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When you travel, you never know what to expect when you first arrive in a city. Everything is different and foreign. The smells are different, the food, the shops and the traffic. Then you start walking around and soon enough you don’t need google maps to get home. You find your favorite restaurant or coffee shop, the streets become familiar and the city starts feeling like home. And then you pack up and leave, just to start the whole cycle again.

By the time we left Arequipa, it was starting to feel like home, and I was sad to say goodbye to the fabulous white city sitting under its three looming volcanos.

Heading towards Tacna, the first 80km took us 2.5hrs through winding roads and canyons of multi-coloured rock formations. We passed vast tracts of red sand, then blinding white sand, then the road would weave through striations of gold, green and red rocks. Nature can be marvelous!

The last 200km were almost dead straight and flat. This huge long Pan American Highway stretching towards the horizon and thankfully this time the road was perfectly paved and great! We arrived in Tacna in the dark and left the next morning, so have no experience of the town.

Tacna in Peru to Arica in ChileRoadtrip from Tacna in Peru to Arica in ChileWHAT WE DID IN ARICA, CHILE

Arica may only be 20 minutes from Peru, but the change was instant. The roads were wider and in great condition. The beachfront was jam packed with beachgoers, all out enjoying the sun and the surf. In Peru, everything was dusty, houses were all unfinished and things looked tatty. Make no mistake, the outer sections of Arica are the same, but then in the middle is the big sparkly bit!

A huge mall, gleaming and shining, with a food court, cineplex, supermarket and great shops. Across the road is one of the hugest hardware stores I’ve ever been inside. It had everything you could conceive of from timber to duvet covers to cots to china.

The beachfront was as clean as a pin with all manner of exercise equipment and a huge kids playground. You could rent kayaks, surfboards and go karts.

The San Cristobel Market had great fresh produce and across the lane was a warehouse full of restaurants offering great deals on breakfast and lunch.

The beachfront in Arica in ChileThe beachfront in Arica in Northern ChileWHAT WE DID FROM ARICA TO SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA

SINGING STATUES

A local artist created these beautiful statues that stand starkly in the middle of the desert. They have been cleverly designed with holes and chimes, so that when the wind blows through them, they make musical sounds.

There are two benches where you can sit and enjoy the music, but the wind was howling while we were there, so we had to stand up close to the statues to hear the melody.

We experienced something similar in Zadar in Croatia, where there is a sea organ that makes tunes from the water lapping against tubes. So very clever!

There are more of these statues along the roadside, all created by the same artist.

Singing Statues in Atacama desertStatues in AtacamaDRIVE FROM ARICA TO POZO ALMONTE

Ruta 5 took us up one pass and down into the next valley over and over again. Dry, hot desert surrounded us and then you’d dip down into these green valleys with a splattering of houses and terraced farming. Soon enough the hills and valleys were left behind and the landscape flattened out. We felt like we could see till the end of the earth!

With no humidity in the air, there is no water to fragment light, which means you can see things perfectly clearly that are kilometers away.

Roadtrip from Arica to Pozo Almonte Roadtrip from Arica to Pozo Almonte in Chile's Atacama DesertThe Atacama Desert in Northern ChileThor in the Atacama desertHUMBERSTONE AND SANTA LUCIA

Humberstone is an abandoned town and Santa Lucia is the nearby deserted Saltwaterpeter. Both have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites due to their perfect preservation. Left uninhabited since the 1960’s, the buildings, engines and factories are still near perfectly intact. The Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth, and it is this lack of moisture that has prevented the decay and corrosion of these towns.

Being in the middle of nowhere, there were only one other couple visiting the sites, so we really did feel like we were the only ones there. The wind whistling through the cracks in the walls and lifting the metal sheeting of the roofs to create an eerie creaking noise. I was waiting for a tumbleweed to come rolling down the sandy street and a grizzly old cowboy to step through the saloon doors. But then I reminded myself we were in the Atacama Desert and not in a Western Movie!

Humberstone is a photographer’s paradise and a great look into life lived long ago.

COST: 4000 CLP per adult and 2000 CLP per child.

Child's Room at Humberstone ghost townHumberstone ghost townHumberstone deserted townHumberstone deserted town in the atacama desertHumberstone abandoned town in the atacama desertRusting jeeps at Humberstone abandoned town in the atacama desertGEOGLYPHS

Before arriving in South America, I thought the only geoglyphs could be found in Nazca, but in fact they are dotted everywhere through this vast desert. Admittedly, none are half as impressive as the Nazca Lines, but seeing giant Llamas looking down from the hillside or strange dancing figures on the sides of mountains, is still pretty awesome.

A lot you can see from the road, but to get up close usually requires payment of about 3000 CLP for adults and 1500 CLP for children. After the Nazca Lines, these weren’t worth the money in my opinion, so we admired them from afar.

DRIVE FROM POZO ALMONTE TO CALAMA

We followed Ruta 5 through the Atacama Desert and trust me when I say there is absolutely nothing here. Not a house, a person, an animal or even a fence! Just miles and miles of sand, rocks and desert. From Pozo Almonte to Maria Elena, which was the next petrol station, was almost 300km. 300km of nothing. The fan/aircon in Thor doesn’t work, so we had windows down, desperately trying to get any form of breeze blowing on us in the stifling heat.

Atacama Desert from Pozo Almote to Calama in ChileDry hot Atacama desertCOPPER MINE OF CHUQUICAMATA

The copper mine of Chuquicamata is the largest open pit copper mine in the World and is run by the state owned Codelco. Codelco has an office in the nearby town of Calama from where they run free daily tours to the mine. The tour takes you to the ghost town of Chuquicamata, created when due to health and environmental reasons, Codelco relocated all the miners and workers to the nearby town of Calama. The open pit mine is now more than 1km deep, 5km long and 3km wide. Gigantic trucks carry loads of 350tons of copper ore to the refinery at the surface.

 I had heard such fabulous reviews of this tour, so we spent the night in Calama, eager to jump on the bus the next day, but unfortunately, due to the current political situation and on-going riots, the tours had been temporarily cancelled.

The tours are free and leave at 1pm daily. They can get pretty busy so booking 2-3 days in advance is advisable.

Codelco Office in Calama
Email: visitas@codelco.cl
Telephone: +56552322122

DRIVE FROM CALAMA TO SAN PEDRO

The drive from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama was only 100km, but it went up over a pass with an elevation of 2241m. The drive was a slow steady climb and as we got higher, so Thor’s engine took more and more strain from the lack of oxygen. At some stages we were only going 25km/h.

The pass was amazing though. After days and days of desert, there was finally some greenery and in fact some sections were carpeted in red flowers. And we got to see our first wild Vicunas!! These are part of the Camelid family, along with Llamas and Alpacas. The Vicunas are protected and still wild.

Then came the descent into San Pedro de Atacama, through a gorge with the most bizarre rock formations. I could feel the amazingness of this place before we even arrived! We had made it through days of boring dry desert and I couldn’t wait to start exploring.

Calama to San Pedro de AtacamaRoadtrip from Calama to San Pedro de AtacamaVAN LIFE:

BORDER DRAMAS

When a USA registered vehicle changes ownership, new registration plates are created. We received our plates while still in South Africa, once the title deed for Thor, our campervan, was put in my name. On entering a country, you get a form called a TIP which is the vehicle’s proof of entry. When Thor entered Peru, the TIP was in Benjamins name and on his plates. Benjamin had to go to the consulate to get a “poder” which allowed me to drive the car, even though it was in his name.

When leaving Peru we needed to leave on his poder, TIP and plate number, but we had to enter Chile on my plates and my title deed. This is where we hit a bit of a problem. Usually you can leave one country and drive a bit to the next border post and then enter that country. Then it’s easy to stop and change the plates halfway. In our case, there was only one stop that dealt with all the paperwork for both countries. There was also only one big parking lot and lots of police!

I was so nervous about the possibility of getting caught while changing the plates, that I had made a plan! 1km before the border, we stopped, unscrewed the plates and stuck them on with double sided tape. Once at the border, I simply yanked the old plates off and quickly pressed the new plates on. It couldn’t have taken more than a second and no one noticed – thank goodness!!

Then there was the form! This had all my personal and the cars details. There were four carbon copies and at each stage of exiting, entering, canceling old TIP and applying for the new TIP, they would take a copy. The top 2 copies needed the old plate number and the bottom 2 needed the new plate numbers. So I simply folded the bottom 2 pages away when adding the old plate numbers so the carbon wouldn’t be copied through. Then added the new plate numbers in once applying for the new Chilean TIP.

It was all so incredibly stressful, but we made it through, and the car now has our plates and all in my name! Woohooo!!!

CASH ISSUES

Our excitement at getting through the border was short lived, when after the next ATM’s refused to give us cash in Arica, Chile. We bumped into French friends we had met in Arequipa and they had the same problem. After much driving around on both of our parts, they found an ATM that worked – Phew! Another drama averted, although we were charged R100 for the transaction!!!

And then we lost a credit card!
Without cash, we were forced to eat take-aways in the local mall, as they accepted cards. Tai used the card and placed it on my tray, but I was talking to our friends so didn’t take notice. Lunch ended and I threw our rubbish away, only to realise 30minutes later that my card was missing! I spent another 30minutes digging through the disgusting trash, trying to find the card – to no avail! Thank goodness I brought double of all my cards!!

VAN ISSUES

When learning something new, one has to pay school fees. Sometimes the school fees are minimal, other times more costly. Our school fees with Thor seem to be never ending!

The previous owner said he kept the fridge on gas even when driving, but this makes me nervous when the roads are bumpy and steep, so I prefer changing the setting to use the battery while we drive instead. It’s not automatic, so requires Tai to jump in the back to make the change when we start and stop driving. This is all good… when we remember!

I stopped unexpectedly to recharge my phone data and took way longer than expected, but that’s another drama! We set off and all was good, until we took a detour to check out some geoglyphs and then the car wouldn’t start! Tai set off for the 1km walk to the highway to flag someone down, but luckily some cars started coming our way. They very kindly jump started the car and off we set, a drama averted within a few minutes. We drove another 250km and stopped to get petrol, only for the van not to start again!

Jumper cables
First Jumper cables

Once again, our angels were around, this time in the form of Edwil, who spoke a splattering if English. For the second time in one day, we used the jumper cables to start the car. Then he checked our alternator to make sure it was working and that was good – phew! We then realized I’d left the lights on when we stopped for petrol, as well as the water pump (used for the loo). We turned the van off and it miraculously started again.

Second Saviour, Edwil
Second Saviour, Edwil

The generosity of people with their time and their willingness to go out of their way, still astounds me. At every turn and at every roadblock, there has always been someone there to lend a hand. Yes, its stressful and we pray that every outcome will be positive, but it is only due to these kind folk that we manage to stay on the road and keep going. If not for them, I’d be a crumpled mess of tears on the floor.

WHAT I LEARNT

  • Claro SIM cards from Peru will work in Chile, but cannot be recharged in Chile
  • LPG Gas cannot be found at petrol stations, only at Lipigas stations
  • Debit Cards work better than Credit cards in Chile
  • Don’t leave the fridge on battery or the lights on or the water pump on. The car battery will die.
  • Ticks can last 3 weeks without a host!!! Still finding the odd bugger crawling about.
  • Dust may make things dirty, but it can also a girl’s best friend. You can go for days without washing your hair and it never looks greasy!

WHERE WE STAYED

TACNA: We were planning on staying in the parking lot next to the tourist police, which was perfectly situated in the centre of town, but on arrival, there was a huge festival on the go and nowhere to park, so we ended up in huge gated parking lot run by Don Vittoro. There were bathrooms and cold showers and a restaurant that serviced the passengers of the buses stopping here.
GPS: S 18°1.1776′, W 70°15.809′

ARICA: We parked on the beachfront. There were public bathrooms, lots of restaurants and a fabulous playground for kids.
GPS: S 18°29.638′, W 70°19.531′

Wild camping on the beach in AricaPOZO ALMONTE: We parked on a side street, next to a church. There was good free Wi-Fi curtesy of the Chilean Government.
GPS: S 20°15.105′, W 69°47.182′

CALAMA: We stayed at the Petrobas petrol station. There were cameras and lights and it was busy, so we felt safe, although a group of protesters started banging, shouting and hooting next to us for a few hours. There were bathrooms in the gas station shop.
GPS: S 22°26.063′, W 68°54.993′

SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA: We stayed at La Casa del Sol Nacientes camping. This was a large space with clean bathrooms, great hot showers and a kitchen. It is affiliated to the hostel in the next street, so you can use the facilities at the hostel as well. Water is scarce in the desert, so they charge 3000 CLP per person to fill up the tank in a motorhome. Joy and her husband run the camping area and they are super friendly and helpful.
Cost: 7000 CLP per person per night
GPS: S 22°54.465′, W 68°12.172′

Camping in San Pedro de AtacamaTRAVEL DISTANCE

We route was Tacna (Peru) > Arica (Chile) > Pozo Almonte > Calama > San Pedro De Atacama
Total distance driven = 770km

TRAVEL COSTS

I will be providing our basic travel costs per week, so that you get an indication of what a trip like this entails. Bear in mind that we are budget travelers, so your budget could vary depending on your lifestyle choices. For example, we always opt for the cheapest and often, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and only require very basic accommodation.

For us, the experiences are where it is all at, so we’d rather spend money on activities.

The costs below are for the full 7 days.

The costs below are shown in Peruvian Sol (R1 = S/0.23) ($1 USD = S/3.40) and in Chilean Pesos (R1 = 56 CLP) ($1 USD =  850CLP).

Vehicle Costs

  • Fuel = S/ 556.20 + 119017 CLP
  • LPG Gas = 15171 CLP
  • Engine Oils = 32000 CLP
  • Tolls = S/66.5

Accommodation/Camping

  • Parking lot in Tacna = S/20
  • La Casa del Sol Nacientes camping = 14000 CLP

Attractions

  • Humberstone = 4000 CLP for adults + 2000CLP for kids = 6000CLP

Food

  • Restaurant = S/15 + 42350 CLP
  • Supermarket = S/19.3 + 36920 CLP

Van supplies and living

  • SIM card = 2000 CLP
  • Data = 3.5GB for 15 days = 5000 CLP

TOTAL = S/677 + 272 458 CLP = USD $519 or R7736

WHERE TO NEXT

We’re going to be exploring the town of San Pedro de Atacama, also in the Atacama Desert in Chile. There are some spectacular sights near the town – flamingos, salt lagoons, Moon Valley – but it is also at the foot of the Andes mountains and the borders of Bolivia and Argentina. This means that some of the sights are at very high altitudes, which will be something different.

While researching our trip, the photos I saw of this region were astounding, so I am beside myself with excitement to reach this amazing place on this wonderful Earth!

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Jeanne and her son Tai have been full time travellers since 2017. They are lovers of all things travel with an insatiable desire to explore every last corner of the globe. Homeschooling and working as they move from one incredible location to the next. Their goal is to use their travel guides and stories to inspire others to explore the world.

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