Arica, La Serena and San Pedro de Atacama

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October 9th 2014
Published: October 9th 2014
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The border crossing between Peru and Chile was probably one of our more timely and complex. It involved getting a bus from Arequipa to Tacna, then finding a minibus (which we failed to do and ended up sharing a taxi with some other travellers), to take you across the border, the friendly taxi driver then sorts out all your paperwork. At the border crossing we obviously looked a bit suspicious as we were both hauled into a couple of side rooms to have our bags searched and be patted down. Nothing to find here but they seemed curious as to why I was returning to Peru nearly 5 years to the day after leaving. A short explanation in broken Spanish and, luckily, we were off again. Our taxi driver dropped us safely in Arica, where we jumped in a taxi for what turned out to be an easy ten minute walk. Oh well, lesson learnt. Our hostel, Sunny Days, had rave reviews and these were very well deserved. We were greeted by a friendly Kiwi owner with juice and fruit cake, yum! The atmosphere was really friendly with a mixture of guests, from your standard backpackers to families and a few others in between. People spoke of staying at the hostel for weeks after only intending a short trip, everyone sat around the common area as others cooked; swapping stories and recommendations. We also ended up catching the bug and staying one extra night, we used the time to do not a lot. Arica is described as a surfers paradise, and although cloudy weather tried to put us off, we spent a lot of time at the beach. Albeit with books and blankets rather than surf boards.

The small town offered little, but we took a short, steep walk up the mirador (lookout) taking in the sights, stood in the Pacific, got asked by a Chilean teenager if we liked one direction, tried some cerviche (a South American dish made with raw fish and lemon juice, it was surprisingly tasty, if not a little acidic) from the harbour and spent some time with the sea lions and pelicans. The harbour at Arica is shared by sea lions and pelicans all fighting over the fisherman's scraps. When someone with a bucket walks by the sea lions all rush towards them, belly flopping themselves back into the water from their basking point on the rocks. The pelicans were suffering while we were there as the water had been too cold and the fish were swimming in deeper waters they couldn't reach. Also, a knock to their wings from any of the numerous fishing boats and they were out of actions and couldn't fish any more. We enjoyed watching them go about their harbour based lives and we ended up with quite a lot of photos.

I got to watch my second football match this trip in Arica. Yay. I wondered how I'd managed to get dragged to two football matches, yet I'd yet to see a spa. It didn't seem fair. We had heard that there was a game on tonight and after some quick deliberation (ie a guilty smile from Chris and I knew he'd already made up his mind that we were going) we jumped in a taxi and made our way to the stadium. It wasn't quite the same standard as the world cup match, but Arica put on a good show beating Universidad de Chile 2-1.

Another highlight of Arica was finding Waitrose goods in the local supermarket. We treated ourselves to some yummy cookies we enjoyed on the beach and a box of English Breakfast tea to remind us of home. I definitely enjoyed the tea more than the football!

Arica served its purpose to us well, giving us some time to relax and do not a lot after a hectic few weeks.

We travelled from here to San Pedro de Atacama, a desert in the north east of Chile. Considering it was the desert we were not prepared for the heat and spent our first 30 minutes wandering around, looking for our hostel, sweating as we regretted wearing so much clothing. From here you can do similar trips to the one we did through the salt flats in Bolivia, and can even end uip in Uyuni, where we had started ours. To avoid duplication we instead booked ourselves onto a stargazing trip and a morning sand boarding. Our stargazing trip was first and something we had been looking forward to for a while. It didn't disappoint, with the naked eye we saw the southern cross and many zodiac constellations, the guide gave a lot of information about Andean astrology. It was interesting to see the constellations from the southern hemisphere, having to turn our heads upside down to get the view we would normally see at home. A quick look at some craters on the moon through a telescope (awesome, you could see so much detail), and we then got taken onto the rooftop to use a telescope Patrick Moore would have approved of. Using this we got to see the rings of Saturn (again) and a nebula. Pretty cool.
After a quick hot chocolate to warm us up they dropped us back to our hostel. Here we had a lovely private room with an en-suite for the price of a tent in the garden (which in hindsight would have been ridiculously cold and we were fools to have booked it, thinking it would be fun). Our upgrade was due to their mistake with the booking which worked out very nicely, and warmly, for us.

The next morning we climbed into a minibus laden with plenty of snow boards and boots and made our way to the sand dunes. Finally we would get to go sand boarding after being cancelled on in Nazca. Apparently having wide hips makes for a better sand boarder as they are better able to keep their balance. However, I didn't actually particularly enjoy the activity and my wide hips seemed to make me go faster which I definitely wasn't a fan of. My response to going too fast wasn't, as you might expect, to slow down, but to tilt over too far and stop myself by falling in the sand. Excellent. Chris, however, loved it, got praised by the instructor and had numerous runs down the dune, speeding up with every one. Now, for those of you who aren't familiar with the activity I will explain. Basically you wear snow boots and have a snow board as though you are going snow boarding, but instead of snow there's, yes, you've guessed it, sand. This also means it is much hotter than snow boarding and there are no ski lifts to carry you to the top. After squeezing in a few last goes, Chris had to give in and jump back on the minibus with the rest of the group. He had a taste of it now and spoke of going snow boarding in the future.

After a quick stop at the empanada shop (our favourite South American snack) we made our way to the bus station for another long, overnight bus journey to La Serena. This wasn't somewhere we had planned on going but the bus journey from San Pedro de Atacama to Santiago was a 24 hour one and although we had become overnight bus connoisseurs, even we didn't fancy that. It was on this bus journey that we met our friendly bus host, Roberto. Roberto spent some time at the beginning of the journey telling us (in broken English/Spanish) where we would be stopping, at what time and most importantly, at which stops to hold onto your bags because people come onto the buses to steal them. Why the bus company doesn't just stop these thieves entering their buses I am not sure. But we did as we were told anyway. Roberto was super friendly, with his nods and smiles at you as he walked past, however, we nearly ruined this friendship when at the rest stop we were late and Roberto came running at us, shouting in Spanish that it was time to go. We had paid for some food but hadn't been served it yet so insisted we collect this first, he allowed this then hurried us back onto the bus, at one point pretending to shoot us. We were made to look even more foolish when ten minutes later we were served food on the bus. Oops. All seemed to be forgiven when I woke in the night to him tucking me in with a blanket.

La Serena, like Arica, had little to offer except for a few days of sunshine and some time to, once again, do very little. After a few days of cooking in the hostels we went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. As some of you will guess, this was Chris' choice as I am not too fond of Chinese food. The menu was only in Spanish so we had a good guess at ordering. We were served roughly what we thought we were getting so we counted it a success. The next day I had booked onto a tour to go and see the Humboldt penguins, only for it to be cancelled due to high winds. The weather in La Serena itself was calm with beautiful sunshine, so I was dubious and think that they had other reasons to cancel, a similar feeling to the one we had in Nazca. I was pretty gutted but later found out there aren't actually many penguins there at this time of year and also that tourists visiting the island has minimised bird populations. After this information I was a little glad it had been cancelled and took my refund and treated myself to a much needed pedicure. (Don't worry, I hadn't left Chris out, for the past few days he had been feeling a bit sorry for himself and had caught a bug so he was tucked up with a hot water bottle. I blamed the Chinese food.) So, my pedicure, it ended up taking two hours and I felt so sorry for the girl doing it I gave her quite a generous tip. Turns out 6 weeks of walking in flip flops and walking shoes, going to extreme temperatures and doing treks doesn't make for nice feet. I'll spare you the details and just mention that my pedicure involved, among other tools, a dremmel drill.

With my freshly sanded toes and Chris feeling right as rain again we boarded a bus to Santiago to explore the country's capital.

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