Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Chile: No Me Gusta

NOTE: Before I commence my bitter rant of my time spent in Chile, I would first like to say that while I am sure Chile does have some amazing places and people, almost none were experienced during my 1 week stay. A possible combination of "backpackers departure depression" or just an unfortunate set of circumstances placed one after the other, and let's just say, I've had better weeks. With that being said, let the rant begin!

With the end of my trip almost a week away, and a less-than-excited girlfriend providing me with essentially the number of seconds until my return to Austin, I officially began the start of a 900 mile, one week journey back to Lima, Peru. With the option of backtracking my way through the oh-so-affordable nation of Bolivia, I instead decided to make the savings account-depleting decision to direct my route through Chile - an oh-so-UNaffordable country (most expensive in all of South America) that justifies it's prices with the nationwide attitude of "because we are better than everyone else." I leave you with the highlights/lowlights of my time spent in this arrogantly expensive nation:

- Border Crossing - As the previously-mentioned once-a-century winter storm had closed the 30 minute border crossing from the Salar de Uyuni into Chile, I was left with only one available option if I wished to add country #6 onto my South American expedition: A 16 hour "detour" encompassing 3 buses, 4 hours of waiting (as apparently Chilean border officials prefer to watch you stand around then actually process your visa) and a pair of near-frost-bitten feet as a water leak on my bus, and 10 degree weather, joined together to provide me with my first pair of "ice shoes." On the upside, my South African passport saved me yet another $150 in visa fees! On the downside, I experienced my first taste of Chilean rudeness, as locals shoved their way by me as to retrieve their luggage as well as blatantly cut lines without the slightest hint of hesitation. No me gusta. Chilean Bitterness Level (CBL) = 2/10

- San Pedro de Atacama - As one of the most popular destinations in all of Chile, San Pedro de Atacama is also the most expensive. With my initial plan placing me in this quaint, dusty town for 4-5 relaxing days, my wallet allowed for less than 2, as NYC city-esque prices dominated this tiny oasis town. $8 for a small load of laundry, $18 for a hostel dorm bed (in comparison, I spent $4 for my OWN room in Bolivia) as well as a local population whose rudeness matched that of the New Yorker prices they offered, and I was departing from San Pedro almost as quickly as I arrived. Oh yes, and how could I forget the virus-plagued internet cafe that almost lost me an entire memories card worth of photos, and then had the nerve to charge me $20 to attempt a recovery while acting on the premise of doing me a favor. No me gusta x 2. CBL = 5/10

- Star Gazing Tour - A tour advertised as "the best place to star gaze in the world," our $30 "star tour" could have been the most disappointing experience of my entire trip. Instead of visiting the famed and conveniently unmentioned observatory 300KM away (which is the sole reason for San Pedro's night sky-viewing reputation), we instead were shuttled to a "tourist observatory," not even far enough away from lights of San Pedro to avoid the hazy glare it put off into the sky. Thus, instead of staring at Saturn's rings as originally promised in the brochure, we instead gazed through telescopes that made every bright blurry object in the sky (i.e. star) a slightly larger, bright blurry object in the sky. No me gusta x 3. CBL = 6/10

- Hamburger Guy - Told us $2 for a hamburger when we sat down, charged us $4 when it came time to pay. Denied ever saying $2. No me f'ing gusta! CBL = 10/10.

- Iquique - After a disappointing start to my time in Chile (please note CBL of 10/10), I headed to the more affordable coastal city of Iquique (more affordable = New York prices --> San Francisco prices). With almost nothing to do outside of aimlessly wandering the coastal boardwalk, and a growing bitterness towards all aspects of Chilean culture, I decided to spend my 4 days doing absolutely nothing in the confines of my homely hostel. With days spent enjoying one of the 1000s of movies available in the hostel's DVD collection as well as the occasional "casual beer," nights involved cooking up meals in one of the best hostel kitchens I have ever seen or paying a visit to the nearby casino, which netted me a nice profit of $20. CBL beginning to descend... 6/10.

- Humberstone - Thanks to the Nitrate Boom of the 1940s (don't worry, I never heard of it either), the small mining town of Humberstone was once the thriving home to hundreds of families, endless money and unlimited opportunities to reap from it's new-found mineral fortune. However, due to an unfortunate Detroit-esque scenario, whereby a cheaper Nitrate synthetic was discovered overseas, this once thriving town was reduced in decades to an abandoned shell of it's former self. Unfortunate for those at the time, yet amazing for photography. Pics below. CBL losing more and more steam.... 4/10.

- Arica - With one night left in Chile, and a slow-growing positivity developing inside of me, all was lost on the short 4 hour bus ride to the border town/surfer paradise of Arica. Surrounded by a busload of rowdy drunken 10-12 year old students (who happened to be passing around bottles of vodka in plain sight), their teacher decided that if anyone was deserving of criticism, it was me. Ignoring the 10 year old heaving away into a plastic bag next to me thanks to too many shots of vodka, I was lectured for having my feet up on the window. If my Spanish were a bit more fluent, I probably would have provided the man with a few words on his "teaching style," although instead only gritted my teeth and counted down the hours until my departure from this ridiculous country. Final CBL = 9/10.

- Bus to Lima - Crossing the border from Arica and arriving back into the friendly/affordable confines of Peru, nothing could deflate my happiness for having departed from such an unenjoyable experience in Chile - Not even the 20-hour bus ride which awaited me. My final long-distance bus journey of the trip (insert small tear) on the infamously popular/overpriced Cruz del Sur bus line provided me with a fairly standard end to my bus-riding adventures: 5 Spanish dubbed movies (w/Spanish subtitles that did NOT match up to what was being spoken making it almost impossible to translate), several decent meals (definitely put Delta's dry chicken and rice to shame), and a game of Bingo which I unfortunately lost (despite the great Spanish numerology practice).

- 24 Hours in Lima - With less than a day to kill before my flight back home, my time in Lima was a great finish to what has been an amazing adventure over these past 3 months: Last-minute souvenir shopping, yet another amazing sushi meal, aimless wandering (I'm getting quite good at it) and of course my final Spanish taxi conversation on the way to the airport. Adios America del Sur! Hola America del Norte!

Onto the pics:

Next Week: South America: 3 Months Recapped in 3 Minutes

One of the many hours spent waiting in the middle of nowhere while attempting to enter into Chile

San Pedro de Atacama - Nice town that should probably have gold-plated walls with the amount they charge for just about everything

"Star Tour" - $30 to see white bright blurry objects (aka stars) just a little bit larger

The Moon (which apparently doesn't smile in the Southern Hemisphere)

A 2-hour lesson on constellations gave ample time to play around with some camera settings

More play time

Single-track mountain biking in the Atacama desert - The driest desert in the world (Getting pretty good at visiting these "est in the world" places)

It becomes much more difficult to take photos of yourself... when you are by yourself

Iquique - Cloudy city best spent in doors

Visiting the 50 year old ghost town of Humberstone

Abandoned train

The Racquet Club (i.e. swimming pool) of Humberstone

Kinda a quiet town....

Reminds me of my college house just before we moved in

View of the city from above

Old manufacturing plant

Toys from the 1940s - Not sure the metal wheel connected to a metal stick is ever going to make a comeback, but ya never know

Arica - Chilean border town known for surfing, or if you are not a surfer, absolutely nothing

South American's love their giant Jesus statues (and their giant flags too)

Final shot of the trip thanks to an overflowingly full 8GB memory card - Apparently a giant eagle is invading the Earth

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Salar de Uyuni - A Photographic Adventure Into The Largest Salt Flat in the World

As the largest salt flat in the world, encompassing an area greater than 4,000 square miles (larger than the combined areas of Rhode Island and Delaware -- thank you successful Google search for "what is 4000 square miles large?"), the Salar de Uyuni is one of those places that words are truly unable to describe. A never-ending landscape of blinding salty whiteness, stretching as far as the eye can see, this once prehistoric lake is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of South America. A tourist attraction that nearly passed me by due to several unfortunate situations:

- Thanks to Global Warming, El NiƱo, Al Gore, Manbearpig, and whatever other aspect you would like to blame for "unseasonable weather," almost all Salar de Uyuni tours had been cancelled for the prior month due to a freak winter storm that left more than 1/2 of the area covered in dangerous ice, snow and unrelenting wind. As one of the first groups to complete the full 4-day tour (less a few detours here and there), I consider myself quite lucky to have had such fortunate timing (especially since my initial group was cancelled due to a "sick jeep," thus leaving me stranded and searching for a new group only minutes before departure).

Nevertheless (which I now have discovered is my favorite "blog transition" word), before I leave with you this primarily photo-only post, I must provide a bit of summary in regard to the tour along the Salar de Uyuni:

- Trip Background = 4 days/3 nights, 1 jeep, 5 passengers (myself, 2 Kiwi's and 2 Brit's) and 2 "guides" (i.e. driver and chef) that provided us with extensive knowledge of the areas which we passed through (i.e. Extensive knowledge = Spanish descriptions of town names as well as an estimate of the # of families residing there). Being the only "Spanish speaker" in the group, I was responsible for translating all the information to the group, and thus, I am now pretty much an expert in Spanish numerology.

- Trip Schedule:

* Day 1 = Driving along the barren Altiplano, stopping every few hours to enjoy the aimless grazing of several thousand llama's
* Day 2 = Driving by smoking volcanoes, hot springs, geysers and some colored lakes (as well as undocumented colored flamingo's)
* Day 3 = Driving by lots and lots of shapely rocks
* Day 4 = Driving through the Salar de Uyuni

- Trip Summary = Lots of driving (if the schedule above did not provide an indicator of such), repetitive iPod playlists, more driving, freezing cold nights (I believe we hit 5 degrees at one point), a bit more driving, freezing cold mornings, just a bit more driving, and then basically everything else depicted in the photos below.

- Weirdest Moment = Driving at about 40MPH within a smaller salt flat, and having the wind completely die on us. You could stick your hand out the window and feel absolutely nothing... quite possibly the strangest feeling of my life. Even our trusty flags on the front of the jeep were completely still. Very "The Day After Tomorrow" esque.

- Fun Fact = The Salar de Uyuni is estimated to contain 10 billion tons of salt, of which less than 25,000 tons is extracted annually. Thank you Wikipedia.

- Not So Fun Fact = Due to an overwhelming number of providers that supply tourists with lead-footed drunken drivers, almost a dozen people die every year along the Salar, making it quite possibly the most dangerous tour in all of South America. (I've included a photo of an extremely lucky group -- of which a friend of mine was a part -- that survived a near disaster).

Onto the pics:

Next Week: Chile - No Me Gusta

Commencing our 4-day journey along the barren 12,000 high Bolivian Altiplano (i.e. high-ass-flat-ground)

Obviously this tour was one of my favorite's due to the excessive amount of Llama's seen along the way

Reaching the highest altitude of my entire trip via the strenuous means of sitting in a 4-wheeled vehicle = 15,928 feet

More Llama's!

Random hot spring visited during Day 2 - Quite the welcome relief after spending the night in 5 degree temperatures

Less swimmable hot springs - Unless you are able to withstand 250 degree heat

The lack of ANY sort of fences or warning signs as you traverse mere inches between these "bubblers" probably wouldn't fare so well in the States

Laguna Colorada - One of the many "colored" lakes visited during the trip

Day 3 - Valley of the Rocks... very aptly named if you ask me

"Planking" - A new phenomenon that seems to have hit Facebook albums around the world. Figured I'd partake in at least one of them.

I'll be accepting that offer to National Geographic any day now...

One of the many "shaped" rocks we passed during our drive through the Valley. This one is a condor (obviously)

Our jeeps were quite badass

Favorite sign of the trip

I imagine this photo will be making it's way into a frame one of these days

The Salt Hotel - Made entirely of (I'll give you one guess)

Salt Chandelier

Several members of our group enjoying the daily tea/snack time - Our daily reward for enduring almost 8 hours of bumpy, unpaved roads

Day 4 - 4:30AM wakeup to see the sunrise over the Salar (I think we were trying to spell "Haltx"... whatever it may mean)

Long legs

Incahuasi Island (i.e. Island of Cacti)

Definitely putting Texas cacti to shame

Guides enjoying a friendly game of soccer as us gringo's enjoyed our breakfast

Breakfast Tables = Salt Slabs on a rock

Close-up of some salt

Further away shot of the salt

Driving along the neverending Salar de Uyuni (definitely could have used some sunglasses to save my eyes from the unavoidable blinding whiteness)

"Loco Fotos" = Crazy picture time (No descriptions really necessary for these -- Just an open imagination and a bit of confusion)

Loco Foto #1

Loco Foto #2

Loco Foto #3

Loco Foto #4

Loco Foto #5

Loco Foto #6

Loco Foto #7

Loco Foto #8

Loco Foto #9

Not many mechanic shops along the Salar... thus a dental-floss-thick piece of rope unsuccessfully pulled the broken-down Jeep until it snapped about 20 feet later

The less-lucky Jeep of my friends group that suffered a more serious, drunken lead-footed driver, "breakdown" (unbelivable that everyone survived)

A bit of rain from the night before provided an amazing reflection pool

Mini salt mounds at the end of the Salar, as well as our 4 day amazing journey