at the end of the tour, which Nick and I took as a personal directive to secure a bottle of wine to drink under the stars.
This experience was truly one of the highlights of the trip so far. We started with a 30 minute lecture from our tour guide (an astronomy expert) on the different constellations we’d see (one of us was riveted, the other ensured if one us was to be miserable we’d both be miserable during the star lesson), and then everyone splits up into groups of 4 and shares fancy AF telescopes through which we can see the stars. Let me tell you: THIS. SHIT. WAS. MAGICAL. Once again, any trace of anger we felt over our Bolivia heist instantly went away was was temporarily put on the back burner. I know for a fact that seeing the stars like that left a lasting impact on us both; in times that can seem this dark it was a much-needed reminder that there’s so much that is bigger than we are. It also probably was the stars and not the wine that made us realize this but who’s to say really?
The day after our star tour, we caught a flight to Santiago. It was our first flight in over two months and being in an airplane again felt super luxurious. The flight from the desert in the north to Santiago, Chile’s capital, is only about an hour and a half. Add to luxury of flying that we treated ourselves to an air bnb instead of a hostel and you had the makings of an amazing weekend!
Ultimately, we loved Santiago! We’d heard there wasn’t that much to do and that our next destination was way better, which is fair, but for two city people who’d been traveling in the developing world for several months, I will say just existing in a modern city again felt luxurious and rejuvenating.* Our air bnb hosts were excellent (we stayed in one bedroom of the apartment rather than having the whole place to ourselves) and had the best kitchen we’d seen in a while (another luxury!).
Over the weekend, we spent a long time strolling around different neighborhoods (Bellavista FTW! Super gay friendly and fun!; Barrio Italia reminded us of Magazine Street in New Orleans)). One particularly hot day we climbed Cerro San Cristobal, a mountain in the center of Santiago with a stunning view of the city (and, shockingly, a big statue of the Big J himself at the top, reminiscent of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue; Nick was thrilled).
I also made sure to visit Santiago’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights; established by the government in recent years to commemorate the dictatorship that brutalized Chile in the 70s-80s. The museum was focused solely on Chile’s history. It was heart-wrenching at times but informative, not fun but definitely recommend.
And finally, I can hear your confusion through the computer so I’ll just clarify: yes, there were cheese plates every day we were in Santiago. Yes, we finished a bottle of delicious, high-quality, $3 wine each every day we were in Santiago. And no, we had no regrets.
III. Valparaiso/Viña del Mar
Our last stop in Chile was the coastal city of Valparaiso, bordered by the beach town Viña del Mar. I had several friends who studied here and told me it was great, and they were right! Valpo is known for its gorgeous street art as well as for being the home of Pablo Neruda. Nick and I spent two days just losing ourselves amongst the street art; in the neighborhood we were in there is almost literally no surface left untouched by vibrant colors.
Moreover, Valpo is known for having some of the best empanadas outside Colombia. Nick and I ended up disagreeing about which restaurant served the best empanadas, but agreeing that the city’s reputation for sitting atop the empanada world was well-earned. (Nick also lived out his passionfruit ice cream fantasies but I’ll let him tell you about that.)
On our last full day in the area, we went to the beach at Viña del Mar. Viña is Valpo’s ritzier cousin where the wealthy live (Valpo locals will tell you all Viña residents are snobby rich people), but it’s also easily accessible with a simple 20 minute train ride and where you go to the beach. I wouldn’t say it was the best beach we’d been to by any means but it did the trick! On our way back we visited a local Chilean coffee roastery called Starbucks and we have no regrets.
And that was Chile! I’ll end by saying that we loved the country and were upset we didn’t get more time there (well, not that upset; we had to leave to go see my parents but we easily could have spent more time there on a different schedule). I think Chile is actually a wonderful vacation spot for anyone wishing to get away for a little while (more so than Peru or Ecuador, for example). It’s cheaper than The States, the wine is constantly a-flowing, and there’s an incredible diversity of landscapes to see (metropolises, desert in the north, Patagonia in the south, beachy hipster vibes on the coast, etc). If you’re planning a getaway – consider Chile!
*It’s definitely important to acknowledge the discomfort of talking about tourism in the developing world vs. the developed world. Nick and I are both keenly aware of how fortunate we are to have come from the background we both do, and be able to have the agency and the resources to choose selectively when we enjoy first-world luxuries and when we don’t. That said, it would be dishonest to skirt around a simple truth: travel in the developed world is different, more luxurious and convenient, and easier than traveling elsewhere. Happy to talk more offline if anyone is offended by a frank acknowledgement of this, but that’s where we’re coming from here. I should also mention that this post, including this post script, was written before our president demeaned himself and the country by making racially charged statements about countries he know nothing about, but unfortunately over whose destiny he wields tremendous power. Those remarks only add more relevance and urgency to this conversation, so again, come find me if discussing this interests you.