Sunday, October 01, 2006
Day 2 began with a tour of the Salt Lake with still blue waters reflecting the majestic Andes and white salt deposits all around. The water comes down when the snow melts from the Andes. But the relentless sun evaporates much of the water and crystalline salt deposits are formed after hundreds and thousands of years.
It's very easy to get lost in its splendor till you see a flock of pink flamingoes fishing for food and flying. These are elegant birds and I managed to take some neat shots with my zoom lens.
We later went on to the lagunas high up in the mountain at about 4500m. I forget the names but they are spectacular. I would probably treat these as the highlight of the trip. It takes a bit to adjust to the altitude here so one would be wise to preserve their energies for the treks around the lake. I became a bit breathless around here.
On the way back, we had lunch at the local native indian restaurant. This was the first time I tasted Quinoa - a plant that grows only in the mountains and is a very rich source of protein and fibre. I was to have the same thing for 20 times the cost in a whole foods store in Colorado.
After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we took at cab to the bus station. There we found out that the first bus to leave for San Pedro left at 10:30am. At this stage I was ready to throw a fit. I am extremely greedy when it comes to utilizing my vacation time and we were just wasting time here.
We took a walk around to kill time. There was nothing much to do. Calama looks pretty run down and has a typical desert-town look. About the only interesting thing we say were a pack of 20-30 stray dogs that were going down the main artery of the town (where the bus station is located).
We reached San Pedro at around 1pm. The first thing that hits you on the ride is the stark landscape. This isn't a 'duney' desert. It's very dry, reddish and rocky. It isn't pretty like Rajasthan or Namibia. San Pedro itself is a little village. They don't get any littler than this - given my very limited village experience. The bus drops you on the 'outskirts' which is about 2 blocks from the main square. As soon as you get off the bus, horde of people offering accomodation will approach you. A lot of them are so-called 'hostels' where you share accomodation with other guests for something as low as $10 a night. Perfect if you are single - which I'm not! Hmph ..
We lugged our suitcases to the town center and tried to look for something more regular - you should ideally carry back packs. Chile is back-packing heaven - someday, we'll do that hopefully. We found a couple of very pricey hotels ($150 a night with a swimming pool and internet) but eventually were lucky enough to find this newly opened motel for about $40 a night. The units were quite charming and very neatly (but sparely) furnished. It even had a little backyard where we dried our clothes later in our stay.
I was able to get by with my very limited spanish but I couldn't have done much worse. The place is quite safe and the people very friendly - quite unlike Valparaiso. We had lunch at this little cafe called La Canela run by a young woman whose little kid brother (?) occasionally serves as the 'waiter' - it was a balancing act as he barely managed to hold our plates. I managed to convey that we were both vegetarians. She made us a deliciously simple meal starting with a salad and some kind of a vegetable lassagna and finished with a desert. It cost us $10 each.
The next step was to find ourself a tourist agencywho would take us on expeditions to nearby places. There are some obligatory things on a tourist's to-do list when in San Pedro de Atacama.
1. Valle de La Luna (Valley of the moon)
2. Lagunas (lakes in the Andes)
3. Termas (the hot springs)
We booked a package deal for the both of us at $120 to visit these three over the next three days. The guide wouldn't speak english but hey that would force us to learn a little more spanish wouldn't it ? Also, the english ones were pricier from what I heard. In addition, these guys were friendly and as we found out, they were quite helpful over the next couple of days.
Valle de la Luna was the least spectacular of the three destinations but was quite beautiful in its own right. The ride takes you into the desert and to points were you get a sweeping view of the valley. The trip ends with a view of the sun going down from one of those 'sunset points'. It's a short hike up to this point and climbing in sand isn't exactly that easy. My lack of exercise over the past few months was showing.
We ended the day dining at one of the most visually charming restaurants that we had ever come across anywhere. It was called Milagro and sits on Caracoles St. that houses 80% of the restaurants and businesses in San Pedro de Atacama. Everything is built out of mud and wood and this was no exception. The restaurant had a fireplace in the center opening out out into one of the clearest skies in the world (the Atacama is known for that) with candle lit tables all around + live music. It could not have been any more romantic and I was basking in Aparna's admiring looks. That was until food arrived - a real anti-climax.
I probably won't be coming back to Chile again but I'm glad I was able to experience what this little jewel in the Atacama desert had to offer. The planning was quite bad (non-existent really) as you could make out from my previous post.
Day 0 - Wednesday:
The idea was to reach San Pedro Wednesday night in order to maximize our time there. However, it became obvious there was no public transport at our disposal around the time we were to reach Calama. I booked a hotel a mere half an hour before I left for the airport. I was praying it would be decent enough for a married guy.
We reached Calama at 10pm. It was cold and dry when we got out of the airport. We waited for a taxi and asked him to take us to hotel Olimpo. They charged about $50 a night but I have to admit we were nervous getting to the place. Calama appears a little old and run down and I couldn't help but have visions that the taxi driver will take us to a deserted corner and his croonies would rob us at knifepoint!
My fears were misplaced. The taxi driver was quite friendly and got us to the hotel which can be best described as 'adequate' in a very seedy looking surrounding. The furnishings were very average but functional. We took a quick shower and went to bed. The bus to San Pedro was to leave at 8am according to the lady at the front desk.
Monday, September 25, 2006
Can't wait to get on that flight this Wednesday. The idea is to fly out Wednesday night to Calama and catch a bus or taxi that night (I hope) to San Pedro de Atacama. The next three days will involve activities in and around San Pedro - none of which I have any details of as of now - and then return Sunday afternoon back to Santiago. Aparna flies out Sunday night back to Atlanta.
It's gonna be hectic and I better find some information about this place. I'm a little nervous considering the total lack of planning. I had planned much better when we went to Alaska this summer.
Saturday, September 23, 2006
Getting out of Santiago city is a reward in itself because the landscape around it is all mountains and hillocks in whichever direction you head out. Importantly, the ever present smog that shackles your view all thru the year is absent when you get out. The buses have a little old fashioned feel about them because of the vendors showing up selling local hand-made candy and sweets. I bought one of them - a little to sugary for my taste but still quite nice.
After I paid of the ticket, I stuck my wallet in my back pocket, something that I do to avoid what was to soon follow. 5 minutes after I got off at the Valparaiso bus terminus - which is a little more chancy and perilious looking surroundings than what I had encountered in Chile so far - I realized my wallet was missing. A local tourist guide who was trying to buy our services offered to help us in finding the bus since it had left for the garage.
We did find the bus eventually but not the wallet. Aparna to this day believes that the helper/ticket-checker picked it up because of a very evasive look on his face. In any case, that brings us to the subject of the blog. We ended up talking to Chilean police who had stopped in their patrol car. We tried explaining to them what happened in our limited spanish.
Obviously, nothing got thru to them. They asked us to get in and then proceeded to drive us to the bus station. We eventually found an american girl who spoke spanish and she explained our situation. The cops talked to the bus driver and helper but really couldn't do much because of the lack of incriminating evidence - anyone getting off the bus after I did could've stolen the wallet.
So, very shaken, we decided to just tuck our tails in and return to Santiago. Luckily, the return tickets were in the camera bag and we barely had money to catch the subway back to the hotel. It was one negative blip in my mostly postive experiences in Chile.
I ended up losing about $80 and my corporate amex card because I usually maintain a separate wallet while travleing internationally - so the damage was minimal. Still, we regretted not being able to see a famously beautiful town.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Aparna joins me for almost three weeks this time as she is able to work remotely. Uncle D is quite kind to its employees. I'm hoping to take a 3-4 day vacation to either North or South Chile once the project is done. Given the current schedules I see her late every night. Not sure how long she can take it. I'd be pretty frustrated staying cooped up in the hotel all day in a country where you don't know the language. She hasn't cracked as yet .. tick tick tick ..
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
The hangover from the weekend lasted long ... Long enough for me to buy complete ski gear. Yes, I now have Skis, Boots, Poles in addition to my pants, gloves and goggles. The delirium is because I was in them just a few minutes back - in my hotel room, in my boxers and t-shirt.
I spotted this shop on Av. Las Condes on my way back from El Colorado this weekend. I dropped by the next day to take a look at their inventory. They seemed nice enough and the prices were really good. The store owner Hector offered me my choice of skis (w/ bindings), boots and poles for $400. That seemed like a nice bargain. Being suspicious by nature, I went to a couple more stores nearby and checked that these were very good prices indeed.
After talking to brother-in-law, fellow ski aficionado and colorado resident Pramod, who declared that $400 for Rossignol stuff is quite good, I decided that I'll buy 'em if they fit me. They did fit me well - though the skis were a few cm longer than what I'm used to. But they are beautiful - and I should grow into them steadily for the next 2-3 years.
For sure, the gear is probably from 2004 or earlier but it was unused and I liked the guys at the store. They spoke as much English as I did Spanish but we got along. Customers who spoke English acted as translators. One of them was a Doctor who was particularly helpful. Turns out he had been to India. One of the reasons I did buy from that shop was because of it's clientele.
On other fronts, I'll be back in Atlanta this Friday and will remain there for the next 5 weeks. Thinking of taking Spanish lessons. Any recommendations on what is the best way to do that (would help if it was affordable as well)?
Sunday, July 30, 2006
"The worst thing about skiing is when you are not skiing."
If you went skiing, you know what I mean. You want to be on the slopes all the time in order to stay warm. When you are waiting in the lift lines, you are acutely aware of those unwieldy boots. When you are on the lift, the first couple of minutes feel good. You can use the rest. After that, your body starts to feel the cold, particularly when it is windy.
"Smog is beautiful too, as long as I'm above it."
Sometime back, I was complaining that the smog in Santiago really sucks. You can barely see the Andes because of the all haze. However, when you go up into the mountains, its a different story. The thick layer of smog reveals only the peaks of the hills and mountains and completely obscures the city from view. You feel like you are in this ethereal otherwordly tier right out of the LotR .
I have to admit, yesterday's sunset was among the most breathtaking I've ever seen. The smog, the snow and a not-so-intense bright orange sun peeking thru the clouds made it a one-of-a-kind view. It was a bit cruel that I did not have my camera because the distinct warm (yellow) cast from the sun made every feature of the snow worth a million dollars. Every face I saw was begging to be photographed. The glint in the eye, the hair lights, the speckles on the cheeks, stubble from an emerging evening shadow, the tiny shadow cast by a nose stud .. Oh, I can go on and on .. and I felt so frustrated. It was light worth dying for - and I did not have my camera with me.
I thought the visual feast ended with the sunset. I was wrong. The road back to the city is a winding one with a zillion u-turns. All the vehicles from the three ski resorts (valle, colorado and La Parva) go bumper to bumper at about 15 miles an hour for close to half an hour. While this is boring in itself (and inconvenient if you are trying to get some sleep), you get glimpses of the snaking road as it makes it way several hundred feet below you. All you see are a procession of bright headlights, red rear lights and the dimly lit snow from the multi-colored ambient light. It was quite spectacular. Again, I missed my camera very much.
It was poignantly ironic that I had contrasting days in terms of two things I'm very passionate about, skiiing and photography. It was a day to remember. I wish I had a picture to show for it .. but for now Ye, the reader shall suffer my words.
Gonzalo was my Chilean ski buddy yesterday - one of the most fulfilling days for me in terms of skiing. Since my last post, I did manage to get out of Santiago and each time, I went skiing. Twice to Valle Nevado and once to El Colorado. Both are nestled a few miles into the Andes and located just 30-40 km from the city proper.
I was destined to go yesterday. So I thought before I set out - and so I believe, now. I tweaked my back sleeping in a weird position flying into Santiago early in the week - and I still had some niggling soreness by the weekend. However, it snowed 3 feet midway into the week and the forecast for the weekend was sunny .. sunny .. sunny. I *had* to go. Come hell or highwater, I had to go - despite some strong protests from mi esposa.
So, I set out at 7:30am well in time to catch the early (not so early really, we leave at 6am in the States) buses leaving for Valle Nevado. While I was standing in line for the bus tickets, I realized I forgot my inhaler. I thought, "Maybe, this is a sign that I shouldn't go". Chileans smoke freely everywhere and skiing with a spasmed windpipe woudln't be all that fun. "No! God can't be this cruel". I took a taxi back to the hotel, picked up my inhaler and returned after 15 minutes. It was getting late, but hell, skiing a couple of hours less was a lot better than staying cooped up in the hotel.
I eventually took the bus to El Colorado as it was announced that there were delays going into Valle (short for V Nevado). The announcement was kindly translated for me by Senor. Gonzalo. We ended up sitting next to each other and we skied together as well.
We got on the slopes by about 12pm - very late by any standard. However, the powder was unbelievable. The snowfall the past week had turned the andean retreats into such beauties. We both skied non-stop till 5pm eating cereal bars for lunch while on the lift. My rhythm was improving with each run and I peaked somewhere around 3:30pm coming down without stopping at a fair speed with my torso facing downhill all the time. My back wasn't troubling me - adrenaline was masking any semblance of pain.
However, my total lack of exercise for the last 6 weeks was showing. I was tiring towards the end of the day. But my greed drove me on. I was already dreaming of coming back the next day (today) for another day on the slopes. On the last run, I lost control briefly and toppled over (not uncommon when you are pushing 30-40 m/h - happened earlier in the day) but this time it tweaked the problem spot with a precision strike. I literally limped back - if there is such a thing in skiing.
I wasn't complaining. I had a content smile on my way back - a face not contorted by pain from each turn as I made my way down the trail. I silently thanked the Lord. If it had to happen, it did so at the right time. It could've happened when I had bigger tumbles earlier in the day - and I would've been miserable sitting out the whole day because of pain. But it was a sign that read "Don't push it son. You had a great day today in spite of your back. Rest tomorrow."
Resting, I am. It's been my first day of rest in weeks - weekends in Atlanta are too hectic to call them weekends - and I'll gladly sit it out.
Monday, June 19, 2006
This weekend was mostly disappointing because I didn't get to do much on a scheduled working weekend that freed up at the last minute. I got some vital information way too late on Sunday to actually ski or go hiking. I ran into this (India) Indian looking (and sounding) guy who overheard me speaking English in the local bus. He told me that I was just an hour away from some great hiking at a place called Banos Morales. It is very close to the El Morado glacier and is known to afford stunning views of the Andes.
I won't let another free day slip by. My Chile trips are starting to edge the banal as I'm aching to get out of the city but keep hitting a some wall. However, I did manage to visit this charming little market (San Dominicos) right at the foothills of the snow-capped Andes in the Northwestern end of Santiago. The setting was just picture perfect - a menagerie of handicraft shops housed in little huts on an unpaved earthern strip carved by a little stream that added finishing touches for an idyllic setting.
I'm managing to learn more and more spanish but I've got a ways to go before I can keep one end of a conversation up. Nonetheless, I'm hopeful of doing so. Turns out the language is a little bit more predictable than English. For example, all vowels consistently have the same sound and are not liable to change from word to word - unlike in english.
Blah blah blah ..
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
I came to Alaska fully expecting to fall in love with the place, quite unlike my mindset when I first went to meet Aparna. Back then, I was quite annoyed with my precipitous fall for this girl with whom I was merely talking to on the phone. I went to St. Louis praying that I wouldn't fall in love with her. The rest is history, I married her less than three months after that - so that was that. It was only apt that I feel the same way about Alaska where I took Aparna for our honeymoon.
I booked our trip to Alaska much against Aparna's intended plan to while away time lazing on some sunny beach in the caribbean. I was able to guilt her into believing Alaska was going to be a much more enjoyable trip compared to the caribbean. "We can always go there and lay on our asses when we are fifty." I told her. Alaska wasn't exactly relaxing - atleast not in the elementary definition of the term. We went on four strenuous 3-4 hour hikes, tandem bicycling over many miles, day long boat rides in the cold wide ocean and bumpy bus rides thru some of the most pristine wildlife reserves I ever saw.
Yes, that's because there is still so much more to do in Alaska. We came away fully satisified and hungry for more. Alaska is BIG and there are too many things you can do there. With our time and budget and a concerted effort from my side to not cramp too many things into our schedule, we passed 101 in flying colors.
Still, there is too much to fit into a single blog and my ass is being ground to death here in Chile. Thirteen hour work days after 10 hour flights kind of define 'a rude awakening' after a super vacation. Plus, I took about 1500 pictures that I need to whittle down to a maneagable number so help me Lord. I should have some more stuff written down and a few pictures ready in the next couple of weeks.
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
The very concept of South America was exotic to start with. Add to the mix a country sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific on a thin LONG slice of land; I couldn't wait to explore the place. I landed here May 17th on a chilly early winter morning. Yes, its winter here in the southern hemisphere.
After 5 days here in Santiago, I am a bit disappointed. To start off, winter isn't probably the best time of the year to see the place. It's overcast most of the time and visibility is a bit poor. I only managed to get a few glimpses of the Andes that are otherwiswe a constant towering fixture for most of the year.
Chile is a prosperous country - it is as expensive as any middle-tier US city. Santiago (where half the country lives) is fairly modern and .. uh .. boring. The city center is quite reflective of the population distribution of the country. Spread over a 100 square blocks, downtown is a nice area but the is eerily quiet and devoid of life on the weekend (both saturday and sunday). Save one Street (the Paseo Ahumada), it's dead. I'm convinced I need to get out of the city to get to know this place.
If nothing else, I hope to learn spanish by the time I am out of this project. Next to nobody speaks english and I get by using some basic noun forms and numerals - and acting dumb and american.
Yesterday, I happened to turn 28. I celebrated by going to a fine restaurant at the fine neighborhood where I live and cobbled together an order in words equally tattered. Me Vegetariano! Un Tortilla! Sin Carne! Sin Pollo! Sin Pescado! It actually worked and I had a pretty decent birthday dinner that I'll happily expense to the client. The downside was that I ate alone but it was fun anyways - Roasted Peaches to the Contreau. That was something I hadn't tried before.
I'm praying that my initial impression of this country changes.
This weekend, Aparna and I will be hitting Alaska for our honeymoon. I've been dying to go there for a long time and I didn't procrastinate when it came to buying the air tickets to Anchorage. What about planning? Well .. well .. that's a different story. I can't wait to get out there and use my new Nikon D50 on some moose and bear!