Travel Blog: Annual Cultural Exchange to Chile

In the first week of our annual cultural exchange to Chile, we settled into our wonderful homestays, made our way through two regular school days, toured Valparaiso, and adventured into the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert. Here are some reflections on our adventures.


Once the most important port on the Pacific, Valparaiso rises from the harbour built on a steep hill. Though it is still an operational port, the city is now known for its brightly coloured houses, street art and elevators that scale hillsides. The sea has had a major influence on the city. We toured the Marine Museum owned by the Chilean Navy to learn a bit more about the history of this important port and the independence of Chile.

The sea has brought many migrants to Valparaiso over the centuries. This city has a long history of Spanish Catholic influence. However, we visited the first Anglican Church built by the British to listen to one of the best organs on the West Coast of South America. At the end of the first song, the organ fan broke leaving us to a soundless concert. We ate lunch instead.

After lunch, we began walking the streets of Valparaiso. It doesn’t take long to realize the people of this city must have healthy cardiovascular systems and strong legs. There was rarely a street without an incline. Stairs and hills connect most of the city, but for those steeper hills or moments of fatigue, there are elevators to ease travel.

A boat trip of the Valparaiso harbour allowed us to see the busy port in action and take in the colourful hillside from the water. Naval ships, container ships and tour boats made weaving the harbour exciting, while we learned more about its history.

We finished our tour of Valparaiso with a behind the scenes tour of Congress. This beautiful building is laced with marble. Our tour guide (a mother of a St Margaret’s student and member of the Congressional press) allowed us to enter many rooms, including that where the President is sworn in and where she hosts important announcements.

Desert Trip: San Pedro de Atacama

The desert has been unexpected. We often imagine a desert to be full of sand, cacti and rolling tumbleweeds. Aside from the odd cactus, the Atacama is none of these things. A salty, parched high plateau lying between two mountain ranges, this desert is different.  San Pedro de Atacama, the main city and tourist destination in the area, offers a

Our excursions have been nothing short of amazing. This trip has allowed us to take full advantage of all the amazing geographical and geological wonders the Atacama has to offer.

Day 1: Valle de la Luna y Valle de la Muerte (Moon & Death Valleys)

Here we experienced everything from panoramic to canyon views of the desert landscape. Salt mountains and salt flats made for an interesting contrast. The highlight for many was the 360 degree view flanked by sunset and moon rise over the desert.

Day 2: Archaelogical Site Visits AM & Laguna Cejar PM

This day was full of new experiences. In the morning, we visited two important archaeological sites in Atacama. The first the oldest ayllu (community) in the area called Pakura de Quitor (fortress of the Quitor people), a ruin situated high on a hillside. The second was a less preserved site, mostly uncovered, of round houses made from adobe (sand, grass and water). This was followed by a visit to a resident farmer to sample some local snacks.

In the afternoon, we ventured to the Laguna Cejar. This lagoon is a salt-water lake fed by groundwater runoff from the Andes and Coastal mountain ranges. Given the volcanic nature of the Andes range, the sulphuric content mixes with fresh water (400g of salt/L of water) to create the salty lagoons. The result is a relaxing buoyant lake with a beautiful backdrop.  After our float we headed to two sinkholes and another lagoon to watch our second magnificent sunset and nearly full moon.

Day 3: Laguna Chaxa, Miscanti and Miñiques

This full-day tour took us over 350 km of the Atacama desert and over 2000 m rise in elevation. The first lagoon, Chaxa, is a National Reserve for Flamingos. Situated in the salt flats of Atacama, these salty lagoons offer residence to 3 different species of flamingo. With those odds, it was a source of excitement for many students. Sadly the lagoon proved too large as the flamingos could only be seen from some distance. Lizards were the easiest wildlife to find basking in the morning sun.

With slight disappointment, we travelled to our next destination Laguna Miscanti and Miñiques. Situated at 4120m above sea level in the Andes Mountain Range. These lagoons offer habitat for many different species of wildlife. As we gained elevation and moisture, the landscapes colours began to change.

Up next we take advantage of the geothermal properties of the Atacama with Termas de Puritama and Geysers del Tatio.

Written by Emma Glasgow, Athletics Coordinator and trip chaperone

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