San Pedro de Atacama
This is such a tourist town… filled with hundreds of tourist offices offering every kind of excursion under the sun, from renting a bike, day trips to different lakes, and bus tours to the different valleys in the area. There are also a ton of stray dogs (which is very common in South America), so many that it has been nicknamed San Perro (which is Spanish for dog). On the first day we got in around lunch, toured the city, and got a bite to eat at Tierra todo Naturale (which was delicious). In the afternoon, we checked into our hotel (Don Raul) and then took a bus tour to the Moon Valley and Death Valley. At first we thought the guide didn’t speak English, but once we got into the swing of things, he was able to answer our questions very intelligently. We explored caves, took pictures, stood on the precipice over a large canyon, saw the “three Maries”, and were almost swept away by dust and wind. The sunset was beautiful, but we were freezing, and headed back to town. We got dinner at La Casona (the best restaurant in town), which has a fireplace (score!). We split a BBQ meal of all the meats (plus some sides) which was a ton of food, and made the boys happy.
The second day we slept in and watched TV, which was an amazing break! The world cup was on and Chile lost, but they were still celebrating in the streets. They celebrate a lot here, and I’m never really sure what holiday is happening, but yes these men do have llama heads on their backs, I’m not sure why. We got some ice cream (they have cool flavours like Quinoa) and walked the streets for a little bit. Then we went back to our hotel to meet Mike and the guys, and was picked up by our chef extraordinaire. Our cooking class was amazing! There was 6 of us in total, and we got to drink wine and Pisco sours the whole time. We made a 3 course meal and he even let me just include the ingredients I liked (which were limited) and didn’t even make fun of me for it. Then we had a big bon fire and ate our delicious creations, after which we stumbled back to the hotel. So of course, the third day we just slept-in, chilled all day, and did some shopping. For dinner we checked out the second best restaurant in town, Adobe. It would have been great except my pizza was covered in finely minced onions (which I don’t eat).
On the last day we had to check out before noon, so we did all our packing first thing in the morning and left our bags at reception. We then walked into town for 10 to meet our guide at a tourist office. He walked us down to a small ranch where we met our (partially) English speaking guide (they wanted to charge us extra for this beforehand but we refused, so they said no problem). Our horses (pretty sure mine was a mule, but that’s okay) were already saddled up, so we hopped on and started to stroll through town, which was an interesting experience for sure. We spent about 2 hours riding through the desert, through small rivers, towards Pukara de Quitor (an ancient town/fortress and currently home to a 5 star resort) and back. Along the way, our guide took pictures, talked about the history, and pointed out medicinal plants. Overall, an awesome way to spend the morning (especially if you can’t ride a bike). Then we checked out a restaurant near our hotel called Bendito Desierto Resto-Art. It took about 30 minutes to figure out what they could serve me that was pink, but eventually I got my cocktail, and the boys got to watch the world cup. We all got these delicious meals that came in salad bowls made of lettuce (which was a nice change from meat and starch all the time) and the owner was really nice. Then we went back, picked up our bags, and go on an overnight bus to La Serena (which arrived about noon the next day).
This town is like a little American town. It has big sidewalks, patios, lots of cars, and even a big indoor mall with a Walmart (complete with McDonald’s). It’s a pretty easy place to walk around, except a lot of the restaurants close before 8pm (at least on weeknights) and there’s a lot of condos on the way to the beach so we couldn’t actually get to the sound (fail!). The first day we got in around noon, and checked into our hotel, which was cute. We explored the town a bit and got some lunch. Afterwards we were so tired from no sleep on the bus that we had a nap. We woke up just in time for our transfer to Vicuna to check out the observatory (an hours drive away). Unfortunately, there was some thin wispy clouds so we were sent home. We wandered around looking for a dinner place, got lost, but found our way back to the hotel. In the morning there was an option to spend the whole day exploring the valley, but we slept in instead. Then we had lunch on a patio and walked to the public park (where Steve found a random piano to play). We visited a cute little Japanese garden, full of Koi fish, bonsai trees, turtles, swans, well-manicured lawns and a little lake with pagodas – very serene. We read our books there all afternoon in the sun, very relaxing way to spend the day. Then we walked through the mall and got ice cream in the food court. The smallest size was a huge cone with 2 scoops, no wonder they also have an obesity problem like the United States! We tried to walk through a condo subdivision to find the beach, but were blocked by construction, so we returned to our hotel room before the sun was down. We relaxed for a bit, went for dinner, then had a relaxing night in (and packed).
The next morning we left our hotel at 7am for the 6 hour bus journey to the capital. We got in at early afternoon, and Mike did a quick tour of the city for us. We saw a protest on the way to the hotel, and the taxi driver said the students were mad about “a lot of things.” Then on our walking tour we saw a whole bunch of pharmacies who were also striking, and had signs calling them a “pharm-mafia”… apparently the like protests in South America. We saw lots of interesting street vendors, a fish market, and a whole street of ladies doing tarot card reading. Santiago even has a subway (which smells delicious because the station near us is surrounded by delicious bakeries, cool!). We wandered the city, and found a super swanky wine place (where they help you chose what to order to make sure the wine pairs perfectly with your plate). I don’t even like wine, and I ordered a fancy cheese plate (since I’d been very sad about the cheese selections in previous weeks). I was afraid she would pair it with something awful, but I said I want sweet and she gave me the sweetest bottle in the house, score… was a delicious meal! I went back to the hotel for an EWB skype call with my fellow ProF’s (Professional Fellows), and Steve went out drinking with the boys! I’m glad I stayed in, because the boys got back at around 3 in the morning drunk and covered in scrapes and bruises, apparently they were trying to run and dance after a few too many local drinks which include wine and ice cream. So we stayed up late, and decided to sleep in. The second day we slept-in, chilled, did some shopping and then went to the movies. It had Spanish subtitles, and the line was super long, so we got in, which was a relief! We hadn’t seen a proper movie in English for a few weeks, so this was a nice break, and I totally loved (and cried through) The Fault in Our Stars.
The next day we got up early and caught a transfer from the hotel to a nearby mall, with a company called Turistik. There we all traded buses and we got on one to a winery called Undurraga. Once at the winery we broke up into tours based on language, and the English one was the last to leave with only 3 couples. We learned a lot about the property (for example, last year had a really cold winter that killed some of the fields of grapes), how they made wine (in different types of oak barrels that are burnt on the inside), and about different types of grapes (like Carmenere, which is Chile’s specialty!). At the end of the tour we got to try 4 different bottles of wine (between the 6 of us), and my favourite was definitely the sweet late harvest wine. Since nobody else loved it, I got extra. We checked out some old horse-carriages and wine-making equipment, commandeered some more wine from another tour who was busy taking pictures, and spent some time in the sun. We got to take home a wine glass each (and one even made it all the way back to our apartment in Canada!). We got back to our hotel and passed out, and when we woke up it was 4:45 (and we had tickets to the opera at 5pm)!! We quickly dressed and ran the 3 blocks to the theatre (thankfully it was close) and found our seats just in time as the lights were going down. It was our first opera (called Lakme, a tragic love-story), and I really enjoyed it. Then we tried to meet up with our tour leader and his new group for dinner but they were no longer serving food (even though it was Saturday at around 8 pm), so we went to Pizza Hut and then to the hotel to sleep.
On the last day we took a taxi to the airport, bought some last minute souvenirs and snacks (to use up some extra pesos), and took the 2 hour flight to Buenos Aires. Thank goodness we decided to fly, since we were thinking about taking a bus across the Andes (which I hear is beautiful) to Mendoza (which has amazing wineries) on the way. However, anybody who had this plan was super frustrated because the pass across the border was closed indefinitely (due to the snow) and they all had to book very expensive last minute flights!
Up Next: Buenos Aires – The “Paris of the Americas”
P.S. For those that follow closely you might have noticed that I skipped Bolivia! Don’t worry, it’s still to come, the pictures are just a bit mixed up on all my devices, but I will sort through them soon.