During my trip to South America in September, 2002, I stayed in Santiago, Chile for a few days. It was still close to winter, so it was pretty chilly and cloudy. On the way from the airport to the hotel, I just got a small glimpse of mountains in the background, but nothing much. When I got up the next morning and looked out the window, there they were - the Andes. They rise up just behind Santiago and were still snow covered. From what I heard, some of the roads in the Andes were still restricted to cars with snow chains.
The biggest first impression while driving into Santiago was the traffic. It was pretty severe. There are five lanes in each direction on the main boulevard going into Santiago. The outer two lanes in each direction are reserved for buses, and they are full with them. I have never seen so many buses. This makes for quite an adventure when you finally want to turn off the main boulevard, since you have to cross the two bus lanes! Because the traffic was very heavy, I used the subway system to get around during my sightseeing. The subway system is very nice in Santiago.
One big problem is the pollution. There is a thick haze over Santiago. It was there the whole time I was there.
Chile is yet another one of the civilized countries where you can get money out of money machines with your bank card (as are Argentina and Brazil). Driving around Santiago is a bit of a chore because of the traffic, but not more so than in any other large city in the world. People are generally friendly, but beware of the concierges, they try to cheat you as much as they can. It happened both in Santiago and later in Buenos Aires in Argentina. I tried to get a taxi, and the concierge was eager to get one for me. Both, in Santiago and Buenos Aires, the concierge negotiated a price with the taxi driver. I later found out in both cases on the return trip, that I had paid twice as much as I should have. I assume that the concierges got a kick-back from the taxi driver.
The food can be very good when you find the right restaurant. This was a little bit difficult around the hotel that I stayed in, there were no good restaurants in that area. The person that I was visiting arranged for dinner one evening, and we had great food there.
One day I took the cable car up to Cerro San Cristóbal. From there you have a great view of Santiago with the Andes in the background on one side. From here you can see how huge Santiago is.
On my other free day I drove to a couple of nature reserves in the Andes. This is an easy day trip since the Andes are really very close. This is true for all of Chile. Chile has a very unusual shape. It is about 4,300 km (2,670 miles) long from north to south, but is on average less than 200 km (120 miles) wide from east to west. It rises from sea level to some 6,000 meters (19,700 feet) altitude in that distance. From anywhere in Chile both the Pacific and the Andes can be reached in a day trip (as long as there are roads there to begin with).
One interesting aspect of one of the nature reserves was the fact that there were cacti growing in that reserve just below the snow line.
Unfortunately I didn't have time to see much of Chile outside of Santiago. I definitely want to visit Chile again to see more of the country, not just a big city.
In March/April 2013 I finally had the chance to visit Chile again.
I started the trip with a four day visit to Easter Island, something that I wanted to do for a long time. I booked a hotel online (Tupa Hotel). I booked four nights, which gave me two full days and a couple of half days. The hotel had a 4WD rental car with very reasonable rates ($35/day), so I booked that for the duration of my visit. I also arranged for a private guide for one full day. The other full day and the half days I drove around the island on my own.
It was everything I had hoped for. Seeing the huge stone statues was impressive. My guide gave me a very good overview over the history of island, why and how the statues were made and moved. More on the page for Easter Island.
From Easter Island I flew back to Santiago, where I picked up a rental car for 10 days. I had booked the first night in a hotel in Santiago to get started. I had a hard time finding the hotel. I had bought a card with the GPS data for Chile, but somehow it didn't know about the address of the hotel. Later on the GPS worked fine, I didn't have any more problems with finding hotels. I usually picked a hotel from the Lonely Planet Guide and found it easily with the GPS.
After the first night in Santiago I headed north on the main highway. I had planned to drive north quickly, and then work my way south, while visiting the various parks, etc. This would allow me to adjust the sightseeing according to how much time I had left. I could reach Santiago from everywhere on the trip in at most two days, in one day throughout the second half of the trip.
I ended up in Caldera for my first stop. From there I headed north along the coast and took the road that goes by the observatory of Paranal with the ESO Very Large Telescope, an array of four 8 meter class telescopes, one of the finest observatories in the world.
The drive on that day was quite frustrating because of constructions. Just north of Caldera on the coastal road, there was a detour that could be used only in one direction. This detour was almost 10 km (6 miles) long. I was the first car that stopped, so I had to wait for all the cars before me to go through the 10 km (6 miles) detour, then for all the cars coming in the opposite direction to pass through the detour. I had to wait for ½ hour before I could continue.
After passing by Paranal, I drove on to Antofagasta. From there to Calama there was road construction for about 100 km (60 miles), with speed limits all the way and stretches of dirt road.
I finally reached San Pedro de Atacama late afternoon, the northern-most area that I had planned to visit. I stayed there for four nights.
On the first full day I went on an excursions Laguna Chaxa to see flamingos. Laguna Chaxa is getting smaller very rapidly, because the mining in the area is using up the water. Recently, several huge Lithium mines started on the salt flat in the area.
From there I drove to a couple of lagunas high in the mountains, Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques. On this trip I saw several herds of Vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna, german: Vikunja, french: Vigogne). In Socaire is a nice 17th century church. Around Socaire we saw some of the old Inca farming terraces. After lunch in Toconao we went back to San Pedro de Atacama.
On the second day I went on a tour to Geysers del Tatio. The tour starts at 4:30 in the morning, in order to get to the geysers before sunrise. The geyser field is high in the mountains at 4,200 m (13,780 ft). It is the highest geyser field in the world. It was VERY cold, around -10°C (14°F). I didn't have gloves, and only a light jacket, I felt like an ice cube. If you ever do that excursion, make sure you have warm clothes.
Reportedly, the reason for the early trip is the spectacular sunrise. Even the Lonely Planet Guide gives that as the reason. The sunrise there is nothing spectacular at all. The real reason is that the plumes that make up the sight are water vapor that condenses in the cold night air. As soon as the sun comes up, the plumes get smaller and smaller (see pictures). During the day there is basically nothing to see. Most of what you see is condensing water vapor from hot springs and fumaroles. There is only one real geyser that erupts periodically every couple of minutes. It is small compared with geysers in Iceland or Yellowstone. But it still was an interesting sight.
On the third day I drove around on my own to Laguna Tara, close to the Bolivian and Argentine borders. On that trip I reached the highest altitude, about 4,800 m (15,750 ft).
After the fourth night in San Pedro de Atacama, I headed back south. This time I took dirt roads back to Antofagasta through the salt flats and along mining roads. It was a fun drive. The dirt roads on this part of the trip were good roads, no problem getting through with a regular passenger car.
On that drive I passed by Mina Escondida. It is currently the highest producing copper mine in the world. Its 2007 production of 1.483 million tons of the metal was worth US$ 10.12 billion, which was 9.5% of world output and 26% of Chilean production. It is a HUGE operation, they basically remove whole mountains. The trucks that haul the earth are as big a house.
Once back on the main highway 5, I headed south to Copiapó, where I stayed a couple of nights.
When I parked my car at the hotel parking lot, the attendant pointed to my left front tire, it was flat. When I went back to the car next morning to have the flat fixed, the right rear tire was flat as well. I ended up fixing two tires, one had a screw in it, the other a nail.
Once I was back on the road, I drove east into the mountains. On the way there was again lots of road construction with one-way traffic, which meant long waiting times, and all of it was on dirt roads. The whole trip in the mountains was on dirt roads, but again they were pretty good roads, just very steep at times.
I headed for the Laguna Santa Rosa, another of the high altitude Lagunas. The difference between a lake and a laguna is that a lake has an outflow river, whereas a laguna has no outflow. Lagunas therefore accumulate salt and are mostly brine. The brine provides living space for krill, which in turn feeds flamingos.
The day after the second night in Copiapó was Saturday. I had scheduled a visit to the observatory at La Silla for that Saturday. On the way south I made a side trip to Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe, I wanted to see Guanacos (Lama guanicoe, german: Guanako, french: Guanaco). I did indeed see some right away, so I kept this side trip short, since I had to get to La Silla in time for the tour. It was an interesting tour, I had never visited any of the observatories in Chile, even though I am an astronomer.
From La Silla I drove further south to La Serena, where I stayed for another four nights.
On Sunday, the first full day in La Serena, I visited a nice museum and toured the city.
On the second day I headed east to Pisco Elquí. On the way back I took a mountain dirt road to Ovalle. This was the first time I was on a really challenging road. A few times I was considering turning back because the road was not really a road anymore, and I was in a regular front wheel drive car. But I like driving on such roads, so I continued. I made it across the pass and into the next valley to continue on to Ovalle, and from there back to La Serena. It was a fun drive.
I had prepared for such driving in remote areas by taking an emergency beacon with me. When activated, it sends out a signal on the aviation emergency frequency with the GPS coordinates. But wouldn't you know it, the beacon was in the hotel in my suitcase, instead of in the car. Up to that point I always had my suitcase with me when I was traveling in remote areas alone. That evening I put the beacon in my camera case so I would always have it with me.
On the third day I drove to Punta de Choros, where the excursions to the Humbolt Penguin Reserve start. I had tried to book such a tour, but was told that the weather, wind, and waves are not good enough for the excursions. So I just drove to the boat landing to do some sight seeing on land.
On the way back came the last great adventure of the trip. About 15 km (9 miles) from La Serena, the traffic was stopped. Apparently, an accident had blocked the road completely. I waited for 5 hours, but nothing moved. On the map was a small, unpaved road that went around the problem area, so I decided to try that. By now there was a line of cars and trucks on the road that reached as far as I could see. The restaurant in the village where the side road turned off was packed and made booming business with all the stranded people. I asked about that road and the waitress told me that it was a very bad road. That coming from somebody who is used to driving on unpaved roads was a warning, but I wanted to try it anyhow. Just after I turned into that road, some cars where coming in the opposite direction, doing just just what I was trying, going around the traffic block. One of them stopped, looked at my car and told me that I would not be able to get through that road with my car, I would need higher clearance and 4WD. That was the second warning, but I dutifully ignored it, I had been on bad roads before. Well, I made it through the road back to La Serena, but it was tough going. I was glad that I had driven on bad roads quite a bit, notably in Iceland, even though that was with a 4WD vehicle. This time I was not concerned about getting stranded in the middle of nowhere without help, since the detour was taken by a lot of cars.
That was the last day of touring, on the next day I drove back to Santiago to catch my flight back home.
It was a fun trip. Easter Island was fantastic to visit and learn about the history. I drove a lot on the mainland, I like such driving trips.
Following are links to four pages with various pictures.