Our first adventure on the ubiquitous Chilean bus system proved highly eventful, if not mildly inconvenient at times. But sometimes it’s the strange things that make the trip memorable, right? We boarded Tur-Bus at 10pm from the Arica bus station for our $30, 11.5 hour trip (breakfast included!!) to San Pedro de Atacama further south in the desert. Our bus was all “semi-cama” (semi-bed) seats, referring to the angle of their incline. (There are also names like clásico and ejecutivo to distinguish, with the most expensive reclining to almost 180 degrees.) All the busses have a chofer (driver) and an assistant, and as soon as we start moving, the assistant comes around to each passenger, asking for their name, phone number, and taking their carnés (Chilean official ID cards). Of course, we were very reluctant to put our valuable carnés in the hands of some semi-random Chilean, but he assured us it was for governmental purposes and that the huge stack would be returned AL TIRO (right away).
Then about 40 minutes into the ride, as people are trying to fall asleep, he announces that we all need to get off the bus for a drug search. So we file off into a large lean-to type structure on the side of the pitch black road in the middle of the desert in Chile (just in case you forgot) while… I don’t even know what happened. The passengers just stood around and reboarded like 10 minutes later. The put on the Denzel Washington crime thriller “Inside Man” but dubbed into Spanish and with a really fuzzy screen so that I couldn’t really catch anything and started to nod off. About two hours later, we stop again, bright lights come on, and a carabinero (Chilean police officer) starts walking slowly down the aisle of the bus, not doing anything in particular except semi-intimidatingly looking around. That lasts about 5 minutes, before he gets off again and we keep rolling. Okay, strange, back to sleep… until the glorious hour of 4:30am, when the assistant turns the lights on again and announces that all passengers must get off with all their bags. What? Now? It’s 4:30?
We get off the bus, practically falling down the stairs, in front of an Aduanas station (customs), meaning another large lean-to structure with a few small offices nearby. Two aduanas workers start checking out bags, meaning kind of poking them, asking what’s inside, and moving on. We had one plastic grocery bag tied tightly with a towel inside, and the lady asked me, “Toalla?” (Towel?) and I said yes, and then she moved on without even opening it. So… not exactly thorough, but whatevz.
I asked the assistant what all the searches were for, and he said they’re related to the drug trafficking that passes through Arica from Peru and into the rest of Chile. Apparently the drug addiction rate is higher in Arica than anywhere else in the country. Check out this NYT article if you’re interested in drugs and Chile:
I managed to get back asleep and was awoken by the assistant handing me breakfast… one entire cookie! Wow… but luckily I had packed my own peanuts and raisins and was enjoying the scenery outside: puro desierto as far as the eye could see! And a little while later we pulled into San Pedro, an interesting little town that serves as the headquarters for tours around the region.
After dropping our stuff in the nice, centrally-located La Ruca hostel, Tracy, Irene, and I decided to spend the day getting our tours lined up and familiarizing ourselves with the layout of the town… which isn’t particularly difficult since it consists of a single main street and a plaza. The roads are all sandy gravel, and all the buildings are a very simple adobe or brick construction, which really gives the impression of being a totally old-fashioned, authentic little pueblo of 5,000 people. However, the hand-painted brown-on-white signs read things like “Desert Adventures” (in English) and advertise astronomical tours (in English, Spanish, or French!) or money exchange between a dozen different currencies. As you walk down Carcoles, the main dirt road, about half of the stores are actually tour agencies, and the other half is comprised of gourmet restaurants and stores selling altiplano souveniers with higher prices and much better selection than I saw anywhere else. I had read San Pedro described as a Disneyland, but I think that’s too harsh and inaccurate. But it is pretty easy for tourists (all 120,000 each year) to find whatever they may need (except that the 2 ATMs in the town are often out of $$$...).
Thanks to Tracy’s keen negociation skills, we ended up getting good discounts for booking multiple tours with Colque, a tour agency that offers Bolivian tours and is run by a Frenchman named Regis (you have to really gurgle up that “cccchhhhhrrrRRRegis”). We had a really nice lunch at La Estaka, including bread with SALSA, crepes, and nice LETTUCE salads with salmon. (In Chile, “Ensalada” does not actually imply lettuce, so it’s always a welcomed surprise).
Tuesday the 18th is the main independence day holiday in Chile, and we had expected to find lots of festivities since there is such a tourist population in San Pedro. Unfortunately, there was not as much as we expected, not is the nightlife particularly active in the town. Nonetheless, the town was certainly dressed up, with Chilean flags hanging from every door (mandated by law, actually, else an $80 fine) proudly displaying its “Chilenidad” and with a traditional night fair.
We walked around the stalls of the fair, many with a large grill out front cooking up steaks, anticucho (kabobs of beef, chorizo (look it up), hot dog, onion, and carrot stacked up), empanadas (especially pino (beef and sautéed onions with an olive and some egg inside)), and mote con huesillo (“Pásame el huesillo!”). I wanted to try a variety of foods since this is the best time of year to try traditional Chilean dishes, though some were more able-to-be-chewed than others (the stray dogs standing around me always appreciated the ones that weren’t!). Some stands also had games, like pay 100 pesos to spin this wheel and you get whatever prize it lands on, like Q-tips, detergent, or a plastic gun! We also saw in Arica’s fair a win-a-pet-rabbit game… which was sweet and sad para mí.
Two food lessons from this trip:
1) Never leave eggs in a hostel refrigerator if you plan to eat them yourself.
2) Siempre, pero SIEMPRE, hay pan!
We spent Wednesday also walking around the city and meeting up with Caitlin, Jess, Jeff, and Andrew who were leaving San Pedro for Iquique that night. We ventured over to their “gravel mound” that they had discovered a few days earlier for some good views of the city and of little dust devil tornadoes that appear out of nowhere.
That night was our first tourist activity: an astronomical tour with Space Obs (aka SPACE) led by Alain Maury, another Frenchman (why are they all in Chile? I don’t know.). We took a shuttle ride about 10 minutes outside of town to his house slash observatory, and once inside, he asked us where we were all from: New Zealand, England, France, Israel, Holland and only four study abroad students from the US. We actually did not run into a single other tourist from the States, apart from study abroad students on vacation… so strange.
Outside, he used an impressive long distance green laser pointer to show us the sky: the Southern Cross, the Altar, the Swan, Jupiter, a blue giant, the zodiac signs… a canvas of stars distinct from that seen from the northern hemisphere. Alain, who entered the field of astronomy through photography, and his wife Ale then showed us the group of outdoor telescopes through which we looked at Alpha Centauri (A and B… the closest stars to earth after the sun) and various others. The tour concluded with a lovely mug of hot chocolate!
Following Juan Segovia’s suggestion (see Arica post), we decided to give our passports some exercise and head to the Bolivian side of the desert for a day. There are several tour options for Bolivia: a half-day to Laguna Verde and Blanco; full-day to those plus Laguna Colarada and hot springs (which we did); and a 3-day trip to those plus the incredible Salar de Uyuni (but we decided 3 days would be too much for us, not to mention that the trip to the Salar is reputedly incredibly bumpy, long, and includes nights in freezing, shack-ish hotels along the way, except the final hotel which is made of pure salt).
Since we had already stayed in San Pedro at 7,000 feet for several days, we correctly assumed that the altitude change wouldn’t be a problem this time around. Our tour bus drove along a nice asphalt road west, at which point the driver announced in Spanish that this road continues on to Argentina and Salta, but we are going to Bolivia so--- ERRRR--- and we swerved off the road onto pure desert and bumped our way along toward the Bolivian border crossing… basically a bathroomless shack smack in the middle of sand with a crooked sign welcoming us.
After crossing the border, we drove further into the desert (with other tour vehicles visible out the window many meters away just driving as they pleased) until we hit a rest stop where we had breakfast: once again, té de coca and bread, this time with strawberry and mora mermelada.
We first stopped at Laguna Blanco, inside the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo, which is frozen at this time of year and has a very high mineral content.
At certain points of the year, the water level is high enough to connect it to the nearby Laguna Verde, whose mint green color was quite lovely. Its color is apparently due to a high concentration of magnesium, and at an altitude of 4,350 meters about sea level, it is at the feet of the Licancabur volcano, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world.
We stopped at a large group of gray mudpots that reeked of sulfur before moving on to Laguna Colarada, and it was definitely worth the wait. The lake is truly an opaque red, not merely some trick of the eye, due to high concentrations of alga which are eaten by the hundreds of Andean Flamingos wading in the water. Somehow there were also white and brown domesticated alpaca hanging around near the outside… I don’t know why they were there, but they sure made for some memorable photos.
And then… “MIS GUANTES!!!” cried Irene, as her gloves blew out of her hand and into some mud, which she didn’t realize was about 6 inches deep before she jumped into it. Pobrecita.
Our driver Alvari (whose name in Quechua means “Amor Divino”… I though he said “Amor De Vino,” which surprised me a little) was busy preparing out lunches slash repairing the car (at the same time?) as we and our two travelmates—Rodrigo the Brazilian and Ignacio the Chilean) walked around in awe of the sight. Lunch consisted of do-it-yourself sandwiches of tomatoes, cucumbers, tuna, and, of course, MAYONNAISE! As we were eating our lunch, Alvari was tinkering under the hood of the car, occasionally removing tubing and blowing through it, kicking the tires, but generally behaving as if nothing were wrong. We didn’t mind the extra time to watch the flamingoes, in any case.
On the way back we hit up the natural hot spring pool that was absolutely delicious to soak in and punishing to get out of. Back in the car, we watched the sun go down behind the desert hills, and at some point, Ignacio learned from Alvari that we were driving with a flat tire and were late in getting back to the border crossing… not to mention that we didn’t have a spare. It was pretty amazing how calm everyone was at that point… we decided that, even if we had to stop, it was a beautiful place and we had all packed enough snacks to last us. That’s kind of how I felt the whole trip (and this whole semester so far): this is a lovely place even if things go wrong, and I have snacks. With those conditions met, life is pretty good.
But then we did end up making it back to the border crossing, albeit late enough that there was no light inside the shack save the flashlight that one officer was holding over the other’s head while he stamped passports. I mean, hey, as long as it works, right?
Instead of spending more time inside a tour bus, we decided to start burning off all that pan (bread) and bike to Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death) to try our… legs (?)… at sandboarding. The dune is only about a 30 minute bike ride away from town, and the idea was definitely worth the $7. Once there, I think we each only ascended about 3 times in 2 hours because it is absolutely exhausting to lug the board up the sand in total absence of shade. I was generally too afraid to slide down really fast, so I let myself fall about 4 times on each attempt to slow down, which was not the best idea if I wanted to avoid getting sand all over myself. But oh well.
We met a sandboarding instructor named Cristián who said he is originally from Peru but likes being in San Pedro to meet all the interesting people that come through (and he then sketchily winked at me). But I found it interesting that he could say, “Chevre,” “¿Cachái?” and speak Portuguese all in the same conversation. He also said he was 34 but looked about 23… I guess sandboarding is just one of those things that keeps a person young?
In the afternoon, we took a tour to the Salar de Atacama and on the way, stopped in the small town of Toconao, which has a surprising amount of flora and agriculture, and the guide pointed out a type of salt-resistant tree that grows in the area. The church was also quite nice.
Salar de Atacama has a different composition from the Salar de Uyuni, the latter being much flatter and whiter due to the way the water washes it (or something like that… the person was explaining it in Spanish, so give me a break.). It is a beautiful place to watch the sunset, especially since the flamingos fly from one part of the water to a warmer part. (FYI Apparently the reason flamingos stand on only one leg is to protect their body heat from dissipating into the water.) Another lovely sunset in the Atacama Desert.
Our requisite up-before-the-crack-of-dawn day in the Atacama to experience the wonder that is the Tatio geyser field. I woke up with Irene’s alarm at 3:30, though Tracy stayed in bed until 3:52. We somehow managed to be waiting outside just after 4am, the required time for our bus pickup, which then hightailed out of town to catch sunrise at the geysers which are a good piece away. We got there more than two hours later, along with about a hundred other tourists, all of whose tour guides were busy dropping eggs and cartons of milk into the smaller, more tepid hot pots to warm up breakfast. A good idea, no? At least these ones didn’t smell like sulfur. The largest geyser is nicknamed El ComeTuristas (The Tourist Eater) because 4 tourists have died in its boiling water. Our tour guide warned us that there are NO small accidents here, only big ones, and they always end in a plastic bag. “It’s not ‘Oh, I lost my finger!’” he said. “It’s ‘Oh, I’m dead!’”
Needless to say, we made it out alive and to the small town of Machuca, which our guide kept saying only has a population of 12, though it seems more like a little hotel village catering to visitors than an authentic Andean population. It was, however, authentic enough to have a grill going with anticucho de llamo (llama kabobs), which were alpacalicious.
Side note: when our guide learned we were from the State, he said “Oh! I’m the only American guide in San Pedro!” with a heavy Chilean accent. Confused, we probed him about exactly his experience in the country, and he basically said he spent a few years in Galvaston… I guess a few years in Texas makes anyone a true American?
Double side note: We’re not supposed to call ourselves “Americano/a” because, technically, anyone from North or South American is “Americano/a.” People from the US are supposed to call themselves “Norteamericano/a” or “Estadounidense” (meaning United Statesian). I usually just say I’m from Chicago. Or “gringa” works too. Or people just think I’m Chilean, which is probably the best case scenario, unless I actually talk, in which case my horrible Spanish gives me away.
We returned from the geysers ready for naps, and in the afternoon had yet another Chilean style adventure. We had hoped to rent bikes to ride to Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), about 1.5 hours away, but the man at the bike shop said he absolutely would not rent us bikes because it was just too windy with sand blowing everywhere. We were surprised, and he said that if he was a bad person he would have just rented us the bikes anyway, so the fact that he wasn’t should tell us something. Still wanting to go to the Valle, where the sunsets are legendary, we went to our old pal Regis and asked if we could join a tour. Sorry, he said, but the tours have already left for the day! It was 3:30pm, and they leave at 3. He tells us to take a taxi to the Valle (about a $20 ride total) and that we could join his Colque tour group with a driver named Hernán for free afterwards for a ride home.
So we wait about 30 hour in a parking lot for a taxi to show up, and the first one asks for $40, but we weren’t willing to be ripped off. The next guy, about 20 minutes later, says he’ll take us for $20, and once we get there, we ask him to drop us off a little past the main sunset viewing area so we can walk back at our own pace and get some exercise. Note at this point that the car is gently rocking due to wind.
So we get out of the taxi, say gracias, and are nearly swept away by the winds. I couldn’t even turn my face into the wind because the sand was hitting so hard. Gracias a Dios Irene had an extra hat to protect my ears! We immediately realized that making the 30-40 minute walk back to the sunset viewing dune would not possible. So we put on our sad gringa faces and approached the driver for a different tour group and asked if we could possibly join them to drive to the next place. The driver Juan seemed happy enough with the idea, but just as he was pulling away, he said, oh, there’s Colque. So we got out and were happy to finally find Hernán and hear that he had space in his van for us.
And then who else did we run into but Paul and Jeff, INSANELY arriving on bicycle, sweating, out of water, but somehow still very enthusiastic. Together we climbed up to the main area, along with about 50 other tourists, as the sun went down. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do the quintessential walk-along-the-dune due to the intense wind: a security guard was stationed in front of it so no one could make the attempt. But the colors really do change along the craggy hills around the valley to all sorts of reds, pinks, oranges, and yellows, though I believe that you can enjoy an incredible sunset at many places in the Atacama.
We came back in Hernán’s bus, very thankful for his and Regis’s generosity. We got empanadas in town and returned to the hostel nostalgic for that morning’s hot chocolate. So we bought a carton of chocolate milk and, upon entering the kitchen of our hostel, we met Gonzalo and Daniel, two backpacker Chileans that we actually got to practice our Spanish on around a liter of hot chocolate and some Atacama-style kettle corn (is that what we finally decided it was?). Gonzalo is a forestry engineer in the southern coast of Chile, and Daniel is actually a researcher/teacher at the Universidad de Valparaíso who lived on Charles Street in Providence for 6 months! What strange connections…
Our last day in town, we decided to walk around and tie up some loose ends. I had seen some women vending jewelry on a blanket in a parking lot a few days before, and a necklace with a blue circular stone entwined in a tan colored cord had really caught my eye, but she wasn’t there when I returned later in the week to try to buy it. I went back on Sunday, and by happy coincidence she was there, and so was the necklace, so it made a very happy souvenir for me.
We went to the Tur-Bus office to buy our tickets to Calama, the city with the closest airport, only to be alarmed that all of the seats were sold out on the bus we needed. Of course, we were kicking ourselves as to why we hadn’t bought them earlier, but the cashier told us to try a different bus company located, conveniently enough, right down the street.
We did manage to get tickets from the other company, called Atacama 2800 or something, and when the bus finally showed up about 15 minutes late, we realized this was going to be a very Chilean experience. First, there were no other gringos on board, every seat was taken, and the temperature was starting to go up. Then 30 minutes later we stopped to pick up more passengers. These people just had to stand in the aisle as the rest of us were falling asleep in the heat. After a total of two hours (twice the time we thought it would take between San Pedro and Calama), we arrived. Due to some good planning, we still had lots of time before our flight, and took a taxi to the airport. There was no one behind any airline counter, so all we could do was wait and explore the airport a bit.
The SKY flight, this time stopping only in Antofagasta, served us a nice little dinner, though arriving back in Santiago and onto Viña del Mar, opening the gate at my apartment and climbing up the stairs with my suitcase was a surreal experience. The week was so adventure filled, with such a rich combination of people, places, languages, and at the same time, Viña and Valparaíso possess all these same things. It was the return to my home away from home away from home.