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This Island Life


The Atacama Desert, Chile

This Island Life takes a roadtrip.



Our travel window was closing and it was closing fast. With just one week left in Chile on our South America trip, we’d hit a bit of a snag. We had planned to take the 12-hour bus ride up through the Atacama Desert from Santiago to Copiapó to visit the aqua waters of Playa la Virgen and Bahía Inglesa – only problem was the buses weren’t running. With only first class flights left, there was just one other option – a good old-fashioned road trip.

Despite its massive coastline, Chile is not a country known for its beaches. Playa la Virgen and Bahía Inglesa may be two of the most beautiful beaches in the country, but most city folk haven’t even heard of them. When people in Santiago take a drive, they head down south to the lakes where the country is lush and green. Now lakes are cool if that’s what you’re into, but it’s not every day you get to drive across a desert in search of a tropical paradise. So with our hire car loaded with snacks and our destination programmed into the GPS, we were on our way.

Within a few hours, the city outskirts were replaced with dramatic stretches of coastline where rocky cliffs met the dry, arid mountainous land. The further we got, the harder it was to concentrate on the road. With birds of prey circling overhead, roadside shrines complete with concrete floors and paved roofs scattering the highway, tiny whirlwinds whipping around the car and locals selling everything from olives, cheese and bread, to whole goat carcasses lining the side of the road – the Atacama Desert turned out to be just as much of a destination as the beaches we were on our way to visit.

Playa la Virgen, Chile

Arriving at Playa la Virgen was like when Leonardo Dicaprio finally found the turquoise waters and white sands in the movie The Beach. After an epic 12-hour road trip through the Atacama Desert that ended with our passenger door almost falling off, roadside food poisoning and a GPS that tried to direct us off a cliff, we had finally reached our first destination.

Playa la Virgen is a caribbean-style beach in the Atacama Desert known for its clear turquoise water and blinding white sand. A rock formation that naturally simulates the image of the Virgin Mary gave this secluded beach its name and the locals believe she protects the area. Drive past the creepy rock and you’ll find beach bungalows made out of mud, reeds, stone and wood built into the edge of the desert to maintain the natural landscape of the area. If getting closer to nature is more your thing, Playa la Virgen offers camping sites where you can wake up to some of the most spectacular views in Chile. There’s only one restaurant, but the food is delicious, the cocktails refreshing and the service friendly.

Playa la Virgen was going to be hard to top, but with Bahía Inglesa calling we headed back out on the road in search of our next tropical paradise.

Bahía Inglesa, Chile

Bahía Inglesa is a tiny village located near the port of Caldera in Chile that’s home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the country. Only a few hundred people inhabit the town, with Bahía Inglesa becoming a tourist mecca in the holiday season. We were there in early January just before the crowds and had no problem securing real estate on the sand and at the restaurants overlooking the clear aqua water. And if there’s one thing the people of Chile know how to do, it’s food. Little old men and women wander up and down the beach selling hand-made deliciousness in the form of traditional pastries, chocolate stick rolls and the toffee apples of your dreams. But the local treats won’t be the only thing keeping you on the sand. The desert temperatures may have been sitting at around 35°C, but the ocean was like ice. Spend more than five minutes in and you’ll feel an aching, almost numbing feeling deep within your bones.

If you’ve got time, continue north up the coast and you’ll find hundreds of world-class surf breaks between Arica and Iquique that can only be reached by 4WD. Most people don’t realise that Chile has super consistent surf that is almost entirely untapped by surfers. The fact that the waves break close to the shore in cylindrical barrels that slam onto shallow reefs full of urchins might have something to do with it, making many breaks only suitable for body boarders or super skilled surf dudes.

The long drive back to Santiago gave us a chance to reflect on our time in the Atacama Desert and if there’s one piece we can give fellow travellers it would be to check that your GPS works before you leave the hire car place and don’t get anything smaller than an SUV.

(This article was written by Laura McWhinnie from This Island Life.)

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