Monday, November 29, 2010

The Salar de Uyuni and the Southern Altiplano Part 1

We were relieved to leave the town of San Pedro de Atacama which I hated with a passion and embark on our tour of the Salar de Uyuni despite the prospect of spending three consecutive days in a 4x4 vehicle and spending two nights in yet unseen accommodations.  We left at 8 that morning and stood in line at the Chilean immigration office for an hour or so.  After that it was on to Bolivia and all the uncertainty that entering that country brings for American citizens.  A full account of how to enter Bolivia as an American is forthcoming in a separate blog post. 

We drove up the mountains to the border where a small hut stood with the sign Migracion Bolivia.  Everyone else on the trip had their passports stamped, but we had ours confiscated and then given to the tour director who gave them back to us.  We ate stale ham and cheese sandwiches in the brutal wind and elevation that pushed noonday, spring, desert temperatures below 0 or thereabouts.  We split into two logical groups, all 6 Australians in one car, and the spare nationalities in the other.   Amanda and I were with an Englishman, and 3 French people.  We started off in our 4x4 vehicle over dirt roads that were rarely really roads at all, more ruts carved into the desert floor by decades of 4x4 tours.

Not far from the border we reached our first stop.  We paid the admission fee to the ‘park’, about 16 dollars each and rolled down the hill to the first lake.  

We hadn’t seen natural water for a while so to see a large oval of light green water broken by islands of white with flamingos dipping their beaks was surreal.  There was no rain; rain was unimaginable as were rivers, glaciers or any other water source but here we were buffeted by the cold wind’s dust on the mossy shores of a lake at an altitude rarely reached by the North American Rockies’ peaks. 

We walked around and took pictures and got back into the car and set off again.  A half hour later we got our first flat tire.  Our driver and another driver who wasn’t far behind were very industrious in fixing it and we were off again.  We stopped about a kilometer (it was very difficult to tell distances the entire time) from some figures of little stone huts or just stones on a hillside which is supposed to be the site that inspired Dali to paint one of his more famous works.

Not far from there we came upon the hot springs.  We changed into our bathing suits in the car, ran through the cold air and jumped in the warm water.  Our friends from La Serena, Kev and Alison, were there with another group so we mingled, marveled, and fancied ourselves very interesting people for participating in such a novel experience, bathing in a small shallow pool of strangely warm water in the middle of a frigid high altitude desert.  My shoulder got sunburnt and we changed back into our clothes with only a towel to preserve our modesty.

Then we were taken to some mud geysers.  The sulfur was strong, but the smoke was warm.  We looked down into the thermodynamic craters, but I was slightly unimpressed having seen a much more colorful version in Yellowstone about nine years ago.  From there we went to our hotel for the night which was not made of salt but which did have a lunch of hot dogs, salad, and mashed potatoes.  I was starving as it was three in the afternoon, and I hadn’t eaten much before that, but I lost my appetite about halfway through what I thought I’d be able to eat.  We had climbed a substantial amount that day, and the altitude was affecting me.  We were in a valley at 4500 m (about 13,500 ft), which is higher than any point in the continental USA.  The acknowledgement of that was a surreal experience for me because I’m always amazed by facts and comparisons and singularities, but Amanda was not impressed and told me her head hurt.

 After lunch our group decided to go to the Laguna Colorada nearby.  It was the most interesting sight of the day.  The wind was whipping up to at least 60 mph, but it felt a little warmer.  This laguna was deep red and much larger than the first green one.   Carine, our French traveling companion, offered us some coca leaves and we chewed them like tobacco at our gums.  This took away my headache for the most part and rid me of the tiredness that had hung about me since I had woken up at 7:15 that morning after being largely unable to sleep the night before.  All of a sudden I bounded down the sandy hill, eyes wide in appreciation of the amazing natural wonder in front of me.  There were many more flamingoes and the deep red of the sea against the sandy mountains was awe inspiring.  Amanda and I walked along the shore and upon observing piles of black balls she informed me that they were llama toilets because llamas pick one place to defecate and continue to always go there until the lead llama chooses another place.

We returned to our hotel, drank coca tea all afternoon in the dining room with our English companion, Adam, exchanging stories and insights.  It wound me up so much that I ended up spilling hot water on myself.  We ate pasta for dinner.  And as the coca had dropped our energy levels like a stone after it wore off, we went to bed in our below freezing room with the promise of breakfast at 7 am the next morning.

 PS.  The joys and consequences of coca tea are similar to, well, you know, hot chocolate (wink, wink), so we don’t touch it anymore.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Life in the Desert


After the excitement of Santiago we headed north toward Bolivia. We decided to stop over in La Serena, a small coastal town before San Pedro de Atacama (on the Bolivian border), just to break up the monotony of the bus rides and to check out the beach.  La Serena is a small, peaceful town with all the shops pretty much closed by 9:30pm. Their main claim to fame is the beach, so we rented bikes (at an outrageous price of $20, which we negotiated down from $32) and enjoyed a nice, but chilly, ride along the ocean. It was spring time, but we could tell things pick up in the summer time. We met an Australian couple who were also headed to San Pedro, and a couple of fun Swiss girls headed south; our hostel was a great place to meet people and that was good considering there wasn’t a whole lot more to do!

After a couple of days we jumped on a bus headed to the very north eastern corner of Chile, the little town of San Pedro. We only booked two nights at a hostel that was described as “right outside the town” but for some reason still outside our budget. The bus ride ended up being a bit fucked up, our connecting bus in Antofagasta left 15 minutes before the ticket said and we ended up walking to the center of town to catch a completely different bus so we didn’t have to wait four hours. Then we had to catch another bus in Calama, and it was a pretty messed up trip all around.  In Chile usually everything runs behind schedule, so this situation took us completely by surprise. Because of the confusion, our ride to the hostel wasn’t there (we were 1 ½ hours late) so we took a taxi. 
$6 Coffee!
San Pedro is a small, dusty, hippie town whose main purpose is to provide tours. They had tons of hiking, mountain biking, sand dune boarding and, most importantly for us, tours of the Salar de Uyuni (the salt flats of Uyuni).  The largest salt flats in the world are actually in Bolivia, but San Pedro is very close to the border so many tours depart and arrive there. San Pedro is stupidly expensive.  We were only there for two nights, so this wouldn’t have been a problem except none of the five ATMs were functioning when we arrived, or the next day either for that matter. There are no grocery stores, and pretty much no way to do things on the cheap.  I grew up in hippie country and I simply don’t understand how anyone could spend any amount of time in this place. It definitely had the dirtiness, drugs and artistic vibe to foster a laid back hippie style, but the prices were INSANE. It’s amazing how many wealthy people enjoying being dirty and at the mercy of the elements. Personally we do not enjoy having dust lung.  We lucked out and had just enough money to get though until the last morning when the ATMs started running again, we booked our tour to the salt flats and got the fuck out of there.
 I’m not really into the desert, being white as fuck and pretty much allergic to the sun, so I wasn’t a big fan of San Pedro.  Dan couldn’t believe a town completely reliant on tourism would not have good internet access or ATMs that worked, so overall we didn’t really like it there. The only good part was we were headed to one of the “can’t miss” sights in South America!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Santiago, Chile

We arrived in the capital of Chile at 3pm. The subway was easy to navigate and we made it to the central (or downtown) area where our hostel was without a problem. We checked into the Green House hostel, which had a great location and a super nice family vibe. At around 5:30pm we went out in search of food and to explore the area. The city had completely changed into a mad house! It was like NYC, no joke. There were so many people that it was difficult to walk!  It was mostly business men and women getting off work and people trying to sell them stuff. Like the rest of Chile, it is INSANELY expensive, so we had to hunt down a decently priced Chinese restaurant after taking a long walk up to the Parque Forestal (forest park) and into the Barrio Bellavista (Bellavista neighborhood).
We were warned about pickpockets by a friendly local who we chatted with at the hostel.  They love to stick their hands into your backpack when you’re not looking so we fashioned a fancy lock for ours, which we don’t carry around anyway. We took a safety pin and put it though the two zippers. It would take a very skilled pickpocket to undo that plus rummage around all while you’re not looking!

We spent the night and next day drinking (finally tried the country’s famous drink, the pisco sour) and relaxing respectively. Our computer fell off the bed, so we had to take it to a repair shop, and we also did some grocery shopping at a local supermarket. I cannot stress enough how expensive this country is, I don’t think we have had a single day of being at or under our budget ($30). The only things reasonably priced in this country are beer, wine and buses.
On our last day in Santiago we hit all the tourist spots including the beautiful Cerro Santa Lucia park, Palacio de Bellas Artes Museum, which was free but 75 percent closed, and the main Catholic Cathedral where Dan explained many mundane tidbits about his former religion. We also searched out the Terminal Los Heroes to buy our tickets to La Serena. It turns out someone has inconveniently misplaced this bus terminal on every map available, but some friendly police officers helped us out.  
Santiago is a wonderful, bustling city that looked awesome to live in, if you can afford it. 

Oh, and curious about the Pisco Sour? Here’s the recipe:
    * 4 cups ice cubes
    * 1 cup pisco (brandy made in Chile or Peru)
    * 1/3 cup lemon juice
    * 1/3 cup white sugar
    * 1 egg white
    * aromatic bitters
Add everything to a blender, blend and drink! Makes enough for two drinks, add a little extra bitters to top it off. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The vertical city: Valparaiso

We passed through the Andes, and it was spectacular.  We rode along the banks of a brick red river, and I was reminded of being in Arizona when I was 12.  The mountains were capped with snow and small houses and remote communities dotted the valley.  We crossed the border and descended rapidly along unnerving switchbacks.  From there it wasn’t far to Valparaiso.
Valparaiso is an original city.  Its houses rise over the port on 42 hillsides which are all connected and named.  It’s only 3km away but very different from the neighboring city of Vina del Mar which has a similar population (think Pittsburgh or Mokpo) to Valpo.  Our hostel (Hostal NuevaMente) was located near the bus station so we walked there through a street market.  It was a great hostel, it felt like home for 3 days.  The proprietors had hired a Swiss couple to mind the desk for 6 months and we arrived after they had only been in Valpo for a week.  Both they and the owner, Pilar, were very welcoming.  Our room was huge and we had the whole place practically to ourselves; it’s a small hostel.
I must admit, when we got there I was a bit sketched out.  The city has a gritty, run down appearance.  In the flat part, El Plan, where we were staying, there were signs of economic hardship, burnt out buildings, businesses with steel rusted steel curtains, graffiti, trash blowing everywhere, cheap goods being sold on the street, unkempt grass growing out of busted sidewalk cement, and the famous packs of roving street dogs.  We arrived on Saturday afternoon and needed Chilean money.  The banks were closed and the first ATM I tried refused to do the transaction as if it were a discerning diner.  We couldn’t find another bank so we found another hostel and asked if they knew where we could get money, they told us to go to the pharmacy.  ATMs at the pharmacy, imagine that.
When we retrieved the money we sat down and ate one of the more expensive meals we’ve had on our trip: a mountain of Chinese food and beer.  We’d been craving that since Montevideo, the South American diet of bread, meat and cheese had been making me feel like there was molasses in my veins and this got things moving again.  Satisfied we turned in at the hostel before dark.
The next day we walked over to where all the fuss is about.   Cerros (hills) Concepcion and Alegre.  We climbed them without the famous elevators because they’re not all that tall.  The scenery was beautiful.
After that we took a walk around the street that bends with the hills and snapped a couple photos overlooking the city sprawling up it’s slopes.

Pablo's house.
We took that street over to Pablo Neruda’s house.  A poet and a senator, Neruda is a national icon almost 40 years after his death.  He received the Nobel Prize for Literature and from his house in Valparaiso it’s easy to see why.  His thin house named La Sebastiana rises five stories overlooking the whole city of Valparaiso.  The house is decorated with taste and eccentricity and all of the walls that could afford a vista are outfitted with floor to ceiling windows. 
Nothing much happened that night, we ate in.  The next day we rode up an acensor and rode a bus around the hills for a more thorough tour of the area.  The bus wasn’t as large as the buses we think of, it couldn’t be it would be too unwieldy for the tiny, curvaceous streets.  It was however old and on the cobblestones it felt like it would simply fall apart by the screws at any moment.  We saw the inequality of the city.  On one hill adobe or wood homes with gates and fresh paint, on the next one shanties with corrugated tin roofs supported on the side of the hill with two by fours that look precarious but must be able to handle the strain.  We got off the bus at a university out by the far cape of the city.  It was a grand vista.
That night we went out for Chinese food again.  Chilean food is ho hum with the bright spot being their excessive use of avocado and tomato in things.  Other than that it’s mainly cheese and bread, burgers and meat, and french fries.
The next day we left in the afternoon for Santiago.  But before we did we walked along the oceanfront and I bought a watch.  I haven’t worn a watch for quite some time but I really needed something to show me the time now that I don’t have a cell phone.  It’s such a novelty I can’t stop looking at my wrist.
There you have it.  Valparaiso is an inspiring city, as I’m sure you can tell from the photos.  It’s edge takes a couple days to dull, but a visit is indispensible to any South American backpacking adventure.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

How to Prevent a Bread Baby: Staying Healthy on the Road

A bread baby is not actually a baby, this blog is not about safe sex and contraception (although you should use that on the road as well!!), a bread baby is my nickname for the extra five pounds 2.3( kilos) you gain as soon as you take the first step on a trip or vacation. It could also be a rice baby (I had one of those in Asia) or a pasta baby (I heard this is common in Italy) or even a taco baby (this baby is prevalent in Mexico and Central America).
   Traveling is no time for dieting, especially when there are so many delicious new foods to try.  The key is to not allow that extra five pounds to turn into ten or fifteen pounds. If that happens you will be in a position I am well aware of, not being able to fit into the clothes you brought with you and being a little self-conscious in that swimsuit that fit you great last time you put it on.  Here are some tips to keep you looking a feeling good, all while having a great time on the road:
       1.) Don’t eat anything you wouldn’t eat at home. No, I don’t mean worm larve or deep fried mice. By all means dig into all the traditional fare you find, if you dare. I mean the things like French fries, soda, dessert every night, candy bars and corn dogs. Sometimes when you see something that reminds you of home, you just have to have one. But if you wouldn’t eat it on a normal day at home, give it a pass on the road as well.
      2.)  Fiber. This extremely important part of our diet can be hard to come by on the road.  Keep your eye out for fruits, beans, and green vegetables. These will keep your gut feeling good and keeps you fuller longer.  These can be very hard to find in abundance in restaurants though, which leads us to…  
      3.)  Eat in a least once every other day. This only really works if you have a kitchen available to you, but most hostels have them.  We shop at a local grocery and pile up on the green veggies.  This makes us feel great and really helps our energy levels. It also saves you money! 
      4.)  Plan ahead.  We always keep snacks in our bag, as well as plenty of water.  I get into trouble when I am absolutely starving and feel like I must eat something now or die. Having something healthy (like a banana, peanuts or cereal bar) can buy you a little time to find something more wholesome to eat.
      5.)  You don’t have to eat it just because it’s free.  This sounds utterly ridiculous, especially when you are on a tight budget like us.  It can be very difficult to resist a third roll and jam at the breakfast included in your fee for your room, or the warm ham and cheese sandwich they gave you on the 12 hour bus ride, but you must.  Everything in moderation of course, but believe me, the free food usually has little to no nutritional value at all.  So have bite or two, but don’t go overboard just to save money.

It’s great to eat like a local, but if the local diet focuses on bread, cheese, meat and delicious pastries you are going to have to be mindful of what you are eating.  Plan ahead, put a little extra time into meal planning and you’ll look and feel great no matter how long you are on the road.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mendoza: Wine country is good country

       It took 28 hours and all the vegetative and geological landscapes that Southern South America has to offer to get from Montevideo to Mendoza.  We changed buses and bought new tickets in Cordoba and honestly I wouldn’t recommend doing the whole trip in one go, but when you book your hostels before you learn the  bus schedules, you’ve gotta get there.  As you can imagine we arrived at our hostel in Mendoza in a weary, zombiesque state, ready for our 2 bed dorm room and the promised free glass of wine that attracted us to our hostel.  On the glass of wine the hostel delivered admirably, on the room not so much.  We were put in a room with single bunk beds that took up over half the room’s space.  If our room was a shoebox the shared bathroom was a jewelry box.  And the wifi didn’t work all week, not our best accommodation.

The next day we wandered around Mendoza.  It’s a lovely, comparatively affluent city, with short terraced houses lining streets with irrigation ditches between every sidewalk and road.  It’s treelined, dry, and dotted with square parks.  We ate some delicious lomo (steak loin, not ground meat) burgers that made Amanda sick at what looked like a popular burger restaurant downtown.  Later we made plans with fellow travelers to visit the wineries the next day.

The next day we set off with Ethan and Hannah, a brother sister duo from Washington State, Jess, an Australian girl who had been making the South American circuit for five months and was flying home from Santiago only two days later, and Sarah, a Korean traveler who was shocked with our “fluency” in Hangul.  Ethan and Hannah lead the way as we got on the city bus to the neighboring winery town of Maipu and rented bikes for what in other places might seem like a bad idea (getting drunk and sharing a narrow two lane road with big rigs and oil tankers) but in South America is just how we roll.

Our first stop was the free wine museum which had a bunch of ancient wine making implements explained in Spanish and a house wine to sample.  Down the road was a small store with boutique liquors, spreads, and olive oil.  For 15 pesos ($3.75) each we sampled as much olive oil, tapenade, and dulce de leche spread as we wanted.  Then we each had an opportunity to take a shot of whatever liquor we wanted.  Jess, Ethan and I chose the only liquor that it was sensible to try while riding bikes around rural Argentina, Absinthe made with real wormwood at 75% alcohol.  They set it up right, with spoons on fire and all, and it burned the whole way down our esophagi but it was worth it to feel like Tolouse Lautrec. 
Hannah chose a girly liqueur and Sarah being the trooper that she is tried the other one I would have liked to try, the other frightening green liquid called Russian Death.  It was made with green peppers and its deliciousness was written all over her face after she took the shot.  Amanda abstained as the sandwich from yesterday was still not treating her well.
We wandered through a strangely green day on to an outdoor artisanal beer garten run by some Argentinian hippie brewers.  Then to a family farm with rabbits and birds and wine and olives and peaches and almonds all explained to us very enthusiastically in Spanish by a bright little middle-aged woman, and mostly translated to us by Jess whose Spanish abilities were by far the most advanced of the group.  For another 15 pesos we received a tour, a delicious meat empanada, a glass of wine and a tasting of some of the farm’s more olive based products.  Amanda and I ended up buying a bag of almonds from the tree in the backyard.  How quaint.

Finally, we rode up the main road for what seemed like ever to an old winery which no longer produces wine because it’s an old protected building.  We were guided for the first time through the wine making and aging process, and given the etymology of Malbec, THE grape of Argentina.  It means ‘bad grapes’ because it’s only good in a very arid environment which France does not have.  We sampled this grape of grapes and a nice oak aged Cab, ate at the winery a bit over our budget, and returned to the bike rental place for a last glass of wine.  We hope to see Ethan and Hannah again as we might end up in Bolivia at the same time.

Everyone left either that night or the next morning, and since none of the mountain tours really struck our fancy we decided to go back to the wineries with a tour in a van this time.  It was only 60 pesos inclusive and we visited two wineries, an olive oil factory, and a liqueur and spread store.  The tour in the van was entirely in Spanish and very international.  There were Argentinians, Brazilians, Venezuelans, and two other English speakers, an English/Australian couple.  The guide asked us where we were from individually and when we said, de los Estados Unidos, we got a hearty cheer from the Venezuelans; they must not have been Chavez fans.  
Dan loves Absinthe!

At each place we had either a bilingual tour guide or a separate tour guide for the English speakers, and it was pretty much a rehash of the previous day, but well worth it for the wine we were able to taste.  The second winery was a particular treat.  A boutique winery down a dusty road from an old church on a crossroads in the shadow of the Andes, it grew only red wines, Malbec, Cab, Merlot, and Syrah.  The youngest wine it let out of its doors was from 2006 and for only 25 pesos ($6.25) we were able to buy a 2004 Malbec grown and fermented on the premises.  We drank it that night because Chile doesn’t let you bring anything into their country.

And so the next day we took our leave of Mendoza and Argentina for Valparaiso and Chile.  It promises to be a wonderful ride over the Andes and I’m chuckling inside at the idea of seeing the Atlantic in Montevideo less than a week ago.  It seems premature to say goodbye to Mendoza.  It’s a wonderful city and a great travel destination for penny pinchers who love wine and tree lined boulevards.