The Desert in Three Parts

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In which we circle the desert through the Andean plateaus and canyons from northeastern Chile into southwestern Bolivia. Careful, folks, it’s a long one.

Part I: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Elevation: 2,407 m (7,900 ft)

San Pedro de Atacama is a low, sprawling town of adobe buildings set in the middle of the entirely inhospitable Atacama Desert. We step off the bus, suck in some dry air, and wonder why anyone would choose to live here. Yet people have lived here since about 9,000 BC.

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As one does in the desert, we rent bicycles and take off on a 45 km day. They are far and away the highest-quality rental bicycles I’ve ever seen and we are given, to take with us, a pump, allen wrench set, tube patching kit, and 2 neon reflective vests, for use on the main road. Safety! The bikes even have mega-shocks, which we put to good use on the dirt roads over the course of the day.

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Our first site is El Pukara de Quitor, an archeological site just 3 km outside of town. This fortress had strategic military purposes, but also acted as living quarters, common squares, and animal pens. The site was first used by the Atacameño people around 1,000 AD, and was continually crucial to their stability in the region throughout conflicts with neighboring peoples. Interestingly, the Incan empire didn’t expand into the area until around 1,450 AD, and effectively destabilized society. The region became increasingly chaotic, which set the stage for the first Spanish encounters with the native peoples.

We wander the old fortress walls, find a giant stone face sculpted from mud, and crawl back through a back cave entrance into the fortress.

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We turn out into the open desert for Valle de la Luna. Instead of the out-and-back option, we go for the 39 km circuit with several other sights along the way. And boy, are we glad we did! We start with a grueling uphill – the sun is relentless and the grade is steep and we’re both feeling the thin air at this altitude. But we end at a spectacular mirador where we have a delightful picnic, and the descent is awesomely long and fast (8% grade for over 5 km of well-paved highway; we flew).

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From the highway, we turn left onto a wide, unmarked dirt road. Soon, the road is forking and we are guessing and finally we are on a terrible excuse for a dirt road which fords several dry streambeds and then hits a locked and rusted gate. Eh? We check our maps, surreptitiously duck the gate, and proceed cautiously, convinced that we might die out here.

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And then the road is suddenly covered in salt. Salt crystals, everywhere, looking like snow! We wind up and around and past some massive desolate sand dunes, and then find ourselves abruptly at the far end of the tourist trail. Huzzah!

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Valle de la Luna

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Cueva de Sal

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Just making sure.

That night, J makes some delightful pisco sours and we stroll through town getting ready for our 3:00 am bus departure for Bolivia. We’ve both really loved Chile. I think it’s mostly about the land – vast, beautiful, and f-ing majestic.

Part II: Uyuni, Bolivia. Elevation: 3,656 m (11,995 ft)

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Welcome to Bolivia! We wander around town acclimating ourselves to the new culture, tasting some new street eats, and giggling at the fact that the currency here is not just called the Boliviano, but the Bolivian Boliviano. We book a tour for the following day for the reason we’re all here: The Salar de Uyuni!

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Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers, and is visible from space. In places, the salt is as thick as 5 meters. We take off in a 4×4 with a driver, a Bolivian family and a couple of college kids. First a couple of touristy spots including a train graveyard where we learn about the mining history of Potosi (read: the terrible ways that mining has destroyed the state’s water supply with cadmium, lead, and arsenic).

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Any building constructed on the salt flats is made entirely out of salt – both the bricks and the mortar.

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That afternoon, we stop Isla de Incahuasi. There are several of these islands that crop up unexpectedly out of the endless expanse of white. The islands were originally volcanic rock then grew a thick layer of coral (from when this area was a part of the ocean) and are now covered in cacti. These huge cacti, seen above, grow about a centimeter per year. The Isla de Incahuasi is a stop along the famed Inca Trail. It took the Incan travelers 7 days to cross the Salar de Uyuni.

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On the way back towards Uyuni, we stop for the most incredible sunset of our lives. It rained a few days ago, and there are a few centimeters of water along this part of the salt flats, creating some incredible reflections.

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A word on the tours: We were tempted to do the 3-day tour from San Pedro de Atacama, but in the end decided that it was too much money, and much too touristy for our tastes. After having done the day tour, I stand by that decision firmly. We did a single day tour with Salty Adventours for about $20 USD each. We spent the whole day seeing the sights, but didn’t get tired of the weird tourist gimmicks.

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The vast expanse is difficult to convey in photographs, but the Salar de Uyuni is a deeply surreal place. Standing in the middle of it, there is nothing but white flatness in every direction – it feels as though the matrix has just been deleted. It was an incredible experience.

Part III: Tupiza, Bolivia. Elevation: 2,850 m (9,350 ft)

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Tupiza is a cute town built around ample parks and green spaces on the undulating hills between red cliff faces. Our first night in town, we crawl to a hostel after a horrific bus ride (read: two flat tires and an unexpected bus change culminating in a 6-hour stretch of driving down winding potholed dirt roads in the hottest part of the day in the desert with no a/c and no windows open) and go straight to bed. Except that we have arrived just in time for Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations. We creep outside to see the festivities for a bit – processions of people preaching into loudspeakers up and down the streets followed by drums and crowds of people shouting “Halleluyah!” at any opportunity -but are much too exhausted for this type of religious fervor and give up fairly quickly.

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We are slow travelers, and all of this touristing and hopping about is exhausting. We slow it down a bit in Tupiza, and over the course of our time here we do several hikes straight out of town and into the surrounding canyons. It is possible to do phenomenal loop hikes connecting any of three canyons together- but the tour agencies won’t tell you this, so we had to rely on studying the google map image of the places before setting off. The landscape reminded us of parts of Northern Territory, AUS. (See Here)

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Puerto del Diablo.

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A little bit of bouldering.

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This place is called Valle de los Machos. Can you guess why?

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Scrambling through Cañon del Inca.

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Colorful rocks above Cañon del Inca.

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Valle de los Duendes (Elves)

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Cacti everywhere.

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A stunning landscape.

We now find ourselves in Sucre, the constitutional capitol of Bolivia and famed “White City”. We like it here!

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Til next time!

Lots of love,

C& J

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Cities!

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Santiago cityscape.

A word on Cities:

We’re not city tourists. J in particular will avoid large cities like the plague in favor of wilderness routes and small towns, and convincing her to spend a weekend in a large city takes a considerable amount of strategizing on my part, including:

  • Forewarning and advance notice. Example: “Just so you know, we’ll be going to Santiago for a weekend in about a month, so you should prepare yourself.”
  • Carefully timed hints about things she’ll find exciting, such as beer, street art, parks, funky bohemian neighborhoods, or local culinary delicacies. Example: “I hear there’s a great brewery there and the biggest city park in South America – we should go when we’re in the city two weeks from now.”
  • Limited timeframe. A visit to a large city must not be planned to exceed two nights, and is probably better if it can be limited to one. That being said, once in the city, if we are enjoying ourselves or even having a tolerable time, it is fairly easy to convince her to stay another night, one night at a time, until we’ve reached my planned 4-5 night stay.
  • Lots of rest and downtime. A day in a city can include a list of things to achieve, but each activity or sight must be sandwiched between activities such as resting at the hostel, lounging in a park, or reading in a bar or coffee shop. The lack accomplishments off of our to-do list can be effectively combined with the bullet point above as a reason for staying an additional night.

In this particular instance, all four strategies worked like a charm for two back-to-back city visits to Valparaíso and Santiago which were both wildly successful. Win!

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J, in cities. (as seen in Santiago)

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Part 1: Valparaíso

We’ve heard wonderful things about Valparaíso – mostly it’s very colorful and there’s lots of delicious seafood – and sure enough, we loved it. Valparaíso as a city is almost 500 years old. In it’s heyday, it was the biggest, wealthiest, and most important port in South America. Unfortunately, in 1914, the Panama Canal opened and most shipping opted for the shorter route instead of going all the way around Cape Horn.

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Valparaíso is still the port for Santiago and a thriving business center, but nowadays it is more known for it’s historical importance, it’s art and culture.

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And it’s street art! Street art is relatively new to Valparaíso, but in the last decade it has become world-renowned. We actually saw several murals by artists we recognized from pieces we’ve seen in Berlin, Stavanger, and Miami. Local artists go knocking on doors of private homes and businesses, asking if they would like a mural on their big empty walls. Some businesses seek out murals because it keeps people from tagging. We stay in Cerro Allegro (Happy Hill), an incredibly cheerful, quirky, and fun neighborhood completely and totally covered in street art.

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This alleyway was previously dingy and completely tagged, and the neighbors got together and held a mika – when the community comes together to help out with something. They provided all the materials and had a big party weekend, and about 50 artists showed up from all over Chile, each painting a doorway or section of wall. The result was amazing – like an outdoor art gallery.

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Valparaíso is also known for it’s ascensors. These are public outdoor elevators that run up and down the many hills that make up the city. Seen here above the cow mural, the two little painted boxes on slanted rails – one going up and the other going down.

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City wanderer.

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C makes a rare blog appearance outside of the sign-off photo. Seen here at Plaza Bismarck, overlooking the city.

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J likes cities after all.

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Part 2: Santiago

Santiago, founded in the mid-1500s, is a city of over 6 million and is the capitol of Chile. Even I was a little overwhelmed by such a big city, but we were delighted to find that the city is packed with free museums and spacious city parks and boasts one of the best public markets we’ve encountered.

We wander the city for several days, walking this way and that, enjoying a delicious brewery here, enjoying the beautiful churches and stone architecture there. We accidentally end up staying in the middle of Bella Vista, the nightlife neighborhood, where just a few blocks from our front doorstep we find discos, karaoke bars, and eager waiters accosting passers-by on the street chirping enticements of 2-for-1 drink specials. Our overall rating of the city is decidedly mediocre according to J’s city rating scale, but we have a good time.

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J, such a tourist.

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The city lights from the top of San Cristobal hill.

Now headed north again. Next up: Bolivia!

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Lots of Love,

C & J

Relaxing in the Termas

 

IMG_1523A quick word on Termas, or hot springs.

The high concentration of volcanic activity in the area creates:

  1. Great hiking views of snowcapped volcanoes, sometimes spewing smoke or dust,
  2. Slight fear every time you see said smoke or dust (or large ash clouds) and take quick assessment of escape routes, and
  3. Lots and lots and lots of local hot springs.

The hot springs in the area range from expensive, built-up spa facilities to rock-lined swimming pools to steaming streams in the middle of nowhere. We explored several on the more rustic end of the spectrum and can report that they were fantastically luxurious.

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Los Pozones. In Chilean vernacular, pozones means pool. Many of the termas have the word “pozones” in their name, and trying to find the one pool called “The Pool” is difficult. (Not that difficult – there’s a local bus that goes there.)

We arrived late morning on a weekday to find we had the place entirely to ourselves. We luxuriate about between 5 different pools ranging from too-hot to mildly tepid. We spend most of our time in the too-hot, with breaks to run down to splash into the river (frigid) and lounge on the grass in the sun.

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Valle de Aguas Calientes. A spectacular day hike from Chillan, our next stop north from Pucon. The bus drops us off at the trailhead which strikes off into steadily inclined forest crisscrossed with bicycle and puma tracks. Soon we are passing steamy cracks in the earth with yellow, pink, and white deposits and strong sulfur smells. We reach the saddle just after lunch and are greeted with spectacular views.

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Over the pass, we descend into a grassy valley crisscrossed with streams – and sure enough, these are, in fact, aguas calientes. The streams vary in temperature, with some being mildly warm and some being too hot to touch. The streams are small and not too deep, but we find several nice pools where the hot streams join with cooler waters and lie back in the natural hot tubs, watching the hot steam rising against our rocky surroundings and marveling at nature.

A few other people have camped here and we kick ourselves for not bringing along our tent. We can only luxuriate for a little while before we have to hightail it out of there to catch the last bus back to town.

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That time that the nearby volcano suddenly spewed a huge cloud of ash and smoke. J ran a little circle in panic, but all the locals we passed on the trail seemed utterly unconcerned, so we kept an eye on it and continued on our way until it finally stopped.

 

Next up: Overnight bus to Valparaiso and on to Santiago!

Lots of Love,

C & J