Sunday, April 26, 2009

San Pedro de Atacama . . .

We are at 8,000 feet in San Pedro de Atacama, a small town of 5,000 people and perhaps as many trekkers in northern Chile. But the town is lovely, and it’s off season just a bit. The sun-filled narrow streets are lined with adobe-brick houses, open to the air with patios, restaurants, and shops selling colorful Andean artisan crafts.

After our 24-hour bus-ride, we were hoping for a rest day, but our quiet and pretty Hotel Elim had just two nights for us instead of three, so we hopped over to Cactus Tours to book two tours right away, one a “trek” through the Valley of the Moon, and the second, an all day trip to the Salt Lakes and National Reserve for flamingos. Both were fabulous.

The Valley of the Moon challenged us. Our guide, Guillermo, set a steady pace of 4.5 kilometers per hour or roughly just under 3 miles an hour. We hiked along the ridge of a majestic valley, straight down a trail to the floor, then again down two sand dunes at a precipitous angle. The younger people on our tour took off their shoes and ran with abandon, but I left my socks on and plunged mid-shin deep all the way down. Our trail continued past deep valleys with high basaltic formations on either side and through caves to end the seven-mile-trek on a mountain ridge where we watched the setting sun change the colors of the mountains around us to glorious reds and pinks.

Our second tour started at Laguna Chaxa at 6 am for a hike through the salt crusted lagoons to see Chilean and Parina flamingos in the wild. They, of course, went about their routine. They ate brine shrimp for breakfast, and they flew when we got too close.
Our van took us up to the altoplano, closer to the volcanos, to the Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques. There we spotted several groups of vicunas grazing on really minimal desert scrub.

We stopped at Socaire for a typical Chilean lunch, including papas moradas (purple potatoes) and visited a church from 1750 and several artisan shops in Toconao where a woman showed us how she knitted stockings with long cactus spines for needles.

Guillermo was an exceptional guide. As we sat in the shadow of a church with a thatch roof, next to terraced fields in this small towns, he told us why the stray dogs we see everywhere are so well fed. The Chileans, he said, see themselves as quiltros, slang for a mixed breed, Spanish and indigenous, and thus tolerant of these dogs. We often saw, even in Santiago, people petting and feeding the street dogs. And the dogs prance along the streets, happy, their tails wagging, always ready for a pet.

I don’t want to count up the hours we’ll be travelling starting tonight, for it’s two big jumps of 9 and 14 hours. We’re headed to Arequipa, Peru, a city I’ve long dreamed of visiting, founded in 1540, where they say, “When the moon separated from the sky, they forgot to take Arequipa.”

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Farewell to Santiago 2 . . .

Our bags are packed and we're headed out this morning for San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. I'm expecting to get cold (high of 50 degrees), probably have a reaction to high altitude (San Pedro at 8,000 feet and one week later, La Paz at 13,000 feet), but we are both excited to see the wild desert in northern Chile, visit some more preIncan ruins, and hike around in the Salar de Uyuni near Atacama and the national park there where the lagoons are filled with flamingos. We'll probably freeze but I promise good pictures.

The idea of a 30-hour bus ride is a little intimidating, so I'm starting to think about home a little more. Here's a picture of a cat from Vina del Mar who's doing what I hope to do on the bus, taking life easy . . . Be well where you are!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Farewell to Santiago . . .

Tomorrow we leave for our 30-hour bus trip to San Pedro de Atacama, so tonight it's time to upload some pictures (finally) to webshots as I'm not sure when we'll next have internet. Even so, if you have broadband, appreciate it! I'm sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Vegas. Pictures from the Falklands and from graffiti art in Valparaiso are now uploaded in Webshots (see link to the right), including a video of Gentoo penguins.

Outside, a gaggle of students marched past our hotel, shouting slogans. The hotel clerk and I stepped outside on the cobble-stoned street to see what the noise was about -- just in time to see a few riot police running past the hotel. It's quiet now. No one seems to fear the police here. The hotel doors stand open, and there are no sirens. I may never know why the students are marching, not even by reading tomorrow's paper. This is a beautiful city, the days are sun-filled, and 5 million people live in this urban valley surrounded by the Andes Mountains. The people we've met are warm and welcoming, but we are still seeing just the surface.

Both in Valparaiso and here in Santiago, graffiti art blossoms on building walls in some districts. Here are some highlights from Valparaiso:

Valparaiso Chile

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Neruda in Santiago . . .

We just have two more days in Santiago, and we’re falling in love with this beautiful city. Today we took the Metro to the Bellavista neighborhood to visit Pablo Neruda’s house, La Chascona, so named for the unruly red hair of Matilde Urrutia, his longtime mistress and later his third wife. When the house was first built on the hills overlooking Bellavista, it was a poor neighborhood; today, upscale shops and restaurants line the streets (including a Mexican restaurant called Para Augua Por Chocolate). Even the streets near La Chascona are filled with graffiti honoring Neruda.

As we walked through this multi-level house built around an inner garden and filled with colorful glass, Chinese and Indian art, a surprising amount of pop art, Bauhaus furniture, a breathtaking wooden sculpture of two mermaids taken from the prow of a ship, and rough drafts of his poems under glass – the many artifacts of Neruda’s life, our guide told stories, which somewhat made up for the fact no photos were allowed (except in the gardens).

Apparently at one point, Diego Rivera visited La Chascona and did a quick sketch of Matilde, later painting a formal painting in Mexico and sending it to Neruda. As you can see, Diego painted Matilde with two heads. Ironically, Rivera didn’t like Matilde, for he considered her a seductive woman who broke up marriages, thus painting her “two-faced”. Notice the profile of Neruda buried in the scrolls of Matilde’s red hair (right side).

NOTE: Images of La Chacasona are online at the Pablo Neruda Foundation. You can view any image here in a larger format by clicking on it.

After a delicious soup (think a rich chicken soup with yam, corn, cilantro and great pieces of chicken) at an outdoor café (La Venezia), we headed up to the monumental statue of the Virgin of Conception via a breath-stopping ride on a Funicular that rose 485 meters (1,500 feet) to the top of Cerro San Cristobal. We strolled around the gardens at the very top where Pope John Paul II once blessed the multitudes and visited a small but inspiring chapel to the Virgin. Then we dropped back down to the valley floor via a bubble-shaped air-tram for two in a 2,000 meter (6,500 feet) ride , admiring the snow covered Andes on the way down.

We're almost ready for the 30 hour bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hello from Santiago . . .

We’re in the heart of old town, Santiago, half a block down from the intersection of Paris and London Streets, those narrow, tree-lined, funky, cobblestoned bohemian streets populated by roving bands of students wearing long hair and dark glasses. At the little café next to our hotel, the Hotel Vegas, we can sit and sip cortados, demi-cups of strong coffee with milk, that first taste reminding me again that coffee came to the world from South America.

Today we had a Chilean national dish for lunch, Pastel de Choclo, a delicious main dish casserole of sweet corn, all ground up and crusty on top; inside, savory beef, large chunks of chicken on the bone, olives, grapes, and boiled eggs, somewhat flavored with milk, cumin and powdered sugar. I know. Is it possible to cook without garlic? But this was absolutely delicious. I can’t wait to cook it -- once I have a kitchen again.

Yesterday’s highlight was visiting the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino with artifacts from 4,500 years of Andean culture. Exhibits are beautifully arranged with maps, timelines, and notes to help clarify the different groups and their overlapping cultures. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sophisticated codes in these artifacts, and we’re at a loss without an English library.

But, here are my favorites. This Moche monkey has such expressive human hands (Zoomorphic stirrup-form bottle (monkey), Moche IV 400-800 BC, that’s over 2,000 years old. I took this picture at the Anthropological Museum at Vina del Mar).

And from the Museo de Chileno de Precolombino, these two images of textiles show complicated and sacred figures still vividly colored. The round painted cloth from the Chavin culture is over 1,000 years ago (700 BC – 500 AD), and seems very accessible to me, for its frayed edges showed that many generations have cared and protected this rare artifact.

This beautiful tapestry from the Chancay culture is dated between 1000-1430. Click on any image to see the details, please!

I'm left without words to describe our two week cruise around the Horn of South America, from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Valparaiso, Chile, with Gordy and Lynda, and Henry and Jamie. Each day was so full, the sights nothing like I expected at all. We started with breakfast, looked out over the ocean from the 9th floor of the Norwegian Sun, and enjoyed every luxurious moment. For me, it will take a little more time to sort it all out -- but, fortuitously, Jamie has posted a wonderfully vivid travel blog with pictures. I hope you will visit and enjoy her comments at her new blog, Jamie Away.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Valparaiso farewell . . .

Now that we’ve left Valparaiso, Chile, for Vina del Mar, the weather has turned to pure autumn. We’re sleeping under feather comforters at Casa Genross, a lovely old bed and breakfast run by Canadian-Chileans Brian and Lea, just fifteen blocks from the sea. Their home is decorated with oriental art and Navajo weavings, the mellow parquet floor shines next to wooden book cases, and I’m listening to German opera on this quiet afternoon. Our friends have left for home, one couple to the east coast and another to the west, and we are once again vagabonding, just the two of us. Though already I miss their sweet company, the next month beckons, an open road.

We stayed in Valparaiso for three days at the Casa Hostal 199, with a sweeping view of the bay here and right next door to the Artilleria ascensor, those wobbly tin can cars that rise up impossibly on cables, from the valley floor.

Valparaiso spreads out along the docks and over forty-six hills. At night, lights twinkle as far as we can see, and the moon rose, a deep orange harvest moon.

Just yesterday, we visited Pablo Neruda’s home (sadness, no pictures allowed), but what a thrill. We wandered through his hillside four-story home, one of three here in Chile, now administered by the Pablo Neruda Foundation. From the entry, we were struck by the creativity Neruda brought to every detail of La Sebastiana. Each floor looked to the sea, and each room retained its original furnishings, artworks, and personal effects. Occasionally, we’d spot a poem. At the very top of the house, we found his workroom, books lining the shelves, including mysteries which he loved to read. We saw a door-sized photograph of Walt Whitman in full beard. Apparently, a workman asked Neruda if that photo was of his father. Neruda paused and then said, “Yes, he is my father.”

Everywhere Neruda's house shows a love of color with stained glass doors and windows, and a sense of whimsy in, for example, a tiny bar where only Neruda would go to mix drinks for his friends. Here I saw a painting of a Victorian mermaid, the muse, resplendent in orange scales, playing a violin.

We also went on a fabulous walking tour with Michael, the German Pirate. Our all-day ramble took us throughout Valparaiso, inside the Stock Exchange and to lunch at the Fire Station, run by volunteers, inside a few old Baroque buildings, with marble and wood brought from Europe, past the Sotomayor monument, and up the Concepcion asensor (in service since 1883), to crooked streets, many decorated with the most amazing art graffiti, including, of course, a mermaid or two (click on any image to see a larger version).

Most of the buildings in Valparaiso are made of a mix of corrugated iron for walls and roofs (once ballast from ships coming around the horn), adobe (a mix of mud and straw), and with what I would call lathes, small, narrow boards, for wood is rare and termites are a problem everywhere. The resulting housing on hillsides looks precarious, but no earthquakes have struck, at least no major ones since 1906. So we ate at several restaurants, Allen’s favorite – paella, perched out over ravines that seemed bottomless as we peered out our scenic windows.

We’ve been told that internet will be sketchy as we travel to northern Chile, our next stop San Pedro de Atacama. So I wish you well where you are, north of the equator, spring comes; here, I can smell winter.