Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Random Travel Update 40

Last locations: Santiago CL, Viña del Mar CL, Valparaiso CL, La Serena CL, San Pedro de Atacama CL, Uyuni BL
Arrival Date: March 17, 2009
Departure Date: April 6, 2009

Current location: Sucre, Bolivia
Arrival Date: April 7, 2009
Departure Date: April 10, 2009

Next Location: Santa Cruz, Bolivia
Arrival Date: April 10, 2009
Departure Date: April 12, 2009

Long email synopsis: Chile is a very awesome country, diverse both in geography and demography. Check out the new “Thanks!” column at and photos coming soon to Jon's blog is being very well maintained at

Santiago, Los Andes, Viña del Mar, Valparaiso, La Serena, San Pedro de Atacama. City, mountains, beach, port, beach and desert. Chile has a privileged geography, encompassing the greater part of the western coast of South America. It is as tall, North to South, as the United States is wide but thinner across than the state of California. Bordered on one side by the Andes and on the other by the Pacific, it is in a good position for self defense and since its liberation from Spain has successfully defeated both Peru and Bolivia to reach its current size.

Chile is a beautiful country. Every bit of it, from the Punk-ridden streets of Santiago to the unapologetic street art in Valparaiso, the rolling valleys flanked by beaches in La Serena and the desolate but serene desert landscape in Atacama. And that isn’t even half of it. The South is said to have some of the best scenery.

And Chile, like Argentina, isn’t poor. Some call it the most European country in South America, but Jon and I both found it distinctively more American than Argentina. In line with Buenos Aires over the top Europeanism, I would venture to call Santiago one of the most American countries in the world. Gargantuan shopping malls occupy more than several strips of land, containing familiar names such as Ruby Tuesdays, Taco Bell, and Roxy/Quicksilver. The music scene is alive and well and the style-Punk, Goth, Hippy and Emo-rivals (if not outright beats) that of New York City of LA.

Thanks to Chile’s liberal immigration policies, the population is diverse and the food scene is cosmopolitan. Capitalism seems to reign, but public dissent is common and, as in Uruguay and Argentina, is often expressed in spray paint. In Santiago, we finally got to see the vast street markets that we get a small taste of in DC, where vendors sell everything from stockings, to fruit juice, sunglasses, used clothes, empanadas and brand name knock-off goods.

Despite comments from fellow travelers that Santiago was only worth a passing day on the way to more worthwhile Chilean spots, we adored it and ended up staying for four. Though, perhaps it was in part due to our luck in having Jon’s childhood neighbor, Joel, from Farmington and his beautiful Chilean bride, Paulina, there to show us around.

We got bored in Viña del Mar but ate up the scenery in Valparaiso, which wins the award for coolest, or at least most art inspired, city in America. The pictures say more than I can. With art, it seems, comes good veg food. We ate our share of vegan hamburgers, soy carne empanadas, seiten-lasagna, banana-soymilk liquados (smoothies) and vegan churros. Perhaps it was too easy. For me, negotiating “beans instead of meat” and “avocado for cheese” has very much added to the uniqueness of my travel experience.

That being said, our best food was by far in La Serena where Nichole, one of my friends from Tucson’s, family resides. They generously offered to host us for three nights on our way from Viña to San Pedro, and the stop turned out to be more than worthwhile. More than gracious, they went out of their way to serve us vegan versions of Chilean delights such as pastel de choclo, fresh bean soup, and sautéed veggie lasagna. Ricisimo! Makes me wonder why don’t we have more Chilean food in the US. On top of it, Nicole’s dad, who is an astronomer and pilot, took Jon, me and Nicole’s cousin, Christian, on a private flight in a Cessna 182 to view the local scenery from an advantaged position.

It is impossible to thank our many hosts enough for their generosity and for what they contribute to our travel experience and global education. As a small token of our appreciation, I have added a “Thanks!” column to the left-hand side of my blog. Check it out at:

A 17-hour overnight bus took us from La Serena to San Pedro, a small, but heavily touristed pueblo on the Northwestern edge of Chile. There we realized that not all Chileans are as patient with our gringo-ness as our friends in Santiago and La Serena. But we loved it all the same. Being in the desert was like home for me and the surrounding mountains like home for Jon. The town, however, was in many ways cooler than home.

Despite a huge influx of tourism in the last few years, San Pedro has managed to hang on to its all-adobe structures and dirt streets. Cars are rare and necessary only for travel outside the town as the pueblo encompasses maybe four square blocks. The highlight was stargazing at a French astronomer’s house a few kilometers outside of San Pedro. Nichole’s dad had told us that San Pedro is the world’s foremost location for astronomy due to its classification as the world’s driest desert (no clouds or rain). We were thankful for the insider advice.

Another great experience was sandboarding, which I found works much better with real snowboards, functional Velcro bindings and wax (my sandboarding experience in UAE was useless). After sandboarding, I managed to re-sprain my left ankle in The Valley of the Moon and had to take a few days off laying in bed with ice reading the book that Jon’s Kiwi friend from his Aconcagua summit gave us. It is the first book I have read for pleasure since my book sabbatical, which began right after I graduated from college. I was reminded about how much I like to read and also that my imagination may be a bit too overactive for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I spent several nights up into the early hours analyzing the perfectly detailed psychology of the crime. Perhaps I should stick to Spanish-language children’s books.

We are now in Bolivia and it feels like our South American adventure has just begun. Cheap food, dirty buses, unpaved roads, cutting edge indigenous fashion and breathtaking scenery is key. We’ve been here four days and already I am in love with the experience. Jon calls Bolivia “the land of my dreams” since several scenes have evoked deep memories of past sleepful experiences.

More on Bolivia later. My hard drive is full and space (and time) must be made for photos. Look for Chile pics later this week or next at: