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Archive for December, 2012

Prior to making the journey ourselves, we had heard horror stories about driving over the Andes Mountains. Curvy roads, bad weather conditions, reckless drivers, distracting scenery, lack of guardrails, etc. Luckily, we crossed over from Chile to Argentina during the most prime summer months, thus optimizing our chance of survival. We did, however, see a semi-truck toppled over on its side as we came down the mountains, which wasn’t very reassuring. All and all, the drive from Puerto Montt to Bariloche was spectacular. It was one of those times when we were snapping photos out of the bus window even though we knew the pictures wouldn’t even coming close to capturing the beauty.

Drive to Bariloche

The scenery only continued to get more stunning as we approached the town of Bariloche. Crystal clear lakes sit at the base of rugged mountains, and the waves make it seem like you’re on the seashore. It feels like the entryway to Patagonia, which it is. The sun had set by the time we arrived at the bus terminal, which only primed our anticipation to see more of the landscape in the morning. We made our way to our hostel, several kilometers down the road, and were excited to find it was a cute and cozy log cabin in a wooded neighborhood. We got “that feeling” instantly. A feeling that we rarely get and only at the most special hostels. It’s the feeling that makes you want to extend your stay another day, and then a few more days, and then just one more. Fellow travelers will know what we’re talking about.

Hostal Alaska

For many people, it’s easy to think that a trip around the world is just an extended vacation. We tend to disagree, as living out of a backpack and switching cities all the time isn’t always relaxing and stress-free, but once we got settled in Bariloche, it really did feel like a mountain getaway. On our first full day we decided to take it easy. We walked to the nearby Playa Bonita for a view of Lake Nahuel, ate a few empanadas for lunch, and bought supplies for the evening’s main event…asado. In the simplest of terms, an asado is a barbecue, but in actuality, it is much more than that. In Argentina, asados are a national pass-time. The fair extends far beyond the typical hamburgers, hotdogs, and bratwurst of an American barbecue. A few basic ingredients are needed for a proper asado:

  1. Parrilla (grill)
  2. Carbon de leña (charcoal – not Kingsford, but big chunks of charred wood)
  3. Carne (copious amounts of meat, featuring as many cuts and animals as possible)
  4. Provoleta (thick slices of provolone, melted in a pan on the grill)
  5. Vino Tinto (Argentine wine, preferably Malbec)

Since it was just the two of us, we went with a “small” asado. Just a kilo of beef, two chicken legs, blood sausage, provoleta and aji stuffed with Roquefort cheese. The magic touch was coarse salt that we brought with us from a salt mine in San Pedro de Atacama and ground by hand using a mortar and pestle.

Parrilla

Thanks to Mike’s asado skills, our protein and iron levels were way up and we were ready for some big hikes the next couple of days. It was difficult to choose where to visit first because Bariloche is so full of options for outdoors enthusiasts. We decided on the Llao Llao peninsula (pronounced zshao zshao by Argentines) for day #1 of hiking. The clouds rolled in and out and the rain came and went as we walked through the forest, to various viewpoints, and huffed our way up Cerro Llao Llao. Our best estimate is that we walked 10 kilometers, and we even picked up a pair of dog friends around kilometer 8 who hiked along with us for a while.

Parque Llao Llao

On our next day of hiking, we got a little more ballsy and aimed to climb a mountain called Cerro Cathedral. Having both recently finished the book Born to Run (we highly recommend it to fellow runners!) we were feeling an extra bounce in our step and started jogging the trail. Other hikers must have thought we were insane, watching us run along the rugged trail in our Chacos sandals, especially when we got to the top where it was snowing. We summited in half the time the trail signs predicted. At the top sat a cool little stone cabin next to a lake with stunning views of the surrounding peaks. After a rest with tuna sandwiches and chocolate, we began our descent. 23 kilometers later we were back at our comfy hostel resting our feet and drinking wine.

Cerro Cathedral Hike

While the hiking and hostel could have kept us lingering around in Bariloche for weeks, we booked tickets on an overnight bus to Buenos Aires. Christmas was just around the corner, and we had promised family we would be there for the holidays. But don’t worry, Bariloche, we’ll be back one day!

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“What’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?” -Traveler

“You would have to ask God to know, because I have no control over it.” –Javi, Hostel Owner

We overheard this brief conversation the other day, and we loved Javi’s response. We hear travelers complaining all the time about wind and rain, about it being too hot or too cold, about the sweltering sun and the fog that just won’t lift. But in the end, Javi hit the nail right on the head; no one can control the weather. We were reminded of this when we visited Chiloé, an island in southern Chile, last week. We had high hopes of camping for a few nights and enjoying the ocean. But, it rained and rained and just wouldn’t stop raining. It rained so much and the wind was so relentless that our tent soaked through. Leaving us cold and wet. So what to do?

We made a plan. We learned the mantra “we’ll make a plan” while traveling with our friends in Australia, and it has become a common saying for us over the past few months. When something isn’t going our way, it is useful to vocalize the decision that we’re not going to sit around moping; we’ll figure something out one way or the other! In the case of Chiloé, the weather forced us to change our plans. We ended up spending our second night in an awesome little cabin instead of our tent. Rather than hike, we read our books, wrote a few blog posts, and played cards all day.

Chiloe National Park cabins

While God controls the weather, people control the bus schedules. Unfortunately, like God, those people don’t always give you what you hope for. In a perfect world, we would have spent three nights at the national park in Chiloé, but in order to make our bus connection over the border into Argentina, we had to spend our last night in Castro instead. The benefit of staying flexible with your traveling plans is that you often encounter unexpected things, like the incredible food scene in Castro. While trying to escape the rain (again) we ducked into a small restaurant, which ended up being a really fun lunch spot. We didn’t recognize the names of the daily specials, but decided to give them a try anyway. As a result, we accidentally ordered a hot seaweed salad and ceviche intestines, both of which turned out to be surprisingly delicious.

One of Chiloé’s most well-known features are palafitos (colorful shingled houses on stilts). There are clusters of palafitos all over Castro, and we spent the majority of one day exploring them. While many are old and sagging slowly into the water, it is obvious that tourism has sparked gentrification and restoration of these old buildings. For better or worse, they are a cool architectural piece of Chiloé.

Palafitos Castro

After our culinary and architectural explorations of Castro, we tried to find the most affordable place we could to stay for the night. We were looking forward to a good rest considering the long bus ride ahead of us to Argentina the next day. We did end up finding a place that suited our needs. It was simple, but the price was right. No sooner had we paid the bill, than we looked out the window  to discover that it was right next door to the local prison. Our bedroom wall doubled as the exterior fence. Awesome, huh?

Castro Prison Hotel

Our visit to Chiloé reminded us of that old saying “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” While we can’t control the weather, or bus schedules, or where inmates are kept in a city, we can control how much fun we have despite the circumstances!

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Surprisingly, the title of this post is not a reference to food, although Pan de Azucar may be the sweetest national park in Chile. After the packed days of touring in San Pedro de Atacama, we were eager to enjoy more of northern Chile at a slower pace. Mike knew just the spot. Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar is one of Chile’s best kept secrets. Probably more than 9 out of 10 tourists will blow right by this place on their way up to San Pedro and not even realize what they have missed.

Located just 30 minutes away from the dusty town of Chañaral, Pan de Azucar consists of rocky, desertous mountains, which run right into the Pacific Ocean. The result is a truly pristine and picturesque coastline.

Pan de Azucar

The national park is also home to some of the most stunningly beautiful and relaxing campsites that we have ever seen. Plenty of other parks in the world offer sites near the water, but few offer such a unique experience. Our site was simply AWESOME. Deserted beach, blue skies, island view, sunsets, sound of crashing ways, charcoal grill…Take a look for yourself!

Pan de Azucar Camping

We spent our days in Pan de Azucar doing what we do best, hiking and chilling. To get a feel for the area, we spent our first day strolling for hours along the coast until came to a nice rocky outcropping where we stopped for a bit of afternoon reading in the sun. Reading has been an unexpected pleasure on this trip. At home we enjoy reading and read novels every now and again, but were never “big readers.” 2012 may have officially been the year of the dragon, but for us it was the year of the book. We have read over 20 books each this year! Amy even took down a 941 pager.

Pan de Azucar

That night we enjoyed some wine and conversation with a French couple that we met while setting up camp the night before. As the night drew to a close, and they headed back to their site down the road, we took the rain-fly off of our tent and settled down to gaze at the stars above. The clear skies and lack of any major cities make northern Chile one of the best places out there for viewing the heavens. We got lucky that night as were able to catch four shooting stars before eventually falling asleep.

We were up early the next morning for an all day hike. Pan de Azucar doesn’t have as many sights as San Pedro, but it does have “el Mirador,” meaning the lookout/viewpoint. We spent six hours hiking to el mirador and beyond, stopping for lunch at the top and even catching the sight of a guanaco, a relative of the vicuña that we saw in San Pedro. Just one picture looking down on the park from above does a pretty good job of demonstrating just how beautiful the place is, and if you really consider that pictures rarely ever capture a moment, you might be able to imagine what it was like up there.

Pan de Azucar Mirador

If we hadn’t pre-booked bus tickets back down south, we may have stayed in Pan de Azucar for weeks. It is definitely a place we will visit in the future. After packing up camp on our last morning in the park, we walked out to the road and hitchhiked back into Chañaral, catching lucky car #7. Riding out of the park with the views of the rocky mountains plunging into the sea was a perfect end to our time in Pan de Azucar.

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As our bus drove through flat, endless desert for hours upon hours, we were both thinking to ourselves (but not telling each other) “why did we choose to go to San Pedro? This place is in the middle of nowhere.” The night before, we had boarded the bus in Santiago, and 18 hours later, we were only three quarters of the way there. Don’t get us wrong, the desert is a beautiful place, but after that many hours with only views of sand, rocks and an occasional trash dump, we both had a bad feeling that we were about to be disappointed. When our bus finally pulled in to San Pedro de Atacama, we were relieved, to say the least. After stretching our legs, we admitted to one another the feelings we were having on the bus. It only took a few minutes to realize that San Pedro is one dusty and isolated little town, but somehow from that very moment it captivated us.

San Pedro de Atacama

We spent a week in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world, using San Pedro de Atacama as our home base. Despite the apprehensions we had on the bus ride, we were not disappointed in the end. We were actually quite impressed by all the hidden gems to be found in this desolate place. We are not usually keen on taking organized tours, but San Pedro is a place where you have to go on tours if you want to see it all. The sights are spread over large distances, the roads are not marked making it unwise to rent a car, and the sun is so strong that biking would require more water than you could carry. In four days, we went on twice as many guided tours as we had in the previous 11 months of traveling. Much to our surprise, the tours ended up being really great.

Day 1 – Lagunas Altiplánicas, Laguna Chaxa  & Valle de la Luna

For being the driest desert in the world, there sure is a lot of water in the Atacama. When we first arrived in San Pedro, we wondered how people manage to survive in this inhospitable place. It is such an extreme climate, in fact, that NASA has had an interest in this region for decades because the lack of life makes it almost like another planet. In the early ‘90s it was a test-site for the Mars Rover. The answer to how life is sustained here is underground water sources and snow melt which results in scattered lagoons. Our first tour took us to several of these lagoons, some sitting at elevations over 12,000 feet and others in the salt flat serving feeding grounds for pink flamencos. We even were lucky to catch a glimpse of some vicuñas (an indigenous species of the camel-family) grazing along the edge of a lagoon.

Lagoons near San Pedro de Atacama

Valle de la Luna (or Moon Valley) is the most visited area in the Atacama Desert. Located just 8km from San Pedro, the drive is short, but it really does feel like leaving Earth all together. The valley is composed of great sand dunes, wind carved stones, and vast mountains of crystallized salt.

Valle de la Luna

For centuries before becoming a national reserve, the valley was the site of prosperous salt mines. The salt is so abundant here, that you can literally break off a chunk of pure salt with just your fingers, and if you are quiet, you can hear the walls of the mountains cracking as salt expands under the heat of the desert sun.

Salt Mines in Valle de la Luna

Day 2 – Laguna Cejar, Ojos del Salar & Laguna Tebenquiche

As kids we both remembered learning about the Dead Sea and how it’s so salty that you can float on the surface with no effort. In the Atacama Desert you can do just that in Laguna Cejar. This lagoon is seven times more saline that the ocean, which allows you to roll around on your stomach, back and side with ease. After visiting Cejar Lagoon, our tour also took us to a few other incredible lagoons that pop-up out of nowhere in the middle of the desert. Possibly the most impressive was a very large, yet very shallow, salt lagoon that we could walk across, called Laguna Tebenquiche. The entire bottom of the lagoon is covered with a thick layer of glistening salt crystals. The water was so saturated that when it dried on our skin, we looked like we had just jumped in a huge tub of flour.

Salt Lagoons near San Pedro

Day 3 – Geisers del Taito

Even for non-morning people like Mike, waking up at 7am isn’t too bad. Even rising in the 5s or 6s every now and again is acceptable. But waking up before 4am? Forget about it! Well, we bit the bullet one morning and set our alarms for 3:30am in order to take a tour to Geisers del Taito. In terms of elevation, they are the highest geysers in the world, sitting at over 13,000 feet, and are truly spectacular. When our bus arrived at the geysers just before sunrise, it was freezing (literally) and was one of those times when we wished we owned real shoes instead of only sandals. Gradually, the temperatures rose with the sun, and we even got to take a swim in a natural hot spring formed by the geyser run-off.

Geisers del Taito

Our week in San Pedro de Atacama was well worth the 24-hour trip up north from Santiago (although we were still a little irked when people talked about how their flight took only 2 hours). Consecutive days of touring around the desert and exploring the town of San Pedro were exhausting, and we were always thankful to have an oasis-like hostel to retreat back to in the evenings. Its front entrance was unassuming, similar to the riad where we stayed in Marrakech, but opened into courtyard full of trees and hammocks.

Hostal Candalaria

If you are visiting Chile and debating whether or not to visit San Pedro de Atacama, we strongly encourage you to make your way up north, by bus or plane.

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Weddings are always fun, and a wedding abroad brings a little extra excitement. As you might remember (or may not if you are a newer follower) a few months ago we stayed with our friends Daniel & Libby in Thailand. Mike met Daniel in 2005 while studying in Chile, and one night in Chiang Mai the two of them got to reminiscing about their adventures in South America. They got to talking about their other friend Mark, who was still living down there, so Mike decided to send him a message to see about meeting up sometime in November.

Mike and Mark back in 2005

Mike and Mark back in 2005

Mark wrote back, and not only did he want to meet up, but he was getting married to his Chilean girlfriend, Carolina, on November 24th, and they invited us to attend the wedding. Our first thought was, AWESOME, weddings are such a blast! Our second thought was, oh shit, what are we going to wear? There wasn’t exactly room for formal wear in our small backpacks. We soon realized that the clothing issue could be easily resolved, we would just buy some new threads and either leave them behind or send them home. We added the wedding to our travel plans, bought plane tickets to Chile a few days later, and continued on our trip through SE Asia without further thought.

Two weeks ago was the big day for Mark and Carolina. With some help from friends, family, and the thrift store, we were able to make ourselves presentable for this special day.

Us getting dressed up for the wedding - it felt odd to wear dress clothes again!

Us getting dressed up for the wedding – it felt odd to wear dress clothes again!

There ceremony was held at the Naval Chapel in Viña del Mar. The weather was perfect and the views of the ocean and Valparaíso in the distance made it the prime surroundings for two people to get hitched. The ceremony was a small, traditional Catholic service, that couldn’t have been more beautiful. It was conducted in Spanish, which created some funny scenes of Mark’s guests from the States looking around for tips of when to stand, when to sit and when to exit after the ceremony.

Carolina's beautiful dress

Carolina’s beautiful dress

Mark and Carolina making their way out through the rose pedals flying through the air.

Mark and Carolina making their way out of the chapel through blue and white rose petals flying through the air.

If there is one thing better than a wedding, however, it’s a wedding reception! Mark and Carolina took off in a Hummer to do their photos and such, and the rest of us hopped in vans and headed to Concón. At first, the vibe of the reception was a little quite; when you have a multi-cultural wedding with two different languages involved, people tend to segregate themselves a bit, but after some quality speeches (which were translated), some tasty food, and the opening of the bar, people were mingling freely and the party was in full swing.

In many cultures, it is common for the bride and groom to have their first dance; accordingly, Mark and Carolina took the dance floor and stepped to a slow love song. Then something somewhat unexpected happened. Someone brought out a cowboy hat, two handkerchiefs and a sash. Having spent time in Chile, Mike knew exactly what was about to go down when he saw those items. Amy looked at him for some explanation. The answer: Cueca Time! Cueca is Chile’s traditional folk dance, where the couple dances around each other in a fun and flirtatious way.

Cuenca time!

Cueca time!

In contrast to the old tradition of dancing cueca at Chilean wedding receptions, a new custom has emerged as well over the last decade. Late into the festivities, after rounds and rounds of drinks have been consumed, cheesy party costumes and favors are handed out, similar to what you would expect at a New Year’s Eve Party (i.e. masks, noise makers, oversized sunglasses, etc).

Crazy costume time

Crazy costume time

Everything about Mark and Caorlina’s wedding was perfect. It was one of those weddings where you could feel the love beaming between them and from all of their family and friends. The Chilean-American family that was formed that night made us think about tough decisions that sometimes have to be made in the face of love. We often talk about where we want to live after our trip around the world, and it is a difficult topic to discuss as our family is spread between multiple states. For Mark and Carolina, however, their family is divided between different continents; leaving them with an even more challenging decision. For us, celebrating with them that night wasn’t just a good time; it reminded us that family will always be family, near or far, and family stays in your heart wherever you are in the world.

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