Monday, 19 August 2013

Cool to be Chile

What started out as an innocent 'drop-in' to Chile to check out the desert, the stars and get an extra stamp on our passports, in fact turned into a much longer stay than anticipated. The same snow that had prevented us from crossing over to Chile at the end of our Salt flats tour, later prevented me from crossing into Argentina in the north. The snow had reached so far down the Andes that the the next open crossing point was 1000 miles to the south- in Santiago! Which was just as well in the end, as what with deserts, mountains, skiing and european-esque cities, Chile turned out to be one of my favourite countries.

A proper mountain!
After our unfortunate 30 hour or something de-tour we eventually made it into Chile with only one night and one day before PK had to get his bus to take him back up to Peru to meet his brother. We promptly treated ourselves with a beautiful hotel and booked onto a star-gazing tour for the evening. This little town, San Pedro de Atacama, is right in the middle of the driest desert in the world- and the combination of very little precipitation (clouds) and no light pollution makes it one of the best observatories in the world- with renowned astronomers from all over the world flocking here because of the perfect clear night skies. This was a big part of our reason to make the huge effort to go there, and whilst annoyed at the time our detour had wasted, we were so pleased we were there for a night and had managed to book on to a star gazing tour. And so, in true style, that night, the one night we were there together, it rained like it had never rained before. Huge drops fell from thick black clouds, causing a powercut in several areas of the town.
God was not happy with us. (And we were not happy with God)

Not to be deterred, we booked an alternative tour the next day and had a great time exploring the desert and the 'valley of the moon', and watching a beautiful sunset over the Andes.

The desert!

The valley of the moon!
Sunset over the Andes
We then, shamelessly, went back to the same restaurant we'd been in the night before and enjoyed a similarly excellent pizza, by a beautiful big fire in the middle of a courtyard. And then came the horrible moment where we had to say goodbye. I was pushed towards the same star tour that had been canceled the previous night, as PK really wanted me to do it even if he couldn't. And he went off to catch the first of many long long buses up to Peru.
And all of a sudden, after 2 and a half months, I was traveling by myself again.

Feeling very sad and very lonely, albeit very determined not to let that spoil anything, I went to the star tour. This started disappointingly, with a professor speaking very fast Chilean Spanish (which is probably the most incomprehensible form of spanish there is!) Luckily after about 5 minutes another guy turned up who asked if anybody needed an English translation- for which I gratefully accepted. It was a really interesting talk- he pointed out loads of constellations, including all the signs of the zodiac, and pointing out the 13th sign of the snake which was abandoned by the Church. He complained that Scorpio should have scrapped instead as it spent less time in the sky, so being a scorpio I should really be a snake! Anyway he then pointed out the southern cross and explained its four elements, and told the story of why Orion and the Scorpion never appear in the sky at the same time. Orion was the best hunter the world had ever seen, and Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, fell in love with him. Artemis's twin brother Apollo was jealous of her love, so sent the Scorpion to kill Orion. Artemis, finding her favourite hunter dead, honoured him by placing him in the sky. To keep peace in the sky, Zeus decreed that the Scorpion and Orion must never share the sky; they are instead in an endless cosmic chase. Just as the scorpion rises above the horizon in the winter months, Orion descends below the horizon.
Anyway it was really beautiful as the pictures below show!

The next day I had a bit of a lazy day and booked my bus ticket onwards, trying to figure out some plans now that the border to Argentina was closed where I was. It did seem slightly ironic to be stuck in the driest desert in the world because of snow, but hey it was Chile, I should have expected it to be chilly..... (hahaha......)

So I hopped on a bus to La Serena, a little place by the coast, where I met another english pair, classic 'gap yah' types but nice enough. It was a long long bus journey, but some of the most beautiful comfortable seats! There were even curtains you could draw around your seat for more privacy!

Luxurious Chilean buses!
I had a great night's sleep, and when I got there I followed the pair to a lovely little hostel that they'd recommended, and then got contacted but a couchsurfing guy who lived in the city who offered to show me around. He was such a sweetie! He picked me up in his car and drove me into the valley to see the landscape, and then to the beach to watch the sunset. It was so nice to be able to practice my spanish a bit more, and for him to practice his english.

I then pressed on to Santiago where I struck lucky with another great host. Beny lived in a cool part of Santiago in a beautiful apartment where I had my own room, and took me out for drinks and dinner when I arrived. Unfortunately he worked during the week but recommended some good places for me to go, and once he found out I was interested in skiing, offered me one of his early bird passes to a ski resort near Santiago so I could ski for half price! My task now was just to find some people to go with, as skiing by yourself isn't that fun.....
The next morning I wandered into the centre to have a little mooch around, starting to feel a little bit lonely again. Passing through the main square I noticed a group gathering for a free city walking tour. I wandered back through and started to hover as it looked like there were some nice people there, and these walks are usually so great for getting to know the city and meeting other people. So I tagged on to the end feeling quite pleased with myself as the guide gave a great first impression by being able to not only talk loudly, but being able to talk loudly about interesting things. Great qualities in a guide! It was also there that I started chatting to another English couple, Clare and Tom. Finding out that we spell our names the same way naturally meant we could become immediate friends, but what really sealed it was finding out that not only were they booked on the same fight as me back to England from Rio (somewhat spooky!) but that they were really hoping to go skiing but weren't sure if it was possible. BINGO! I had found my skiing buddies! Straight after the tour we went straight to a hire shop and booked in for a session for the next day.

Santiago as a city was one that I initially really liked. Perhaps it was the combination of being on an interesting tour and having met some nice people, but it had a very European feel and many interesting different areas, including a very cool student district. One of the most bizarre things about the place was the 'Coffee with Legs', or 'Cafe con piernas' phenomenon. At some point in the past, the only coffee that Chile was able to import was pretty terrible. So, in order to distract the men that drank it from the terrible taste, a coffee franchise was started up that hired beautiful young girls, dressed them in miniskirts and high heels, and let them serve the coffee. This was such a success, that different 'Coffee with Legs' popped up all over the city, and even now that the coffee is good, remains very popular. They are now apparently trying to entice more women in, to compete with the giants such as Starbucks, by offering women a free biscuit! My host warned me however that there was 3 distinct levels of the Coffee with Legs, and to now wander into the wrong one. Most are the innocent ones where the girls merely walk around with their legs on show, usually with a raised platform behind the bar for a better view. But there is then another type, with blacked out windows and advertisements covering the front, where the girls might walk around in alot less clothes, and a 'happy minute' every hour where the girls all dance and take their clothes off. And then there is another level where they'll over coffee-go-ers more than just a cup of coffee... A bizarre insight below the conservative facade that shrouds Chilean culture!

A more traditional 'Coffee with Leg's establishment
The next day and we had a great day skiing! I mean sure, it was a little too early in the season for great snow, and only about half of the runs were open, but hey we were skiing in South America in JUNE! Whilst it couldn't really compete with the European resorts for size and number of pistes, it certainly tried to with prices of lunch, but it was still a great day, and we all went out for dinner in the evening before exchanging facebooks so we could meet again Rio before our flight home!

Skiing in South America!

The next day I got up early to make my way to Argentina, first stop Mendoza!

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Sucre, Potosi, Tupiza and the Salt flats of Bolivia

The bus ride to Sucre was possibly the worst I ever had in South America, and that's saying something. Whilst PK slept blissfully next to me, I was kept awake nearly the whole way by nauseating bends, and the lady in the seat across the aisle from me peeing into a bottle. This was a 15 hour overnight bus ride. There was no toilet on board. And our driver had a bladder of steel, stopping only once to let people out to line along the roadside or squat behind bushes to relieve themselves. A very stern reminder there to NEVER book the cheapest bus company. It is just not worth it.....

Luckily making it to Sucre was definitely worth it, and we spent a lovely couple of days not doing particularly much other than wandering round the beautiful city enjoying the sunshine, and darting into the market several times a day to enjoy an amazing juice! This was probably one of the most wonderful things on the entire trip- there are stalls full of strange and amazing fresh fruit and a local lady will make you up an incredibly tasty fruit salad (which will quite literally last all day!) or you can choose a fruit that you have never seen before and she'll make it up in a juice for you for about 40p, giving you a free refill! Wonderful!!

Wonderful fruit stall!
We also went to a dinosaur park where we saw some 'dinosaur footprints' that had been discovered in 1985 by local miners. The huge slab of rock contains more than 5000 footsteps 462 separate trails, making it the largest and most diverse collection of dinosaur tracks in the planet! It is at a vertical angle due to the movement of the tectonic plates, causing that particular slab to be forced upwards, but back in the prehistoric times it was a watering hole for many different types of dinosaur. It was a cool park with lots of models of dinosaurs, and we were lucky to get an English tour with an informative guide. We then took the 'dino- express' back to the city and climbed up a beautiful hill to watch the sunset over the city.

Dinosaur footprints
Sunset over Sucre
Early the next day we pressed on to Potosi, a mining city. We met a girl on the bus who was recommended a hostel, so we shared a taxi with her and PK booked onto a mining tour. I opted to check out the city centre and find a coffee shop as, being slightly claustrophobic, I could think of nothing worse than scrambling through small dark tunnels hundreds of meters below the surface!! It did sound like an incredibly interesting tour though. Potosi is home to thousands of mines, where the local men still dig for silver and minerals in appalling conditions. Almost everybody who works there knows somebody who has died from a cave-in, or from carbon monoxide poisoning. The gulf between their lives and our own is stark, PK told me how he watched men shoveling huge mounds of earth and rocks for hours and hours at a time, all in terribly dark and dusty conditions. They earn about $80 a month. Before entering you had to offer gifts to the shrine of a devil, to make an offering for entering his territory. I heard a terrible story from someone who'd been the week before on one of the miner's holy days where they sacrificed a llama to the devil. The poor animal was forced 95% alcohol down its throat, followed by coca leaves and finally had its throat cut, the blood spattering onto the statue. Whilst sounding like an interesting albeit harrowing experience, I was glad to have stayed behind!

Devil- worship!
Another early bus journey took us to Tupiza, home of the wild wild west and where Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid met their ends! Needless to say I immediately booked onto a day of horse riding, and was pleased when PK decided to give it a go as well! It was so much fun galloping around cowboy country, red mountains, giant cacti, canyons, ravines and some of the weirdest rock formations. The horses were good and everybody in our group were happy enough to go fast which is always much more interesting!

Tupiza was nice enough city, and not as touristy as we expected. Most of the streets had shops and stalls aimed at locals.
Except one.
In the street leading up to the pretty main square was a street that could be dubbed gringo- alley. On it, there are 6 identical Italian restaurants. Not similar, identical- from the same Italian menu to the same bamboo decor. They even had the very same dried cactus model pirate ship (to celebrate the land- locked Bolivia's rich maritime history we can assume?)

Somewhere, someone is making a fortune selling Tupiza women Italian Restaurant Kits. 

We had hoped to do our salt flats tour from Tupiza as we'd heard it was better, but it also turned out to be at least 500Bs (£50) more expensive than if we went to Uyuni and did it from there. Not only that, but as we wanted to end the tour at San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, it was a further expense and we'd end up doubling back on our route. As a result we hopped on a bus to Uyuni which took 3 hours longer than we expected and fell short of even our poor expectations of Bolivian buses. The window was closed when it was sweltering, and open when it was freezing, with the last 3 hours spent huddling inside our alpaca jumpers. Thank god for Game of Thrones which kept us sane!

We were exhausted when we got to Uyuni and decided to spend the next day relaxing on the city before finding a salt flats tour. This turned out to be a good idea as a big market and fete type thing was going on so we spent a nice sunny day drinking more juices and buying lots of cheap things on the market- making the most of our last day in cheap cheap Bolivia by sticking up on everything from socks to toothpaste!

Finding a tour was very easy with lots of people approaching us and all of them pretty much identical. We set off the next morning with all our luggage, but a little worried as we'd been told the snow had closed the border crossing into Chile. We were really hoping they'd be able to clear it as PK had a bus to catch in Chile in a few days and we didn't want to spend our final day together on a rickety bus retracing the same route we'd already been down!

The first part of our tour was visiting a train cemetery, which had been made into a playground of sorts. It was quite cool, in the middle of the desert with the mountains in the background! Then we moved into the start of the salt flats, where it is commercialised and mined. It was exciting to catch our first glimpse of the largest salt flat in the world! We then drove right out into the centre until you could see nothing but white on all sides, a little reminder of the insignificance of our tiny little lives. We passed a little island with flags from around the world, and a bigger island with strange cacti. And then we took lots and lots of perspective defying photos, not as easy as they might look....

Enjoying the train cemetery!

Salt mining

Looking out on endless white!

Crazy photos!


That night we stayed in a salt hotel which unfortunately was not as wonderful as I expected, but still nice enough.
The rest of the tour we saw some absolutely amazing things! Beautiful lagoons full of flamingos......

Hot geysers.....


Crazy rocks.....

And more amazing lagoons!!

The last day we woke up to hear that the border to Chile was open!! Hurray! We were so pleased and relieved and piled into the 4x4 for the journey to the border, where we were the first one. Gradually other groups arrived and we waited for the border office to open. And waited. And waited.... Eventually one of border control guys got a phone call. Whilst the Bolivian side was open, the road from Chile was impassable due to the ice and snow. Our guide told us they needed salt and sand to treat it. Now, I wonder where salt could be gotten hold of in the largest salt flat in the world? Or indeed sand, in a place bordering the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world?! I can't express how angry I was at this point!!!! As with the border closed we had to spend the whole of that day in the jeep driving 7 hours back to Uyuni, before catching the bus to Chike which left at 3am. Which is the most annoying time for a bus to leave, surely, as what do you do?! Get a room only to leave at 2.30, what a waste!! In the end we stayed in a restaurant/ bar playing checkers, but we were exhausted!! Not the best end to our time tin Bolivia, or the start of Chile...... But after the whole of the next day on the bus.... we got there in the end!

The Chilean border, closed!