The New Zealand vacation was a big success. For 2002/2003, we planned the sequel to that vacation. (booming movie trailer voice:) "In a land 2700 miles long, but only 100 miles wide... "
From December 31, 2002 to January 11, 2003, Mathieu and I took a vacation to Chile.
To see the pictures from the trip, follow the hypertext links below. I'm using this format so I can merge all the picture captions into a single story. If you'd like to look at all the pictures without my commentary, they are stored in my Yahoo! briefcase here.
Two words: Business Class. I stretch my feet as far as they go and I still don't hit the seats in front of me. I actually say: "They really shouldn't give you this much room."
My exuberant joy from the flight is extinguished by Chile's $100 entrance fee for U.S. citizens. Our guidebooks hadn't warned of this, so we quickly seek out an ATM to refuel our pockets.
A 30 minute cab ride to Santiago, a fast shower, a change of clothes, and we're ready to walk the city. It is New Year's Eve, and the town is teeming with activity. A boy and girl work an intersection, doing acrobatics for money.
Dinner is at "Coco Loco", a touristy but fun restaurant in the financial district. Despite the name of the country, Chilean food is very bland. The ingredients are exceptionally good, though. The scallops, king crab, mussels and eel are fresh and tasty.
We drink a few too many "pisco
sours", return to the hotel, and crash just after midnight.
Day 2 - Wednesday - Walking Santiago
Nothing is open on New Year's Day. Robbed of the opportunity to go shopping for knick-knacks, we head for San Cristobal hill. It takes four hours to hike to the top, but it gives us a commanding view of the city.
Coming down, we admire the shimmering river of raw sewage that runs through the center of Santiago. In
harmony with the river is an advertisement that strikes me dumb. Are they selling
babies with "colloky interiors"? A week later they had changed
the sign to say "colloky liquidacion". (if you aren't getting
the joke, read this)
Day 3 - Thursday - Eating Santiago
The day has two culinary highlights: lunch at "Astrid and Gaston",
a super fancy restaurant in the embassy district for which we are
*severely* underdressed, and dinner at the hotel restaurant, which
included a very fancy dessert.
Day 4 - Friday - Hiking Atacama
Friday morning we fly from Santiago to Calama, in northern Chile. From Calama we are driven an hour and a half through the desert to San Pedro de Atacama.
The hotel Explora is world famous for its stunning locations and interactive vacation experience. They certainly have a good view of the local volcano. Despite being in the middle of one of the driest deserts in the world, the shower heads are the size of frisbees, they serve three gourmet meals a day, and have four luxurious swimming pools. The courtyard includes a real live llama, which, I was later informed by the hotel staff, is just for show.
Explora is "interactive". Each afternoon, guests talk with hotel guides and plan morning and afternoon expeditions for the following day.
After we had arrived and unpacked, we caught up with the afternoon
Sand Dune excursion. The hike up to the top of the ridge left Mathieu reeling with altitude sickness (mine would
strike later...), but the fun of running down the 300' tall dunes
was well worth it. Here you can see our guide, Melissa, fighting the 60 m.p.h.
Day 5 - Saturday - Riding Atacama
I'm psyched - we can go horseback riding through the desert. Horses are a common sight in rural Chile. Atacama only recently gained 24 hour electricity (you can see the shiny new wires in the background of the horse picture), and manure is carted away not by truck, but by burro.
In the afternoon we mountain bike ten miles over bumpy, sandy salt
flats to a salt lake. We're told it is more salty than the Dead
Sea. Sure enough, I can't get myself to sink. The shores
of the lake are encrusted with a solid inch of crystallized salt.
Mathieu's feet receive deep salty gouges when he climbs out of the
Day 6 - Sunday - Swimming Atacama
Today's hike takes us along a deep river gorge. Destination: a remote natural hot spring. Along the way, our guide points out the cactus called "mother in law's pillow".
Our reward at the end: a spread of wine, cheese and salmon, and a dip in the exclusive hot spring. They even provide us with bathrobes! Explora owns the highest hot spring pool, and the local villagers have to bathe further downstream. :( To be fair, Explora has invested a lot of money to make the pools accessible, clean and safe for everyone.
As a change of pace, we decide to do lunch in downtown Atacama. The city borders on the third world, but the town radiates a certain energy from the swarms of young adventure seekers that crowd the streets. We eat at "Adobe", where the atmosphere is shamanistic and relaxed. After lunch, it is too hot to do anything, so it is time for a siesta for all: cat, llama, and me.
The day ends with a hike to "Valle de La Luna", the Valley of the Moon. The landscape is surreal - fist sized clumps of salt, sweeping sand dunes, rhinocerousesque rock formations, and scenes that look cut from a sci-fi movie.
This is when *I* get altitude sickness. While everyone else
enjoys the sunset, I feel like an alien is going to pop out of my tummy.
Day 7 - Monday - Cultural Atacama
I'm still reeling from yesterday's altitude sickness, so we decide to take the morning off, enjoy one of the pools and write postcards.
In the afternoon, we thunder across the desert
on an "advanced" horseback ride. This was my first time
and I felt just like Lawrence of Arabia. :) Galloping and
don't mix, so you'll have to use your imagination.
Day 8 - Tuesday - Traveling
Today we fly from Atacama in the north, all the way down to Punta Arenas in the far south. I find out what Chileans
do with all their lost luggage. The airplane stops four times along the
way, and it is 11:30pm when we finally check into our hotel.
Day 9 - Wednesday - Penguins of Punta Arenas
Punta Arenas is southern. *Really* southern. It is the southernmost city in the world. The sun set around 11pm while we were there.
We take a stroll through the city's amazing cemetery, where bodies are stored in cubby-holes in vast concrete walls. Each cubby has pictures and memorabilia of the deceased. It is an eerie honeycombed necropolis.
I want penguins! We find a tour van to take us to the local penguin rookery. Sure enough, there be penguins there. Magellanic penguins to be exact. The babies are just losing their down, and the parents look like they are preaching lessons. I think some of them enjoy the attention.
This little one wanted to cross the road, but fled in terror along the inland penguin path.
On the ride home, we catch a glimpse of the elusive Patagonian gray
Day 10 - Thursday - Walking Paine del Torres
Totally worth the ride. "Torres" means "towers". Here's the view from our room. The pointy bits at the top are the towers.
Five minutes to unpack before the afternoon hikes begin. We walk along a tundra path to see a waterfall glen. You can see the berry bushes on all sides. The guide says the berries are edible. They taste like cranberries crossed with blueberries.
In the evening, the Patagonian (I like saying
feels like a family owned ski lodge. Guests lounge on couches,
about whose feet are more sore. Mathieu and I requisition two
sours from the bar and sit down to plan tomorrow's activities. In
a pisco-induced haze, I sign us up for the "All Day Advanced Hike To
Base Of The Towers".
Day 11 - Friday - Climbing Paine del Torres
To the Torres! We're going to climb up to the base of those pointy bits in this picture.
A monstrous Ford van drives us to the foothills, across a very narrow bridge built by British settlers in the 1800s. We all offer to get out and push.
The guides hand out walking poles and we're off! Up, up the rolling foothills, up, up through the blustery forest, up, up past the churning river, up, up the rocky glacier slide, until we reach the summit. *phew*
It's been four hours of uphill hiking, and we are ready for lunch. I've never tasted better sandwiches.
There are so many microclimates in Patagonia that we experience sunshine, rain and snow at various points during the hike. On the way back down, I notice how the wind is blowing water right off the mountain. The wind is so strong, it shapes the clouds into things like UFOs and Marge Simpson.
Day 12 - Saturday - Riding Paine del Torres
More horses! Mathieu is the first in line to sign up for "Advanced Patagonian Horseback Riding With Lots Of Galloping". Okay... so it didn't say "with lots of galloping", but that's what we did!
My horse's name is Marengo, he is four years old, and boy does he like to run! His mom is also in our group, and they like to race each other. We galloped all the way to this ranch where there were cute puppies.
On the van ride back, I muse to myself: To be in Patagonia is to be surrounded by life. Sometimes literally surrounded. The guanacos (pronounced wah-knock-ohs, related to llamas) are to Patagonia what seagulls are to New England.
... and so with thoughts of home tugging at my cerebellum, I say
a fond good-bye to Chile.