Thursday, March 31, 2016

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: Entering the World's Driest Desert

Never again. I've said it before, but I mean it this time.

Now that I've been on two 19+ hour bus rides, I thought it wouldn't hurt to do another one from Valparaíso to San Pedro de Atacama, a desert town on the very Northern edge of Chile.  It's supposed to be a 24-hour trip - piece of cake, right? YOU'LL SEE.

What It's All About:
San Pedro de Atacama is a small town that lies on the Northern border of Chile, in the middle of the Atacama Desert.  The Atacama Desert is the world's driest desert, and San Pedro is a small little outpost right before you enter Bolivia.

View of San Pedro from a nearby peak

The city's become an increasingly popular stop with tourists on their way to Bolivia, and also because the surrounding landscape is absolutely stunning. In fact, San Pedro is usually the beginning or ending stop to the famous Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia - >2,000 sq. km of pure, white salt plains.

The bustling main street of San Pedro

I loved San Pedro's tiny little main street - chock full of tourist stores, hostels, tour companies, and cafés.  You can walk from one end to the other within 15 minutes.  I spent a couple days in San Pedro, hanging out and exploring some of the nearby scenery - it also helps to stop here for a bit to acclimatize, as you are starting to enter super-high altitudes going into Bolivia.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Let's start with the bus disaster story. It started off fine, like any other 24-hour bus ride. But about 15 hours in, the bus suddenly stopped.
And this was the reassuring view out the window

  • We all got off the bus - apparently there was some kind of strike/protest going on, and workers had set a whole bunch of truck tires on fire in the middle of the road to prevent cars from passing. Please note we're in the middle of nowhere.  And there was absolutely nothing we could do but hang out and wait for the protest to stop and for the fires to go out.  Do you know how long it takes for flaming truck tires to extinguish!?! HOURS. 

After about 3-4 hours, the flames finally extinguished. And we could finally move!  Small problem is that tons of trucks had amassed while waiting for the road to re-open.  So there was terrible traffic.

  • So my 24-hour bus ride turned into 29 hours, and the bus didn't end up pulling into San Pedro until 3:30AM - there were only 5 of us left on the bus by then. And San Pedro is a tiny town - I basically had to walk through the virtual ghost town (it was super creepy) to my hostel, which was closed and all locked up by that time. I honestly thought I'd have to wait on the doorstep all night until they opened. I seriously almost scaled the fence. But after about 10 minutes of ruckus-making, the night guard inside the hostel heard me and came out to let me in. Whew. All's well that ends well. BUT NEVER AGAIN WITH THESE BUSES (especially because I found out the day before that there was a huge airfare sale and the flight, which is only ~1 hour btw, ended up being the exact same price as the bus. Cry).

At least there were pretty coastal views on the way up to San Pedro

  • The next day, I met up with my friend Ed, who was my hostel roomie in Buenos Aires (he's also the one I randomly ran into on the streets of El Calafate, and he and his friend invited me to have dinner with them and cooked the world's largest pile of meat and potatoes).  Ed had been traveling with a bunch of guys he'd met in Chile, and they were going bike-riding around the desert canyons around San Pedro, which I joined for.

We rode our bikes out to some local Inca ruins and climbed to the top, for this incredible view of the desert

The mountains/volcanoes that surround San Pedro


Looking down into the canyons

Connies everywhere

The mountains were so cool-looking

Bike gang!  L to R: Nicolas (Sweden), Anton (Sweden), Matt (UK) and Ed (UK).
Fun fact, my bike was the cheapest to rent because I'm pretty sure it was a child's bike.

  • We biked to these nearby canyons called Quebrada del Diablo - which involved a road with no signage and multiple river crossings.

One of the river crossings. So wet.

And here we are entering the canyons! 

The ride through the canyons was amazing - the path twisted and turned around all these corners. There were parts we had to carry our bikes up rocks, cycle through caves and sand pits, and walk our bikes around sharp bends.  I almost died because it was really, really hard (and we're at altitude!)

I look like a nerd.  On my child's bike

Ed scaled a nearby mountain to see how to get out of the canyons. Because they went on forever.

Finally made it out!  Riding back to San Pedro

That night, in true form, Ed and his friends made dinner and I showed up just in time to be a total freeloader and eat it.

  • And then, the moon ruined my life. Not to be dramatic or anything.  (On that note, does anybody remember the first episode of Arrested Development when Lucille sees a gay pride parade and it makes her angry and she says something like "Everything they do is so dramatic and flamboyant; it just makes me want to set myself on fire"  Hahaha).  Ok, back to the moon ruining my life.  So apparently, the deserts around San Pedro are super-known for being AMAZING to see a zillion, billion stars and/or the Milky Way. I'd seen photos from other backpackers of the nights in San Pedro, and the photos of the stars are completely life-changing.  I was super excited to see them too.

THIS. This is a photo I stole off the internet of stargazing in San Pedro. And I've seen real people's photos who've been here and they look JUST LIKE THIS (though not taken with an iPhone, obvs).

  • However, I happened to be in San Pedro right around the Spring Solstice - which means the moon was the brightest, largest, whitest EVER.  Which means it was so bright that you couldn't see any stars!  They'd even stopped the stargazing tours while I was there, because it's virtually impossible to see anything when the moon is being so annoyingly bright.  Moon, you ruin everything.

I dragged some people out to see the stars with me anyways, and THIS is what we saw. Besides the moon, I think I see 2 other stars.  This kind of looks like the other photo, except not at all.  CRY.

  • Anyhow, other than the lack of zillions and zillions of stars, San Pedro was great. There's actually tons and tons of activities you can do in the area; there's tons of day trips out to all these crazy amazing land formations (Valley of the Moon, etc.) and alien-looking lakes and geysers and such.  The areas around the desert have awesome natural landscapes.  However, I didn't do any of these things because I signed up for a tour to the Bolivian Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni), which includes trips to similar amazing landscapes.  Coming up next on the blog!

Meal of the Day:
Another special Chilean meal - the Completo!  Called either a Completo or a Churrasco Italiano, it's basically a hot dog smothered in avocado, mayo and tomatoes.  (They really love their avocados in Chile - seriously - it's everywhere and the avos are so huge and delicious and ripe here).  It's actually called a Churrasco Italiano because the colors of the condiments are the colors of the Italian flag; not because it has anything to do with Italy.   

Again, nobody said Chilean food was healthy...

Monday, March 28, 2016

Valparaiso, Chile: Artistic, Funky, Seaside City

What It's All About:
Valparaiso is this cool, hippie town on the Western Coast of Chile, about 1.5 hours away from Santiago. The whole city has an artist/musician/free spirit vibe, and people always rave about the city. To me, it's kind of like a cross between San Francisco and Brooklyn: there's the narrow, super hill-y streets with crazy inclines/declines, and street art/graffiti all over the place. It's also right on the ocean, and the entire city is super cool looking.

All the crazy colored houses on the hillsides of Valparaiso

And it sits on the ocean! And it's foggy! See why it's just like SF?

Some of the street art, which is all over the buildings

I spent two days in Valparaiso wandering the adorable streets (aka getting super winded constantly; altitude is high here!), taking walking tours, sitting in cafés, and hanging out.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Took a short 1.5 hour bus ride from Santiago to Valparaíso - there's literally a bus every 15 minutes, so it was super easy.
  • I took two walking tours of the city, which were super interesting and gave me the chance to see all the different neighborhoods and areas. The "Cliffnotes of the Day" are basically going to be a photo dump of all the photos I took of the city (with accompanying awesome descriptions and observations, of course!).
A mural of Valpariso! In Valparaiso! (They should have painted a building with this same mural on the wall! Like Inception!)

And there are so many colorful stairs that go up and down all the hills!

Uhhh love this

The houses are all so colorful!  Our guide said people in Valparaiso paint their houses the same color they were originally, which keeps the colorful house vibe the city's got going on

Valparaíso used to be the main stop for ships going around the southern tip of South America on the way to California after the Gold Rush of 1848 (as it was the halfway point) - which made it a super prosperous/rich city, with influences from all around the world. The area near the port sits on flat ground, which is where the rich used to build their mega-mansions.  After the Panama Canal was built (and ships no longer had to sail all the way around S. America), many people left or moved further into the hills. Which results in the ruins of some of the former stately mansions, evident here.

One of the crazy-long staircases going up to the hills. Next to it on the right, you can see an ascensor - tons of lifts/trams the government originally built on the hillsides to help make it easier for residents to go up/down, rather than going up/down a million stairs. Only about 6-8 of these acensors are still functioning today.

We rode an ascensor! This one's called Reina Victoria, was built in 1902, and felt like it was built in 1902.

One of my walking tour guides in front of a graffiti wall. The mural above is some kind of ironic statement against McDonald's & consumerism (see Exhibit A, where it says "12:00AM: Comida basura", which basically means "12:00AM: Eat trash").

I like this one. I want a leopard-cat-kitten.

Looking out onto the ocean - and you can see what different levels the houses sit on due to all the hills

At the end of the first tour, we were given a tiny free traditional Chilean drink called kalimotxo - which is red wine mixed with flat Coke. Delicious? (ok it wasn't so bad; Coke makes everything delicious)

I sat in an adorable café and had a breakfast sandwich for dinner, while an accordion/guitar player entertained.

The Chile Armada building in Plaza Sotomayor


  • I did go on my own to visit Pablo Neruda's house, called La Sebastiana. Pablo Neruda was a famous Chilean poet who won the Nobel Peace Prize - his works are super famous, and he had 3 eclectic houses that are now museums you can tour.  They wouldn't allow us to take photos inside, but the house was pretty crazy - he definitely had some interesting, and incredibly particular, tastes; i.e. he thought water tasted better drunken out of colored glasses, so all his water glasses were green. And he loved Walt Whitman, so there's a giant Walt Whitman painted on the wall of his study.

Here is a photo of La Sebastiana that I did not take

View of Valparaiso from the top deck of the house. Apparently while he was house-hunting, he asked his friends to look for a house that had a view of the ocean, wasn't too expensive, looked over Valparaiso, and had a good size and look.  WOULDN'T WE ALL LOVE THAT, PABLO.

The walk down from La Sebastiana is unofficially titled the "Open Air Museum" due to all the graffiti murals and street art.  And clown-themed light poles!

A very strange mural. This mural looks out onto a two-story deck - to get down, there's a giant slide you can take! Or you can take the stairs, if you're boring.

This giant street mural is a lady....holding a burning tower in a glass vase? Art is weird. Also, my mom and I went to Colombia last year and took a street art tour - and as a result, I actually recognized some of the graffiti artists! Like this one!  I don't remember his name or anything about him, but I recognize the style. Street art expert, present.

An adorable colorful street decorate by residents, using everyday items

Just a casual afternoon tea (called the "happiness tea") and a giant slice of choco cake

CRAZIEST STORY: My friend Sam's friend Andrea was also going to be in South America and had sent a couple messages asking for some tips. And then RANDOMLY, in the middle of the street in Valparaiso, we ran into each other!! How small is this world!?!?

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • Chileans also speak super different Spanish - they often drop the "s" at the end of words and add a "po" onto the end of a sentence, as a kind of slang. So instead of "Cómo estás?", they would say "Cómo estai-po"?   WEIRD. I feel so useless trying to figure out what people are saying sometimes, but not my fault!>
  • Valpo is also super-prone to fires, as the crazy electrical wiring (there are seriously wires everywhere) is not a good combination with the strong winds that come off the ocean.  Luckily, there are multiple fire stations in the city (all named after certain countries because each country wanted their own fire station in town due to the large populations of people from their country that immigrated to Valpo). 

Moment of the Day:
Wandering down one of the artsy streets one morning, I got myself an ice cream (which is super prevalent here, thank goodness) to enjoy on the walk. I seriously had turned the corner and was about to take my second lick, when the ice cream ball rolled off the cone and onto the street with a splat.


I froze for a moment and stared sadly at the ice cream ball on the street - and out of the corner of my eye, I saw that there was a construction worker on the empty road, carrying a ladder, who had witnessed the entire spectacle - he had also stopped and was also staring sadly at my ice cream ball on the road. He caught my eye, and we seriously just stood there on the sidewalk motionless for what seemed like minutes, alternating between frowning at each other and frowning at the dirty ice cream ball on the road. It was one of those moments that transcended all cultures - we just sadly looked at each other.

He eventually gave me a sad look and in a small, hopeful voice said: "Cinco segundos?" (5 seconds?)

CUTE. I laughed and picked up the ice cream ball and threw it away, and bought myself another one farther down the road. But it was the cutest moment ever.

Meal of the Day:
Another weird thing? Chilean food.  On my last night, I went with a walking tour friend, Gavin, to a hole-in-the-wall local joint our guide had suggested earlier.  We tried a dish called chorrollana, which is basically french fries, smothered in meat, smothered in cheese, smothered in fried onions.

It was delicious. Nobody said this stuff was healthy.

This doesn't look that amazing, but fries with meat and cheese and onions!? Yes please. Also, there was a lettuce leaf to balance it out.