There is an unwritten contract amongst the artist and graffiti taggers of Valparaìso that a house whose owners agree to have a large planned piece on their wall of their house will not be tagged or vandalized by other artists. This is a great incentive for people to agree to have art on their homes, and generally keeps the beautiful art free from being scribbled over by other artists, which means these street artists are more willing to put more time and effort into their work. I took lots of photos of all of the beautiful paintings that we found all over the city.
After leaving Vicuña, we continued south down the coast to the seaside town of Valparaìso. After so much time spent in the mountains and the desert, it was really nice to see the ocean (and to be at sea level). Valparaìso is a fantastic bohemian cultural city. It is next door to the town of Viña del Mar, which is a shining, modern, clean city, favored by rich Santiguinos as a weekend vacation destination. Valparaìso is neither modern not clean, and it is certainly much poorer than its coastal neighbor, but what it lacks in these areas, it makes up for in character.
“Valpo” is known for its arts and culture scene, including its street art, which is ubiquitous. Most streets are home to at least two or three large pieces. On our walking tour, our guide told us to keep our eyes up to look at the art, but also down to watch out for the dog poop!
Because of the all of the street art, and the tendency of residents to paint their homes vibrant colors, Valpo’s hills (the entire city pretty much is a series of hills) are colorful and vibrant, and it was a a lot of fun to just wander through its neighborhoods, occasionally poking our heads into a local gallery or artisan shop. It was fun to pass the time exploring, despite the hills and staircases everywhere!
After a 2 hour bus ride to Calama, a 16 hour Bus ride from Calama to La Serena, and then another hour ride from La Serena, we finally arrived in Vicuña, a town which lies in the heart of Chile’s Elqui Valley. The Elqui valley is a picturesque region that lies below the high Atacama desert, and is known for its proximity to many astronomical observatories and for its many vineyards whose grapes are used in the production of Pisco, a clearish grape brandy produced in Chile and also in parts of Peru.
Amy and I arrived in Vicuña mid-afternoon to find a nice little town with a leafy central plaza surrounded by little shops. Apart from the tower on the church being made of Adobe, it could’ve been a cute little town in New England. The next day, we visited the distillery/bottling plant of Pisco Capel one of Chile’s largest producers of pisco. We were given a tour of the plant, where they showed us the entire process, from the picking of the grapes, the making of the wine, and the distilling of the wine into pisco.
That night we finally got to go on our observatory tour! We went up into the hills outside Vicuña, the edge of the Atacama Desert, where many of the world’s most important astronomical organization have their southern observatories. We went to a smaller observatory, but one where we could look through a telescope that let us see the rings of Saturn!, but the real highlight of the tour was just gazing up at the night sky, no telescope required. This night sky was the most incredible I have ever seen in my life. It was like being enveloped in stars. We could see three galaxies with our naked eyes. Unfortunately my camera isn’t so good at taking nighttime shots and was completely unable to capture how incredible the night sky was. But it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
We finally arrived in San Pedro around Midday on a Friday. San Pedro is a dusty little town not too far from the Bolivian border. There isn’t much to do in the town itself, but the countryside around the town has some beautiful valleys, canyons and sand dunes. We arrived, found a hostel and then rented boards and bicycles and rode out to sand dunes for some sandboarding.
To say I was bad at sandboarding would be a vast understatement. Apparently in some places you can rent sleds to go down the hill, but in San Pedro, sandboarding is a lot like snowboarding, only on sand instead of snow. This makes it even harder, as sand isn’t as slippery as snow and the boards don’t slide as well. I finally made it down…. on my butt.
Amy, who is a pretty experienced snowboarder, was much better, so I acted as photographer and spectator and just enjoyed the scenery, while Amy surfed the dunes.
I will never complain about US customs ever again.
Getting to Chile was not supposed to be so hard. Or take so long. We arrived in Uyuni on the last day of our tour around noon, thinking that we could probably catch an evening bus from Uyuni to San Pedro, and that we would probably get in around midday the next day. Oh how wrong we were.
We first had to wait several hours to get our bus ticket, as offices in Bolivia typically close for lunch and don’t reopen until 2 or 3 pm. So we waited, went to an internet café, and chilled with some other people who had been in the same jeep convoy as us on the salar. We finally found an open bus company only to learn that the only jeeps for Chile left at 3:30 in the MORNING, and that they went to Calama, not San Pedro. Oy. Fine.
We bought the tickets, and after getting some dinner with our jeep tour friends, checked into a hostel for a couple hours to shower and get some sleep before our bus. We woke up a bit before three and headed to the pickup point for the bus. We were both tired and cold. There were a huge number of people waiting for the bus, carrying a ridiculous amount of baggage. There were people with 20+ bags, and for some reason, there was a large amount of food being transported, including one woman with a several sheets of eggs waiting to get on the bus. We finally got on, and got all the baggage loaded and set off, a little later than usual, but not bad by Bolivian standards.
Amy and I both had come prepared with blankets and pillows, and we both slept fairly well until we stopped at 8:30 AM, when we were told to get off the bus. At this point it became clear why we had left at 3:30 AM. It takes 4 hours to get to the border, and the border office opens at 8 AM. Ok, fair enough. We went through Bolivian immigration fairly easily and quickly, got our exit stamps and then waited around for around 2 hours while the entire bus finished going through immigration. We then got back on the bus.
We only drove for maybe 10 more minutes before the bus stopped again, and we got out at the ACTUAL border between Bolivia and Chile. There was nothing here other than the road, some railroad tracks, and a sign pointing in one direction to Chile and back the other to Bolivia. We were in the middle of the desert. We got off the bus and got all of the bags off the bus and then proceeded to wait for 3 more hours until another bus FINALLY came to pick us up (our bus took their passengers coming from Chile back to Bolivia and we got on their bus coming from Chile). We loaded all our stuff onto our new bus and then drove another 10 minutes to the Chilean immigration. We then got off the bus again and went through Chilean immigration.
We then waited another 3 ½ hours in the sun while we waited for everyone on our bus to go through customs. Or rather for customs to go through all the crap that everyone on our bus was bringing across the border. By the time we got to the front of the line, I was crazy dehydrated and probably had heatstroke, and I nearly collapsed while the customs guy was going through my bag. I got on the bus where Amy forced a huge bottle of water into me and made me eat a little too. She’s such a good future doctor :)
We finally set off and drove another 10 minutes before stopping again. This time just for an hour, though for no apparent reason.
We arrived in Calama just after 8:30 at night only to learn that the last buses for San Pedro had left at 8:30 sharp. Exhausted from our day we got a hostel in Calama and grabbed some dinner with a group of Canadians we had befriended on the bus. We managed to get to San Pedro early the next day.
Our 3rd day of the tour was mainly spent driving. We drove off early, stopping first at el Arbol de Piedra (the rock tree), where we scrambled over the rocks in a weird forest of volcanic formations left in the middle of the desert by the now extinct volcanoes surrounding it.
We passed a couple more mineral lagoons, each beautifully reflecting the clear Andean sky, and each home to various flamingo colonies.
We were heading to the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, and the main attraction of the tour. We spent the night on the edge of the Salar, at a hotel entirely made out of salt!
We got up before sunrise the next morning to head out to the Salar. We watched the sunrise over one of the most bizarre landscapes in the world. The ground is a pure white expanse of salt, cracked ointo what look like hexagonal tiles. It is easy to see why people can get lost out on the Salar, there is is literally nothing, no landmarks, no hills, just pure white as far as you can see. Some mountains in the background are the only indication you have of where you are.
The nothingness actually warps your sense of perspective and we (and all the other tour groups on the Salar) spent a long time taking some cool pictures that played with the weird sense of space.
We spent a couple hours out on the Salar, eating breakfast out of the back of our jeep, taking pictures and just taking in the white expanse in front of us. On the way out of the Salar, we saw men harvesting the salt by creating little montañas de sal (salt mountains). We also saw some pools of water, which gave us a bit of an idea of what the Salar is like during the wet season, when the whole of the salt flat is covered by a thin layer of water, forming the world’s largest mirror.
The mountains and desert of the Bolivian southwest seems quite a barren landscape at first glance, but even in our first day in the region, we saw a lot of life.
Llamas are like cows here. We got pretty excited to see herds of them roaming around at first, but you quickly realize how common they are. Llamas and Alpacas (smaller cousins of the Llama) are both domesticated species, there is no such thing as a wild llama. The herds we saw roaming around all belong to the people that live in this region, and are their main (really only) source of income/sustenance. Llamas are raised for both their meat and their wool. Alapacas have softer wool which is more valuable commercially. As you may notice in our Photos, Amy and I have embraced the Tourist trend of Alpaca wool goods, which are cheaper here than in the states,.
Another cousin of the Alpaca, Vicuñas are the only member of the South American Cameloid family still undomesticated. We caught glimpses of Vicuña herds throughout our trip. They are apparently endangered due to poaching for their fine soft wool. Trading in Vicuña wool is illegal and even in Bolivia, a Vicuña sweater can cost more than $1000 US. By contrast, an Alpaca sweater in Bolivia costs usually between $10 and $20 US.
Vizcachas!!! These were our favorite animal find. They kind of look like large chinchillas (who apparently are native to the area, though we didn’t see any) and they live in rocky areas in the mountains and high deserts. They’re also ADORABLE. Both Amy and I want one for pets.
Did you know that there are Ostriches that live in the Andes? ME NEITHER!! I was shocked to see the giant birds (which are slightly smaller than their African cousins, but still quite big) running around in the high mountain fields alongside our jeep. In Spanish they are called Avestruchas (Spanish for ostrich) but the English name for the species is actually the Rhea.
I must have at least a hundred pictures of flamingos alone. It’s an addiction, Flamingo photography. But so cool! There are apparently three species of flamingos native to this region: Andean Flamingos, James Flamingos and Chilean Flamingos. Apparantly, during summer, the lakes of the Bolivian Southwest and the Chilean Atacama are filled with these squawking pink birds. Being here in winter, we didn’t maybe get to see the lakes entirely filled with birds (though cool, I imagine it would be rather pungent as well) as many birds migrate further north for winter. However, there were still plenty of birds to be seen. I used to associate flamingos with tropical waters and coconut trees. But they seemed quite at home in these semi-frozen mineral lakes, 5000 meters above sea level.
After a very cold night sleeping in the tiny desert village of Quetena Chico, we set out early the next morning for our climb up to 5000 meters (so far we had only reached about 4200ish). We drove throughout the morning, passing some beautiful marshy areas of the desert.
We were headed toward Las Termas de Polques, a small hot springs located close to the Chilean border, and that looks out onto a beautiful turquoise lake where flocks of flamingos and Andean geese rested.
After taking a quick dip in the steamy waters and eating lunch, we continued upwards to visit the Laguna Verde, a magnificent bluish green lake, which gets its color from high concentrations of lead, arsenic, sulfur, and calcium carbonates. It was freezing here, and we only got out of the jeep for a few quick pictures before heading on.
We kept going up higher until we reached the 5000 meter marker. Of course this was where I had to go to the bathroom. Coldest pee experience ever. We finally reached the Sol de Mañana, a fumarole basin at around 4850 meters, where the hot sulfur fumes coming out of the ground are quickly whipped away in the frigid wind.
We braved the winds to go check out the fumaroles, which from the jeep, just appeared to be steaming holes in the ground. We went to the edge to see mineral rich mud bubbling and boiling up like some sort of witch’s cauldron. So cool!! We immediately forgot about how cold we were, and stared in awe and the natural phenomenon in front of us.
After an overnight bus ride from Potosi to Tupiza that got us into town at 2 am, and a day spent in the town of Tupiza preparing, we started off on our 4 day adventure of the southwest of Bolivia that would take us through some of the craziest scenery we have seen so far on our trip, and which would end in the town of Uyuni.
We met our guide Edgar, our cook Isabella, and the one other passenger that would be in our Jeep, a Dutch woman named Angelique, early on Sunday morning, and set out for our tour. We spent the morning driving on dirt roads and through dry river beds away from the city, gazing out the windows of our jeep at the incredible red rock canyons of the area surrounding Tupiza.
As we drove, we slowly were ascending in altitude, the scenery changing and as we climbed higher into the mountains. Our surroundings changed from red rocks to scrubby mountain highlands, where herds of llama roamed.
We continued up through the mountains, eventually coming to the ruins of San Antonio de Lipez, a Spanish colonial era town that according to Edgar had once been a rich village. The town unfortunately had been wiped out by some sort of plague and its treasures looted over the years by treasure hunters. Amy found a cool shard of pottery, which she kept as a souvenir. I found a skull of one of San Antonio’s former residents (which I did not keep).