Category Archives: Chile

Chile in autumn, Valparaiso, Santiago and the awesome San Pedro de Atacama desert simply blew us away. This is a great place for family adventures and magical moments. Here are our top tips and stories to help plan your trip to Chile.

Gasping for air – 3 days over 4000m in Bolivia with our children

Trip of lifetime San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, Bolivia

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The arid landscape as we headed up to the Bolivian immigration

We had already decided that we would go to Bolivia after Chile, but had yet to decide how to best get there. Our main concern was how the kids would cope with the very high altitude required going over the mountains to Bolivia for either a few hours or a few days depending on the route we chose. Both the 8hr direct transfer and the 3 day jeep tour meant we would have to go over very high passes of around 5000m altitude. We had bern trekking at altitude before, but this would be an entirely different league.

In the end, after much research it appeared that the risks, beyond feeling unwell with high altitude sickness, were quite small as we had already been acclimatising at 2400m in San Pedro de Atacama for almost a week with everyone feeling ok. With so much to see on the way to Bolivia and with a relatively small difference in cost, Paul and I agreed that we simply could not miss the chance to do the 3day trip by Jeep. Once decided, the kids were very excited and so were we.

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Feeling excited about our trip snd looking silly in our new wollen hats

Although many travel agencies offer the exact same trip, I did go to at least 8 different ones before selecting the one for us, Toursimo Caur. Most tour operators appeared to have little experience in taking little children over the mountains despite claiming otherwise. Finally  I found one tour operator who seemed to understand the importance of Ingrid and Scotts comfort and wellbeing.  Also, Turismo Caur was the only operator I spoke to who went over the mountains on the “alternative route” staying at hostel with hot water and electricity at 3900m in San Juan Puerto the first night rather than the standard cold, hostel without heating and electricity at 4400m. A better night sleep for Ingrid and Scott could make all there difference in the overall happiness and success of the entire trip, so this is what we went for in the end. The alternative route also offer a more varied scenery than the classic route.

Bolivian immigration and breakfast at 4400m

On the outskirts of San Pedro is the Chilean immigration control. We spent 30 min in the freezing cold queueing up only to realise that we did not have our Chile entry cards to show. After pushing the kids to the front with big smiles and apologising profusely for loosing our cards the boarder controller very reluctantly let us through. Phew. 45 min later, 1600m higher up in much colder weather it was time for Bolivian border control at Hilto Cajon.

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Bolivian immigration at 4400m

It was freezing cold hanging around waiting for our turn outside the little building on the side of the mountain. I was glad I had stopped at the San Pedro market the night before to buy hats, gloves and llama wool socks to help us keep warm.

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Breakfast at 4400m

While in the queue, our driver had set up the most delicious alfresco breakfast with hot chocolate, coffee, cheese, salami, avocado and bread. It simply tasted fantastic in the cold air and helped defrost our frozen hands and toes somewhat. With our tummies full it was finally time to take all our gear from the minibus and load up our Jeep. Finally we were going to be on our way!

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The jeep that took us on the 3 day off road tour from San Pedro, Chile to Uyuni, Bolivi

Soaking in Polques hot springs at 4400m

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Heading off into the beautiful Salar de Uyuni desert in our Jeep

Just 20 min in the journey we stopped at Laguna Blanca, the white frozen lake. I was already feeling stunned by the amazing landscape and colours of the vast volcanic dessert around us and this frozen lithium lake was simply beautiful.

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Laguna Blanca on the Chile/Bolivia border

A similar view at the next stop, followed by the highlight of the day, a hot bath!. Lagunas Polques is a hot spring up high at 4400m altitude with water at a constant 45 degrees celsius. The very cold morning simply melted away as we sat soaking in the hot water gazing out into the desert.

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Lovely hot soak in Polques hot springs

Ingrid and Scott loved it too and we all wanted to stay in longer than the recommended 15min. Im not sure if it was the mineral content, the fumes from water, the change in temperature or simply the high altitude, but we all felt dizzy and lightheaded getting out and dressed ready for lunch.

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Enjoying a feast after swimming in Polques hot springs

Yet again, our driver had prepared a great feast while we were enjoying the hot bath. Ingrid and Scott wolfed down the fried chicken and mash…and so did the rest of us. Another quick stop at Laguna Verde before heading up the the highest point of the trip 4995m to look at Geyser Sol de Manana.

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Smoke and fumes at Geyser Sol de Manana

Getting out of the car into the sulphur fumes I was surprised not to feel anything of the high altitude except thirst and a bit of breathlessness. We had seen volcanoes in action before, while living in Nicaragua and knew this would be another highlight for the kids. However, Ingrid and Scott did not this as much as the smelly sulphur fumes made them feel ill. Just 5 min was enough to call it a day and head back into the car.

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Laguna Colorada full of flamingos

Final stop of the day, the colourful Flamingo Laguna or, Laguna Colorada You simply have to see it with your own eyes to fully understand how amazing it really is. Bright pink water, flocks of flamingoes, white sand along the water with dark blue mountains towering up against the clear blue skies. We walked 20 min along the beach feeling as though we were walking in a dreamworld.

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Scott admiring the flamingos

We reached the hostel in San Juan Puerto a couple of hours later and went for a wonder among the stunning boulders in the Valle de Rochas before dinner where we discovered a crashed airplane and a sacred cave complete with human sculls.

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Our hostel under the giant rocks
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The remains of a crashed airplane was an interesting sight

We were surprised yet again by the great quality of the food. Tea and biscuits as we arrived then a very late dinner of vegetable soup followed by spaghetti bolognese. We all went to bed full and tired and excited about the next days adventures.

Anaconda canyon and hidden lagunas

Day 2 started with cold pancakes and hot coffee followed by a 30 min drive to the most amazing stone & boulder landscape, Valley of rocks. We stopped to explore the “world cup” boulder formation and climbed onto the gorgeous camels back.

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World Cup stone formation in the background
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Camel stone – luckily I still know how to rock climb

After an hours drive and a quick stop by Vinto laguna we reached the main sight for the day. Tucked away behind cliffs and green little fields with grazing llamas we found to the most beautiful hidden pool, the mystical black laguna.

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There are lots of llamas grazing on the Bolivian altiplano
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Black laguna in the middle of the Valley of Rocks

We had a break and a snack up high on the rocks looking down at the strange rocky landscape around us, wishing we could climb all the cool boulders we could see. Before lunch we also managed to stop at the Anaconda Gorge, named after the snake like river at the very bottom.

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Amazing views over the Anaconda gorge

In an empty town in the middle of nowhere we finally stopped and pulled up by a little house where our driver served us sausage potato bake and some canned tuna. Not quite the meal a starving Ingrid had hoped for, so she spent the rest of the afternoon in a bad mood with a headache.

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Deserted lunch spot

Our final stop before the Salt hotel was the deserted town and the end of the train line…Finally Ingrid perked up at the sight of some random monkey bars in the deserted playground.

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Deserted playground with some great monkey bars

The bright white salt hotel where we spent the night had an amazing hot shower after which we all felt better and ready for the next day adventures. We had a lovely dinner of soup followed by chicken and chips and then an epic game of pass the pigs with our fellow travellers Kevin and William. We retired really early in hoping to avoid a major meltdown at the early start 4.45 for the salt plains sunrise.

Salt, giant cacti and dinosaurs

At 5am we had packed up the jeep and headed out into the dark for 1 hr straight onto the largest salt flats in the world, where no roads exist. Behind us in the dark, a convoy of Jeep headlights all heading the same way to the the Incahuasi Island with giant cacti in the middle of the vast sea of salt . Here we got out and climbed to the top to catch the imminent sunrise. The high altitude, freezing cold and early hour meant Scott was not very happy. He finally perked up once I lent him my coat. At least I still had my llama socks, hat and gloves to keep me a little bit warm.

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Incahuasi sunrise
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To Scott the giant cacti looked like waving teddy bears
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Giant cacti on our way down to breakfast

The sunrise itself was not that spectacular as the horizon was shrouded in clouds but the view over this completely flat while landscape with the cacti was stunning none the less. The giant cacti here grow 1-2 cm per year, so some of them would have been over 300 years old. It felt magical standing on this ancient little slab of land surrounded by these magical ancient trees.

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Al fresco breakfast

As we came back down again to our jeep, our driver had set out our breakfast on a little table next to the car in the freezing cold. Hot chocolate, coffee, cake plus roughers and rice puffs got our blood pumping again and the air started to warm up too with the sun rising above the horizon.

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View of the Island as we walked out into the salty landscape

Ingrid and Scott went for a snooze in the car after breakfast while Paul and I went for a walk out on the salt flat. It was a surreal feeling walking for 30min straight out onto the the big white landscape with nothing in front of us but the vast sea of white. 30 min later and a few km from the Incahuasi island the jeep found us and picked us up for another 10 min drive further out for some funny photos.

End of the trip – Train Cemetery in Uyuni

On the way to the last stop the Bolivian train graveyard we stopped at the local market where we bought some amazing salt crystals and nothing else after being told that all Bolivian handicrafts would be cheaper in La Paz. After another hour in the car we passed through Uyuni on the way to see the trains. …This place was a bit of a dump if you ask me, but of course just the kind of dump that the kids loved. Ingrid and Scott had a great time exploring and climbing up onto the olds trains and stream engines…me not so much.

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Train cemetery in Uyuni

Our 3 day trip ended in Uyuni at the little local eatery run by our drivers wife. Inside a little building, or perhaps it was their living room, we got sat at a table for our last meal consisting of llama chops and rice. Again, the for was surprisingly good and we felt full, tired and happy when we got our bags out of the jeep to walk 4 blocks to our hostel.

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Packing for 3 days in the desert

We did have all our luggage with us as we were going to continue our travels in Bolivia after this trip, but here are the things we brought and kept to hand that proved very useful.

  • Head torches – for early mornings and late evenings and climbs to see the sunrise
  • Swimsuits & towels – to enjoy a delightful dip in the hot springs
  • Sunglasses, suncream & hats – the salt flats are blinding and the sun very strong
  • Extra batteries  – for charging things up as there are only a couple of points where you can get electricity throughout the 3 day trip
  • Kindles – for the kids to read, as they do get a bit bored staring out of the car window at the amazing views for 3 days.
  • Travel pillows –  so the kids can have a comfortable snooze in the car
  • Water –  2l per person and day is the minimum
  • Paracetamol and neurofen – to deal with any headaches or feelings of illness
  • Warm clothes – wolly hats, socks, gloves, scarfs and layers for very cold nights
  • Extra snacks – as there are nowhere to buy anything, dinner is served pretty late and the food might not be to your liking.
  • Lip Balm – Sun, wind and dry air will crack them up for sure
  • Bolivanos –  250BS per person as you need to pay at immigration and buy tickets to enter some of the national parke
  • Satellite phones and oxygen tanks are extremely important for emergencies and should be kept in every Jeep – check with your driver before departing

Extremely high altitude with children

We were worried about the effects the extremely hight altitude could have on the kids, especially Scott who is only 5. Before deciding to do this trip we did quite a lot of research on the internet on how to acclimatise and best prevent altitude sickness. As we had been at relatively high altitude before 3200m Nepal, 2200m Thailand and 3400m in Peru without any problems we though the risk of serious illness was slim. However, Paul and I had prior to this only been up over 4000m once and the kinds never so we still need to take all possible precautions. The jeeps doing this off road journey are all equipped with oxygen tanks and masks for emergencies as once you re on route it is 1 to 2 days drive to the nearest hospital.IMG_9250At High altitude in Peru, paul found that drinking coca tea helped, so this we would bring with us, and coca sweets for the children. The actual coca content is minuscule, but the effects very positive at it helps oxygen uptake in to body. After much internet research we decided agains altitude sickness pills as they rarely work. Instead we brought lots of water, paracetamol and neurofen for any headaches or feelings of illness.

We all felt the effect of the altitude, in the way of constant thirst, extremely dry mouth,  lips and constantly crusty noses, but at no point did we feel seriously ill. Neither of us got a particularly goos sleep over the 2 nights and the same was true again when we went to Potosi at 4400m a few days later. The effects of the altitude increased throughout the 3 day trip and by the time we got to Uyuni, we were glad to be lower down and started to feel better again. I believe the long period of acclimatising in San Pedro before this trip was the key to our success in adapting to the high altitude ad would recommend the same to anyone thinking of doing this trip with their children.

A week of adventures in the Atacama desert

Our house at the end of a dusty road – Cabana Volcano

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Minibus ride from the airport in Calama to San Pedro de Atacama

It was a 2.5 hr flight from Santiago to Calama then a 1.5 hr bus ride from Calama, in the north east part of Chile on the Bolivian border, to San Pedro de Atacama. At the end of a dusty bumpy road, 20 min walk from the centre of San Pedro de Atacama we finally arrived at our little cabana for the week. Cabana Volcano!

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Cabana Volcano

Cabana Volcano was a very small but cute little house with 2 tiny bedrooms and a fold out bed in the kitchenette/sitting room, bathroom with a hot shower and best of all a terrace with a large BBQ, table and chairs.

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Not very big inside, but ok for a few days

This is where we spent most of our time enjoying the with views over snowcapped volcanoes with nothing else to distract us. The cabana was ours for the next week and the kids felt excited about not going anywhere for a while and so did I to be honest. The previous week of exploring towns in Chile had meant a lot of travelling and eating out so we were all ready to settle down in one place for a while and cook our own food.

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Breakfast on the terrace overlooking the mountains

For Granny Olive and Uncle Adam who had come all the way to Chile from Scotland to see us, this was the main destination of their trip and by far the most exciting part of tour time together. While the kids had some well needed rest mornings and afternoons adapting to the high altitude of 2400m, Granny and Ad went on a coupe of trips on their own.

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Scott riding a bike we found along the dusty road leading up to our house

We spent 6 days here mixing lazy morning with early starts for sunrise excursions and late evening stargazing sessions with strolls into San Pedro de Atacama for food and play in one of the playgrounds.

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There are some great playgrounds for the kids to enjoy in San Pedro

San Pedro de Atacama is quite a busy little town with tourists in mini busses coming and going everyday as they head out on one of many exciting desert adventures on offer in the many tour offices. Dirt streets are lined with little shops, hostels, restaurants and bars that mainly spring to life after dark. We were glad not to stay in the centre of things and enjoyed the peace and quiet in our cabana 20 min walk from town.

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Main road, a little dirt road that runs through the little town of San Pedro de Atacama
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Heard of llamas on the way from our cabana to town

While at the cabana we didn’t do much except cook, eat, play games and enjoy the views on the terrace. We found 2 little bikes round the back of the house that Ingrid and Scott loved whizzing round on in the dust. There was also a friendly builder close by with a dog called Ozzie and a stray puppy that Scotty of course fell in love with.

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The end of the road and the view from our cabana, looks like the Savannah
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Scott and Ozzy the dog

Exciting Atacama adventures

The sights and excursions we did here were some of the best on our round the world trip so far and with Granny and Uncle Ad here we did more of them than we would have done on our own. It was just the excuse we needed to push the budget a bit to make some magical lifetime memories. Here below is a summary our favourite Atacama desert adventures.

Hot air balloon ride at sunrise

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Watching the hot air balloon being inflated

The Atacama is probably the best place in the world to go on a hot air balloon ride..according to our pilot who had been flying balloons all his life in over 25 countries. Unfortunately for Scott you had to be 8 to go, to be able to see out of the basked unaided, so he stayed at home with Paul for a morning of sleep and mine craft. 7.30 pick up from our house then a 20 min ride out into the desert landscape where we were met by the balloon pilot and his crew.

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All fired up and ready to go

After a thorough safety briefing we go served hot coffee, hot chocolate and croissants while watching the team inflate the balloon. We even got to climb inside it for a quick photo before getting ready to go.

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Inside the Hot air balloon with our pilot

The basket was divided into 4 compartments round the centre compartment with the pilot and gas canisters. Ingrid and I climbed into one compartment next to Granny Olive and Adam. One the other side was a German contingent photographing designer suits. We rose up 300m very fast avoiding the breeze lower down while enjoying the view of the desert as we and the sun rose ever higher in the sky.

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View of the landscape and our shadow from the balloon
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Having a great time up high
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View of the sunrise over the mountains from the Hot air balloon

From 1000m up we could see our cabana and San Pedro in the desert landscape far below and a few oasis scattered along the dry riverbed. After 1 hr of drifting in the gentle breeze it was time to go down. The basked descended slowly with us sitting down in brace position hoping the basket would not drag along the ground as we landed. Suddenly the basket was standing still on the gourd and we were safely down greeted by champagne and orange juice. What a lovely morning!

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Touching Mother Earth at the Meteorite Museum

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Outside the little Meteorite Museum in San Pedro de Atacama

The little Meteorite museum in San Pedro de Atacama does not look like much from the outside but what a great afternoon we had here. All the magic takes place inside the little dome where a large collection of real meteorites are exhibited along the the wall of the dome shaped tent. Entry of £3 includes a guided tour in English with headphones and some hands on activities at the end. Its well worth the price!

Each meteorite has an exciting story to tell which is explained on little screens next to each meteorite. The language is very scientific, but we all could understand enough to make out how planet earth was formed in the big bang of meteorites 450Bn years ago, how a giant meteorite killed the dinosaurs and how they may impact planet earth and us in the future. All meteors on display here have been found in the Atacama desert by the two brothers who set up the museum ..not because there are more meteorites here but because they are much easier to find here in the stable desert environment than in other places in the world.

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Enjoying our guided tour in the meteorite museum

The session ended with a lady showing us, and letting us touch a 450Bn years old mother earth meteorite. Mother Earth meteorites are the oldest rock on earth, they are leftovers from the meteorite crash, the big bang that formed planet Earth 450 Bn years ago. The lady also explained how to find and identify a meteorites from a normal stones. The kids especially loved this part and were were all excited to go out and look for our own meteorites to take with us home.

Stargazing and hot chocolate

Perhaps not the easiest activity to do with little children due to the late time and the relatively long time you spend standing around, but we all loved it nonetheless. We went stargazing in an observatory in Australia back in October but this was even better. The english speaking bus from Atacama desert stargazing left San Pedro at 7.30 and arrived at the observatory 20 min later. We all gathered round our extremely knowledgable Canadian guide who was telling us about the star constellations, planets and solar system using a laster beam to point it all out. The light pollution is close to zero here and so the night sky is simply stunning. After 40 min gazing at the stars it was time to see the most interesting planets, stars and galaxies up close on a permanent set up of 11 telescopes, 1 of which is the largest public telescope in all of South America. There were enough telescopes to go round avoiding any queues. Ingrid and Scott loved walking round looking at all the stars and planets, excited about those they could recognise from our session in Australia. It was getting cold and so after 45min of telescopes we were invited into a a little hut for questions and a hot chocolate. Home in bed by 10, what a great evening! Sorry not to post any photos here but it was pitch back and impossible to photograph.

Horse riding in the desert

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Rancho Cactus outside San Pedro de Atacama

As Scott was too little to go in the hot air balloons a few days earlier, the two of us went horse riding one late afternoon to make up for it. It was something I had been longing to do and so was very happy to organise our 2 hr desert horseback ride with Rancho Cactus. The actual ranch was just 10 min drive from the centre of San Pedro and offered more stunning views of the landscape with snowcapped volcanoes in the background.

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Scott and I loved our 2 hr desert horse ride

Pablo, Scott and I packed our saddlebags with water and set off. I was worried Scott would get tired or bored but he was such a star, loving every moment.  We spend 30 min heading out of town towards the riverbed. I was surprised at how confident and relaxed he was as he had only just had a coupe of 5 min pony rides in London before. Even when packs of wild dogs came running barking at us he stayed cool as a cucumber and so did the horses. We rode along the riverbed for 1 hr letting the horses stop for a drink and a break then spent 30 min getting back to the ranch. After 2 hrs on the back of the horse my bum and I were both ready for a break.

From -8 degrees celcius to +38 at Tatio Geysers

Scott and I did not go to Tatio Geysers as it was a 5am start and a trip up to 4200m altitude. We had a lazy morning doing play-doh instead. Below is an extract out of Ingrid diary from the trip to the Geysers with Paul, Granny and Uncle Ad.

IMG_8512“Toady we woke up early to go to geysers El Tati. We got into the minivan and because the english speaking guide didn’t show up Granny became the guide. When we stopped for the tickets it was freezing outside, it was -8degrees celsius.A t first it didn’t feel that cold but suddenly it was freezing. We forgot to bring my puffer jacket so I was wearing daddays fleece instead.

 

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Lovely soak in the water heated by Geyser Tatio

We got back into the bus and drove to the Geysers. First we had breakfast consisting mostly of hot chocolate and then we went to look at the geysers. It had to be quick otherwise my feet would have frozen completely. We saw one geyser erupting. Back in the car daddy warmed up my feet then it was time for the volcanic hot springs. You could only swim in it for 30 min because of all the minerals from the geyser. Me and daddy got changed and when we walked outside to the water the coldness of the stones burned into my feet. We got into the water and it wasn’t that warm so we swam closer to the geyser and it was amazing. We were next to some Australian and Irish ladies.

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Llama skewers taste great

After the swim we got dressed and got into the van. We drove for a while until we came to a little village where we had delicious llama skewers and goats cheese empanadas. I loved both of the but my favourite were the empanadas.”

Colourful and empty cities in Chile

Family reunion in Santiago

After 6 weeks in Peru we were all excited to be heading into Chile to meet up with Granny Olive and Uncle Adam who were travelling all the way from Scotland to spend 2 weeks with us here. Fantastic to be with family again but less so in the capital Santiago.

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Empty streets in Santiago during Easter

We spent 2 days wandering round the huge and quiet city realising that most of Santiagos tourist attractions closes over the Easter weekend unfortunately leaving  tourists without much to do.

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Art installation at the Centro Cultural part of which was open over Easter.

We found a couple of great playgrounds, wandered to the modern art collection, walked up the central hill and had lunch and dinner in a couple of small eateries. A shock to the system to pay for anything here and eating out was so much more expensive compered to all other places we have been on our trip so far. Thailand still comes up the cheapest still while Chile is similar to London prises.

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Plaza Brasil playground in Santiago
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Scotty loved this one man puppet show

The best part of Santiago was simply being together with family. Both Scott and Ingrid were so excited at having some of their favourite people to hang out with after months of just the 4 of us. The boutique hostel we stay in was also very good, with a large, well set up roof terrace where we chilled out and had coffee, dinner and snacks, played games and lego while enjoying the view and the sunset over the city.

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Lovely roof terrace at our hostel in Santiago

I did not enjoy Santiago that much. It did not feel like a happy friendly place and after being robbed of my backpack while having lunch and another 2 attempted robberies just walking down the street I felt vulnerable and unsafe for the first time on our round the world trip. I could not wait to leave for Valparaiso. the next city on our list.

Valparaiso – a city full of art and dirt

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Stunning street art in Valparaiso
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Graffiti and dirt on the streets of Valparaiso
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Sunset in Valparaiso

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Valparaiso is a cool costal city a couple of hours bus ride north of Santiago. It is famous for its bohemian  culture, colourful street art and stunning views of the sea from the many hills that make up the city. Our hostel Acuarela at the top of a hill was right in the heart of the art district and offered stunning views from the roof as well as short walking distance to many little cafes and restaurants.

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Cool slide at Anibal Pinto Square. We all had a few goes and loved it! 
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Great lunch spot at one of many cafes in Valparaiso

The colourful street art makes the city interesting and happy when nor over run by awful graffiti and dirty, run down streets full of stray dogs. The best thing we did here was the Wheres Wally tour, walking and bussing through interesting parts of town with a very knowledgeable guide. We also found a great little walkway through the hills many stairways with a slide right next to a bar with great views and Pisco sours.

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Wheres Wally walking tour that even the kids enjoyed
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Lovely views and drinks at Fauna Valparaiso

Algarrobo – the seaside and largest pool in the world

The last stop before heading to our main Chilean destination the Atacama desert, was a small fishing town 2 hrs down the cost from Valparaiso Algarrobo. A seaside get away for many Santiagians during their summer months. As it was getting into winter when we were there the town was totally deserted.

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Evening walk on the beach in Algarrobo
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Dip in the pool – not as warm as it looks!

Over our 2 night stay there we went for long walks on the beach, cooked fresh fish for our dinner and the kids had a cool dip in the pool where we were staying. Unfortunately the pool Paul had his eyes on, the largest swimming pool in the world, the main reason we were here in the first place, was a residence pool only and not available for anyone else …bit more research next time perhaps. Next stop the Atacama desert!

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In the Atacama with llamas