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20 Nov-13 Dec 2013. We’d originally planned to fly from Ushuaia to Santiago, Chile, and thought we might spend only a few days in Santiago and then stop at some seaside town for a couple of weeks to catch our breath after the three crazy weeks racing around Patagonia. With a little research we discovered there are no nice little seaside towns in Chile, except perhaps La Serena, which I’ll get back to. What we discovered is that there’s Valparaíso and Viña Del Mar, where everyone goes, and which are both big resort towns and very expensive, and there’s La Serena further up the coast. After that nothing much. But the real kicker was the weather. We checked the weather for all these places, including Santiago and discovered nothing higher than a daily average of about 20C, and of course with a wind off the sea. What? What happened to summer? It’s the southern hemisphere and it’s late November. It’s meant to be summer. Or at least the beginning of it anyway.

We found summer in Mendoza, Argentina. Thirty degrees or more every day. We were in heaven. We rented an apartment right next to a big park and just stopped. We stopped being travellers. We stopped being tourists. For two weeks we didn’t do anything except forward planning and nothing much else. There’s some lovely day trips to be had from Mendoza including horse riding, trekking in the foothills of the Andes, views of Aconcagua (the highest mountain in South America), and visiting the many wineries in the area, but we didn’t do any of it. We walked around the town quite a bit, we walked around the park, we ate a lot of very good ice cream, we reveled in being able to make our own meals again, and we did a lot of micro planning for the next three weeks travel, and a lot of macro planning for the next year or so. Many emails were sent. We joined three housesitting sites. We accepted an offer from an old school friend of Don’s to stay in their Cypress villa in April and May. I did a lot of photo editing and blogging, Don did a lot of travel research and booking. And we had oodles of time with no agenda, sleeping in as long as we wanted, staying up as late as we wanted, resting a lot. For two weeks we weren’t going anywhere the next day. We baked our bones and thawed out from Patagonia. Heaven.

Mendoza is a lovely desert town with an intricate irrigation system. The water comes from mountain streams fed by the nearby Andes. Almost all streets are lined with big old trees shading the sidewalks. We liked it there. We like the heat. We like to walk in the shade.

Street art

The lake in the park across the street from our apartment

Argentina and Chile don’t really feel very much like ‘developing countries’. They feel more European than anything and have the cost of living to go with it. Argentina, however, due to rampant inflation, has a “blue market” (meaning not quite as scary or risky or policed as a black market) for exchanging US dollars. We took plenty with us and as a result the apartment in Buenos Aires cost only about $35 per night, and the one in Mendoza not much more. In Buenos Aires the apartment agent directed us to a money exchange place close by. It was set up as a high-end antique jewellery store, with very little merchandise, an opaque front door, and a bell to ring to be let in. On entering we were shown into a small but well-appointed office and the whole thing ran like clockwork. We handed over our dollars and they gave us pesos. In truth I’m sure they did nothing other than exchange US dollars for Argentine pesos, at almost twice the bank rate. I have no idea what they then did with the US dollars. It puzzled me. They certainly didn’t take them to the bank. There’s also a pedestrian boulevard in downtown Buenos Aires where just about every second guy in a hoody will say “cambio? change money?” as you walk by. In Mendoza we ran out of US dollars. A sad day. We were back to the bank rate of exchange, which meant everything was about the same as, or more than we would pay in Vancouver. Chile, having a more stable economy, has no blue or black market for exchange and is just plain expensive. We missed the inexpensive cost of living in India and SE Asia.

Finally it was time to leave Mendoza and start travelling again. Distances in South America are vast and there are few trains, but in Argentina and Chile there are very comfortable buses. To get north to Bolivia and Peru we devised a journey in four stages: Mendoza to Santiago, Santiago to La Serena, La Serena to Antofagasta, and Antofagasta to San Pedro de Atacama. We decided to break the journey by spending two days in each town.  Each stage was six to twelve hours on a luxury double-decker bus. The best thing? For each stage we were able to get upstairs front row seats for a fabulous full panoramic view of the countryside as we travelled along, relaxing in our spacious comfortable seats. It was an easy way to cover over two thousand kilometres and to be able to see the country as we travelled.

The first leg – ten hours from Mendoza, Argentina to Santiago, Chile, crossing the border into Chile at almost 4000 metres (13,000ft).

The road to Santiago – through the bus window


We enjoyed our two days in Santiago.

It’s a cosmopolitan city with a reasonably good infrastructure and a European feel. We wandered around several different neighbourhoods, climbed a hill for a view of the city, and found some really good second-hand boots for our upcoming overland trip in Bolivia. One of the things I most enjoyed was a lot of really fabulous street art.

We came by accident upon a special ceremony for retired firemen, complete with a brass band. This guy was my favourite. I could tell he was pleased to have me photograph him; he asked if I had by gesture, and when I confirmed gave me a twinkly smile as he walked past me into the fire hall.

Like any city it wasn’t all pretty

but these kids sure were having fun in the fountain with this very excited dog. 

Next leg was a six-hour journey to the seaside vacation town of La Serena. La Serena is a pleasant but odd town; odd in that it’s a beach town, a vacation town for Chileans, a less expensive option than Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, and yet the town is two or three kilometres back from the beach. We walked to the beach. This photo shows the vast wasteland between the beach and the town:

Street art, and a Japanese garden

La Serena was followed by a twelve-hour journey to Antofagasta, and this is where the scenery got really interesting. We entered the harsh sere endless expanse of the Atacama Desert, one of the driest regions on earth. It held our interest for hour upon hour as the landscape continually changed before us. The road followed the coast and we passed occasional seaside shantytowns, but mainly it was the richly varied terrain of the desert that captured us. And then as we got closer to Antofagasta the mining that supports the town became apparent – copper, nitrate and iodine extracted from the ground under the harshest of conditions.

Antofagasta is a working class town with a rough edge to it, a regular downtown core, and a small beach. We enjoyed our time there, and managed to find a good Chinese restaurant near our hotel. Most of the meals we’d had along this journey were, politely, unremarkable. There’s a whole blog post to come about pizza in South America. Truly horrific. Why would we order pizza in South America? Uruguay, Chile and Argentina are big beef and potatoes places, and we’re just not big beef and potatoes eaters, and pizza was on the menu at just about every place we went to.

Some random photos of Antofagasta

Next post: after Antofagasta, on the road to San Pedro de Atacama and around San Pedro, the desert scenery becomes even more fabulous, magical, surreal and breathtaking. We went exploring in it.

Happy New Year Everyone!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.