Monthly Archives: September 2014

Atacama Llamas

We had been warned that Santiago’s weekday morning traffic combined with Byzantine procedures at the airport would conspire to make our departure from Santiago to the Atacama desert a major headache. This proved not to be so: 50 minutes after the van pulled away from our hotel (admittedly in very heavy traffic) we were sitting at the gate waiting to board.

Nothing to see here, folks. Welcome to the Atacama.

We flew two hours northward over featureless dun-colored desert, with no obvious vegetation and the bleakness broken only by the snow capped Andes in the distance (photo at left). It resembled more the most desolate parts of the American desert than the Australian outback, the latter being far more generously vegetated and famously red in color. Not this place: it was big and hostile looking, like Death Valley with the color saturation slider turned way down.

We landed in the copper mining town of Calama, which is very much the image of a 21st century company mining town, which is to say spare and blocky-looking, comprising large blocks of prefab company-owned houses that the employees can buy for themselves. And that is what they do, since there is no place to commute from. Calama has a population of 200,000, virtually all of them mine employees and their families.

At this point you may have done a quick mental calculation along the lines of, let’s see, if every mine employee is married and has 2 children, that means that 50,000 work at the mine. How the hell can 50,000 people work at one mine? And the answer is: it’s one flabbergastingly big mine. Calama is the home of the Escondida mine, the largest copper mine on the planet, an open-pit mine that you could probably see from the Moon if you squinted real hard. Escondida processes 40,000 tons of ore into 1,000 tons of copper per day. That’s a whole lot of digging and refining.

And it uses a whole lot of power. Calama is adjacent to a field of 43 wind power stations, insectoid behemoths pretty much identical to the ones you see in California and the American southwest. Each unit produces 2.5 megawatts, for a total of about 100 MW, all of which is for the mine. Which sounds like a lot until you learn that it’s barely a marginal help, providing only 5% of the mine’s energy needs. In other words, Escondida gulps 2 gigawatts of power, about the same as — wait for it — San Francisco. Urp.

If you’re not employed at the mine then there really is no earthly reason to remain in Calama, and we didn’t. We were met at the airport by our local guide, Camillo, and our driver, Mario. The eight of us plus tour leader Julio climbed into the van and we trundled off into the wasteland, driving past the wind farm and for mile after miles seeing not much of anything at all, not even a blade of scrub vegetation. Just brownish rocks and dirt, and the ubiquitous Andes in the distance.

The guanaco, when you’re too hip for llama and can’t afford vicuña

We did, however, encounter an animal that we had never seen or even heard of before, three of them in fact. That would be the guanaco, and you can see my shot of it at right. It is one of four members of the camelid family (or genus, or whatever it is) that are found in Chile, the four being the llama, the alpaca, the guanaco, and the vicuña, in increasing order of how expensive their wool is. Guanacos are found mostly in the southern part of the country, down in Patagonia, and it is unusual to see them here, so we were lucky. The other important fact that I can tell you about them is that they are delicious. More on that shortly.

After an hour and a half we stopped at an outdoor museum featuring a short walking trail past some rock formations decorated with quite ancient petroglyphs. The original inhabitants, the Atacameños, were nomadic and moved around here some 5000 years ago. Eventually they figured out how to domesticate llamas, which enabled them to eventually transform into first a semi-nomadic and later sedentary culture. So llamas were a real big deal to them, and depictions of them account for a good half of the petroglyphs. As the Atacameños settled down their petroglyphic subject matter became more diverse: we saw depictions of people, foxes, and even a flamingo. (I am guessing that the flamingos marked their final steps into a sedentary culture: “Hey, why don’t we stand up this dead flamingo in front of the hut? It’ll really add some class to the neighborhood.”)

We climbed in elevation after that stop, and our next destination, at 10,000 ft elevation, was the aptly-named Rainbow Valley. Paradoxically, as we approached it the terrain, while hardly more inviting, became incrementally less bleak as some spare sage-like vegetation appeared, fed by underground springs. Adjacent to the Rainbow Valley, in fact, was an anemic little river. You would not want to drink the water or bathe in it though: the source spring waters percolate through all the volcanic rock, causing the mineral content of the water to be spectacularly high. So high, in fact, that the rocks in and around the stream, and even the soil, are limned in white salt and gypsum deposits.

The Rainbow Valley gets its name from the deposits of assorted reddish, green, and white minerals that color the rocks. (The “Italian Flag Valley” would also be an apt name. )

Rainbow Valley, molto bella!

The reddish stuff is clay, the white primarily gypsum as I mentioned, and the green stuff some mineral I had never heard of. (I was guessing olivine, which turned out to be wrong.)

We lingered and walked around for perhaps 45 minutes, pausing for a moment at Julio’s suggestion to savor the silence, which but for the wind was total. No cars or industrial sounds, not even any birds or insects… Literally just the wind. It was an odd and unexpectedly satisfying sensation.

Another hour or so of driving brought us past a few scenic viewpoints (“Look! More blasted wasteland!” Good thing we like deserts.) and a steep downhill drive to about 8000′ elevation. By now we were approaching the small town of San Pedro, and about 20 minutes outside it we stopped for dinner at a beautiful rustic family restaurant that was about as far off the beaten path as any restaurant could be and still exist. It was situated literally at an oasis, with a small green vegetable and livestock farm out back among the trees. The dining room had a high ceiling made of woven bamboo, secured to rough word cross beams with leather straps, some of them with the original owners’ fur still attached.

The menu was genuine local family fare, meaning that at least some of the ingredients were unfamiliar to us, and others presented in unusual form. For starters we were served some kind of sweet biscuit made from the flour of a locust-like nut; then a fresh tomato, onion, and quinoa salad, followed by a main course of guanaco and rice. Guanaco, it turns out, must be slow cooked for 4-6 hours in order to not taste like leather, but the result is a lot like good brisket. (The universe will now pause for a moment while my mother reads that last sentence and comments, “It’s not as good as MY brisket!” You’re right, Mom, it wasn’t. But it was really good.)

I do not even have the vocabulary to describe desert. At first glance it appeared to be chocolate mousse with chopped nuts on top. Wrong on both counts. The “mousse” was actually a mousse-like purée of a seed called chañar, which I have never heard of but which I can report does taste sort of chocolatey; the topping was not chopped nuts but rather puffed quinoa. They were like little tiny popcorn pieces, crunchy and fluffy. I’d buy a bag to snack on if that were possible. (And now that we’re in San Pedro, maybe it is.) Anyway, it was a wonderful meal, and afterwards we went back into the kitchen to chat with the family members — mother and two daughters — who made it.

San Pedro is quite small, with a population of about 1500 who make their living off tourism. The town itself is a several-block maze of narrow, winding streets between high red adobe walls, each one of which appears to sequester some kind of tourist lodging. Everything is only a single story tall, and the most striking thing about the town is that it is overlooked — from what one hopes is a safe distance — by a very tall, snow capped Andean volcano, quite perfect in its classic conical symmetry. (If you ask an artistically inept person like myself, or a 7 year old, to draw a volcano, this is the one they would draw. I will try and get a photo tomorrow.)

Our hotel is basic but attractive and comfortable, equipped with a swimming pool and (as you know since you are reading this) wifi. Tomorrow, more exploration of the Atacama.

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Categories: Patagonia | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Santiago vs Coney Island

What, you may ask, do those two titular locations have in common? The answer is: hot dogs. Santiagans (?) just love hot dogs. (And I am warning you now, I better not see any “Chile dog” puns in the comments section of this post.) 

We arrived at our hotel well before 10 AM, hours too early to check into our room, and so our tour lead Julio (about whom more later) had arranged for a local tour guide, a pleasant mid-30ish woman named Miriam, to talk us out of our fatigue — we had left our house 18 hours earlier and flown through the night — and lead us on a few hour walking tour of downtown first. And so we rode the subway downtown and saw the government palace, the main square, a church, and a large number of hole-in-the-wall hot dog restaurants.

Ya got your hot dog, your hot dog, and your hot dog.

No joke. We were solemnly informed that Santiagans’ favorite food is sandwiches, and hot dogs are the sandwich of choice. As nearly as I can tell from their menus, all such hot dog joints offer the following: the “Italiano” (includes tomato, guacamole and mayo toppings to duplicate the color of the Italian flag, and no, I am not kidding), the “Completo” (tomatoes, relish), and a combination platter that is two hot dogs, being (wait for it) an Italiano and a Completo. That’s it. No fries, no salads, no anything. Ya got your Italiano and your Completo and that’s it. Don’t like the choices? There’s another hot dog place half a block away with the same menu. The hot dog lobby is apparently really influential here in the capital. Our particular choice of dining establishment is shown at left. (Note the crazy-looking prices: there are about 600 Chilean pesos to the dollar, but just to confuse things they use the $ symbol. The total tab for lunch was six bucks.)

I should add that while the hot dogs themselves were unremarkable, the rolls were excellent, yeasty fresh Italian rolls like you might get on a good cheesesteak in Philadelphia. Miriam informed us that Chileans are real bread snobs and eat a lot of it.

But let me now turn back the clock to several hours earlier. Our flights were uneventful except for the guy who keeled over in the aisle between Alice and me for causes unknown. He just fell over with a loud thump, stared semiconsciously at the ceiling for a minute or so while everyone went nuts, and then with some help got up, apparently none the worse for wear.

The red eye flight from Miami to Santiago was on the much touted spanking new Boeing 787, which you may recall from news items a few months back is notable for being quieter and more fuel efficient than most big jets as well as (a) having more frequently circulated and better humidified air inside, and (b) being grounded with regularity because of its high-tech lithium batteries’ predilection for catching fire. I can report that it is noticeably quieter and less dry than most jets, that the batteries did not catch fire, and that it still felt like a cattle car with no legroom.

We arrived in Santiago at about 7:30 AM and were met by our tour lead, the almost-34-year-old Julio (he’ll turn 34 next week when we’re in Buenos Aires). Julio is slight of stature, cheerful as you might expect, and speaks lightly accented but essentially perfect English. He has an elfin face that makes him look like a young, Latin Martin Short. For this Santiago and Atacama leg of the tour there are only eight of us besides Julio; we will join up with the remaining dozen in Buenos Aires. I not unexpectedly am the baby of the group, who appear to range from mid-60s to late 70s. There is only one other couple in the group, a mid-70’s pair who as it happens are practically our neighbors, hailing from just over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Their names are Jean and Dick. Jean (75) is outgoing, Dick (77) is taciturn, and they are both extraordinarily well-traveled: this is their 22nd (!) trip with our tour operator (Overseas Adventure Travel, OAT).

This makes me the Young Buck of the group, an unfamiliar status. Other than Dick, the remaining travelers are all ladies of a certain age, all pleasant enough. Alice and I were however both concerned about one robust, kind-looking, and somewhat out of it lady who had a lot of difficulty keeping up with the group; our fears came to life about a half hour into our downtown outing when she came close to fainting on a street corner and had to be taken back to the hotel. Happily the rest seems to have revived her, or it was gonna be a long few days in the Atacama.

Downtown Santiago is pleasant though not especially photogenic. It is a mix of shiny skyscrapers that would be at home in any American city, and smaller and more ornate government buildings in a European colonial style. The streets are broad and, we are told, crowded with commuters and pickpockets on crowded weekdays. (Today is Sunday, so the city was very uncrowded.) There are scattered pleasant pedestrian walkways lined with shops and restaurants, also very European in appearance. There are American-style homeless people and lots of stray dogs, the latter being very popular with locals, who sort of adopt them without ever taking them home.

I should mention something about one of those shops in the pedestrian area. We passed a coffee shop that had a lot of waist-high outdoor tables but no chairs; the patrons all stood. Our city guide Miriam said that such places were called “coffee shops with legs”, and could we guess why? Obviously because the patrons are standing, we all said. Nope, explained Miriam, look at the waitresses inside.

Hmmm, the waitresses were wearing little micro-miniskirts, sort of a cross between Hooters and Starbucks, hence the “legs” part of the sobriquet. In fact (Miriam explained) there are more such coffee shops in somewhat less public venues in which the waitresses wear significantly less. Those places are called “coffee shops with milk.” And finally, in reaction to both of these, a group of women opened a chain of places served by scantily-attired Chippendale-like men — think Speedos and bow ties. But instead of attracting women — and you knew this was coming — they became gay hangouts instead, a concept with which Chileans are a whole lot less comfortable than Americans. So the experiment failed… but not before they became hilariously known as “coffee houses with three legs.” 

Airtight security on horseback

The government palace faces a large unadorned square, and seems rather thinly guarded: two sentries at the front, a couple patrolling the square, and two ornately-dressed mounted soldiers. All seemed friendly; the mounted guards allowed people to pet the horses and have their picture taken between them. At the edge of the square stands a memorial statue to Salvador Allende, decorated with a few recently-placed bouquets of roses. The coup and subsequent Allende era are, needless to say, a rather sore subject that few Chileans wish to discuss: despite an era of South Africa-like “truth commissions” designed to effect reconciliation and put the past to rest, those who lost loved ones to the disappearances and violence — and there are many of them — understandably feel that the past is being whitewashed.

After our walking tour we returned to our hotel for a desperately-needed shower and nap. Much refreshed, Julio then took the eight of us out to a fine dining restaurant on the 16 floor of a nearby building. The menu was seafood (a Chilean specialty)  and we had hake, which was excellent. The real treat, though, was the setting: the restaurant rotated about once per hour, offering a comprehensive panoramic view of the nearby Andes mountains on one side of the city and the lower coastal range on the other. Here’s a bit of the view at sunset:

The Andes plus fresh seafood, viewed from 16 stories up. What’s not to like?

The foothills of the Andes to the east of the city are Santiago’s high-rent district; there’s more or less an affluence gradient as you move from west to east, starting with the lower economic end at the coastal range, moving through town, and then east into the Andes. Our city guide Miriam informed us that it’s the ritzy neighborhoods that get all the good restaurants, noting sardonically that these included Ruby Tuesday’s and Applebee’s. (I wonder if I can still get my Goddard discount at the Santiago Ruby Tuesday’s?)

And that, gentle readers, was our first day of the trip. We’ll be back in Santiago in a few days, but tomorrow morning we fly north to the town of Calama, then go overland to the village of San Pedro de Atacama, in the desert of the same name.

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And We’re Off….

We are about to depart on our flight to Miami, where we pick up a redeye to Santiago, Chile, for the first leg of our journey. So now would be a good time to set the stage for our destination.

Chile, as you know, is that long skinny country that runs down the west side of lower South America. With the highest GDP on the continent, its main exports are minerals, wine, salmon, and bad puns involving the country’s name. Indeed, Chile is part of a selective UN voting bloc of only three countries, the other two being Turkey and Hungary, representing Countries Whose Names Remind You of Food. (Greece is a provisional member.)

The country is a stable democracy but as you probably know has had a tumultuous history. The first European to lay eyes on it was Magellan in 1520, and in the decades that followed the Spanish did what they were best at in those days, which is that they colonized the place and made it a living hell for everyone. The country was granted independence in 1810 and kind of puttered along with a series of governments into the 20th century.

Things got really interesting in 1970 with the election of Salvador Allende, whom the US did not like, not at all. They feared that he was a Marxist who would destroy the Chilean economy, get into bed with Cuba, and consort with the KGB. Somewhat uncharacteristically, these all turned out to be true. And so the US government did the logical thing, which was to engage him in dialog while strengthening ties with Chile’s neighbors and applying political and economic pressure to exact peaceful change.

Ha ha! Just kidding! We used the CIA to support a coup, of course. In fact, the only surprising thing is that we didn’t actually bomb the country, but that’s probably because Predator drones had not yet been invented. Anyway, the coup brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power in 1973, and as in many such CIA interventions the country settled into an era of comparative peace.

pinochet

Don’t be fooled by the white gloves.

Whoops!  That was a typo, no doubt some kind of autocorrect error. The correct sentence should read “…an era of unparalleled violent political repression.”  Pinochet was a tyrant of surpassing cruelty, whose habit of wearing a white uniform made him look like ironically like a particularly snooty doorman (see photo at left). Plus, his name sounds like some kind of wine. (“Try the Pinochet ’78. It has an oaky nose with notes of vanilla, licorice, and kidnapping and torturing thousands of political opponents.”)

Well, the economy did substantially approve, but at a hideous price. Tens of thousands “disappeared” under Pinochet, and things got so awful that even his own henchmen got uncomfortable. In the late 80’s things loosened up considerably, to the point that Pinochet assented to hold a plebiscite for him to remain in office. The vote was pretty much rigged but Pinochet remarkably managed to lose anyway, and left the country in 1990, and an actual legitimate government was seated. Things have actually gone pretty well since then, with a lot of economic growth and an actual democracy.

Among other things, the country has become quite the astronomy mecca. The Andes and Atacama Desert (the latter being our second destination) are the hosts of the largest collection of observatories in the world. The Atacama site in particular is one of the best telescope sites on the planet, comparable to Mauna Kea in Hawaii. More on Atacama when we get there in a few days.

But first, we will have a day or two in Santiago, the capital and largest city. Officially founded in 1541, it is named after Saint Iago, the highly-specialized Patron Saint of Unctuous Evil Manservants Who Trick Their Masters Into Murdering Their Wives.  No, wait, that’s not right. I may be confusing him with Saint Uriah Heep; they’re a lot alike. Never mind. I am confusing the Dickens out of my Shakespeare.

Santiago is actually named after Saint James of Spain. It has a population of about 4M and sits in a bowl-shaped valley, one consequence of which is that it is known for having the worst pollution in the country. But it is otherwise supposed to be a very pleasant city. I have a lot of astronomer and other friends who have visited here who speak highly of it. But we’ll know more ourselves in a day or so. Stay tuned.

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Heading to the Deep South – the REALLY Deep South

We never do things simply.

We never do things simply.

It’s time to hit the road again, and by “road” I mean “about ten different airline flights to get someplace really really far away.” Our destination is Patagonia, the southernmost tip of South America, named after a line of expensive thermal underwear (or possibly vice versa).

Our route is shown in red on the image above, which in case you are disoriented is the southern part of South America, tilted 45 degrees clockwise to fit in the frame. We leave on Sept 27, starting in Santiago, Chile, and our route follows the red line in a sort-of-clockwise way, with the following high points:

  • Santiago
  • Chile’s Atacama desert, the driest in the world
  • Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Our tour includes a tango lesson, which I look forward to not participating in.)
  • Tierra del Fuego
  • Cape Horn
  • 5 days on a boat through the Beagle Passage from Cape Horn to the southern Patagonia ice fields (seasickness alert!)
  • Iguassu Falls (highest volume waterfalls in the Western Hemisphere – about twice the size of Niagara)

Cape Horn, of course, is the southernmost point in the world outside of Antarctica itself. At just shy of 56 degrees south latitude, it is by a wide margin the furthest south we will ever have been. (Our current record is Lake Manipouri, New Zealand, at 45.5 degrees south.)

We return home on October 19.

Packing for this trip is proving to be a challenge for much the same reason that our Australia/New Zealand trip was a year ago: we will be experiencing a ridiculously wide range of climates. The Atacama Desert will by dry with moderate temperatures during the day and chilly at night; Buenos Aires will be warm and humid; Cape Horn and the boat ride will likely be cold, rainy, and very windy; and Iguassu Falls will be a tropical rainforest with temperatures in the 90’s. And so of course we are allowed only one suitcase, which just about holds my camera equipment.

We will be off the grid for at least part of the trip, but when we are blessed with Internet connectivity I will try and keep the blog updated.

Categories: Patagonia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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