It’s not an overstatement to say that we came to Santiago, Chile in part for its Taco Bell. When your husband is obsessed with fast faux-Mexican food, but there’s nary a Taco Bell in most of the countries in the world, the best way to his heart is to surprise him with an Airbnb a block away from his Tbell fix.
- Days 1-6: Santiago and surrounds
- Days 7-10: Rapa Nui
- Day 11: Santiago
- Days 12-13: San Pedro de Atacama
Dates: March 5-18, 2019
But in all seriousness, we came back to Santiago for a number of other reasons, too. We loved this city when we first visited in 2014. It’s modern, easy to get around, and there is great food (Taco Bell aside). Plus, and perhaps most importantly, Santiago is one of only two airports in the world with direct access to Rapa Nui (aka Easter Island, aka home of the giant stone head statues you saw on your computer screensaver in school). The other airport is in Tahiti, you know, on the other side of the Pacific.
With a little under a week to spend in the city before flying to Rapa Nui, we decided to explore some spots we didn’t see on our first trip.
Our Airbnb, located in the “cool” university neighborhood, was also just a few blocks away from the late famed (and controversial) poet Pablo Neruda’s home, La Chascona. We decided to start our first day adventuring around the city there to learn a bit more.
The home itself has a heavy nautical theme, and is decorated with colorful and quirky artistic pieces of furniture and decor designed by artists contemporary to his time (1904-1973). I enjoyed learning about the poet, as I’m familiar with some of his poems, and particularly about his involvement in the complicated Chilean politics of the time.
Unfortunately, and this is where the controversial bit comes in, he raped at least one woman in his lifetime, which he himself described in a memoir. It can be hard for some to dissociate the quality of his writing from this action, though.
Without defending his actions at all, I think it’s reasonable that someone can still be a very good poet (though probably not a very good person) and also be a rapist. But it does feel icky to give any kind of compliment to a rapist. It’s similar to how I feel when Remix to Ignition comes on and I absent-mindedly start singing along.
But I digress.
Santa Lucia Hill
After touring the house, we continued our walk. The highlight of the day was visiting Santa Lucia Hill,which has a seemingly endless maze of trails, leading the way to the ruins of military forts, grand facades, and stunning fountains. At the top of the fortress, we found a stunning view of the city, despite a thick haze that obscured the Andes mountains in the distance.
Vina del Mar and Valparaiso
The next day, we took a day trip to Vina del Mar and Valparaiso, two cities on the coast. Valparaiso in particular is famous for its stunning street art. I’d gone with our friend Becky back in 2014, and wanted Tim to see it on this trip back to Chile.
Unfortunately, this tour was not good and I wouldn’t recommend it. Our guide didn’t give much information, we spent a lot of time standing around waiting for him to tell us where we’re going or what we’re doing, and overall we just felt like we were trapped. We would have MUCH rather explored on our own.
My recommendation is don’t take the guided day tour. Take an uber (split between two people from Santiago and back it’s $50 USD/person, the same cost as the tour) or bus to Valparaiso, time it so that you can join one of the excellent free walking tours, and skip Vina del Mar altogether.
By the end of the tour, Tim and I would have paid even more to just have our time back!That said, I still enjoyed walking around Valparaiso when we finally got there, and time spent on the beach at Vina del Mar wasn’t a bad thing, per se.
The last thing we did in Santiago a few days later was a wine tasting trip through the Maipo Valley. Tim and I love visiting vineyards and tasting local wines when we travel, and since Chile is one of the world’s leading quality wine producers, spending a day at the wineries was a no-brainer.
We opted to tour Maipo Valley with Maipo Travel, who offer the most unconventional and unfussy wine tour I’ve ever been on!
Rather than doing formal wine tastings at each winery, our guide would provide us a short tour while filling our glasses with a wine from that vineyard. The whole day was very relaxed, and there was never a shortage of wine (not even on the short drives between stops!).
Rather than a stuffy overpriced lunch at a vineyard (which, believe me, I love pretending to be fancy sometimes), we had a traditional Chilean meal in a local farmer’s backyard, with cats, dogs, and chickens running all around! We even got to try homemade wines and liqueurs at our guide’s home.
Overall, the experience was very different from what we expected. If you’re looking for traditional sit-down wine tastings in Maipo Valley, this is not the tour for you. If, however, you are up for a little adventure and want to get a glimpse of real local life in Maipo Valley (while drinking wine of course), then this will surely be a day you won’t forget.
That night, since it was a Saturday, we decided to make the most of the nightlife in our neighborhood. We ended up finding a fantastic little bar that was more like a beer garden with a dj and lots of chair dancing. It was right up my alley. We stayed until nearly 3am, sitting in our plastic chairs and singing along to the songs we knew.
After a day of vegging out and relaxing, we then got on a plane to fly 5 hours into the Pacific Ocean to arrive on Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island. It’s a place that geographically is closer to Polynesia than South America, but somehow ended up being part of Chile in the wierd geopolitical drama of the world.
We landed on Rapa Nui right around lunch time, after a 5 hour flight from Santiago, Chile (the only other direct flight option is from Tahiti). Also known as Easter Island or Isla de Pascua, this island is one of the most remote inhabited places on earth. For perspective, the nearest place with a population over 500 is the town of Rikitea, on the island of Mangareva, 2,609 km (1,619 miles) away.
For a long time, the large moai statues that cover the island remained a mystery to scientists. Now, we know the Rapa Nui people carved these faces from lava rock from 1200 to 1500 AD as part of their religious practice of ancestor worship.
There are almost a thousand moai on the island, and we decided to start our exploration at a sunset spot called Ahu Tahai (by the way “ahu” indicates the moai heads stood on a ceremonial platform).
This was our first time seeing moai on the island. Ahu Tahai is located right near the town of Hanga Roa (the only town on the island), so it’s an easy and popular spot for people to catch the sunset after dinner in town.
I felt a wonderment similar to that which I experienced at Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. Having seen countless documentaries about these statues, I’ve dreamed since I was a child of one day getting to see them myself.
For dinner, we decided to try a nice place right on the water called Pea Restobar. We got a delicious plate of various tuna dishes, including a yummy ceviche.
Orongo, Vinapu, Vaihu, Akahanja, Tongariki, Papa Vaka, and Ahu Te Pito Kura
The next day, we started touring around the island in our rental car, starting with the archeological site Orongo, on Rano Kau volcano.
The island itself was formed by two volcanos, and Rano Kau volcano was one of them. It is not just geologically beautiful with its deep crater filled with a soup of endemic plant life, but it’s also the site of one of the most fascinating aspects of 18th and 19th century Rapa Nui culture.
On the slopes of this crater, Rapa Nui people built what we now call the Orongo Ceremonial Village, where rituals and competitions associated with the “Birdman Cult” took place.
Every year, young men (“sponsored” by wealthy or prestigious men) would swim from the main island to the nearby Moto Nui island to await the first egg from migratory sooty terns.
The sponsors would wait back at the Orongo Village while the young men completed the (often deadly) journey to and from the island.The sponsor of the first man to return with the egg (note – not the guy who actually did all the work!!) would be deified as a Birdman for the next year.
Our second stop of the day was to Vinapu, which not only has several toppled moai, but also an intricately and precisely built stone wall. The massive blocks fit perfectly together – something difficult even with technology today.
Topknots, which reflect a hairstyle popular during the time of moai creation, also lay on the ground at this site. After erecting the moai, this would go on top!
After a stunning scenic coastal drive, our third stop was to Vaihu, another location where you can see several toppled moai and a recreation of traditional houses, which resemble upside down canoes.
Our fourth stop was another site, called Akahanja, to see toppled moai and more coastal views. It’s notable for a few reasons – it’s completely unrestored; the moai toppled both forwards and backwards (most on the island are toppled forwards); you can see the remains of a village; and the first king of the island is (according to legend) buried here.
Our fifth stop of the day, Tongariki, had the biggest WOW factor of them all with 15 moai standing tall and proud. Standing in front of them, I felt so small. You could really sense the grandeur of what these statues meant and how significant honoring their ancestors was to the Rapa Nui people.
On our sixth stop, Papa Vaka, we checked out some examples of petroglyphs, mostly depicting elements of life at sea, like boats and fish.
Ahu Te Pito Kura, our last stop (finally!), lacked the grandeur of the previous moai stop, but is perhaps even more significant. Here, the largest moai ever erected lays toppled face down. He’s over 10 meters tall and weighs more than 80 tons!Just a few meters away, we found an enigmatic-looking stone structure.
According to legend, the first Rapa Nui king brought this “magnetic” stone from Hiva, his native land. Because of its high iron content, this rock heats up faster than the lava rocks native to the island, and it can cause a compass to misbehave. The Rapa Nui people believed it has a magnetic and supernatural energy (mana).
For dinner, we ventured to a highly recommended restaurant called Haka Honu, where we got a delicious fresh juice and two big, filling meals.
Ana Te Pahu, Ahu a Kivi, Puna Pau, and Rano a Raraku
The next day, Tim and I arrived at one site thinking it was a completely different place on our map than what it actually was.
There was a park ranger checking tickets so we knew it was SOMETHING, we just didn’t know what.It turns out we were at Ana Te Pahu, the largest cave on the island. It’s made entirely of lava tubes! The cave was an ancient dwelling, as evidenced by the stone ovens inside.We ended up exploring dark tunnels and rooms for about 1km of the 7km long cave system, coming across gaps in the rocky ceiling that let sunrays in along the way. Thankfully, we ran into a tour group we were able to follow to ensure we didn’t get lost.
Back on the beaten path, we found our originally intended destination, Ahu a Kivi! This site is unique because the moai are further inland than at any other site. These 7 moai are said to represent the explorers who came to scout out the island in advance of the first Rapa Nui king leading his people here.
Then, we visited Puna Pau, the rock quarry where the Rapa Nui would create the topknots from volcanic rock to go on top of the Moai statues. Today you can still see a few topknots that were never rolled out of the quarry.
We ended the day at THE most iconic site on the island, Rano a Raraku. This is the place that made me cry at how grateful I felt to be there. Rano a Raraku is the volcano quarry where the Moai were made. Of the 1000 Moai ever built, nearly 400 of them are still at this “Moai factory”.
That night, we returned to Pea Restobar for a delicious seafood dinner.
Tongariki Sunrise, Ohave Beach, and Anakena
On our last day exploring the island, we returned to Tongariki for sunrise, which was at 8:17 am. With sunrise that late, you really don’t have an excuse to not get up to catch it! It ended up being well worth it, too, with stunning rays of sun peeking between the statues.
After sunrise, we went to picturesque Ohave Beach, tucked in a cliffside cove. We were the only ones there (with the exception of a 3 person photoshoot with a very nude model). It’s a fantastically picturesque spot, and even a bit of adventure to get to since you have to scramble over some rocks to get down into the cove.
Anakena, the last spot we visited is the best of both worlds – a gorgeous white sand beach with palm trees from Tahiti, plus a row of several moai facing inland right in front of the beach. We spent an hour or so laying out in the sun before heading back to our Airbnb to get ready for one last dinner in town.
Although our time on Rapa Nui was fantastic, there are some dark elements in the island’s past and present.
The first has to do with deforestation. In order to roll the Moai statues to their destinations, the Rapa Nui people cut down ALL of their trees to use the logs as rollers. As a result, the topsoil eroded and farming suffered. At the same time, they had no timber left to build boats so they couldn’t fish. Eventually tribal warfare broke out, and the population declined to a mere 30 people (of course, European visitors shortly after didn’t help things….). There are still barely any trees on the island, though reforestation projects are underway.
Secondly, we saw ongoing protests against the disrespect of Rapa Nui heritage, something I was surprised to see. The Rapa Nui Hotel is an objectively pretty hotel right on the ocean. However, the views are obscured by black flags and signs. The reason? The hotel is built on ancestral burial grounds. For many years, the Rapa Nui people have protested this hotel, and clashes have gotten intense. Seeing all of the signs and posters was definitely eerie. I’m shocked visitors would still even stay there! You won’t find much online about this – the media has hardly covered it.
San Pedro de Atacama
The next day, we flew back to Santiago on the mainland, where we stayed one night near the airport before flying the next morning to Calama, a small city in the north and the gateway to the Atacama Desert.
We came to the town of San Pedro de Atacama for about a week in 2014 and LOVED it. We decided to stop back through on this trip on our way to Bolivia. When we flew in to Calama in 2014, the airport was basically a concrete slab. Now it’s so fancy, with shiny floors and a ton of shops and restaurants.
Once in San Pedro de Atacama, we quickly stopped by a tour office to confirm our spots on a stargazing event for that night. We figured it would be easy enough to walk to our hotel from there.
It turns out I was wrong. We had to cross a river to get to our hotel due to recent storms that produced the highest amount of rainfall the town has seen in 200 years! Our hotel owner from Lodge Altitud came by jeep in the river to pick us up, which was so nice since I don’t know how we would have gotten there with all our luggage otherwise. His hotel is beautiful, but sadly he lost his home in the floods.
After checking in, we then turned around and went right back into town for our stargazing tour. San Pedro de Atacama is one of the best places in the world to view the night sky, thanks to its remote location and clear air. The tour took us to an observatory about an hour from town where we were able to observe the sky through high-powered telescopes. We got to see star clusters, a dying star, the moon, and a whole other GALAXY (shaped weirdly like a spider).
With only one full day before heading to Bolivia, we decided to spend the next day on one of the less common tours through the desert, since we’d done all the “standard” ones in 2014.
Our first stop was to the Quepiaco Wetlands, where vibrant vegetation seems to appear out of nowhere in the desert. If that weren’t surreal enough, the area is completely surrounded by volcanos!
Then, we visited the Monjes de la Pacana (Pacana Monks). These stone pillars were formed by the wind and seem to rise up out of nothing. While I don’t quite see the resemblance to a monk, I did feel humbled standing next to them.
Our third stop was the vibrant Aguas Calientes Salt Flat. The colors of this wet salt flat had me swooning! It’s so rare to see this many different colors all across the palette in one amazing natural spot, but that’s exactly what this is. Little did I know just how colorful this region would prove to be over the next few days as we headed into Bolivia.
We had lunch at Quisquiro Salt Flat, but the real highlight was seeing so many llamas wandering around while we ate! Sadly, these cuties are being raised for food – we found a few bones on the ground.
On our way back to town, we visited a view point of Licancabur Volcano, a stunning snow-capped peak visible from San Pedro de Atacama.
The next day, we made our way to Bolivia, but not before one of our biggest travel mishaps to date! But more on that next time…
One thought on “Chile: Santiago, Rapa Nui, and the Atacama Desert”
The moai and the salt flats are breathtaking! It’s so interesting to learn of the ancient history, especially since we know so little of the people who built them.