While waiting for my passport to arrive, we decided to drive to and from San Pedro de Atacama along Ruta 5 (the Panamerican highway). We decided on key places to stop along the way, keeping some for the trip north and some for the trip south. Note: there is a separate blog for San Pedro de Atacama to come.
Exchange rate = 1 NZD is equivalent to 469 CLP
We left a bit later than anticipated as we had some sad news… Our friends dog (who we were staying with in Santiago) passed during the night from a heart attack. After a small burial service at their home, we drove from Santiago to Vicuña via La Serena. This took us around 7 hours with some detours/getting lost along the way! We tried to find somewhere to freedom camp but it was getting late by this stage and we were pretty hungry. Along the way we found a camping ground charging $9,500 pesos each… A little excessive for minimal facilities we thought! We ended up staying at Hostal Michel, and stayed in a 4 bed ‘dorm’ and as it was a Saturday night, it was a bit loud and not much sleep was had, by me anyway. It was also extremely hot and there was not much airflow in the room. This cost $8,000 pesos each, plus $1,000 to park our car in a secure location ($17,000 pesos in total). Overall, a cheaper and better option than the first camping ground we found! We met a French couple at breakfast and dropped them off before Junta del Toro, as there was a border crossing to Argentina, and without a passport, I couldn’t leave Chile! The drive was beautiful and out of this world with vineyards, red rocks and cactus everywhere! We also drove through Paihuano, Montegrande and Pisco Elqui. Again, a beautiful drive with wineries along the way if you wish to stop for a while and have a drop of red or pisco. We stopped just after Paihuano as there is a wonderful picnic/nap spot with gorgeous views and the place almost to yourself. We came prepared with chicken, salad and wine. We stayed another night at Hostal Michel, this time camping, which cost $5,000 pesos each, plus $1,000 to park our car in a secure location ($11,000 pesos in total). That night, we went to an observatory called Alfa Aldea to watch some stars and learn a little more about astronomy. It cost $10,000 pesos per person and includes a glass of wine, asparagus soup and garlic bread, as well as the star gazing through fantastic telescopes, explanations of the stars and hearing the ‘sounds’ of the sun and Jupiter. Overall a very enjoyable evening for a reasonable price.
We met a German couple at breakfast the next day, and dropped them off in La Serena on our way heading north bypassing Copiapó to Bahía Inglesa. The drive north was extremely hot, barren and felt a bit like being in the Australian outback apart from the Spanish sign posts! This took us about 5 hours including petrol/toilet and lunch stops. We arrived at the beach and it was so busy and hot, so we found a sneaky quiet spot around the corner to have a dip. We camped at Bahia Club in the juvenile section which was $5,000 pesos each and had really good facilities including a restaurant and a jacuzzi (although we found it too hot to use it) and a night club type vibe close to where we slept. There was plenty of toilets and hot showers and Playa las Machas was a few minutes walk and 10 minutes walk to Bahía Inglesa. We got up early ish and went for a run along the beach, did some yoga and tried to find some decent coffee without any luck. We spent the late morning/early afternoon at the beach before heading to Pan de Azucar National Park via Chañaral. We stopped in Caldera along the way for lunch which was delicious (empanadas and fried fish/chicken for $5,200 each). It was a relatively short drive compared to other days (only 2.5 hours including lunch in Caldera and a supermarket shop). We camped at Camping Los Yecos which was right on the beach and a few hundred meters to the start of a nice walk in the national park. Camping here cost $4,000 pesos each. The facilities were adequate, although you can only shower from 7-9pm.
We got up early (at 7am) to do the walk to Mirador Chica but the CONAF office didn’t open until 9am! We waited until someone arrived (after 9am of course) then set off on our 9-10km walk. There is an entrance fee of $5,000 pesos per person (non-resident), however we only had a $20,000 or 7x$1,000 so we only paid for one entry as the ranger had no change and did this as a favour for us-lucky for us. The Pan de Azucar National Park is beautiful in its own way; desert, coast and cactus! We then drove to Taltal for lunch, which took 1 hour 40. We drove around the town and continued on to Antofagasta. We had some car troubles along the way (overheating) so we took our time. It took us about 4 hours. We had a quick stop in Antofagasta to get some coolant and food supplies, but the supermarket was closed at 7.30pm! Where on earth are we?! Luckily Sodimac was still open to get some coolant for the upcoming desert as we had used it all already! We slept on the side on the road, after the toll towards Calama, in an SOS area. It was a decent sleep once we stopped stressing that we would get in trouble. First successful Freedom Camping in Chile ✔️
After spending a few days in San Pedro de Atacama, we drove past Calama and Antofagasta and went to see the giant hand sculpture in the desert. This is between km 1,307 and 1,308 on Ruta 5. It was quite impressive and bigger than we thought it would be. We continued along Ruta 5, detouring to Taltal for petrol before arriving in Cifuncho. In total in took us around 5 hours (including stops and getting lost). At first glance, the beach is nothing special, but it is like a desert oasis with green water and free camping on the beach! There is even a little ‘restaurant’ that sells empanadas with fresh local seafood for $1,500 each, and shops for cold drinks. There are toilet and shower facilities ($300 pesos and $1,300 pesos each) if you feel the need, but we used the ocean for our shower! It was beautiful, but it would be hard to get here without a car unless you hitchhiked. We would highly recommend visiting this beach if you get the opportunity, but apply a lot of sunblock as we got scorched in the afternoon heat!
After a bit of a sleep in at the beach, we had a morning swim before heading south to Bahìa Inglesa as we enjoyed it so much the first time. This took us less than 3 hours, including a stop in Caldera for lunch, petrol and a supermarket shop. We found a wonderful little place in Caldera called La Collera. It offers a delicious menu of the day for $3,900 each, and the waiter gave us free drinks! The fish was beautifully cooked and plentiful. We spent the afternoon at Bahìa Club (where we stayed last time) relaxing, planning our next stops and having a shower (as it had been 3 days since our last shower). After another sleep in, a walk along the beach, a shower and some breakfast, we set off towards Playa la Virgin. The road was a bit bumpy, but the view was worth it. A lot less busy than Bahìa Inglesa and a lot cleaner as well. The water was clear, blue and fresh and the white sand made it even more beautiful. Although we didn’t stay too long as we were getting hungry and the restaurant was pretty expensive! We stopped in Copiapó for lunch, petrol and food supplies. Our next stop was along the coast again. We found a beautiful little beach but overestimated Momo’s capabilities and got stuck in the sand. Luckily not long after a nice family came to the rescue, so we decided it was best to stay at a campground. We tried Playa Blanca in the national park but it was full, so ended up staying in Carrizal, which cost $10,000 pesos for both of us but toilets and showers were additional.
We set off to Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe for pleasant 5-6km walk. It was fairly similar to Pan de Azucar, although smaller and no entrance fee. We had a refreshing swim/shower at Playa Blanca, which was pretty but a fair bit of seaweed. We then drove to Huasco for lunch and petrol before heading to Punta de Choros. This is another national park, however the parks are on islands costing $10,000 pesos per person for a boat plus $6,000 pesos per person for the entrance fees. We decided against this as we plan to see penguins in the South and didn’t want to stay there overnight. During our drive we saw wild Guanaco, desert-donkeys and foxes! We walked around the beach which was rocky (punta = point) so no swim here. We carried on to Coquimbo where we stayed at an AirBnB which was fantastic! It was so nice to be able to cook and have our privacy! This cost us $61 NZD including the booking fee. More than our budget but sometimes you need to splash out.
We set off to see Fray Jorge national park, however, due to the extensive fires currently in Chile, the park was closed as the forest was dry and could easily be set alight. We continued down the coast and found La Laguna (just south of Zapallar) where we decided to stay for 2 nights. This was a cute little beach town and the campground was nice, showers included, as well as a swimming pool and a coal barbecue for $5,000 pesos each. We spent the whole next day at the beach in La Laguna. At the end of the beach was a wonderful coffee shop with good, strong coffee! The water was refreshing, clear and packed by the afternoon. After very little sleep on the second night due to the construction of stages for the Electronic party the next night until 4am and starting up again at 7am, we packed up the tent and headed to the coffee shop to wake us up! Our next stop is Viña del Mar and Valparaiso.