Chile

Chile travel tips

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1. If you go to Valparaiso, don’t plan to arrive Thursday-Saturday. This is when all the locals from Santiago get away for the weekend, and almost all hostels and hostals will be full, especially in the summer. Our first night here we had to take a room in a hostal B&B that was almost twice what we had intended to pay, just because there was no availability elsewhere.

2. Only use ATMs at banks. We used an ATM at a supermarket in Puerto Montt and it ate our card. We ran into another traveler who used an ATM in the metro in Santiago, and it ate her card. This also happens to locals, and often their account info is stolen after they leave the ATM. We learned from a Chileno that ATMs at bank tend to be safe, but anywhere else is a gamble.

3. In the words of a native, “We don’t speak Spanish. We speak Chileno.” Lots of slang, rapid speech, and slurred endings to words may confuse you if you aren’t prepared (we weren’t). Chilenos often drop the letter d at the end of a word: Helado becomes hela-o. They also say po (short for pues) at the end of sentences often.

4. While buses in Chile are currently cheaper than it’s cousin Argentina, the hostels and restaurants are more expensive. Plan for it in your budget.

5. Chile customs at border crossings tend to be very strict about the plant/animal products entering or leaving their country. However, if you can prove you purchased your fruit in Chile, by having your receipt still taped to the fruit or the bag, they sometimes let it back into the country.

6. According to fellow packpackers, Chile is one of the best countries in the world for hitchhiking. If you want to try this form of travel, Chile seems to be the place to do it!

7. If you are on a strict budget and want to visit San Pedro, despair not. There are cheaper hostels/hostals in town, but they will not have websites and they will be closer to the edges of town. The hostel we stayed at was more than half the prices of the hostels in the middle of muddy downtown.

8. You cannot get USD from ATMs or banks. After a few financial law changes in 2011, your only option is to go to a cambio house.

Here are a few websites I used to plan:

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Salar de Uyuni tour: Preparations and Day 1

The easiest, most interesting way to enter Bolivia (especially for Americans) is through a Salar de Uyuni tour. I highly recommend it.

This tourism of remote, southern Bolivia is relatively new. Only in the past ten years have tour agencies offered this 3 day/4 day tour. Not all tour agencies are created equal, especially for this tour. Guide books recommend checking agencies carefully (particularly if you begin your trip in Uyuni, Bolivia rather than San Pedro, Chile). In the past deaths have occurred, usually from drunk tour guides/drivers. As time goes on, companies become more reputable and the trip becomes safer. We had no problem with our trip, but we were careful to look at four or five different tour companies in San Pedro before signing on to one.

As interest in this trip grows, so does the prices. Ten years ago the price was around 60.000 Chilean pesos per person. Now it is regularly 100.000 pesos. It really sucks, but I would say it is still worth it. Particularly as an entry point into Bolivia.  The whole trip is four days, three nights, and roundtrip from San Pedro (where we began) or Uyuni, Bolivia. The most common practice among backpackers, however, is to be dropped off in the other city, finishing the trip at three days, two nights. We chose to “hop off” the tour in Uyuni to continue our travel further in Bolivia.

One reason this is a great entry point in Bolivia (besides the views): ease of entrance and reduced visa for Americans. Normally, Americans have to pay 135 USD reciprocity fee to get a year-long visa into the country. Bolivian customs/border workers also regularly require proof of yellow fever vaccine, departure tickets, and other inconvenient things. However, there is a rarely-advertised 30 day visa for 60 USD. Not many Americans know about it–we didn’t until we arrived in San Pedro and asked around at tour agencies.

We ended up chosing World White Travel and paid 99.000 pesos per person. This hurt. This was over 300 USD between the two of us. But we decided it would be worth it (and I think it was). The cheapest tour agency we found offered the tour at 90.000 per person, the most expensive at 106.000. We decided not to go with the cheapest because they didn’t seem to know all the ins and outs of the Bolivian border crossing. Their 4×4 jeeps were probably liable to break down in the desert as well, which would have been absolutely miserable, if not dangerous.

Geyser pond_Panorama1Our tour bus picked us up at 7:30 am, outside our hostel, and drove us to the border crossing. Because it is winter, high in the mountains, there was snow on the road. We had to wait at the Chilean border for two and a half hours before we knew the pass to the Bolivian side of the border was open. We used that time to get to know our companions: two girls from Spain, one Manhattanite, and one Swede. We got along great and decided to pile into the same 4×4 jeep later that day. We finally got word the border was open around noon, which was great news. If we had to wait any longer, sites on the tour would have to be cut.

The Bolivian customs buildings were high in the volcanoes and mountains, and everything was covered in snow. Because the government workers are used to tons of tourists coming through every day, all they want to see is a passport and US dollars. Even though the posters on the wall declare that entry will be refused without yellow fever vaccination proof and other paperwork, we were never asked for any of it. They really just wanted our money. We told them we would stay in the country 28 days, they took our money, stamped our passport, and we were done. Simple as that.

IMG_3096Then we met our tour guide/driver and loaded all our bags and five liters of water onto the jeep. We were told to bring five liters apiece, which I think was a little excessive. Three probably would’ve been just fine. Six of us piled into the 4×4, and we began out journey. The guides only speak Spanish, but most of us on the trip could understand at least some Spanish. Two were native speakers from Barcelona, so that helped.

At this point we were easily 13,000 feet above sea level. Maybe more. I was popping pills, taking three mgs of dexamethasone a day, and it made a huge difference. For people who get altitude sick, be aware that this tour takes place in high altitude. The lowest we ever got was around 11,000 feet in Uyuni, Bolivia. While altitude affects almost everyone, the majority of the population only feels the slightest of symptoms: shortness of breath, insomnia, increased bathroom needs, and maybe a little fatigue, starting around 8,000 feet (give or take). This is all very manageable and if you’re in that group, don’t worry about the trip, but don’t expect to sleep well. If you’re like me, however, well, take medicine. Because you’ll be in a jeep all day for three days, and no one wants to get puked on. I did well–I didn’t even get a headache and I slept better than the others in my group, probably because of the medicine.

Our first stop along the tour was Laguna Blanca. This was the first of several altiplano lakes in the Bolivian mountains.  It is white because of the minerals suspended in the water. At this point, we were about 14,000 feet high.

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This tour, I should add, was cold. I wore pajama bottoms under my jeans, two pairs of socks, a cami, two shirts, a thick scarf, and my jacket. It’s just so high (and the beginning of winter) that the wind bites right through you. Also, the wind is very strong, and our driver said that’s pretty normal throughout the year.

Our jeep, I believe, was the fun one of the trip. Several jeeps all go at the same time, from different companies, so you get to know the other vehicles and their occupants. We always had music playing and we went through Catalan, Swedish, and American music during our three days.

The air was fresh and crisp so high in the mountains, and we could see for miles. As we traveled through the desert, there were no roads, and we all realized how isolated we really were. There is absolutely nothing. I don’t think I’ve ever been that remote before, where the nearest town is several days’ drive away through deserts and around volcanoes. Every once and a while we would pass dilapidated stone shacks. Our driver said they were for the llama farmers that came up in summer. Frankly, I couldn’t imagine living that way. It gave me a greater appreciation for the convenience of living in/by a town in the States, where the grocery store is not far. Even the farmers I know in the States don’t live days from a hospital or food market.

Our second stop, Laguna Verde, is also green for the types of minerals in the water.

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The wind was very strong–so strong we had to stay away form the edge of the cliffs. I almost fell off a cliff into a waterfall in Patagonia, and I didn’t want to test my luck again. The sky, as you can see, is an unbelievable color. Our group would just silently stare out the window, up to the clouds, watching the clear sky.

Geyser de Sol Manana was the highest we went on our trip, and is the first day. So not too good for acclimatization. However, we spent at most 45 minutes at the geysers, so anyone that feels sick doesn’t have to stay too long. It is a little over 16,000 feet. South Base Camp of Mt. Everest is 16,900 feet, just for comparison. This is high, especially considering the last time I was at 14,000 feet (Pike’s Peak, Colorado in 2000) I was crying and vomiting. And rolling around on the gift shop floor (okay, okay, I was 10. Give me a break).

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We quickly moved along (everyone was out of breath just hiking fifteen feet away from the car) and headed to Laguna Colorada. This is the third colorful lake in the mountains, and by far the most striking. In the summer it is swamped with flamingos.

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It was our first time to see a red/pink lake before, and wow, it was breathtaking. We really enjoyed our time out there, even though we were panting walking uphill.

Our refugio, where we would spend the first night, was just 10 minutes drive from this lake. This whole area is a nature reserve, and the only lodging places are very, very basic. The building is built from adobe and has no showers or heating. It only has electricity for two hours a day, when they fire up the generator. And it gets cold overnight, without heating. We ate great Bolivian food, played uno, and when the electricity went out burrowed under our covers and tried to sleep. Before sleep, Jordan went out to get some photos of the Southern hemisphere’s stars.

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He did a really good job, I thought, and was able to capture the nearby volcanoes as well. Those buildings are the refugio and the outbuildings.

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Isn’t nature beautiful?

 

Categories: Bolivia, Chile | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Valle de la Luna

Another very popular (and worth the money) tour near San Pedro is to Valle de la Luna. Located about 8 miles from the town of San Pedro, this valley in the Atacama Desert is so-called because of the strange sand, salt, and rock formations throughout the region.

It is probably best to do an afternoon tour (4 pm-8pm usually) rather than ride on a bike yourself, but if you like deserts and know the area, I suppose going out by yourself is fine. The good news is that this tour is usually the cheapest of all that agencies offer. We booked through Turismo Layana (again) and got another 15% discount through Get South. We paid a total of 8.500 pesos per person, which I think was a pretty good deal.  We met at the tour office at 4 pm and were picked up by a bus. We were joined by another American we met at our hostel, who we hung out with for the two days we were in San Pedro.

The valley is a national reserve, so you must pay to enter. Jordan and both used out student IDs (ISIC) and got in for 2.000 apiece, if I remember correctly. Our tour guide spoke both English and Spanish, which was great. I think that’s probably my favorite type of tour.

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The bus drove us to various points of the valley, so we could see the most unique sights. All the white behind us is salt. Because of the rain, the salt came up to the surface, making the valley look like it had snowed. In the 1950s and 1960s, miners lived here through parts of the year, digging for salt.

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A closeup of crystal salt mixed with the red sand of the desert.

IMG_2954Behind us is a rock formation called the Three Marys. In this remote region, Catholicism blended with the indigenous religions. Miners would leave gifts to the Three Marys, the bringers of spring and good fortune in the desert, before descending into the salt mines.

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By the 1970s, for various reasons, the mining dried up. This is all that is left of the salt mines, which have mostly collapsed. If you do hike by yourself in the valley, be careful not to fall into any of these openings!

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We ended to tour atop one of the mountains, with a beautiful view of the sunset.

After the sun set, the bus took us back into town. We found a cheap dinner with wifi (because finally internet worked again!) At this point we had been without internet for about five days. It was good to check email and the blog again. We responded to Facebook messages and emails quickly, because we had to get a good night’s sleep before our next tour: the Salar de Uyuni!

 

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Storms in the Desert

The extreme north of Chile is almost as exciting as the extreme south (Patagonia). The Atacama desert is one of the driest and most arid places in the world. San Pedro, a tiny little town in the middle of this desert is Tourist Central for backpackers looking to explore the Atacama. About 10 or 15 years ago backpackers realized San Pedro is a great base camp for the region. San Pedro is now “designed with tourists in mind,” which is a polite way of saying it’s a tourist trap. But a worthy one to visit, I might add. Just expect to pay out the wazoo because it’s in the middle of nowhere.

We took a bus from La Serena to San Pedro (directly, no stop in Calama) overnight. It was around nine or 10 hours. At the bus station, which is just a small building and packed, red dirt, we got off and tried to orient ourselves in town. The bus station is near the edge of town, so we wandered along the main road. Almost all locals that live in San Pedro are somehow connected to the tourism industry, and we passed several people that offered us a hostel for the night. We had planned on checking two hostels and using a Get South discount, but we ended up staying in a hostel under construction on the far edge of town. It was only 6.000 pesos a night per person, which had to be the cheapest place. Other backpackers we met were paying 15.000. They were at a nicer hostel nearer the tour agencies and restaurants in town, but I definitely think what we paid was worth it. Nothing is very nice in San Pedro anyway. No streets are paved and most of the buildings look old and run-down.

Downtown is four or five blocks of tour agencies, two mini markets, and a few restaurants. It is easy to get turned around in this small place–all the buildings are the same and the tour agencies start to look like one another. There is a nice farmacia in town, Cruz Verde, with an ATM in it. Across the street is a bank with two ATMS. However, sometimes the banks close at 2pm. The fees to use your card are also outrageous–around 7 or 8 USD.

The past four days had rained. Average rainfall in San Pedro is 15 millimeters a year, and in one week they got five centimeters. The entire desert was plains of mud, and it was causing transportation problems in Calama and severe mudslides in Copiapo, a small town south of San Pedro. Bus schedules were changed, people lost shoes in the mud, and at least four people died in Copiapo and 22 went missing. San Pedro was without electricity the whole day before we arrived. The day we got there, only internet was out. We spent the day poking around town, trying to avoid mud puddles, and booking tours for the next day.

Going to an observatory to watch stars was out because of the clouds. Visiting Valle de la Luna was out because of the mud. Some of the high lakes were out because of flooding. So there was literally nothing to do our first day there but watch frustrated hikers walk around with lost expressions.

The next morning we went on a 4:30 am tour to see the Tatio geysers. It is cold up there! Like -10 to -5 C (15 to 23 F). We were unprepared because our tour person told us it was 5 to 10 degrees, not the negative. We went through Tourismo Layana and got 15% discount through Get South. We ended up paying 19.000 pesos per person.

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The geysers are high in the volcanic mountains, around 14,000 feet (4320 meters above sea level). I get altitude sick fairly easily, so I had been taking some medication (Dexamethasone) for the past couple of days. I don’t think I was taking enough, because I got a medium headache. If a migraine is a 10, this was probably a 5. I could still enjoy the tour, but it was distracting. But everyone is different and will have different reaction to altitudes. El Tatio means “grandfather” in the old indigenous language, because one of the mountains looks like an old man lying down. Mining companies were interested in the area in the 1960s, and now again, but most Chileans are against mining there, due to its geological and tourist value. This is one of the highest geyser fields in the world.

We learned a lot of things about seismic activity and the different rocks and soil, but it was way too cold to remember any of it. Sorry. On our way back down we stopped at a tiny adobe village called Machuca to use the bathroom, buy grilled llama meet, and see how 40 local people live. It is so small it only has a church. The young people have to go to San Pedro or Calama for school during the week.

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The people breed, raise, and sell llamas as their source of primary income. Tourists needing to use the bathroom is probably their second source of income. IMG_2903

All in all, if you plan to do the three day Salar de Uyuni trip, skip Tatio geysers. You see almost the exact same thing (but bigger!) on the first day of the trip in Bolivia. If you still want an early morning tour, do one of the altiplano lagunas near San Pedro for around the same price.

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Museum of Memory and Human Rights

One of Santiago’s nicest and newest museums is dedicated to the fight for human rights around the world. It is also about the years Chile was under a fascist dictatorship. This museum is not to be missed–it covers difficult topics, like torture and execution, but I think is very important to understand Chile’s recent history and political culture.

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The Museum of Memory and Human Rights was inaugurated recently, only in 2010, and has a wealth of information and exhibits about the political climate through Pinochet’s regime. It is easy to get to–it is just across the street from the metro stop Quinta Normal on Línea 5. Entrance is free, but everything is in Spanish. We rented an English audio guide for 2.000 pesos and highly recommend it–the information is too dense and complicated to understand without it.

A brief history of what happened:

In the 1970s a socialist/populist/political movement swept across Latin America, reacting against the dramatic inequality and inherent structural problems in governments (think Che). Chile was split between Marxist views and more conservative, fascist ideas. Salvador Allende became the first openly Marxist president of Chile. There was some unrest, which the totalitarian military leaders took advantage of. On September 11, 1973 General Pinochet led a military coup d’etat against Allende’s government. Beginning at the port city of Valparaiso around 6 am, it ended that night with strict curfews in Santiago. Allende had committed suicide, locked away in a government building, and the military rolled through the streets of Santiago shooting at anyone linked with Allende’s government or the socialist party.

The United States covertly backed this coup through the CIA, eager to get rid of a communist-leaning country in the western hemisphere. Pinochet privatized much of Chile’s economy, and some say his reforms did help Chile develop. However, his political regime was brutal. He suspended the 1925 constitution and Congress. The worst years were the earliest, 1973-1977, when people would disappear, never to be seen again. Everyone lived in fear of the DINA, the secret police, taking them away to secret camps. The most horrific of the crimes were stories of Pinochet’s henchmen tossing pregnant women out of flying airplanes. Around 3,200 people disappeared, most being killed and buried in secret, mass graves.

Torture, specifically electric and water torture, was commonplace. They took anyone suspected of harboring leftist politics and interrogated them. Sometimes they took children for no reason at all. In 2003, an article published by the International Committee of the Fourth International claimed that “Of a population of barely 11 million, more than 4,000 were executed or ‘disappeared,’ hundreds of thousands were detained and tortured, and almost a million fled the country.”

The United States verbally condemned the military dictatorship, but did not make efforts to block arms deals until the 1980s. In the meantime, Pinochet was “elected” again and again in a “democratic process.” Leftist guerrilla groups banded together, fighting against the DINA and the military, but were largely wiped out. Finally, in 1988 a new election came around. This time the Chileans voted against Pinochet. Literally, the political campaigns were called “Si” for Pinochet and “No” for electing someone besides Pinochet. Fifty-five percent of Chileans voted No, against Pinochet. It took another two years for the regime to leave power. During the two years, massive reforms were pushed through to make sure those in the regime would not be prosecuted for their crimes. Pinochet stepped down as president but kept his position in the military for another eight years.

Now, if you visit Chile, you would never know there was a 16-year brutal dictatorship. People are friendly, the economy is developing, and life seems normal for the Latin American country. But the people of Chile do remember this time, especially those who lived through it, with great sadness. Many of the current political leaders in Chile, and those who presided over the inauguration of this museum were among those tortured and imprisoned. But this museum, though focusing on a dark time in recent history, also highlights the victories of human rights workers and the endurance of people throughout the world that suffered through violent regimes.

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Santiago, Chile

Santiago, the capital of Chile, is located in the center of the country and is the cultural, political, and communication hub of the country as well. Founded in 1541, it now has a population of about six and a half million. One of the largest attractions of Santiago are the barrios, or neighborhoods. The historic, downtown area is filled with colonial buildings, art museums, and plazas. Other neighborhoods, like Brasil, have distinct architecture and vibe. Brasil has uniquely themed restaurants and a hippie feel to the place. It is also very near the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. There are many hostels in Brasil and surrounding neighborhoods, but few of them are cheap. We paid 9.000 pesos per person a night at a clean hostel with continental breakfast, and that seemed to be the going rate elsewhere. We, like many other backpackers, have found Chile to be fairly expensive. While there are probably cheaper hostels in Santiago, they are harder to find and probably not as clean.

Because of its development and economic opportunities, Santiago has a large expat/immigrant population from Europe and even a few gringos. Also, because of labor laws many companies prefer to hire foreign women over Chilean women. Indigenous people have lived in the Santiago valley area for hundreds of years. Conquistador Pedro de Valdivia founded the city on a small island between two rivers at the suggestion of the native chiefs. Santiago was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the past five hundred years, first from the Michimalonco Indians, then by earthquakes. When Chile became a sovereign nation in 1810, Santiago was declared the capital. During the dictatorship of Pinochet (1973-1990), under more classical liberal economic policies, Santiago developed and the city grew.

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We stayed a total of two and a half days in Santiago, which was enough for us. Soaking in the music and architecture of the town in Plaza de Armas is a good way to rest but enjoy the city. Santiago has a few art museums, history museums, and good bars. We felt satisfied with what we saw. Our first morning we went to San Cristobal hill, which is in the northern/central part of the city and has a spectacular lookout across the land. The best entrances at the foot of the hill are in the neighborhood Bellavista. While you can climb the hill, we decided to pay 2.000 pesos each and ride the funicular up. It was much faster and more fun. Halfway up San Cristobal is the Santiago zoo and at the top is a small church and large statue of Virgin Mary. Over 50,000 pilgrims climb the hill every year at the Feast of Annunciation (I think) to worship and pray. It was quiet when we went, so we enjoyed the church and eventually made our way back down the funicular. In the 1920s the wealthy and elite in Santiago built some neo-Tudor buildings to make the hill pretty and have a place for parties. Now the buildings house the funicular.

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At Plaza de Armas is the national museum of Chile. We entered for free. It wasn’t very large, but had beautiful pieces of artworks: landscapes, portraits, and framed, old maps. Everything was in Spanish, but it didn’t pose much of a problem because most artifacts were self-explanatory or had simple descriptions that we could understand. We spent about 45 minutes there and thought it was worth the time (especially because it was free!). It gave a good background image of what colonial Santiago was like. Below is a picture of the clock tower of the national museum.

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Finally, we needed to find US dollars. Entrance to Bolivia requires USD in cash for American citizens, and we were all out. I had held out hope that we could pull dollars from an ATM or American bank in Santiago, but after a couple of hours scouring the internet, it seemed that would be impossible. A few years ago it was, but Chile enacted a few new laws that make it harder for American expats or American backpackers to get the dollars they need. So we found ourselves at an exchange house. So far I had avoided these because I wasn’t sure the rates would be good—whoever sells the dollars gets the better deals. I stopped at a bank and asked about their rates, but the teller recommended I go to the exchange place for a better transaction. The one most recommended online and by the tellers was Cambio Exchange, near the central business district of Santiago. It was quick, fairly painless, and simple. While getting dollars out of an ATM would have been preferable, I can say that this cambio house was perfectly fine and a good place to go for exchanges.

Our second day in Santiago we wandered around some more, getting to know the public transportation system and the city, then visited the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. I highly recommend this museum visit, which I discuss more in another blog post.

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Color upon color: Valparaiso

Valparaiso is a colorful, bohemian port town about an hour and a half outside of Santiago. It is popular among Santiago locals for weekend getaways and backpackers. In fact, the most common question among backpackers about Valpo is, “have you been yet?” not, “will you go?”

Jordan and I arrived on Thursday afternoon, which was a mistake because we didn’t account for almost all hostels being full due to the weekend influx. We had to search around, from hostel to hostel, until we found an open room. We eventually found one, and that evening explored the city.

Valpariaso is built on several hills, the most historic and popular being Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion. These are the places to stay. The best way to get to know the town is just to set out walking. Get lost, wind up in a staircase behind an alleyway, back track, and eventually find your way down to the port.  Because of its location, Valpariaso was called “burnt hills” by the indigenous people due to the amount of fires that frequently occur. The wind, the heat, and the hills make a bad combination, so people are very careful about fires and helping one another in cases of emergencies.

In 1849 Valparaiso became the most important port on the continent. The Californian gold rush was in full swing, and ships would go south from the US east cost, around Cape Horn, and up again to California. Valparaiso was a natural stopping point to resupply and rest, so the town grew. Many European immigrants that originally meant to land in California stayed in Valparaiso to open businesses and make a new life there. This affluence grew until 1914, when the Panama Canal opened. The downtown port area still has many of the beautiful old buildings. Some are abandoned and crumbling, while others have been converted into government buildings.

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While the rich lived down near the water, the less-wealthy basically squatted on land and built what the could, far up the hills. Thus, the crazy stairways and narrow passageway. Many of the buildings are very colorful, and it’s the best part of town. Because Chile experiences so many earthquakes, the homes used to be made of adobe, something that will shift with the earth. However, adobe is easily worn down by the water and wind, so they had to cover the adobe. Originally, they covered their walls in corrugated sheets of tin, which had been brought as ballast weight from the ships rounding Cape Horn. But tin rusts, so they began to paint their homes with whatever leftovers ships had, thus the bright colors. Now it’s tradition, and blue and green are the most popular colors.

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Murals are also very popular here, stemming from a muralism movement in Mexico from the 1930s. It came here in the 60s, then was outlawed during Chile’s dictatorship. Now it’s considered vandalism unless done on your own property. The artwork adds to the relaxed, bohemian vibe through town.

The hills here are pretty steep, so immigrants pooled money and built ascensors (also called funiculars), like cable cars that acted as elevators. At one point there were 26 running. Now there are only 6, but the number will increase as the cars are renovated. The oldest was constructed in 1883. These are a really cheap method of transportation, and definitely worth doing, if just to save your thighs from the endless stairs. But they are also a tourist attraction in their own right, and usually just cost 100 pesos a person, always paid at the bottom of the hill.

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Valparaiso, though not the primary port in South America anymore (not even the primary port of Chile), is still the headquarters of the navy and still a great place to hang out for a few days. We took the free tour, called Tips4Tours, which lasted about three hours and went all over Cerros Alegre and Concepcion and the flat, port area. We recommend it. To get to know the town you only need about two days, which is what we’re spending here. If you want a nice, relaxing time to dig into the city, I think four or five days is enough. While it is a coast town, the beast beaches are at Vina del Mat, about a 15 minutes bus ride north. These two towns can make a long, good beach weekend before traveling north to the Atacama desert.

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City sights of Punta Arenas

We ended up spending a few more days in Punta Arenas because, well, we missed our bus. There’s a longer version of that story, but it ends with the fact that we missed out bus.

The next bus out was three days later, so we stayed in Punta Arenas for the time. We wanted to go to Ushuaia, but it is a 12 hour bus ride away and buses only leave in the mornings. So Punta Arenas it was!

We found a cheap, kind of dirty, hostel that was just 7.000 pesos a night per person and stayed there. The next two days we spent most indoors, away from the wind and the cold, or looking at museums. Most museums in the city are free(!) so we had a good time.

Near Plaza de Armas are mansions, most built between 1899-1910, from wealthy Europeans and Chileans that moved there for the growing economy at the port. One is now Museo Regional de Magallenes. Much of the furniture are decor are original to the time of construction. As we walked through the museum we learned how the wealthy and their servants lived at the beginning of the 20th century. It was a pretty nice mansion. Some of the bedrooms have been converted to small exhibitions about the discovery of the area, the native inhabitants of Patagonia, and how Punta Arenas grew into a good-sized small city. We spent probably 45 minutes to an hour there and enjoyed our time.

The second museum we visited was Museo del Recuerdo, which is further away. We took a cheap taxi, and it only took 800 pesos to get there. This is partially funded by the university in town and has the largest display of steam-powered technology either of us had seen. Jordan adored all the trains and tractors in the field.

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Walking around the yard in free, I think, but getting into the old houses, where some of the more interesting artifacts are, costs 2.000 pesos a person. The museum is all about the development of Punta Arenas and the southern region of Patagonia, from the pioneers to almost present-day. Much of the wagons, shops, and kitchen appliances looked very similar to the United States pioneer experience–so much so that when looking at the recreation of a kitchen ranch I almost thought I was in Texas or Oklahoma. The old technology (like the tractors) was used longer than in the States, until the 1960s, I think. It was fascinating to see the first drawing and photos of the town, from when it was a penal colony and fort in the 1870s to its colorful plazas and thoroughly modern cars in the 1950s.

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If you have time to kill in Punta Arenas, we do recommend visiting these museums. There are several others, all with cheap entrance fees or free, and it’s a good way to get to know the culture and history of the area. While not as exciting as seeing the penguins on Isla Magdalena, it is (a lot) cheaper and a way to learn about the people of Punta Arenas and the tip of Patagonia.

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Categories: Chile | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

A cheap(er) way to get to Argentine Patagonia

When we first looked at bus tickets to get from Cordoba, Argentina down to far southern Patagonia, my eyeballs almost popped out of their sockets. Roundtrip it would be, for two people, about $1000. We did not have that much money to spend on solely buses. So we began asking around, and discovered that (currently) buses in Chile are like half the price. Flights are also cheaper (though still more expensive than buses).

A few people on tripadvisor recommended I take Argentine buses or Argentine flights, but frankly I’m glad I ignored the advice. The Chilean buses really were less expensive, and it gave us opportunity to see Chilean Patagonia, which is filled with the Andes and all the beautiful views that come with it. So, without further ado, here is the path we took to get from northern Argentina down to El Calafate, Argentina and Puerto Natales, Chile. All prices are one-way for two people, which is about the same as round-trip for one person I assume.

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This is Jordan’s phone data for the routes taken from Cordoba, Argentina to Punta Arenas, Chile.

Mendoza to Santiago: roughly 8 and a half hours (including border crossing of 2 hours) and $92 USD, or 800 Argentine pesos  on semicama seats, total (for two people)

Santiago to Puerto Montt: about 12 hours and $90 USD (56,000 Chilean pesos), overnight on a cama seat for two people

Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas: about 30 hours (including border crossings of about 1 1/2 hours apiece) and $146 USD (90,000 Chilean pesos) for two people

Punta Arenas does not have buses that go to El Calafate or El Chalten. To visit Argentinian Patagonia you must leave from Puerto Natales. However, to get to Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego) you leave from Punta Arenas. Four or five bus companies leave Punta Arenas in the morning (8 am to 9 am, depending on the company–Bus Pacheclo runs the most frequently throughout the week) and arrive 12 hours later. A roundtrip runs around 50.000 per person.

Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales: Roughly three hours long, but a pretty easy trip. 6.000 each way per person, or $20 USD roundtrip for one person

Punta Arenas return to Puerto Montt: about 30-32 hours (depending on stops and customs) and $130 USD (80,000 Chilean pesos) for two people

Puerto Montt return to Santiago: roughly 10 hours and $52 USD (34.000 pesos) for two people.

Total spent on buses: $530, from beginning in Mendoza, Argentina and ending (after Patagonia) in Santiago, Chile.

We made this trip in the beginning of March 2015, the tail-end of high season, so the prices of buses may vary at different times of the year.

We chose not to fly because buying tickets last minute seemed expensive. It’s difficult to buy in advance if you’re not already in Chile, do the credit card laws. However, we did run into plenty of people that bused into Chile from Argentina (because as of 2015, if you arrive in Chile by bus you don’t have to pay a reciprocity fee) and found a cheap flight of around $180 USD from Punta Arenas to Santiago. This was bought a month or two in advance and probably was about $50 USD more than the buses. As you may have noticed, the trip back up is cheaper than the way down. I’m not sure if it was the time of the month I bought tickets or if the trip north is always less expensive than the trip down south. If you want to split the difference on cost and time, perhaps consider flying down to Patagonia and talking the bus back up.

In this post I discuss the best ways to prepare for these long, 30-hour buses.

Good luck planning!

Categories: Argentina, Chile, Practical Matters | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to survive a 30 hour bus trip in South America

Step 1: Sit as close as you can to the driver and just cry. He will either empathize for you and drive faster to make you feel better, or get annoyed and drive faster just to end the trip sooner.

No, not really. Though the thought did cross my mind.

While this post has been crafted with the journeys to/from Patagonia in mind, I’m sure most of the tips will apply to any long bus trip. We traveled a total of 30 and 1/2 hours from Puerto Montt down to Punta Arenas. This included two border crossings, passing through the Andes mountains, crisscrossing the southern part of the continent, and traveling through several Argentine departments. In all honesty, it was brutal. So was the return trip (Punta Arenas to Puerto Montt), though because there were fewer passengers and no children, the trip went easier through the night. In case you are researching to plan a trip of your own down to Patagonia and the sheer length of the trip makes you feel faint, I have included beautiful photos we took along the trip to give you strength of heart.

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In another post I write about the costs and financials of getting to Patagonia cheaply. This post is for the practicalities of the journey. Here are a few things we learned and a few items we consider indispensable for surviving a trip of this magnitude.

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View from bus driving through Puyehue  National Park in Chile.

What to Expect

On trips this long, buses normally provide “servicio,” which are sorta like the drinks and meals economy flights provide. Not really good food, but something that will tide you over. On our trip down to Patagonia the bus stopped twice–once for dinner, once for lunch the next day–at small restaurants that were somewhat overpriced. But when you finally get a chance to eat real food after snacks during hours and hours of the ride, overpriced really doesn’t seem that bad. These stops always took around 30 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on how many passengers were waiting on a meal.

Usually buses have TV screens and will play movies during the trip. Depending on if children are on board, the rating and type of movie can vary. On our way down there were around six or seven children, and most movies were G or PG. On our way back up, there were no children and they played a very heavy R movie. Jordan brought his iPad, power brick, and earbuds to watch the movies he wanted. On the trip down he watched a total of six movies. On the way back up he watched a couple of TV shows with me and around four movies.

The eight hours nearest Puerto Montt are by far the most interesting, because it crosses several national parks and the Andes. After that, Patagonia begins and things get pretty flat and yellow. If you can, try to get a bus trip that spends the time through the Andes during the day. It also makes the customs stops more pleasant (imagine doing that at 3 am).

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What to Bring

  • Water
  • Any toiletries you can’t go without for 30 hours (Such as eye drops, toothbrush, deodorant, etc.)
  • Toilet paper (I have yet to be on a bus where the existence of toilet paper can be counted upon)
  • Food of your own* (Although they do serve breakfast and lunch of a sort, you will want more to munch on in between meals.)
    • We brought: cookies and crackers, orange juice, granola bars, hot soup, tea and sugar, Coke, chips, nuts, dried fruit
    • We packed this in tupperware, thermos, and brought spoons and a cup
  • Pillow, blanket, or jacket of your own, especially if you tend to chill easily
  • Cash to purchase meals at restaurants or snacks at customs kiosks
  • Eye mask, ear plugs, etc., for anyone who is a light sleeper. And everyone will be a light sleeper in a semicama seat packed in a bus with 30 other people
  • Tylenol PM or Nyquil to help you sleep
  • Camera, especially if you will be crossing the Andes or some other picturesque scenery
    • Polarizer for your camera lens to cut down on reflections in the windows
  • Entertainment of some kind (Jordan and I brought an ipod, kindle, ipad with movies between us and that helped a lot)

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A peninsula in Lago Nahuel Haupi, just north of San Carlos Bariloche.

*Be careful about where you store it. Sometimes custom workers don’t like food being taken in and out of the country. We left Jordan’s peanuts inside my pillowcase on the bus when we put our hand luggage through the scanner machine.

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If you’ve been on a long bus ride, what do you recommend?

Categories: Argentina, Chile, Practical Matters | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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