Thursday, September 27, 2007

Iquique and San Pedro de Atacama, Chile; Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Wednesday, September 12th:

I had everything packed and was ready to leave about an hour and a half too soon. Luckily, though, the extra time allowed me to pack more things that I forgot, like my coat and a pair of sunglasses. We had found a booked a pretty cheap from Santiago, the capital of Chile, but it didn’t leave until 6:50 in the morning. And, the buses from Viña del Mar to Santiago don’t start in the morning until 5am, which would have put us at the airport at 7. So, we got the late bus and planned to sleep in the airport until our flight. Vicky, my home-stay mom, drove me to the bus terminal as a surprise and took the time to tell me I had too much stuff packed in my little duffle bag. However, it turned out that I had the 2nd lightest bag of the group!

The buses in Chile are first class quality. It’s the most used means of public transportation, and the companies always try to be on time and have the comfiest seating. Our bus to the airport generally followed those lines, but it arrived late and then left no more than 3 minutes after getting to the terminal. The bus stop in Santiago for transfers to the airport was closed, so we got off at a place I still can’t remember the name of and ended up waiting an hour for another bus until we decided to pay for a taxi to the airport. Back at the bus stop, we had to jump into on-coming traffic to get our luggage off the bus, and then run across the highway to the other side where we thought another bus would be coming to bring us to the airport. While waiting, we met a shaggy homeless dog that looked like a wolf, and we got to see tons of people running sprints to catch buses.

Finally, we got to the airport. It was heated! No place in Chile is heated, so that was a nice find seeing as we were gonna be sleeping there. We walked around a bit to find a good sleeping place, which turned out to be right in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts. It didn’t end up opening until we left to get on our flight, though. I played chess with the other guy in our group, Daniel, and then we decided to sleep. I wrapped my duffel bag around my arms and my backpack around my legs to be sure nothing got stolen, and I got about 4 and a half hours of sleep in all that night.

Thursday, September 13th:

Most of us woke up at 4:50 am, just in time to avoid the guard doing his rounds at 5, which included waking up anyone still asleep. Another group of 6 people showed up during the night to sleep next to us, and they got the special wake-up call. I went to the 24 hour bar with Meghan so she could eat, and we verified that our flight was on time when we came back. So, we checked our bags and went through security, where they only checked our I.D.s in the metal detector lines. Our flight took about 2 and a half hours and we landed in Iquique, Chile, in the smallest commercial airport I’ve ever seen. It only had 2 terminals, one for domestic and the other for international flights. The airport is actually 40 minutes from the city, so we had to pay $8 for a taxi ride.

The place turned out to be cloudy and foggy, but it was warmer than Viña. Iquique is supposed to be the #1 vacation destination in Chile, with its beaches and surfing, but the weather really only allowed for surfing in full body suits. The taxi brought us to our hostel, where we put our bags in a closet to wait for the rooms to be cleaned and went on a walk around the town. It was the weekend before the Chilean Independence Day, so there was a celebration going on in the plaza. A class of preschoolers was putting on a show of the national dance and songs. They were pretty well choreographed, and one girl even had a solo with hand motions and all. After the show we ate lunch at an Italian restaurant [Hawaiian pizza], and decided that eating out was too expensive. So, we bought groceries on the way back for dinner. $1 per person compared to $6 at lunch.

After that, we had to book our bus to get into Bolivia for our trip through the Salt Flats there. As it turned out, there wasn’t a direct line to the city, Uyuni, Bolivia, where the tours start off at. We had to book an overnight trip to a city that pretty much makes a triangle with Iquique and Uyuni. Additionally, the trip included a 5 hour rest stop at the border because it closes from 8pm until 8 am. Afterwards we spent about 2 or 3 hours going through customs with all the other buses doing the same thing. After finding out about the night we would have the next day, we decided to go the duty-free zone in Iquique, where I bought a table Christmas tree for my home-stay mom’s birthday. She really likes Christmas-She went to New York in 2000 for a month just to be there for all the Christmas festivities. When we got back to the hostel, I took a shower and watched Leon the Professional with the other hostellers and went to bed sometime before midnight.

Friday, September 14th:

I ended up sleeping on the bottom bunk. It was a room with 2 3-story bunks in the uppermost corner of the hostel, but you could hear the ocean all night long. Sadly, one of the other people staying in our room was a snorer, so constant and loud that it kept waking me up. I decided to get up at 8, and wait til our paragliding started at 10:30. We had an instructor that grew up in Germany, and he brought us up to a mountain where we could see the ocean and dunes of Iquique below us. The wind was crazy! The lighter girls had to wait a long time before they went up because the force of the wind would have been uncontrollable for their instructors. I had to wait to go until after the first 3 of us were done because I was the heaviest, and the winds get stronger as the day goes along. I drove down with an instructor to pick the other 3 up and then we returned for my flight.

It was amazing! We went up almost right away. My instructor told me a little about how he’s been flying since he was 14 and it never gets old for him. We did “wing-overs” and our touch-down was on a beach. All throughout the flight I just got to sit and let the instructor do all the work. I’d definitely do it again. We cooked our lunch when we got back to the hostel [quesadillas], and afterwards, Meghan, Daniel and I went swimming in the Pacific Ocean. It would’ve probably been ice if it hadn’t been for all the waves and strong currents, but the experience was worth it.

The hostel made us wait outside on their patio until we were dry before we could come back in. It was relatively warm outside, so the wait wasn’t that bad. We just watched them play ping-pong for a while. Before dinner [fajitas] we watched a movie called Step-Off, or something close to that, with the other hostellers. Dinner was home-made, too, and it was really good. We only had an hour our two until our bus to Bolivia left, so we just sat around and drink a little bit of wine to calm our nerves. The guide book said it was gonna be freezing and too uncomfortable to sleep during our trip to Bolivia.

The bus left on time, and we got to watch and American teen movie dubbed in Spanish with the volume set too high. I fell asleep about halfway through it, and woke up one time when we got to the border at 2 am and not again until 7 in the morning.

Saturday, September 15th:

After I woke up, and got off the bus to walk around and work out some the stiffs from sleeping in a bus. There were some nice mountains and the skies were blue with wispy white clouds. There was a little village where the only job was probably selling food and drinks to the buses waiting overnight. We left the border by 10 and I tried to do some homework for the remaining few hours, but I ended up looking out the window the entire time. It wasn’t too extraordinary, just more entertaining than doing homework.

We finally got into Oruro, Bolivia around 1 in the afternoon and started finding our bus to Uyuni. We had some time to spare, so we walked around a huge street market. All the woman vendors wore the same outfits and expressions, it was almost creepy. I didn’t buy anything, though, until sometime during our actual tour through the Salt Flats. Our bus had a single bathroom stop for 8 hours of travel time, with a lot of other stops to pick up random travelers. We were all afraid for luggage, but when we finally got to our stop in Uyuni, we all had our stuff. Although, they were covered in dust from the road.

At the last stop, this British girl came up to us to try to get a room in whatever hostel we were staying in. Along the way she told us she was studying with a Peruvian shaman and was travelling on vacation for a bit. We only saw her that night, and left the hostel early enough to not see her ever again. We finally were in bed at 5, to wake up at 7:30 in order to find our tour for the next 3 days.

Sunday, September 16th:

We had warm showers, but we were on our own for breakfast. We walked to the plaza were all the tour offices were, and this one lady roped up into her office. She turned out to have probably the best offer and quality of any of the tours, and our breakfast was included with the fee. We got to sit outside on a sunny day on the plaza for our breakfast. I walked around a small market and bought a few souvenirs while waiting for the breakfast to be cooked. Our tour started at 11, and there was a Japanese guy, called Izumi, that filled our group out at 6 people.

The guides were a man, Teo, and his wife, the cook. We went to a train graveyard, a salt-selling town, some salt farms, Isla de Pescado [an old rock formation with the most vegetation in the Salt Flats], and ended at a Salt Hotel. Our lunch was probably the most complete meal I’ve had in Chile, and throughout the entire trip we kept taking pictures of an endless white land. At the Salt hotel, where almost everything is made out of salt, we spent the time playing cards and stargazing.

Monday, September 17th:

I ended up getting stuck with the rickety wooden bed. The other beds were on salt bricks, so I don’t know, really, who go the worse deal. None of us really ever got a good night’s sleep during the trip because someone would be snoring, or your sinuses would be clogged, or something else to that extent every night. We had toast and pancakes for breakfast! For this day, we drove past quinoa rice fields, a Bolivian Army training post, Lago Colorado [a ton of pink flamingos in a sulfur lake]. For lunch, we ate next to a weird chimney/oven structure outside the ground of some company. After that, we went to the Arboles de Piedra [Stone trees], where it started to snow! We stopped along the way so our driver could relieve himself, but during that we got to see some Salt Flat bunnies that came almost right up to our hands-there must not be many predators there. There were also plants spread out in a field that reminded me of the poppy field scene of The Wizard of Oz, and this really cool mountain that looked metallic because of the melting snow on it.

Then tragedy struck. I was messing with the options of my camera, and I guess I reformatted it. All my pictures up to this point were lost. But! Pretty much all of them I’m just gonna borrow from my friends on the trip because we all took more than enough repeat pictures. The first thing I started taking pictures of again were huge flamingo poop mounds next to another sulfur lake-classy, I know. We ended the day at a stone building turned into residential quarters, playing cards and eating delicious foods. Luckily, we had rented sleeping bags, because it definitely got down to below freezing that night. I had to run back and forth from the bathroom the next morning to jump back into the bag to maintain some level of warmness before setting off in the jeep again.

Tuesday, September 18th: [Chilean Independence Day]

We woke up at 5am to go see some cool geysers. The sun came up just about as we were leaving them, so I got some good pictures though all the steam and bubbling hot mud splashing over the geysers’ rims. A little bit after we started driving away from the geysers, we reached the highest point on our trip, at 4900 meters, which is a little over 16000 ft. [3 miles above sea level]. I didn’t suffer from altitude sickness, but the 3 girls definitely did. We didn’t have breakfast until 8am, but at around 7 we arrived at a natural hot spring where we allowed to swim until they prepared our final meal on the tour. There were a ton of other tourists there from around the world, so Izumi found some other Japanese people to talk with, too. He could speak English and Spanish, but neither at a conversational level, so I’m sure that he liked that.

After breakfast, we got to see another lake, but this time made of arsenic! It was called Laguna Verde because it was extremely green. Then we passed by the Salvador Dali Desert, so called because it was an inspiration to the world-renowned surrealist. It really, though, nothing more than some stone pillars spread amongst sand. That’s where our tour ended, and we were dropped off at the border to wait for buses to take us to the nearest town in Chile, San Pedro de Atacama. It turned out that the service was slow because of all the festivities of the Chilean Independence Day, so we waited about an hour and a half until we finally got onto a bus. A huge group of Chileans got on the same bus we did, and they chanted and cheered a lot for Chile when we crossed the actual border, it was a good trip.

San Pedro de Atacama is a pretty small town, but it’s packed full of tourists because it’s located in the world’s driest desert, the Atacama. We met up with some other people from our study abroad group, and found our hostel for the night, which was lucky seeing as it was the Independence Day of Chile and the town was packed. We then walked to our friend’s hostel where they were having a cookout, but we decided to go ahead and find an empanada store because all they had at the cookout was chicken. We walked around a little more, and eventually bought some beer and played cards until we all went to sleep. The hostel we were staying at had a little party for the Independence Day, but it was only for the family and friends of the owners.

Wednesday, September 19th:

We woke up in our hostel room to find a French guy in the last remaining bed, but we didn’t really have a chance to talk with him because we went to find another hostel with a kitchen before check-out time at 11am. We found one for the same price as our other one! We went to breakfast before shopping for the hostel, and it was at a cool little restaurant, but I had eaten granola bars before else got up, so ended up finding the hostel while everyone else ate. The first one I found overbooked, but another couple brought us to their hostel, which was perfect for what we wanted. And it had hammocks. We bought our bus tickets to get back to Iquique on Thursday, but we ended up having to wait in a city along the route until a night bus to Iquique that got us there at 5am on Friday.

After getting that purchase done, we decided to rent bikes and go to the Valle de la Luna to see the multi-colored sunset that all the guidebooks suggested we see. It was an hour or so there and back on bikes, which was, to say the least, pretty demanding. I used my hoodie to cushion the seat about halfway through. We walked through some caves while waiting for the sunset, but it was getting dark so we decided to leave a little bit for the actual time to avoid being run over by cars in the dark on the way back to San Pedro. We had empanadas again for dinner, and met a group of exchange students from our University waiting to get started on their 26 hour return journey to Viña del Mar. We felt sorry for them. After that, we pretty much just went to bed.

Thursday, September 20th:

We went to store to by fruits and yogurt for breakfast to be healthy. Afterwards, we went to the archeology museum for an educational visit and ate at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant for lunch. The story is getting quicker because there’s really not anything else exciting that happened to us on the trip. I finished a homework assignment while waiting for the bus! We almost missed our bus, though, but the sign on it said it was going to Santiago, where we wanted to go to Calama. However, it turned out that the bus was making a stop in Calama, our stop, and we got in with 2 minutes to spare.

In Calama, we had to walk a mile to the other bus stations to find tickets to Iquique. Then we walked 7 blocks to the mall where our bus pick-up was for that night. Meghan and I bought a liter of ice cream between the 2 of us and ate about half of it before deciding to throw the rest of it away. We spent about 5 hours in the mall playing cards and watching a movie, but they did have KFC in their food court. I ate a cheaper restaurant, but one of us definitely took up the chance to have KFC in Chile! The overnight bus was probably the most comfortable one we had during our trip, and they gave us coffee and a snack for breakfast.

Friday, September 21st:

We woke up the front desk guy at 5:30 in the morning, but he was nice and let us sleep in rooms for half off that night! We didn’t do anything during the day except go to the grocery store to buy our food for the day. We ended up cooking so much rice that an entire Tupperware bin was used up and eventually thrown away because of the huge amount of left-overs in it. A few movies were watched, and a lot of card games were played. We had pizza for dinner and went to bed content.

Saturday, September 22nd:

It’s our final day of vacation. We took a really fast cab to airport, where we ended up finding our flight had been delayed almost 2 hours, a bomb threat went off, and we were called into the waiting lines about 20 minutes before our plane even showed up. The actual flight had an unannounced lay-over that wasn’t on the flight schedule when we bought the tickets in a city about halfway down the coastline. So, with all of that, we got into Santiago around 7 instead of 4, but we were home in Viña by 9:30. Overall, the trip was relaxing and worth whatever the cost it turns out to be. My bank merged with Huntington, so I can’t view my statements online anymore until I sign-up with them. Until that, I can enjoy my trip guiltlessly.

The next excursion I have planned is for Buenos Aires, Argentina. It’ll be from Halloween until Nov. 2nd, so the blog entry won’t be as long, but I think it will definitely be packed because we’ll be in a huge city with lots of things to see and do. There’ll be a blog entry of pictures to fill the void between this and that vacation, so check back. Chau!


Terry L said...

What an experience Pete!
Love Z&T

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