Géisers for Geezers

Saturday we once again started late. This time, our tour started at 2:30pm and we headed to the salt flats about 30 minutes outside of San Pedro. Our first stop was Laguna Cejar, a saltwater pond. The name laguna translates to lagoon, which to me (and Merriam Webster), is “a shallow sound, channel, or pond near or communicating with a larger body of water.” This was a small body of water, not near or connecting to anything else and fed by underground springs. [Late update – I asked my Spanish teacher how you would say small lake (and showed her the picture). She said laguna. So, I am shocked to tell you that google translate, may be wrong!] We arrived at the laguna and changed into our bathing suits, because, like the Dead Sea, you when you get in the water, you float. The temperature was hovering in the low 30s Celsius (about 90˚F) and so the cool water felt wonderful. Sue and I both kept our hats (and sunglasses) on for the dip and we all (us, hats and sunglasses) came out encrusted with salt. The park had showers (no soap or shampoo allowed) so we had a quick rinse and got changed back into our clothes.

After Laguna Cejar, we visited Laguna Tebinquiche, a small, very salty lake with a very unique ecosystem. The hard environmental conditions including high solar irradiation, extreme temperature differences between day and night, high salt, and arsenic content (related to the volcanic activity nearby), make the lagoon a very difficult place to live. Some of the things that live in the lake are closely related to the earliest types of single and multicellular organisms that lived on Earth. Flamingos are often found at the lake feeding on brine shrimp, but when we were there where none. (Our guide said that most of the brine shrimp were gone and the flamingos had moved on in search of nourishment.)

Ignore us and look at the stars. That is the milky way on the top left with the southern cross at the bottom of the milky way

We returned to the hotel at about 7:30, had a quick meal and got ready for our “evening” activities.  The Atacama Desert is very high and the thin air, lack of light pollution and clear skies make it ideal for observing the sky. Overlooking Laguna Tebinquiche is the Atacama Large Millimeter Array observatory.  We did not go there. Instead, we booked a 10pm to midnight star gazing tour that was about 30 minutes outside of town. However, this tour, like so many other things in Chile work on Standard Chilean time. So, our scheduled 9:30 pick up was actually closer to 10:15 and our 10 p.m. start turned out to be just about 11 p.m. The “tour” consisted of three parts. First, a 30-minute introduction to stars, how they form, live and die. René, the “tour guide” described nebulas (nebulae?), various types of stars and some of the things we needed to look for in the night sky. It was quite interesting and tied in nicely to what we were going to see both with naked eyes and with the telescopes.  Next, he pointed out various stars, constellations, and described how the path of the sun is tracked against the arc of the planets across the sky. (He also talked about the difference between navigating in the northern and southern hemispheres and how it was done. PLUS, we got to see the best constellation: Gemini!) To me, this was the most beautiful part of the evening as we able to see the entirety of the sky. It was simply amazing, and I cannot adequately describe (how often do I say this or something like this) how awe inspiring it is. For the third part, they had two telescopes set up and we were able to see nebulae (I am pretty sure it is nebulae, but maybe not, in which case just pretend that I wrote nebulas), a binary star, stars from various constellations and Mars (Yes, I know it is a planet). (The nebula looked like a tarantula – if you used your imagination, which all sky gazing requires.) All in, it was an amazing evening that ended at just about 2 a.m.

Luckily for us, we had decided that we would take it easy on Sunday and hang out at the hotel pool.

Only kidding, if you don’t know us already, we don’t do lounging very well, so when we planned this weekend, we scheduled a morning tour of the El Tatio geysers. The pickup time for the tour was 5:30 a.m. Just about 3 hours after we put our heads down, the F#%$^@$# alarm told us to get our ancient carcasses out of bed and find the nearest coffee. Not our happiest moment. The geysers (which in Spanish is spelled géisers and pronounced geezers, which is an English term for old people), are about 90 minutes directly north of San Pedro on a series of small, mostly (well, at least somewhat) paved roads. They are also at about 4,320 meters (14,170 feet) above sea level. Have we mentioned that Sue gets altitude sickness? I attribute it to the fact that her brain, unlike mine, needs oxygen to function (mine simply bypasses the need to function). She wears a patch that contains scopolamine and it generally works really well. However at this altitude, it seemed be losing the battle even after augmenting it with chewed coca leaves and some coca tea (I think these helped, because I started to feel better afterwards). Like always she was a trooper, even when she turned many different shades of gray. The area is a field of geysers, some of which run continuously like a fountain and others are intermittent. Sorry, but once again, like I seem to say so often, nature is just unbelievable.

After wandering through the geyser fields for an hour or so, we piled back in the van and started the return trip. Along the way we saw various types of waterfowl, vicuña (which are related to guanacos, our favorite from Patagonia) and wild donkeys. We stopped at a small lake and saw lots of flamingos, which are actually animals, not just plastic lawn ornaments for Florida homeowners.  At one point I asked our tour guide about the weather and he mentioned that they were just about to enter the rainy season. The season lasted from the last week of January until mid-February and they might get rain. Wow.

We returned to the hotel just after 1 p.m. had some lunch (I tried cochayuyo, which we mentioned in an earlier blog and it was delicious! It tasted of the sea) and waited for transport back to the airport in Calama (about 75 minutes away), then after a couple of hours wait, our flight back to Santiago and onward to our AirBnB. We arrived home just after 11 p.m., the end of an amazing and wondrous weekend. We were, to put it kindly, just a bit tired. 😉

Before I finish: This is a naked and unabashed plug for Wikipedia. For those of you who regularly read our scrawls, you know that we often link to Wikipedia articles. It is a free, non-profit encyclopedia that is entirely funded by donations. There are no advertisements or paywalls and while it isn’t a research tool (yes, kids in high school and college, I am looking at you), it does have a massive amount of information for those of us who just like to learn stuff. If you can manage, please help them.

Dead Person Bingo sin Steven

Plus: Decent pizza and an intro to the Atacama Desert

Wednesday I signed up for one of the cultural activities my Spanish school offers because it was tour of Cementario General. My classmates, Rania and James also signed up, but warned me that the tour guide was a bit, how shall we say? … scattered. They were right! We Americans (and apparently Brits, too) find the laissez faire scheduling and organization in South American to be a bit challenging.

The tour allegedly began at 1:30 p.m., but classes end at 1:30, so, yeah, I was thinking not. At a bit before 2 we walked to the Metro (where not everyone had a BIP card for the train so we waited for everyone to pay), took it one stop, changed trains, took it one more stop and walked to a buffet restaurant. We didn’t have reservations and there were about 20 of us, so we waited. Did I mention that we could easily have walked there or perhaps gone to a restaurant somewhere near the cemetery? But, no. Rania and I had brought our own food, so after warnings about the dangers of the neighborhood (OK, then why did you bring us there???), we walked about two blocks to the central fruit and veg market (Vega Central Santiago). Think many fruit and veggie stands at good prices. The surrounding area is not pleasant. It’s dirty and smelly. Once inside, we found excellent produce, but I wouldn’t recommend going there alone even though we didn’t see anything bad happen.

After everyone ate and paid one at a time with the portable credit card machine, we finally headed over to the cemetery, which took another train ride. The cemetery was reminiscent of the ones in Paris — a little overgrown, but beautiful. Our guide did know a lot, but she also uses the random approach to showing people around. Different nationalities had different areas of the cemetery, there were many mausoleums and tributes to freedom fighters plus a very icky mausoleum dedicated to Pinochet’s henchmen. It was the only place where I thought the graffiti was warranted.

Speaking of Pinochet: Allegedly the unmarked mausoleum in the cemetery is where his parents are buried. It is unmarked for obvious reasons. I think I believe that, but if everyone knows it is unmarked and really a Pinochet grave, why isn’t it defaced? We also saw Salvador Allende and Orlando Letelier, who was assassinated in Washington, D.C. by Pinochet’s order (and perhaps with the help of the CIA). Letelier was part of Allende’s government and was in exile in the United States.

The cemetery technically closed at 6, but our guide was still talking as students peeled off to go home. It’s hot in midday in Santiago and there’s no shade. We were done, but she wasn’t. She did tell a fun ghost story about a widower who appears near his wife’s grave whenever there is a storm. Of course, she also claimed she did not know the story when she saw him on a different tour. What do I know. Maybe ghosts do exist.

Thursday, Rania, James and I had lunch together since James was headed to Colombia. He had said he found good pizza and I was game to try. My hopes were not high, but the pizza was pretty good and the company even better. Steven and I had a flight to Calama, the airport closest to San Pedro de Atacama, at 6:30 that evening, so I expediently returned home to pack at 3:40 so we could leave by 4 (did she mention that she had not yet packed?). We got to the airport in plenty of time and had an uneventful 2-hour flight. Our driver picked us up for the hour long drive to our hotel, Noi Casa Atacama, and we marveled at the number of stars we could see on the drive. By the time we checked in and got settled, we were tired and just relaxed on our terrace.

The Atacama Desert is the highest (non-polar) and driest desert in the world with an average rainfall of 0.004 inches a year. Measurable rain falls only once a century. No significant amount of rain has fallen in 500 years. It’s dry. Beautiful, strange, and very, very, dry. The driest place on Earth. Bring your eye drops and water bottles (and lip balm) everywhere. Low- sodium salt is abundant and one of the tourist attractions are the salt flats. Salt mining had been big business since it was used in the copper purification process (along with sulfur). Salt is still mined using electrolysis, but you can’t buy it in the store to sprinkle on your papas fritas.

The town of San Pedro sits at 7,900 feet above sea level. It’s a dusty little tourist town of about four blocks full of artisan markets, restaurants, lodging and tour services. None of the roads are paved and the buildings are mostly adobe. Bring a hat and lots of sunscreen.

Friday, we had a morning massage (included in our hotel package). The massage therapist was very kind with our poor Spanish and told me that she loved living in a tranquilo town where she could bike everywhere she needed to go (I have no idea what she was saying to me). After our massages, we had our first tour of the weekend: Valle de la Luna, which you may have guessed, looks like a lunar landscape. Our perspective is skewed, because we thought there were a lot of tourists there, but in reality, compared to a weekend at Yosemite, we had the place to ourselves. We have also noticed that the Chileans haven’t quite figured out that a snack bar and souvenir shop at every tourist spot would net them mucho dinero.

The landscape can’t be described and I doubt pictures will do it justice, but if you don’t realize how small we are when you see the formations created by winds and blowing sand, the sun glinting off the mountains and salt, and the natural amphitheater, nothing will. At the end of the tour, we sat and waited for the sunset. Steven and I would have prefer to forgo that, mostly because it is summer and we had almost 45 minutes of sitting around in a spot with a steep drop-off that he wasn’t going to go anywhere near, before the sun slipped behind the mountains. We all know that the sun’s fall below the horizon is not the peak of the sunset, which we saw later on our drive back. It’s almost as though you cranked up the saturation on your photos, only you don’t need to because it’s real.

Steven is going to take over and describe our weekend, but like many of the other places we have been fortunate enough to visit, the Atacama will stay with us. I hope someday we will be able to return.

One last weekend in Santiago

This was our last weekend in Santiago, while we are here for nearly two more weeks, next weekend we are heading to the Atacama desert, and then we leave the following Saturday for Mexico City.

Friday night we joined two of Sue’s school friends, James and Rania (friends from where she is taking Spanish, not friends from when she taught school in the U.S.) for dinner at a nearby restaurant called Quital. We arrived at 7:30, and were, of course, the first people in the restaurant. The food was typically Chilean, which means, that there is a reasonable menu of fish and meat plus a few things that Sue would eat. Interestingly, both of them are dietitians in London, although they did not know each other there.  We had a very pleasant dinner and wandered out at around 11pm.

Saturday we rode the subway all the out to Los Domingos Park and Pueblito los Domínicos, an artisan market that is at the west end of the subway line that is right at the foot of the Andes. We grabbed our trusty Bip! Cards (so named because that is the sound that they make when you enter the subway) and walked over to the station. The 13-stop ride took about 30 minutes. The market is a former monastery and has about one hundred different shops selling everything from artisan crafts to fancy food. It was fun to walk around, but to be truthful all these places are beginning to look the same. Yes, here they sell Alpaca wool , in Brazil they sold hand-crafted knives, Buenos Aires has local leather goods, but all-in-all, the shopping experience is the same. We are not huge shoppers, so we wandered around for a while then headed to the Costanera Center (a short 6.2km walk – mostly downhill, but in 30˚C temperatures.

The Costanera Center has two attractions. First, at 300 meters, it is the tallest building in Latin America. They have a viewing deck at the top, the 62nd floor, that is glassed in, but open to the sky. As we all remember, heights are not my favorite thing, but I strapped on my big boy boots and we headed up the stairs – only kidding – we got into the elevator. The view is pretty astounding. There are very few buildings higher than 10 floors, and Santiago is surrounded by mountains. I will let the photos do the talking.

The second, very much less interesting, thing in the Costanera Center is a huge American-style mall that houses the nice grocery store that we talked about in our last post. We headed down to the first floor and did our grocery shopping. I know not very interesting, but the practical things need to get done. Loaded down with our groceries, we grabbed a cab and headed home.

On Sunday morning, we walked to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. The museum commemorates those who disappeared or were killed during the Pinochet dictatorship, which ran from 1973 until 1990. The museum is very well done and we joined an English language tour for most of it. It is terribly depressing to see what people will do to each other in the name of power. I would highly recommend visiting this museum for anyone who is in Santiago.  

We walked back home from the museum and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. I watched the American Football playoffs via a streaming service and Sue read a book that she has been slogging through for days. (Not really slogging, it’s just a long book — Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen — with only two formal chapters and that bugs me because I don’t like to stop between chapters.)

We had an early dinner with Ann, a woman from Spokane, Wash., who is at school with Sue and Ann’s husband, Kenn. We met at Le Bistrot Viet, a Vietnamese restaurant that Sue and I visited on our first night in Santiago. We sat down around 6 p.m., and didn’t move until after 10 p.m.. They are also digital nomads and we compared notes on places we have visited, plans for the next year and tips and tricks that we found. They are headed to Buenos Aires next and we are hoping to see them again when they pass through Mexico in late April.

I keep meaning to write a few things about Santiago that struck me.

First, the volume of graffiti is just staggering. It seems like all cities have their share of graffiti, but the amount and pervasiveness of it in Santiago is surprising. (While walking home the other day, Ann and I saw a man tagging just a few blocks from a demonstration that included police wearing riot gear.) It is everywhere, mostly tagging, rather than street art and there doesn’t seem to be any effort to remove it. It reminds me of New York in the early 1980s.

The second thing is how quiet the streets are. Most of the cities we have visited the streets are busy with people walking, but Santiago feels like a ghost town. We thought it might be because we arrived around the Christmas holiday, but it really hasn’t changed in all the time we have been here.

Third, nothing opens early. When we walk to Sue’s school in the morning at 9:30, almost nothing is open. There isn’t even any activity in most of the storefronts. Nothing seems to really get moving until the afternoon.

Fourth, many restaurants have a short dinner window. People don’t seem to arrive until between 8 and 9 p.m., but then many of the restaurants are closing up around 11.  At dinner last night we were virtually the first people to arrive and the last to leave. They do generally serve three meals: lunch, once (which means 11, and so is served at tea time) and dinner, so perhaps dinner is not the most popular meal to eat out.

Finally, small stores seem to open and close randomly. There is a little corner store next to our building that was open for a few days, then closed for a while and now it is open again. When we walk around, we see stores open one day, closed the next, I suspect there is some pattern, but we don’t seem to be able to figure it out.

It is an odd city.

Writing in Chilean Time

Oops, it’s taken a bit longer to write this blog than we usually like to take, but I started Spanish school and Steven hit the ground running at work after a quiet holiday week. We were very exciting people on New Year’s Eve: we binge-watched “Bad Sisters” and had a glass of wine at midnight. In Santiago, people celebrate holidays by not working and this mostly includes the people who would serve you if you went out to a restaurant, so many of them are closed. Obviously, they are also closed for New Year’s Day and a lot was closed Monday, too.

First thing is school. I decided to keep going with Spanish classes even though people told me Chileans use a lot of slang, never enunciate the S, speak quickly, and don’t open their mouths when they talk. All this is true, but it’s still worth it. I am in the advanced class because I was good at the grammar test I took. Speaking is a lot more difficult, especially because my aging brain doesn’t retain vocabulary that well. The other person in the class is a MUCH better Spanish speaker than I am, but I am struggling along and learning a lot about Chile in general. Or at least, I am learning what I think I am understanding, but I’m not really sure.

The cone of (shame?) fries and a happy customer.

We have been wanting to go to a movie in a Spanish-speaking country for a while and we finally made it. Unless they are massively popular movies that children and illiterates want to see, the movies here are in their original language with Spanish subtitles. We saw “El Menu,” which was very strange, darkly funny, and had excellent Spanish subtitles that I could mostly understand since everyone in the movie was speaking English! The theater was an old-fashioned, one-screen affair with a balcony and velvet seats. As far as I could tell, there was no popcorn, or any other refreshments. That didn’t matter because before the movie, Steven and I went to Papachecos, which serves fresh papas fritas (French fries) in a paper cone with the toppings of your choice. I’m not talking ketchup here (although it is available). I had sauteed mushrooms and tapenade and Steven had pollo mostada (mustard chicken) and salsa barbacoa (BBQ sauce). The fries are made on the spot and the line is always long, but moves pretty quickly (for South America). Yum!

The rest of the week moved on quickly and we had a trip to the coast to look forward to. Saturday morning, we headed to the airport to pick up a rental car. After a bit of confusion (which seems to be the norm when we do something new here), we were on the road. First we drove about 90 minutes due west to Isla Negra, where Pablo Neruda had a home on the ocean. Neruda seems to be the only internationally famous Chilean, unless you count the dictator whose name no one says here. We toured the museum/house, which was interesting, but the audio guide was a bit too detailed (some of the rooms had 5+minutes of narration), but the grounds and the view of the Pacific were spectacular. Our guide in the lakes region of Patagonia, Manuela, has a house there, and her grandparents were friends with Neruda, so that added to the fun. This also served as our Dead Person Bingo (short game, only one person), since Pablo and his third wife, Matilda, are buried on the grounds. Before heading to the museum, we grabbed some empanadas and they were freshly made, so that was also a nice surprise. Often, they are sitting in a display case waiting to be reheated.

From Isla Negra, we headed north to Viña del Mar, a resorty beach town. We decided that if we were going to go there, we should stay right on the beach. We got to the hotel around 4:30, headed up to our room and realized there was no reason to leave the grounds. We had a balcony with an ocean view and the pool and bar area was right on the water. Aaaaah. We spent the evening looking at the water. I sipped a pisco sour, Steven had beer and then we shared a vegan ceviche, which is basically veggies in lime sauce. Excellent. We were so enamored of our balcony that we just ordered room service and sat listening to the ocean and trying to see the stars. With the full moon, it was a bit tough, so the Southern Cross will have to wait until Atacama.

We had a bit of a cash incident in that we were unable to get cash. All the ATMs were shuttered on Saturday when we left Santiago and the machine in the hotel was broken. We learned this because two men had its guts open and one of them made the universal signal for dead — a finger swiped across the throat. We tried again Sunday, but were rewarded only with the message below.

The good news is that because we had to find a bank, we met a Dutch couple, Sabina and Jean Luc, and they were really nice! After a successful ATM transaction, we walked on the beach, bought our usual souvenirs (fridge magnets) and then headed back toward Santiago. It was lunch time so we stopped in the town of Casablanca. From Google, it looked like there were tons of restaurants on the main drag. One lesson we have learned: Don’t trust Google in Chile to find businesses. After driving in circles for a bit, we found a restaurant that turned out to have a nice patio — and two items on the menu. Fried fish for me and chicken for Steven. Not my first choice, but it was tasty and the people were (as usual) very nice.

After lunch we headed back to the airport, dropped the car, took a cab back to our Air BnB, grabbed our grocery bags and hit the Metro so we could go to the really nice supermarket. We shopped only for groceries at the Jumbo, which is in the fancy mall that has all the international brands, instead of the barely adequate one in our neighborhood. We hauled our six grocery bags out the door and right into a cab.

Another weekend in the books. I wonder what next week will bring?

A Jewish Feliz Navidad

In Santiago, everything closes early on Christmas Eve and stays closed on Christmas, so naturally we decided to go somewhere else where everything was closed: wine country, or at least one of the many wine-making areas of Chile. We chose Colchagua Valley, mostly because there is a hotel there, Hotel Santa Cruz Plaza, that had a restaurant that would be open.

Needed a pic here. This moon shot is pretty, right? I took it from the hotel walkway so it is relevant.

We rented a car for what should have been a 90-minute drive, but we figured it would take longer because of the holiday and we were right (no big deal). But let’s backtrack. Our comedy of errors began when we tried to get a taxi. Cabify is big here, so we called one. He was supposed to arrive in 3 minutes Excellent! But, as we waited and watched the little car on the map, we noticed he didn’t turn at the appropriate corner. OK, rerouted. 5 minutes away. Then, he did it again. 7 minutes away. Then, he texted us to say he was outside our building, which he clearly wasn’t. We replied, asking him where he was. No answer. OK, cancel, try again. The next guy showed up promptly, but then decided to take us on a tour of the side streets instead of going on the highway, which we could see from the road. A 15-minute drive took 40. Finally, we arrived at a gated building that said Budget Rent a Car. We went in only to find, in our broken Spanish, that we were at the office, not the rental car spot at the airport. We walked back out the the street to call another taxi, when the very kind Budget worker came running after us to tell us one of the workers was coming to give us a ride to the airport!

At the airport, there was more confusion. Hmmm, somebody (me) had booked the car for a Budget near the apartment, not at the airport. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Anyway, another very nice Budget agent found us a car and said that our mistake was small compared to the people who book cars in Santiago, Cuba! Finally, we were off and yes, it took an extra hour or so because of traffic, but the drive wasn’t bad and Chile is a beautiful country full of mountains, farmland and vineyards (and many people selling watermelon on the shoulder of the highway).

We were a bit leery because the hotel advertised that it had a casino and visions of Las Vegas danced in my head. I should know better by now. First of all, Chile does not commercialize Christmas the way the U.S. does. Christmas music is minimal and people did not greet us with “Feliz Navidad” anywhere. In fact, I think we said it more to others. Maybe Chileans haven’t figured out how to capitalize on holidays for tourism, or maybe they don’t care, because the hotel was pretty dead and that was fine with us. The casino turned out to be a room full of slot machines — and it was closed. They do offer more activities at other times, if you happen to be in the Santa Cruz, Chile, area.

The hotel was a little compound with several buildings, a pool, a museum, gift shop, wine shop, restaurant and bar. Image what you think of as typically South American architecture. You got it! Tiles, painted furniture, bougainvillea, wooden beams, etc. Very relaxing. We arrived Friday evening and wandered around town. There was the obligatory Christmas fair with artisan goods as well as junky stuff and various stores. We love a good grocery store, it’s a cultural experience, and there were several, all packed with holiday feast shoppers.

Food can be a challenge for us (me), so we retired to the room and looked for a good restaurant. We lucked out and found Casona Bistro. We felt a little odd because we were the only ones there (another couple arrived later, but they sat outside), but the bistro was in a house with a view of the mountains so we decided just to enjoy. Our waiter was very friendly (a theme in Chile, it seems) and indulged our bad Spanish. We discovered he is from Colombia, so we started joking about how I wanted a giant emerald and Steven learned how to say, “She is not worth it” in Spanish (ella no vale la pena), which became a running joke. The food was delicious as was the wine the waiter recommended.

Saturday morning, we had booked a tour of the only winery that was open, Laura Hartwig. I mostly did it because I thought we were getting a horse-drawn carriage ride, but when we got there, we learned that the place stayed open only for us (and the horses had all gone home for the holiday). We got a general tour of the vineyard with a very lovely guy who spoke Spanish and then translated when we didn’t understand because we told him we were trying to learn. We tried three wines with cheeses and had a chill conversation. We tried to hurry because we realized that we were the only reason he was working, but he wouldn’t hear of it. We were buying a couple of bottles when he said he had to go. As we were leaving the vineyard, he hurried by us with his backpack. It was 11:56 and he was trying to catch a 12:10 bus to Santiago. He again insisted it was OK. We gave him our contact info, so maybe we’ll hear from him again.

We had eaten breakfast at the hotel, which had a nice variety of foods(everything from eggs and toast to cold cuts and cheese) and juices (and a honeycomb that dripped fresh honey into a bowl!) and skipped lunch. We wanted to have Christmas dinner at the hotel (mostly because it was the only place opened) but the menu was set and was king crab and turkey. OK, never mind. We were assured that the room service would be available. We had massages schedule at 4 so we went down to the pool and relaxed until then. We had booked therapeutic massages, but Wow! Both of us felt like the massage therapists had really pounded the knots out of our old muscles.

We relaxed by the pool some more (it’s a tough life) and then decided we were hungry. Room service menu is available meant salad or pizza, so pizza it was. We watched “The Glass Onion,” which was fine entertainment for the room but not nearly as good as “Knives Out.” It was a surprisingly good time considering that we were sitting in a hotel room eating mediocre pizza (and drinking a very nice Chilean wine that we had bought the day before in our wanderings).

Sunday, we decided to go for a drive. A tour guide in the hotel had mentioned a hike up a hill in a nearby town, but when we got there, we couldn’t figure out where it was (her directions were go the center of the town and go up the hill on the path. We found the center of the town, and could see the hill, but could not find the path). Our contingency plan was to keep heading west until we hit the ocean — so we did. Guess what? Things were open. The little town of Bucalemu, Chile, was like a little Jersey Shore town, only smaller and you didn’t have to pay to be on the beach. Oh, there were horses on the beach and a bunch of old fishing boats. But other than that. we tried mote con huesillos, which is a refreshing drink made with dried peaches and poured over wheat berries, and discovered cochayuyo, an edible kelp, but didn’t try it. We bought some snacks and a fridge magnet (naturally), wandered a bit, and headed back to the hotel for more pool-sitting since outside the walls of the compound it was a ghost town, BUT the restaurant was open for dinner! We had another good meal and bottle of wine.

Monday, we had another hearty breakfast and then drove back to Santiago without incident, even stopping in a supermarket along the way for provisions.

Patagonia – part 2

On Sunday, we did a full day tour to La Leona Petrified Forest. It is about an hour and a half outside of El Calafate. Our driver and guide, Leon, picked us up at the hotel and drove us north through the scrub desert.  We stopped at roadside hotel/bar/restaurant/gift shop, and picked up another couple for the tour. The landscape is very similar to the desert in Arizona but without cacti, just low scrub plants and grasses.

We reached the petrified forest, which is much less of a forest and much more of a huge rock formation with eroded sandstone and basalt. It is very stark, beautiful, and extremely windy. We hiked along the ridges of several the rock outcrops and slowly headed down in the lower portion of the valley. Along the way, Leon explained the rock formations, how the different layers were formed, and how they are eroding at different speeds based on the type of rock that they are. We found dinosaur bones where you could clearly still see the marrow and he explained that one way to test if a rock is a dinosaur bone is to lick your finger and if the rock (only small ones obviously) stuck to your finger, it was likely to be a dinosaur bone. We also saw many petrified trees, some of which looked like they were just bleached wood. It is always incredible to see how well the organic material has been preserved by the minerals, the tree’s rings and features are clearly visible. As we circled down into the valley, I did notice that our van was significantly higher than we were, which gave me some minor cause for concern. Anyway, we hiked around the valley finding lots of petrified trees, interesting geological features and a few dinosaur fossils.  

As many of you know, I am terrified of heights. It is quite frustrating for me. The logic and reason portion of my brain knows that I am not in any real danger, that I have great balance and never stumble or fall when walking, and just because I am near an edge, should not in any way make it more likely I will fall. However, the old reptilian, flee or flight section of my brain cannot grasp these details and just keeps shouting into my head NO! DON’T DO THAT! MOVE AWAY, DON’T GO THERE. Oddly, I have terrible balance, but no fear of heights or the edge of cliffs. Hmmmm, maybe I need more reptilian brain. I work hard to keep my mind quiet and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Our hike out of the canyon was one of the times that I could keep my mind mostly quiet. We zigzagged across one of the walls (which to be truthful was not a sheer drop, but it was a pretty steep drop) and up to the van, rising perhaps 300 meters. Neither Sue nor Robin were the least bit bothered by the climb, I on the other hand, needed a few minutes to collect myself after we reached the top.  

We packed ourselves back into the van and Leon drove us back to El Calafate in time for dinner. Robin craved meat for dinner so she headed off to a parrilla (steak house) while Sue and I headed back to Pura Vida for another home-style dinner. We ordered a bottle of wine called Fabula, which sounded like fabulous to me, but actually means fable. Despite the disappointing name, the wine was great.

Monday morning, we checked out of Hotel Posada los Alamos in El Calafate and headed for Torres del Paine in Chile. It was about a five-hour drive, once again across the scrub desert.  After about three and a half hours we turned off the road and down gravel road, and at this point, I thought to myself, sheesh, we are in a van with a driver we don’t know, we have no cell phone coverage, on a dirt road and have no idea where we are going. Sometimes I wonder about our decision making. However, it turns out that down the dirt road leads to the border crossing into Chile. We waited in a tiny shack for about 10 minutes for the Argentine immigration guard to do something with our passports and then finally hand them back to us and we were able to exit Argentina. We drove about a half a mile down the road, there was a sign that said “Bienvenido a la Republica de Chile” and the road was paved. We went another half a mile and reached immigration and customs for Chile. Once again, we entered a tiny shack where a young woman reviewed our passports and gave us some sort of paper. It appears that she has ample free time as there was a hair straightener plugged in next to her computer. We walked to the next little building which housed the police and customs. The police reviewed our passports and the piece of paper that the passport woman gave us and then stamped our passports. At customs, we put our luggage through a scanner, but the customs official didn’t seem to look at the scans. Once we finished crossing the border, our driver put our luggage back in the van and drove us about 50 feet to the next little building and put our luggage into a van run by our hotel which took us the rest of the way.

A few scenes from the drive

We are staying at the Hotel Las Torres, which is inside the national park, but still private land. They offer an all inclusive package that includes all food and excursions. The location in unbelievable and it is a perfect place for a respite from the outside world. We have no cellphone coverage and only have single digit speed internet in the hotel itself. Once we checked in, we talked to the excursions team and booked some hikes.

The hike starts on the right at the green/black circle and moves left to the blue lake. The distance/altitude chart moves left to right.

Sue and I decided that on our first full day, we would do one of the most famous hikes, called Mirador Torres del Paine, on our own. It is a 17km hike with about a 1,000 meter vertical climb. We woke up, grabbed some breakfast and hit the trail by 8:30 a.m. The hike is broken into three sections. Section 1 is from the hotel to the Chilean refuge (green circle with a white triangle on the right). It is 4 km up through the scrub desert and across the face of the mountain gaining about 400 meters, not particularly difficult, but there were sections with a 20%+ grade.

At about the 2.5 km mark, the course turned and there was a 300-400 meter stretch of very exposed, relatively sheer cliff. It is called Windy Pass, because typically the wind is blowing right through making it extra scary. We were lucky and had a calm day. Also, Steven is very brave. The path was easily two-people wide and while I was very uncomfortable, we made it through. The rest of the way to the 4 km mark was reasonably steep downhill to a refuge and we arrived there after a couple of hours. At the refuge, there is camping, bathrooms, a small store and picnic tables to sit and relax.

We rested for a little while then headed to section 2, the forest section. It is about 3.5 km, and as the name says, it is through a forest. It is a fairly easy walk, gaining only about 200 meters over the course of the entire section and it took us another hour or so. Section 3 is the tough part (starts at the green circle with a white triangle on the left). It is only 1.5 km long, but gains about 400 meters, with sections that are 40% grade and you are literally climbing over boulders. I hate boulders! The last 250 meters are once again across the face of the mountain, with a fairly steep falloff. This was one of those times that my inner voice could not be quieted. Yes, I know no one ever falls, that hundreds of people cross that rock field every day, that I should be more frightened crossing the road, but no matter what I was telling myself, I could go no further. I told Sue to carry on and I found a nice protected place and waited for her to return. I think she double timed it to the end of the trail, took a couple of pictures and double timed back to me. I am so grateful that she knows how to motivate me, when I need it, but also how to read the terror in my eyes and realize that I can go no further.

Once Sue had returned, we headed down. Now, my usual thinking is that down is always easy, but boy that last section was the hardest easy I have ever had. Climbing down rocks is nearly as hard as climbing up and I was especially glad we had our hiking poles.  Once we hit the start of the forest section, we stopped and ate our lunch as it was just about 3 pm.  The forest was relatively easy, although both of our quads had started to tell us that they were unhappy, we still had quite a long way to go and bunch of height to gain and lose. But mostly it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other to get to the Chilean refuge.

We arrived at the Chilean refuge at 4 p.m. and decided to rest for a few minutes. The remainder of the hike would be a climb of about 75 meters over a 300 meter stretch, along the exposed rock face, then about 3.5 km of relatively slow downward slope all the way to the hotel. We trudged up first 300 meters, reminding ourselves that we did this for fun. Once we reached the top, we turned the corner and were on the final downward stretch to the hotel. We arrived back at the hotel by 5:30 p.m. and collapsed into our room for a little while. We showered, headed to bar, had a drink, some dinner and were both asleep by 9 p.m.. It was a very long hard, but rewarding day. Even if I didn’t reach the end of the trail.

For our second day, Sue and I decided to do a half day excursion with a guide. Robin headed off on a full day excursion to another part of the park to see a glacier. Sue and I, along with about half a dozen other people, hopped into one of the hotel’s vans and headed for a hike that they describe as “Patagonia flat.” The walk is across the Patagonian steppes and features lots of guanaco, some cave paintings, and the possibility of seeing a puma. The drive to the trailhead took about 40 minutes and since it was drizzling, we all pulled on our rain gear. “Patagonia lat” means rolling hills, lots of 30-40 meter ups and downs and one big climb upward to reach the cave paintings. The “caves” are actually covered rock overhangs and compared to the cave paintings in France, they are quite limited. We rested there for a little while, then hiked back down off the rock outcrop and across the steppes. We saw lots of guanaco, learned lots about the plants and wildlife of the area, and happily, at least in my mind, did not see a puma. The whole hike took about 2 hours, it was a perfect amount of effort for us following the very strenuous prior day.

One more day here, then we are off to Punta Arenas.