Patagonia

Sept 27 – Oct 19, 2014 in Chile and Argentina

I Go, You Go, Tierra del Fuego (Oct 6)

“You are here”, quite precisely

I am dating these next few entries because we are aboard ship as I type this and will not be be able to send them out for at least another few days. (Our ship, the Via Australis, is a small (126 passenger) “expedition” passenger ship devoid of a lot of big cruise ship amenities: no internet, no swimming pool, no movie theater, etc. It does however have an open bar; this ain’t exactly the Shackelton expedition. Anyway, more on the ship shortly.)

Ushuaia (pronounced oosh-WAH-yuh, by the way) takes its reputation as the southernmost city on the world pretty seriously, to the point of indicating the latitude and longitude of the major intersections on its street signs, as you see at left. One second of latitude is about 100 feet, and one second of longitude is only about 55 feet or so at this latitude, so you can actually see the differences in the coordinates on the signs as you walk from block to block. (The main drag of Ushuaia is a single street of crappy souvenir shops and much better restaurants, about 16 blocks long.)

The problem with the whole “southernmost” self-image — we drove past a sign advertising “the world’s most southernmost golf course” today — is that unless you are actually in Antarctica you are always on slightly shaky ground. And indeed, there is a Chilean town called Port Williams that is slightly further south than Ushuaia (which is Argentine). But Port Williams has only 1500 inhabitants versus Ushuaia’s 65,000, and so a gentlemen’s agreement — and I swear this is true — was reached whereunder each gets uncontested bragging rights:  Port Williams bills itself as the world’s most southernmost town, whereas Ushuaia is agreed to be the southernmost city. Chile and Argentina have a contentious and sometimes bellicose history, so this counts as a small victory for peace.

This is our southernmost picture, until the next one

Our main activity on Monday morning was a visit to Tierra del Fuego National Park (proof at right) which in the spirit of things I suppose is the world’s most southernmost national park. The are a number of cool things about the place, but one of them is the entrance sign itself. Note the third line from the bottom, which means “Here is the end of National Route #3”, that being the designation of the Argentine portion of the Pan American Highway. In other words, this sign sign is REALLY the end of the road.

The park itself is beautiful, the vistas strongly reminiscent of both the Pacific Northwest and many parts of Alaska: glacial moraine, cold clear lakes, snow capped mountains. We made a few easy hikes, ogled the views, got educated by our local guide Laura and the flora and fauna. The vegetation is noticeably different than the temperate zone stuff that we are used to: lots of orange-colored spherical edible fungi on the trees, Calafata berry bushes (from which one makes Calafata Sours, Patagonia’s answer to the otherwise ubiquitous Pisco Sour). The picture below gives a pretty typical sense of the place:

Nature at its almost southernmost

There was a little bit of conversational confusion with Laura as she kept referring to “Fire Land”. She was trying to be helpful, since that is the literal translation of “Tierra del Fuego”, named after the fires lit on the beach by the native Yamana and first seen by Magellan. We assured her that we called the place by its Spanish Name.

The Yamana were a hardy crew, though not hardy enough to avoid being wiped out by the Spanish. They were master canoe builders, and their designs have not yet been successfully duplicated. They were also naked, since clothes in this environment tend to get wet and stay wet, thus keeping you cold. They smeared animal fat on their bods instead. (It makes me wonder if, much as the Inuit are said to have many words for snow, the Yamana had dozens of ways to say, “Holy crap, I’m freezing my butt off.”) 

Speaking of being wiped out, another member of our traveling party did more or less that at about by tripping on a step as we were boarding the bus to leave the park. Broken wrist — she flew home from Ushuaia today. That’s our second loss, which brings the group down to 19. Julio’s not happy about it; he’s never lost two before. (And though he doesn’t know it, he’s going to get more bad news tomorrow: one of our party took sick with a cold or flu and is having trouble shaking it off. She has pretty much isolated herself in her hotel room and boat cabin, and told us in the hallway an hour ago that she is punching out too as soon as we come into port in Punta Arenas in two days.)

La specialité de maison, medieval but quite delicious

We got back from the park in time to have a late lunch before boarding the ship and decided to go full native in much the same way that we ate a whole fresh king crab for dinner the night before. The local specialty this time was barbecued lamb, and there are a large number of local restaurants dedicated to cooking mammals over wood fires and displaying the process in their windows as at left.

The waiter told us that a portion was suitable for one person, so we ordered two portions plus an appetizer. But as soon as we mentioned the appetizer (empanadas) he backpedaled and suggested that one portion of lamb might be enough, and we went with that. This turned out to be about 3 lbs of lamb on the bone, and we couldn’t finish it. But it was really good…

After lunch we walked all 16 blocks of downtown, then to the port to rendezvous with our group and board the Via Australis, which you see at right.

De boat, boss, de boat!

It’s a small, attractive ship that as I mentioned carries about 126 passengers. It has four decks plus an open top deck for panoramic viewing if you enjoy being out in the open in 40 degree weather in a 20 mph wind. The interior is quite beautifully appointed, all dark wood and brass. Our cabin is comfortable, about 11′ x 16′, on the lowermost deck right down the hall from the main dining room. (The rooms are identical on all decks, so lower down is good: less rocking.) One of the ship’s prominent features is not visible in the photo: a row of 4 Zodiacs in the back, to be used to ferry us 12 at a time to islands and glaciers. (As we shall see in our next installment.) Here we are looking back at Ushuaia as we leave port at about 7pm. Note the sterns of the Zodiacs at the bottom.

Cape Horn, here we come

 

 

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Not The End of the World, But You Can See It From Here

This will be a short post (postscript: apparently not), and definitely our last for at least 5 days and possibly longer since as of tomorrow evening we will be aboard ship rounding Cape Horn and heading up the Beagle Passage to the Patagonian ice fields.

We flew today to Ushuaia, at 55 degrees south latitude supposedly the southernmost city in the world. It is a town of 65,000 people squeezed in between the bottom of the Andes and Ushuaia Bay. Here is the view from our hotel room:

This is one of THREE mountain ranges separating Ushuaia from the rest of civilization

It might have struck you that “Ushuaia” is not a very Spanish-sounding name. That’s because it isn’t: it means “westward-facing bay” in the language of the original indigenes, the Yanama. And where are the Yanama now, you may ask? Silly question: remember that the Spanish colonized this place. The natives were wiped out by imported disease, conflict with the settlers, and over-hunting by the settlers of the sea lion population, which was the Yanama’s primary food source.

After another dramatic flight over the southern Andes we arrived at about noon today and started exploring the area. The town itself as you can see from the picture looks sort of like a ski resort from the Pacific Northwest, and there is indeed a ski resort here (though the season is just over, it being early spring here). We got lucky on the weather, at least for today: it is partly sunny with temperatures in the low 50’s. We are assured that this is unlikely to last. The wind is extremely gusty, which we are told is typical.

Our hostess exhorts us to share, and pretend to enjoy

Our first stop was lunch at a private home, a beautiful chalet-style house on the hillside overlooking the town and the mountains on the other side of the bay. The hostess and her family (husband and two small daughters) prepared a wonderful lunch — lentil stew with achingly sweet tres leches cake for dessert — and gave us the run of the house so we could chat with the family and admire the view. Afterwards we were presented with the Argentine equivalent of the Japanese tea ceremony, in this sharing the communal pot of Yerba mate. In case you have not heard of it, mate (pronounced MAH-tay) is a very bitter herbal tea made from the Yerba shrub that grows in the northern part of the country. There is a whole social ritual and vocabulary associated with partaking of it; our gracious hostess explained all this whilst preparing it, and we passed around the communal cup while pretending that it did not taste like pencil shavings soaked in motor oil.

Good grief, St. Charlie Brown!

Our first stop after lunch was at a bizarre collection of shrines along a roadway just outside of town; the prevailing style seemed to be Snoopy Doghouse, as you can see at left. Some are much more elaborate, though: as a bastion of a particular idolatrous form of Latin American Catholicism, Argentina has a couple of favorite saints that seem to generate a proliferation of shrines and legends. The

Don’t kill Gil

 first is “Gauchito Gil” who lived a virtuous life in the north as a landowner and sort of  Robin Hood figure, fighting against the evil Paraguayans and corrupt local sherriff. When finally captured he warned his killer-to-be that if he (Gil) were murderd then the killer’s son would also die. The killer reconsidered and checked up on his son, who was indeed suddenly gravely ill. So he prayed to Gil, his son recovered, and the lesson learned was Don’t Mess Around With The Gauchito. So now Gil’s got big roadside shrines about the size of beach cabañas, all draped in red, which was his symbolic color. The deal is that you offer him some wine by pouring it out of the bottle while making a wish. I’m not sure where any of this occurs in the Bible but we did it anyway. Julio warned us not to wish for good weather because that was probably a lost cause, so Alice wisely asked to be protected against seasickness. At right you can see her making her offering in front of the Big Red Shrine.

Arguably even more bizarre than Kill Gil is the shrine to La Defunte (“Deceased”) Correa, a woman beatified for breast feeding her baby while she herself starved to death in the wilderness. The child survived, and her shrine consists of many, many statuettes depicting her corpse cradling a baby. You make an offering of drinks to her too, and her shrine is copiously littered, both within and without, with hundreds if not thousands of empty bottles, mostly one- and two-liter soda bottles. Tell me that this isn’t an inspirational scene:

Becoming a saint really works up a thirst

OK, I think I’ve spent enough words on the local religion, at least the supernatural one. The other local religion — more accurately, one of several national obsessions — is obsessing over the 1982 Falklands War. But you damn well better not call it the Falklands War: those islands are the Malvinas in this country, and no substitute name is accepted.

“Yep, we lost.”

The Falklands/Malvinas were originally colonized by Argentina but conquered by Britain in 1833, and Argentina has been pining for them ever since. Problem is, under standards of international law once you own a place for 150 years it is well and truly legally yours, and the clock was running out. So at the 149 year mark — this is all true — the Argentine government decided to increase its abysmal popularity by making a grab for them, figuring that (a) Britain wouldn’t respond militarily, and (b) the US would support Argentina. Wrong on both counts; Margaret Thatcher wanted to increase her abysmal popularity too. Final score: the British lost about 230 men, plus 100 or so taken prisoner; the Argentines lost 649 men and 11 thousand taken prisoner; and the Falklands are still owned by the UK. Thirty two years later, Argentina is still gnashing its national teeth and trying to think of a clever comeback.

And so it came to pass that our last event of the day was an interview with a Malvinas war veteran, a pleasant 50 year old man who served on a naval vessel during that war when he was only 18 years old. His ship was sunk, and 300 men were lost out of a crew of about 1100; he survived in a covered lifeboat for 44 hours with 22 other men, huddled together for warmth. He related his experiences through our latest local guide, Laura, who acted as interpreter. It was interesting to hear, but in the end (a) he was only 18 at the time and (b) c’mon Argentina, get over it already.

Dinner tonight was a serious treat: King crab is found in these Antarctic waters, and so we went to a seafood restaurant where you can pick live ones from a tank for steaming, just like lobsters at home. If you have never been to either Alaska or Patagonia then you have probably never had fresh king crab, which is wholly unlike the frozen stuff you get in every store or restaurant or home. It’s like a transcendent experience in your mouth. Dessert was a stroll into a local ice cream store; remember that Argentines do a really good job on ice cream. So all in all a great end to the day.

So that’s been our introduction to Patagonia, here in Ushuaia. We’ll be off the grid and o’er the hopefully-not-too-bounding main starting late tomorrow afternoon. I’ll keep up my notes offline and post the batch of them the next time we have Internet access. Till then, our best regards to everyone!

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Buenos Aires: Insert In-“Evita”-ble Pun Here

We arrived in Buenos Aires yesterday and met up with the rest of our group, so in total we now number 20. They are mostly women from their mid-50’s to early 70’s; we are now 5 men and 15 women, which made for a rather unbalanced tango lesson in the hour after Julio welcomed the group together and briefed us on the trip. My contribution was to flee the room as soon as the lesson started.

There was a welcome dinner later that evening, and through a series of miscommunications we managed to get separated from the group. After assorted phone calls and map consultations we rejoined them at the restaurant and had an Argentine steak dinner; Argentines are really big on beef. The highlight, though, was dessert: you probably didn’t know this, but Argentines are really big on ice cream, too, and do an excellent job of making it. In fact — I am not making this up — ice cream stores in Buenos Aires deliver. You can call them up, tell them what flavors and quantity you want, and they show up at your door a few minutes later. This to me represents one of the pinnacles of Western civilization.

Buenos Aires, though it considers itself the center of the universe, has a somewhat Norma Desmond-esque feel to much of it, a dowager trying to hold on to past glories. It does have it’s charm, particularly the French and Italian architecture that earned it its nickname as “the Paris of South America”. But Argentinians are very proud of their capital; it would not surprise me if they called Paris “the Buenos Aires of Europe”. But judge for yourself: here is the view from our hotel room.

The Paris of South America, after the zombie apocalypse

This picture is actually a little unfair, since there are also beautiful districts of the city with shiny high rises, upscale shopping, and the like. Regardless, the current calamitous state of affairs stems from a long history of bad governance and economic policy incompetence that has left the country in a badly crippled state, perpetually either in or about to be in a state of default. As I type this the government is embroiled in a monster lawsuit with a couple of US hedge funds who bought billions of dollars of Argentine bonds which have now come due. The Argentines are trying to pay off the bond holders in pesos, and the bond holders are having none of it; they want the payoff in US dollars per the original terms of the bonds.

Symbol of the missing, as the grandmothers still march

Certainly the nadir of Argentine governance was during the 7-year “Dirty War” between 1976 and 1983 when the generals were running the country and thousands of their political opponents, as well their opponents’ friends, families, and probably even pizza deliver guys simply “disappeared”. The most tragic of these many cases involved pregnant women whose babies were taken from them and given away, after which the women were (presumably) killed. The situation was so egregious that the mothers of the disappeared started protesting in front of the presidential palace, marching with diapers tied around their heads to symbolize their lost children and grandchildren. They became a powerful force, and when the government was overturned in 1983 they continued to march — successfully — to force the authorities to attempt to identify and recover the lost identities of the missing, and of the stolen children. The effort continues to this day, and hundreds have been identified. The women, some quite aged, still March every Thursday, now with the blessing of the the government. They wear white handkerchiefs on their heads now, and the plaza in front of the palace is dotted with painted versions of their symbol: a stylized white handkerchief (photo at right). Our local guide, a voluble Argentine woman named Sylvana, had difficulty maintaining her composure as she explained all this to us.

One of the consequences of the collapsed economy is a thriving currency black market. The official exchange rate is 8.4 Argentine pesos to the dollar. But Julio and Sylvana said, screw that, you can do a lot better. They took us to a so-called “blue market” exchange, where a scruffy looking guy behind a thick glass window gave us 13 pesos per dollar. That’s a big difference, and so he makes his profit by in turn selling the dollars one more layer down the economic food chain, on the actual black market, where he gets God knows what for them. His blue market operation is technically illegal but winked-at as long as he keeps a low profile; there was not a single sign indicating a currency exchange, but rather a dusty display of sunglasses in a plexiglass case. So he is notionally selling sunglasses, though I would be shocked to learn that the display case had ever once been opened.

Madonna sang here

The presidential palace has a baroque architecture and is an unattractive pinkish color. On the second floor are a series of balconies facing the plaza, which the president can use to address the presumably adoring throngs. The balconies are dark, except for one (photo at left), that being the one from which Eva Peron addressed her particular adoring throngs. The lights are kept on in her memory, and no president since then has had the cojones to use that balcony. (For one thing, explained Sylvana, you don’t want to do that unless you’re quite certain that the crowds below are entirely on your side, and that just does not happen anymore.)

Eva “Evita” Peron was a much loved character, as you know, who in the seven years that she was married to Juan Peron (26 years her senior) was a transformative influence for workers and women’s rights. She died in 1952 of cervical cancer at the age of only 33 and to this day remains a controversial and iconic part of the Argentine national psyche.

(True story: Julio tells that us that in a previous tour group when he told them that Eva Peron died in 1952, a woman in the group said, “That’s impossible! I just saw her perform in a show!” I neglected to ask whether Madonna was loved or loathed here.)

Adjacent to the plaza in front of the palace is a Catholic church (the country is 80% Catholic) with an unusual display: a memorial to Jewish terror victims. In 1992 Hezbollah blew up a synagogue in Buenos Aires, and to memorialize the victims the bishop of this church created a display consisting mostly of pieces of paper: loose pages from prayer books, notebooks, and music sheets from the synagogue that were strewn about the street in the blast. 

After leaving the church, we rode a few stops on the Metro — from 1913, the oldest in South America, and strongly resembling the Paris Metro with its tiled walls and murals by local artists — and then boarded a bus for a few hour city tour.

I’ll take dinner here, thanks

Now you might wonder why we had to get on the Metro to reach the bus. And the answer is that from a purely practical perspective we didn’t; the bus could have picked us up at the palace. But our tour operator OAT goes out of their way to find out everyone’s individual interests and accommodate them — they ask us to fill out “expectation cards” with that kind of information — and at least one member of our group had expressed an interest in experiencing local public transpiration. So we did!

The bus took us to a number of districts around the city, but our first stop was a heavenly little bakery where we marched inside to breathe in the sugar and the butter and the calories, and where Julio and Sylvana bought a couple arm loads of assorted pastries for us. They were seriously good (photo of one variety at right).

Boca district, touristy but fun

Our next stop was the Boca district, originally populated by Italian immigrants and still very colorful. It’s a large residential area but also has a tourist-centric neighborhood, all brightly colored walls, artists displaying their wares, and tango dancers in the streets. The picture at left gives you the idea.

The street was alive with people, probably half tourists and half people trying to make money off the tourists; the latter include shop and restaurant owners exhorting passers-by to enter; shills passing out leaflets for other shops and restaurants; and tango dancers inveigling you into having your picture taken with them. (The tango pairs were all in 1930’s tango garb; men in low-slouched fedoras and right three-piece suits; women with black air, diaphanous thigh-high-cut dresses, and 7′-long legs.)

One of the curious tropes of this particular area was a proliferation of somewhat grotesque statues, sometimes of famous people and sometimes not (an example of the latter being, say, a chef statue in front of a restaurant.)

Three local gods smiling upon the hoi polloi

The pope is a popular subject of these three-dimensional caricatures since he is Argentine; one street corner had one of these statues of him leaning out a second story window apparently giving a benediction to the crowd below. But he popped up in a number of other places along the street as well. At right you can see three of these statues smiling down from a balcony, a sort of Argentine pop culture trinity. From left to right they are soccer superstar Maradona; the inevitable Eva Peron; and tango demigod Carlos Gardel (who has a whole tango theater named after him.)

Our final stop on the bus tour was the Recoleta District, an upscale shopping and park area whose most famous venue is the city cemetery. The cemetery is kind of an odd place, rather different in appearance and atmosphere from most you have seen. It has no open green space at all, but is instead a narrow gray maze of tall mausoleums and columbariums. A network of pathways barely six feet wide winds in shadow among the discolored marble, gray slate, and black granite tombs. A small number are clearly still maintained, with recently fresh flowers placed at their doors. Most look more like props from a vampire movie. Adding to the general eeriness is a number of feral cats who sort of keep watch over the place, like this:

No, this is not an illustration from a Stephen King novel


Oh, what the hell, go ahead and cry for me, Argentina

You get a sense of the layout from the tombs in the background. Thee are a number of locally famous personages at rest in this particular cemetery but the big draw is Evita herself, the mausoleum of Eva Peron. It is very unprepossessing, situated in the middle of an unremarkable row of other tombs. She is not even there by herself; it’s actually her family mausoleum, the family Duarte (her maiden name). Part of the reason that she is not more prominently placed is that after her death her body went walkabout, not in the zombie sense but more like in the grave robbing sense: her supporters didn’t want her enemies (of which she had many) getting a hold of her and so shipped her body abroad. Despite being dead she ended up making a grand tour of about four different countries over a period of something like 21 years. By the time her remains made it back to Argentina, hubby Juan had not only outlived her by a long time but had gone through another wife in the interim. So when her family requested that she be placed in the family tomb, General Peron said, like, whatever. So they did, and here is the proof that we visited her (pic at right). There were a number of wilted flowers at the front of the tomb; apparently they get refreshed every Sunday, and we were visiting the day before that was scheduled to happen.

Our final event of the day was a home dinner visit to a local family. This kind of cultural immersion is a feature of every OAT trip (we visited a family compound and a school in Zimbabwe two years ago). The 20 of were divided among four host families. Our host family was extremely pleasant and probably rather atypical in being clearly very well off. The family consisted of the mother (our hostess), father (a lawyer who was not present), and two teenage (16 and 17) daughters, only the younger of whom was present. They live in a very nicely appointed 1750 square foot, 4BR 3 bath condo with a private elevator down to the lobby. So not exactly peasant stock, in other words. Mother and daughter spoke articulate English, had strong political views (they hate the corrupt, incompetent government), and were excellent hosts. I’m not sure how well they represented the views and overall life situation of the general population, but we enjoyed the evening.

Tomorrow we fly more or less literally to the ends of the Earth: Ushuaia, billed as the southernmost city in the world and the jumping off point for our boat trip around Cape Horn and through the Beagle Passage to the Patagonian ice fields. It is likely that we will fall off the grid when we arrive there, so I will try and keep this blog updated offline and post it when Internet access allows.

 

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(Fire) Truckin’ Back to Santiago

Yesterday was our last day in Santiago, and today our first in Buenos Aires. It wasn’t a huge touring-around day, but it had its share of ups and downs. First the downs:

The oldest member of our group — June, age 83 — has with some gentle encouragement from Julio pulled the metaphorical ripcord and decided (correctly) that she has bitten off more than she could chew in selecting this trip. She has traveled around the world multiple times on QE2 cruises, but the physical rigors of this trip were way too much for her; she’s the one who nearly fainted on the street on our first day in Santiago, last Sunday. A stout, grandmotherly woman, she was a real sweetheart but always a few steps behind the rest of the group both physically and conversationally. (She does not have a cell phone or email, and asked Alice what the simplest smartphone would be for a techno-naïf. Alice suggested an iPhone and she responded, “What’s an iPhone?” So you know what we’re dealing with.)

Julio spent a fair amount of time scrambling around yesterday getting her booked on a flight out of Santiago today. She flies home this afternoon (Friday), to her own — and to be honest, everyone else’s — relief.

Our second bump in the road was a delay in our flight from Calama back to Santiago, due to heavy fog at the latter airport. (Which was strange to hear, since Calama is up in the Atacama desert and the skies were cloudless there when we were informed of the problem.) But one of the virtues of this kind of group travel is that once you write the check you magically transform such glitches into Somebody Else’s Problem. We had nothing waiting for us in Santiago yesterday afternoon, any logistical rearrangements were Julio’s job, and so we took the news with Zen-like equanimity. The airline shuttled us all to a nearby hotel where we had a nice buffet lunch. So no biggie.

But in between those two events we enjoyed one of those offbeat experiences that are the rewards of traveling with an open mind. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut (in Cat’s Cradle): “Unexpected travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” And in the words of Julio Llamos, our tour lead: “You gotta bring the magic.”

It happens that Mario, our driver in San Pedro, is a volunteer firefighter in that tiny place. He is rightfully proud of that, and asked (via Julio, since he speaks no English) whether we would like to see the fire station en route to the airport in Calama. The collective sentiment was sure, why not? And this turned out to be quite the gem of an experience.

When I asked for a pole dance, this wasn’t what I had in mind

The fire station was small but modern and well equipped, thanks to a government grant and a number of fund raisers. Mario showed us the break room (complete with pool table), the crew quarters, and the garage with the trucks. And then the real wonderfulness started, for the entrance to the garage was on a mezzanine overlooking the engines, which you could get to either by walking down a ramp or — and who among us has not wanted to do this — sliding down a fireman’s pole. And so like screeching 6 year olds we slid one by one down the fireman’s pole, thereby checking off a bucket list item that we didn’t even know we had. It was great. See Alice in action at left.

Mario next marched us into the equipment room, where we got to try on the stuff. This was also cool in the extreme: I got to don the whole ensemble: boots, coveralls, coat, oxygen tank, and mask. Here I am in full regalia.:

Burning building, anyone?

Finally we climbed onto one of the fire trucks, and Mario ran the siren for a few moments to complete the experience. The whole thing was a like a decades-buried childhood fantasy, and everybody loved every minute of it. We all donated some money to the station as we left, which was very gratefully received. We definitely brought the magic.

We arrived at our hotel in Santiago at 6:30pm or so, about three hours later than originally planned. No matter. The hotel desk gave us a list of recommended nearby restaurants, and at about 8:00 — people eat dinner here very late — Alice and I struck out on our own to find a seafood restaurant that was on the list. We failed; turns out the place was no longer there. So we ambled around the area looking for someplace suitably inviting, and eventually settled on a tiny and very authentically local place where no one spoke a word of English but where we were heartily welcomed. We had a perfectly nice seafood dinner for about $30 for the two us and, feeling very self-satisfied, retired back to the hotel.

I am typing this on our flight to Buenos Aires, about a 90 minute hop from Santiago. But that 90 minutes takes you straight across the spine of the Andes, and the view is dramatic. Here is a shot that I took with the iPad a few minutes ago while typing this:

The Andes from above

When we arrive in Buenos Aires we will meet up with the rest of our group, another 13 people, for the main leg of the trip. That’s sort of a shame, since it’s been really enjoyable having an intimate 8-person group this far, small enough that everyone gets to know each other and Julio very quickly. But I will at least no longer be the youngest person in the group: Julio informs me that the larger group includes a couple traveling with their 43 year old daughter.

I have not said much about the our fellow travelers, so I’ll belatedly introduce them now. (This isn’t going to be very travelogue-y and is more for my own mental record, so feel free to stop reading here.)

I have already described Julio, our tour lead, who as it happens turns 34 today. (I am planning on exhorting the full group into singing a doubtless painful rendition of Happy Birthday at dinner tonight.) He is a real gem, and addresses us as “team”. Every briefing begins with the words, “Okey dokey, team…” When I return home I plan on having an “Okey Dokey Team Julio” tee shirt made for him as a belated birthday gift. On the back it will say “Bring the Magic”

I also described poor June, who bailed out this morning. In addition, we have:

  • Dick (75) and Jean (75), from near us in Maryland. Jean is compact and bustles around, and by virtue of their long history (22 trips, as I mentioned earlier) often has some interesting anecdote to contribute from their own experience. Dick is tall and fit-looking and appears to be filming practically every moment of the trip on video. He speaks almost not at all — it’s so extreme that we actually tease him about it — but is genial and knowledgeable on the rare occasions when he actually opens his mouth.
  • Christie and Becky (~65, inferred from a conversation about high school classes), close friends from Boise whose husbands/significant others declined to make the trip. Becky has about the same physique as Alice, while Christie is taller and thinner. Both have short gray hair and glasses, and since I am genuinely lousy at names and faces it took me two or three days to tell them apart. Before my prosopagnosiac brain (look it up) finally sorted them out, I simply referred to them as “the Boise girls”. They’re lively, good-humored, and outgoing, certainly the ones we’ve connected with most strongly so far. Christie is a dedicated diarist, always writing in a notebook and always asking for details to include. (Last night after firelding a bunch of questions about an observatory in the mountains that we passed in the van — the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA — I commandeered her notebook and wrote a 4-page treatise on millimeter-wave astronomy and how ALMA works. This sort of thing is a regular occurrence on our trips.)
  • Lynn, mid- to upper 60’s at a guess. She’s divorced, with short curly gray hair and a wry sharp tongue and an appealing (to us) “do not suffer fools gladly” outlook.

So that’s who we are. It’s a good group, and I hope the remaining 13 click as well. We’ve arrived in Buenos Aires since I started typing this (weather is upper 50’s and cloudy with some light drizzle) so I guess we’ll find out tonight.

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Who Is Geyser Soze?

We had an ethereal display early Wednesday morning, as we arose at 4:30 AM — an hour I was heretofore unsure even existed — to make another long drive, this time up to the El Tatio geyser field, way up at 14,000 ft into the mountains. We met up with our group at 5:00 AM and first made a short ride outside of the lights of town so that we could admire the night sky. Which was incredible. With no lights at all for many miles around, the Moon had set and the sky was crystalline: the Milky Way shone brightly enough to admire the dust lanes; the Large Magellanic Cloud (a small irregular companion galaxy to the Milky Way, for you non-astronomers) floated like a glowing cotton ball the size of the Moon; and the Southern Cross had just broken the horizon. It was breathtaking, yet another reminder of why we make trips like this.

The reason for the insanely early hour is rooted in the geophysics of these particular geysers. As Julio explained it to us, these geysers, unlike (say) Old Faithful, are in continuous rather than periodic eruption (as we would shortly see) and their strength depends on the temperature difference between the surface temperature and that of the underground superheated water. The bigger the temperature difference, the more vents are in eruption, and the better the display. Hence it is best to arrive at or before sunrise when the air is nice and cold.

Yeah, nice and cold. As in 20 @$$(#{#*ing degrees. We drove through the predawn darkness up, up, up the steep mountainside over unlit invisible unpaved roads, jarred by the washboarding and the ruts, till the sky began to lighten behind the peaks and we found ourselves on a flat plain dotted with steaming fumaroles. We stepped out of our nice comfy heated van and BAM! Welcome to lung-searing mountaintop cold. We had been forewarned, of course, and had dressed in about five layers of shed-able clothing in preparation for the later warmth of the day ahead, but for now every layer was a blessing.

There was only light wind, thankfully, but the cold on our hands and faces was bad enough, amplified by the oxygen deprivation of the 14,000 ft elevation. It was a weird sort of homecoming for me, the surroundings reminiscent of my Mauna Kea days (coincidentally the same height); I had about 5 minutes of lightheadedness, then stopped noticing it. I was lucky never to be significantly affected by the altitude at Mauna Kea, nor here, but others in our group (including Alice) felt noticeably uncomfortable and impaired. My biggest problem was my hands; my fingers were numb with cold but of course I needed them ungloved to operate the camera.

Andean geysers at dawn (blue tint courtesy of iPad camera)

We were on a flat volcanic plain a few miles across, settled in a smaller area about a half mile on a side with scores if not hundreds of steam vents, many spewing boiling water in a suitably geyser-like way. The ground was dark as basalt and smooth enough to walk around easily, crisscrossed with frozen rivulets of groundwater and dusted with salt crystals. The steam vents were everywhere, their perimeters painted with so-called thermophilic algae, primitive orange and green organisms that thrive in the boiling, mineral-laden water. The scene was lit by orange breaking dawn and the still-indigo sky, and walking among them was a stroll on some hellish planet. To my surprise there was little very smell of sulphur.

We wandered among the vents and through the clouds of steam, some merely curling wisps at our feet, others majestic swirling towers ten or fifteen feet across. There were some marked walkways — they’ve lost a few tourists to the boiling pools, invisible underfoot in some of the steam columns. But there would be no parboiled visitors today.

…and an hour later

The sky continued to lighten, saturating the surrounding peaks in orange and revealing adjacent rock-strewn fields of clumpy, straw-like grass. After an hour or so the sun had completely cleared the peaks and warmed the geyser field, and as promised the multitude of steam columns started to diminish noticeably. Our driver Mario and our local guide Camillo had by this time prepared an outdoor breakfast for us, so we made our way back to the van to enjoy warm toast (prepared on a gas grill), ham, cheese, cake, avocado, and — most welcome of all — hot drinks. I am not sure which part of me enjoyed the hot chocolate more: my mouth and stomach as I drank it, or my chilled dry hands, simply from holding the mug.

We were in full daylight as we made our way back down the mountain, and now we could see how treacherous the drive up had been in darkness, the road rutted and boulder-strewn, and serpentine with hairpin turns. Our return trip, Julio explained, would be marked by several stops to search for birds and wildlife.

This seemed unlikely to me, my view of the Martian landscape being informed by three years at the nearly-lifeless summit of Mauna Kea. But things are different here. We were not 20 minutes underway when we encountered a herd (flock? pod?) of vicuñas, sending us into a picture-snapping frenzy that a short while later would feel silly in retrospect, as the damn things were all over the place.

The vizcacha, which you do not dip in your coffee (Google photo)

Other than a herd of domesticated llamas — and I had not known this, but all llamas are domesticated — the other mammal of interest that we encountered was one that I had never heard of: the vizcacha. (Points for you if you’ve ever heard of it.) With a name like an Italian breakfast pastry (the leading V is pronounced like a B), the vizcacha looks like an oversized rabbit at the front — with pronounced long rabbity ears — and some kind of mutant lemur at the back, with a long furred tail. It is a rodent, not a lagomorph, and thus despite its appearance more rat than rabbit. It’s about 16″ long plus the tail. We encountered a group of several of them, and one ran behind the van and up the hillside, an unexpected sight in itself because when they start to move you instinctively expect them to hop, which they do not.

The bird life was also (to me) surprisingly abundant and diverse. We stopped at a small lake, covered in parts with a thin layer of ice. There we saw crested ducks, giant coots, Chilean teal ducks (bright blue bill!), and more, all greater in number and variety than I would have expected, and quite the sight against the near-frozen lake nestled in the blasted landscape.

We arrived back at the hotel a little before noon, in time for lunch and a nap before heading out on our late afternoon outing to the nearby Valley of the Moon. (You better believe that this trip takes stamina.) I think that in our travels that this is the third or fourth desolate venue that we have visited that is named after the Moon. I suppose that at some time in the historical past it became de rigeur the world over for hardy but unimaginative explorers to gaze upon their desert discovery and declare that it looked like the Moon. If I were their trusty but intolerant native guide I would have said, “Can’t you do better than that? This is the fourth frigging volcanic desert valley that we’ve named after the Moon. Doesn’t it look like anything else? Mars? Detroit? Anything?”

Apparently not, and the Moon it is despite the absence of any craters. But it is suitably alien, the rock formations and trackless grey sand dunes resembling the most remote parts of the American desert southwest. With one major exception: the salt. Smooth mica-like salt incrustations and quartzy crystal outcroppings define the surface of the rocks on every scale, anguished-looking formations and even whole cliff sides coated with patchy white grains as though dusted in powdered sugar. It’s a paradoxical sight, making some of the craggy formations look like some kind of Pastries From Hell.

Valley of the Moon. That’s salt, not snow! (Google image)

Rivulets of rare rainfall erode pencil-wide channels down the rocks as they dissolve the salt, giving many of the formations a fluted appearance as though their surface was the fusion of bundles of narrow stalactites. But the really cool part is that some of the walls talk.

Not in English or Spanish, of course: they whisper in, I dunno, Rockish I suppose. But in one canyon there were whole walls tiled in sheets of transparent salt crystals, whose thermal expansion and contraction in the cycle of the desert day is different from the underlying rock itself. And so there is mechanical stress as the sheets and incursions of crystals try to pull away from the rock to which they are fused, and you can actually hear the battle taking place: faint whispery crackles and deep hollow pops, every second or two. It’s ghostly and a little eerie, like the rocks are talking to you. We stayed for a few minutes and listened, and I would happily have stayed longer. (Not so Alice, alas; even with hearing aids her poor hearing prevented her from hearing the geological conversation.)

We drove to high ground afterwards to strategically position ourselves for the sunset display, and while we were there our driver and guide set out a charming little wine and cheese table for us. This was last night in the Atacama, and so it was a little celebration of the few days that we had.

The grand finale, of course, was the sunset, an atypically colorful one due to the presence of some unseasonal clouds. The clouds burned furious orange and pink, the rugged valley below and the distant volcanic peaks turning color in synchrony. You will have to wait till I process my photos later this month to see what it looked like — the iPad’s lousy camera could never capture it — but it put quite the exclamation point to our visit thus far.

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I’ll Have a Trillion Margaritas…with Salt, Please

 

I mentioned earlier that San Pedro de Atacama is very tiny; the population is about 7,000 (not the 1,400 I mentioned earlier). This is to be compared with the number of tourists who visit here, which is 150,000 annually. So it is fair to say that tourism is kind of important here. “Here” being a somewhat wishful term, there not being a whole lot of here here (so to speak).

Those 150,000 tourists include a whole lot of ridiculously fit people, judging by the number of spandexed legs pumping bicycles. You know the demographic: skintight outfit, neon-colored helmet, scraggly hair, 40 lb backpack strapped to the bike. They’re everywhere in town, and I can only assume that they are all googly-eyes crazy, because we are at 8,000 feet elevation in the driest desert in the world, and practically every direction out of town is UP, steeply, into the Andes. Long distance biking around here is about the least fun thing that I can imagine. But bike they do: every single business establishment in town is a craft store, restaurant, or tourist lodging, and I am not exaggerating.

To give you a flavor of the place, here is one of the major intersections:

Rush hour in San Pedro. The guy in green is our local guide Camillo, warning Alice about the heavy traffic.

Our local guide Camillo has lived here for 22 years, on the outskirts of town. (How a town of 7,000 in the middle of a desert has outskirts is not clear to me.) Needless to say, he knows everyone. About 30 seconds after I took this picture he chatted with a local woman who was walking by with some shopping bags. Turns out that was the mayor.

Your go-to place for blankets and herbal Viagra

There is a central square, off of which radiate the Big Four of every small town in this region: a church, a small anthropological museum, a police station, and a craft market.  The craft market was small, crowded, and lively, as you can see at left. The collection of goods for sale had its idiosyncrasies, to say the least. Along with the expected good quality woolen hats and blankets, and the kitchshy stuffed llamas and refrigerator magnets, you can also purchase (1) crystalline salt in lumps the size of grapefruits (“Care for some salt on your food?” CLUNK); (2) coca tea and hard candies; and (3) brightly-colored packs containing extremely sketchy herbal remedies allegedly for high cholesterol, diabetes, and, um, inadequate bedroom performance. The first two featured pictures of busty girls in microscopic bikinis, which of course is the image that springs to mind when you think of cholesterol or diabetes. The third featured a poorly-lit sweaty couple demonstrating the efficacy of the product.  OK then, I’m convinced!

We had an excellent lunch (a local corn and lamb stew) at another off-the-beaten-path restaurant where Camillo inevitably knew the owner. It included a new (to us) culinary discovery: merken, a wonderfully smoky —  and very hot — spice made from dried smoked chili peppers. (We’re bringing some back for you, Jon H, and we expect to sample however you use it.) Later that afternoon we were off to the Atacama salt flats. You knew that salt was going to show up again, didn’t you?

Margaritas, anyone?

The salt flats are about two hours from San Pedro and occupy an enormous area: about 1200 square miles. They are spectacular, ringed by the mountains and surrounding a shallow briny (very briny) lake. But they did not comport with my mental image of a salt flat, which is the highway-smooth Bonneville flats in the US. These are anything but smooth: the crystallized salts are in rough flaky lumps about the size of oranges or as big as footballs, thrown together and stuck to and on top of each other to a height of about a foot and a half. You could not drive on this salt flat; were it not for the prepared path, you could not even walk on it. You wouldn’t make it six feet before falling and/or twisting an ankle. Here is Alice at right, contemplating how many Margaritas you could make out of 100 million tons of salt.

But here’s the thing. The salt flats encompass a number of briny lagoons, wherein live lots of very hardy brine shrimp, who in turn are the favorite food of (drum roll) flamingos! Yes! This seemingly inhospitable place is home to large numbers of pink flamingos, and we saw them strutting, preening, and even flying around in large kitschy numbers. It was a spectacular, memorable sight, and became more so as the sun went down, bathing the surrounding mountains in orange and exaggerating the flamingos’ natural color. We stayed for hours until shortly after sunset, wandering among the salt formations and ogling the flamingos parading around the lagoon. It was otherworldly, a real gift.

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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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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.

Categories: Patagonia | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

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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