I think most of you have been forewarned that this will be a long entry. But hopefully entertaining. I actually have to break it into two because I went over the limit.
I just spent the past ten or so days doing almost nothing but traveling. Last last Friday (the 10th), I went with half of my study abroad program on our first of two trips. After less than three hours of sleep, I woke up at 3:30 in the morning, made my way to the airport by 5, and took a 6 am flight up to almost the northern boundary of Chile. We landed in Iquique, a port city nestled in between the Pacific Ocean and the Atacama Desert, apparently the driest in the world. We got in around 9 or 10 and in true Chilean fashion went straight to eat; then after dropping our bags off at the hotel, we went to eat again. A guide (whose specialty appeared to be in the sports enjoyed by the locals) took us through the historic part of the city, which is full of architecture that I absolutely loved. Spanish-colonial with lots of wood frames. We passed quickly through a museum about indigenous cultures and life in the desert mines, and ended at the water. Iquique's historic significance was its role in the War of the Pacific--when Chile gained northern territory from Peru and Bolivia--although the famous is one that Chile actually lost.
Some friends and I then headed to the Zofri, a duty-free mall that is Iquique's modern-day claim to fame. It was a pretty uninteresting collection of mostly perfume and electronic stores, but I had to go because Magaly had asked that I bring back some of my host dad's favorite cologne. We then headed out to find a restaurant and ended up asking directions from a chatty old man that insisted that Michigan was the capital of Washington D.C.
I woke up way too early for a vacation on Saturday to go for a run along the beach. I've never been too fond of beaches, but I will admit that running in the sand to the sound of waves is a pretty magnificent way to start a day. The city looked beautiful in the early-morning mist and I made some Chileans' day by giving them the opportunity to make lots of jokes about the crazy blonde gringa running.
After breakfast we headed over the sand dunes that border the city and into the desert. Our first stops were Santa Laura, an old nitrate mine, and Humberstone, a mining ghost town. Both were interesting a beautiful in a deserted kind of way. Humberstone had collections of artifacts from the mining families, and looking at things like balls made out of socks and toy guns made out of wire always reminds me that I should live more simply. It's a thought I don't always follow through on but I always enjoy. Next stop was some geoglyphs, rock paintings left by ancient civilizations on the sides of hills. They were pretty impressive, especially when you think about how in tune with the land these groups were to have known without any modern instruments exactly where they could construct the drawings so that the wind wouldn't erode them and they would last for ages. I would have loved it if our guide new a little more about what some of the symbols mean, but I put my imagination right to work to fill in the gaps.
Our next stop was literally an oasis. Right in the middle of the desert, there are two towns that randomly have enough water under ground to support fruit trees and civilization. We had another great lunch (the restaurants in the North are all super cute), checked into our adorable hotel, and went on the hour-ish walk to see the market in Pica, one of the two oases. I bought some guayava, which is the flavor they use to fill my favorite pastries at the Puerto Rican bakery in Hartford. I had never tried the natural non-goo form of the fruit, and I wasn't too impressed but I'm always happy to help the little old ladies at the stands. We were allowed to pick oranges straight from the trees at our hotel, so I didn't leave Pica completely disappointed in oasis harvests.
Went for another run the next morning, this time into the other oasis town of Matilla. While I could definitely never live the desert life, I found the vast expanse of this place breathtaking. I came across a sanctuary with a mini-golf-style volcano in it, but it was locked for the day so I never found out exactly what it was. After breakfast, we took a bus up for a quick dip in the hot springs in Pica. The water wasn't actually any warmer than a pool, but it was a beautiful spot and it felt great to swim. With the little time we had left, Madeline, Erica, and I walked down into Matilla to see the church (pretty much the only thing of interest in that tiny place). Churches here are usually filled with tons of statues, most of which seem to be in a great deal of pain, and also lots of fake dead people in glass cases. I'm not sure why that is, but I'd really like to know so if anyone has studied regional Catholicism please send me an email.
Our last stop before heading back to the airport was the pueblo of La Tirana. I think there are some 2000 residents, but once a year more the 200,000 people from multiple countries pack in to celebrate the festival of the Virgen del Carmen. That happens in July, but we got lucky because there was a different festival going on when we arrived, celebrating the various pueblos in the area. We got to see three different traditional dances with great costumes (including kids dressed up as bears to "threaten" the rest of the dancers and throw them off track), and I joined in on a mass dance in the plaza that celebrated unity between the different groups.
The flight back was uneventful. I'm pretty sure the taxi driver that night ripped me off, but I was the last one to get dropped off and I had never taken a cab here before and it was after midnight so I decided not to challenge him. I made a brief appearance at school for two days, and then packed up and left again Tuesday night.
Six friends and I took an all-night bus down South to Chile's lake district. This past week was the Bicentennial in Chile ("Independence Day" was Saturday the 18th) and almost every school but mine didn't have class, so we decided to skip as well. Magaly had told me my teachers would cancel class, which didn't happen, but I don't think I missed much and if I did it was worth it. The bus ride went by so quickly, and was actually pretty comfortable because we were on a double-decker bus with seats that turned into semi-beds. I only got about five hours of sleep in total, but once the sun was up I just couldn't close my eyes. The South is very rainy, which means very very green, but a different kind of green than in Oregon and Washington. Most of the farmland was mint colored, or kind of the color of that fake grass you put in Easter baskets. Whatever it was, it was beautiful.
Our first stop was Pucón, which looks like a typical mountain resort town. Cute cabin-like buildings and lots of tourism offices. Our hostel (my first ever), Ecole, was adorable and much more like a hotel than a $16-a-night dorm. We dropped of our stuff and headed into town to get some food. We tried to head to the national park, but we had been told the wrong time and missed it by half an hour, so we took a different bus to Lake Caragua. The driver gave us very broad directions about how to hike to the Ojos de Caragua (we had no idea what that meant at the time), but after a while of walking along the shore we still had not found the so-called trail. We did run into a herd of sheep that were trying to go exactly where we were headed and ended up chasing us down the beach for a frightening couple of minutes, and then came across some drugged-up hippies playing an eerily steady drumbeat. I'm thinking the drum was what made the sheep turn vicious. When we reached a river, we decided that was the sign we should turn back to make sure we didn't miss the last bus back to town. We got off about half-way down to see the Ojos, and I'm really glad we did. Turns out Ojos means waterfall and lagoon, both of which were gorgeous. I could've stayed at that lagoon for a good long while.
Day two we woke up early early to try and climb Volcán Villarica. The French employees of the company told us that conditions were clear, but when we got to the base everything was covered in fog and it was completely whiteout. The guides had to cancel the trip because it would've been unsafe, and we wouldn't have been able to see anything anyway. I was fairly disappointed, especially because I was looking forward to the two-hour slide down, but it was fun to all of a sudden be in snow and I saved about 100 bucks.
As a Plan B we decided to head over to Villarica, a lake town that usually has great views of the volcano. Not this day. We were a little nervous when we arrived because two shop owners told us the only thing to do was skip rocks, but the day actually turned into a great adventure that made up for the volcano letdown. We wanted to check out a famous farm, so we went into the municipality building to ask for directions. The lady helping me all of a sudden got on her phone, and when she hung up she instructed me that the group would walk to her house, leave our backpacks, and then go with a man who would be our guide to a different farm in the area. It seemed a little sketchy, but we had nothing else to do and she seemed official (she was carrying a flag for the Independence Day celebrations) so we went along with her plan. After about 5 minutes in her house, Jose Ramón pulled up and told us that for $10 he'll be our tour guide, so we piled into the back of his trailer, sat ourselves on his shovels and wood, and hoped that we weren't about to become the story behind some new horror movie. We couldn't really see out of the two small, dirty windows in the back, but my friend Erica waved her hand at the cars behind us so that if we disappeared maybe somebody would have seen where we were headed.
As you can tell by the fact that I'm writing this, Jose Ramón was not a criminal. He was actually the proud owner of a stunning piece of farmland, which was our first stop on his tour. We walked around the property a bit, admiring the views and listening to his poetic "reflections" on life. Stop number two was a cheese shop ran by a Mapuche (one of Chile's indigenous groups) woman with five cows. Instead of walking back to the entrance, Jose Ramón opted for the shortcut and helped us all climb through two barbed wire fences (he actually had to lift each the girls over one of them). The woman was extremely nice, even though I felt like we were somehow intruders, and told us a bit about how her mini-business runs. We bought a wheel of Edam cheese, which we later ate in a bus station; it was incredible and I hope it makes its way to Santiago markets. Back on Jose Ramón's farm, we had just missed the birth of a cow but got to see the little guy learning to walk and another little guy getting castrated (which he didn't seem to mind at all). There was only one horse around so we didn't get to ride, but I did get to climb up for a photo-op.
After the farm we drove to a small brewery run by a Chilean of Belgian descent. While the fermentation process doesn't interest me all that much, the brewery was really impressive because the owner had designed and built almost all of the equipment himself. "Lamentably," he lacked a machine to put on the labels, so after all the sophisticated technological processes, he had to glue each one on by hand; he said that was his next project. If you ever see Crater beer, give them guy some support.
We made it back to Villarica alive, and all of our stuff was still waiting for us. Two other Chileans in the house got quite the show, as the saw seven gringos fall out of a trailer, walk into the house, grab backpacks, say thank you, and leave. We got a quick sandwich and ice cream for dinner and then headed to the bus stop for a 6-hour ride further south to Puerto Montt. We arrived at our hostel, Rocco Backpacker, around 1 am; not only did we have to wake up the owner to let us in, but we also had to request an 8 am breakfast. This trip was not about rest. The hostel looked a little iffy from the outside, as did Puerto Montt as a whole in the middle of the night, but the inside was warm, comfortable, and clean, and we all got hot showers. We were expecting bread and jam for breakfast, but the owner actually got up and made us all french toast with fruit. I liked her a lot; she had a cute hippie-look going on and didn't kick us out for refusing to let her sleep.
We hopped on yet another bus that morning to go to Chiloé, an island off of northern Patagonia. This was an interesting bus ride because we had to take a ferry across to the island. We had all expected to get off the bus and board the ferry, but the bus actually just pulled right onto the boat and were were able to stay in our seats the whole way across. Our first stop in Chiloé was Ancud. We were a little lost trying to find the hostel, but this adorably sweet woman noticed the confused look on our faces and offered to walk us there. On the way, she took us by the plaza and had us stop in front of each of the statues of Chilote mythological creatures to read about their legends. Once again, we walked into another great hostel, Mundo Nuevo. This one was a bit cabin-like with a great view of the water.
Our Ancud adventure was a trip to the pinguinería (penguin land). We took taxis, which proved to be the little engines that could. I was already impressed by their handling of some pretty rocky unpaved roads, but then we continued right onto the beach, through some decently deep channels, and right up to the boat. (We actually met some girls the next night who happened to be eating lunch on this beach and took pictures of our taxis driving along because they found it just as strange and comical as we did.) Then we later barreled up some rocks to get to an empanada restaurant. All of this in a stick shift. Impressive.
The drive to the penguins was thirty minutes of one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen in my life. Chiloé is made up of rolling hills of all different shades of green, trees, open range for cows and sheep, and yellow flowers everywhere. I really wish I was more poetic and could even begin to describe this place, but hopefully my pictures do it a little bit of justice. All I can say is that over all the rocks and through the water, that cab ride was extremely peaceful.
After being wheeled out into the ocean on a cart, we loaded onto someone's boat and headed out around some rocks to see the penguins. They start arriving in September, but since it is still early there were only a few to be seen. Still a great experience, and the boat ride was plenty of fun on its own. I'd love to come back in December when the rocks are apparently swarming with little tuxedo birds. This particular location is where the southern Magellan penguins meet up with the northern Humboldt penguins for the spring.
For the rest of the night, we walked around Ancud. We went to the artesian fair (there's one of these in every town and yet it always seems like have to go), checked out the old fort (I actually learned in class today about how Chiloé was an important strategic defense point for the Spanish before Chile gained independence), tried unsuccessfully to eat in someone's house (it was listed in the guidebook but they were closed), maneuvered our way through the chaos of three supermarkets (they were closing at 7 that night and wouldn't reopen until Tuesday because of the Independence Day weekend), and finally ended the night at a curanto restaurant. Curanto is a famous dish in Chiloé but no level of wanting to be cultured could have got me to order that. It's a massive plate of shellfish and various meats, plus a soup that is supposedly an aphrodisiac (the sign in the restaurant said "Helping people have good sex since 1826). I'm actually missing out on all of the typical meals here, because they all involve fish (I guess we were on an island). There was randomly a Colorado license plate on the wall; it's a small world sometimes.