Monday, September 7, 2015

8/16/15: Viña del Mar

Today was left open on our schedule because Santiago is such a short bus ride from Valparaiso, and even if we spent today in the Valparaiso area, we would still have 3 full days to explore Santiago - enough to get a good feel of it. Since we had the time, we decided that it would be a great idea to take a bus to the nearby city of Viña del Mar - not nearly as touristy, but with some nice attractions and only 15 minutes away by bus.

It was definitely worth it to go! Viña del Mar is home to a Flower Clock - it's huge and reminds me of something that I would see in Disney Land, and the best thing is that it works! Furthermore, since it was a Sunday morning, there were almost no other people around, which made it really nice to walk around.

In addition, unlike Valparaiso, Viña del Mar has a beautiful coastline. You can see far and wide, and it has large rocks that make it gorgeous. There are also several hotels along the coast - we saw this huge Marriott - that are shaped like ships.

We walked around a lot, stopping first at a lagoon. I thought it might be worth it to see from the pictures posted on Trip Advisor, but honestly, it wasn't that nice. The ground/path all around it was covered in bird droppings (the benches were basically completely white) and there was a cute little bridge that had essentially collapsed into the lagoon on the side. Disappointing.

Next, we walked to the Plaza de Armas. I was expecting something beautiful - even in small cities the Plazas I've seen are really nice - but this one was basically a little bit of green space and sadly pretty ugly. It turns out that a lot of Viña del Mar is not worth visiting - probably why tourists so rarely go there as opposed to Valparaiso.

Still, there was a little Fonck Museum with all kinds of artifacts from Easter Island, a nice place to walk around a little. Even though there was very little English (once again), it was nice to walk around a explore a little It was unique in that it had some information about smaller cultures in the area that I hadn't seen before, and distinct pottery from them.

We tried to take the subway back to Valparaiso from there, but apparently it doesn't go to all the stations every day. I hate how that works, but oh well. We ended up taking a bus instead, and then taking another bus to the bus station. On the drive to Santiago they showed How I Met Your Mother with Spanish subtitles, which was actually pretty cool! I might try that more if I get the chance.

We ate dinner in the bus station in Santiago - it's huge. Each company has a terminal and it's almost like a scaled-down airport, bustling with people, full of shops and restaurants, everything. The Santiago subway system is really nice and actually has different fares for different times of the day - charging the most for rush hour, of course!

The AirBnb we have here is rather small. The host, Francisco, is a late-20s guy living with his entire family in a condo, and our room is a separate little thing with a private bathroom. It's nice, except that the room is barely wider than the bunk bed - there might be a foot of space between it and the wall. Lol. Well, at least the host and his family are nice. He offered to walk us to the grocery store and then his mom offered us all kinds of maps and stuff,

Monday, August 31, 2015

8/15/15: Valparaiso pt. 2

The main purpose of today was to work up to see La Sebastiana - the Nobel Laureate in Literature Pablo Neruda's home in Valparaiso - the first of three. Since it's a little bit out of the way, Dad and I went to several of the attractions along the way before getting there.

We started in the fish market and walked around a little more. We wanted to buy some water, but when we did I wasn't paying attention and we accidentally bought carbonated water instead of regular (in my defense the label was clear enough that Dad could have read it too). Oh well.

We continued on, stopping to eat a completo (hot dog, tomato chunks, mayonnaise, and avocado) for lunch. There was a huge gate in the park that we walked through after that, so we stopped to take some pictures there before moving on.

Before going from the flat "plan" to the hill again, we went to the Museum of Natural History. The museums in Chile are seriously fantastic - many of them are free (this one included) and include great exhibits. In central Chile, they often have many different exhibits of all the habitats in Chile, from the mountains and Altiplano to the valleys to the forests to the coasts/ocean. Easter Island gets a separate exhibit - I wonder if that's because it brings in huge tourist dollars for the country. Like many of the other free museum, it had some English, describing the main ideas but very little English in the exhibits themselves. I can't expect too much, I guess.

One of my favorite things to see in Valparaiso so far was next: the Museo de Cielo Abierto, aka the Open Air Museum. This isn't a formal museum, but rather a series of 20 murals lining a staircase and neighborhood. They have been there since the 1990s with no vandalism (common in Valparaiso) - which is quite impressive. Some of the murals are huge - larger than life-size. The artistic talent shown in them is worth seeing and definitely worth preserving.

It was quite a walk from there to La Sebastiana because we were walking up the cerro, but we made it eventually! The streets next to it are lined with tour buses and little artisan shops; I bought some earrings for friends at a great price. La Sebastiana itself is absolutely worth visiting. Like everything else in Valparaiso, it resembles a ship, giving it a really unique facade. Before getting there, I knew relatively little about Pablo Neruda - especially since he wrote in Spanish. His house, however, it really gorgeous. It is made of 5 stories, each with just one or two rooms. The narrow spaces is  meant to remind the guests of a boat - and it certainly does. There are large windows on the side that faces the heart of the city and the coast, and Neruda has a ton of art, books, and fancy furniture everywhere. He had kind of a complicated personal life - he married one lady and then met someone else, and eventually married her instead, but lived with them in different houses, etc. but he was apparently very good to his friends and obviously a great poet. He served Chile as an ambassador to several countries, stood up for human rights during the Chilean dictatorship, and managed a great collection of art and books, so good for him! It was really awesome to be able to be so close to his life in a way that was extremely different from Gabriela Mistral's house. The entrance fee to the house was a little pricey, but well worth it for the history, the view, and the information given through the audio guide included with the ticket. Very well done museum - highly recommended!

Dad and I weren't really sure what to do for the rest of the day, so we ended up walking along Ave. Alemania (Germany in Spanish) across the top of the hills. It was quite a long walk everywhere, but there was one lookout point that provided a great portrait of Valparaiso from the aerial view.

When we got back down to the plan, we looked for places to eat. Apparently, Valparaiso is home to one of the top 25 ice cream shops in the world. Even though it wasn't hot, we obviously still have to go try it. We ended up ordering this banana manjar and dark chocolate combination that tasted fantastic! I don't know if it's the best in the world - I'm pretty sure gelato in Europe can compete like no other - but a great choice, and especially a great combination!

8/14/15: Valparaiso day 1

Dad and I arrived pretty early to Valparaiso this morning - which wasn't helped by the fact that it was still dark out. Luckily he had a working phone (a luxury these days) and we were able to take the bus towards our AirBnb. After the difficult conditions of the Couchsurf house in La Serena (where we had to share a twin size bed, and the room had another two people sharing another twin size bed), I think my dad was a lot more relieved to find that our room in Valparaiso was a lot more spacious and had a really comfortable, queen bed.

Our hosts were really nice! They were two French guys who were relatively new to Chile but could speak pretty good English. They sat down with us to explain a lot of the tourist-y things that we could do in the city. It was a whole lot of information that I couldn't really completely understand, but it was really nice of them to offer.

After doing a little research on the city and resting a little, Dad and I headed out into the city. It was a little confusing to figure out at first, but we eventually got the hang of it. Basically, Valparaiso is a really unique city with a vibe that is unparalleled. It feels a little like a college/young adult town at all times, and is without a doubt the most hipster place I've been to in South American thus far.

We were right next to the Naval Museum, which we decided to visit. They had a good number of artifacts there, and we spent at least a couple hours in there, which was cool. There was limited English, but at least they had some! A lot of the information centered on the War of the Pacific at the turn of the 20th century, which I have thought is interesting as it is mentioned ubiquitously in Chile but not in Peru or Bolivia. Yes, Chile won, but it's a part of history! It tells us why Bolivia used to be so large and now is so small, and why there are such hostile sentiments between it and Chile.

Right outside the Naval Museum is a small walkway known as Paseo 21 de Mayo (the Chilean Independence Day) that has all sorts of artisan products. It also has an ascensor, which is equivalent to a sort of slanted elevator - apparently aka funicular - that is very common in Valparaiso. The reason is that Valparaiso is a geographically unique city: it is divided into two main parts - the "plan" and the "cerros". The "Plan" is the flat part of the city - where the center is, where everything happens, the downtown. It also connects to the port and beach. Towards the center of the country and continent are the cerros - the hills. There are some tourist attractions here, including lots of street art and murals, and is where all the people actually live. Since they are sizable hills, they have steep stairs you can take, or ascensors that cost $100 CLP to go up or down. Many of them have been around a really long time and are constantly in repair (you never know if the one you want to take will be temporary shut down or not) but they are a really unique part of the city that are a major reason for the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation it has. We took a couple in our days in Valparaiso - worth it!

We walked to one of the main plazas in Valparaiso (it's confusing because the city doesn't have a Plaza de Armas, and therefore the couple of larger plazas are easily confused for the "main square") where we stopped by a tourist information center. Chile is really great because almost every single city has one, and they have all sorts of great information and really nice people. They told us about a Tours4Tips walking tour that would be happening later in the afternoon, so we took the time to go up the nearest hill (one of the most popular Cerro Concepcion) to a Fine Arts Museum - Palacio Baburizza. It was a touch expensive for Chilean museum standards, but interesting nonetheless. What I didn't appreciate was that they had some great art but absolutely no explanations, and charged extra for audio guides (on top of the entrance fee). Ugh. At least I got a student discount.

We went to the Tours4Tips afterwards, and it was a very, very well-done tour! Our tour guide was this guy from Colorado who was half-Chilean (maybe Chris was his name?), and very knowledgeable. Apparently after the California Gold Rush first started, Valparaiso was transformed into one of the richest port cities in South America because it was a great stop along the coast. That's the reason you can see so much extravagance - or at least what's left of it. After the construction of the Panama Canal, the wealth of the city moved with it. Before it did, however, Valparaiso was home to many things, from the first fire department to the first Protestant church. It has English, German, and other European parts of the city as well as streets of all kinds, named after Europeans.

Valparaiso also is really gorgeous because it has all sorts of street art. Anywhere you turn, you'll see murals and paintings over all the walls in the city that really brighten up the walk. The historical part of the city is also UNESCO-designated, including its system of trolleys (apparently some of the original ones from way back when are still in use). This designation comes with requirements, however - people owning property in this area are not allowed to change the facades or structures around it. That is, they are tasked with having to repair outsides of buildings that are falling apart on their own dime. We were taken to a house that had burned down about 10 years ago and was still in ruins because UNESCO guidelines state that property cannot be changed if the structure was still standing - and unfortunately for this property owner, the frames of the old house were still intact. For that reason, the designation is controversial among citizens, but the city refuses to give it up because it's a huge draw for tourists. That's the paradox of preservation, I guess.

The tour stopped by a little place that sold artisanal pastries - and gave us all an alfajor to try. They are incredible! Alfajores are basically two cookies/wafers joined by dulce de leche and sometimes dipped in chocolate (these were). Ugh SO GOOD. I also bought a salmon and cheese empanada that I think might have been the best empanada I've had. Absolutely worth the money.

The tour guide also recommended that we try a couple restaurants, so afterwards Dad and I tried a dish called chorrillana - a lot like pique macho in Bolivia, with fries on the bottom and topped with all sorts of meat/protein. Heart attack on a plate, but delicious as heck!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

8/13/15: Elqui Valley

Elqui Valley tour today! Finally! In La Serena, there are four big tours that are generally available – Elqui Valley, Fray Jorge National Park, Punto Choros and Isla Damas, and the observatories. With the poor weather the past couple of days (lots of rain, and then cloudy skies to follow), most of the tours weren’t possible. Luckily, the Elqui Valley tour was.

The bus was supposed to pick us up between 8:45 and 9 am, but when it hadn’t come at 9:15, even I started getting a little nervous. It was only about 15 minutes late, but the tours before had been pretty on-time, or had contacted me somehow. Turns out there was nothing to worry about.

Our tour guide, Vale (nickname – I can’t remember her full name), spoke good English. She apparently lived a year in San Diego, but there were times when she couldn’t remember some English words. Still, with the Spanish that I knew and the context, I was able to understand everything, which was a marked difference from the tour I took to Lago Chungara where I understood basically half. If that. She also made sure to translate often – she would finish a thought and translate it directly into English, which was also a marked difference from my tour to Puno’s Uros and Taquile Islands, where the guide basically translated 25%, if that. Also, since Dad and I were the last to get picked up, we got to sneak a peek at the list of passengers. Apparently, the $25,000 CLP that we paid for the tour was less than what some others had paid - $28,000 and $30,000 per person. That made me sigh of relief, because I had been quoted $25,000 from the beginning and hadn’t asked for a better price. That’s my bad – we might have been able to get a better price, but at least I know we weren’t ripped off.

The Elqui Valley is quite pretty. Apparently, La Serena is the transition zone between the Atacama Desert of the north and the more moderate and rainy climate of Santiago and central Chile. The Elqui Valley embodies this transition, and there’s a dam that sort of marks the cloudy area and the sunny, temperate areas.

Our first stop was a pisco distillery. In case you don’t remember, pisco is a type of alcohol that I liken to vodka – though my knowledge of alcohols is quite limited. It generally comes from Peru and Chile, which are fighting over who “invented” the drink, and is often taken as pisco sour, which is the drink plus some lemon.

This particular distillery, Aba Pisquera, has been in the same spot for 3 generations and is family-owned. They grow their own grapes and process them all independently, which was also the case for the vineyard that I visited in Ica about two months ago (wow! Time flies!). They basically smash the grapes and make wine, which is then distilled into four types of alcohol – methanol, ethanol, propanol, and butanol – from which the ethanol is separated and used to make the pisco. All the piscos sit for 2 years before being bottled to recover the flavor of the grapes and the wood barrels that hold them in the meantime.

We were able to taste some samples – the mango sour and other fruit sour (some more specialized fruit that is imported from Southern Chile) were quite sweet and things I would imagine would be popular as shots at a college party. We were also able to try straight-up pisco – unflavored – which was like taking straight-up vodka. Ugh. Not a fan. At 40% alcohol, it was not an easy drink. Dad wanted to buy some, so he did, but I don’t think I’ll have any more.

We stopped by two little towns afterwards: Pisco Elqui and Monte Grande, which weren’t all that exciting. There was very little going on in either, especially since the Plaza de Armas and main church in Pisco Elqui were being renovated. Monte Grande was the hometown of Nobel Laureate in Literature, Gabriela Mistral. She is apparently extremely revered in the Elqui Valley (but only after she was recognized by the Nobel Prize committee), and she was an extremely dedicated teacher. Every little town in the Valley has a street of her name – probably the main street – and she has a school with her name and a playground with quotes from her poetry in Monte Grande. There’s a small museum with her personal effects in the town, but it’s two rooms and really nothing to see.

We stopped by the town/city of Vicuña as well. It’s the largest of the Elqui Valley and home base to some of the observatories in the area. Chile is apparently projected to have 60%+ of the world’s atrsonomy research by 2020 because of its clear skies – something that I could see very clearly in San Pedro de Atacama at night. Region 4, Coquimbo, has 10 observatories in itself, some touristic and some for actual scientific research. This prevalence is due both to the ideal climate for astronomical observation and its economic development, which allows it to host these observatories. Because Vicuña had renovations on its Plaza de Armas and main church as well, we weren’t able to really see it.

Before lunch, we stopped by a wine distillery. Like the pisco distillery, we were shown the processing techniques, along with the bottling that was done half by hand and half by machine that produces between 3000-4000 bottles of wine a day. Apparently, white wines should be drunk within a couple years, but purple wines can be stored for long periods of time. To let the wines sit, they leave them in various barrels of French Oak – which are divided into quality oak (for higher-quality wines) and regular oak (the difference being the processing of the wood). Like the pisco, these wines are not widely distributed to supermarkets and stores. I have long known that I like wine far less than other alcohols, but the sweet white wine was decent.

We finally stopped for lunch at the restaurant with solar kitchens! It’s the first of its kind, and definitely most artisanal. In summer, it takes about 45 minutes to cook a loaf of bread. In winter, it might take an hour and a half to two hours, but luckily they had our orders ready when we got there. What was most awesome about the “stove” was that the guy could hold a piece of paper at the center of the mirrors where the rays are concentrated and catch it on fire within seconds. It was simultaneously fascinating and scary. They also had ovens that work not on visible rays but rather with radiation, so they work even on cloudy days.

I had a chicken soup and some goat-ish meat and potatoes, and then a dessert that was a mix between pudding and tres leches cake. Quite good. I also got caught up a in a little conversation with the Spanish-speaking travelers and our guides, and of course the conversation of where I learned Spanish came up.  

I’m not sure whether I’m proud of the Spanish I know now or whether I’m still frustrated that I don’t know enough. Nevertheless, I got the impressed remarks of “Wow, you’re so brave to travel alone with no Spanish!” and the “You speak very well for only having learned it while traveling!” It feels good, I’m not going to lie. Still, almost three months feels like a lot to me, and I find myself getting frustrated when there’s something I don’t understand. In the long scheme of things, I guess it’s pretty good, but the world doesn’t care if I’ve only been learning and speaking for less than 3 months. It only cares whether I can speak or not.

The last viewpoint we crossed was the dam that we saw on our way there. It makes for quite a beautiful view, but unfortunately the water is only at 2% of its capacity. The dam, which was built just in 1996, reached a really high level at its 2004 maximum. This allowed people to do all kinds of tourism and water sports on the lake that formed, and made the relocation of the small town that used to be there worth it. However, in the years since, the Chilean mining of copper and other elements has used up a great deal of the water, leaving just the tiny bit still left today. Apparently it’s a controversial topic because mining has been so key to Chile’s economic development and its great standing today in relation to other countries in South America. It’s a really tough decision and would take a president/leadership really dedicated to protecting the environment to stop. Still, there’s already been a dam a little south of La Serena that is already completely dry due to mining activity. Maybe it’s a sign.

The last stop of the day was a little shop with lots of papaya products. The papaya tastes a lot different than what I’ve been used to in the US and in Bolivia, but Dad and I bought some juice and candy just to try. Overall, great day! Very pretty place, but the Elqui Valley isn’t as fantastic as some of the others that I’ve been to.

When Dad and I went to go buy bus tickets, we first tried to buy tickets with an automated machine. It wasn’t taking his credit card, so I asked the lady at the counter. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take credit cards of foreigners – what?! – and to buy from the counter costs an extra $1000 CLP. While that translates to roughly $1.50, I feel like that’s ridiculous! I mean, what the hell! Oh well.

While waiting for the bus (it leaves almost at 1 am because the drive to Valparaiso is only 5-6 hours), I took some time to check out the mall, which is right across the street from the bus terminal. It’s extremely nice and has all kinds of American products, as well as free bathrooms! Except for the Spanish, it felt like being in Lakeline Mall in Austin for a second. 

8/11-12/15: Dad's Arrival and Punto de Chorros

Dad arrived today! His flight wouldn’t arrive until 12:40, so I slept in and just chilled in the morning. Cristian (my Couchsurfing host in La Serena) lives only about 4 blocks to the airport, so I walked there to get Dad. I hadn’t looked at a map since yesterday morning, so got a little lost, but found the way before he got here.

We went to the city center to finish doing whatever there was left to do. We walked around, saw some of the markets, visited the Regional Museum with lots of artifacts from Easter Island – I definitely want to go the next time I’m in Chile.

There was also a tiny one-room gallery of religious art in the church off the Plaza de Armas that took us only about 10-20 minutes to get through.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to book a tour to anywhere due again to the weather conditions, but one tour agent was nice enough to teach me how to get to Punto de Choros independently for tomorrow, so that’s our plan for tomorrow!

We went to the supermarket to buy some food for breakfast the next morning, and then walked into a restaurant for dinner!

To get to Punto de Choros, we were supposed to be waiting at the bus/micro station starting at 8:30. The bus was supposed to leave by about 9, maybe a little later (god knows it always leaves later than advertised). However, the bus didn’t arrive until about 9:10, and the minibus that came was way too small to fit everyone who wanted to go. The driver tried to explain to me that it wouldn’t be possible to go to Isla Damas – the island off the coast with penguins and wildlife that makes the town a tourist destination – but I explained to him that we’d already bored ourselves with the nothing that could be done in La Serena itself, and that we would just go and check it out. To accommodate everyone, we then got in a collectivo to this guy’s house, in front of which he had parked a small bus.

The bus ride there was longer than I had expected – about 2 hours – and when we got there indeed, no tourists expect us were there. With the extra time it had taken to get to the guy’s house (we didn’t leave until about 10), we only had 2 hours to walk around. Luckily, with no tourists around, we were able to walk around the coast and just enjoy the beauty there. The ocean at that point looks really gorgeous, and there are several large stones that we could climb and explore. The shore actually reminded me a lot of the shore that I explored with the other Global Brigades interns in Ghana last summer.

When we headed back to the main harbor, we checked out some of the seaweed-like plants that the fishermen had brought it. A couple of them approached us about going to Isla Damas. I told them what the tour agents (multiple of them) had told me – the conditions of the ocean weren’t good enough. Apparently, though, they were. But to go to the island required at least 8-10 people, depending on the person that told me the information, otherwise for just two it would cost almost $120. That’s a real shame, because I’m sure it would have been really great to see the animals. If the tour agents hadn’t kept saying that, I wonder if we would have been able to do the independent tour.
Still, I think the trip was worth it – the view from the beach is great! We also got to see some birds that were just flying around, and had the whole area to ourselves.

When we got back, we were finally able to book a tour to the Elqui Valley for tomorrow (I was worried because there had been some rain on the way to Punto de Choros), and we bought a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket to eat for dinner, along with two avocados. There hadn’t been much else to eat at restaurants – just the typical empanadas, hamburgers, completos (hot dogs with avocado, tomatoes, and mayonnaise), and chicken. What we did ended up being a lot cheaper and healthier, which was a win on both parts. 

8/9-10/15: Power Outage, Last Day Alone!

My last day in Antofagasta, I meant to go to La Portada. It’s a stone arch in the middle of the ocean about 30 minutes outside the city. It would cost a fortune by taxi (I already asked about public transportation and there is basically no information online), but I figured it might just be worth it. Upon waking up, though, I found that there had been pretty bad rains the night before and the power had gone out. That meant time to study some more Spanish, uninterrupted, but it also meant that I wouldn’t be able to contact my Couchsurfing host in La Serena. I tried to do some work while waiting for the power to come back on (I was hopeful – and it even came on for about 5 minutes, during which I was unable to do anything worthwhile) but I ended up waiting until late afternoon with no progress. Since there are apparently no buses directly to La Serena (most of them that stop there use it as a pit stop before going on to Santiago), it was time to go to the bus terminal before I knew it.

I took a collective (holla @ me!) to the bus terminal, but when I got there I was really confused. The lady at the counter told me to pay on the bus, so I followed an employee to the bus. She had given me a seat number but some other old couple came and claimed I was sitting in their seats. I was promptly moved to an aisle seat (don’t get me started on why I don’t like aisle seats), and the old lady sitting next to me turned out to be crazy – she didn’t even know what city we were in. What?

I was nervous because I hadn’t paid – and when I did, I wasn’t given a receipt. Luckily, there were no problems. Except that once we arrived, those of us going to La Serena were dropped off at a random intersection outside the city center. I had no clue at all where I was, or how to get anywhere. Luckily, it was already 7:30 am, meaning there was a gas station open across the street that I was able to ask. (On the other side, there was a Chuck E. Cheese’s!). I walked to the Plaza de Armas (really empty) and lamented the fact that nothing is open in South America before 9 am. It’s intensely frustrating. Not to mention that I had no phone, no address for my Couchsurf, and no information about a hostel should I need one. It was a great morning, but for some reason I was more annoyed than worried. I think that speaks a lot to the South American culture that I’ve absorbed over the last two and a half months plus.

Luckily, right around 8:50, I found a café with wifi (few and far between – most cafes don’t have wifi, and the one I went in to ask had an employee that was extremely rude to me, ugh). I finished the travel research on La Serena that I meant to do the day before (and would have had I had wifi), got the address of my Couchsurf, and let my laptop charge (it had died from the day without power before).

The Couchsurf is probably the worst conditions I’ve ever lived in – in South America or otherwise. It’s a little out of the city (accessible by collective), but the house is old and falling apart. He has a huge dog and two small ones, and a horse. He’s a surfer and has a room specifically for growing weed that he sells to his friends. LMAO. The room he has for Couchsurfers has a door that doesn’t quite close, and two beds for three people for tonight, four when Dad gets here. He’s going to have a blast.

I headed to the city in collective, which was miles cheaper than the taxi I had to take the first time. I stopped by a travel agency, but apparently, due to the rain, tours are not possible until maybe Wednesday or Thursday. There’s not a whole lot to do in the city, so hopefully the weather conditions clear up. Cities in northern Chile are unprepared like no other for any kind of precipitation (hence the power outage from the night before and this canceling of tours), so the timing of my arrival is basically the worst I could have picked, ever.

Nevertheless, I walked to a museum on a Chilean president, Gabriel Gonzalez Videla, which had a tiny bit of English that helped me get the gist of what was going on. Apparently, La Serena developed closely with another city, Coquimbo, which is the namesake of the region and just a couple miles south. Just walking around the city, I found several public transportation stops to Coquimbo and other surrounding towns.

I also walked by a little open market, a long strip of park, and the beach. They don’t really have a beach for swimming here, but there is a structure that looks like an abandoned lighthouse.

Since there wasn’t much else to do, I ate some dinner and headed back. I thought the collective worked the same as a taxi but with more than one passenger, but I was wrong. Apparently, they have little stops where people wait for collectivos (or collectivos wait for people) that are organized, at least to get from the city back to the suburbs. Oops.

At night, I was able to just chat with Cristian a little. He spent 10 years in Tuscon, Arizona 10 years ago, so his English is really great. He is also a sort of free spirit, who surfs and smokes and just opened a pizza shop a couple months ago. His friends and dad came to just hang out at night, and I chatted with them a little in the broken Spanish that I know. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

8/7-8/15: Resting in Antofagasta and italki

Since there is nothing else to do in the city except visit La Portada (a rock arch in the ocean, but with no public transportation and about 30 minutes away by car from the city), I ended up doing very little on Friday. I stayed in most of the day - it's a lot easier to justify this when living in an apartment than when paying for a hostel - and only went out at night to get food for dinner. It was nice though - I hadn't had one of those days since I missed my tours in San Pedro de Atacama, and I know I won't have days like those when Dad gets here. I used the time to study a lot of Spanish and catch up on some other work that I haven't done in a while.

I woke up on Saturday planning on spending the morning in the apartment and the afternoon at La Portada, which was working out pretty well. I read on Lonely Planet that apparently you can take a micro most of the way there and walk just 3 km (maybe 45 minutes) towards the site. I wanted to stop by the tourist information office and make sure, but when I got there it was already closed (I was late by about 20 minutes, apparently). I chickened out a little and tried to go into a hostel and ask, but they told me that I would have to take a taxi - there was no other way. The site is just too far. It was already pretty late by then, so I just gave up and walked towards the beach. I actually was able to stop by a little fish/food market, filled with stalls of all kinds of fresh fish and food stalls. I bought an empanada because I was hungry, and it turned out to be miles better than the sad one I had on my Salar de Tara tour in San Pedro de Atacama. It was fresh, fried, and nice and tasty.

On my way back, I stopped at a grocery store. I feel like the one here has more variety than the ones I went to in Bolivia (which makes sense). It even has poor college student food - like single serve ramen and cans of tuna and things like that. Awesome.

When I got back I started watching Dexter (it's kind of fantastic - and captures my attention and curiosity a lot more than Breaking Bad) and finally tried out It's a language-learning tool that I've heard of for a while but never really thought to try, but I finally bit the bullet. It's great because it's founded on a community - native speakers and learners of all languages come together to converse with and teach each other. Since I already know some Spanish, it's a great way to practice! Apparently people are quite active on it, and I can pay people to teach me if I feel it's necessary. I  might in the future to learn more about verb tenses that I wasn't able to cover - like the conditional (I would do something) or the subjunctive (If I were to win the lottery). I have quite a ways to go before then, though.

Friday, August 7, 2015

8/6/15: Antofagasta!

I arrived in Antofagasta around 8:30 - later than I wanted because I wasn't sure when my new Couchsurfing host needed to get to work. I got a taxi that was quite expensive - 5000 CLP - but I felt I had no leverage to bargain, and the driver had already dropped that from the 6000 CLP price that he originally named. I arrived without a problem - thank goodness!

Clara, my host here, doesn't speak as much English as my other hosts have. However, she is willing to speak slowly and clearly for me, which makes life much, much easier!

The thing about Antofagasta is that it's the 3rd-largest city in Chile by population. However, there is almost NOTHING to do here! I spent today doing basically everything that there is to be done here. I went to the city center - relatively close to Clara's place - coincidentally also called Plaza Colon. Apparently Christopher Columbus is really important? I'm pretty sure he's the namesake.

On my way there was a marketplace and a pedestrian street similar to the ones in Iquique and Arica. I ended up spending very little time in the Plaza and heading to Centro Cultural Estacion first, a little museum of the railway in Antofagasta. I also stopped by the Antofagasta Regional Museum, which was pretty extensive and complete with a downloadable audio guide in English. Unfortunately, since I have no phone, I couldn't download anything.

The museums are right next to the beach, so I headed in that direction. There's a wooden pier called Muelle Salitrero Compania Melbourne Clark, which was used as the main port of the city. It isn't in great condition but has old railroad tracks through it, and the holes in the floor have been replaced by glass panels. It has a cool feel to it and a beautiful view of the Pacific!

For lunch I had a stuffed potato. Since the first one I had in La Paz, I've loved them - fried potatoes stuffed with all kinds of things. This one had rice and veggies and chicken.

In the afternoon, I headed to the only other attraction to which I could walk in Antofagasta - the Ruins of Huanchaca. It took me about an hour to get there, but the ruins were obvious once I arrived. They're a large set of ruins that look like abandoned buildings from centuries ago, and have been turned into a little park that you can visit. The thing is, the information is sparse. There were three or four panels outside with both English and Spanish explanations, but the ink on them had faded so much that you could barely tell the panels with ink from a blank white panel.

Luckily, the museum was better. Everything was written in Spanish, unfortunately, but at least with the pictures I could understand some. There were English explanations, but accessible again only with QR codes. Being without a phone is tough enough, and I can't stand having to be reminded about it!

Anyway, the main part of the museum was focused all on saltpeter. There was an extensive timeline of it, and four large information hubs about it along with artifacts from around the world advertising saltpeter and derivative products (aka fertilizer). They had bags and pictures of calendars, stamps, comic strips, and all kinds of other products from around the world (the US, Asia, Middle East, Europe) with "Chilean Saltpeter" written on them. Fascinating.

They also had rooms/exhibits with samples of rocks from the region, including this gorgeous white one with turquoise tint. The information talked all about the scale of geological time, evolution, the solar system and stars, etc. I wasn't sure how it all tied together, but it was interesting nonetheless. They also had an audiovisual room that said it would play a video every hour, but when it got to the hour (and a little after that) nothing played. There were maybe 5 other visitors to the museum at that time, and I just gave up and walked away.

On my way back, I took the road along the beach - it's beautiful and they have places specifically for pedestrians, meaning people can easily walk from end to end of the city or jog on it, like many people were doing. It was quite the view - the beachfront of Antofagasta is probably the best one out of the ones I've seen!

I got back to the city center when it was kind of dark, but I bought a hot dog (completo, they come with tomatoes, mayonnaise, and guacamole) and churros for dinner - they were amazing! The city center and pedestrian road were full of life and street performers.

The curious issue with Antofagasta is that there are also NO tour agencies anywhere in the city. That makes absolutely no sense to me, seeing as they exist literally everywhere else - even in Bolivia. I walked around everywhere - the city center, the areas around it, the places around the hotels on the road to the Ruins of Huanchaca - and I'm sure of this fact. I'm going to be here for the next three days, and since there's nothing to do without private transportation, I'm not sure what I'm going to do. Ugh.

8/5/15: Lago Chungara

I was glad I was able to go to Lago Chungara and Parque Nacional Lauca today! Even though it would have been more ideal to go yesterday, it worked out. I woke up way early in the morning and had a little bit of a conversation with the apartment complex security guy before being picked up by the tour bus a little after 7:30.

It took us a while to get to the National Park and its stops, but the view was great! The tour guide only explained everything in Spanish, so my understanding was far from complete. Still, the trip was worth it! We stopped by a little tiny town first called Poconchile, with a correspondingly little church and cemetery. It was surprisingly chilly outside (combination of early morning and the altitude, I assume) and I was asked whether or not I spoke Spanish.

One thing I've noticed about tourism in Chile is that a good proportion of tourists are Chilean - that hasn't been true in Peru and Bolivia. I have an inkling that it's because people in Chile are better off overall and there is more to do in Chile, but those are claims that I would have to look up more about. Out of the 15-20 people on the tour, I think it was just me and another lady from Mexico that were not Chilean.

Anyway, the park was also like many others that I've been to - gorgeous mountains, interesting plants, lots of llamas, alpacas, and vicunas. We stopped by a little "zona magnetica" that was an optical illusion - it looked like we were headed down a hill but in reality the land tilted the other way. There was a special species of cactus that our guide pointed out as well.

The above graphic (from Google) shows the route we took. Along the way were lots of mountains (snow-capped are the prettiest!), valleys, and various animals at a distance. Luckily, when we arrived at Chucuyo, there were three alpacas on the road that came to greet us. They got extremely close to us, to the point where I was able to get great video footage from my GoPro and pet one of them! But it sneezed on me shortly after, which made the experience a lot less great. Still - petting an alpaca on the side of the road?! Not something that happens every day.

The main attraction of the trip was Lake Chungara itself. It's at extremely high altitude - 4500 meters plus - but the view was worth it! I don't know what it is about lakes and mountains in the background that make for incredible pictures, but seriously - this view was incredible. The guide also mentioned that two of the mountains in the background were actually located in Sajama National Park - the same Sajama National Park that I went to when I visited Oruro. It's right on the Bolivian border with Chile, but to see that brought the two countries together in a really special way! Completely awesome to relive that, even if I still don't know if Sajama was worth it.

At this stop, I also met 4 Taiwanese people who were traveling together. I was thankful to be able to speak a language that I could understand well - it was a luxury that I did not have when the tour guide kept talking and talking. My Chinese needs practice, but it was a relief to at least be able to understand and not have to guess half of what's going on.

On our way back I started to feel kind of bad. I think it was a mix of the altitude and not having eaten very much, but I tried to take a nap and just wait until we got back to zero altitude. We finally stopped for "lunch" - though it was basically 5 pm - which was some bread, soup, and a delicious plate of alpaca meat, rice, and potatoes before walking around the little town of Putre and heading back to Arica.

I was dropped directly to the bus station, where I bought a ticket to Antofagasta. Once on the bus, the driver's assistant/attendant person checked all out tickets (as is standard) but, like the guy from my Iquique-Arica bus, took my passport for a while before giving it back. He just noted down the information from everyone's identification card so I don't understand why my passport needed to be held for a bit, and didn't have the Spanish to ask. Oh well.

We were all woken up at 4 am for some sort of immigration checkpoint. It was the weirdest thing ever, but we stopped, everyone filed out, and all our bags were put through a security screen. I have no idea what it was or why it was happening so randomly and late in the night, and I understood exactly 0% of what the driver's assistant said to me. I just did what everybody else did and got the heck back onto the bus. Well, weirder things have happened.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

8/4/15: Museo de San Miguel de Azapa

There wasn't much else to do today except visit the San Miguel de Azapa museum. It's the most famous one in Arica, maybe in all of Chile because it contains a room of Chincorro mummies, some of the oldest in the world (much older than those of Egypt).

I was nervous because going there required weird public transportation. I made my way to the city and thankfully found the yellow taxi station (these are the ones that go to rural places, whereas the typical mostly-black with a little bit of yellow taxis stay in the city). I told the driver I wanted to go to the museum and got in. The way these "taxis" - actually called collectivos - work is that you don't have to pay as much (1000 CLP) but you share it with however many people the driver wants. It took about 20-25 minutes to get to the stop, but the driver took me right to the street with the museum, and I had to walk maybe a minute to get to the entrance.

The museum itself was quite awesome! It was one of those that had English translations but in a little booklet instead of on the walls (where there was only Spanish). It was a little difficult to navigate and enjoy, but the first of two rooms/series of exhibits was thorough in explaining the archaeological history of the region. Apparently, the Azapa Valley (where the museum was located, right outside Arica) is the ideal place to plant olives. They are extremely popular to grow, especially to make olive oil, which is shipped all over the world.

The second series of exhibits in the museum was the one that people go crazy for - the Chinchorros. They are a group of people who lived a long time ago (sometime BCE) and famous for their advances in many things. This exhibit was a lot smaller than the other, but it showed all kinds of their tools and fabrics and dyes - and then also what they're most famous for. Aka MUMMIES.

I wasn't super sure if the mummies were real or replicas or whatever because their sizes were extraordinarily small. It may have been that people so long ago were just much, much shorter and smaller than people are now, but I'm a little skeptical about that. Anyway, they had all kinds of mummies - whole bodies and just parts - and it creeped me out more than a little.

Out in the courtyard of the museum they had a couple geoglyphs that had been imported from the area to protect them from vandalism and such. I had expected more, but you could see some cute little figures of a sun-like object that was pretty cool on the most obvious stone.

After spending almost 3 hours at the museum in total, I was really nervous to get back to the city. It would take another collectivo to get back, but this time, instead of a stop with the collectivos just waiting for your approach, I would have to hail one down like a taxi along the road. I felt a little like a hitchhiker - reminiscent of Humberstone in Iquique - but I made it! I only had to wait about 2 minutes before a yellow collectivo came with room for me. Back in the city, I ended up getting some food (spaghetti) and heading back to the apartment to rest.

Monday, August 3, 2015

8/3/15: Exploring Arica

Today was a long day! I woke up a little late due to a late night, and walked to the city center in about an hour (faster than I expected, which was good!). I wasn't super sure where to go, but I booked a tour of Lago Chungara and the Lauca National Park and found the city center! I went to Plaza Colon and Parque Vicuna Mackenna, and then took the street up to El Morro de Arica, the lookout point over the city. It was a pretty steep way up but I managed it, and the views of the ocean were worth it!

At the top they have a history and weapons museum - it was quite small but comprehensive, with weapons (guns, cannons) and uniforms from important wars of Chile's history. No explanations, though, which was a real bummer. I think explanations would have supplemented the artifacts extremely well.

Next to the museum, they have a tiny little Cristo de la Concordia of their own - it's curious because it almost can't be seen from the heart of Arica. I'm not sure what the purpose of that is, but I stopped by on the way back down.

For lunch I bought a chicken sandwich with grilled onions and french fries! It was a genius combination and a great buy, paired with some guava-orange juice for $1500, or less than $3. Bless.

I also found the Museo del Mar or Sea Museum after a lot of walking around. It was a little pricey for a one-room museum, but it had shelves and shelves of crustacean shells and fossils and related things. I ended up spending more time than expected there, and some of the shells are absolutely gorgeous!

I ended up back in the city center after that, and actually coincidentally ran into Georg, the German that was staying with Kathy and me in Cochabamba, Bolivia! He was apparently on his way to La Paz and thought that it would be fun to go through Chile (a luxury of Europeans since Americans would have to pay for another visa). I was so surprised - how interesting that he ended up here at the same time! We walked together a little bit before parting, and I headed back towards the heart of Arica. Since I had the time and nothing much else to do, I decided to make my way towards another lookout point at the eastern side of Arica. It was a little more difficult to get to since it's not nearly as touristy. There were only two other local couples and one mother and son there when I arrived, a stark difference to the tourists at the El Morro. At the top of this hill was a statue of a woman, presumably the Virgin Mary but with no labels or signs to identify her. The view was not as good because of the distance to the beach, but I liked how quiet it was and stayed a while.

On my walk back to Daniel's apartment I stopped to put my feet in the ocean along the beach and walked around the neighborhood. There's not much here except one little corner store, but there was a stone arrangement spelling out "Arica Siempre Arica" that translates to "Arica Always Arica" that I helped fix a little.

Daniel got a phone call that apparently the tour for tomorrow is not possible because of a road blockage - well damn. Hopefully I can figure out how to get to the museums of interest tomorrow and pass the rest of the time, then, and do the tour on Wednesday. We'll see how it goes, but I'm really hoping to see the lake and national park! I'll be really, really bummed if it doesn't work out.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

8/2/15: First day in Arica!

I made it to Arica! I woke up a little late this morning, but Antonio (my Couchsurfing host from Iquique) was nice enough to drive me to the bus terminal, where I caught a bus right away to Arica. I arrived a little nervous because I hadn't been able to find the address that my Arica Couchsurfing host gave me on Google Maps. Luckily, the taxi driver knew exactly where it was, and the reception/security guy was able to contact him. Woo!

I spent the afternoon walking to the beach (just one block from the apartment!). Since it's Sunday afternoon, it actually works out quite well because there are a lot of people around. I bought some food - including a "completo" or hot dog with mayonnaise, tomatoes, and avocado - and ended up walking about 1.5 hours to the center of the city. It's nice! It has a really modern feel, complete with a McDonald's and car-free zone. I didn't find too many places of interest, and certainly none of the museums, but hopefully I can get a better feel of the city tomorrow!

The route along the beach is really nice. I have a great view and easy access to the ocean, and I'm really excited to have the opportunity to be so close to it! There are two other girls here in the apartment - 2 bedrooms, one workroom, one bathroom, and a living room/kitchen. That doesn't leave a lot of space to do much else, but I'm not complaining about the situation at all. After all, it could be a lot worse! I'm excited to have some time to just chill, and hopefully see everything that Arica has to offer in the next couple days!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

8/1/15: Pica

In the morning, I went with my new Couchsurf host: he was nice enough to offer to host me for a day, even though I was in town for three. He was really sweet, mid-30s, spoke decent but not perfect English, and has a place as nice as Paris in the fall. It's a pretty extensive apartment complex that overlooks the beach, and I have no complaints at all! He offered me a drink, a snack, and to drive me to Pica today - a small town about 1.5-2 hours away from Iquique. That was super nice, and I decided to go because my other option was to hang out at the beach all day. Even though that sounds like a great option, I don't mind seeing more because the beach is everywhere in Chile.

Pica is the town that subsides due to the oasis around it - there are a good number of little towns between it and Iquique, but Pica is special because it's one of the largest! To get to it, you first go through a stretch of Atacama Desert:

And then Pica itself! It's got a cute little Plaza de Armas (blurry, unfortunately, but you can get the picture!):

We then had lunch in a fancy little place - here's the appetizer! Pica is also famous for its lemons (you can see one in the upper left) and mangoes - the mango smoothie I had was incredible as well!

We then stopped by the aguas termales (hot springs) that are very popular especially in the summer. For people looking for a warm place to swim (the beach is cold), this is perfect!

The town also has a cute little "Valle de los Dinosaurios" or Dinosaur Valley!

And then we came to home to this gorgeous view:

I'm just saying I could get used to this!

Friday, July 31, 2015

7/31/15: Humberstone Saltpeter

I woke up a little late today because I went to sleep late last night, so it ended up being almost noon by the time I was on a bus to Humberstone. It's a location about 45 minutes to an hour away from Iquique, an abandoned town now named a UNESCO World Heritage Site that used to be the center of saltpeter (gunpowder) production, a huge industry for Chile in the decades before and after 1900.

The trip there was tricky with public transportation because it's almost a completely touristy site - there are very few locals getting on and off there, and instead of having a bus stop, the buses just sort of pause at the edge of the road, let you walk off, and continue on. I did not know this (all I knew was from an incomplete review on Trip Advisor), so my minibus passed the stop before I even knew what was going on. Luckily, there was a little tiny town nearby where the driver directed me to a bus in the opposite direction to let me to the site.

When I got dropped off, I walked about 5 minutes to the site and paid to get in (yay for student discounts!). The site is incredible! It's an entire city - a small one - that has everything, from living quarters to a hospital to a waste dump to the mining/processing plant to a main square with a market, clock tower, theater, and hotel. It took me about 3 hours to get through the whole thing, and all the buildings are rusted and beginning to fall apart. One of the biggest risks of this place is that the sun (really hot with lots of radiation) and the other elements will damage it beyond repair. The UNESCO designation helps fund some refurbishing, but a good amount of the site is still in disrepair, which is quite unfortunate.

It was a privilege to learn about the life of these workers, which consisted of a lot of hard work. It's kind of incredible that the whole town is still standing and much of the buildings and equipment is still intact. The idea was that saltpeter was a really valuable material and one that transformed the city of Iquique into a city and a crucial port in Chile. At its peak, 65% of worldwide saltpeter was Chilean. In the late 1930s, though, Germans invented artificial gunpowder that put thousands of Chileans out of business. Unfortunate for them.

To get back to Iquique was a lot more tricky than getting to Humberstone because there's no real bus stop. Basically, you walk back to the highway where you got off (about 5-10 minutes away from the Humberstone site) and wait until there's a bus that is headed in the direction of Iquique. When one finally came (maybe after 5 minutes of waiting - there are actually lots of buses and minibuses), I saw a couple of people get off. That meant there would definitely be room for me, so I asked to get on and the driver agreed! Whew. I was really nervous about it, but thankfully it all worked out!

For dinner, I stopped at a chicken place - I got 1/4 of a chicken with a plate of fries, a drink, and a side salad for about $6. Bless South America!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

7/30/15: Day 1 in Iquique

We arrived to the outskirts of Iquique around 3:45, when I woke up because the bus was stopped. I panicked a little because I saw that a good chunk of the bus had already left, and I thought that it was time to get off. I quickly gathered my stuff to get off, but the bus door closed before I was able to get out. That was actually a good thing, though, since we weren't in the actual city yet. Instead, I got to sit up front with the driver and his assistant until we got down into the city. Since the area we arrived to is apparently quite dangerous at night, they allowed anyone who wanted to stay in the bus (and sleep) until the sunrise at about 7:30. I'm incredibly thankful for that, since they found out early that I had a ridiculously difficult time understanding them (Chilean Spanish is incomprehensible, I swear).

I spent the morning literally walking around until I could find a place to stay - all the places I stopped by first didn't have singles/hostel-style rooms or were really expensive. I finally found a place with good wifi and the cheapest price (8000 CP, or about $12). I spent a couple hours working and doing research about what to do today before heading out. I must have asked at least 5 hostels about prices, and none of them, including the one I decided on, had maps of Iquique. What? If I had my phone it would not be a problem, but since I don't, it definitely is.

I made my way towards the city center, going to the free Regional Museum at first. I've been called "valiente" or brave by many people throughout my trip, and was called that again by the woman employee for traveling alone! The museum itself was quite nice - it had a section on animals, mummification (practiced quite widely in the Atacama Desert area), tools, technology, and textiles. Their English translations were quite sparse, making it very difficult to read/understand anything, but at least their artifacts were clear and interesting!

The main plaza is small, and it was under construction (as is much of the rest of the main city). I tried to find other museums - the Naval, the History (not real name), etc. - but they were all closed even though I found a pamphlet showing they would be open at the times I visited. Hmm.

I stopped by a church since I had some time to, and its style was a lot like the one I saw yesterday in Calama - and very different from the ones that I had seen in Peru and Bolivia. How interesting! At least I know that the one in Calama was not just a fluke, then!

I sat down for some lunch as well - the first time in about 5 days that I actually bought a meal. What I like a lot about South America is that restaurants all tend to have something called a "menu" - not a list of the food choices they offer, but a sort of daily special that usually includes an appetizer (soup, typically) and a main dish, occasionally with a dessert as well. I had chicken noodle soup with chicken and rice - I would not have eaten that much chicken had I known what the waitress was saying, dang it - but it was good nonetheless.

I also walked through a little part of the market and along the touristy shopping center in the afternoon. It had all sorts of souvenirs, and there was one lady making earrings and other jewelry by hand! They looked awesome but I'm sure they would have been very expensive and I don't wear them very often, so I kept moving and bought myself an ice cream - best idea ever!

My last stop for the day was another museum. Since Iquique is a coastal port (like almost all the other cities in Chile), it has a museum called the Museo Corbeta Esmeralda of a replica of a warship from the 1800s. The boat was only accessible with a tour guide, and this tour guide only spoke ridiculously fast Chilean Spanish, so I basically understood nothing. Unfortunate. Still, the boat was worth the $4.50 that I paid, so I'm not going to complain. I also finally saw the bus terminal (the real one!) of Iquique, so when I need to leave, I'll be going from there!

7/29/15: Salar de Tara and trip to Iquique

Today was another long day! I woke up for an 8 am day tour to Salar de Tara, and was not disappointed. We were able to see a good amount, and the views were incredible! One of our first stops was a frozen river with a mountain range behind it. We had a simple breakfast there before moving on to another, wider part of the river that looked more like a lake. It was so cold that the whole area had frozen over - our tour guide said the lake was between 2-6 meters deep! It was solid enough to be able to stand on, and it was awesome!

Along the rest of the way, we saw some breathtaking sights - from the mountain that marks the intersection of the borders of Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile; to a rock that looks like a native shaman; to write rock formations. 

Our last stop was the Salt Flat itself. Much different from the one in Uyuni because this was a lot smaller and was not completely dry. It actually had a good amount of wildlife surrounding it, and had a cool rock formation right next to it!

I also felt a little better on this tour because I was not the only one who preferred English translations - there was another girl who was traveling alone at the time who preferred them as well! 

I'm really bummed that I didn't have the best camera, but the views really were great! I'm really happy I went - even if I was pretty tired during the times when we were on the bus. 

I wasn't sure how I was going to get to my next city because I'd never taken a bus in Chile - it looks like it works very similarly to Peru and Bolivia, though, which is definitely good news. I bought a bus ticket to the city of Calama (there are no direct buses out of SPdA) about 1.5 hours away. The buses reminded me of the ones in Peru - a lot more modern, comfortable, and designed to be higher-class. The buses in Bolivia are a lot older and typically have more broken seat tilters or things like that. This one not only had air conditioning, padded seats, and a bathroom, the seats also had USB chargers! Bless.

I arrived in Calama at around 6:40, and the only bus to Iquique left for the night left at 11:00 pm because the bus ride is only 5 hours. I passed the time by walking around the city a little bit - it's nice! They don't have much since it's a small town, but the main plaza was alive and full of foliage. The adjoining church was another sight to see, and I'm beginning to see a trend in the churches in Chile. Unlike the ones in Peru or Bolivia, Chilean churches aren't that extravagant - they tend to be one room, with paintings or statues on the sides instead of the full displays of saints that are the norm in Peru and Bolivia. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

7/28/15: Valle Arcoiris and Termas de Puritama

I had another long day ahead of me today - but luckily it started at 8 and not 5! My first stop was Valle Arcoiris, or Rainbow Valley. Even though the two sites that I visited yesterday are the ones that are much more popular and touristy, I absolutely think that Valle Arcoiris is better! It was as expensive as the two from yesterday combined - I think it has to do with the fact that there aren't as many people interested in it, as our group saw maybe 2 other vans compared to the dozens at both the Geysers of Tatio and Valle de la Luna - but I'm so, so glad I came here!

The colors of the rocks here are apparently formed not only by some different minerals, but also by differences in the temperatures of the magma/lava that make them up. Over time, minerals attract other minerals of the same kind, so the white bands in the rock represent many sulfur, for example.

The view there was truly incredible. I have no regrets about going at all. Wow, and I'm glad I insisted on it! There was also a little river in the area that made the mountain/valley that much better looking. I think I have some obsession with color, because it's what makes a landscape the most beautiful for me.

Our second stop on the way was a series of petroglyphs - pictures carved into stone. These were apparently made by obsidian due to its abundance in the area from volcanoes. There were ones that had been around for thousands of years - many depicting forms of various animals, especially llamas that were crucial in transporting materials and people - and there were ones that were "replicas" that visitors had created. The petroglyphs were awesome! They looked a lot like cave paintings that you would expect from long ago, and it's a shame that more weren't preserved. There are apparently a lot more, but they are very far away and no formal tours go there, unfortunately.

I had wanted to go to the Salar de Atacama - one of the largest salt flats ever - in the afternoon, but there are very little tours that go there. The ones that do usually go in the morning, and the one I found that went in the afternoon didn't have one today. As an alternative, I decided to go to the Termas de Puritama - a series of hot springs! This was the only "tour" I had been on without an English guide, and my struggles understanding not only Spanish but Chilean Spanish (they speak very fast and don't pronounce many S's, especially those at the end of a word) really showed. Fortunately there wasn't so much a tour as just a series of connected pools that we could swim in. I took advantage of it - the water was definitely not that warm, and moving from pool to pool was excessively cold - but the scenery was amazing as well! The pools (8 in total) were connected with many waterfalls and areas were the water was moving quite fast. I met a nice lady who had a son my age studying in Japan right now - awesome!

The area around the pools - red/clay stones - was pretty as well! I got back to SPDA at around 6:30, pretty exhausted. Tomorrow I've got Salar de Tara - a salt flat apparently very different from Salar de Uyuni - starting at 8 am, and then hopefully a night bus towards Iquique. We'll see how it goes - hopefully as well as today!

7/26-27/15: Geysers de Tatio & Valle de la Luna

Yesterday, I had reserved two tours for Sunday, the Geysers de Tatio in the morning and Valle de la Luna in the afternoon. I was really excited because I was actually going to be doing something again, and traveling on my own!

I was worried because my phone is still not working - I think it's a problem with my battery, not the charger or something else, which is a huge problem - and I went and bought a plastic alarm clock yesterday. However, I tested it and the alarm doesn't seem to work, so I set my alarm on my laptop and hoped that everything would go well. I was supposed to wake up at 4:40 or so to be ready at 5, but nothing woke me up - the clock alarm didn't work, and somehow my laptop had remained on but the internet browser had closed. Still, I woke up around 5:15 and rushed to get ready, hoping that the car still had yet to come. By the time it got to 6, I gave up and went back to sleep.

I woke up again in time for breakfast, then failed to take a nap. I went to the city center to ask about the tour, and was lucky to speak enough Spanish that the employee (he might have been the boss?) allowed me to sign up for the tour the next day instead. I spent the afternoon in the local museum, which was full of information about the Atacama region - it's one of the only stops between Argentina, when much of the food needed for people living in the Atacama Desert was imported, and the coast. It had many great explanations in both Spanish and English, so I spent the afternoon copying down some key vocabulary words while enjoying the exhibit!

I had a tour for Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) scheduled as well, but didn't realize that Bolivian time and Chilean time don't match up. As it turns out, My tour that was supposed to start at 3 pm started at 2 pm Bolivian time - the time to which everything I have was still set to. Well, that would explain a lot. I had a lot harder time getting this tour rescheduled for the next day, but I was so lucky I could. Whew, because I was not about to spend a ton more money on them.

The next day started at the actual right time of 5 am, and I headed with the group to the Geysers of Tatio. It was about -10 Celcius and ridiculously cold - I was not happy about being so cold, and I regret not bringing a pair of warmer pants! Still, the geyser field was incredible and absolutely beautiful! I felt a little bad about being the only one who needed English translations (lots of Chileans travel to San Pedro de Atacama for vacation, apparently) but the tour guide, Felipe, was nice enough and didn't make a big deal of it at all.

We also went to some hot springs - even though it was freezing cold outside, I thought it would be like the hot springs from Uyuni (really warm and worth it) and decided to get in. Unfortunately for me, these hot springs were not nearly as warm, and I ended up feeling more lukewarm than anything. At least I got some great pictures of the geysers next to them! Geysers are apparently formed only over rock that is hard enough not to erode with the passage of water through it, because otherwise, you get hot springs or something similar.

On our way back, we stopped by a pond and saw several different animals - from ducks to birds to vicugnas - and plants. The scenery is absolutely amazing because SPDA is surrounded by 5 different mountain ranges, 3 of which are in sight in the areas near the city. They make for gorgeous photos, breathtaking landscapes, and impossible colors against in sky.

We got back near noon, and I had some time to kill before my second tour of the day. I got some work done, and then headed out for the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) tour! The area is also quite awesome, but again I felt bad because I was the only one to ask for English translations. Oh well, I'll get over it. I'm paying the same amount as everyone else (maybe even more, who knows?) so I'm going to get my money's worth.

The area is gorgeous. It kind of does look like the surface of the moon, which is what the area is supposedly named after. Places that were extremely far away looked a lot closer because the air is so dry - not because there's no rain (there's apparently quite a lot) but because its relative humidity is extremely low. Either way, it made for some great pictures - thanks again to the series of mountain ranges.

We also visited a little cave area!

Plus the"Tres Marias" - three rock formations that look like mother and child!

Our tour guide (Philip? Something like that), seeing as we were a group of young and relatively fit people, proposed that we go to a more unusual spot in the area to watch the sunset. I was all for it, as was everyone else! I could absolutely see why he chose this spot, because the other was filled with other tour groups and didn't have the same gorgeous view of nearby rock formations. The sunset was incredible - and what made it even better was the color palate of the mountains on the other side. The sunset is apparently a "fake" one, meaning that we see the sun set over the mountains but the sun hasn't actually set yet due to the height of the mountains. We still have light, and the reflection/refraction of it is what makes the mountains on the opposite side have purples and pinks and blues. Wow.

Overall, though I was supposed to have this day on Sunday instead of Monday, I had a great time!

Monday, July 27, 2015

7/25/15: Salar de Uyuni, Day 3 and arrival in Chile

Last night, we only had 4 beds, so I had to use the same one as Daniel, putting our sleeping bags next to each other. This normally would not have been a problem, but he pulls the sheets. Since it was negative degrees outside with no heating inside, even with the sleeping bags I woke up several times throughout the night from the cold. Ugh. Waking up at 3:40am freezing cold is not fun.

Nevertheless, we had breakfast and headed out. We stopped by some geysers, but it was still bright and early with barely any light other than the car headlights, and freezing cold. Ugh. 

We then arrived at the hot springs. I was skeptical of them because it was below zero outside, but the alternative was to stay ashore and freeze, so I decided to change into my bathing suit (for the first time this trip!) and get in the hot springs. Turns out that was absolutely the right choice, because the water was warm and totally worth it! It felt amazing, but before long I was called by the other tour group, who would be my ride to the Bolivian/Chilean border. With them, I visited some other lagoons before the end of the tour.

The line at immigration on the Bolivian side was a lot longer than I expected, and I was nervous because I did not want to pay the 20 Bs per day over the 30 I had been given by my visa. It was made worse by other travelers behind me speaking in Spanish about how gringos have to pay an extraordinary amount for a visa because the Bolivian government is skeptical of us or something. Luckily, when I got in, the guy didn't even look at my entry stamp. He just found the page where my visa was, stamped it, and charged me 15 Bs like he did for everyone else. I later found out that the sum was actually a bribe of sorts, which explained why he told me it was okay when I was only able to produce 14 Bs before he shooed me away. Other people were pissed, calling Bolivia corrupt, but I honestly was just glad that I didn't have to pay something like 400 Bs for staying so long. 

The bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama was uneventful as a whole, and I passed migration with no problems on the Chilean side. When I arrived into town, I could not for the life of me find any hostels that had people staffing them for maybe 10 minutes of walking around, which was extremely bizarre. I eventually found one with reliable internet and a really nice lady as the staff, even though it was a bit expensive. However, I basically have my own room, so I'm not going to complain too much. 

I made my way to the city center later, and now understand what people mean that SPDA is ridiculously touristy. Basically everyone in the area, except for the restaurant, small market, souvenir shop, or tour agency staff, is a tourist here. The town is just a couple of blocks in the main area, and every single stall is targeted at tourists. Everyone is basically offering the same tour for different prices, and I spent more time than expected asking around. I only went to maybe 4 tour companies out of at least 20, but I decided to just go with what I have. I should have gone to the center earlier to have time for a tour this afternoon, but I found a great little tour company that offered me prices that were significantly lower than the others I got! Woohoo!

7/24/15: Salar de Uyuni, Day 2

We got up to leave at 6 am – way too early, in my opinion. On the bright side, the sunrise was incredible – all kinds of colors over the horizon. Wow. This day was mainly full of visits to lagoons – gorgeous waters, and many of them with a unique sort of twist! The colors, the flamingos, all made for incredibly picturesque views.

The Arbol de Piedra, which was one of our main stops, was also awesome! They were basically a huge pile of large rocks, one of which had been made to look like a tree.

By the time that we left, it was getting really cold (mainly from the wind). A little bit before we arrived at our next accommodation for the night, the car had a major mishap. The steering rod – I’m not sure the actual name, but the rod that allows you to control the direction of the wheels – detached from the bottom of the car on the right side. Our driver had to run to the hotel (thankfully within sight) and borrow another vehicle to bring us there. He went back to try to fix it while we ate a snack and dinner and just hung out.

I think the two Brazilians wanted to repeat last night, but this new group that we came with was not up for drinking, since many of them were experiencing some problems adjusting to the altitude. It was also a lot colder in this hotel than the one before (along with no water even in the bathrooms?!), which made a lot of them go to sleep early. There was a Portuguese girl who had a really, really terrible lisp-sounding accent when speaking Spanish, and I couldn’t tell if her lisp was natural or if it came from Portuguese, which is spoken with that sound a lot. It annoyed me, almost as much as the other Portuguese guy bothering me about why Daniel and I aren’t dating, or relying on a million stereotypes to describe everyone he sees. Oh well.

Our driver came back and shared the news with us about the car situation – they called Uyuni for a replacement car, but there had been no contact for a while and we were going to operate on the assumption that we would have no car the next day. We would borrow the car from another group (and have to leave at 4am rather than the original 5) and then split up the group later, when they would need that car again. Well, the alternative, which was to stay at the hotel for another full day, would have been worse. 

7/23/15: Salar de Uyuni, Day 1

We arrived in Uyuni earlier than expected, and the city was freezing. I had expected it to be cold, but I now understood what other people were talking about with the temperature before. Also, it was way early, and I didn’t know how to even begin to find a tour company to do the Salt Flats tour with. Luckily, there was a small agency right outside of the bus stop, so we walked in and booked a tour right there! From what I had heard about the prices, what we got was pretty decent, so I then took some time to walk around the city.

Uyuni is very small and very touristy. There is maybe one museum, but dozens of hotels and hostels lining the central plaza. There was a significant market right in the center of town when it started to get later, and I stopped to get some yummy breakfast from the street stands – fried potato filled with egg, and this rice/chicken combo. Delicious!

The tour started at 10:30, and though we had only a Spanish-speaking driver/guide for the 7 of us, it turned out to be pretty good. The group was 2 Brazilian friends who had lived in Bolivia for years and a mother with her 20+ year old son and daughter. One of the Brazilians and the son and daughter spoke English, and they were happy to translate for us if there were things we didn’t understand.

Our first stop was the train cemetery. It was almost like an adult playground – lots of old trains that you could walk around and climb!

The scenery was gorgeous – when we got to the actual salt flat, I understood what people were talking about with the beauty. In the winter, there’s no water and therefore no reflections, but it was still incredible!

We stopped at a little artisan area to buy whatever we needed, and I was over the moon that I could get two pairs of cute mittens to go with my hats for 30 Bs – or less than $2.50 total!

We had some lunch before heading to the “island” of volcanic rock (Isla Incahuasi) that was randomly in the middle of the salt flats. It was filled with cacti, and had a beautiful view at the top!

We then got to see the sunset across the mountains, and moved on to our accommodation for the night. It was this hotel, with the ground covered in salt, and made of salt blocks for the structure and furniture – very interesting! There was a little museum next door with mummies/skeletons of the dead, which we toured. There was nothing special about the bones compared to other skeletons I had seen in other museums, though.

At night, the two Brazilians brought out the alcohol and basically got the party started. I was skeptical at first and didn’t want to drink, but I decided to just go for it when everyone else (except the mother and daughter, who went to sleep early) and the other tour group started drinking. I remembered how fun it can be to drink – the other group, made of French people who had varying degrees of Spanish ability, started teaching us some games.

The first was like Taboo – we all write names of famous people and split into teams, trying to get teammates to guess the people. For the second round you could only say one word; for the third, charades; for the last, a single post. We played for a while – in Spanish, no less – and then split into two groups.

Eventually, we combined groups and started playing a “pass the ball” sort of game, where you could choose to pass the ball, skip the person next to you, or reverse the direction of the ball. For each one, you have a specific word you have to use. When people are drunk, this becomes incredibly fun – people start messing up and making up words, among other things!

The last game we played was this drinking game, where everyone is an animal and you basically call each other out until someone messes up and has to take a drink. The phrase, which is “El caballo no bebe, quien bebe es la mariposa” where you substitute animals, is great for non-native Spanish speakers, because it’s really hard to get and speak quickly. Needless to say, it was quite fun. Also, one of the French girls was so impressed with my English, Chinese, Spanish, and French. I kept trying to convince her that it wasn’t that special because my Spanish and French are pretty terrible and I struggle a lot with Chinese in some respects, but she was not having it. At least it made me feel good.

Eventually, we headed outside when we stopped having as much fun with the games and drinking. The stars were amazing – you could see so, so many! It was freezing but worth it to just take a look. 

7/21-22/15: Rest and Travel

I woke up rather late today with a phone that was dead, and chargers that no longer worked. I don’t know why this has been such a big problem, but my phone is so crucial to my travels – it’s my entertainment, my clock, my camera, my communication device, my map, my GPS, my note-taking device, everything. I might be able to live without it but life with it is so, so much easier. Hopefully this is a temporary problem that I can solve soon.

I wandered out into the city for a bit, but I realized that without knowing the time, it was hard for me to ensure that I would have enough time to see things, since most attractions are closed between noon and 2 for a siesta. I ended up walking to the public library and then going to sit at the main plaza because I was suddenly exhausted. Since I wasn’t able to get any sleep, I headed back to the hostel earlier than I expected to take a nap on the couch before heading to the bus terminal. For some reason, the terminal in Sucre is very different from that of other cities, and it was a challenge to find a bus company that had tickets to Cochabamba still available for tonight. Eventually, I found one (for rather expensive in Bolivian terms) but it was quite comfortable.

I arrived at 5 am in Cochabamba but was able to wait in the bus terminal for Daniel at 9, when we had agreed to leave. We spent the day in Oruro – a nice but empty city when Carnival is not happening – and went to a “café” at the top of a hotel in the center of the city to work during the rest of the day. We had to pay for wifi, and only had access to it for an hour, but I guess it’s better than nothing. I was able to buy an iPhone charger for about $40 from a store that looked to be certified Apple – they had Apple products, laptops, chargers, headphones – but I’m still having trouble with my phone battery. I don’t know if the problem is with my phone itself or with the cords that I’ve been using to charge it. I really hope this will not be a problem going forward – it’s so important to me to have my phone! – but I guess it will be a lesson for me if I have to learn to live without it. At least I still have my laptop, otherwise I would go insane. 

7/20/15: Sucre and the Dinosaurs!

It was a good day today! I felt like I did a lot, but don’t have very many pictures to show for it, unfortunately. I started off the day relatively late for my traveling days – I left the hostel around 10am. I wanted to get in as much sleep as pleased me, and then headed out into town! My first stop was a small little place called Centro Cultural Masis – I had written down its information without really knowing what it was. No regrets, though!

It turns out the center is a place of music – of preserving traditional music of a group called La Masis. They have an extensive collection of all kinds of instruments of Bolivian tradition, as well as many gifts from others in the musical world, from other parts of South America. They also had a room with dozens of masks, many used for traditional dances and Carnival – a huge 3-month celebration in all of Bolivia. It is partially funded by the proceeds of Masis, the group, that travels the world and apparently was in Texas last year! They have classes for kids to keep them off the streets and provide them a great place to stay. As I was the only one there at the time, I wasn’t sure if I was able to take pictures or not, so I don’t have any, but the instruments were beautiful!

At that time, I wanted to leave for the Cretaceous Park and dinosaur footprints there, and after some wandering around and asking several people, I finally figured out how! The park entrance was very cute – they have life-size replicas of all sorts of dinosaurs, and I arrived just in time to go see the footprints on the first tour.

The dinosaur footprints were a lot cooler than the ones in Toro Toro – simply because there were a lot more and you could see them much more clearly. I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to capture them very well in my pictures, but in person they were definitely worth the trip there.
The Park itself is located on a pretty high mountain, so it gave a great view of Sucre as well!
When I got back, I decided to make my way to the Museum of Indigenous Art that I passed by but was closed yesterday. It was pretty extensive, and they had books of translations of all the signs around the museum – it turned out to be a ton of information. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed, but the content was similar to the poncho museum that I visited in Copacabana.

What I thought was most interesting was the difference between cloths woven by women and those woven by men – the women’s tapestries had more intricate detail while the men’s had larger, more crude shapes that resembled that I would expect from a child. I had originally planned on spending no more than about an hour in the museum, but with all the information and different rooms, as well as the complete English translations, I ended up staying closer to 2-3 hours. It was worth it, though!

On my way back to the hostel, I stopped by two tourist information spots to ask about the 7 Waterfalls attraction. It sounded interesting, but both ladies told me that it probably wasn’t worth going, especially independently. The area is apparently a little dangerous and not worth going to during the winter. In addition, because there is a blockade/barricade in Potosi right now, I would not be able to go directly to it or go from Sucre to Uyuni. My best option would be to go from Sucre back to Cochabamba, to Oruro, to Uyuni. Well, at least I can meet up with Daniel in Cochabamba and ensure that we get on the same bus and tour and everything.