Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Celebrating Chile's Heritage in the Desert

Now that we have reached October, I now feel capable of writing all my experiences during Las Fiestas Patrias! Well, that and I just didn't get around to it until now. September 18th may be the day chosen to commemorate the state of Chile, as it is the anniversary of the day on which that the first governing body of Chile came together (though true independence was not achieved until years later), but the entire month of September is full of patriotic celebrations. We had the entire week of the 16th to the 20th off school, so my friends and I took advantage of the opportunity to travel to the Atacama desert in the northern part of Chile.

Every time I told a friend or family member from back in the States that I was going to a desert for what is more or less my spring break week, they always seemed puzzled and asked, "Is there anything to do there? Is it a pretty desert?" The answer to both of these questions is Yes! Or at least, there are some very cool sections of the desert, including San Pedro de Atacama, the small town we visited. The rest of the desert is very much how you would imagine it to be: dry, sandy, dusty, rocky, and lined with land masses that are too short to be properly labeled mountains but too large to be called hills. Let's just say I am very familiar with the landscape of northern Chile since I had a 24-bus-ride in each direction to fully soak in its vastness. 

Honestly, 24-hour bus rides are not as bad as I thought they would be. When you are a college student traveling the world, buses are actually your best friend because 1) they are cheap, 2) you can travel through the night and therefore save the cost of one night in a hostel, 3) if the trip is short enough you can travel exclusively by night and thereby avoid wasting a precious day on travel, 4) you get to see endless landscapes at no additional cost, and 5) you are more motivated to finish that awful book your lit teacher assigned you over your break because there is quite literally nothing else to do. Your other best friend is hostels. The key to enjoying a hostel is to lower your expectations- if you don't expect it to be clean, for the toilets to function, for the water in the shower to always be hot, or to be able to shower for more than 3 minutes, and if you anticipate the crazy loud partying right outside your room until dawn, you will actually quite enjoy the experience. You will even get to meet cool people from all over the world! Throughout the week we meet travelers from Spain, Finland, Brazil, Mexico, and England, just to name a few. And best part is, the jacked up, high season rate was only $16 US per night.

Ok, back to the story. After a long journey we arrived to the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama, which has been home to indigenous peoples for centuries. Nowadays it is more of a jumping off point for sightseeing tours than anything else. We ended up taking four different tours, each to a breathtaking section of nature that was completely distinct than anything I have ever seen before.

First up was El Tatio, a collection of geysers situated at over 14,000 ft elevation. We arrived at dawn so that we could see the steam rising before the rising sun warms up the air and shines its rays, both of which make the geysers less visible.

The device you see in the center of the above photo is a failed effort at harnessing geothermal energy. It was quite controversial because los Atacameños, the indigenous people native to the region, believe that the geysers are a sacred place. They believe that Pachamama (Mother Earth) was deeply graved by this failed project, and as a result Chile experienced the devastating earthquake of 2010.

Just after the sun rose, while those with more common sense stood bundled up in parkas, we went swimming in some thermal springs. The water was lukewarm at best, and getting in and out was really cold, but it was well worth the effort.

Driving out of the national park we got to see some pretty neat wildlife, including a desert fox, vicuñas (a cousin of llamas), wonderfully fluffy goats, and- you guessed it- LLAMAS!

We also got to eat llamas. They taste really good, kind of similar to lamb.

Our next excursion was to see La Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) and La Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). The rock formations there are very unique because they are actually not rocks at all; they are mountains of pure salt covered by a thin layer of dust brought in by wind and cemented on with the rain that occasionally falls in the region. We were lucky enough to see the same area from multiple perspectives, including from above: 

from below in a cave:

from the side while watching one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever witnessed:

and through the middle when we returned on bike later in the week.

Tour number three was to the Salar Atacama, or Atacama Salt Flat. Unlike the valleys we had seen which were covered up by dust, the salt formations were exposed and covered the whole ground:

The lagunas in the salt flats have a high enough salt content to contain crustaceans, which means they also have FLAMINGOS! And here you were thinking there were only flamingos in tropical places.

Then we went to see another set of highland lagoons which were equally scenic, but in a different sense:

Our last tour was to Laguna Cejar, which has such an incredibly high salt content that you can float without effort. May I also add that it is jarringly cold. Although there were tourists from all around the world present speaking a variety of languages, I am pretty sure they all understood the choice words in English that came out of my mouth when I jumped in. Once your muscles all went nice and numb, though, it was actually very soothing and peaceful:

And I looked like a badass grandma for the rest of the day with all the salt dried into my hair:

I have to say the most amazing moment of the whole week was driving back from the salt flats that night. We saw this weird glow coming from behind the mountain and thought it was the lights from a town or the like. Then, just a few seconds later, this massive glowing full moon emerged from behind the mountain peak. The moon, hanging low in the sky, looked several times its normal size, and it was glowing with this softly fierce illuminating force. I don't really have words to describe it and my camera couldn't capture it, so you'll just have to take my word that it was a moment that quite literally stole the breath right out of my lungs.

Looking back on the tours, they were cool not only because we got to see so many places, but also because we had awesome guides! They were all bilingual, or rather, they all knew enough English to be able to conduct a tour for any tourists in our group who didn't speak Spanish. This caused some really incredible moments for my friends and I linguistically. Sometimes we would be listening more passively because we were appreciating the scenery- you know that kind of listening where you are just absorbing what the person is saying without having to focus consciously?- and then we'd get really confused because the guide had started to repeat everything he had just said. Then we realized that he was merely saying it in the other language, and we hadn't even really noticed which language he was speaking in because we were so comfortable with both. Needless to say this was very exciting for us considering how much we have struggled (and sometimes continue to struggle) to communicate with native Spanish speakers.

Even though I loved getting to see so many incredible places and interact with our guides, I was a little disappointed that all we really did was get on and off the bus. Since I am a Colorado girl through and through, I am used to enjoying the outdoors through movement, be it on my feet, a bike, or some variation of a board. Therefore Friday morning we decided to rent bikes and move a little before our long bus ride back. As I had mentioned above, we went back to see Valle de la Muerte from the inside. We saw this amazing looking dried mud. 

My friend Helen gave it a poke and realized that the outer edges were not actually dried at all. I saw that crystallized-looking part in the center, decided that certainly that part had to be dry, and that if I just jumped out to it I could take a really cool yoga-pose picture in the middle of it.

Clearly I was mistaken. One of our bikes also got a flat tire on the way back, so Helen and I had to put our heads together and figure out how to change an inner tube on the side of the road even though neither of us had done it on our own before. It was quite the adventure!

All in all, we had an incredible 18th week! San Pedro de Atacama is not typically considered the ideal place to spend las Fiestas Patrias because they don't have as many of the big celebrations. Nonetheless, I did get to enjoy some Chilean traditions. One was watching a roving cueca band parade through the streets on San Pedro (la cueca is the national dance of Chile, I've blogged about it before so I won't bore you by repeating myself). I was a little bummed that I didn't get to participate myself because I had been practicing and I had bought a pañuelo (handkerchief) and everything! However, seeing these little cueca cuties made up for it:

The characterizing factor of 18th celebrations is the asado (BBQ), which essentially means excessive consumption of food and alcohol. I didn't feast all week long in the same manner as my friends who stayed in Viña del Mar/Valparaíso, but I still got to try several traditional foods including:
1. Empanadas de Pino- empanadas filled with beef and onion, slices of hard boiled egg, and an olive with its pit still inside. Some versions also include raisins, although I have never tried this type.
2. Choripan- a chorizo sausage on a bun
3. Anticuchos- a meat kebob containing chorizo, chicken, and/or beef
4. Prieta- or blood sausage. Quite literally, it is blood that has been cooked until it thickens into a cakey texture and shoved inside a sausage casing. Sounds disgusting, but it was actually very good.
5. Chicha- apple or grape juice that has been fermented but not distilled, meaning that it still has a very high fruit content. I liked it ok in small quantities, but a big glass of it was too sweet for me.
6. Churros rellenos- like the Mexican churros that we have in the United States, but oozing manjar (dulce de leche/caramel)

Finally, after we got back from the desert we ended the week by going to a fonda, which is the Chilean version of a carnival. 

They had lots of food stands and shops selling clothing, jewelry, etc. There was a big tent with people dancing the cueca that was expensive to get into or I would have been all over it. Finally, there were carnival games and rides! Since the concept of liability doesn't really exist here, the rides are much more dangerous than in the US, and therefore more exciting as well! For example, the pirate ship rides do full circles:

The guy who helped us pull down the shoulder restraint over our heads couldn't get them to come down all the way, and after a couple seconds of trying, he shrugged his shoulders and said they were good enough though they were quite loose. So, as the ship got up to the top of it's swing, my butt completely lifted out of my seat and I was holding on for dear life praying that I wouldn't slide out of my shoulder restraint, and I was laughing like crazy! 

Well, just as my night in the fonda was a wrap on my 18th celebrations, this will be a wrap for this blog post. All I have to say is that life is good, and I feel blessed to be here in Chile and to experience everything I'm experiencing :)


  1. Ah haha that is crazy scary, at least you laughed through it... fairly certain I would've passed out easy haha. But how great is it that the language barriers aren't as much of a concern anymore!

  2. Ha ha it was scary. And thanks! Yeah, don't get me wrong, there are definitely still barriers sometimes, but I am learning and improving a lot so they are smaller than they were at first.