Norwegian days in Iquique
The view of Iquique was quite spectacular as we approached the city from the surrounding mountains and sand-dunes. In front of the mountain was a gigantic sand-dune, and behind the sand-dune we could see the skyline of buildings along the promenade . One of those buildings were to be our home for 3 days.
We had made contact with a nice Norwegian couple who had offered us to stay with them while we were in town. It was the first time in 8 months that we actually met Norwegians. There does not seem to be many of them around South America. After a lot of messing about we finally found the right building; a charmless block between a casino and a supermarket. Ole and Vibeke were very welcoming and let us in to their luxury apartment on the top floor. It was definitely the nicest place we had stayed in for a very long time! There was a huge corner balcony with city- and sand-dunes views on one side, and of the promenade on the other side. It was great to be able to chill on a sofa in the sun with stunning views. Ole served up a steak-meal and set new standards for all our future couchsurfing hosts. The city of Iquique reminded me a bit of Miami Beach; with its gigantic promenade and park area, outdoor fitness bikes and scantily clad people on roller skates. There were almost no other gringos there, so not a lot of tourists in this town. The town centre consisted of a quaint little plaza with trams made of tree and a small bell tower.
There was also a long and wide pedestrian street with Wild-West-inspired buildings. In the evening we had planned to go out with Ole and Vibeke to meet some other local couchsurfers. All of them were only Spanish-speaking, with little or no understanding of English. It went quite smooth as we at least managed to have simple conversations in the present tense-form (struggling a bit more with the past tense). We experienced some Chilean nightlife culture that night.
We paid to get in on a bit like "underground" club that some of the locals knew. When we got in we found out that it was a kind of primary school, and the party took place on the basketball court. They had stalls where they mostly only sold marijuana-related things. They had fertiliser, cannabis seeds, and at least 50 different magazines and books that only were concerning cannabis cultivation. It was at least no secret what this party was about! Something else that was very special, and that I like to think is a "typical" Chile thing was that the live music entertainment was a brass band. It was quite surreal and strange to see hundreds of people dancing like crazy to brass band-music in a gymnasium with disco lights!
It was actually quite catchy, and I could easily have imagined that we all would have jumped around like crazy on the dance floor if we had been there a little longer. We decided to stay in Iquique longer than planned, we just had a too good thing going on to leave! A fantastic apartment, a nice Norwegian couple and cheap, good wine every evening! We spent a few days relaxing and strolling around on the promenade. We visited the pier where all the fishing boats come in. There we found a pack of giant sea lions who just hung around begging for fish. They were quite funny when they optimistically stuck their nose up for fish every time we approached the edge of the pier. Unfortunately we had no fish to feed them, but when the fishermen came and threw some into the water for them they went completely crazy. As hungry as the giant mammals were I could have easily imagined that they had torn us to pieces and eaten us if we had been so unfortunate that we had fallen into the water.
Robbed on a bus in Chile
The following morning we continued our journey to an oasis town in the middle of the Atacama desert; San Pedro de Atacama. It was a pretty miserable day as the bus trip that was supposed to take 5 hours took over 8 hours, and ended up dropping us off in the wrong city. We found ourselves in a dirty little mining-town called Calama. It was 18.30, and the last bus to San Pedro had left at 18.15, so we had to have an involuntary night in Calama. We found the saddest hostel we had in all of South America at the highest price we had ever had to pay. For a freezing, dirty little broom closet with a thin door and a noisy reception outside, we had to pay 250 Norwegian kroner(14$) ". The town was not much to write home about, so we remained largely in our broom cupboard. The following morning we got up very early to catch the first bus to San Pedro. There were many bus companies that went that way, and all had offices in various locations in the city. We went to the first and best, which turned out to actually be the worst…. The bus seemed to be ready to leave, but there were no other passengers.
We entered the bus and sat down and waited. Several of the bus staff ran back and forth doing their thing . None of them had any kind of uniform or identification, which is quite common in South America. One of them came over and began to instruct us back and forth. He took our large backpacks and put them on the seat behind us and said they could stay there during the trip. He told us that we had to put our daypack up on the shelf above the seat. This annoyed us as we keep all our valuables in the small bags, and prefer to have them under control at all times. He mumbled something about police checks and drugs being the reason they had to be kept there. Torunn was very skeptical and so constantly kept watching the bags. Every time she looked up the man began shouting at her not to worry etc. 2 minutes later another bus man said we had to put the big backpacks in the trunk, which we thought was a bit strange after the first man had said that they could remain in the seats. After a few minutes, the first man came back and gave us a little piece of paper and told us to write down names, nationality and passport number. Torunn wrote the note while the man was messing about on the shelf above us. He had a black bag which he apparently was putting up on the shelf. After he had placed his bag on the shelf, he went out of the bus with his coat stretched to one side. Torunn got up at once and looked on the shelf above us. We got a huge surprise when we saw that my bag was gone! That bag had my passport, creditcard, all our money and the laptop with all our pictures from the last 6 months! Torunn ran out to find the bastard, and I ran after her. She found him behind the bus about to go into a parked car.
He threw the bag behind the car when he saw her, and began to babble things in Spanish to distract her, but Torunn went behind the car, grabbed the backpack, and swore loads in English to the asshole who stole our bag (our Spanish not being good enough to yell at people yet..)! We were pretty angry that the people who actually worked on the bus had not reacted when the thief were telling us what to do. We took the bags and went straight to another bus company that went to San Pedro.
After we had checked in our bags I actually walked over to the first bus company and retrieved the bag which the crook had tried to replace with our daypack. It was a very nice, brand new Osprey daypack. It suited me fine because at the time I was going to buy a new daypack anyway. Inside the Osprey backpack was another backpack! They were definitely daypacks that the thief had stolen from other travelers who had not been as awake as we were. I was pretty happy that the thief that had tried to steal from us, had two backpacks stolen from him!
Bicycle puncture in the world's driest desert We arrived in San Pedro after 1 hour and went to find a place to stay. It was a real desert city with dusty roads, burning bright sunlight and ancient stone churches. There was an incredible number of tourists, an established stop on the South American "gringo-trail». The desert itself is the main attraction in this city.
We rented bikes and set out on a day trip to a wonderful valley called "Valle de Luna» – the moon valley. The big draw there is the beautiful rock formations, salt flats and sand dunes. It is also known as one of the best places to watch the sunset. We cycled along the road in the dry desert air. Every 5 minutes we had to rinse your mouth with water as the lack of humidity here makes all the mucous membranes dry out in no time. Our eyes were stinging like crazy! At one point we rode past a small salt flat, and in one of my spontaneous moments, I found out that I was going to cycle on it. That was not a good idea…..It turned out that there was a deep layer of mud just below the salt layer, so my front wheel sank into the mud and I flew on my face over the bike. The bike looked like it had been in the war when we finally dragged it out of the mud, but it was still functional, At least for a little while.. We continued through the desert until we came to the valley. At the beginning of the valley we had to pay an entrance fee.
It is always ridiculous when we have to pay admission to something that nature has made, something I am strongly opposed. We have previously laughed at newspaper-articles in Norway about stupid things that tourists ask, one of which was the question about when the fjords close. That question does not seem so silly anymore after 6 months in Southg America where both valleys, lakes, beaches and mountains(!) have entrance fees and opening hours. It seems to be about pressing the tourists for what they are worth. The first thing we did in the valley of the moon was to walk through a narrow cave in the mountains until we came out on top. There we had views for miles with of sharp peaks covered with salt looking like snow. A few million years ago the whole area was under water. When the water disappeared there was only salt remaining, billions of tons of salt. We rode further up the valley, past tourist-buses full of people who had chosen the easy (and expensive) way to see the valley. We were much more happy on bikes…until my bike inexplicably had a flat tire in the middle of nowhere.
Standing in the middle of the world's driest desert with a punctured bicycle, and without a drop of water left actually sucks just as much as it sounds like. We had brought a spare-hose, but had no chance to change the hose without tools. What a day… begins with the attempted robbery, and end with us dying of thirst in the desert! Luckily a valley-guard showed up, who had room for our bikes in the trunk of his car. He drove us back to the entrance of the park and fixed the bike in few minutes; this was probably not the first time stupid tourists on bikes had problems here.. It was getting dark and we were in danger of missing the one thing that had brought us to the valley to begin with: the amazing sunset. We paddled like crazy back to the valley and managed to get up the mountain in time for a beautiful sunset, and moonrise.
There were a lot of other tourists there, but the area was so large that we did not need to stand on top of each other like we had last time we saw the world's best sunset in Santorini. The guards in the valley were absolutely ridiculous. Every time someone put a foot outside the marked trail they began to shout and make a big deal out of it, like it was holy ground. The only thing around the trails was sand and stone, not exactly ground covered with diamonds or chocolate. On the way down from the top Torunn set foot in the sand off the beaten path for a moment, and the guard who saw it began to shout as if the world was about to go under…talk about pedantic! We rode back in total darkness, but it was actually quite nice. The full moon lit up the desert sand and created a little magical effect where we rode alone through the valley. The light glistened and reflected the salt crystals and made us feel like we were in the middle of a diamond field. We got back to San Pedro, the most expensive city in all of Chile, and bought an overpriced empanada for dinner. We spent a few days more there and the only activity we did was walk through the desert to various desert attractions. Early in the morning on day number 3 we were picked up by a minibus; now finally the journey went to one of the expected highlights of the trip; the salt flats of Bolivia.