Chile - Iquique and Pica

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July 1st 2017
Published: July 4th 2017
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David here...

As Suzanne has mentioned, there was some 'excitement' on the the bus to Iquique. I couldn't believe that they put on 'I Spit on your Grave' for us to 'enjoy'. I thought it would at least be heavily edited. It wasn't. As it got worse and worse, I got more and more angry, until I couldn't just sit there. I stalked down the bus to find the attendant, unsuccessfully, then knocked loudly on the door to the drivers cab and told him in English what the film was about and to turn it off. He thought I was motioning to the air conditioning so lowered that, so I said 'the film, the film', again in English. He then got it, and turned it off. With hindsight, looking up the phrases I needed in Spanish would've been more useful. However the film was at a particularly nasty point and just needed turning off as quickly as possible. I thought I'd made a right prat of myself but when the woman in front said thank you, I knew I'd done the right thing. When we got to Iquique, the same woman spoke with the driver. She came over and told us in broken English that she had explained to the driver and attendant why the film had to be turned off.

After that excitement we had a 30 minute walk to El Faro hostel. The hostel is quite new and our room was clean, roomy and with a spacious bathroom and decent shower. The private room also came with breakfast, which consisted of a mountain of cheese and ham toasties each morning, which made a delicious change. The staff were all very friendly when we needed something and there was a decked area with music playing where you could sit and drink a cold German beer. It was a lovely place to stay.

As it was quite late when we arrived, we relaxed and freshened up before heading out for food. We ended up at San Jose pizza, which was tasty, cheap and we got free garlic bread. Still, no tomato sauce base on the pizzas in Chile. After the meal we popped to a big supermarket nearby and bought a carton of red wine, which we drank on the decking back at the hotel before bed.

After a toastie mountain breakfast we spent the next day wandering round Iquique. We walked up the coast, spotting some sealions relaxing next to a car park, before walking into the main plaza area. We also stopped off at the bus station to try and buy bus tickets to our next stop, but found they were much cheaper online, which is a little strange. The main plaza and the pedestrian road leading off it are lovely and a great place to wander around. The pedestrian street looked how we imagine New Orleans, with all the old colonial style buildings.

We went for a cheap lunch at Hotel de la Plaza, C$4,000 for a 3 course lunch. All was going fine until after the main course. No one appeared with dessert for a good 30 minutes and we got bored of waiting. We found all the staff watching the Chile v Portugal football match (3-0 on penalties to Chile) so paid up, without the service charge, and left. It was then back to the hostel to buy and print out the bus tickets. We may also have had a couple of beers in the communal area.

In the evening we headed out to La Picá del Pescador, a seafood restaurant nearby. As we looked at the board outside the owner came over and introduced himself. We explained that we only had a small grasp on Spanish and he could only say Fish and Fisherman in English. We decided to stay. It was very local but had a lovely cosy atmosphere. The owner showed us some pictures of food and we both had white fish, mine fried and Suzanne's grilled. We also ordered a glass each of the house white, and out came the biggest glasses of wine I've ever seen. We probably had a whole bottle while there. The food was also plentiful and very tasty. The meal came to £38 in total, not cheap but pretty good for Chile. As we were leaving the owner said to us 'Mi casa, su casa', which was a lovely touch and really summed up the place, very local, friendly with some great tasting fish, we loved it there. The evening was rounded off with a bottle of red back at the hostel before bed.

The next day we were up and about quite early and walked to the minivan station just up from our hostel near the market. We were aiming to get out of the city and to Humberstone and Santa Laura, the abandoned saltpeter works and ghost town about 45 minutes away. As soon as we got to the minivan stop, we got tickets (C$2,000 each) and were on our way. As we climbed over the mountains out of the city, the sunshine hit us. We'd been led to believe that in Iquique the sun is nearly always out but while we were there it remained reliably overcast.

The driver stopped and let us out on the main road near to the entrance to Humberstone and told us to flag down a van on the other side to get back. As mentioned, Humberstone and Santa Laura are now museum ghost towns, abandoned saltpeter works and villages where the workers and their families used to live. The town sprung up due to the nitrate boom in the late 1800's until the crash in the 1930's, the town finally being abandoned in 1960.

The place is fascinating, and is big enough that you can find areas without anyone around. I felt like I was in a real life Fallout game. I was sure that this place was inspiration for the game. We spent about 2.5 hours at Humberstone and then walked the 20 minutes to Santa Laura, where the big processing plant was. Both sites were fascinating, with most information in Spanish and English. There are even some shops in the old market area of Humberstone where you can by souvenirs, drinks or ice cream.

We left after about 4 hours, getting to the bus stop where indicated earlier and flagging down a passing minivan back into Iquique. It was a brilliant use of the day and we would highly recommend visiting both sites. Once back at the hostel we bought a couple of beers each and relaxed in the communal area again.

For our evening meal, we popped out to the nearby supermarket and bought a bagged roast chicken, bread, butter and mayo. Along with some drinks, this was enough to see us through the evening, the chicken was particularly tasty. As there was no music playing we put our own music on for the night, no one seemed to mind.

The next day we ploughed our way through yet more toasties before checking out, leaving our bags for a few hours at the hostel as we walked to the southern area of town. We spotted a Peruvian Pelican on the rocks and some Turkey Vultures, however out of season and with the clouds, it felt a little run down. We passed the depressing aquarium and the even more depressing kids theme park before heading back to the hostel for our bags and then onto the minivan area again to head inland to Pica.

We got to the same minivan company just as they were about to head off, the lady selling the tickets recognising us and saying 'hello, you are seats 1 and 2' in a very haughty English accent, that had everyone in hysterics. It was all good natured fun and she rounded down the fare for us. The journey to Pica was 2 hours and completely uneventful.

Pica is a small village that is famous for it's small but surprisingly acidic lemons. We were there for their Oasis de Pica natural thermal pool though. We had read that the best time to go was first thing in the morning so decided that as we had the time, we would stay a night so we could get there as they opened. We chose Hostal Dylann, which was alright. We think we were upgraded to a much larger room as ours was being cleaned when we arrived but no one else was staying there.

On the way to the hostal we had managed to pick up a stray dog that followed us to the hostal and stayed there for a while before disappearing. We headed out round the town and up to the pool to see what time it opened and the cost (8am to 8pm, C$3,000). We then bought a 6 pack of beer as all the bars and cafes were shut and drank these outside our room, when our stray dog came back and and we were joined by a spaniel as well. Great, 2 stray dogs following us round now.

We decided to go to the number 1 place in town to eat that night, but found it shut. We found 2 branches of the second best place but both looked a little iffy. We ended up wandering up towards the pool again, where we'd earlier spotted a place called Pub Viejo Norte. What a good decision. We managed to get into the pub leaving the dogs outside (for a little while before one of them sneaked in and curled up under our table and fell asleep) and found a woman who seemed a little bewildered to see us. Anyway, she gave us some menus and we ordered a bottle of sparkling wine and a 'Tabla Viejo Norte', basically a big pile of chicken, pork and beef with fried slices of potato, onions, peppers, tomato and 2 fried eggs on the top. It was delicious and we got a lovely smile from the lady when we told her so.

While we were there, everyone who came in said hello to us, so we were feeling quite welcome. We decided to try the Chilean version of a Pisco Sour. There is a big ongoing dispute about which country came up with the original Pisco Sour, Chile or Peru. After tasting both of them, I think I prefer the Chilean version. It was delicious. So sweet and sour at the same time, we ordered 2 more before ordering a beer each to round off the evening.

While we were drinking, some of the locals came up and asked for selfies with me. I was happy to oblige, and has happened to me on our travels a few times. Then a family came in with 2 sons and their Dad was convinced I was famous, which then led the kids to think I was famous. They took selfies with me, chatted and then one of the kids asked for my autograph. I had to put into Translate that I was not famous. Still not sure if he believed me or not. After the beer, we said goodbye to everyone and headed back to the hostel, even managing not to disturb the dog under the table as we didn't want a repeat of the dog following us in Bolivia (which we still think about even now).

After a very comfortable nights sleep, we were up and got the thermal pool for 08:15. We found that we were the only people there and it remained that way for about 30 minutes before an elderly woman joined us and then a family 30 minutes after that. The pool is not really hot, but pleasant. While one end is a bit ugly looking, at the other end there are rocks, trees and caves which does make it feel like an oasis. There were also Hummingbirds flying around, which made it feel quite magical, and a few little fish nibbling at you. We were in there about 90 minutes before getting out and heading back to the hostel for showers.

We checked out at 12:00 and headed to the main square, stopping off for a Barros Luco sandwich each, named after a former president who supposedly came up with the recipe. It is only a thin strip of beef with melted cheese and was tasty enough but not a patch on the Argentine Lomo or Uruguayan Chivitos. From the main square, we hopped into a waiting minivan and were soon back in Iquique.

Our overnight bus was at 19:00 so we had a 4 hour wait. We sat reading in the main square for a while before going to a chicken restaurant, Polleria La Canasta, which we spotted while walking to the hostel when we first arrived in Iquique. The thing that drew is was that the place was rammed, even though it was mid afternoon on a Tuesday. Mid afternoon on a Saturday was no different but we managed to get a table. We both went for a quarter of chicken with chips and a drink, for the bargain price of C$3,000 each (£3.50). The chicken was juicy and full of flavour with a pile of lovely chips, we would highly recommend the place.

By the time we had finished, we only had 90 minutes until our bus was due so we wandered to the bus station and waited there, reading and watching the world go by. 19:00 came and went and we were starting to worry that maybe we were in the wrong place. We asked at the Expreso Norte office who indicated that it was late and we were in the right place. The bus did eventually turn up, about 30 minutes late.

The bus was already quite full, to the point where they couldn't get all the bags on as the hold was full of massive cases and shopping bags. The attendant indicated that Suzanne would have to take her bag to our seat, which we did but then took it down again when it was obvious that there was nowhere it would go. We would be able to tolerate it on our knees for a few hours but a 17 hour bus journey overnight, not a chance. Eventually a number of bags were put inside what we presumed was the attendants area and locked away.

After a few hour everyone had to get off at a customs point and take their luggage to be scanned before being reloaded again after the bus was searched, mainly for fruit we think. Why have a customs check in country? What is the point? Anyway, it gave the driver and attendant the opportunity to reload the hold again, where it became obvious that most people ignore the rules on the size and number of luggage you can take. Anyway, this time they managed to get all the bags in the hold and we were on our way again.

We enjoyed Iquique very much, though it would've been much nicer in the summer season with everything in full swing and with better weather. However we loved visiting Humberstone and Santa Laura and enjoyed the restaurants. We found the people to be very friendly and our hostal was very comfortable and nice for the price we paid. We really enjoyed Pica as well and would recommenend staying the night to get to the pool first thing, it was well worth it.

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