Taltal, the beaches of northern Chile and the vagaries of guidebooks

The guidebook for our trip to northern Chile turned out to be a bit hit-and-miss. I don’t blame the authors or the publishers, guidebooks are supposed to be just that: guides. They aren’t definitive, they don’t know your personal tastes and, despite their best efforts, by the time they’re published they’re already a year or more out of date.

That disclaimer aside, in the vast wastes of the Atacama Desert to completely ignore one of the few points of civilisation entirely is pretty shoddy. To overlook a really nice coastal town with a lovely central plaza, decent restaurants, bars and very welcoming people is…well…unforgivable.

The coast at Taltal, Chile

The coast at Taltal, Chile

Taltal isn’t going to win any prizes as the most exciting place you can wash up in but I’m glad we did. In truth, we only stopped there because the prospect of driving another 300km to the next pinprick of life on the map was just too much to bear.

A walk along the front and a stroll through tranquil streets as the sun set brought us to the lovely main plaza and a bar with a 1920s ice cream maker. I was going to take a photo of it, but by that time we were involved in a ‘cultural exchange’ involving an indecent amount of alcohol with a group of Chilean miners who wouldn’t let us leave or pay. The night passed quite quickly.

Industrial heritage at Taltal, Chile

Industrial heritage at Taltal, Chile

The fishing fleet at Taltal, Chile

The fishing fleet at Taltal, Chile

Fortified by our previous nights exertions, we set off in the morning to explore the beaches of Chile’s Pacific coast. First on the agenda was a recuperative lunch on a fabulous beach about 30km from Taltal. Except for two slightly hungover gringos and numerous seabirds it was deserted.

Beach, northern Chile

Beach, northern Chile

You can take the boy out of…etc.

Slightly hungover on a beach, Northern Chile

Slightly hungover on a beach, northern Chile

The night before we reached Taltal we stayed in the much heralded Bahia Inglesa, which comes recommended by just about every guidebook ever written. We were expecting tranquil golden beaches and a relaxed vibe; what we found was a small town with crowded beaches that was over-priced and over-developed. This small disappointment was soon put to flight by the wondrous coastline that stretches 1000km north from Bahia Inglesa.

As we headed back north towards our ultimate destination of Iquique, we explored as much of this fantastically beautiful, remote and wild coastline as possible. After all, we’d be back in landlocked Bolivia in a few days so we needed to get our fix while we could.

The wild Pacific coast of northern Chile

The wild Pacific coast of northern Chile

The wild Pacific coast of northern Chile

The wild Pacific coast of northern Chile

Shells on the beach, northern Chile

Shells on the beach, northern Chile

We reached the eminently forgettable city of Antofagasta for the second time on our journey with only one thing in mind: seeing La Portada. Thanks to obtuse road signs on our way south we’d missed the region’s most famous natural feature; on our way north we were determined to see it.

Perhaps our desire to see it was at fault, or perhaps its the fact that photos of La Portada are used on just about every piece of promotional material about the  region, but yet again reality defied expectation. La Portada is still an impressive sight, just not the impressive sight we were expecting.

La Portada, north of Antofagasta, Chile

La Portada, north of Antofagasta, Chile

Pacific Ocean cliffs north of Antofagasta, Chile

Pacific Ocean cliffs north of Antofagasta, Chile

North of Antofagasta the coast road runs all the way to Iquique, it is a beautiful route where the wild coastline is occasionally broken by sublime beaches with precisely no people on them. Most of this coastline isn’t a holiday destination, at weekends local communities use the beaches but during the week you have them to yourself.

Beach, northern Chile

Beach, northern Chile

Beach, northern Chile

Beach, northern Chile

Playa Grande, north of Antofagasta, Chile

Playa Grande, north of Antofagasta, Chile

Birds take flight, Pacific Ocean, northern Chile

Birds take flight, Pacific Ocean, northern Chile

And finally…just to show there are no hard feelings, a photo of the sunset over Bahia Inglesa.

Sunset over Bahia inglesa, Chile

Sunset over Bahia Inglesa, Chile

Road death shrines of the Atacama

Driving through the Atacama Desert you cannot help but be struck by the number of roadside shrines to those who have lost their lives on the monstrous Ruta 5 highway. It is easy to see how accidents happen with terrible frequency: the Ruta 5 is a two lane highway carrying thousands of large trucks, buses and cars daily, the distances are huge, the landscape monotonous, the heat haze relentless, the speeds high and overtaking maneuvers frequently insane.

Yet what might be considered ordinary tributes to friends and family who have died have, in this part of Chile, been turned into touching and highly personalised remembrances to loved ones. Even more remarkably, it is quite common to see family members tending these shrines even though they are hundreds of kilometres from the nearest village or town.

Many of the shrines are very elaborate, while some such as this tribute to a truck driver are very literal but also very moving.

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

In what could be considered an ironic twist, were they not constructed and tended with such obvious sincerity, the shrines often incorporate tires and other paraphernalia associated with driving and highways. The second of the photos below is of a shrine to a bus driver of semi cama buses.

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Some shrines are simple and humble while others are very grandiose.

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Then again there are some shrines that defy interpretation. Perhaps the person remembered by this shrine was a big fan of dinosaurs.

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

Roadside shrine, Atacama Desert, Chile

A desiccated and surreal world: Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces and Laguna Verde

The Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces is a stunning collection of high altitude lakes, bright white salt flats and multi-coloured mountains. It is a beautiful and enigmatic landscape of constantly changing colours, and unlike the better known area around San Pedro de Atacama or Bolivia’s Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, the park sees very few visitors.

It is so remote and there are so few visitors that its difficult to get there without your own transport, and with the exception of a couple of CONAF refugios there is no tourist infrastructure in the park. The ‘road’ (I use the term loosely) that runs closest to the park is in theory an ‘international’ road to Argentina, but it is in terrible repair for much of its length, there is no public transport and, apart from the occasional mining vehicle, little in the way of passing traffic.

The sun rises over the mountains en route to the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

The sun rises over the mountains en route to the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

In the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces it is possible to be apart from the rest of humanity – and from almost every other living thing. One of the reasons I wanted to visit the park was to go to Laguna Verde. Laguna Verde isn’t in the park itself, but is a must see if you are going to come this far from civilisation.

Landscape en route to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Landscape en route to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Landscape en route to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Landscape en route to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Driving around a bend on the dirt road the sudden sight of Laguna Verde is a special moment.

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Thanks to the geo-thermal activity in this region there are a couple of hot springs right on the shore of Laguna Verde. Despite the stench of sulphur they are lovely places to soak weary feet while soaking up the magnificent scenery.

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Even though we live in Bolivia at an altitude of 2700m, at over 4500m the park was having an unpleasant effect on us and I frequently found myself short of breath. I wasn’t alone…two young German travellers who were camped by the lake asked if they could get a lift back towards civilisation. They had arrived the day before with the intention of spending a week in the area and climbing the 6893m Volcan Ojos de Salado. Unfortunately they were suffering badly from the altitude and just wanted to descend.

Mineral lake close to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Mineral lake close to Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

With our new companions we headed back towards the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces and the dramatically located Laguna Santa Rosa, home to a population of flamingos – I’m not sure there is a more unexpected sight in this landscape than these bright pink birds. Before we left Laguna Verde we saw another extraordinary sight – a fully desiccated adult cow. I’m not sure where it came from since we didn’t see any other cows, but it provided warning of the dangers of this region.

Desiccated cow by the shore of Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Desiccated cow by the shore of Laguna Verde, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Much better adapted to this landscape are the rare camelids, guanacos…

Guanaco roaming freely in the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Guanaco roaming freely in the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Flamingos at Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Flamingos at Laguna Santa Rosa, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

We had lunch at an unmanned CONAF refugio on the shore of the lake before driving into a vast, flat plain that seemingly extends for ever and contains a salt flat.

Salt flat, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Salt flat, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Salt flat, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Salt flat, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Our journey out of the park was a little fraught. The authorities haven’t put any directional signposts or distance markers anywhere in the park. This leaves you driving down dirt tracks hoping you are going in the right direction and that you have a enough diesel left to get you to civilisation. This isn’t because they don’t want unnecessary signposts in the park, there are signposts, just none with any useful information.

Luckily our map reading skills were proficient enough to get us out of the park and back to asphalt.

Road to nowhere? Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Road to nowhere? Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Road to somewhere? Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Road to somewhere? Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

One final peculiar sight awaited us as we exited the park – a desiccated horse. I don’t know where these things come from, or if they are in fact placed there by the park authorities as visual warnings to careless travellers, but they are quite ghoulish.

Desiccated horse, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Desiccated horse, Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar

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.

Playa Blanca, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Playa Blanca, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

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.

Cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean, northern Chile

Cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean, northern Chile

IMG_0621

Cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean, northern Chile

Child's grave in a cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean, northern Chile

Child’s grave in a cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean, northern Chile

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.

The beach where we had lunch in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

The beach where we had lunch in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

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.

Our Cabana at Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Our Cabana at Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Playa Piqueros in front of our cabana, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Playa Piqueros in front of our cabana, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

With a cold beer in hand we watched one of the more memorable sunsets of our time in Latin America.

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Sunset on Playa Piqueros, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

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.

Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Cactus in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Cactus in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Flowering cactus in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Flowering cactus in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Guanaco in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

Guanaco in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

View down the coast, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

View down the coast, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile

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.