covering 2500 miles of Chile with mom
11.26.2010 - 11.30.2010
Despite one final hitch involving transportation to the airport, my mom made it home safely after my dragging her around for two weeks. It's always strange to me how quickly our minds adapt to new circumstances, like how one hug with my mom was all it took to make it feel like she had always lived in Santiago with me. My mind's eagerness to normalize is a good thing seeing I now have lives in three cities, all very far apart.
My mom arrived on a Friday morning to Magaly's new Christmas decorations and a peak into how much food guests consume in this house. Even though it was way too hot outside for soup, I asked Magaly to make cazuela because it seems like the most Chilean dish I know. For the rest of the afternoon, I showed my mom the major sights of Santiago, which by chance included the funeral of Commissioner Valech. Valech wrote one of the reports that helped bring Pinochet's human rights crimes to light, and having learned about him in class I found it pretty cool to have accidentally gotten the chance to hear people clapping and see them running to touch the car as the casket passed.
Friday night was the Cena de Despedida (Goodbye Dinner) for my program, and it turned out making me a lot sadder than I had expected. For one thing, it was the last time me and my closest friends would all be together. But more than that, it's just strange to think about never seeing the whole group of thirty-four people again, and I'm starting to feel not quite ready to leave Chile. Although Christmas and a new pup will make it a lot easier to get on the plane.
Without letting my mom catch up on sleep, we headed right back to the airport Saturday morning to fly up north to the Atacama Desert. We flew into Calama, where an adorable little boy in a soccer uniform offered to walk us to the bus station after I helped him practice some English. From there, we took what should have been an hour-and-a-half bus into San Pedro, the heart of tourism in the desert. Unfortunately, our bus broke down and the travel time doubled. We missed the tour to a salt lake where it's impossible not to float because of it, but we were then directed on a short walk to the Pukara ruins that were cheaper and just as interesting. Pukara was an indigenous fortress used to defend against the Spanish; now it's a hill covered with one-room rock houses in various states of preservation with a beautiful view of the valley. Dinner that night was churrasco, more or less a steak sandwich with various toppings.
Our hostel in San Pedro, Hostal Iquisa, was great. As you can imagine, there's not a whole lot to do in the desert, so the owner likes to fill his day by driving people too and from the center. My cellphone was low on minutes so we opted for the ten-minute walk most of the time, but the general helpfulness was appreciated. When we got home Saturday night, we had just missed a little hostel party with everyone participating a traditional northern dance (which I immediately recognized like the local that I am).
Sleep was pretty uncommon on this trip. Sunday morning had a four o'clock wake-up call to visit El Tatio geyser field. Unlike what happens in Yellowstone, the thermal activity at this site is based upon rock heated by magma coming into contact with icy cold water flowing down from the Andes; when the sun rises and temperatures move away from the extremes, the effect is lost. Meaning you have to beat the sun or you'll see nothing. Even though we were in the desert, we were at a high altitude, so it was pretty cold, but it certainly wasn't unbearable. Most of the geysers don't erupt in grand shows like in Yellowstone, but I still thought the massive field of steam was pretty interesting.
While our tour guides made breakfast, my mom and I took a swim in the hot springs. Which, like the other desert hot springs I've visited in Chile, was not hot. We spent most of the time trying to change out of--and then back into--layers and layers of thermals and coats into swim suits in front of everyone without being seen. Breakfast was delicious: crepes with manjar (pankekes, as they are called) and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. As you can see in the picture, we were the unique tour group that got to drive around in a tank. For whatever reason, a massive truck designed for overlanding in Africa is the only vehicle Grado 10 owns. (I highly recommend Grado 10 tours for anyone visiting San Pedro.)
Heading back to San Pedro, we made stops at a lagoon filled with different birds, a canyon covered in very old cactus, and a town named Machuca that thrives on selling llama meet and pictures with live llamas to tourists. Llamas and alpacas in Chile are all domesticated, but their camelid brethren vicuñas (seen here) and guanacos (to be seen in Patagonia) are still wild.
Before tour number two, we grabbed a quick bite at a local food stand. We thought we were ordering bruschetta and ended up with beef-pork-and-chicken skewers that were delicious nonetheless; the problem with my never eating out here is that I haven't learned a lot of restaurant vocabulary. We then climbed back into the tank and headed into the sand. Starting at the Salt Mountain Range, we took a hike above and along the Valle de la Muerte. Not really sure where we were going, we were all a little shocked when our guide took off his shoes and ran down the sand dune. A much cooler exit than all the people sandboarding nearby. Everyone was feeling pretty brave and accomplished upon reaching the bottom, only to realize we weren't at the bottom at all and that the second half of the hill was so steep we couldn't see where it ended. I almost went crashing down on this second leg when my foot sunk too deep into the sand, but I didn't fall and even if I had it would have been a soft landing. At the end of the Valley of Death (which is where any movie about Moses' forty days in the desert should be filmed), the tank was waiting with drinks for everyone. We then drove into Valle de la Luna for sunset. I was slightly disappointed in Moon Valley; apparently astronauts trained here before the moon landing, but I never felt like I had left Earth. We were also told the colors transform at sunset, but that didn't really happen either. It was still beautiful in a desert kind of way, and the rock formations--though not out of this world--were impressive.
We got to sleep in until six Monday morning, when we headed up into the Andes for some flamingo viewing and and high-altitude lakes. The National Flamingo Reserve consists of small lakes in the middle of a massive salt field, which I think should switch names with Moon Valley. There are three types of flamingos in Chile, but we only saw the Andean and Chilean; James stays at higher altitudes. We were lucky to be the first to arrive because the flamingos gradually moved further and further away as more people showed up. I was really surprised at how pink the flamingoes' wings were, almost hot pink and definitely a color I would have assumed did not exist in nature. The pink color comes from carotene in the brine shrimp and algae they eat, and the process is cumulative so you can tell relative age by how much coloring the bird has consumed. The surrounding salt fields exist because the Andes are volcanic and water can get underground through porous rock, but the mountains to the west are not and without rocks with holes the water gets trapped. With nothing to do but evaporate, it leaves behind the minerals it brought down, and little salt towers form. Even the paths around the place are made of salt, probably to keep the flamingos from slipping when it snows.
For our tour of the high-altitude lakes, we got to ride on the top of the tank. We visited two lakes--Miscanti and Miñiques--each with their own volcano, and each beautifully blue. For lunch, we stopped in a tiny town called Socaire and were served pastel de choclo, which I didn't hate this time. This is also a very Chilean dish, but I usually don't like it so I didn't ask Magaly to make it. But I was happy my mom still got to try it. It was at this meal that I finally solved the mystery of Colorado Canyon. Almost every Chilean that has learned I am from Colorado has asked me if I love Colorado Canyon, and has then made me feel bad for not knowing what such a beautiful place in my own state is. I overheard a Spanish man on our tour saying how he'd like to visit Colorado Canyon at lunch, so I decided it was time to figure out what hidden wonder every Spanish-speaker in the world seems to know about. It was a struggle, but my mom finally pieced everything together: the Grand Canyon was formed by the Colorado River, and foreigners have merged the two names and now think the Grand Canyon is in Colorado. I cannot tell you how big of a revelation this was for me. The last stop was Tocanoa, a town famous for it's very old monument and doors, roofs, and staircases made of cactus wood.
Rather than risk another bus break down, we headed early to the bustling Calama airport. And by bustling airport, I mean the single room that overlooks the single plane; Calama's a mining town so traffic isn't too heavy. The sun was setting right as we were boarding, and for the next two hours our in-flight entertainment was a sky becoming more and more of a blazing, fiery orange.
Tuesday's big adventure was Buín, which is just as fun as it sounds. There is a Chilean restaurant in Denver called Red Tango that my parents go to enough to be friends with the owner, José. When my mom told him she would be going to Chile, he helped me set up a visit with his family a little outside of Santiago. My friend Erica came with us because it was the last day I would see her; she left for home while I was still traveling around with my mom. Some member of the family was supposed to pick us up from the train station; there weren't too many other gringas hanging around Buín, so all it took was "¿Hola?" "Sí." to establish which car we should get in. Buín is a part of the absolutely gorgeous Chilean wine country, and José's family have part of what used to be an estate right in the middle.
Except for one brother who refused to even acknowledge us, José's family was very warm and kind. His mother is 89 years old, adorable, and surprisingly agile considering she has spinal cord problems and uses a cane. Pati, whose role in the family we never quite figured out, was extremely animated, and two-year-old Javiera was a troublemaker in a way that is cute to outsiders who don't have to clean up her messes. We spent the afternoon getting to know the family, repeating ourselves multiple times for the hard-of-hearing mother, sharing pictures that José had sent with us, and watching the chickens get fed. Pati made us an incredible lunch, with hand-picked fruit for dessert; the number of times people I barely know have fed me in this country is proof of Chileans' generosity.
That night, my mom and I went to church with Magaly. I had meant to see a mass in Chile for a while, but never got around to it until my mom made a special request. Sometimes the Regis choir sings in Spanish, so my mom actually knew one of the songs and sang along; Magaly was thrilled. We then headed to the famous Mesón de la Patagonia, the restaurant my host dad manages. I had been waiting all semester for this meal; Magaly liked to talk it up and I was excited to see where my host dad spends twenty hours of every day. Dining with the manager meant lots of food, lots of work-related interruptions, and a sample of every dessert on the menu. Both of my mothers convinced me to try the rosemary lamb, and I'm glad they did. Lamb is the star of Patagonia cuisine, and it was a lot tastier than I was expecting (my host dad claimed it tasted more like pork--a meat I generally avoid--than beef); really it just tasted like steak.
Wednesday morning was another airplane, this time headed south!