Making up for lost time

Trip Start Aug 09, 2006
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Flag of Argentina  ,
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

After Valpo, I was on a schedule since my visa was running out shortly, so had to plan everything down to the day.  Took off for Rancagua, south of Santiago.  Was a mine there I was gonna check out.  But because its not a tourist town, and because the miners drive the prices up, the only accomodations are expensive.  So after walking around the town, scrapped it and got another bus to Talca, further south.  Was hoping to eventually cross the border here into Argentina.  But no service yet (only in certain seasons).  Thats when I had to arrange all the last days perfectly so I could make it all the way north and cross up there.  The Andes are the border, obviously, and buses don`t just cross anywhere.

Talca was a nice town.  Found out how much I missed running, even though I`m just supposed to do short ones for awhile.  Went back to Concepcion and took a day trip to Lota, just down the coast.  I think it was the world`s only underwater coal mine until shutting down in 1997.  Anyway, thats why I came here, to go down into the coal mine, Chiflōn del Diablo.  This was a really cool thing.  Since it just shut down 10 years ago, everything about it is fairly recent.  The guide that took us down was a miner there for years and years.  Nice to hear about everything from a primary source.  Anyway, the ended up shutting it down for a few reasons.  It was getting towards the end of its life anyway, but also, it is 6x cheaper to import coal from Colombia.  Globalization, eh?  Most of the miners all moved north.  And I forget the numbers, but the mind extends way far underground and out under the ocean.  Saw the
housing, playground, and store for the miners.  Couldn`t believe how recent it was in use - it looked straight out of the 1800s or some museum.  And, as is the case in many mines around the world, they bought stuff in the store with tokens (how they were paid for their work).  So the mines money just circulated around in things they owned.  In the right seasons, they`d head down in the dark, work all day in the pitch black, come up after the shift and it`d be pitch black again.  And the dark down there is just pitch black.  You walked down a ways, then took an old rickety elevator down.  It was noticabley wetter and cooler down below.  Guys constantly on their knees, drilling the walls, or shoveling the coal into containers.  Miserable.  If their light went out on the helmet, were instructed to just sit and wait.  Of course, the bird cages for canaries and all that...was against the rules to kill rats.  At the end, the guy sang an old miner`s song in the dark..

Left Concepcion for La Serena, north of Santiago.  Had heard bad things about it, but I liked the vibe of the city.  Very lively.  That also could have just been because it is beach season.  Wanted to go to a national park nearby, Fray Jorge, but there is no public transport so you need to go by tour or car.  Didn`t feel like renting a car, and the tour only had 3 people but it needs 5 to go.  So no go.  Went to nearby Vicuņa for a night.  This whole region of Chile, sort of north-central, has a great combination of crystal clear skies and percentage of nights that are clear.  So here is where almost all of the world`s large observatories and telescopes are set up.  The real official ones are in constant use by scientists every night, so you can`t observe, but you can arrange for a day tour of the facilities.  If you do it like 2 months in advance.  But there are other observatories that are more for normal people to go look.  So I went to one,  Mamalluca Observatory.  It was awesome!  Between northern MI and those fazendas in Brazil, I`ve seen some clear skies but they can`t compare.  Just without a telescope it was amazing jut to look around you at the sky.  Seriously could have just gazed for hours.  A highlight of Chile, in my book.  It was like it wasn`t even night, there were so many lights in the sky.  There is one telescope inside the observatory and a few outside.  The one inside was twice as good.  Everytime you want to see something else, the whole top of the observatory has to shift while the telescope points through the slit in the domed roof.  Zoomed in on Orion`s Belt (Orion is upside down, down here), some cool star clusters, Mars, and the best one, Saturn.  Rings and everything!  Way cool.  They also give a little presentation on astronomy and stuff.  I guess the European are planning for a new-World`s Biggest Telescope that will have a lens 100m in diameter, be the size of the Eiffel Tower, and will have to be able to rotate around.  Wow.  Also in Vicuņa is a pisco plant for Capel pisco, so went and took a tour of it.  Was okay.  Pisco, by the way, is the Chilean and Peruvian national (alcoholic) drink.  Most of the times is made into a pisco sour or piscola.


Took a bus up to Antofagasta.  Getting up into this territory, you enter a new Chile.  Mine country and a lot of wide open nothingness around.  The whole region is rich in nitrates and copper mining is big business.  It is nationalized (US wasn`t too happy when that went down in the 70s) and Chile is the source of something like 20% of the worlds copper.  Definitely the country`s biggest business.  There was actually a war over this land in the late 1800s.  Peru and Bolivia versus Chile, the team lost, and Chile got all the good land in the north.  Cost Peru some valuable industry and cost Bolivia their only seaport.  Also, much of this northern area is Atacama Desert, the driest place on the planet besides the Arctic.  100x moreso than Death Valley in California, and some parts have NEVER recorded rainfall.  That goes back to the 1500s.  So, of course, it rained when I was there.  Anyway, took another bus from Antofagasta (didn`t do much there) to San Pedro de Atacama.

SP is a really small town in the middle of nowhere but because it is surrounded by natural attractions it is all touristified up.  Lots and lots of things to do in the surrounding areas.  It kind of slaps you in the face when you get on the bus and its full of gringo faces.  On the ride here, you actually go by one of Pinochet`s old concentration camps.  Kind of eerie looking out the bus window at it.  Met a couple people on the bus that I ended up hanging with most of the time in SP.  First day took a tour of some geysers in El Tatio and old andean villages in the area.  Way cool and long day.  You get to the geysers just in time to see the sun come up (had to leave the hostel at 4am).  By 8/9am, they were done - they`re only cool looking really early in the morning, the whole geyser cycle thing.  But there are lots of them, with vicuņa around too.  Warmed up milk for hot chocolate by putting the milk box in the geyser.  Cool.  After that, jumped into some thermal pools nearby.  Was different from the ones back in Uruguay because here, different currents of REALLY hot water would surprise you.   Every once  in  awhile, you could count on somebody spazzing out for what looked like no reason.  Pretty funny.  It ended up being a long day stuck in the back of a truck, going from place to place.  Went to Caspana, one of the old Andean villages and, I thought, the coolest.  I gotta say though, it was weird going around the place as a tourist.  The Incas has introduced steppe farming to the people here, so there are still those, with crops and stuff.  Its just a really, out in the sticks, old village of the Atacameņos, the native people.  There are four last names in the whole place.  Also, there are no police.  They were in the news, a few years back, because some guy from the city come here once, raped and killed a girl, then ran off.  The village organized, hunted the guy down, found him, and brought him back.  They had one of their old village trials where he was found guilty and sentenced to death, so they shot him with the only gun the village had.  Reason it was big news is, obviously, Chilean authorities were not involved at all and you can`t just go around putting people to death.  So, it went to the Supreme Court, which decided to ratify every decision the town and people had made, since there are no police in that part of the country.  Next place was Chiu Chiu, which is really really old, but really just sucks.  Next was the Pukarā de Lasana.  Old stone fort ruins of the 12th century that you can basically run all over.  Saw a llama petroglpyh which was a marker of an old trade route.

Next day, took trip to Ojos del Salar and Laguna Cejas.  The salt flats are probably the main draw to this area.  The famous Bolivian salt flats are just accross the border, and tours contstantly go back and forth.  But SP has salt flats (¨salar¨) of its own.  Anyway, the first stop, were these salty pools in the flat.  I think it was 3x saltier than the ocean.  The super cool thing was how buoyant you were!  Sensation wasn`t overhyped at all, it was really trippy to by floating in water so well and even if you tried to sink, you came quickly back bobbing up.  Not allowed to sink your head, though.  Lightning happened to be striking all around which was pretty.  Came out and salt had dried all over your body.  Went out to a couple other pools in the flat (underneath the flat is a large body of water, where the water comes from) and to a larger white section of the flat.  It started raining so we headed back - you don`t want to get stuck out there in the rain.  Next day, we heard that some people didn`t ruch right back and had to be rescued.  Have to remember you`re in the middle of nowhere and it gets muddy real quick.  Flamingos are also popular there.  When flying, it looks pretty funny.  All neck and legs.

Next day (did a lot in SP), walked out of town to Pukarā de Quitor.  Huge and amazing.  Viewpoint from so high up is crazy.  And the size of the pukarā is nuts, as well.  Would like to have seen it back in the day, with people living there.  People lived there but, for example, in Lasana it was also used as a fortification against the Spanish.  Its crazy though, that these things are historical monuments and you can tramp all over them.  Next day rented bikes and took off to Valle de la Luna (by the way, in South America, there are way to many things named Valle de la Luna and Garganta del Diablo...its a bit repetitive).  First stop was at a canyon which was probably the highlight because you could walk all around, there was nobody else there, and the caves and stuff were so cool to go exploring in.  Really wish Nick was here for that one especially.  Sometimes super narrow and skinny and pitch black.  Had to use our digital cameras like flash lights or the orange auto focus thing.  The whole park area is basically wide open area or weird rock formations or valleys and mountains all of red/brown hues.  Very pretty.  Whole area is supposed to be even prettier at sunset.  Also got tiring biking up and down, and I came super ill-prepared and got hungry/thirsty.  After returning, Nikki was so thirsty she chugged a liter of juice and promptly puked it all back up.  New favorite Chilean food is humitas.  Made from corn.

As I said, it did rain most of the nights I was there, which was really unexpected.  But they said it does rain in that season, but not that much in 5 years.  Power went out 3 nights because of storms and heard a few more stories about rogue people having to be rescued.   My last day in town, I actually took a day trip to Calama, the main large city in the region.  Its basically known as a mining town.  Chuquicamata is a huge open pit copper mine.  Was told it is the largest in the world but who knows.  Last year, Codelco (the national copper company - COoperacion DEL CObre) moved everyone from the mine town of Chuquicamata to Calama, for a number of reasons.  So right now, the old town is really creepy.  Like a ghost town, but it was fully functioning just few months ago.  With supermarkets, playground, bars, theaters, etc...  Basically, Chuqui is getting covered with waste rock right now.  The trucks that move around the rock (cost $4 million and they have 96!!)  are huge and use 3 liters of fuel per minute.  So it gets expensive moving the stuff far away.  And as the pit and mine get bigger, they ran out of room to put the waste rock.  So old hospitals and houses are getting dumped on now.  There are actually 3 mines and as they gradually get larger, will become one large pit.  Anyway, the educative part of the tour was cool, with the history and process and everything.  But besides that, wasn`t much.  Saw the pit, the trucks driving, and it was over.  Later talked with a taxi driver from Calama who said the miners around Calama have it real good.  Job security, decent wages, and they walk around town like they`re better than everyone else and still complain over little things.  Far from what I expected after reading about the plight of the poor peasant Chilean copper miner getting abused by the system back in Che`s days.

So, lots to do in San Pedro.  It was awesome.  And not nearly as expensive as I thought it would be.  Found lodging for normal Chilean prices.  And on top of that, I did manage to get a bus out of the country before the visa expired.  Took a bus to Salta, Argentina.  Thought about heading to Bolivia, but as of Dec. 1, 2007, Americans have to pay $100, get a visa and a whole bunch of documents in order before entering.  Stupid Bush-Chavez fued made it to Morales.  Though they claim its over ¨safety¨ because an American killed somebody there a year ago or something.  Anyway, the bus ride was one of the prettiest rides yet.  Desert, the salt flats, then mountains, then weird rock formations and colors, then super lush green hills. 

Was strange returning to Argentina.  I forgot how cheap it was here compared to Chile!  Its great!  An old friend from when I was working in Uruguay ended up settling down here.  So we met up, after almost a full year, and had a blast.  Dude just got engaged too.  One more wedding on the list.  Had a great time catching up and everything.  Seems right at home in Salta, also.  Nearby Salta is some great scenery.  Later, rented a car with a friend from back in SP, and a couple other girls in the hostel.

It had just rained so we had to cross lots of little streams and water in the car.  Drove down to Cachi, an old pleasant town.  Then doubled back and headed down to Cafayate for the night.  Lots of great scenery on the drive.  Also a nice town.  Had some homemade wine from Cachi that was WAY too sweet and WAY too strong.  After one glass, we were all feeling it pretty good.  The area is also known for its vineyards, so went to one the next day.  Their famous regional stuff is Torrontčs.  Its a white wine that is really good and I don`t think too many places make that type.  By the way, the typical Argentine stuff is Malbec and really good.  Never heard of it back in the states.  The drive back to Salta is when we made a bunch of little pit stops at all the nice scenery spots along the road.  Lots of weird rock formations, some by the water some by wind.

After Salta, went to Tucuman.  Not a lot here, and it rained on me, so left the next day.  But, did get to tour the place where the Declaration of Independence was signed.  Then left to San Augustin de Valle Fertil, via San Juan.  Wanted to go to Ischigualasto Park.  But it rained all night so the park was closed the next day.  Too muddy.  Could have stuck around for another day, but then I decided I wasn`t all that excited to go there anyways.  More rock and land stuff (and more Valle de la Luna...), they kill foreigners on the entry price, and mosquitos ate me alive overnight.  So, ditched the thought, and went back to San Juan.  There, went to the Natural History Science Museum.  Have the oldest dinosaur fossils in the world (thats also what Ischigualasto is known for - good spot for finding fossils), but the museum is crap.  But free.  Also went to the house of Sarmiento`s birth.  Made into a little museum for him.  Sarmiento was president here in the 1860s and/or 70s and seems to be one of their best and most famous ones.  Did a lot for education and stuff.  There is a Sarmiento street in every town.  San Juan also known for its Syrah wine, so tried some of that.

Next stop was Mendoza.  Just about back even with Santiago now, after a month of travelling around.  I like this place, it seems large for a city with only a couple hundred thousand.  And plenty of squares, and trees everywhere, and good vibes.  Also, lots to do in the area.  Problem is, most of the stuff I´ve already done elsewhere, so doesn`t strike me.  Just got here yesterday and will have more to say on Mendoza once I leave.  Big thing here is the wine, and Aconcagua (largest mountain outside Asia).  Was kind of hoping to be somewhere with TV for the Super Bowl, but its not looking likely, as I´ll be going south soon.  In less than a month, I figure I´ll be ready to leave Argentina so gotta start looking at other options now!
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