Chile trip 30 September 2013

30 September

We are up and out by 6:30 to get the sunrise pictures. Our destination is Rainbow Valley (Valle del Arcoiris)–about an hour’s drive. Rainbow Valley is a series of hills that display countless colors as a result of the minerals in the rock and soil. Prolific copper reserves result in incredible shades of green. Iron produces lovely red rocks. Where the copper mixes with the clay soil there are shades of  purple. We see lots of interesting plants. Rica-Rica is an aromatic plant with very small purple flowers that reminds me of Lavender. The plant is used in teas for medicinal purposes and is even an ingredient in the local Pisco Sour recipes. Mother-in-Law’s Cushion is a cactus that I guess you’d want your MIL to sit on. It can grow into an enormous, low-growing plant over a yard in diameter. I have a nice walk with Cris while the guys take an hour or so photographing the landscape.

On our way back to town, we stop to look at a neat petroglyph. Cris says it’s about 2,000 years old. The animal depicted, a deer-like, spotted animal, does not correspond to any animals of the region at that time although I find a picture in a wildlife guide of a deer introduced to the country in 1950 that looks awfully similar. Maybe the petroglyph is not as old as it is thought to be…

Chile has 4 “camelid” animals: the guanaco and the vicunas are wild and the llamas and alpacas are domesticated. We see guanacos on our drive back. It’s easy to get excited about our first guanaco sighting but Cris and Rex remind us that before the trip is over we will be sick of seeing the creatures. Kind of like bisons in Yellowstone National Park.

We notice a well-tended grave off the road and stop. A loved one has spent a great deal of effort artistically cobbling rock together to mark the grave. There are fresh flowers. As we decipher the words on the cross marker we see that the person died in 1938! It’s amazing that the grave would still be tended with loving care.

Cris is a 30-something Chilean. He has worked in the hospitality/tourist industry for over a decade. He is incredibly well-versed in the natural history and geology of the area. He is also incredibly funny! He drives like a crazy man. I think Rex is concerned that his “charges” (us) are in danger but we say that so far we do not feel unsafe.

Once we get back into town, Cris gives us a tour. San Pedro de Atacama, at an altitude of about 8,000 feet,  is an ancient oasis in the desert turned into a tourist boomtown. It has a population of about 5,000. The main street is unpaved (as are all streets although they are hardened with a product derived from salt) and lined with antique adobe buildings with roofs made of clay and hay. The commercial mix is equal parts of tour companies, restaurants and retail shops with products ranging from cheap tourist souvenirs to artisan products. And there are about 50 places for varying degrees of accommodation catering to tourists looking for adventure and incredible sights.

The town square is lovely, shaded by several pepper trees.  The San Pedro de Atacama Church, with ceilings made from cactus wood, dates to before 1641. In the “mercado” on the square there are plenty of local, inexpensive wares but the most incredible thing is that no one is pushy about selling you their products. The Museo Gustavo le Paige, also on the square, is a significant archeological museum featuring a large collection of relics and artifacts from the region.

The town has a “Wild West” sort of look to it. There are probably 15to 20 street dogs in the downtown area but the streets are very clean thanks to a group dedicated to the effort. Although that did not prevent Cris from stepping into a gift from the street dogs. And later Rex came close to reenacting the same comedy skit with the exact same “gift”!  The streets are filled with tourists. It’s clear that San Pedro is benefitting from the glorious sights this area has to offer.

We have lunch at one of Cris’s recommended restaurants: “Adobe.” Howard and I sample the local beer, Atacamania. It is a lager, just the kind I like, and it is good. Howard and I order pizza–it is just OK. Rex, after a course of Imodium and Pepto Bismal (Doctor Ducey comes prepared!) is feeling much better so he has the 3 course menu.

We see the cutest bird in town: A Rufous-Collared Sparrow. We cannot believe that none of us remembered to bring binoculars! As the days go on we will regret that omission over and over. We finally shut up about it!

Our sunset destination is Quebrada de Guatin, where the junction of the Rio Purifica and Puritama gives rise to the Vilama River. In this river valley we find a unique cactus growing throughout the canyon, the Giant Cardon cactus (reminiscent of the Saguaro cactus).Giant Cardon cactus Some of the cacti are estimated to be over 1,000 years old. The wood from this cactus was used for the church ceiling in town. We cross the river several times and exercise our rock climbing skills (not too extreme) as we make our way downstream. There is a neat waterfall that offers great photo opportunities. There is evidence of past BBQs along the shores of the river. I ask Cris if he has backpacked our dinner telling him we expect it to be Wagyu beef with a nice red Chilean wine. That’s a bit of a joke. Cris told us that a semi-truck overturned near the village a while back and it was filled with Wagyu beef. The villagers stampeded to the site and that night the hobos feasted on meat only the rich can afford.

Cris is sweet to help Howard with his camera pack and tripod. It is not easy for me without a pack to scurry over the large rocks so it is nice of Cris to relieve Howard of his pack. We spend a good bit of time waiting for the setting sunlight to be just right for photos–such is the burden of photography. While we are waiting, I wander around and fall on my butt just inches away from the MIL cushion! I do not want to think about the consequences of landing on that cactus. I can just envision the 3 guys plucking thorns from by bare behind.

We see 2 neat birds: flocks of Grassland Yellow-Finches and some Mourning Sierra-Finches. We spot 2 lizards but they are too quick to identify. Fortunately we are told that there are no poisonous snakes in Chile. In fact 99.9% of creepy-crawly things (bugs, arachnids, amphibians, and reptiles) in Chile are harmless.

We have a small dinner at the hotel: chicken Caesar salads for Howard and me. Rex has a sandwich. Cris will pick us up at 7am for our next adventure. We try to sleep peacefully while hundreds of street dogs bark and fight.

Chile trip 29 September 2013

29 September 2013

We have a long peaceful sleep and we are ready to start our trip to the Atacama Desert. We meet up with Rex at breakfast; he arrived at the hotel late last night. It is really nice to see him. Rex headed up our photography trip to Patagonia in April 2012. This photography trip to the Atacama Desert and Easter Island is a new trip for Rex. Howard and I are the only participants and we will be his Guinea pigs while he decides the details of this trip for the future.

The flight to Calama is only a couple of hours. We are met at the airport by our guide for the next week, Cris. We drive about 1.5 hours to the village of San Pedro de Atacama and to our lovely hotel, Hotel Altiplanico. The buildings are made from adobe and hay with roofs made of straw. Our place has a private patio with an outdoor shower! Fortunately there is also an indoor shower–it’s way too cold in the early morning to shower outside.

The altitude here at “base camp” is 7,500 feet so the concern is altitude sickness. We have camped at 8,000 with no ill effects but we are still being careful. We are to drink plenty of water, limit alcohol (bummer) and spend a day or two around the village before we head to higher grounds.

The guys need to jump into their photography work. So for sunset photos Cris takes us a short distance to Coyote Lookout Point. The wind was incredible! It apparently is a popular sunset photo location because several other parties, including a small bus, pulled up to join us. But the sunset was beautiful and worth the extreme weather..

Rex, Howard and I ate at the hotel. I thought it was a bit on expensive side. The wine prices reminded me of our trip in 2012 when we discovered that the local Chilean and Argentine wines cost more in their homeland than they do in California! Howard and I had our obligatory Pisco Sours but they were not as good as in Santiago. We also had the 3 course menu: corn chowder, cheese ravioli, and quinoa cake. Rex is recovering from a stomach virus so he wisely ate white rice and chicken breast.

We hit the sack at about 9 and slept very well.

Chile trip 28 September 2013

Here we are in Santiago, Chile! And the Santiago we find now is very different from the Santiago we visited in April 2012. The “old” Santiago was crowded, uninteresting, and devoid of restaurants and interesting sites. This “new” Santiago has parks; neat restaurants; and great crowds of people walking, talking, biking–it is exciting and lovely. The Chilean police have not changed though. On the last trip the police and military used incredible force (much more than needed by an exponential amount) to put down a peaceful student march against the scheduled power plants in Patagonia. The police we saw today are on motorcycles, in camouflage and ride their bikes across sidewalks, pedestrian lanes, and park grasslands for pure intimidation. It was incredible. Two police officers stopped a truck with baskets of apples in the truck bed. I guess a couple of baskets of apples are considered contraband in Chile. (Later our photo tour host, Rex Bryngelson who lives in the southern part of the country, tells us he does not think it’s as bad as we describe so we’ll reconsider our evaluation.)

In spite of the intimidating police, the park just across the street is lovely. It borders the river and has many interesting sculptures. Howard commented on all the lovers “eating each other’s faces.” I said it’s like Paris: Give lovers a place to conveniently “eat each other’s faces” and they will take advantage of that opportunity. But that park is clearly used by all the people of Santiago. There were lots of families enjoying the park and beautiful weather. It’s spring here in Chile.

We also have a wonderful view of the Andes mountains from the park. It’s incredible to see the downtown high-rises framed by the snow-topped Andes. And I do mean snow-TOPPED; the snow only dusts the top of the mountains. It seems that there should be more snow at this time of the year. I’ll ask Rex later.

Our trip: We enjoyed a photography trip with Rex Bryngelson of Patagonia Photo a year and a half ago to Patagonia. We signed up early for this trip to visit the Atacama Desert and Easter Island as soon as it was available. Amazingly no one else signed up so we have a private tour with Rex.

As much as I have looked forward to this trip, I did NOT race to begin our journey; I hobbled! I really messed up my knee (don’t know how) about a week or so before the trip. My doc has done her best to get me moving: two steroid shots; prednisone pills; strong painkillers and a knee brace. If worse comes to worse I can stay at the hotel while Howard and Rex visit the photography sites. But I hope it does not come to that! Since it’s a private tour I think we can fashion the trip to minimize hiking. My knee is certainly much better with all the attention Dr. Aspiras has given it but we’ll see how it goes.

The plane trip here is painful in more ways than one. Thirteen hours of flight-time seemed like twice that long. I got about 2 hours sleep at the most. My knee troubled me somewhat but I continue to take the miracle pills. But our pain is well worth it: We have a lovely apartment in Santiago (Hotel Orly) with the most comfy bed. I sleep 4 hours upon our arrival and wake up feeling like a million pesos.

It’s Saturday here. We assumed that the restaurants would be catering to the typical South American late night diners (8pm or later) so we were happily surprised to see that lunch-time dining was fully alive at 1:30pm. Rex, who will meet us here tomorrow morning, suggested we go to Liguria RestaurantHotel Liguria. It is just steps from our apartment. The joint was jumpin’! We are amazed that the restaurant, which looks like a tiny place from the outside, is much larger on the inside. Almost all tables were full. We have two servers to help us–we need an extra server to translate the menu. But before we start using brain-power in an attempt to figure out the Spanish menu, we need Pico Sours! And I must say that they are one of the best (if not THE best) Pisco Sours we’ve had; and our sample size is large.

Our Spanish-to -English waiter is great. He helps us through every line of the menu. Probably 90% of the menu is indecipherable to us. We take his recommendations to heart. We start with sauteed mushrooms, bread and pebre. Pebre, a local dish served at every restaurant to begin the meal, is salsa! And slathered on bread it is heaven. For his main dish Howard has braised pork ribs with stewed vegetables (including corn). I have a delicious white fish fillet with a perfectly cooked melange of vegetables (zucchini, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, chilies, and jicama). We have a 2011 Tabali Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo valley Chile) that is perfect. We will be hard-pressed to visit another restaurant when we come back here the day before we return home.

The restaurant is perfect for people-watching. I’d say that 75% of the tables were families. Chilean children are beautiful and incredibly well-behaved. Many exhibit affection toward their parents and each other. It is a heart-warming sight. The servers are at a near run around the restaurant. One waiter wears a jaunty beret and has a large handle bar mustache artfully waxed into giant curls on each side. The bartender is an entertainer as he shakes the Pisco Sours in his cocktail shaker.

After lunch we take a long walk around the neighborhood, including the park. About6pm we end back at the Liguria bar. (How did we get back here? Must be an alien abduction!) Of course we need another Pisco Sour fix. The restaurant is dead but we imagine that there would be another dinner rush at about 8pm.

We sleep well dreaming of the trip to come.