INTERESTING FACT: Chile stretches 4300km long, and includes the aridest desert in the world, and a massive glacier. The North Star, a with many others, actually consists of two stars, but it is only visible as one to the naked eye.
TYPICAL IN THIS REGION: Empanadas (meat or cheese filled pastries), completos (hot dogs with mayo and guacamole), Pisco (liquor made in Chile), wines (especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Syrah), futball (soccer to us)
THIS IS HOW CHEAP WE ARE: We return our beer bottles for the $1 deposit. We stayed in segregated dorms instead of the more expensive double. We shared a towel because they are cost $1 each to rent.
The first three hostels that we tried upon arriving in Santiago were full, so we ended up begrudgingly going to the Hostelling International (which we vowed to avoid because we were convinced they were a rip off). Appalled by the price of our usual double, we decided dormitories would better fit our budget. Unfortunately, they could offer only segregated dorms, but after 3 months of travelling together, we figured that was not a huge sacrifice. So we separated and said goodnight. In the morning, we met at the breakfast table. Stephanie was cheery, with a tale of giggling with three other girls, volunteer schoolteachers, before reading a little and then all going to sleep in a chorus of "goodnight's".
Chad could not have been grumpier, with complaints about wading through other men's smelly clothes and underwear to get to bed, just to be woken several times in the night by drunk guys stumbling in to the room, dropping things on him, passing out with the lights on and then snoring away to the rhythm of other bodily functions. Chad reserved the double room before he'd even had his coffee!!
Santiago was a great city. We hiked to the top of Cerro San Cristobol where we picnicked and enjoyed incredible views of the city, backed by the enormous and impressive Andes mountain range. We rewarded ourselves at the bottom with a couple of strong Pisco Sours, the national drink here, at a sidewalk café. We shared a bottle of wine and a Pastel de Choclo, one of our favorite local dishes, that evening for dinner in Barrio Bellavista region. The next day we did a long day of walking for a city tour with a couple of museums and a fascinating chess tournament in the park.
That evening, Chad found a lonely flyer on the table in our hostel, advertising a wine festival outside of town. Nobody seemed to know anything about it. We decided to be spontaneous, and the next morning we went to the local bus station and caught a 2 hour bus to the nearby town of Valle de Maipu. We had no idea what to expect, but upon arrival, we realized that we had stumbled across a gold mine!!
The wine festival was a blast, with grape stomping contests, live bands, a huge food garden and 5 "tastings" (full glasses) of wine for mere dollars. Chad drooled over the skewers of meat in the food garden, while Steph migrated towards the fresh chocolate booths. We even got free engraved wine glasses, which, fearing their demise in our backpacks, we gave to the maids at our hostel. Other fools in our hostel spend quadruple what we did for a half day winery tour the same day...we beat the system again!!!
We left Santiago and headed north to the port city of Valpairaiso. The homes and buildings stretch from the ocean up the steep steep hills surrounding the port, necessitating the use of long staircases or, preferable, little "ascensors" (elevators) to get around the city. That is the main touristic draw of the city. We were rather unimpressed by the city, and alarmed by how dirty and crime ridden it was. Multiple local store owners came out to warn us about local kids stealing cameras and bags, and two girls at our hostel got mugged. We stayed at a hostel called Millhouse, illustrating the Simpson's craze that seems to be shared by all of South America! No blog is complete without its token food nightmare. We went to the local market, and tried the much raved about seafood soup. It was more than we bargained for, and we choked down a number of slimy unknown sea creatures. Our mouths tasted like low tide for the next week. The highlight of the city was sharing a Chilean feast with the hostel owner and his friends while watching a World Cup futball qualifying match between Chile and Uruguay on TV.
Slightly further north, we reached the beach town of Vina Del Mar.
Although, being fall in Chile, the air was a little nippy, and the water downright freezing, we certainly managed to waste a couple of days lying on the beach. For the first time in a long time, we had a TV in our room at the hostel, and easily watched 4-5 movies in 2 days...don't judge until you've walked in our shoes!!!
A 7 hour day bus shipped us north to La Serena. The city had a nice beach but it was cold and cloudy when we were there, and the beach was deserted.
The highlights of this town were the two tours we took. The first night, we took an astronomy tour, as this area in Chile is known for its consistently clear skies and observatories. We jumped into the tour van, and immediately became concerned, when a group of 7 young girls piled in after us. The young American girls were studying in Santiago, and were around 20 years of age, but it was immediately obvious that socially, they were back around 14 or 15 years old.
At one point in the ride, the girls, whom we gathered from explicit conversations were not a fan of the opposite sex (in any capacity), had a long conversation about how men were completely unnecessary in the world. This, combined with the incessant giggling and the repeated use of the words "like" and "I" prompted Chad to invite the driver to wrap our van around the next telephone pole. However, the tour was incredible. Our guide gave us an excellent Astronomy 101 lesson, and we looked through some very powerful telescopes at the moon, Saturn and various constellations.
The next day, we took a full day tour or the surrounding valley's and pisco vineyards. Much to our dismay, our little friends were on the same tour. However, we managed to separate ourselves from them by a row of seats and block them out for most of the trip. Pisco is a locally produced liquor, made from grapes with a very high sugar content grown in the valley's around La Serena. The tour through the surrounding valley's was absolutely beautiful. At the pisco vineyard, we learned about its production, and then got to do some sampling. First, they offered a shot the 70% raw product. Our lips and throat burned for hours after that! Then, they gave us a shot of the 40% refined product for sale...after the first shot, it tasted like grape juice! Lastly, they gave us a Mango Sour, a 12% cooler made from pisco and mango.
The next morning we hoofed it to the bus station for a 7 hour drive to Copiapo where we planned to do some hiking in the surrounding National Parks. Upon arrival though, we found the city to be empty. We could not find a tourist information or even a travel agency. Every hotel we went to was a complete dive, and our standards are getting pretty low. Chad was convinced that we would get murdered in our beds. So we made the painful but necessary decision to trudge back to the bus station, and board an 11 hour overnight bus to San Pedro de Atacama. Urgh.
San Pedro was a very touristy little town at high altitude, around 2000m. Its quaint old buildings and dirt roads were charming, but the tourist prices for meals and accommodation were shocking! Luckily, we found a nice hostel with a kitchen so we could cook our own meals. Like a blessing from god, we had a ping pong table at our hostel as well, and memories of our ping pong rooms in our Vancouver homes brought tears to our eyes, as we played for hours.
We took an evening tour that brought us to a lookout point where we could view the amazingly beautiful Atacama Desert and gave us a glimpse of the Chilean salt flats. We then stopped to wander through a series of salt caves before arriving at the main attraction of the tour, the Moon Valley for sunset. At the salt caves, our guide explicitly explained that the caves may be difficult for the elderly and less limber, and was far from subtle as he stared at one particular gentleman, easily in his late 70's. However, the man and a few others in his group decided they were going to give it the old college try anyways. Well, the 15 min walk, timed perfectly to allow us to catch the sunset, turned into 45 minutes as a group of 4 men and women had to practically carry the man through the caves, crawling and climbing. We are not monsters, and we did worry about his health and hope he didn't keel over with a heart attack, but we were also furious that we might miss the sunset in the "Valle de Luna". The bus driver sped us to the location, with the sun teasing us on the horizon.
The viewpoint loomed above us, up a long steep sand ramp of sand...but we figured 3 months of sitting in busses surely hadn't tarnished our perfect physiques, and we started the slow motion sprint up the sand incline, momentarily forgetting about the 40% less oxygen that the elevation was allowing us. About half way up, our lungs started to burn like we've never felt before (though similar to some 5 peaks races!), and by the time we reached the top, we were both sure our lungs were bleeding as we gasped for air and coughed and sputtered. But we made it, and it was worth it. We watched the sun set over the volcano with the full moon hanging just above, one of the most gorgeous sunsets we have ever witnessed. For that, we let the old man live...
The next day, we rolled out of bed at 4am, and struggled into every available layer of clothing in our packs. We waited outside in the freezing darkness, under the same full moon we had watched last night, and waited for a bus to pick us up, 45 min late...right on time. For two hours, we bounced around violently in a little tourist bus, until we reached the thermal plains around sunrise. Our view from the parking lot was of geysers spouting water and hot steam from the earth against the rising sun. With the temperature at this elevation well below freezing at this time of day, the steam from the geysers was magnified.
We walked around the geysers, hopping over puddles of boiling water and skirting around spouts of hot steam, before sitting down for some coffee and breakfast. A young guy sitting next to us, not looking very enthusiastic, suddenly hit the ground like a sack of potatoes due to the altitude...he was fine with a little oxygen. We bared all for the crowds by changing behind a washcloth sized travel towel, and sank into the not-so-hot thermal springs amidst freezing outdoor temperatures,
The rest of the day we toured the "altiplanos" (highlands), watching herds of wild vicuna's graze on the slopes of volcanoes. A small village stop offered a skewer of llama meat, which was delicious!
From San Pedro, we headed north to Iquique, another beach town. We stayed at a great hostel one right on the beach. Our planned 1 day stopover easily turned into three days at this fabulous busy beach. We spent our days under a big beach umbrella and lounge chairs watching amazing
surfers and body boarders out on the huge waves, and wincing at the beginners trying to learn on the advanced surf...despite our limited experience with surfing, we determined this was a place to appreciate the experts and not dawn the boards ourselves. Chad developed an affection for the snack cart by the beach, and enjoyed a daily bag of Lays during the entertainment.
Ripping ourselves away from Iquique, we begrudgingly moved north...to another beach town, Arica (I know, its tough). We found another great hostel, and a nice beach, but not nearly as lively and fun as Iquique. One evening, we decided to grab dinner at a sandwich place recommended by some fellow travelers.
Though they warned us of the large size, we figured we were hungry enough for one sandwich enough (enough of this "this is how cheap we are" sharing of food!). Well, undeterred by the waiter's look of surprise by our order, we didn't start to panic until we noticed the cook bring out two buns the size of birthday cakes! The sandwiches were colossal, our little malnourished bodies could hardly carry the bag back to the hostel for its weight, much less eat them! Surprisingly, we managed to polish one of them off. Sadly, the second we forgot in the hostel fridge the next day, leaving an unfortunate mess for somebody to clean up whenever it was finally discovered.
21 days seemed like a long time for one country, so, in the words of Tom Petty, we were "It's time to move on...time to get goin" off to La Paz, Bolivia.
THINGS WE LEARNED: You must log into bank machines as a "foreigner" to get cash...we wasted a good 20 frantic minutes on that one!