Category Archives: Chile

Postcards from Santiago de Chile & Valparaiso

Belated photos again from my trip last year.

Thought that Santiago de Chile is worth mentioning even though some guidebooks say it is “not a destination by itself”. Well, it is an airport hub so if ever you travel to Chile (yes, that long thin-strip country on the map), and want to save time from travelling on land, you would inevitably fly through Santiago. It was also my first destination in South America. And on landing in this place, I was greeted by the Andes!

The city of Santiago, capital of Chile and site of many political upheavals in the past. To think that up to just a recent 20 odd years ago, this country was ruled by military dictatorship. You wouldn’t be able to tell from today’s Santiago.

Checked out the Mercado Central and the fish market. While unextraordinary, it’s worth considering if you are looking for something to do on a late morning.

Stayed in a hostal that was on a lane called Claudio Arrau, a famous Chilean pianist (streets here are usually named after famous people). Instantly, I recall this memorable recording of Chopin’s Etudes by Arrau who achieves legato (fluid) playing without using the pedal – no mean feat! Certainly one of those recordings worth keeping.

Poet Pablo Neruda is another famous Chilean figure. Presently, 3 of his homes are opened to the public. Checked out the one in Santiago, called La Chascona – what does it mean? Details of this visit was documented here.

The home is littered with medals (Neruda was the 1971 Nobel Literature prize winner), paintings given by artist friends (who included Picasso and Diego Riveria) and odd-sized bric-à-brac. The poet was quite the hoarder.

What else is interesting in Santiago? After garnering some courage, I decided to pop by for cafe con piernas or coffee with legs. I leave you to decipher what “legs” refer to. Let’s just say it was a most unusual cappuccino experience for me.

Other than that, you can walk up these steps up to Cerro Santa Lucia for a birds-eye view of Santiago city.

About an hour’s journey from Santiago is Valparaiso which translates to “Valley of Paradise”. It’s the seat of Chile’s National Congress and an important vibrant sea port. This port city is literally a breath of fresh air – and no pun intended! Don’t get what I mean? Check out the colourful houses on the slopes of Valparaiso (photo taken from La Sebastiana, another of Pablo Neruda’s quirky homes).

I wished I had stayed here longer, and spent more time walking up and down the slopes of this city that is so full of character.

Old trolley buses still run through the city of Valparaiso.

Valparaiso – a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Postcards from Rapa Nui (a.k.a. Isla de Pascua / Easter Island)

Although Easter Island was not on my wanderlust radar, I had the great opportunity of including it as a destination on my flight ticket at no additional cost. It turned out that I had quite an adventure – and – the dubious distinction of having visited the one & only Hanga Roa hospital.

Easter Island or natively-known as Rapa Nui, is a Polynesian island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A 5-hour flight from Santiago de Chile, this island is an open-air museum that invokes the inner Indiana Jones spirit in this traveller: – be it combing the island on foot, on a bicycle or by car for the mystical stoneheads, sniffing out an odd pukau (the red-coloured “hair bun” that sits on the moais) that had rolled off on to some beach, trawling the quarry site at Rano Kau and marvelling at how come these stoneheads never made it to the final platform site, face-painting and drinking fresh coconut juice with the islanders, scrambling over lava stones whilst dodging horses (there are purportedly more horses than humans on this island) or feebly attempting to decipher petroglyphs / carvings on stones.

Detailed posts of my adventures and what I managed to learn about this mysterious island can be found here. In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy viewing these photos.

At the quarry site, Rano Raraku. June 2010

Hiking up and around the crater of Rano Kau. June 2010

 

The Moto Nui islets, once the site of the Birdman cult. Photo taken from Orongo on Rano Kau. June 2010

Ahu Naunau on Anakena Beach. June 2010

Ahu Akivi - the only seven moais that face(d) outwards, in the direction of the sea. June 2010

Ahu Tongariki. June 2010

Ahu Vai Uri, Tahai Ceremonial Complex. June 2010

A Contented Traveller (part 2)

Top Experiences

Many people have asked me which is my favourite place on this trip, and believe me it is very difficult to pinpoint one! The emotions, encounters and weather at that place at a particular time or season also affects the entire experience. So how about I give it a go with “Great Experiences” instead? And this time, with photos.

In no particular order:

1. The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

There may be a bit of bias with this choice since the Galapagos had been my dream islands for years. But many people whom I later met and who had also been there couldn’t get enough of it either, so I really don’t think I’m over-hyping this. Apart from being pampered on a relaxing cruise and visiting pristine islands where animals frolick about in their daily activities oblivious to the snap-happy human visitors, the climate was another surprising factor: not too hot and not too cold in July. The scenery was also more beautiful than I had expected.

It would be a mistake just to use mainland Ecuador as a hop-over point to the Galapagos: Ecuador is a beautiful country with warm & friendly people and relatively good infrastructure. As a visitor, the biggest observation is how family-oriented Ecuadorians are. I did not encounter any difficulty at all travelling solo in Ecuador.

 

Isla Santa Fe, Galapagos

Galapagos wildlife. From bottom left (clockwise):Galapagos penguin, land iguana, blue-footed boobies, sea lion, giant tortoise

 

Foreground: tiquila cacti. Background: Volcan la Cumbre. At Punta Espinosa, Isla Fernandina


2. San Pedro de Atacama & around, Chile

The Atacama Desert is one of the driest in the world and is prime spot for star gazing, both for professional astronomers and amateurs. You could see the Desert from the bus on the way from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama (San Pedro). I loved how San Pedro itself does not have paved roads, preserves the older adobe houses made of mud & cactus branch with little roofing and only minimal street lights at night. During the day, the town itself is a base for venturing into the outlying natural wonders and those that I’ve visited include: Valle de la Luna, Valle de Muerte, Piedra del Coyote, the Altiplano lagoons, Salar de Atacama and El Tatio Geyser. At night, just lift up your head and you are treated to more spectacular wonders even with just the naked eye: the cloudless night sky is the perfect canvas for the milky way and the planets of the solar system.

Although San Pedro and the outlying sights are very popular with tourists, the town itself is still very laid-back and a nice place to relax and chill. One simply could not say the same of other popular tourists sites.

 

 

Top: Laguna Chaxa Bottom: Salar de Atacama

Top: Volcano Putana Bottom: church at Macucha Village

 

3. Salar de Uyuni & Reserva Fauna Andina Eduardo, Bolivia

This region is one of the most visited places in Bolivia, and with good reason too. I went during dry season and the expanse of the salt flat’s whiteness stretches far beyond the horizon. You would think it is a snow-covered desert, except that if you lick the ground you will know it is not.  This region is also rather close to Calama and San Pedro de Atacama of Chile, so there are some similarities in landscape, but there are simply no two identical lagoons, geysers, mountains or salt flats; both regions are rugged and dramatic in their own way. A lot of the sights on the Bolivian side are on higher altitude and are not accessible by paved roads, so travel by land-rovers/jeeps are absolutely necessary. Expect an adventure when in Bolivia; you won’t be disappointed.

Sadly too, the Bolivian side lacks proper management and the environment runs the risk of being overburdened. The social atmosphere of the region in the two countries is also very different and if you have the time to spare, you should still try to visit both. Money should no longer be an issue as you would have expended so much just to get this part of the world that in fact, it makes more sense to visit both. Border crossing by land from Bolivia to Chile and vice versa in this region is possible and can usually be done within half/1 day.

 

Photo taken on Isla Incahuasi. In the background, the Uyuni salt flats.

Near Laguna Canapa

 

4.Flying above the Andes in South America

Secondary school level Geography hardly serves any practical purpose in most people’s adult life. But stripped of all the dry facts that one is forced to commit to memory for exams are glimpses into age-old, far-flung, exotic places that are nature’s greatest gifts.  Even though Geography text books then hardly came with much photos, learning about the Andean range left a deep imprint in this ex-school girl’s mind.

While it is a lot cheaper to travel in South America by bus (especially if you have the time to spare), I would certainly recommend flying some legs. Conveniently, my round-the-world ticket allowed me to fly quite a few segments in South America, and the domestic flights in some countries are very reasonably-priced. The view over the jagged peaks of the Andes – the spine of South America that stretches from the south in Chile all the way to the north in Columbia & Venezuela – evokes a sense of humbled awe, high-spirited imagination or just simply more wonderful day dreams.

 

Chilean Andes

Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador

 


5. Scotland, UK

Scotland itself has so much to offer, so justifiably I should have a sub-category of “great experiences”! It is one of the few places on this trip that I would like to visit again, not least because it is closer (more or less 13 hours flight), but also because there are other parts of Scotland that I’ve yet to explore.

On this trip, I would say some of the best moments are:

(1) Walking through glens and along the lochs and simply just enjoying the fresh air & scents from trees & flowers.

 

Top: Glencoe Lochan Bottom: Glenfinnan

 

(2) Rocky boat ride to Islet of Staffa – Fingal’s Cave. It was costly to travel to Staffa, but the sight of the hexagonal basalt columns rising vertically out of the emerald waters is worth it. And dolphins somehow never fail to cheer people up even in bad weather. Would have loved to spend more time on the islet if the weather had permitted. Not the season for puffins-sighting, but was already very contented with the visit.

 

Walking on islet of Staffa

 

Hexagonal basalt columns rising out of emerald waters to form this Fingal's Cave.

(3) Driving around & exploring Isle of Skye. Skye is rated by National Geographic as one of the best islands in the world for sustainable tourism. Do not expect resorts a la Banyan Tree style – this does not Skye maketh. Instead, look forward to rugged dramatic natural beauty.

 

and last but not least,

(4) Chatting with friendly down-to-earth Scots!

 

Thistle, national flower of Scotland

Of course, this list of “Great Experiences” is non-exhaustive. The list of wonderful places that I have been to on this 4-month trip goes on, including the Great Ocean Road in Australia, Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean, Lake Titicaca in both Peru & Bolivia, the great Machu Picchu as well as all the people I’ve met who made up the entire experience.

Till the next trip. Right now, my heart is warm & contented.

May I wish everyone of you find and pursue your dream adventures. Happy travels!

05.08 – 07.08.10 – San Pedro de Atacama and around

Before I continue, I must write about San Pedro de Atacama. It is the only town in this region that has the conspicously Spanish name of “San Pedro” (“Atacama” itself is a mangled version of a word in the indigenous language) whereas the rest of the towns surrounding the Atacama desert retained their indigenous names. The legacy of Catholicism’s influence on the town.

Although not in the Atacama desert proper, San Pedro de Atacama (I’ll call it San Pedro in this blog so as not to tire out my thumbs while typing on a tiny keypad) is linked by highways from Calama and Antofagasta that run through the famous desert, the driest in the region, and probably in the world. The desert is also the selected site for the ALMA project, the world’s largest telescope. Not to sound like a geek, but this was one of the few things that I knew about South America before coming over here! (Pat on the back)

Still, the telescope is not the highlight of this traveller’s trip. For one, it is not completed yet. Secondly, the telescope is not meant for tourist astronomy.

San Pedro is famous because of the natural wonders nearby, such as its salt flats, salt mountains, geysers, sand dunes, volcanos, lagoons and wildlife. Some travellers I met in Uyuni were thinking of skipping San Pedro as they thought it is likely to be similar to the Bolivian circuit (San Pedro itself is only 1 hour away from the Chile-Bolivia border, separated by the Licancabur volcano). Or maybe the real reason is that travelling in Bolivia is just so tiring that it makes you feel like cutting short your trip.

But I’m very glad I made my way here.

For one, the town itself is laidback, relaxed and charming with its adobe houses and unpaved road (yes, you are always walking on sand, pebbles or stone). It rarely rains so most homes adopt an open-air concept. The scenery here is also different that it is impossible to compare with the Uyuni circuit. Also, the quality of the tours are very different (taking a tour is the least costly and easiest way to see the sights). I stumbled across the most expensive tour agency in San Pedro and randomly decided to sign up simply because the guide is bilingual (later I’m told this is one of the few agencies recommended by Lonely Planet). But even though things on the Chilean side is more expensive than on the Bolivian side, the quality and standard (for one, a responsible driver is very appreciated by this traveller) is so much better that it makes the trip all the more enjoyable. In fact, monetary-wise it isn’t even that much more expensive. I will talk more about the value of money in travelling in a later blog. For now, more on San Pedro and the surrounding area.

One famous sight is Valle de la Luna, or valley of the moon. The names of these sights are hardly important in my opinion, since most of the time they are kind of haphazardly bestowed on the sights. But it was very interesting to hear the salt mountains – the salt inconspicuously covered with clay until you look closer and take a lick for verification – crackling as it expands in the afternoon heat. Scars from the geological transformation of the landscape following the movement of the earth’s teutonic plates are also dramatically evident on the walls of these valleys. Then, there are the beautiful gigantic sand dunes, with not a single footprint in sight because tourists are now forbidden to walk or roll down on it, so that others can enjoy the same beautiful unspoilt view. And then there is Valle de Muerte, which means valley of the dead, but it could very possibly have been a mangled pronunciation or misspeliing of Valle de Marte, which means valley of Mars. Doesn’t look eery at all, just strangely reddish and uninhabited. Then, there is the sunset at Piedra Coyote. Why is a sunset here so different from anywhere else you might wonder? The wonderful hues of the sky change with every minute, from shades of pink to lilac, red and purple, reflecting off the rocky uneven terrain. And that odd patch of cloud in the sky adds on to this serene and yet vivid landscape. Felt so blessed to be able to have seen this.

At night, after snacking on a baked empanada for dinner, I joined an astronomy tour. The sky – one of the clearest in Chile – is always there, but the person whose home we visited is very engaging and funny as a guide. He has telescopes permanently set up in the compound for viewing, plus explanations of the sky map. A tour in the dark and cold, so warm clothes are essential.

The next morning, woke up for a 6am tour of the Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa. The salt flat here is totally different from that in Uyuni. For one, it is not flat but jagged and crusty, looking almost like dead corals. Further up, at Laguna Chaxa, a few species of flamingos feed on the artemia shrimps in clear mirror-like waters swathed with light from the rising sun. It is difficult for me to describe the scenery and even my photos won’t do it justice. All the tourists naturally quieten their voices at the sight of these gangly pink creatures, without being promped by any signboards or a guide. The decorum of the human visitors are just as unbelievable.

Thereafter, visited two more icey lagoons, Miscanti and Minisque at about 4200m above sea level, perfectly positioned in front of volcanos and arid valleys. Unlike the ones in Bolivia, one can’t just wade into the lagoon (if you dare, in such low temperatures). Rather, one can only stick to walking along a clearly-marked path to admire the lagoons from the side.

Saw some giant pin-cushion-like cacti, which is nicknamed “mother-in-law’s cushion”. Also visited Socaire and Toconao, two small towns that I had originally wanted to go on my own, but transport is so infrequent that I abandoned the idea. So glad to be able to see them while on this tour.

The third day was yet another day of amazing sights and experiences. This time, we had to get up at 4am to catch the El Tatio geysers at its best time: sunrise and when the temperature is still cold enough for amazing spurting heights. Generally roads in Chile are good, but the route to the geysers are unpaved, hence it takes a longer time to travel. The bumpy ride kept me awake enough at dawn to witness the moonlight bouncing off icey reflective lagoons and streams, a sight to be remembered for a long time.

The geysers themselves are situated at the third highest (4320m) geothermal fields in the world. The highlight at this site was soaking in the hot spring with thermal waters from the nearby geysers. Bliss! Plus felt very proud that I was one of the few people on the bus who dared to strip in the -10 degree C cold to soak in the hot spring. Peeling off the multilayers took a while so that meant more time spent standing in the cold than in the hot water. But believe me, the effort is worth it.

Thereafter, we journeyed through some valleys and passed the semi-frozen Rio Putana, with the fuming Volcan Putana in the background. Another perfect photo moment. Also went to Macucha, a small village of 35 people. Although touristy, there I tried cachomama (sic) herbal tea and tasted one of the best vege empanadas I have had on this trip. The last stop was at Cactus Valley. Liked some of the plants (e.g. foxtail) I saw during the short trek to the valley.

Thereafter, I celebrated my last day in San Pedro with a superb lunch and drinks (see earlier posts).

09.08.10 – Leaving the land of the Andes

Happy birthday, Singapore!

Oh by the way, today I flew from Antofagasta to Santiago, where I now wait for the flight to Madrid.

Outside the embarkation lounge, the pink hues of the setting sun is reflecting brilliantly off the snow-capped mountains.

Fare thee well, oh mighty Andes, I had the pleasure of seeing your many faces, ranging through four different countries. Hope to see you again, soon.

Inebriated in a foreign language

While writing my last post, I was just about to start on a set lunch that comes with a delicious clear forest mushroom and onion soup, a lovely oven-baked pineapple-glazed pork chop, dessert and a generous glass of red wine, all for less than US$12. I don’t – nor can I afford to – eat like this everyday. But this was my penultimate day in San Pedro de Atacama and I just got back from a great early morning trip out to the geysers, stripping in -10 degree celcius for a dip in the thermal spring, visiting a tiny village of 35 and enjoying the mountainous view of frozen streams, grazing llamas and vicunas and giant cacti. I had to end this trip with a bang.

After my last post, I was to have another glass of wine, 2 pisco sours (one of which extra dry), a beer (I can’t believe that I haven’t discovered this beer in Chile until now!), a herbal tea that failed to tame the alcohol, some tears, laughs, good stories and amazing company, the last of which was totally unexpected and absolutely serendipitous.

The lunch and after drinks extended way past sunset. By nightfall, I was so inebriated (the wines are served so generously here, that I effectively had one bottle of wine from just two glasses) to the point that I was babbling nonsense – in Spanish – no less.

But what a way to end an amazing trip in this wonderfully special region.

Is it possible to be this happy?

The past 3 days have been everything and bliss. There is just something so special about this place that is totally unexpected. Or is it the lithium in the air in this mountainous region that is high in mineral content? (Lithium is known to be used in anti-depressants).

More details of the sights later. Right now, I’m lounging in a courtyard with a glass of Chilean red wine.

Living in the moment.

Peace.