Tag Archives: Chile

How do you wrap up 9 months of travel??

Us at Lunch
Us at Lunch in Ollantaytambo

In less than 2 weeks time, we return to our homeland after 9 months of travel in South America. I have been reflecting on this and thinking of how I can distill this amazing time into one blog post and its really not easy. Just scroll down and go back to each month since December 2009 and you will see that we have seen and done and experienced so much.

It has been an amazing privilege to have been able to do this at this time in our lives….to coin a cliché, it has been life changing and I really mean that. South America has been an amazing place to explore, we have travelled through Argentina, Chile, Peru and were fortunate enough to go to Antarctica for 11 days. These experiences have shaped our thinking, moulded our ideas and brought us to the cliff edge of things that we never thought we would experience in our lifetime, let alone in 9 months.

We have been to one of Earths Last Edens…Antarctica. A place that truly embodies everything it is made out to be and so much more. It is almost like landing on another planet, a planet untouched by human habitation, unblemished by mans greed and materialism, a place of audible silence and silent magnificence. It is a place unlike any other I have visited and probably will remain so. To say that Antarctica is breathtaking is an understatement, to say it is majestic, does it no justice, you simply have to see it to believe it…and I believe that I will go back and see it again. The reason for this lengthy discourse is because on our way to Antarctica was one of my first crazy experiences that defined part of this trip. Our experience happened in the Drake Passage, the foreboding, treacherous stretch of sea from Ushuaia in Argentina to Antarctica. It was here, while “crossing the Drake” as it is known, that we experienced one of the most frightening experiences on this trip. On the morning of the second day we hit a gale force storm at sea that lasted for 2 and a half days. Massive 15 meter swells threatened to rupture our vessel, the sea angrily frothed and battered our ship. Fortunately it was a former Chilean navel ship and was built to cross the Drake Passage and was designed for precisely those conditions, but still, the water was a dark inky colour and ferociously smashed against the ship as if trying to expel us from the passage. There was a snowstorm at sea, a horizontal snow storm, that iced the ship up, making it look like a white phantom on the black sea. The windspeed was 100km per hour which pushed our ship around like a toy boat and made the 15 m swells even more ferocious and in my opinion more spectacular. In spite of this, we landed in Antarctica, much to the joy of 90% of the passengers who had been able to keep little food and liquid down as the ship was violently tossed to and fro for 2 and a half days, an amazing experience, one not easily forgotten.

Another memorable experience was seeing the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. Before this trip, glaciers held no particular fascination for me, in fact I never really thought much about glaciers. So we left the partly frozen town of El Calafate and drove off to the National Park of the Glaciers. When you enter the park, you can’t see the glaciers, but once you round a particular bend, you get a glimpse of the massive monolithic bulk of the glacier called Perito Moreno. It is a sight that I will never forget, it was astounding, bigger than I ever imagined and more spectacular than any photo could ever convey. Once we got to the top of the hill where visitors can walk on a boardwalk to get a closer view of the glacier, you realize that we are very small beings in comparison to the sheer size of a force of nature that is a glacier. Perito Moreno Glacier towers 75 m above the water surface, its front wall is 5 km long and the whole glacier stretches for 30 km up the mountain valley. It is basically a moving city. It seems as if the glacier itself is alive, glaciers move as a result of pressure from ice forming high up in the valley. So when you stand in front of the glacier, it creaks, crack, groans and sounds like gunshots go off occasionally and this is because this massive ice city is edging ever closer to where we were standing. Millimeter by millimeter, this glacier moves, occasionally visitors are fortunate to witness a calving, this is when a chunk of the front wall of the glacier breaks off and a magnificent display of ice hitting water is seen. It was incredible to be standing before such a gigantic natural phenomenon and to be honest, I never wanted to leave.

Just in case we were short of experiencing natures power, we had the most terrifying experience yet, in Santiago, the capital city of Chile. We were there when an 8.8 earthquake shook half of Chile, the fifth largest earthquake on earth in the past 100 years. You can read about my remembrance of the quake here, but suffice to say that it was only the second time in my life that I truly believed that I was about to die. It is a sobering thought when you are faced with imminent death, I didn’t experience the “life flashing before me” thing, all I remember is that I was praying that it would stop. It didn’t….it went on for 2 and a half minutes, it felt like half an hour. I was genuinely surprised when it did stop and we were not dead, quite a surreal feeling of relief  and then the realization that once again, our lives had been spared, but to what end?

We moved on from Chile to Peru and in many ways Peru has been the highlight of our trip. We have loved it here and it really is an amazing place to visit. The Inca ruins and the pre Columbian civilizations remain a mystery. Machu Picchu is a site that still confounds most experts with its architecture, water systems and positioning, but Machu Picchu is only one of many such sites, some still to be discovered, Inca sites. There is a new site that has been opened up in the past few years called Choquequirao. This site, it is said, is bigger than Machu Picchu and in many cases even more spectacular if that were possible…having visited Machu Picchu, that statement amazes me and excites me.

So as we come to an end of nine months, it is impossible to summarise what we have seen, felt, done and experienced on this continent known simply as South America. We have learnt to speak a new language, even though we are not proficient, we can be understood, we have eaten unusual foods, sometimes we have not been sure what it is, but it tasted good, other times we have known what it is and it has been great (delicacies like Cuy, or guinea pig, and Anticucho, cow heart, cooked on a skewer, to name but a few)

Of course the best thing that has happened is that we have met amazing people on this trip, from university professors to cab drivers, you name them, we have met them. People from diverse backgrounds like a polish woman who escaped from Poland and sought refuge in Canada, Russian Jews who fled from Communism and rebuilt their lives in the USA, A Dutch man and his family who live in the Carribbean and are involved in helping the government of Bonaire integrate into the Dutch system. We have met Australians, New Zealanders, Orientals, Asians, Russians, Europeans from just about every country in Europe, Americans and of course Canadians. We have been astounded at how many new friends we have made and how many of them we are sure we will see again.

So at the penultimate leg of this incredible journey, we know we have managed to capture many images photographically, we have tasted new flavours physically, we have felt the violent shakes of an earthquake under our feet, but more than all of that, we have grown richer in this time. We have memories that will last as long as the rest of our lives.

We have seen things that in many cases seem unbelievable, but only when you emerge on the other side do you look back and see just what has happened. It has been an honour and a privilege, “once in a lifetime” cannot encapsulate the true meaning. Either way, we are greatly blessed to have done this and that the next leg of our journey will begin again shortly… we hope that you will travel with us again!


Altiplanica Lagoons and Salar de Atacama

High Altitude Lake Miniques

Our morning started with a visit into the heart of the Salar de Atacama, or the Atacama salt flat. Salt flat is a bit of a misnomer as the area gets almost no rain in the year and as a result, the salt crystals grow upward and look more like sharp spikes in some places. The flat areas are where underground water has created a lagoon and flattened the salt out, but in most of the Salar, the area is very rough and spiky. The lagoons in the area are home to Flamingoes, we visited the Los Flamencos National Reserve and there are 2 different types of Flamingoes there. When we were there, most had migrated, so we only saw a few. In winter is when they are in the area. The Salar de Atacama is the 3rd largest salt flat in the world, second only to Salt Lake city in the USA, the biggest is literally over the hill in Bolivia, call Uyuni Salt Flats. Salar de Atacama is 3000 square km in size, it is MASSIVE, and you cant quite comprehend it until you see it from the hills in the Andes. It is in a depression in the Andes and it is quite a site to behold.

View across the salat flat lagoons
Flamingoes sifting the water
Yes that is smoke, yes that is a volcano, Lascar Volcano

As you look out from the salt flats, you can see the big volcanoes in the area. As I did this, I saw that there was some smoke coming from one of the volcanoes on the horizon. Casually I asked our guide (almost jokingly) if the smoke was coming from the volcano or if it was a fire. “Aaaah” he remarked, “that’s Lascar Volcano , it erupts every 2 years or so, and it smokes often from the crater” He assured us not to worry, Lascar Volcano  wasn’t about to erupt, it was just letting off some steam. “You must only worry when the smoke is going straight up, then it’s a problem.” So glad we cleared that up!!! Sheesh, so Lascar smokes quite regularly and erupts every 2 years, in fact it is the most active volcano in the Andes. When did she last erupt you ask, in 2008, almost time again….

A lizard that lives on the Salt Flats, this one is for Kiara!

We then moved on to the High Altitude Lagoons, Miscanti and Miniques, these lagoons are situated at 4300m above sea level and are really spectacular in their setting. The surrounding mountains seem to hold them there and the area is rugged and beautiful. There are two lagoons up there, Miscanti and Minques  and we were fortunate to see both of them..

Miniques Lagoon

After that we went into the town of Tocanao and the nearby oasis of the Jere Ravine. It is amazing to see how life proliferates with dome fresh water, this was a true oasis in a desert and for a little while you forgot you were in the driest place on Earth.

A true oasis in the Desert!

Cejar Lagoons and Salt Flats

Francis floating in 40% salt...

Our next expedition took us to the Laguna Ceja and then the salt flats. We took a dip (or rather a float) in the actual salt lagoons. The lagoon has a 40% concentration of salt and so you can float without any effort at all.  We floated a bit and then had a mud bath, which was so salty that it stung our skin. It was amazing, the one thing is that once you get out of the lagoon, you have to wash off with fresh water to get the salt off and there is a lot of it. It gets dry and powdery on your skin, but it really is an amazing experience. After that we moved off to the salt pan for sundowners, at the end of the pan is a lake which is evaporating but it is blue and clear, simply beautiful.

Cejar Laguna, salty!
Cejar Laguna
Francis balancing on a bottle in the salt pan!
Balancing act, too much salt makes you crazy!
Lagoon on the salt pan
Salt Pan opening
Us in the salt pan

Tatio Geysers – 4320m above sea level

El Tatio in full steam

Our next excursion was to the Tatio Geysers. This is a geothermal zone high in the Andes at 4320m above sea level. The geysers are active at between 6am to 8am in the morning so we had an early start by waking up at 03:15 and being picked up at our hostel at 4am. We then drove for an hour and a half to get to the geysers. As we left San Pedro, our guide told us that we can sleep on the way (it was still pitch dark outside) but that for half the journey the road was good and for the other half the road was bad. I am not sure which half was which, the road went from bad to VERY bad, not sure which was the good part though. So we bounced and lurched our way to the Tatio Geysers, high in the mountains.  We were told to dress warmly as it was really cold in the higher altitude in the early morning. When we arrived, the temperature was – 1.5 C. As I stepped off the bus into the inky darkness, I felt the cold bite my legs (I was wearing shorts, knowing that later would be really hot) It was quite an experience to be in the middle of a desert and experiencing such cold.

Full Steam!
More Steam

We were then taken to the geysers in the valley and they were just starting to splutter to life. The sounds were amazing, it sounded like there were kettles bubbling and boiling all around us, some of the geyser had a sulfuric smell too, some stronger than others. As the sun began to come up the geysers became more and more active and the real show began, pretty soon, most of them were bubbling away happily at 85 degrees celcius, and you had to be careful where you stood, visitors to the geysers have been horribly burned by these steam plumes and 3 people have died at the geysers. Fortunately on our trip everything went smoothly and with the sun now over the ridge we saw some beautiful sights of the geysers in full steam, we were standing near one of the big ones and out guide looked at the sun and told us that within a few minutes this one would blow. Almost on cue it began to splutter and within a minute began spraying high into the air, quite an amazing sight indeed, no sooner had it done that and it died down to a splutter again, perfect timing.!

El Tatio Valley

We then moved onto the thermal pools where some people took a dunk in the warm sulfuric water. The Tatio Geysers are simply spectacular and in many ways other worldly. It again felt as if we had landed on another planet and that this was some kind of wasteland that had been forgotten. We loved it, it was amazing to see this place and to realize we were at the highest altitude we had been so far on this trip, 4320m above sea level and so deep into the Andes that we were only 7km away from the Bolivian border, we were literally in the middle of nowhere.

Valle de la Luna – Moon Valley

Valley of the Moon

Remember to click on the images, especially the Pano shots, they look much better when you they are in full size!!

Our first excursion into the Atacama Desert was into an area known as Valle de la Luna or the Moon Valley. It is called this because of the absolute starkness of the place. There is nothing here except rocks, sand and salt crystals. Nothing grows here, NOTHING! So it resembles the surface of the moon. It was a somewhat strange place, being in an area where there is no life at all, there are no bushes, trees or shrubs of any kind and so there are no birds or small animals to be seen, the place is pretty much sterile and has a stark beauty that is captivating. Also, the area gets pretty much no rain (approx 1mm per annum) so things are VERY dry. It is so dry that your nose and throat begin to dry out, it is a really unusual place. For those Star Wars fans out there, it felt as if we had landed on Tatooine (Luke Skywalker’s home planet) and I was almost expecting one of the Sandpeople to come over one of the ridges at any moment. It would not have surprised me at all to bump into any one of the Star Wars characters.

Sunset over Moon Valley
I was sure the Sandpeople were nearby!

We visited the Moon Valley in the late afternoon and watched the sunset from one of the ridges, the colours were incredible. The stark rocky valleys changed from a warm golden colour, to a rich reddish orange tone and just after the sun had set, the sky became a magnificent magenta that reflected off the volcanic sculptures and rocks, it was an incredible light display. The Moon Valley was fantastic, it was our first experience in the Desert and one that we will not easily forget.

Sunset - Volcano Licancabur in the distance
View of the Amphitheare
Valley View
Moon Valley Pano - taken from a Dune
Amazing Colours
Extreme Terrain
View into Death Valley
Death Valley
Francis on "Tatooine"
Francis enjoying the sunset!
Our guide, Hernan, Licancabur in the background!

San Pedro de Atacama

We left the veritable lushness and beauty of being at the coast at Vina del Mar and traveled by bus (for 24 hours by the way!) to the dusty town of San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro (as it is often called) is a rural adobe village in the North of Chile. It is 2436 metres above sea level and is located pretty much in the middle of the Atacama desert. It is the hub for all the excursions and activities in and around the desert and there are plenty. If you want to go into the desert on horseback, sandboard down the dunes, visit the salt flats, view Death Valley and Moon Valley, this is the place to do it all from. We decided that we would rest for a day or two, after the bus ride and then put lots of time into exploring the nearby desert and salt flats etc. So we booked our excursions up front and were flatout for the next 3 days (blogs and photos coming) but now, back to San Pedro.

It is a really quaint little village with just on 2000 inhabitants. It has pretty much all dirt road streets and almost all the buildings in the village are made of straw and mud, adobe in other words. The Church of San Pedro de Atacama is the centre of attraction in town and was declared a national monument in 1951. Instead of nails being used in its contruction, leather strips were used and the buildings walls were made of Adobe and the roof of Chanar and Algarrobo. The ceiling is covered with cactus and mixed with mud and straw. It is an impressive building and it has been amazing to see how mud homes can stand for such a long time. Of course it works pretty well here in the Atacama because the Atacama only has approx 1 mm of rain per annum…

Church in San Pedro
Side door to the church

Oh, one other thing, did I mention that there is a Volcano, a few kms from San Pedro called Licancabur? Well, there is and it is 5920m above sea level (that is a little taller than Mt Kilimanjaro)  but not very active. The really dangerous volcano is literally just down the road called Lascar Volcano and that one IS active, it is the most active volcano in the whole Andean mountain range. In fact when were on one of our excursion I saw smoke rising from its summit and the tour guide confirmed that indeed it was steam from the volcano, but not to worry as the plume was not vertical, if it is then its a problem. According to all the stats, Lascar is due to have another BIG eruption this year….fantastic!

Licancabur Volcano as seen from the Moon Valley

On our first night here we did an astronomy tour. We went out to an astronomers house in the desert and for about 1 and a half hours he told us about the night sky. The sky out here is amazing because of 3 reasons. First, there is almost no light pollution from any big city and secondly, there is very little to no cloud cover ever and thirdly there is no air pollution. So the stars seem so bright and near you feel like you can almost touch them. After his talk we then went out into the garden and he has about 8 big telescopes set up to view different part of the sky, so we got a really close up view of Saturn, Mars, the Tarantula Nebula in the Magellenic Galaxy, Omega Centauri and a portion of the Milky way. It was an amazing evening and we came back with a renewed respect of our magnificent galaxy and we realized just how small we really are when we look at the scale an size of the universe that God has created, simply astounding.

The next day we went off to the Moon Valley, that post will follow soon!

A day in the hills of Valparaiso

The neigbouring city to Vina del Mar is a harbour city called Valparaiso. It is an old city that has been built into the sides of the steep hills that surround the bay of Valparaiso. As with most harbour towns, the city centre is largely reclaimed  land and the rest of the city is built up on the hillsides.

Valparaiso Harbour from the Hilltop
Valparaiso Home and Funicular in front
Francis and Reinhardt

When we were on our Antarctic trip, we met a guy on the ship called Reinhardt. He is Chilean and lives in Santiago, but was born in Vina del Mar and knows Valparaiso well. During our stay in Vina, Reinhardt came through and visited us and took us on a days outing to Valparaiso. It was fantastic to have someone who grew up in the are show us around, as an unofficial tour guide he was amazing. He could pepper the various places with his own stories of his family who lived there and his personal experiences of being in Valparaiso as a child. Valparaiso is a city that has literally grown up on the sides of the hills. The design is incredibly haphazard and the streets have been put in place as a matter of convenience and not necessarily design. The roads in Valparaiso are therefore chaotic, they are narrow and cling to the sides of some very steep precipices. Houses too are built in a completely random manner and location. The homes are often very narrow, but high, they have great views for the most part, but if you are afraid of heights, then maybe Valparaiso is not for you!

Flower Pot in Valparaiso
Narrow house

The “old town” part of Valparaiso is magnificent. Most of the original homes still stand and they are very eclectic and are often painted with a lot of colour. They have a lot of character and many of these steep buildings are intertwined with cobbled streets and sidewalk cafes, really picturesque. Also, Valparaiso is peppered with funiculars. The funiculars take their passengers up the steepest parts of the hills, much like an elevator except up the side of a hill. These are really old, some of them dating back to the late 1800’s. We never rode on one, but watched some of them in action and to be honest they looked just a little rickety.

Francis walking down a narrow street
Front door
Sotomayor Square
Iglesia de la Matriz

From the images that I captured, you will see there are a lot of homes with Chilean flags outside their homes and windows. The Chilean government does not normally allow civilians to fly the national flag but they said that it was permissible to remember the victims of the earthquake from a few weeks before. While we were in Vina, just 2 days earlier, 3 aftershocks struck just south of Santiago, the biggest measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale. We felt the room shake for 40 seconds, and it then dissipated. Shortly afterwards we heard shouts and looked out and saw people running, Francis went outside to see what was happening and a Tsunami Warning had been issued and everyone was running to higher ground. Francis was told by the building caretaker that we needed to go to his apartment, which we did, along with a few other tenants. The building we were in was high enough above sea level to be safe, but we did notice that the sea receded a bit and became eerily calm, no waves at all for about 20 minutes. This was a sign that there was some disturbance, fortunately neither Vina del Mar nor Valparaiso were hit by a Tsunami, but a city further South was hit with a pretty big wave, incredibly sad in light of what Chile has just been through.

Chilean Flag on balcony
Chilean Flag in the Street
Chilean Flag

Chilean National Flag at the Harbour

We spent the afternoon in Valparaiso and then moved off to Vina del Mar to have some coffee on the beach at one of the beachfront restaurants, it was a great day, and we were really fortunate to have Reinhardt with us or we would never have seen Valparaiso through a locals eyes!

Castillo Wulff, the view from the restaurant