We find a piece of home, and more specifically of Trader Joe’s, when we visit Viña Concha y Toro, the famous wine producer of Casillero del Diablo. After a couple tastes at this winery just southeast of Santiago, we continue southward to the Colchagua Valley where we enjoy wines, lunch, vineyard-filled hills, and walks among the grapes. In the center of the valley is Santa Cruz, a cute town filled with boutique hotels, small houses with flowered window sills, and restaurants, cafes a plenty.
We ask for a late check out because our flight that we had to change due to our previously non-existent tickets is scheduled for 11pm. Our late checkout is not granted, and given that our day began at 4am with the Tatio Geyser tour, we feel like resting at the lodge for the rest of the afternoon. Now we are confined to only public spaces and face a bit of a problem. So logically, we take over the pool area. And by “take over,” I mean we literally all move over our luggage, swim, shower in an outside accessible bathroom, play music, have our stuff draped over chairs, and try to make as much space as possible for the other guests wanting to use the Jacuzzi.
A 4am alarm is never pleasant, but alas, we want to see the Tatio Geysers at sunrise and doing so necessitates an early wake-up. We are picked up by Mauricio, the same guide from Cosmos Andinos, who toured us around yesterday, and the whole bus minus the driver proceeds to fall asleep until we arrive at the geysers two hours later. When we arrive, the temperature is well below freezing and thus a bit uncomfortable, but the excitement helps us warm up.
The scenery again is other-worldly, and we end up reflecting the landscape’s energy as we run around taking pictures of each other and of the geysers. For the rest of the bus, I feel that both the geysers and our group serve as two forms of morning entertainment. Whether it is one of my friend’s rabbit shaped beanie, all of us taking ridiculous silhouette photos in front of the geyser’s mist, or just the fact that we are constantly out of breath because we’re running around at 4000 plus meters, we are a bit of a spectacle.
Before returning home and stopping every couple minutes for a photo opportunity, we try the nearby hot springs as the outside temperature begins to warm up.
The landscapes today are inspiring. The rains of yesterday deposited snowcaps to the Andes Mountains that surround us, and the crispness of the air compels my trigger finger to keep taking pictures. From the day’s start with the flamingos at Laguna Chaxa in the Salar de Atacama to the Lagunas Miniques and Miscanti, each site rivals the last.
I hear that our first full in San Pedro is going to be a rest day, and although I’m fully on board with the idea, I feel that if I go on a nice morning bicycle ride, I will feel great about resting afterwards. The owner of our lodge tells me of a ride to Laguna Cejar, a nearby salt lake that is both beautiful and swimmable, and sketches me a hand-drawn, not-to-scale map detailing the 17km route.
I’m excited by the ride, by the destination, and by the challenge of not getting lost. I get an early start, have a quick breakfast at the lodge again seated next to the Irish honeymooners, and then I continue on my journey to the Laguna. Arriving without issue and feeling particularly good because the weather is overcast and cool, I find a little oasis in the middle of the desert. I don’t end up jumping in the water because the weather isn’t exactly swimming worthy, but I still get my fair share of pictures before returning to the lodge.
As it turns out, we end up experiencing a rare summer rain in the afternoon and are happily located within a café in the middle of town playing cards.
Our accommodations while in San Pedro de Atacama come complete with a “wellness center”, wood-stove-heated Jacuzzi, and small swimming pool for Hydrogym activites. Meals are served in a centrally located kitchen around a communal table that is shared by other guests at the Lodge. Our first dinner, as an example, is shared with a Brazilian family and an Irish couple on their honeymoon. The five of us are staying in a separate house with its own bathroom and slightly cramped quarters, but still a homey environment nonetheless.
Other than the owner of the lodge seeming to be slightly frustrated that we did not book any of our Atacama activities through her because she was adding a pretty premium to all prices, the staff, the room, and even the wood-stove-heated Jacuzzi made for a very pleasant stay while in San Pedro.
On the same afternoon that we arrive in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile’s high desert adobe-Disneyland, we venture to Valle de la Luna along the way taking some photographic pit-stops at Valle de la Muerte and Tres Marias. In my effort to try to compare foreign landscapes to something more familiar, I try to match some of the landscapes around San Pedro to something that might be found in New Mexico, but there are few spots that I feel look much like the Valle de la Luna.
Remember the time we woke up at 3am in the morning to drive to Santiago to catch an early flight that we didn’t have legitimate tickets for? Remember then how when we finally did secure some reasonably priced new tickets, we had to be shuttled through the airport because we were now cutting it close to check our baggage and get on the flight? Remember later how we decided to go on a tour until 9pm and then got a bit turned around in the pitch-black desert before finding our way back to the lodge?
When the five of us reconvene after the trip, I’m confident that this will make for a great story, but as we were living it, it lacked some of the comedy that it will probably have in the future.
The day, however, wasn’t without its silver linings. We still did get reasonably priced round-trip airline tickets to Calama, which is only a one-hour drive from our final destination of San Pedro de Atacama. We arrived at our lodge without too many adventures, had some lunch, took a nap, and set off for our first desert adventure. And in the evening, we made it back to our lodge just in time for dinner, enjoyed a nice meal, showered, and slept very well.
Zapallar and its neighboring towns to the south feel like the Chilean version of the villages and hamlets on the South fork of Long Island, New York. Not that I’ve ever been to the Hamptons, but based on my extensive television viewing, this seems to fit most of the stereotypes of that region. The homes are extravagant, built into hillsides, and accessorized with their own elaborate swimming pools, expansive driveways, and umbrella-covered patios. The beaches are full of teenagers summering at their parents second home. Some of these kids have guitars, some have braces, some have paddleball equipment, and they all have immaculate tans. White summery dresses can be seen a plenty and the alcohol and marijuana are ubiquitous. The cars are all upscale, the restaurants all a bit expensive, and there are few views of the ocean that are unimpressive.
One morning, we venture away from our Hotel Isla Seca to explore a nearby Expo entitled La Feria boutique del verano (The boutique summer fair) in a beach town just a couple kilometers south called Cachagua. The price of admission buys us free tastings of champagne, beer, cheeses, and other delectable foods. The local attendees of this summer fair are dressed stylishly from head to toe, and each brand is represented by very attractive Chileans. The fair is complete with a fashion show runway, massage booths, and new car raffles.
Other than the locally famous seaside restaurant of El Chiringuito in Zapallar, the small town has little to offer in the way of food and we were forced to venture slightly farther south to find more options. Thus, we pretend to be part of the Chilean elite by hopping from town to town along this stretch of Chilean coast. Along with Zapallar and Cachagua, we visit Maitencillo, where we enjoy our first night’s dinner at Puntamai.
Most of our time in and around Zapallar is spent in a mode that is almost too relaxing. I know that vacations are supposed to be restful, but I have been trained to try to pack each day of travel with activity when in a new place. Therefore, on this trip, one way that I am attempting to step outside of my comfort zone is try to feel not only okay but to feel good about spending days lounging on the beach and by the pool while occasionally moving to find food or drinks. I am embracing reading my current book titled “By Night in Chile” by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. I am relishing the opportunity to people-watch while lying on the beach. And I am taking advantage of the opportunity to better get to know my travel companions.