Svend was kind enough to share some bread with me which went nicely with my hot American coffee that I had been drinking nonstop since my arrival (this is what being exposed to Nescafe instant for 4 weeks does to you). Rustyn was an extremely entertaining fellow. I had discovered over breakfast that morning that he, his wife, and their two children had decided to pursue their ¨”American Dream” several years ago by packing up their lives in Oregon and moving to Patagonia to open this hostel and guiding service. During the orientation he humored us with funny anecdotes of the pitfalls that await the unprepared hikers: wearing too many clothes on the sunrise ascent to the Torres then having to turn back because they are so cold, freaking out when it starts raining as they haven´t protected their sleeping bags with plastic, trying to complete the hike too fast, carrying too much weight, and my personal favorite: thinking that Goretex is the miracle fabric that will keep them protected from the elements and allow their sweat to magically evaporate because its just “SO BREATHABLE”!!!
You get the idea.
The last 30 minutes we walked in complete darkness, and realizing that we had packed my headlamp in with the tent, only had two sources of light for the three of us. Our final approach to the campsite was a swinging bridge over a torrential river, which was´n´t at all scary by day, but that late at night after a 27km day, it was a little unnerving! We were relieved to find Meg and Franklin already at their site, and after quickly putting up our tents, enjoyed a lovely meal of tuna and rice, for the moment forgetting our foolishness for the late start.
Hope to see you all soon!
It was a gloriously hot sunny day, belying the blowing winds atop the crater all day. Off we headed into the forest for the 7km walk to Lago Verde. Once there, we all laid out in the sun and enjoyed our packed lunches. The girls were ready to stay and relax, but Max and I were eager to check out the other lakes further up the trail. It was an additional 2 hour loop, but well worth it for the additional views and greater density of the Monkey Puzzle trees: I was so tempted to take a baby tree and pack it in my contact lens case back to the states, to grow it in my living room!
Well, as far as I was concerned, the only danger lay in driving the bus of passengers to homicide by insistently beeping in their eardrums like an alarm clock every 10 seconds for 11 fucking hours. And it didn´t help that there was also a giant sign which read “it is forbidden to talk to the driver whilst the bus is in motion.” What the fuck? Within half an hour, I was getting slightly irritated, at two hours I was ready to ask some of the other passengers, to please, for God´s sake bring the matter to the conductor´´s attention, and by four hours, I was ready to use my own fucking Spanglish to communicate my growing anger. I couldn´t believe that I seemed to be the only person who this was driving nuts. At one point, an older woman got up and knocked on the driver´s window, and I thought “Yes! I am saved!¨”, only to hear her ask for the air conditioning to be turned off. Great. Now I would be tormented and hot to boot. A nice man took pity on me at hour four, and spoke to the conductor on my behalf. After that the beeps seemed to only come once a minute, and I was able to take a nap. But after an hour, we stopped in Los Angeles, and they changed the bus driver!!!!!!!!!!!!! AH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
So, where did I leave off? I believe that I was in Antofagasta about to head into the Atacama desert. What day was that? This trip has been so amazing, I can´t believe its only been 8 days since we left…absolutely insanely wonderful and beautiful.
So…the next morning we headed north on the highway.towards the dry of the desert, and the oasis of Peine. Along the way we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the SALT Flats, these incredible stretches of SALT parched ground spreading as far the eye could see all the way to the Bolivian border. Surrounding this vast white valley floor were 5 and 6000 metre peaks, 8 of which are active Volcanoes. Stunning. Simple stunning. We stopped several times for pictures of unlikely poses set against the amazing landscape.
Alter several hours we arrived in Peine – a tiny village of about 400 inhabitants who are descendants of the original altiplano peoples – the Atacamans. After getting extremely hot and sweaty walking around town visiting the original centuries old hieroglyphic type cave art and the fort ruins, we all welcomes a swim in the town´s only lake- being fed by a mountain stream from the Andes, which, unfortunately is the dwindling water supply for the community. The mining extraction of Lithium in the area, being done solely by US companies, is diverting much of the water from the local´s water supply so as to avoid having to pipe it in from the sea. It is a very sad state of affairs. This town might have to be abandoned in the next few years…
Anyway, it was very refreshing and we had lots of fun judging a diving contest that all the guys used to show off their fine skills.
After another several hours in the bus, we arrived at La Reserva de los Flamingos – a national reserve for Flamingos, who live here in the few lakes that exist on the flats, eating a rich diet of Brine Shrimp. The birds were majestic as they flew against a reddening sky…we stayed there and watched the sun setting over the Andes.
Another 2 hours brought us to our most northern destination – the little town of San Pedro De Atacama, in the middle of the desert and gateway to Bolivia. After a quick shower we all headed out as a large group for dinner. We were all passing out from hunger, but it seems that Chilenas do not blink an eye at eating dinner at 1030pm. The food was amazing as usual, with ridiculously sized portions. Luckily, Ice Bru has become my human garbage disposal unit, and happily eats whatever I can´t. Great for avoiding temptation. Eating very late has become somewhat of a pattern on this trip – last night we sat down for food at 12:30am!!!
That night we all bought Pisco and drank around the FIRE at the hostel. Jorge had arranged a “private Party” for most of the group to go to, but I opted for an early night at 2am!!! That is considered “early”! Most of the peeps staggered in around 6am…
The next day, Thursday, we were free to spend as we pleased in San Pedro. After wandering around the town and having breakfast, a few of us decided to rent mountain bikes and venture out to visit the Inca Fort and a mountain bike destination known on our maps as The Devils Gorge. It sounded promising.
Well, it was more than promising. The scenery, quite frankly, was utterly inspirational. Tall red dusty rocks and towering mountains in the dry dry heat. It was extremely hot and you have to pile on sun screen like your life depends upon it. Devils Gorge turned out to be these very unique, narrow and maze like rock formations that you could cycle around, sometimes carrying your bike over narrow stretches, going deeper and deeper into the gorge. At one point, we had to cross the river – and there was nothing for it but to just go full speed through the water, hoping the current didn´t take the wheels out from under you.
The gorge was the most fantastic thing I´ve experienced thus far on the trip. I remembered how excited I could get at wondrous natural rock phenomenon , and was openly whooping at every corner as the scenery unveiled itself. It was the perfect morning adventure.
As it was getting late, the four of us turned back and pedalled madly back into town, picking up some needed nourishment in the form of cheese and tomato empanadas – fast becoming my favorite snack in Chile.
That evening, Jorge took us on a tour of a place called Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley in English. It is an amazing array of sand dunes, caves, rocks, and mountains that set against the pink of the dying sun made the soul just soar. We began with hike and a free climb up some rocks and into a cave that opened up to a kind of mini canyon. If you stood silent you could hear the rocks cracking under the intense pressure of the suns rays.
We then donned headlamps and got down and dirty in a set of caves that serpentine for about a mile. At one point, I was crawling on my belly and trying not to smack my head in the overhangs, and fighting claustrophobia along the way…a little scary but fun nonetheless.
We then huffed and puffed, exerting our tired, hungover, altitude plagued little bodies up an 500 metre sand dune to get a good spot to drink in the sunset. After at least an hour taking way too many silly photos, we all shut up and gawked at the colors the dying sun splashed onto the rock below. Beautiful.
Ok. So where did I leave off? So we took off from Santiago and headed up the coast to La Serena. We quickly saw the ocean for the first time and revelled in its azure appeal. We stopped off for lunch at a small seaside town and visited a church that has trees growing inside of it, perched on a clifftop and then feasted on the delicioso Chilean sandwich called Ava Polta– grilled chicken, avocado, cheese, and tomato on toasted buns. Over lunch I met one of our group who is a native South African Engineer who had just come to Chile after spending 15 months in Antarctica with 9 other men. I quickly realized that I was in the kind of company where relating my life experiences thus far would fail to impress!
La Serena is a beautiful city on the coast and is famous for its Pisco producing grapes. We stopped at the beach to watch the sunset whilst sipping on Pisco sours (delicioso also) and then headed into town to check in to our hostel. A large group of us then ventured into town for dinner and walked right into a summer festival that was going on, complete with fully costumed 5-10 year olds dancing the traditional Chilean dance, the La Cueca. They were so cute, I almost wanted to munch on them for dinner. After a delicious local fare supper, we all headed out to the local bar to see how Chileans party. I should mention that our guide, Jorge, is a force of nature. I have never seen anyone more comfortable singing at the top of his lungs, standing on the bar, and trying his best to rouse every person to their feet in a jubilant celebration of life and its relationship to alcohol. He is one entertaining guy.
By about 1am – things were just getting started, and I was ready for bed. Apparently, Chileans do not even begin their nights until midnight, and frequently party until 6am – it is nothing unusual. Well, this has been the case so far this trip, and today (in Antofagasta) we are all feeling the combined effects of our punished livers and sleep deprived brains. Hopefully, it won´t affect my writing too much!
Anyway, Jorge convinced me to stay by asking me to sing a couple of karaoke songs for the local crowd. As most of you know, that will pretty much guarantee that I´ll keep my tired ass out longer. So, I got up and sang “Killing me softly” The crowd went nuts. I felt like Ricky Martin in his leather wearing hay day. The crowd kept screaming so loud I couldn´t hear the music, and at the end of the song, started chanting “ANITA ANITA ANITA, OTRA OTRA OTRA“ which basically is asking for one more song. So I gave in and sang No Doubt´s “Don´t Speak”. It was very strange to receive such adoration with hair that looked like ass.
The next day we drove north to Bahia Inglesa – which is translated English Beach. On the way we stopped at the National Park “Reserva Pinguinos” and took a 3 hour boat tour out to some islands that are home to Humboldt penguins. This is the only place on earth where cactus and penguins live side by side. The penguins were adorable, and remarkable climbers, waddling competently up the steep cliffs. We were also lucky enough to view a pod of dolphins who swam quite close to the boat and showed off their impressive acrobatic skills. There were hundreds of sea lions also basking in the strong sun- all in all, we were very blessed with the wildlife we saw.
We stopped at the third island for a picnic lunch and hiked over to a small secluded white sandy beach. I have to say I didn´t expect to see breathtaking beaches whilst in Chile, but this had to be in my top 5 beaches of my life. Absolutely beautiful, with crystal clear emerald, though freezing, water. Tui and I braved the cold and ran into the waves, feeling the air rush out of us when the 15 degree Celsius water hit us.
After lunch we stopped at the supermarket to stock up on booze and provisiones for our 2 night stay in lovely little A frame cabins on the beach in Bahia Inglesa. On arrival, we had a quick supper and planned on a relatively early night….but that didn´t happen. We descended on the “frat” cabin and laughed and drank into the wee hours of the morning……oh to be on holiday!
Waking up very late the next day, I woke up, put on my sarong and made breakfast for the girls. We ate on our balcony looking at the giant waves crashing to shore. The rest of the day was very relaxed- we headed into town to use the internet (where I wrote my first letter to you all) and then spent a couple of hours on the beach reading, chatting and drinking Pisco sours. Tui and I had yet another very long philosophical debate about developing countries and the role of government. And about men. I already miss you Tui!!
That evening, Jorge impressed us with his culinary skills and grilled us a giant meat asado of beef, chicken, vegetables, pico de gallo and baked potatoes. It was utterly delicious- best meal thus far. Of course, as was becoming true Pachamama style, we then followed the culinary delights with drinking ones, and Tui and I became quite hammered by the end of the evening…both giggling uncontrollably for hours. Fun evening indeed. I was so sad that Tui would be leaving us the next day…
Which brings me, finally!, to this morning. We woke early and packed up, and said our goodbyes to Tui. She hopes to come and find me at our hostel in Santiago on Sunday morning for a few hours though- I arrive at around 0530 on my overnight bus in order to catch the southern bound Pachamama bus at 0900. Hope to see you there Tui!
We had a very long drive today which took us into the driest place on earth- the Atacama desert. I made a complete fool of myself at the gas station…as we filled the bus with diesel, a few of us decided to do some stretches. Well, I wanted to stretch my hamstrings and lifted my leg up to rest on this ledge in the wall – only to discover that it was actually a handle on a door. The door swung open with a vengeance revealing a room full of quiet diners munching on their breakfast, only to be startled by this girl Bruce Lee wannabe who apparently likes to make an high kicking grand entrance. We all nearly fell down laughing.
We had a couple of rather strange stops – one to a graveyard of people who had lived and worked in a nitrate mine until 1927 when the industry began to fail due to the invention of artificial nitrates in Europe. And one to the “Hand of the Desert”- a giant sculpture set against the backdrop of middle of nowhere parched desert. We had fun taking a group photo against the hand.
Our group also contains a very colorful character known to us all as Bob. Bob is close friend of Martin´s – the South African-Antarctica working engineer (I´ve nicknamed him Ice Bru). Martin speaks very fondly of Bob, who has travelled with Martin on all of his more adventuresome and extreme work locations. They seem to have a very special bond that is now spreading to the rest of the group. Today, our driver had Bob sit up front with him, and even conversed with him in Spanish, and had him say a few words to friends who called his cell phone. Then Jorge had Bob sit with him, carefully giving him some hip Ipod tunes to groove to as we drove.
Did I mention that Bob is a hamster stuffed toy?
Maybe you have to be here…… but it is seriously hysterical.
Anywhooooo…..we arrived in Antofagasta this evening around 6pm, visiting a beautiful naturally eroded sea Arch before checking into our hotel. Us four girls went out in search of a cheap dinner only to get ripped off with specially concocted “gringo” prices that some restaurants seem to inflict on foreigners. After a quick stop to the supermarket, I came here to hopefully write to you all and get you up to speed on my journey thus far.
I can´t believe that I´ve only been here six days. It already feels like a lifetime and I am having the time of my life….apart from feeling quite exhausted and being heavily sunburned. I have never experienced sun this strong before – even in Australia. I am wearing spf 45 and still got pretty roasted on my back.
It is now midnight, and a quick shower and a clean bed is beckoning…. I will write again soon!
Though this is only my fifth day since arrival, I feel as though I have already compiled a year´s worth of memories and experiences. This country, its people, and the times had thus far have more than exceeded my expectations. I look back and remember my trepidation at coming out here on my own, and I laugh at it. To any of you out there, even remotely considering having a lengthy travel experience, but you are wary of going alone- all I can say is “just go”. I had forgotten what it felt like, but the moment I got off the plane in Santiago, a distant yet familiar wave of reassurance came over me as I remembered “ah yes. This is travelling. I can do this.”
My flights went surprisingly well- my connection was very tight, literally walking off the plane in Dallas directly onto the plane to Santiago. And I experienced one of travelling´s most exceptional joys- sitting in a row of seats and not having another passenger sit down next to you. Ah – sleeping horizontally on a plane- there are no words for the joy of it.
On arrival, I grabbed a colectivo into the city. On a last minute whim, I decided to tell the driver to take me to the “Happy Holiday Hostel” instead of La Casa Roja where I had a reservation. I don´t know why – but I just felt that I should choose the former. How can a vacation go wrong staying at a place called ¨”Happy Holiday¨”??
Well, I soon found my validation for the impulsive change of heart. After paying for my dorm bed, I went into my room to prep for a needed shower. There was a girl asleep across the other side of the room. Her name is Tui – a Maori name. Tui is a Kiwi who lives in Sydney, Australia. And she has become a fast and loyal friend in a very short time…
After freshening up, I asked Tui if she´d like to join me for lunch? And we´ve been together ever since! Tui is the most mature 21 year old I´ve ever met (except for Jeremy!) and has had the kind of travel and life experiences that would make a person twice her age proud. She had moved to Santiago five days prior to study Spanish and Political Economy for a year at the Universidad Catolico. We hit it off immediately- Tui and I are extremely alike and we travel very well together. She is incredibly smart, fluent in Spanish, and has remarkable insights into international socio-political issues. After only two days, and ensuring she was “settled” into her new Santiago apartment, I convinced her to continue travelling north with me.
That first day in Santiago involved packing down the greasiest but most delicious slab of cow I´ve ever consumed, wandering the streets of the downtown Plaza de Armas and various “Barrios”, and taking a jaunt up to “Cerro San Antonio” – a prominent hill in the middle of the city that one climbs in a rickety old Funicular. At the top of the hill is a botanical garden, zoo, restaurant and a very large statue of the Virgin Mary. Chile is still very Catholic and there are churches spotted around the city with as much regularity as a Starbucks in Seattle. The view from the top was spectacular, albeit obscured from the smog that hangs over the city like a choking blanket. The weather was hot – around 80 degrees. So strange and wonderful to be wandering around in flip flops, shorts and a tank top again! Woo hoo!
After copious amounts of coffee and cake at the top of the Cerro, Tui and I took little cable cars down the mountain, and then hopped and skipped over to the nearest very modern metro station. I have not seen a metro this modern or efficient anywhere in the US or Europe. On the way there, Tui and I were conversing on how her name neatly fits into the word “Intuitive” and ¨Tui remarked on how mine can start a sentence…”Anita comb, Anita some food, Anita Man…” to which a very smartly dressed older man turned around with an eager expression and asked us ” You need a man??!!” I found this hysterical, and all the more so when upon recovering discovered that Tui thought the man had asked if we were from “Allemagne” (Germany)!!
Which brings me to my first observations of Chilean people-
1 – The men are extremely forward and aggressive. More so than the Italians – and that’s saying a lot. They have absolutely no shame for staring at your tits, nor in fact, holding a conversation with them.
2 – Saying that, the men are HOT. Well, many of them at least. It’s a joy to just walk down the streets of a city and see so many beautiful people (yes, the women are pretty too)
3 – The kids here are absolutely adorably cute. Painfully so.
4 – The WOMEN look the “gringo” women up and down as well! It appears that they are rather protective of their gorgeous male populous and are none too thrilled at the idea of sharing. I think theres plenty to go around, but that’s just me.
5 – My God they can talk! And not just the women. Our tour guide and our bus driver have the most intense, loud, and LONG conversations! Using full sentences! Not at all like the ¨”Hows it going¨” ¨”Uh…Good Man” stuff you get back home. It is very entertaining.
6 – Everyone wants to talk to you. They are an extremely friendly and happy people.
Ok more observations to follow.
That first night in Santiago involved helping Tui move into her apartment, and then watching the sun set with a lovely glass of Vino Tinto on the roof of my hostel with a bunch of other travellers. I had forgotten what an instant bond can be struck between a group of like minded independent backpackers, despite various nationalities. It was a lovely evening and we all felt like a family by the time my head hit the pillow.
Friday took Tui and I to the Unesco World Heritage coastal city of Valparaiso. It was an hour´s bus journey to get there, and I was impressed at the comfort and efficiency of the service.
The main town at sea level was not all that impressive- you typical Latin American city with the obligatory parks, fountains and of course, a Plaza de Armas. However, what makes Valparaiso so unique is its 13 hills (somewhat like San Francisco) with multi colored homes dotted across its steep streets, alleys, and cobbled pathways that interconnected the areas. To access these hills, one must take the ¨”Ascensurs” – very very old incredible feats of engineering that carry you up the hills and the streets below at a surprisingly fast clip. Whilst the contraptions themselves resembled rabbit hutches in their sturdiness, they made for a very fun ride – especially on the way down!! Standing looking over the cables down below at the moment the ascensur began its descent, resembled the kind of stomach flip one can get at the “Tower of Terror” in Disneyland – but for only 25 cents!
The neighbourhoods that dot these hills are out of this world. So beautiful, so historic, so quaint. I could have wandered around for hours – so we did, stopping only for photographs, and the obligatory espresso under a parasol looking over the city and the ocean. I left a little of my heart in Valparaiso and imagined returning there in my retirement to rent a little posada to write my memoirs in. It had that kind of an inspirational feeding the soul kind of feel to it.
That evening was characterized by our dorm room “family” going out for a late dinner in Santiago and being serenaded by classical guitars as we ate. Oh, and also by one particular asshole American guy who claimed to our entire group that he had just gotten out of prison for stabbing a guy in a bar brawl – only to admit four hours later (after I had gone to bed) that he had made it up and thought it funny. How is THAT funny? What a complete creep.
Saturday morning- time for an early start and the beginning of my 7 day Atacama-Chilean Northern coast adventure bus tour with Pachamama!! Our guide picked me up from my hostel at 9 and we drove across the Barrio to pick up Tui (she agreed to come along for the first 3 days!) Our group consists of 15 people and 11 nationalities…and it is an extremely fun group!
We spent most of the first day driving, stopping at the beach for lunch and then the evening and night in La Serena.
I am finishing this email now as I´m out of time at the internet café. To be continued….