Marie and I spent just one night in Santiago before catching a bus to Valparaiso, the “cultural capital” of Chile and its second-largest city. Valparaiso is on the coast, only 120 kilometers west of Santiago, and the ride took less than two hours.
An enthusiastic taxi driver took us from the bus station to our hotel. The driver, who clearly loved his city, regaled us with an effusive monologue on the wonders of Valparaiso. He explained the city’s basic layout – a business district on the flat strip of land bordering the ocean and a residential area on the steep slopes of the surrounding hills, with a 100-year-old system of ascensors(elevators) connecting the two – and he encouraged us to explore Valparaiso on foot. “It is better to not take a taxi,” said the taxi driver in Spanish. “You will enjoy yourselves more if you walk.”
We took the driver’s self-sacrificing advice and spent the afternoon walking around the city. There seemed to be an artist on around every corner – a teenage boy sketching, street artists working on a large mural, an old man finishing an oil painting – and elaborate graffiti covered almost every wall.
Marie’s flight left that evening. Time had gone by too quickly and we wished we were heading to southwestern Bolivia together instead of the airport. It had been a fantastic week and it meant a lot to me that Marie made the trip. In an impressive display of endurance, Marie flew all night and then went straight from the airport to work on Monday morning.
MARIE’S GUEST BLOG
Every time I did something stupid while Marie and I were in Chile, Marie would raise her eyebrows and ask, “Will you put that in the blog?” I usually smiled smugly and told Marie she could put it in her own blog entry. Little did I know she actually would. So here, as an extra special bonus guest blog, is Marie’s wrap-up of our time in Chile…
Rob asked what it would take to convince me to meet him in South America. I had already met him four times and wasn’t sure I was ready for a fifth. In Colorado he forced me to listen to every song John Denver ever sang, there was the relentless teasing in Cambodia, and in India I even had giant sand beetles thrown on me after carelessly traipsing near the unmarred sand dune he was trying to photograph. But three days later I agreed to meet him in Chile.
There were two things I really wanted to see in Chile: the desert and the glaciers. I was trying to find a way to squeeze in both in the 10 days I had, but it just wasn’t possible. I chose the desert.
Santiago was gray and cold when I arrived on Friday morning. It was typical San Francisco weather, only smoggy. The city was much more developed than I had expected – it could have been a big city in Europe rather than Latin America. I wanted to get to the more remote regions as quickly as possible, so we flew to San Pedro de Atacama the next morning.
I made our San Pedro hotel reservations before leaving California. I restrained myself from booking any 5-star hotels after enduring Rob’s constant teasing about my Cambodia hotel selections (e.g., calling our hotel “the compound”, claiming the receptionist’s uniform made her look like Snow White, mocking the nightly on-stage entertainment). Despite my best intentions to find a mid-range hotel, it quickly became apparent that it was one of the nicer places in town. The hotel offered us a welcome drink when we arrived and I had my first pisco sour.
We booked several days of tours. Our tour on Sunday featured the sunset at the Valley of the Moon. There were several stops along the way. At one point the tour operator asked if we would like to see another scenic vista or explore a cave. No one spoke up, so I exclaimed “The caves!” Rob was off taking photos. By the time he expressed his preference for seeing another vista it was too late. A vista would be a better photo opportunity, but the caves sounded like a lot of fun. (And they were!) It wasn’t until we were deep inside the pitch black caves that I started to wonder what kind of spiders they had in Chile.
On Monday, we had a full day tour that led to Laguna Chaxa (salt flats) and went into some of the higher elevations (Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques). The landscapes were amazing, but I was constantly annoyed by our tour guide that kept stopping our bus, suggesting we take photos of distant alpacas and some of the less scenic landscapes. This particular tour had us stopping at every small town and river crossing. The guide talked non-stop, but never said anything particularly interesting. It was a nice change of pace when our bus broke down and we had an hour to walk around the desert without hearing one of his prepared speeches.
As we ascended into the higher elevations, I was becoming painfully aware of how poorly I packed for this trip. It’s the desert…It’s going to be warm, right? I recalled what the tour operator told us about our trip the next day: “Bring warm clothes, it will be negative 10 degrees, bring sunscreen, and bring a bathing suit.” Did I hear her right? How could these things go together?
The next morning I dressed as warmly as I could and it wasn’t enough. Instead of a real jacket, I had a hooded-sweatshirt and a very light wind-breaker. Both were made for jogging in mild San Francisco weather, not sub-zero conditions. Getting out of the bus for the first time was shockingly cold. I was kicking myself for not bringing my down jacket. I had it packed in my suitcase, but I took it out at the last minute – despite the warnings of my 10-year old daughter that I should bring it just in case.
When we arrived at El Tatio it was still dark. The guide advised us to stay on the path, since the crust is thin and three tourists have died. I don’t know if his warning about other tourists is true, but it did strike me as ironic since it was too dark to actually see the path. I was too cold to give it much thought at the time. The sun finally rose to reveal a surreal landscape at one of the world’s highest geyser field.
After warming up in the afternoon, we made our way to Laguna Cejar, which has a 40% concentration of salt. The water was far from warm, but I couldn’t pass up this unique opportunity to float in the lake. As I inched into the cold salty water, I was painfully reminded of the numerous scraps on my legs I received while exploring the caves two days earlier. Floating itself was quite fun. This stop on our tour ended much too quickly.
The last stop was Laguna Tebenquinche, by far my favorite place in Atacama. It was the combination of the crusty salt formations, the mountains in the distance, and the reflections created by the shallow lake. After exploring the salt flats, our group (minus Rob) watched the sunset while drinking pisco sours. By the time Rob finished taking sunset photos and caught up with the rest of the group, the pisco sour was long gone.
We spent one last day relaxing in San Pedro. Neither Rob nor I wanted to go back to Santiago, so we considered going to Bolivia for a few days. Unfortunately, there was no way we could make the tour work and still catch my flight home. Being stuck in Bolivia would have been a great excuse for missing a few more days of work, but I had to get back to my kids.
We flew back to Santiago on Thursday morning. This was now my second day in Santiago and I still hadn’t seen much of the city. I felt a bit guilty for not making more of an effort, but I would still have one more day in Santiago. We left the next morning and made our way to Valparaiso, a coastal city only 2-hours away by bus.
Valparaiso had a lot of character for a bigger city. The hills, elevators, architecture, maze of narrow winding streets, and even the graffiti gave it a unique appeal. We walked all over, exploring as much as we could before heading back to Santiago the next afternoon.
My third and final visit to Santiago we finally decided to explore the city. We spent Sunday afternoon walking around, exploring various parks, and even navigated the Metro. I wasn’t ready to leave that evening, but somehow managed to get on the plane back to San Francisco.
Early the next morning, I looked out the window and realized I was flying over some of the most beautiful desert landscapes in New Mexico and Arizona, including parts of the Grand Canyon. The desert was glowing red with the first morning light, already making me regret that I didn’t stay longer and make my way to the deserts of Bolivia with Rob.
Thank you Rob for an amazing week! Miles travelled: 56,578 (Yellowstone, Denver, Cambodia, India, and Chile).