Driving from Arica to Santiago: The Desert Chronicles

After successfully crossing the border into Chile (just barely as I had overstayed my visa in Peru by 97 days…) we rented a car in Arica and started the long journey southward to Santiago. We had a whole lot of desert, 1,300 miles and 3 intensive days of family time to look forward to. Plus, if you know the Wenger family you know we did far more than 1,300 miles. So many side trips, so little time! Here we go!

DAY 1: Arica to San Pedro de Atacama — 8 hours driving time

We arrived at the San Pedro de Atacama desert after a mere 8 hours of harrowing desert driving. Sure, there were a number of flat straightaways but there were also some impressively windy roads with big drop offs into the vallies below. Tractor trailers are big fans of the 5 and, as we would find out even more as we continued south, the 5 is not a big fan of pavement. We spent about just as much time on dirt “desvios” as we did on pavement.

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Pretty big drop off to the left. Luckily we had father to keep reminding us it was there and to STAY TO THE RIGHT!!!!!!

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Dusty desert driving

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Mumsey, Doods and our trusty red truck

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One big field of salt formations

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Sunset from the car

We arrived in SPdA at about 9pm and found a nice little hotel to call home base for the next few days. SPdA is a small oasis in the middle of the impressive Atacama desert. The Atacama is the driest desert in the world, with some areas never having recorded rainfall. It occupies about 41,000 sq miles, stretching from southern Peru, through Northern Chile and into parts of Bolivia. It sits high on the alitplano, with an average elevation of nearly 8,000ft. SPdA is a touristy little town smack dab in the middle of the desert where people can spend their days exploring the desert and their nights in 5 star resorts, dining on alpaca and sipping pisco sours. While a little strange, I can’t say it was a terrible combination and the desert was truly a spectacular natural wonder to behold. We saw wild flamingos, exploding geysers at 14,000ft, salt formations that defied reality, and landscapes that made you feel as if you were on the moon. And, perhaps the best of all, is that the Atacama is so desolate that you can see the stars as you’ve never seen them before. While the Atacama is actually a hub for international observatories with telescopes the size of homes (the largest telescope in the world was recently completed and plans to open in 2014) you can see what seems to be dimensions more in the night sky just with the naked eye. To be in such a massive desert with the night sky bursting with countless stars above you was both a beautiful and humbling experience.

DAY 2: Atacama desert — leisurely driving time

First on the itinerary were the salineras, salt flats, to see some of the wild flamingos of which the Atacama boasts 3 of the 5 species in the world.

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Flamingos eating

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Beautiful colors in the shallow salt pools

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Flamingo walking

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Flamingos flying

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Flamingos standing

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Flamingos just taking off

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Wiz jumping, Doods walking. No flamingos

On the way back we stopped by a beautiful and serene river oasis filled with pre-Colombian ruins.

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After a quick lunch in town we drove over to the Valle de la Luna, aptly named for its beautiful and surreal landscape. Rocky, arid and filled with twisted, gnarled earth tormented by the harsh desert climate it wasn’t hard to imagine yourself on the surface of the moon. We explored maze like caves, climbed giant sand dunes, and played by the “3 Marias” before heading to a high overlook to watch the shadows overtake the valley and vibrant colors light up the 20,000 ft volcanoes beyond.

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Exploring the cavernous maze

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The salt? rock? formations that made up la caverna

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Dune love.

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We made it to the top of the great dune! Or at least I did

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Putting in some good work to look as much like the 3 Maries as possible

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Waiting for sunset

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I call this “Wiz and Dune”

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Sunset on the volcano range far far away

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DAY 3: SPdA to Val Paraiso — 21 hours driving time

We woke up at 4:30 am to drive about 1.5 hours up into the mountains to the great El Tatio volcano and his steaming geysers. There are about 80 active geysers in this geothermal field which sits at a little over 14,000 ft. It is frigidly cold that high that early in the morning but the beautiful steam that rises serenely from the bubbling geysers dissipates as the air warms in the unrelenting desert sun. So, what’s a tourist to do but wake up at 4:30 in the morning and see the geysers as they are meant to be seen!

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Moon and stars reflecting on a lake as we drove up to the geysers

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Geyser at sunrise!

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The entire geothermic field

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On the way down we saw wild vicunas (relative of the llama and alpaca. They’re smaller, more graceful, more rare and produce the finest fiber of all the camelids)

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Vicuna silhouette!

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The land of contrast where vicunas roam free

And so we started southward again in our trusty red mobile. It would take us 21 hours, 2 red bulls, 1 awesome musical playlist + a lot of Alt J, 10 rotating 2 hour shifts, many butter toffees and 3 gas station stops to reach our destination of Val Paraiso the following morning at 7am.

If you want to experience what we did, you can just listen to the following song on repeat, look at the picture below and pretend you’re on a rough dirt road by bouncing up and down in your chair. For 21 hours. Enjoy!

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Coast for miles and miles and miles

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4 comments

  1. Hi! We are looking to make a similar drive from Arica to Santiago. Do you remember what rental company you used? And was there any way to get around to the “one-way” fee?

    1. Kelsey Wenger · · Reply

      Awesome! It was one of the highlights of our trip. We rented through Hertz in Arica. The Chilean rental company told us that it was “too far and not possible” to make that drive…..
      We couldn’t figure out any way around the fee. We rationalized that the cost for the four of us to fly from one point to the other was not that much less and the adventure of the trip more than made up for it.
      Good luck! I hope it works out!

  2. Pete Kennedy · · Reply

    Hi Kelsey,
    Your trip sounds great and it’s exactly the route I am thinking of doing at Christmas: Arica-Santiago. Can you remember what Hertz charged you in total??

    1. Kelsey Wenger · · Reply

      It was about $1,000 all said and done. The drop off charge was where the majority of the cost came from…

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