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A taste of Chile

Jan 4, 2012 by     1 Comment     Posted under: Chile, Cori's blogs, Uncategorized, Where two now?

Yet another better-late-than-never post! We made our way through parts of Chile for about 2 weeks, some of that in mid-May and the rest in early June after we detoured through Northern Argentina. I started writing this after we left and then lost steam, but this delay shouldn’t detract from the fact that Chile was a fantastic experience.

I actually was surprised a few times during our stay when Chileans asked us why we were there…wondering why we would want to visit this country on our vacation. It certainly created a few awkward moments as we tried to explain why we thought Chile was a great tourist destination.  I mean, for such a narrow (but long) strip of land* it really has it all…a huge desert, amazing coastline, bustling cities, lakes and forests and of course, mountains. On top of that, we found Chileans to be very friendly and approachable, the country was easy and safe to navigate, and the food was delicious.  We were lucky enough to sample a bit of the diversity of Chile…read on for some highlights.

*Nerdy stuff: Chile is 4,300 km long (2,700 miles) but its width is never more than 240 km (150 miles).

First stop, a cold and dry desert

We entered Chile overland by way of Bolivia – it was the last day of our Uyuni Salt Flat Tour and we were dropped off at the border in the mountains and then taken by bus about 40 km downhill into San Pedro de Atacama. The transition from Bolivia to San Pedro was a bit of a shock to the system. Why?

  1. Change in weather. It was so cold at the last stage of our tour in Bolivia since we were at 4,482 meters in elevation at the border near Lincancabur Volcano. The temperature dropped significantly heading down to San Pedro (elevation 2,440 meters), and we ended up peeling off layers during the short ride and even, gasp, starting to sweat (I had forgotten what that felt like). Though we were soon to learn that heat only stuck around during daylight hours.
  2. Tourism focus. San Pedro de Atacama is a tourist wonderland…it is a Gringolandia that looks like the set of an Old Western movie, everywhere you look is a cute café, well marked street signs, lots of tourist agencies, clean plazas, free wifi in the main park, other tourists wandering around, souvenir shops, etc. Cheesy, yes, but in an upscale kind of way. It honestly was a refreshing change to be in a place that looked and felt safe and clean and welcoming for tourists, especially after the past few weeks in the desolate terrain of the Bolivian salt flats or the small, dusty, not-made-for-tourists Bolivian towns.
  3. Delicious food. Our first Chilean experience was at a place offering a menu del dia for about 4,500, which is the equivalent of $USD 9.60. I had a creamy vegetable soup (pumpkin based), grilled Merluza (hake) with a side salad, and I think pineapple for dessert.  The absolute best part was the olive oil that was on the table for our salads and also our bread. You opened the bottle and it literally smelled like you were walking through an olive grove – my senses were overwhelmed with the smells and tastes. We got the feeling that this was going to be very different from the near constant intestinal distress we had been in over the past several weeks.
  4. Sticker shock. We’d heard other travelers say that Chile was more expensive than other countries in South America but it didn’t really register until we started to try to pay for things. It was a startling awakening coming from Bolivia. Food, lodging, beer, etc. were about double (or triple) what we were used to paying. Looking back, it wasn’t really that expensive at all, and the prices were appropriate for such a stable and prosperous country. But at the time, given it was our first experience with $20 hostels being the budget ones instead of the ‘splurge’ ones, we felt a bit panicked and constricted by the prices.
  5. Language. People definitely have a different rhythm to their speech in Chile, and use quite a few different words as well….from basic vocabulary like names of fruits to slang thrown into normal sentences, I had to strain my ears and take more than a few leaps of faith to understand what some people were saying. Sort of a disappointment after having felt so confident with my Spanish over the previous few months, but a fun challenge!

As for San Pedro de Atacama itself, we had a good time but it wasn’t my favorite. Our hostel was super basic (again we were in sticker shock and didn’t think it was worth what we were paying) and had an okay common outdoor courtyard where we met some people and started to get tips on where to go/not go in both Chile and Argentina. We didn’t go out at all at night since drinks were so expensive. Atacama Desert is really the main attraction in this area, since it is a huge desert and I think the world’s driest one. We didn’t want to go horseback riding, and a lot of the tours into the desert and beyond were very similar to what we had just seen in Bolivia, so we opted for an (overpriced) tour to El Valle de la Luna. This consisted of a minibus taking us and 8 other tourists to various scenic points in the desert to admire the endless landscape of reddish rocks and sand, culminating in a short climb up to a ridge where you could watch the sunset and see how the nearby rocks and mountains seemed to change color once the sun went down. Quite pretty, but not AMAZING and really overrated. I honestly was a little bit over desert/barren landscapes and was craving lush forests. For Brandyn, having grown up in Arizona, Atacama was cool but not wildly different from anything he has seen before. We are hard to impress!

Next up…a brief Chile hiatus

From San Pedro de Atacama we crossed over the Andes into Argentina on a curvy and scenic ride that lasted I think about 12 hours, with Salta as our final destination. Two weeks later we re-entered Chile, this time a bit further south, coming from Mendoza, Argentina direct into Santiago, the country’s capital.

On to surfing in Santiago (couch)

At first we had mixed feelings about heading into Santiago…it’s a big city (which we typically don’t like visiting) and we heard from a few other travelers that it was okay, but not great. Luckily, we had a different   experience!! This was our first time couch surfing as a guest, not a host. We had found a great couple online (former around the world trippers as well) that unfortunately had a very busy weekend already planned but were also willing to let us stay in their spare bedroom and give us travel tips in their free moments. We found Santiago to be very welcoming and fun…a city that was intuitively laid out with a decent, clean metro and a safe feel to it. Again, a welcome change after many of the bigger South American cities we had been to in recent months.

People in Chile (and in Argentina) eat late, so we had to adjust our internal clocks a bit. Our first night in Santiago we did an okay job, arriving at our host’s house at around 8:30pm and then walking to dinner sorta nearby (walk-able by a New Yorker’s standards – 25 minutes at a brisk pace) and had SUSHI for the first time since we left home, eating by 10pm or so. YUM. Weird though, only really salmon and octopus available in terms of raw fish – no tuna, yellowtail, etc. like I’m used to. Oh, and EVERYONE was smoking. Welcome to Chile.

Spent some time over the next few days exploring the city a bit…went in and out of various parks, museums, restaurants, etc. just enjoying moving around. We were lucky to have another local connection as well – Pamela, a friend of my sister-in-law lives in Santiago and she picked us up one afternoon, took us to the Mercado a traditional/touristy place to eat seafood (and watch the soccer game), and dropped us off in Bella Vista neighborhood with instructions on cool things to see. She also graciously invited us to join her at a house party she was going to that night – a birthday party of one of her friends. We hesitated at first….was this just an offer to be nice or really were we wanted there?? Also, could two gringos still not used to these late hours keep up with the others? I forced myself to get a second wind that night around 10pm (easier said than done) and we asked Pamela to pick us up and take us with her! What resulted was an incredibly fun night…fantastic food, a wonderful warm group of people, a welcoming atmosphere, lots of pisco, tons of funny English/Spanish exchanges and a departure at 4am (first ones to leave!!) to try and get some sleep so the next day wouldn’t be a total loss. Gracias Pamela para una experiencia buenisima!!

Time for coastal fun and fish

Even though it was off season, we wanted to visit the coast. We had heard mixed reviews on Valparaiso, a port city that apparently is colorful and unique but also slightly dirty and unsafe. We decided to check it out, in large part because it was only a short 1.5 hour bus ride away. We hadn’t organized a place to stay yet in Valparaiso which nearly always equates into a stressful experience. Arrived and were greeted by the first helpful tourism person encountered on this trip (no joke). She gave us a small map and very explicit instructions on how to catch the public bus to the area where we thought we wanted to stay. It’s always a bit awkward to arrive in a city with a huge backpack on, not know exactly where you are, how to use the public transport, etc. But we managed and only got off a few blocks past where we were supposed to. We took the infamous Valparaiso funicular elevators (inclined cable cars) up the steep hill to a cute little neighborhood with a (foggy) view of the sea and hiked around trying to find a reasonable place to stay. We ended up at an okay little hostel with a big common area and decent sized room for us. All in all not too bad but SO CHILLY! Over the next few days with spent time wandering around the small streets near our hostel but most were restaurants/bars out of our price range or shops that we couldn’t buy stuff from so though it was neat to look at it wasn’t really right for us. A big plus? All of the colorful murals decorating most of the streets – just like a big street art gallery and so festive. It really made the neighborhood. The port, on the other hand, was nothing special, at least for a traveler. It was as you would expect a working port to be…busy, gritty, gray and also cold. Much better was the nearby fish shack where we had a spectacular menu del dia of grilled merluza, empanadas de mariscos and cerveza of course.

We decided to head a bit further North however to the small fishing town of Horcon, that we had heard about through reading another couple’s blog on their around the world travels. It seemed small, quaint and just what we were in the mood for, so we hailed a bus on the main street and rode for about two-three hours up the coast (past Vina del Mar and dozens of other little coastal towns) until we finally arrived in Horcon. It was perfect.  Just a few streets lined with little beachy looking houses/cottages leading to the sea where there were dozens of colorfully-painted fishing boats in the sand and lots of fishermen (real rugged, serious career fishermen) hanging out near the boats untangling the fishing nets, cleaning their day’s catch, selling fish to buyers that had driven in, etc. All along the beach were cute little fish shacks too, where we promptly settled ourselves for a very fresh and large fish lunch. We found a place to stay on the main street by responding to a sign advertising rooms – turns out that it was a cute old woman’s house with two apartments upstairs that she rented out.  It reminded us of a NYC studio apartment and even had a view of the ocean. We spent about 3 days in Horcon but could’ve spent weeks there just sitting by the sea watching the fisherman, especially when they came into shore and this guy on horseback would bring two other horses into the water, hitch them to the fishing boat, and use their power to drag it to shore. Incredible to watch.

Last but not least – time to check out the Lakes District

We decided to head down to Pucon because we had heard so much about it from other travelers and we also wanted to get a taste of the South in Chile. We knew it was too cold for us to venture down into Patagonia, but figured even if Pucon would be cold/possibly rainy at least it would give us a feel for the area. We decided to try our luck couchsurfing again and we’re so glad we did. Pucon was a cute mountain town but we were definitely there off season. The main attraction is climbing Villarrica volcano, which we actually never got to do due to the rainy/foggy weather, but we had a great time anyway. Our host, Carlos, was friendly and welcoming and we had such fun every night making dinner together at his apartment and just hanging out. On Saturday, when Carlos wasn’t working, we went together to the nearby Huerquehue National Park and took a long 6-hour walk/hike to a series of lakes. It was beautiful, serene, and we had great views of the volcano. Interestingly enough, it was while we were in Pucon that Puyehue volcano erupted about 300 km away from us. We could see the cloud of ash rising from where we were and in the days/weeks to come would witness how it was messing with the travel plans of lots of people.

 

So, that was Chile. All in all, it was a really special country to visit and I would definitely want to go back there someday…ideally in a different season so I could really experience the full beauty of the Lakes District and also Patagonia. Until then!

 

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