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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Last Post Patagonia

Every good adventure ends with a battle of wits against nature.

This is why we left our comfortable, smoggy existence in Santiago for the frontier lands of Patagonia.  Our itinerary? The classic journey to Torres del Paine, a national park comprised of glacially sculpted peaks, wind-swept valleys, and the distilled essence of Patagonia.  

We began our journey in Punta Arenas.  Closer to Antarctica than Santiago, Punta Arenas is situated on the Strait of Magellan, serving as the main port city for the region.  It was a winter wonderland of sorts, dusted with snow and lit up with Victorian mansions, churches, panaderías, and a giant, ornate cemetery with unusually cut trees.  The fanciness of the city harkens back to the wool boom of the 1800s. 

We hopscotched from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, viewing an alien landscape through the condensed windows of our bus.  Little green trees gnarled into each other and melded with the snow, giving way to hilly pastures and an expansive fjord.  Sheep roamed free and so did we.

We lucked out with lodging in Puerto Natales at Yaganhouse, a little cottage for backpackers. In town we grabbed a cheap, hardy meal and organized transport to the park.  During the winter, there is no public transportation to the park, so all rides have to be contracted through local tour companies. 

Awesome things we saw on the way to the park included:
- A big cave where Milodon fossils are found
- Flamingos in lagoons
- Lots of Andean Condors, the heaviest birds in the world (up to 50 lbs)
- Lots of guanaco
- A pack of ñandú, birds that resemble emu
- An elusive armadillo, rare in Patagonia but common roadkill in FL/TX
- waterfalls, lakes, and a red skunk

Ingratiated into nature, we reached the park entrance and got dropped off at a ranger station. We were on the wrong side of the park. All of the hiking that we had planned for had relied on starting at the other end of the park, and our plans were now moot  The rangers eyed us suspiciously. Who were these gringos trying to backpack through the park in winter? 

With a rough new plan, we ambled out of the office into the great unknown.
First up, hike to the abandoned lodge.  In summertime, a big lodge sports awesome views of the mountain for those who can afford it.  It is empty and locked in the wintertime, cemented as an eery testament to civilization amidst the howling wind and snow in the valley.  A few construction workers linger to upkeep facilities. 

We reached the lodge and set-up camp nearby, trying and failing to refill our water at one of the hotel's many closed facilities.  Making the most of limited daylight, we immediately set off on a 6 hr hike above the valley toward the rock towers, leaving our camp behind in the valley. Little did we know that we wouldn't be returning for two days. 

The hike was steep but rewarding,  climbing into a misty canyon of the mountain range toward the Torres.  We planned to walk to Refugio Chileno, another abandoned building, and then turn around and go back.  (Refugios are wood cabins staffed in the summer which hikers can stay in for a fee dorm-style) 

Several hours passed and we finally saw the refugio below us, lo and behold, with smoke rising from its chimney! There were others. 

We descended to the refugio with intentions of refilling our water bottles.  Two American backpackers greeted us, Andy and Josh.  They had huge packs and lots of ice/rock climbing gear. Beside them was a short, tough-looking Patagonian named Victor.  Victor was the lone employee of the Refugio Chileno during the winter.  He had the simultaneous roles of upkeep, repair, sherpa and rescue.  He sheltered marooned hikers out of the kindness of his heart in the closed refugio and was, as Josh put it, a man's man. He remarked (in Spanish) that we were unwise to be hiking at such a late hours in such bad weather, and offered us a night's stay in the closed refugio, free of charge. 

Andy and Josh had tried getting an up close view of the Torres earlier that day, but were stopped by waste-deep snow, low visibility, and snow tornadoes.  They had tried camping near the refugio, until Victor found them and brought them to the refugio.  Victor chuckled at the few crazy hikers who end up at the refugio every winter -- "todos locos," he said.  

It was very lucky that the refugio was "open," because as the weather worsened, so did our health.  I had been sick previously and Patience was getting hit by the worst of it.  Things would have been very bad hiking and camping in the snow.  Victor made some pasta and we ate, one big happy family in the middle of nowhere.

The next morning saw a hike further up and into the mountains.  Snow dappled pines gave way to monstrous rock faces battered by wind.  No matter how far we went, we couldn't see the Torres, the shear cliffs that make the park famous.  They were literally right in front of us, but it was cloudy and snowy and visibility was low.

We returned to the refugio and decided to hightail it out of the park with Andy and Josh.  They had organized a ride out at 4 pm.  We descended to the valley and packed our tent, which hadn't been blown away!


Then we waited to get picked up. 4 pm came and went... and then 5... and then 6, and no van came to pick us up.  Wind howled past the porch of the hotel that sheltered us and we sighed. Darkness descended.

Eventually Patience went over to talk to a construction worker parked in his truck off in the distance.  She explained our situation to him. Turns out he was very friendly, and a big fan of Florida. He let us heat up food in the same place where the construction workers eat, which was the cafeteria of the lodge itself! After breaking into the shutdown lodge, life was better.  We saw some wild foxes and devoured ramen.

Later we were herded to a random cabin where some construction workers lived.  There was a vacated room with two bunk beds where we slept.  Patagonians are very hospitable people.

The next day we walked to the nearest ranger station about 6 km away - during the walk the clouds cleared for the first time and we actually saw the Torres!

At the administration building, we found a guy with sunglass-goggles returning to Puerto Natales at noon.  Back to the real world! We went to a momma-style Chilean diner in Puerto Natales, where we found a not so friendly old man who we suspect was a Texan.  He was there for what he described as "mucho dinero" in the oil biz.  The scene was something out of an old Western:

The old Texan asked the waitress, who spoke no English, "Honey, could you give me a cerveza?"
She looked confused, and he yelled, "A CERVEZA!"
Still confused, she reached for the menu to have him to identify the item. He yelled, "does she have a problema" to everyone else in the restaurant, and screamed "Una CERVEZA" a final time.
 "I can't even get a goddamn beer in this place," he muttered as he slammed the door and walked into the rainy night.

We tipped well, had a good last stay in Puerto Natales, and traveled to Punta Arenas the next day.  We explored the chilly beach, cemetery, churches and mansions and were off, just like that, to sunny Texas and Florida.

Patagonia was as intriguing as expected.  We witnessed the raw power of nature and some breathtaking landscapes.  We were amazed and grateful for the hospitality in such an inhospitable land, and have really enjoyed Chile.


We'd like to thank everyone for reading our rambling stories.  Thank you, and good bye.

Chile Con Queso

Friday, August 8, 2014

Street Juggling

If MISTI Chile were a university this would be my thesis: The Anthropology of Street Juggling.

There are some marked differences between jugglers in the US and Chile. 

Jugglers in the US tend to be mathy people and lots of them are old with long beards or generally misanthropic appearances.  In Chile, most of the jugglers are young and have a healthy amount of tattoos and dreads.  They are youth in revolt -- skater punks who don't skate, but juggle.  Juggler punks.

American Jugglers (Left), Chilean Jugglers (Right)

Chilean jugglers not only look different, but have a completely different juggling style from peeps in the US.   There are the traffic light jugglers, the performers who run in front of cars and juggle for a few pesos during red lights. Many of them are incredibly talented, like this guy.  I think Houston could benefit from some traffic light entertainment, but people in the US are less willing to give money from their cars. In fact, street jugglers would probably get run over by some F-150s in Texas.

Juggling is much more competitive in Chile, at least in my experience. Frequent competitions take place among jugglers.  Who can juggle X trick the longest? Who can knock everyone else off their unicycles while staying on? 

All these questions and more were answered at the  juggling "encuentro" that we attended in a local park this past weekend.  Over 500 people flocked to Parque Nuñoa for a monthly meet up put on by Organic Juggling.  It was a fun afternoon participating and bearing witness to competitions like club combat, 7 ball endurance, and unicycle combat.  I like how people just meet up in parks and juggle in Chile. I think that it is the contributing factor for why such a popular "street culture" has formed.  Anyone can just drop by the park and learn and laugh with local jugglers. 

Unfortunately, I left a ball at the encuentro.  The guy who ran the encuentro contacted me, and I went to the Sunday meet-up by the art museum to retrieve it.  Little did I know what mayhem would follow. 

Being a good juggler doesn't change the fact that I'm a gringo.  Standing in a concrete ring, clearly the only gringo around,  I was pitted against some of the best Chilean jugglers in a variety of competitions.  A bunch of hoodlums shouted things in spanish that I didn't register.  This was the world cup of juggling, US versus Chile, from the looks of it. People formed a circle around us to watch. Whenever I won a competition,  the hoodlums would shout "white power!!!", and correspondingly  "black power!!!" every time I lost.  And ultimately I did lose, winning only a couple of ball trick contests.  Chile prevailed, and I said my goodbyes, impressed by the talent and rowdiness of the juggler punks. 

Winding down

Today is our last day in Santiago! Very early tomorrow morning we will leave for a 5 day journey to the heart of Patagonia. Our internships are wrapping up: Ian just has one project to finish, and I have one more participant (myself) to run with my eye-tracking experiment before I call it quits and condense all my data for analysis at some undetermined time in the future. Weeks have passed, smog levels have varied, and we have managed to make the most of the rest of our time in the city with several fun escapades. But although our last few weeks have been peppered with a) asados (Chilean barbecues), b) learning the traditional Chilean dance, "Cueca", c) meeting the new round of international exchange students who will succeed our fruitful reign, and d) having several street-encounters with Chilean jugglers reminiscent of a 90s skater movie, I'd prefer to use this blog post to reflect on our time in Chile as a whole... cue slow acoustic guitar.

Concerning Chileans:
 I will miss the look of pleased surprise I receive when Chileans realize I speak Spanish. I will not miss the frustration I feel when they use that as an excuse to start talking to me in rapid, slurred Chilean slang.

One of the strangest encounters I've had with a Chilean: One day, when I was walking my oh-so-scenic walk to work in the rain, and I encountered a puddle too huge for me to walk through or jump over. Before I could simply walk around it, a  Chilean ran up to me with a big smile, holding a long piece of plywood over his head. He set it over the puddle in front of me, forming a make-shift bridge. Once I had crossed, he shook my hand, picked up the board, and scurried off into the rain.

Several other MISTI students are in agreement with this statement: Chilean waitresses are the sassiest waitresses you will ever meet. Prepare to feel uncomfortable and/or insecure after an encounter with one.

I took three tap classes in Santiago. It's the first time someone has shouted "Arriba!" at me while I tap danced.

In general, Chileans aren't quite as outgoing as some other countries, but if you initiate a conversation with one, they will often be incredibly friendly, giving you advice on where to go, what you see, possibly even inviting you to tea or introducing you to people who can aid you in your travels.

Chileans eat everything with a knife and fork. This includes pizza, hamburgers, and sandwiches.

Concerning traveling in Chile:
Chile has great traveling infrastructure: buses and flights criss-cross the whole country. Just make sure you're not getting a crappy deal as a foreigner: when Ian and I checked "United States" as our country of origin on the official LAN airlines website, the prices were nearly 40% higher than they were when we checked "Chile"...

Chileans will be very confused if you visit non-touristy parts of the country. For example, when we went to Constitución, we asked at the train station if there was a place we could find visitors' information or a map, and he just gestured to the town around him and said, "For a town this small? Not necessary."

When you're traveling in Chile, it will be obvious right away that you're not from Chile, but beyond that they have no idea. I've pulled off telling people I'm English, Australian, and I've had people ask me if I was from Paris or Spain.  On the other hand, it's surprisingly common when you're walking in El Centro for vendors to start following you, trying to talk to you in English just because you're white. I bet the white Chileans that vendors must inevitably accidentally do this to get really annoyed.

And thus ends our Penultimate Post. I hope that our readership has enjoyed "Chile con Queso" thus far, and that they eagerly await our 15th and final chapter, recounting breathtaking tales of Patagonia and Torres del Paine, undoubtedly told by Ian since he gets to write all the exciting posts.

...We will miss you, Santiago!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Chile Galactica

After returning from Easter Island we couldn't get into our apartment.

Had our apartment been robbed? Had the giant stone statues cursed us? 

It turns out that our landlady thought that we were skipping out on rent because of a problem with one of our credit cards.  It didn't help that we were completely isolated from civilization while she tried to contact us for four days. She ended up replacing all the locks.  Unable to get in, we dejectedly journeyed through the night our landlady's apartment, where she gave us a new set of keys.  Back again!

Weeks have passed, weeks which I'm sure Patience will do justice in another post.

One day, all of a sudden, Chile galactica began. 

We took a night bus to the misty port city of La Serena.  Aptly named, La Serena is a serene place.  No one was out Saturday morning as we made our way through a desolate South American suburbia to the beach. 

We saw a big cannon and picked up a few rocks. This rock collection was particularly exciting for me. 

We headed to a now lively city center and walked around an artisan market, some churches, and, surprisingly, a Japanese garden.  Japan and La Serena have several corporate partnerships, so Japan donated a garden to the city.  Turns out lots of Asian countries set up shop in Chile, even North Korea!

From La Serena we headed to Vicuña in search of stars.  The desert hills surrounding Vicuña offer some of the clearest skies in the world for stargazing.  Billion dollar telescopes have been built by Europe and the US to advance the knowledge of our universe.  We took a tour to an observatory and it didn't disappoint.  With the Milky Way stretching all the way across the sky and constellations like Scorpio and the Southern Cross easily visible, the night sky was the best I've ever seen.  Through the telescope we saw several star clusters, Mars, the rings of Saturn, and some nebulae.

Earlier that day, we visited an entymological museum (insects) and a giant Pisco plant (Capel).  Pisco is a very popular Chilean brandy made with a special grape native to South America.  Both Chile and Peru claim to be the inventors of Pisco.  Chile even renamed a city "Pisco Elqui" to assert its claim.  We took an on-site tour of the plant and saw lots of fermentation and bottling stations, not to mention fields of Pisco grapes stretching across the desert.  Good times in Norte Chico.

The coming weeks are some of our last.  In preparation for Patagonia we have a lineup of asados and feasts.  I recently discovered a cache of jugglers in Parque Forestal, the huge park that we live by. They made me aware of a 700-person juggling convention this Saturday in another park in Santiago.  Exciting times ahead!

Sunday, July 13, 2014


What is Easter Island really?

We can finally take a stab at this question after our four day journey to the island.
Half of this entry will be written by Patience, the other half by Ian (we will leave distinction to the reader).  So, what is Easter Island?

1. A speck in the Pacific -  Easter Island may have 60,000 tourists a year, but it ain't easy to get to. The island is over 1,000 miles from the nearest populated point (Pitcairn Island) and is over 2,000 miles from Chile.  The island comprises a triangle about 15 km to a side, and is composed of volcanoes that will one day subduct into the ocean, along with the entire island.  We took a five hour flight from Santiago to Honga Roa, the only town on the island and the only place to stay.

2. An unsuspecting land of legend -  Captain Cook puzzled over why anyone would want to live on Easter Island after discovering the speck in the 1700s. The island has almost no trees and is covered in hills overlooking rocky cliffs that make agriculture and fishing difficult.  The hostile land belies the legends that it holds.  Upon Cook's discovery, only about 2,000 Rapa Nui people remained on the island, down from an estimated 15,000 at one point.  The Rapa Nui civilization peaked and plummeted after overusing its resources and descending into conflicts between two levels of a Polynesian social hierarchy.  Little remains of the Rapa Nui culture besides the language and a thin line of oral legend, and an impressive amount of HUGE stone statues scattered around the island.

3. An open air museum - From the natural scenery to the hundreds of statues (moai, as they're called), Easter Island is truly an open air museum and an archaeological treasure.  Moai ring around the perimeter of the island, facing into the island. They are giant stone humanlike figures carved from volcanic rock that weigh several tons each. To this day, no one knows how the statues were moved from the rock faces from which they were carved to the beaches they protect. Be it aliens or clever lever systems, the mystery surrounding the moai and their movement adds to Easter Island's mystical feel.  We explored many a moai on Easter Island and also went to where they were carved, Rano Raraku (see full story below).

4. Hitchhiker's paradise -  Easter Island is not only a paradise for giant stone statues, but also for hitchhiking, regular hiking, and stray dogs.  The island is, with the exception of Honga Roa, a Chilean national park, and is littered with trails and overgrown paths along cliffs and up volcanoes. The few roads are frequented by tourists who rent cars and some friendly locals, so hitchhiking is easy. We hitchhiked successfully four out of four attempts during the trip: once with two Chilean women, once with a local fisherman, once with some multinational bros, and once with a Rapa Nui family.  Hiking free range across open land was a great way to get away from it all. We saw many a crater and picked up a few dog companions along the way.

5. Isla de Pascua - Easter Island has been annexed by Chile following a turbulent history of war, plague, and slave raids.  The island functions as a Chilean resort, to the expense and benefit of the local Rapa Nui people. Chilean control has caused many property conflicts and some vehement protests by locals. Tourism is the island's only source of income, and as such is embraced by everyone.  Most things are imported to the island besides a small selection of local produce, and prices are high -- triple Chilean price.  That being said, we camped and cooked and ended up doing the trip quite cheaply. Enough with definitions, what did we actually do?

We landed on Thursday morning, and wandered around the only city (Hanga Roa) for about an hour before finding our campsite.

Once settled at the "Mihinoa" campground, complete with a kitchen, lockers, bathrooms, and a lawn for tents to be pitched, we feasted on peanut butter sandwiches and began a hike up the coastline to see our first moai. You can see them all over the island, but there's a fair concentration of them right where the city is. We saw three within our first hour of walking. We ate dinner at a little restaurant on the edge of the city that served delicious Chilean-style food (although we did our best to distance ourselves from Chile, the predominant fair was still empanadas and pollo asado). Then we walked back to the campground as the sun set, played some cards, and went to sleep.

The next day our goal was to reach Orongo, a ceremonial village east of the city. After buying some  local-grown bananas (which were shorter, thicker and more delicious than any bananas I've ever had, grown in an agricultural cave by some sorcery), we started a hike there from the city. A dog started following us, which apparently is a very common ocurrence. We ignored him, figuring he would lose interest after a couple minutes- but he followed us for the entire three-hour hike to Orongo! The hike was lovely, guiding us through fields, forests, and up a volcano to the breathtaking view of a vast oceanside crater. 

 We walked around the edge of the crater to the ceremonial village, Orongo, where the Rapa Nui people resided long ago . A collection of very low stone houses had tiny crawlspaces for doors. They rested on a cliff overlooking a bare rock island a bit off the coast - apparently back in the day, competitors used to race across the treacherous waters to this rocky speck, climb the steep rock walls and seek the egg of a certain species of bird. The first one to bring an undamaged egg back would determine who was the "Birdman", ruler of the island, for the following year. A strange standard for one's government, but it worked for them.

After touring the stone ruins, we had lunch overlooking the crater, and then started walking. The dog that was still following us picked up three new dog friends, who joined him in his dogged (haha) pursuit of us.

They probably would have followed us all the way back to Hanga Roa if we hadn't caught a ride with two Chilean women. The dogs watched us climb into the vehicle with dismay and ran hopelessly behind the car until it was out of sight.

We returned to Hanga Roa much earlier than expected- the trip to Orongo was expected to take all day, but it only took about 5 hours. We went to an ice cream shop, and were wondering what to do with ourselves for the remainder of the day when a French man interrupted our musings. He explained that his family of four wanted to go on a boat tour of the southern shore, but the tour company would only take them out with five or more willing customers. He asked if we wanted to join, and we did! Snorkeling was included, and though the family weren't interested in submerging themselves in the notoriously cold Pacific, we were down, and were given wetsuits and goggles to try on.

Out in the water, we were dropped off by the boat near the island where Rapa Nui used to race to get bird eggs - sheer cliffs surrounded us, and huge ocean swells  lifted us like we were tiny corks. There wasn't much to see in terms of marine life- some brown coral, needle fish, a couple little yellow fish- but the water was incredibly clear, clearer than anywhere I've ever snorkeled before.
After snorkeling and a windy boat ride back, we were tired. We trudged back to Mihinoa, showered and hung out for a bit (I read a few chapters of Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy).

A Canadian couple (from Northern Alberta) who had already been on Easter Island for 10 days engaged us in conversation. Hearing that we were planning to go to Anakena Beach the next day, they offered to split the cost of a taxi with us, which we readily agreed to. We met up with the couple the next morning around 9, got a taxi and enjoyed a scenic ride along the mountainous coast to Playa Anakena.

Our time at Playa Anakena can only be described as a perfect beach day - the sun was hot, the water was clear, and the moai were, as always, watching us silently. Ian and I hiked around grassy hills surrounding the beach to get a good view, then settled down in the abandoned lifeguard tower for lunch, where we saw a herd of wild horses run across the beach, like something out of a storybook:

Around 2 we reunited with the Canadian couple and started a trek to Rano Raraku, the quarry where the Moai were originally carved hundreds of years ago. It would've been a long walk, but we were driven halfway there by a friendly multi-lingual native who was on his way to go spear fishing, and the rest of the way by a truck-full of international bros (there's no other way to describe them- one was from Alberta and our Canadian friends bonded with him).

Rano Raraku was possibly the coolest thing we saw while we were on Easter Island. First we passed an ahu (platform) with 15 moai. It was incredible.

 Then we went up to the quarry - there were moai sticking out of the ground for miles around the site, moai that had broken while they were moving them, moai that for no known reason had been abandoned only a few hundred feet into the journey. There were huge gaps in the walls of stone where moai had clearly been carved out- and even some half-carved moai that had never been finished, including the enormous one chillaxing in the picture below.

We also visited a big crater lake, which was, of course, breathtakingly beautiful, and then caught the taxi back to Hanga Roa. That night, Ian and I went to a "no-frills den with momma-style empanadas" (as described by Lonely Planet) and had huge, delicious fresh tuna empanadas for dinner.

The next day, we were uncertain of what do with ourselves: it was raining, and we were tired, but felt like we couldn't waste away one of our precious days on the island playing cards inside. We decided to make the wet trip back to the empanadas place, where we were given free tea with our meal by the kindly owner who recognized us from the night before. We played a few rounds of Vietnamese cards on the porch until the rain gave way to sunshine, then decided to embark on a hike along the coast as far as we dared to go.

We saw dramatic cliffs, crashing waves, and sea caves (one of which we took shelter in temporarily when a brief spurt of rain threatened our dryness). It was awesome. Once we reached our destination (another "ahu" platform that turned out to be just an ahu, with no moai on it), we treked back through the countryside instead of following the coast. We got a little lost, had a few nerve-wracking encounters with cows, and after finding our way to a paved road through a neighborhood got a ride from a Rapa Nui family back into the heart of Hanga Roa.

Since it was our last night, we decided to splurge on a slightly fancier dinner. We went into one of the central, touristy restaurants, where they politely overlooked our mud-streaked pants and wind-swept hair and served us a hamburger and fish.

Then we went to sleep.

The next day, our flight didn't leave until 3 so we took a quick hike to the sea caves west of our camp site, and discovered an outdoor swimming pool, beautifully paved and maintained in the midst of a labyrinth of volcanic rock. Its water came from the ocean that crashed up from the rocky coastline below.

Then we packed up our tent and sleeping bags, had some pollo asado with french fries at a restaurant by the airport, and said goodbye to the island for ever.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Industrial Beach - Weekend Warriors P. 2

From our mountain adventure we took a bus back to a city called Talca, population 200,000.

Talca is a center of Chilean agriculture and wine.  The city was close to the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake (6th largest ever recorded), and was devastated. We didn't stop in Talca for long, and changed buses to go to a smaller town by the name of Constitución.

Constitución isn't listed in any of our travel books.  Its a straight shot to the Pacific from Talca.  We headed to Constitución with no plan or conception of what was there. The town turns out to be an industrial center for timber, coal, and paper manufacturing, and is separated by a big hill from a giant timber plant.  On the other side of town, a river meets the ocean, sheltering pine forests from the ocean in a quiet cove. The scene reminded me a lot of Maine or Oregon.

Tsunami warning signs added an ominous note to the solitude, harkening back to the 2010 tsunami that killed 350 people in Constitución after the quake.  We climbed up a hill to get some great views of the timber plant, the ocean, and the town in all its splendor.  A hilltop park provided an afternoon of enjoyment from tree climbing to factory watching.

Going Timber

We asked locals about nearby hotels and walked in circles until we found them, eventually happening upon a "hostel" for a good price.  As the only guests, we had an entire house to ourselves, including several plasma TV's.  One of the TV's displayed all of the security cameras on the premise, which was somewhat disconcerting.

Patience in Blue on the Security Cam

We were just in time for the end of the Chile V. Brazil World Cup game.  Chile lost to Brazil in a sudden death kickoff by one goal after playing very well.  We were eating in an old fisherman's restaurant when the team lost.  The patrons sighed, heads hung, and all of Chile seemed sad for a couple of hours.

A walk to the market, town square, and along the cove rounded out our day in Constitución.
The next day, on my 20th birthday, we partied on a 5 hour bus ride back to Santiago, and collapsed in the apartment, eventually rallying and eating food with friends for dinner.

That's all for now, stay tuned for mystical tales from EASTER ISLAND!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Wintry Forest - Weekend Warriors P.1

About our weekend, let's start somewhere in the middle:

We were the last ones on the bus. All of the school children had departed. Even the one girl who had stared at us for a solid twenty minutes (ever seen The Ring?) had left the bus.

Confident that we had missed our stop, we rattled onward.  The driver reached the end of the line, veered through the mud to turn around, and abruptly let us out.   And there we were - Altos de Lircay Nacional Park, the gateway to the Andes.  We had made it! A sign greeted us and told us that the visitor center was a mere two kilometers ahead. 

It turns out we weren't even prepared for the walk to the visitor center.  Mud turned into knee-high snow as we slogged upward toward the building.  I was ill-equipped for the hike with tennis shoes, and Patience had boots that looked effective but still got soaked. Many of the power lines were downed, trees had fallen into the road,  and the path had an air of apocalyptic silence to it. But we were not alone. 

Several local construction workers had ventured into the snow to start re-erecting the power lines. They stared at us puzzled as we walked by, but reciprocated our greetings.  When we finally got to the visitor center, the only person in sight was a construction worker smoking on the steps of the building.   It was 4 pm, and the visitor center should have been open.  We asked the guy what was going on.  He shrugged, and casually explained that the entire park had been shut down for some time because of the snow. "No hay nadie," he said, there is no one here. 

Now we could either go back down the ice slope to a collection of houses or forge onward to a presumably snow entrenched campsite that we had read about in Lonely Planet.  We tentatively decided to continue,  and followed the downed power lines to an utterly abandoned campground. We hopped over the gate of the camp and surprisingly found a spot with no snow, setting up camp as the chill of darkness descended.  The setting was tranquil and eerily silent, and I  was unnerved by some scat I found near our site, convinced that it was a mountain lion's. The sunset was fantastic, and we had truly escaped humanity in a mountain oasis. 

         Gratuitous sunset pics: campsite + Patience [left]
                                              mountain valley [right]


My sleeping bag had its temperature limits tested during the night, and at sunrise we broke camp and decided to hightail it out of the park.  Though beautiful, the trails would be suicidal in the snow drifts, and we were out of food.  We descended to the park entrance, and the walk was better than before because the snow had iced over. Patience felt like Legolas, skimming on top of the snow instead of sinking. Ian felt more like a mentally impaired penguin. 

After returning to the collection of houses below, we found a cabin serving hot tea and coffee. We were poised to catch the next bus, an infrequent occurrence! To our shock, a tour bus arrived, and let out a bunch of people at the entrance of the park.  Who were all these tourists entering the remote snowscape that we had just survived?  We immediately felt less awesome. Onward to the beach!