This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chile Briefly

This blog makes me sleepy
A Chile Introduction
Going to Chile was never in the master plan, but due to circumstances beyond our control we are forced to reroute which in itself is not a bad thing. I actually become quite interested in this unexpected detour because there is always something fun about seeing a new country. Plus everyone likes some extra stamps in their passport, don't they? We end up staying only about a week in Chile and for a country with 6,435 km (3998.5 miles) of coastline that short time hardly does it justice.

To get to Chile we take an early morning bus from Arequipa, Peru to Tacna - Peru’s southernmost town. In Tacna we hop in a shared taxi, pass both border controls and drive along the incredibly bleak, sand-filled landscape of northern Chile. The taxi takes us to the bus station in Arica where catch another cab to a hotel.

Arica is definitely not a must-visit locale in South America, but it is not the end of the world if you happen to find yourself here for a day or so. The town sits on the Pacific ocean and has a slight beach town feel that you might find in other cold weather countries. We are here in the southern hemisphere’s winter and are told that in the summer it gets very busy with local tourists.
The Rock of Arica
The city is not big at all and in the center of town is a pedestrian street that gives us a good introduction to Chile. And what we soon learn is that Chile is not cheap at all. Our hotel, local restaurant lunch and some groceries are almost double of what we paid thus far in other South American countries. Mika quickly decides that we have to leave this country soon before our monthly budget completely implodes.

Two more things we soon learn is that the Chilean accent is really difficult to understand. They speak much faster than Peruvians and Ecuadorians and swallow the ends of their words. We find ourselves saying, “what?” a lot. The second thing is that Chile loves 80’s music in English. Examples: taxi from bus station to hotel - ‘Come on Eileen’; cranked car radio on the street- ’Rock Me Amadeus’; supermarket loudspeaker- ’Get into the Groove’; restaurant - ‘Borderline.’ Now I am not sure if they are 25 years behind the US or if they are just frozen in time. Either way Arica rocks the 80’s.

In town there are also few things to see. There are two buildings, a former customs house and steel church, designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. You may have heard of this French architect. He is most famous for his giant steel structure in Paris --- of which the name has just slipped my mind. There is also a museum housing some of the oldest mummies in the world which I forget to visit before leaving.

The Eiffel Cathedral
Buses can take people to some nice beaches out of town, but we decide to just take a walk along the beach which is empty apart from a few diehard surfers and a gang of vultures lunching on a sea lion carcass. After witnessing this National Geographic moment we decide to turn around and find some live sea lions.
Sea Lion for lunch

To See the Sea Lion
We are directed to the fisherman’s pier which sits near the center of Arica. The pier is a grungy place home to unhygienic sea food restaurants, a gaggle of pelicans, mangy dogs and cats, sketchy looking locals, and tourists coming to see some sea lions (“sea wolf” in Spanish). At the pier is an observation deck right next to a clearing that has enough space for three sea lions to pull themselves up on the rocks and relax in the sun. The animals are very close, maybe less than a meter (3 ft.) away. Us land mammals and these sea mammals are only separated by a flimsy metal fence.
Seeing chubby, wild animals this close is actually really exciting. They are pretty much just laying there not moving, so everyone perks up when every now and then one will sneeze, sit up to yawn, or lazily scratch his back with a flipper. We also can spot some other sea lion heads popping out of the water.
From this spot we find out that there is a short boat tour that will take us to see even more sea lions. Now
in my imagination I think that we will be passing some natural rocky island where a whole colony of sea lions come to bask in the sunbathe and do whatever else it is that sea lions do. But as we go further away from land there is no island in site and I cannot quite figure out where we are going to find these sea lions.
Sea lions observation point
Eventually we are directed to look in the direction of three large buoys approaching on our left. On top of these buoys are groups of lounging sea lions. The captain cuts the engine. We quickly float past briefly observing the creatures and snapping photos. This is it, and ’it’ is pretty lame. The only thing that I have time to think about is how in the heck do these large marine mammals with flippers for arms pull themselves up onto these clunky metal floating sun beds. A question that I am still asking myself today.
Really, how do they get up there?

Last Stop in Chile
Leaving Arica we decide to skip some other towns and head straight to San Pedro de Atacama on a long night bus. This is a small, cold, dusty desert town with adobe walled buildings and nothing else going for it except for tourism. Produce does not grow here and it is far from everything so food is expensive. Actually nothing here is reasonably priced. Dorm beds in unheated rooms are $10 per person.

There are several day excursions done from San Pedro de Atacama all of which are expensive. A trip to see geysers costs US $36 pp, snowboarding on sand dunes costs US $28, and transportation to hot springs costs US $20 and then you have to pay more than $11 for the entrance. Except for the sand snowboarding (we don't snowboard) none of these tours get rave reviews from other travelers, so we end up not doing anything. The only thing I regret skipping is renting bicycles and riding (w/o a guide) to the Valley of the Moon for sunset. I am not really sure why people come here -- it cannot just be for the sand snowboarding-- unless, like us, this is the most practical way to get to the salt desert.
The main cathedral
San Pedro de Atacama is overloaded with hotels, restaurants geared for tourists, tour agencies and some handicraft shops. It is another one of those places that makes you wonder if people were doing anything before tourism. One other noticeable thing about this town is that it is full of marijuana toking locals. Smelling wafts of pot smoke in the town’s small plaza, coming from people hanging out in front of a store, or emanating from the backroom of a tourist office is not uncommon. In our first hostel there is even a long-term resident/drug dealer who hooks up tourists and staff. I do not want to sound like a prude because recreational marijuana does not bother me and I think it should be legalized worldwide. However, if I am paying US $36 for a day tour the last thing I want is some stoner for my guide who is better suited as an extra in a Cheech & Chong movie.

To do the tour to Salar Uyuni, the salt flats, there are about six offices in town to choose from that take people on the three day/two night tour ending in Uyuni, Bolivia. Depending on the company and bargaining skills these tours cost between CP 52,000 to 75,000 (US $110-160) per person. All the tours pass the same sights, but vary in service. We pay on the higher end, but unluckily choose the wrong company - Atacama Mistica. Our tour with Atacama Mistica started with our jeep never coming to pick us up at the Bolivian border and us having to spend another night in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and ended with a guy flying off the roof of our jeep due to driver negligence. In between they did not give us everything promised to us by the smooth talking tour sellers.
The Bolivian passport control outpost
Stay tuned: My next post will be about the actual tour to the salt desert.
To read about the dynamic post-tour battle with our lame tour agency click here.

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