Monday, October 29, 2007

Off to Argentina tomorrow

So here we are in Valparaiso, which is a really funky town. Nestled between some hills and a port (with tons of MSC shipping containers--I can't believe I'm missing Jam Cruise this year!!), Valpo is home to 23 funiculars, to assist in my laziness--god bless each and every one of them. The one at the right ascends at a nice 45 degree angle.

Once on top of the hills, the row houses look like a cross between those in the opening credits of "Full House" and those on the Washington Mews, but painted with all the colors imaginable. With the ocean just below and funky murals everywhere, Valpo is really endearing.

Today we took a day trip to Viña del Mar, the Miami Beach of Chile. Cute town, but the Chileans really need to learn the rule about not bringing glass to the beach. Every lake or ocean beach we've seen here has had shards of broken glass everywhere... no good for the feet.

The highlight of the day (and week) was definitely seeing a real moai (those crazy Easter Island stone heads) that have been taken from Easter Island. Only 11 have ever been taken from Easter Island (one was returned). This one was taken in 1960 to NYC to protest Air France's attempt to build a refueling station on Easter Island. The protest worked and the moai was eventually returned to Chile. I've loved these things since I was pretty small, so this was far and away one of the highlights of our trip. Enjoy the pics!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Schnitzel, wine, and rainbows... this is living

Back by popular demand (ok, my mom and Helfand) its me (Deanna) writing again. To continue where we left off from last week's entry, the Pachamama by Bus tour arrived in Pucon to drop off another set of travelers and to pick us up. Before leaving nature's wonderland, we went for one more hike in Parque Huerquehue, a very magical place. Half of the beauty was the scenery and the other half was actually being able to say the name correctly.

After leaving Pucon, we traveled on Ruta Los Lagos, stopping about every 30 minutes at a beautiful lake surrounded by snowcapped volcanoes. It was absolutely breathtaking. Our destination for the day was the town of Valdivia, known for sea lions, its fish market, and its university. We arrived mid-afternoon and went straight to the fish market to watch the gigantic sea lions vie for scraps of salmon (Aaron did not participate as the sea lions were quite large).

The next day we were off to Puerto Varas, a very German-influenced town--you guessed it, on a lake surrounded by volcanoes. We were very surprised and amazed that there are so many German towns in the south of Chile. Schnitzel, strudel, and German-speaking Chileans are in abundance. Frutillar, the town that claims to be the "most" German is famous for its music festivals, German architecture, and is sponsored by Nestle.

The next two days were spent driving back to Santiago. All of our fellow passengers got off so it was just Aaron, Rodrigo (driver), Nico (guide), and myself. We had some great "Tiny Dancer" style sing-a-longs and stopped at Saltos de Laja waterfalls and the Balduzzi winery.

We arrived back in Santiago yesterday and are just hanging out enjoying city life. We saw "Superbad" yesterday which we highly recommend. Travel note: Chilean movie popcorn does not taste like American movie popcorn! Tomorrow we head to Valparaiso, a funky San Fransico like town on the beach. From there we will make our way to Argentina to spend my birthday (Nov 6, i like presents) in Mendoza wine country. Keep sending emails and other fun things!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

You can take the girl out of Jersey but you can't take the Jersey out of the girl

We arrived in Santiago after an overnight bus and checked into another awesome, funky hostel. The room wasn't ready so we went straight to the computer to find out that I (Deanna writing here) passed the CPA exam! After two years, I am now a Certified Public Accountant, or Chilean Party Advocate... tomayto, tamahto. So we celebrated by putting the "fun" in "funicular."

After that we walked through the city and had some celebratory pisco sours while we waited for the sushi place to open. Low and behold, the pub barker in the street was wearing a "Central Jersey" hoodie, as displayed below. As a newly-certified Party Advocate, I made sure we shared a dance in the street.

Santiago is a beautiful and modern city, very different from what we´ve seen so far in South America. It´s nice to have the comforts of home (subway, rush hour, skyscrapers) but Santiago still retains its old world charm. There are many parks throughout the city but one in particular that won our hearts. Parque Cerro Santa Lucia is similar to, but much smaller than, the area with the castle in Central Park. After walking through a wooded hill, we reached beautiful fountains, gardens, and castle Hidalgo. It is truly an amazing urban treasure.

We took a few days to walk around town, relax in the park, and shop in a mall that puts Short Hills to shame. It felt like when I go to see my parents in Jersey. Later that night we met Marcie´s awesome cousins, Andreas and Brieta, for a great dinner at a cute local place. The company, food, and storries we shared made the night one to remember. Aaron also got to geek out about Bob Dylan with them, which made him very happy.

The next morning we were picked up by "Pachamama by Bus," our transport / tour for the next couple weeks. On the first day there was a stop to the touristy, but on-the-way, town of Pomaire (home of the 1 kilo empanada). Next, we stopped at dam that powers all of southern Chile. Then, we got to our home the night, Pichelimu, a cute surfing beach town. We saw a great sunset at Punto Lobos which has the best break in Chile and some say South America.

We had a "family" dinner with the tour group back at the hostel and bonded with the rowdy Irish guys. Oddly enough, one worked in Wildwood, NJ a few summers ago making sure the rides were safe. Note to anyone going to Wildwood... the rides are checked by drunk 17 year old Irish guys... proceed with caution!

Next morning, we set off for the long bus ride to Pucon (the Interlaken of Chile). On the way we stopped in Santa Cruz (left) to visit the museum owned by Carlos Cardoen, arms dealer and one of America´s top ten most wanted men. The incredible museum was full of tomb raider type illegalities, had an old railcar, and a gallery of beautifully-restored cars from the turn of the century (20th, not 21st). After that, we cruised for 8 hours with a steadfast Sergio at the wheel.

We are now in Pucon, where we decided to spend a week (hopped off the bus), doing all sorts of nature sports. So far we´ve hiked, we´ve biked, and have plans for rafting, zip lines, boating in the lake, and more hiking. Yes, by using the sushi place in town and visits to thermal baths for bribery, I have persuaded Aaron to hike, more than once. Below are some pictures of this beautiful town framed by lush green mountains, lakes, and a snow-capped volcano.

Volcano at the edge of town and river running through Pucon

Fun totems at one of the lakes (Well he's clearly sad because we litter too much, but I'm not sure why she's so happy), and great wooden cobblestones.

Awesome waterfalls (that flow through the ground, though you can't tell from these pictures) hidden in the woods about 20km outside of town.

PS... there is a huge kitchen at the hostel and we have the place all to ourselves until the next tour group gets here to pick us up on Friday. I´ve been cooking up a storm and loving every minute. This place is my paradise.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Chilling in Chile

Ahhhh how sweet it is! 0 elevation. Zero altitude. Every breath fills your lungs with oxygen. How we've taken that for granted. We're in Zona 3, in Northen Chile. Bahia Inglesa, a cute little beach town that is a bit deserted (it's early spring here, not exactly beach season for the locals), but we're psyched to be at sea level and out of the desert. Below is Deanna actively exploring the concept of chilling in Chile.

So from La Paz we took a 3 hour bus ride to a 7 hour train ride (which ended up being hellish as the dust from the desert found a way to get inside the cabin, making it impossible to breath or even see the english subtitles of the dubbed version of High Crimes, with Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd). We arrived pretty late to the mining town of Uyuni and checked into our hotel, showering and repacking for the excursion into the salt flats. The morning saw us rounding up supplies (water, batteries, cookies, wine--you know, the four main food groups), and we were off into our 4x4 jeep. We lucked out--two of the other three people in the jeep were the awesome couple, Shanon and Jared, from Salt Lake City whom we met in the airport in our thwarted attempt to visit the jungle in Rurrenabaque.

Armed with our driver-cum-mechanic, Nilfer, our cook, Hilga, and our fifth partner in crime, a cook from Montreal named Ben Finkelberg (we never got your email, so if you're googling yourself, as we frequently do, and come across this, please email us or post your email in a comment!), we set off bounding around the desert and salt flats. Our first stop was a ghostyard for ancient trains, from the mining heyday. Back in the day, several of the mining towns in southwestern Bolivia were larger in population than London and Paris.

After that, we headed to Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. The light reflecting off the white was blinding and the salt went on forever. And ever. And ever. They supply most of central South America's salt from this reserve (though I don't see many goiters, so I guess they iodize it in some factory--don't look behind the curtain!). It really looked like someone painted a backdrop and we were on a soundstage.

So of course we took some fun pictures... First is Deanna holding me in the palm of her hand (cue evil laugh).

Then you have the five of us, Shanon, Ben, me, Jared, and Deanna.

At one of the hotels made out of salt, here was a sign on the wall (alas, we couldn't find a "Do not lick the walls" sign).

And here's me floating in mid-air.

In the afternoon, we got to an island in the middle of the Salar. They think that before the Andes formed, this region was a lake. Once the plates shifted, the whole area was raised closer to the sun causing the water to evaporate. This island was formed, with 3000 cacti growing on it. Here's us in front of some of them.

That evening, we arrived in the "town" of San Juan. This farming village, of maybe 20 people, was built up into a rest stop for all the Salar tours that pass through. We saw some 5000 year old mummies (below is us walking back from the necropolis at sunset), had dinner with another tour jeep, and tried to drink our wine, which had clearly turned to vinegar under the desert sun in Uyuni.

The next morning saw us bouncing around more of the altiplano. And since you requested more pictures of us and fewer pictures of rocks, we decided to compromise--more pictures of us and rocks. Note the active volcano in the background, with a plume of smoke coming out of it.

Later that day, we stopped off at a few lakes. The first one was blue water with tons of salt and borax floating on top of it. And flamingos. Lots of flamingos. Below you can see them hanging out by the salt.

After that, we headed to the red lake, where we spent the chilly evening at 4800 meters (that is 15,780 feet, yikes!). Seems to be some sulfur runoff from the mountains (mixed with some elements and oxides that we couldn't quite translate from Spanish). Here is me on a cliff above the red lake--and that is actually the water that is red, not something floating on it. Very weird.

At dinner, one of the vicuñas decided to join our tour group, but when we hid the crackers from it, it spit at us (barely missing Deanna's dinner plate). Below you have Jared trying to lure her (the vicuña, not Deanna) outside.

The next morning we woke up at 4:45, freeeeezing cold (as you can see Shanon, Jared and Ben huddled together under a blanket in the jeep), so I decided to take a little swim in the thermal baths just

after watching the sun rise over a few geysers (that's me in the foreground center).

After my swim we rolled on to the third lake, the green one (I know it looks blueish below, but compare it to Deanna's scarf and it looks green--my camera did not do it justice). The green water is caused by copper runoff from the mountain.

We crossed the border into Chile and took a bus 45 minutes down the mountain (and down about 1500 meters) to San Pedro de Atacama. Despite all the stray (and rabid-looking) dogs, this was an incredibly cute village. It felt like the perfect beach town--one-story adobe buildings, dirt paths everywhere, weeping willows, but there was on problem: the beach was 100 miles away! We spent a few days (and 10 showers to get the desert dust off) relaxing and reading there.

We took two excursions from San Pedro. The first was to the Valley of the Moon for the sunset over a giant sand dune (see below). Above is the Dinosaur Valley (as those sand/rock formations look like a stegosaurus's armor).

The other trip was about 20 minutes outside of town, to a French astronomer's house. Alain Maury was a gracious and very funny host to our small tour group. He gave us a tour of the stars with a green laser pointer (that incited a Malaysion traveler to call Alain a jedi). He and his wife showed us all the constellations and i FINALLY SAW THE SOUTHERN CROSS FOR THE FIRST TIME (after spending 6 weeks looking for it, every night... grrr). The super-duper telescopes were aimed at Jupiter, the butterfly cluster, the spiral nebula, antares (a star in Scorpio), Alpha Centauri and a supernova. We had a blast dorking out about the stars and finished the night with very yummy hot cocoa.

The next morning we took a bus out to the coast to celebrate our one-year anniversary. In Antofagasta, we ate two asian meals (chinese for lunch and sushi for dinner mmmmmmm), stayed in a very nice hotel and relaxed the night away. Now we're in Bahia Inglesa, staying at the funkiest hotel ever--the Domo Chango Chile--a geodesic dome / yurt / pod / igloo hotel. The picture below is taken from inside the restaurant / common area, which the proprietor, from Berkeley, told us is modeled after the tents he used to hang out in at Burning Man. We have our own pod thingy to ourselves (so I guess that makes us the pod people?) right on the beach. Ain't life grand!!