Posted by: Tom Lancaster | April 24, 2010

Sickness, salt and stars

Episode 11: San Pedro de Atacama/Santiago, Chile

Beard length (Tom): George Bernard Shaw

Skin colour (both): The really weak/milky tea that children and common people drink

Location: Santiago, Chile

Date: 24th April 2010.

Just a quick update today. It’s our last day in South America and it’s been a great three-and-a-bit months. It actually seems a lot longer than that to us, hopefully the whole trip will be the same and the next 8 months won’t be a blur!

We’ve had a fairly low-key week or so – I was “unwell” for two or three days with we arrived in San Pedro, which had its obvious downsides, but also one upside, in that I can now see my toes without craning my neck for the first time since university. The other upside is that we now have a whole new vocabulary for describing loo visits: “poo shake” and “Nik-Naks” being the most often used unfortunately. We’ve been forced to become much more familiar with each other!

San Pedro de Atacama

Jane was surprisingly sympathetic and nursed me back to health in time for us to enjoy a couple of days in San Pedro. The first (fairly obvious) thing to say about San Pedro is that it’s in the desert – it’s hot during the day and freezing at night. It’s a dusty little town, quiet and friendly, with a few swanky eateries,  lots of hostels and tour agencies, vast numbers of roaming (but friendly) dogs and not much else.

Slight snag to begin with was having to change hostel after the first night, after being kept awake until 4.30am, not by the usual dreadlocked traveller type with guitar and pan pipe combo, but by the hostel owners with a recorder and raucous singing! Not great for business, and the second hostel was altogether more convivial – you know you’re on to a winner when the owner is a middle-aged French woman.

We experienced the plunging night-time temperatures first-hand on an astronomy tour after midnight, which is up there with our favourite things so far. The skies in this part of the world are clearer than anywhere I’ve ever been (although Jane reckons Maine was about the same), and our guides were a comedy French/Chilean couple.

We saw Saturn up close through a telescope, a hazy Mars, numerous nebulae in the Milky Way and learnt with the naked eye about constellations and the history of star-gazing. It was educational and thought-provoking and I think I want to be an astronomer when I grow up.

The only downside was not having a swish camera to enable us to share the experience with you (donations welcome).

Our other trip in San Pedro was to the salt flats just outside the town. Since we decided to give Bolivia a miss, these flats were a consolation prize, but they were still very impressive.

Floating in the salt lake

First stop was to some saline pools, in which we could float to our hearts’ content (though found it surprisingly difficult to swim since our limbs were airborne). I also continued my “Mr. Bump” act by cutting my finger on the sandpaper rocks (don’t ask me how I hit the bottom in a pool in which you float).

I maintain that by getting into these minor scrapes I’m protecting Jane from similar accidents in my usual chivalrous way; she claims that I’m attention seeking and says “mind your head”, “mind out for that hole in the pavement”, “watch out for the dog shit” many, many times a day.

Life-threatening lacerations

After the saline pools, we headed into the salt flats proper, to two pools which are allegedly 1250 metres deep, but as you can see, are only about 15 metres across. Some brave souls were jumping into these icy pools, including a memorable side-belly flop from a “bubbly” Welsh lass, which drew gasps from the onlookers.

Ojos del Salar

We then headed out to the middle of the flats for a pisco sour and some great photo opportunities with the setting sun (unfortunately again our camera isn’t swish enough to do justice to the mountains).

Sunset on the salt flats

A 24 hour bus journey the following day brought us to Santiago, for a few days relaxation before our flight to Auckland tonight. We’ve done very little here – lots of walking and a couple of museums (another museum of pre-Columbian art today, we now must be amongst the leading authorities on the genre).

Put it away man!

We’ve been self-catering again, in preparation for our converted transit van tour of NZ. We did have one memorable lunch out (for the wrong reasons), when Jane ordered a cold seafood platter, not knowing that what she’d be served was a large bowl of raw seafood in their own juices.

I’m amazed she got any of it down, especially since one golf-ball sized item looked like a still beating heart. Not wanting to be defeated, she brought the leftovers back to the hostel to be fried up in some garlic butter for dinner (which she claims were delicious). Since you ask, my fish and chips were as good, if not better, than Harry Ramsden’s.

So our time here is at an end. We’ve loved it in spite of the drawbacks, but we’re also looking forward to New Zealand, where I understand you can flush your loo paper and they speak a pidgin version of English.

South America musings: generalisations and mild xenophobia

As we are at the end of our time in South America we thought a brief summary would be in order. Please note that in spite of all our whining and moaning, we’ve had a great three months.

In no particular order, here are our thoughts:

  • South America is hard work (even with a basic grasp of the lingo). There’s a whole different concept of personal space, manners etc.
  • “Service station” food knocks spots off a Wild Bean Cafe.
  • There are more Israelis in South America than there are South Americans – there are also more stray dogs than South Americans, but we don’t believe the two to be linked.
  • Israelis travel in small herds and are extremely modest.
  • Israel is the best country in the world and has the best fish, most attractive women and nicest beaches.
  • Australians have a volume control which fluctuates between loud and bellow.*
  • If you don’t like beans and rice, don’t come to South America.
  • Long distance buses are usually very comfortable but extremely frustrating (people talking, TV on the blink, food appearing at random times, unexplained stops in the middle of nowhere).
  • The scenery almost everywhere (but especially in Patagonia and in Southern Ecuador and Peru) is fantastic.
  • Buenos Aires is not the Paris of the South, it’s not even the Birmingham of the South.
  • Civic pride is not high on the agenda: even the most beautifully located towns have rubbish strewn gutters and half built buildings everywhere.
  • What they say about Argentinian beef is true.
  • Machu Picchu is the centre of the biggest tourist rip off conspiracy in the known world. Prices for all aspects of visiting it, and the surrounding sites, bear no relation to prices in the wider Peruvian world. It’s still worth it though, which unfortunately they know!
  • No dog has an owner (and most are missing serious amounts of fur/legs).
  • Apparently my wife looks like Princess Diana – who knew?!!
  • All meals come with Aji which should definitely be introduced to the UK (spicy tomatoey sauce/salsa thing).
  • Pestering levels go up a notch in Ecuador and Peru and the “no gracias” t-shirt should have been the first purchase of the trip.
  • Indigenous women really do wear those outfits all the time, complete with comedy bowler/fedora hat and have very few teeth past about 25.
  • Alpaca is really tasty, unfortunately we never got to try the cuy (guinea pig).
  • You will never be on any “gringo” bus without at least one musical instrument, often being played to an admiring group of gurning idiots.
  • We still haven’t got to grips with crossing the road, where the rules seem to differ everywhere. Our mantra: wait for the green man.
  • Ecuadorian buses come  complete with a rotating display of beggars, hawkers, evangelists but annoyingly never a food seller when you’re starving.

* This is a little disingenuous, we have met several Aussies who’ve reached Brian Blessed level on the decibel-ometer.

Anyway, finally our collective top-five things in no particular order:

  1. Iguassu Falls
  2. Star gazing in San Pedro, Chile
  3. Galapagos islands
  4. Machu Picchu
  5. Patagonia – El Chalten hikes (Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre)

Happily, these were also among the most expensive things we’ve done here, so at least it was money well spent!

Until New Zealand then……..

Any comments or questions are very welcome. However, bear in mind that we’re travelling around the world for 11 months, with varying standards of internet access, so won’t always be able to respond quickly!


  1. I’ve lost count of the South American countries you’ve visited, but how wise you were to shun Bolivia, where even as I write this deathless prose the natives are shoving coca-leaves into bottles of cola and calling the result “Coca Colla”, all with the benevolent acquiescence of their one-time coca-grower president. We’re sending you a NZ phrase-book, so you should be able to get by.

  2. Thanks for another splendid update! Have a safe journey to New Zealand. You never know, you may bump into Beechy!!!

  3. It seems MUCH longer than 3 and a bit months to me!!
    It’s good to hear that, overall ,the good experiences of South America far outweighed the bad, despite all those highly objectionable people you always seem to attract!
    We look forward to hearing about NZ, & I’ve got the map pins ready. Lots of love xx

  4. Well Tom… If you think I was hard to understand… What till you meet some REAL locals in NZ!! : -)
    Hope you arrived asfely and look forward to reading about your travels which will no doubt make me very very homesick!!

  5. Bet you. did’nt expect this. Good that you are both enjoying your adventure, and nice to be sharing your experiences in the amusing blogs. Love Dad

    • I didn’t expect it. Commenting on a blog? Next you’ll be. learning. how to. use a. keyboard! Jane says I’m mean for taking the piss.

  6. Enjoyed reliving some of the memories of South America through you two, look forward to swapping stories in August. Glad to hear the Israelis are as quiet and unassuming as ever! Hard to understand why no-one likes them…
    It’s amazing how much you’ll relax in NZ – even the death grip on your bags will loosen just a little!
    Although I do look forward to your destruction of the ‘travellers’ you’ll come across there – people will be phoning home to ask their mum how to cook pasta!

  7. BTW (see how quick a learner I am), I do envy you your clear-skies opportunity to study the stars and planets!

  8. Did you spot any good, cheap strikers in South America. I’ll need someone to replace Torres next season and, as usual, I won’t pay over the odds.

    When Gerrard escapes to Spain next month I’ll be needing a new athletic player to run up and down the pitch like a headless chicken. A rugby centre should be a sufficient replacment so keep your eyes peeled in Aus and NZ.

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