There’s no way around it: northern Chile is vast. Chile is a long, skinny country with miles upon endless miles of coastline, dotted here and there with important port cities or crossroads towns connecting to an inland highway. When heading north from Santiago by land, you may ask yourself one of two questions: can I endure spending 24+ hours on a bus? or, where can I stop?
While I spent 32 hours on a bus once before, I vowed never to do that again. When I decided to visit Iquique for the second half of my winter vacation, I knew I wanted to break the journey somewhere along the way.
Enter Caldera. Caldera is about 12 hours north of Santiago and 12 hours south of Iquique and located right off the Panamerican highway, making it an easily accessible and convenient stop on a bus journey along the coast. After hearing rave reviews of the town from two of my volunteers, I decided to see it for myself.
Caldera is a town known for its artisanal fishing methods, for being the site of the first railroad in Chile, for its colonial arquitecture, and for its pleasant beaches. By coincidence, I decided to visit Caldera on the weekend it was celebrating the anniversary of the first railroad, which gave the usually quiet town lots of fun energy and life.
To be fair, there isn’t much to do in Caldera except relax. I spent some time sitting by the ocean, looking out at the fishing boats docked in the bay. I took in the colorful plaza, which on one side is your typical Plaza de Armas, and on the other is a mini amusement park. I wandered the streets looking at the colonial buildings. And of course, I ate artesanal ice cream from a local shop.
I poked around the old railroad station, which is now a Centro Cultural. Because of the anniversary weekend, there were a lot of food stands selling regional treats like my much-loved churrasca.
After getting a sense of the town, I wandered over to the fishing docks and watched the pelicans, my favorite seabird. I also watched the sea lions lumbering around on the rocks, going about their business.
As a vegetarian, I wasn’t tempted by the seafood restaurants or museum on fishing methods, but I did appreciate the murals celebrating traditional fisherman, who also form part of my own family tree, many generations back.
The next morning, the hostal lent me a bike and I headed back into town to watch the main ceremony recreating the first departure of Chile’s first railroad.
I appreciated that so many of Caldera’s residents went all out in wearing traditional clothing from the 1800’s. It was nice to see a celebration that was not religious, but rather historical, in nature. After welcoming trekkers who hiked overnight to arrive in Caldera, it was time to cut the ribbon and board the train.
From the center of town, I biked over to the other major destination in Caldera, the Gruta del Padre Negro, a small church sanctuary honoring a priest from Colombia who is known for granting miracles.
The small building has colorful murals painted all over its interior and the inviting plaza is also a good place to break for a snack.
I continued along my way the 6km bike path to Bahía Inglesa, a popular tourist destination due to its white sand beaches and jewel-toned waters.
Bahía Inglesa is even smaller than Caldera, consisting mainly of beachfront restaurants and cabañas for rent during the tourist season. Although I had planned to spend a leisurely afternoon reading on the beach, the winter winds coming off the water were quite chilly so I decided to head back to Caldera.
On the way, I stopped at a viewpoint overlooking Bahía Inglesa, where I took in the surrounding landscape. It surprises me how similar coastal Chile is to coastal Peru, considering the distance, with barren deserts inland and lovely beaches and bays on the water.
After returning to Caldera, I took another spin around the town. One thing I thought I would love about Caldera is that it hosts a moai from Easter Island.
Easter Island is located at about the same latitude as Caldera, so the moai was donated to mark this relationship.
Unfortunately, as with many moai on mainland Chile, this moai has been treated poorly by visitors and is sadly covered with disgusting graffiti.
As the sun went down, I headed back to my hostal to wait out the remaining hours until my bus to Iquique, where I would spend the remainder of my winter vacation, enjoying the warmer temperatures of the north!
Recommendations for Caldera, Chile:
- Caldera would be a perfect weekend trip and seemed to be a big destination for vacationing couples and families. If I had been in the mood to relax on a retreat, I would have enjoyed staying for longer, but I was antsy to move on to the big city.
- I stayed at Hostal El Faro, which is owned by an extremely sweet woman named Mariela. You can book the hostel through AirBnB or on her website. Mariela is incredibly helpful and will pick you up from the bus terminal if you arrange in advance, give you a brief tour of the town to get you situated, and provide suggestions for your visit. She also went out of her way and drove me to the bus station at midnight, and her son lent me a bike for my trip to Bahía Inglesa. I highly recommend staying here as long as you don’t mind being a little ways out of the downtown area. I like walking and it was certainly walkable, but I do suggest using Google Maps to find your way!
- The Gruta del Padre Negro is located on the outskirts of town and is worth a stop to see some of the religious heritage of the town.
- As mentioned, I happened to visit when the town was celebrating the anniversary of the first railroad in Chile. I appreciated the period costumes and celebrations for the anniversary of the railroad, and if you’re interested in seeing it for yourself, plan a visit in July. More info here on the festivities in 2015.
- Bahia Inglesa is an easy 6km trip on paved bike paths from Caldera, as long as you have a good bike. There are bike rental shops in town, or your hostal may be able to lend you one.
- There is an artisanal ice cream shop in town, popular among tourists, called Helados Gutierrez.
- Pullman and Turbus stop at the tiny bus terminal in town, but you want to make sure you book your ticket in advance and store your luggage at your hostal as the offices are not open at all hours.
- Other sights to see in town are the Centro Cultural Ferrocarril, the fishing dock lined with seafood restaurants, the Museo Tortoni. There is more information here in this Wikipedia article (in Spanish).