Trip to Chile

On Thursday at about 4am I woke up in my own bed, did some last minute packing, and went to the bus station. One bus and three planes later I was out of the country. Two more planes later it was Friday around noon in Calama, a mining city in the Atacama desert in northern Chile. A tour bus full of comically British people took me to a hostel in San Pedro, a charming oasis-cum-tourist trap.

Oh, by the way, if you don't want to read someone's boring report about their awesome vacation, you know what to do.

Hopefully soon I will have some other pictures and/or a video to link to. For the first few days I did not carry around my camera because it was a wedding and there was a surplus of cameras. For example, view wedding photos from the groom's collection. Anyways, here's the day by day.

Saturday was Neil's wedding day. When I woke up I went questing for soap (which I managed to obtain with my minimum Spanish) for something to do. Later we all headed to the hill the ceremony would be on top of. Our group was rather large. About ten people from Neil's family, more from Andrea's large family, and a big bus load of hippies who (sadly) did not speak much English. The hill was about a 200 meter vertical ascent, but it was a very easy hike with lots of gentle switchbacks and so on. And the altitude was not so bad at only about 2800 meters. About 40 minutes for healthy youngsters. A lot longer for those of us with emphysema.

On another part of the hill there were ruins from an amazing city on the hillside. At this point it is just a bunch of crumbling stone walls trying to stand against the tide of tourism. But it is neat to imagine the whole hillside filled with people in their nearly-invisible stone houses. I wonder if they had any rooves.

Everyone made it to the top of the hill before sunset. The top of the hill had an odd monument to get married under, especially considering that it was the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It was four crosses kind of built together, and each one had "My god, my god, why have you forsaken me" on it in a different language. So he got married under a monument to hesitation at the last second still freshly dripping with the saviour's blood. But I digress.

It was a very beautiful ceremony. The view from the top of the hill (weird geography to the south, sunset over mountains to the west, lush valley with a river to the north, and huge volcanos to the east) was used to excellent effect in their scripted-at-the-last-moment vows. About half of the guests stayed around at the top of the hill until the moon rose about an hour later. Watching the stars for that hour between sunset and moonrise with the perfectly crisp thin desert air was one of the defining "you are here" moments (in my life). You can see about a billion more stars from the southern hemisphere than the northern hemisphere, and with the thin atmosphere you can see even more. When we walked down the hill, the light from the moon was more than enough to see by.

On Sunday first thing, I walked around San Pedro to get some breakfast. I saw several places with empanada signs, but that's not really what I was looking for. As I walked by one place, I smelled something delicious, so I walked in and pointed to my nose and the guy pointed me to the empanadas. Five hundred pesos later I was eating the most wonderful breakfast ever. Beef, onions, a hard boiled egg, and a black olive in an empanada doughy shell. I think it is called "pino." I went back to that place later in the week and had a discussion which really bummed me out: I would have to wait until ocho on domingo to get another good empanada like that. I hastily confirmed with more Spanish-aware friends that domingo meant Sunday. *sigh* Neil warned me that often pino has hardly any beef and is mostly an onion-grease festival. I got a pino somewhere else and learned what he meant. Bummer.

Wow, a whole paragraph about empanadas. I surprise even myself.

Then we went as a large group to some hot springs. The hot springs were organized perfectly into like 25' diameter pools with waterfalls between them. But the hot springs were not very hot, not even in the top pools.

On Monday we got up before the ass-crack of dawn to go see some geysers. We drove out of San Pedro (which has vegetation because of irrigation from some river) and into the altiplano (which has vegetation because it is at sufficient altitude that it stays cool enough that water doesn't evaporate immediately) then into the mountains (which have vegetation because there is water in the air from geothermal activity, I guess). We got to the geysers just before their peak activity, when the sun first hits them after the cold night and the pressure builds more quickly.

There were a real variety of geysers just in the little geyser field our tour visited. It's hard to convey how eerie it is to be so close to volcanic activity forcing steam to bubble through the earth. None of the geysers really shot more than 3 meters into the air, but they were all still very neat. One of them flushed like a toilet.

When the rest of us were at the hot springs on Sunday, the bride's brother Eduardo took a truck to the geysers without a tour guide. I think he was walking in the less stable geyser field when the ground collapsed beneath him and he got severe steam burns up to his knees. Don't explore without a tour guide!

After the geysers we went to a valley with some hot springs/geyser activity. In the water it was a very neat experience...the overall stream was not terribly hot, but if you waded where the water was coming from the hot spring or over where there were bubbles coming out of the water (presumably some deep volcanic vent releasing steam??), it was much hotter. The strategy was to find a cool spot with firm unbubbling ground and then splash some of the super-hot water onto yourself from any nearby hot spot.

We saw vicunas (wild llamas), some south american fox, a south american ostrich, a weird spider, some slow-growing plant, a lagoon full of flamingos, abandoned mining crap, and lots and lots of mountains. The whole tour was at altitude and it had a generally degrading effect on my mind and body.

On Sunday Jim (Neil's dad) expressed some interest in climbing Lascar (an active volcano). We had heard of a tour that took you to about 4600 meters altitude and you climbed the final 1000 meters and then came down all in one day. I said I'd do it if Jim did it. On Monday at the last minute we found another tour up Toco Hill (I believe one of the peaks of Colachi, an inactive volcano). I was a little bummed out because I really wanted to see active volcanic activity, but the Toco climb was only 500 meters (the truck took you up to 5100 meters), and the geyser tour made me wary of altitude. So we signed up.

2006:04:18 08:06:41
The view of Licancanbur (left) and Guayaques (right) from the drive up Toco.
2006:04:18 08:53:46
The vehicle that took us up to 5100m.
So on Tuesday morning we set off in a Ford truck with two Norweigians (Trond and Ari), me and Jim, and our guide. To understand the volcanos in the area, you may want to look at the map on this page. I apologize if I refer to any volcanos by the wrong name.

2006:04:18 10:23:20
Now it kind of looks like a rockslide or something. Probably it's just some odd shape in the mountain.
2006:04:18 10:23:37
Mars or bust.
I took some pictures as we trudged up the mountain. It is hard to explain what it was like to be exerting effort at altitude. You set a very slow rhythm with your feet and a very fast rhythm with your breath. You're basically hyperventilating while shuffling along like a geriatric case and wishing you could go just a little bit slower.

2006:04:18 10:58:37
I think that's Licancanbur and Guayaques from closer to eye-level.
2006:04:18 10:58:44
I believe that is Argentina.
2006:04:18 10:58:51
I think project ALMA is visible in this picture.
2006:04:18 11:00:07
I took a bunch of pictures at the summit. It took us about I think 2 hours of hiking to get to the top. We took three or four breaks. I was pretty confident until we got up pretty high and the wind started to be an issue. I am disappointed to look it up on wikipedia and learn I was not actually in the jet stream. I felt like I was. When we got to the summit we all huddled around rocks to get out of the wind, but I think I picked a poor rock for shelter. The guide noticed I was getting cold and lent me an extra layer, which made a big difference. I shot a short video at the top of a full 360 view.

2006:04:18 11:26:20
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I was there.
2006:04:18 11:30:06
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Co-tourists and guide.
I was sitting at the top warming up when one of the Norweigians glanced over his shoulder and shouted "it's errupting." Thankfully he meant Lascar, which had sent up a bunch of ash, which was blowing towards Argentina (not us!). I cannot imagine the fortune to get up to the top of one volcano just as the next one down the chain is errupting. Not what I signed up for. There was no audible boom, we did not feel the earth tremble, and as you stood there you could think of the giant ash cloud as though it was not moving. It's hard to convey the scale of the event.

2006:04:18 11:37:21
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2006:04:18 11:40:59
2006:04:18 11:55:17
I didn't come down that way.
2006:04:18 12:08:51
An odd vertical rock, and our expedition vehicle.
For the climb up we took a varied path to the south with some steep climbs on loose rock and some easier parts. On the way down we took a different route which seemed like all steep loose rock. It was very easy to kind of surf down it, really taking advantage of the hefty boots from the guide loaned us. It went by very quickly, so I stopped often to take pictures as the ash cloud drifted down wind. I think we were only doing physical activity at altitude for about 3 hours, but it was more than enough for me. I had a headache and a deep fatigue. But I had conquered the volcano! I think I may have survived a longer hike, but I'm glad I didn't try it.

2006:04:18 13:21:52
It blew again!
During the drive back to civiliz^H^H^H^H^H^HSan Pedro, it errupted again a little. Our guide kept looking over his shoulder at it and appeared more interested in this second blast than the much more impressive first one. Eventually he pulled over and explained that this blast appeared to come from a different volcano than Lascar. In general different volcanos on the same range do not go off together, so I do not know why this happened.

2006:04:18 16:11:44
Despite the familiar iconography, that dollar sign represents 0.002 USD ($2US to burn a copy of your photos to a CD).
2006:04:18 18:12:22
A list of ascents at the tour office.
When we got back to town I finally went into one of the internet cafes to upload a picture of the volcano to send to my friends back home. A sign outside presented an amusing sticker shock.

2006:04:18 17:09:00
Every time you step out of the hostel you want to take a picture of Licancanbur.
2006:04:19 09:27:34
The hacienda of the hostel. The only shelter you need is shade.
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From the opposite corner.
2006:04:19 09:28:25
The room I stayed in. Note the damage from the recent rainfall.
2006:04:19 09:30:50
A sticker someone put in a window at the hostel.
The hostel we were staying at was very comfortable. It was built mostly out of adobe with a tin roof and straw on the top for insulation. With the shade, it was always comfortable outside in the day (the air temperature does not get very hot compared to what it feels like if the sun is directly on you). At night the adobe walls held in an impressive warmth against the cold desert night.

2006:04:19 09:29:48
Some sort of map.
2006:04:19 23:22:26
Another sort of map.
I took some pictures of the tour maps that littered the hostel.

2006:04:19 14:56:37
By San Pedro there were fields with some trees.
2006:04:19 16:54:17
Salt crystals up close.
2006:04:19 16:55:06
Another view.
2006:04:19 16:55:13
A lagoon, I guess.
2006:04:19 16:55:57
A lagoon shore.
2006:04:19 16:56:28
Licancanbur reflected in lagoon.
2006:04:19 16:58:00
Hard to capture the fact that the salt curves away from the opening.
2006:04:19 17:08:39
Odd formation in salt flats.
2006:04:19 17:10:04
A salt chunk, with underside visible.
2006:04:19 17:10:25
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Ripply water.
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Odd formation.
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Shallow pool with odd bottom.
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Scummy pool.
2006:04:19 17:37:11
The voyage home.
2006:04:19 18:13:37
Sunset on opposing hills from bike.
2006:04:19 18:15:09
Sunset on opposing hills sans movement.
On Wednesday we rented some bikes and headed into the desert in search of salt flats with lagoons and flamingos. I took a lot of pictures of the salt flats. It was a totally foreign kind of landscape. On the bike ride out there we were on very bumpy desert roads and I realized I was on some fancy mountain bike so I started going really fast and trying to hit all the jumps. But I forgot about what sand does to traction, so I wound up sliding sideways over a hill more or less, and couldn't figure out how to recover. Right before I left the states I realized it had been a long time since I had skinned my elbows. Jinx! We set a faster pace on the trip back from the lagoons because the sun was setting. Also, we had to make it back into town by 8PM to return the bikes and go on a star tour, so we had to push it a little bit. By the time we made it back to town we were very tired. We asked the guys at the bike shop how far we went and they said 27km each way. If I'd been told I was agreeing to ride for 30 miles, I probably would have said we should have taken more time.

2006:04:19 21:41:07
Saturn (through a telescope).
The star tour was awesome. It was a lot like various astronomy events my parents had hosted when I was younger, except that we had practically perfect visibility of a much busier sky. Alain Maury, discoverer of several asteroids, hosted this tour. He took a picture of Saturn with my crappy camera.

2006:04:20 06:49:50
Parting shot of Licancanbur.
2006:04:20 09:04:27
Our volcano in the newspapers at the airport.
On Thursday we left San Pedro for Santiago.

2006:04:20 15:55:17
Nuts 4 Nuts, just like NYC!!!!!!!!!!
It is hard to explain my joy when Neil pointed out this roasted nut vendor at the Santiago airport. In New York City these street nuts became a sort of obsession for me. I believe this vendor was the same company. The nuts tasted basically the same. It didn't smell quite right though, probably because they were only roasting peanuts. In New York you can get cashews and almonds and coconuts. But I digress.

2006:04:22 14:03:57
A very blue-eyed cat.
Santiago is pretty much a big shithole in my opinion. Neil's house is very nice, with a beautiful garden and lots of fruit. Santiago is a very irrigated place. There is apparently plenty of water from the melt coming off the surrounding mountains, but it doesn't distribute itself by cloud in any regular fashion for a large part of the year. Anyways, Neil's cat is very pretty.

Santiago was not so exciting. Mostly food-related entertainment. On Saturday we went to Valparaiso. Valparaiso is absolutely awesome. It is a moderately-sized city on the coast that is somewhat hillier than San Francisco. The hills have a most amazing infrastructure. They have some roads but are mostly far too steep for car access, so they have a series of public stairs and foot paths to get to most of the buildings. The buildings are constructed with almost no right angles, so as to fit in with the odd shapes permitted by the hill. There were also "funiculars" that would take you to the top of a hill for a hundred pesos or so.

2006:04:23 09:58:51
A neat house.
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The awesomest shower ever.
2006:04:23 10:00:40
I believe the wall is adobe.
2006:04:23 10:06:40
A structure of some sort.
2006:04:23 10:07:34
More neat houses.
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A dog.
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Big birds.
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A house with a very cool roof.
Andrea's family owned some land near Valparaiso that we stayed on with basically hippies living on it, with buildings made out of mostly adobe and wood, many with much craftiness. Here are some pictures of that community.

Sunday we wandered around Valparaiso more, then on Monday back into an airport. Four planes and one busride saw me home.

An observation about how anal Americans are: When I got to Chile I went through immigration all wrong and actually wound up going through the immigration line 3 times due to my own stupidity. Even so it took a total of about 15-20 minutes because all the police had to do was look at your papers, stamp your papers, and then put appropriate duplicates in the appropriate folders. In America, I, citizen had to wait 30 minutes just to get through immigration in the most optimized possible fashion because their process was look at documents then look around nervously for up to five minutes while the computer does a background check of some sort. Do you feel any safer? Fuck the department of homeland fuckfaces.