After a brutal eight hour drive through the endless Atacama Desert wasteland, turning west off the Ruta 5 highway towards the sparkling turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean and the pristine white sand beaches of the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar was a moment of sheer joy. Even though we were 30km away from the coast I swear I could smell the ocean.
The day had started in Tocopilla, of which I will say only this…stay there on a Friday night if your only other option is death from dehydration in the Atacama Desert followed by your bones being picked clean by vultures. The highlight of a stay in Tocopilla is leaving…although it can also lay claim to be home to the worst Chinese food in the known universe, and probably several unknown universes. Not something the tourist board will want to put on their literature, but it doesn’t stop it being true.
Setting off early along the dramatic Ruta 1 coast road, wedged between the ocean and soaring coastal cliffs, our relief at leaving Tocopilla was palpable. One of the few sites of human interest on the coast road is a haunting cemetery overlooking the ocean. Wandering through it in the early morning sun with mist still clinging to the ocean and the sound of waves crashing onto the beach was an emotional experience.
Sadly, our happy mental state quickly evaporated with the realisation that the coast road was closed south of Antofagasta (another town I’d recommend bypassing). This forced us back onto the Ruta 5 and back into the Atacama Desert.
Luckily, the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar is so beautiful and so tranquil that both Tocopilla and the Atacama Desert quickly became faded memories.
Part desert and part dramatic ocean cliffs tumbling towards beautiful beaches and azure waters, the park (the name translates as Sugar Loaf National Park) is small buts packs a punch. A trek to a cliff top with ocean views, lunch on the beach, a night in an ocean-side cabana, a cold beer watching the sun set and a walk along the beach in the early morning will be things that long remain in my memory.
With a cold beer in hand we watched one of the more memorable sunsets of our time in Latin America.
After a walk down the beach in the early morning (a shell collector’s dream), we tackled one of the highlights of the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar – a trek to reach the Mirador Pan de Azucar which affords sweeping views across the park and down the coast. The total walk is about 6km and the effort is rewarded by spectacular views. The route passes through beautiful desert scenery, full of different varieties of cactus and sightings of the rare camelid, the guanaco.
Next up on our trip to Chile was a night in the lovely city of Copiapo and an adventure into the high Andes to the little visited Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces.