It’s about a seven hour bus ride from San Pedro de Atacama to Iquique. The TurBus bus was a little run down: no movie, the upper bathroom was not working and someone “shit” (as the conductor angrily informed everyone, reiterating that it was “solo urinario”) in the other one (which he now had to clean up). As we descended out of the high desert to wonderful sea level, the conductor kindly came to us and pointed out the route of the paragliders. We decided to visit Iquique because it is famous for paragliding from the large dunes that loom over the city due to the winds that the high desert funnels almost continuously up the slopes. To our delight, it is also a lively seaside resort with nice beaches, playgrounds, a dedicated biking path and separate walking path.
We splurged a bit on the Gavina Sens seaside hotel for a large ocean view room with a king sized bed. It was really quite a surprise how nice the room was, the sounds of the surf putting us to sleep every night, and how nice the hotel was given the low price. We even had a large buffet breakfast each morning with a tasty variety of offerings.
Off the bus, we began the 20 minute walk, which lead through the town square then along a pedestrian street. The pedestrian street had a lot of faded glamour; mansions that were now run down, but with so much potential. At the end was another small square which was across the street from our hotel on the north side of the town’s main beach. Curiously, a marching band was playing in this square – a welcoming committee, how nice!
After checking into the hotel, we walked down the beach and were amazed by the sheer humanity: the beach was packed! The marching bands had also multiplied and eventually turned into a full fledged parade celebrating the local indigenous people. The parade was huge: by 11:30pm there were still bands lining up at the start. Maybe Chileans want to make the locals feel better after having won this area from Bolivia and Peru in the war of the Pacific. We finished the day in Hell. Literally, A popular place on the pedestrian street called Restaurant Hell for fajitas, wine and Kuntsmann Fest beer (yes the Germans made it to Chile too).
The task for this next day was to find someone who would strap us to their bellies and jump off a cliff. We located a few operators on the map and made our way towards them but it turned out that none of them had a real office since the addresses we walked to turned out to be either a souvenir shop or residence. (We later learned that everyone makes arrangements using WhatsApp.) Since we could see them in the air, we decided to try to find the landing area on the beach and check out how they landed. We made it to the other beach south of town and happened upon some folks packing up their chutes. We asked about tandem gliding and they said that they did it and they could take us tomorrow. They had a business card and they obviously landed safely at least once, so, back at the hotel, we said WTF and arranged to have them pick us up there the next day. Hey, you only live once….. And guess what, we went to Hell again for dinner and had a Pizza burger, this time ordering a bottle of wine, which Warren had to help open because the server was unfamiliar with the opener (which she then scurried to the restaurant next door to return).
We slept pretty well considering the idea of throwing ourselves off a cliff the next day, had breakfast and researched our next destination as we waited at our hotel for our pickup. Once there, we squeezed ourselves into the taxi with our pilots and headed up to the top of the dune. Unfortunately, there was a 20 minute traffic jam due to work crews clearing rocks from the mountain side to prevent rockslides. Daniella lamented that she wished they would do it at night and was eager for them to finish a second road so they would have another route up. The jump itself happened pretty fast, we got suited up, strapped in and told to run. Then we were flying. Cynthia never actually got to run because once the chute opened and Jorge stood straight, she couldn’t reach the ground! Quite a unique experience since we have never done anything similar (like sky diving).
We started our flight at about 600 feet above the beach and our pilots rode the updrafts to get us to at least 1000 feet. As we turned toward the city and our decent to the beach, there was not much else to say but “WOW!”. On the way down, Jorge pointed out a stingray in the water (yes, it was that clear) and Medusa – the Spanish word for jellyfish (awesome!). We collected ourselves, paid our pilots and walked back to our hotel along the beach, again marveling at the shear number of people on the northern end of the beach – and that’s even after we were told there had been a decrease in tourist of 30% to 40% because of the Argentinian economy. That evening we enjoyed a great seafood dinner at restaurant Neptune and got ready for our next stop, Antofagasta.