I have returned from the northern lands! While I adored Buenos Aires, it was nice to explore a bit more of Chile and have an actual relaxing vacation. This trip was filled with sleep, fresh air, mountains and... sleep, which was a welcome contrast to our venture to Argentina.
I've decided to divide this post into the three separate days of the trip so it may be a bit on the long side. Enjoy!
Our bus was scheduled to leave at 10:55pm from Santiago and arrive in La Serena (capital of the northern region we visited) at 5:50am where we were to catch our next bus. Surprisingly, everything went splendidly. Miraculously, we all arrived on time (for 7 people who live in 7 different houses, quite the feat) and our bus left promptly at 11pm. We boarded the bus and I was awestruck at the structural beauty that was each and every seat. Each person had a seat that reclined, a fold out ottoman, pillow, blanket and received a snack at the beginning of the trip, which consisted of juice and an almond cookie. Delightful. I chatted with my friend for a bit and then constructed a nest of comfort in my seat and slowly drifted off to sleep.
Although at first the bus seemed to be a palace of heavenly comfort, the enticing masquerade ended when I tossed and turned in and out of REM cycles for 5 hours and found that despite all the amenities, I was on a BUS in the middle of the night. Yet just as I had fallen asleep for the third or fourth time, I was abruptly awoken by the bus steward shoving "breakfast" in my face. I use quotations because this meal also included juice and cookie, one of which I do not consider breakfast and the other of which was the equivalent of unmixed sugar and water. After this abrasive interaction, he demanded my pillow and blanket. Now, I don't know about you guys, but my brain doesn't understand English in the wee hours of the morning, so the Spanish was just not happening. When I didn't understand immediately, the steward decided that his only option was to rip apart my nest of comfort quickly and move on to the next row. Sulking, I tasted my "juice", was promptly disgusted and looked at my watch. It was 4:15AM. Why did the steward have to wake us up almost 2 hours before our arrival time?
At 4:45AM, this question was answered when we were dumped at the bus station in La Serena, an hour ahead of schedule. Generally speaking, it's good to be early and when travelling, I am never opposed to waiting patiently for my transportation rather than trying to board at the last second. However, it is not good to be early when your next bus doesn't leave until 6:50AM and it 4:45 in the morning.
So, what could we do but wait. We encountered some chairs, pulled out the sleeping bags, and pathetically ate our snacks, slept or laughed delusionally at the situation. We were soon befriended by a stray dog who I'm pretty sure lived in the bus station and, being such a delightfully entertaining hostess, decided to clean her lady parts in front of us. I kid you not, it sounded like she was drinking from her own teat.
At about 5:30AM we were approached by a man from whom we learned through gestures (Spanish brain still not turned on) that we needed to get up because he needed to move the chairs. After gathering all of our things, the man moved the chairs literally 20 feet. Like a moth to a flame, we made a B line for the newly placed chairs, newly arranged closer together, and two girls from the group decided to lay down. The man returned 5 minutes later and told us that we couldn't lay down because a) we were taking up space needed by other customers and b) we looked like hobos. We were the only people in the entire bus station.
Finally our bus to Vicuna arrived. We boarded, promptly fell asleep and an hour or so later arrived. We disembarked and we greeted by grey clouds, fog and the smallest, shittiest town I have ever seen. We drudged 5 blocks to our hostel, wondering why the hell we decided to come here.
Yet our trip was granted a rebirth of sorts. After sleeping for about 5 hours in the hostel, we awoke fresh as spring chickens at 1pm and started our day. We ventured outside our room and were greeted by a gorgeously colorful garden which occupied the center of our hostel (it was outdoors except for the rooms) warmer temperatures, blue skies and the most gorgeous mountains I have ever seen in my entire life. We ate lunch at a traditional Chilean restaurant and embarked on a hike up Cerro de la Virgen. About an hour later we reached the summit and took in the amazing beauty that is Valle de Elqui. I snapped close to 40 shots of the view but here are two of my favorites, the first a view from Vicuna a sunset, the second from Cerro de la Virgen:
After our short workout, we visited Museo de Gabriela Mistral, a Chilean poet who won the Nobel prize for literature and was born in Vicuna. I had read some of her work previously and can now understand her connections between nature and humanity since she lived in the most beautiful place I have seen thus far in my life. Fun fact: She is honored in nearly every pueblo (small town) in Valle de Elqui with a statue of her head or bust but never the rest of her body. In Vicuna, her head is the center of the Plaza and is close to 7 feet wide. (If I ever become famous and you guys want to honor me, I prefer my image in photos as opposed to concrete.)
After this delightful outing, we had done everything that there was to do in Vicuna. We returned to the hostel, cooked dinner, roasted marshmallows over the gas stove and went to bed at 9:30pm. Day well spent.
Woke up and got out the door at 9:30AM, the first and only time this will happen in our travels thus far. We took a bus to Pisco Elqui, an even smaller town about 50 minutes outside Vicuna. The bus raced through the curving roads of the mountain pass and although at times I felt a bit unsafe, it was worth the risk. Again, the views, just incredible. I felt as though with each inhale, I took in more and more of the scenery, not just by sight but as though I could feel the experience shaping me as a person. For those of you who have travelled to other countries, have you felt this way as well? It's like you can feel yourself opening up to allow the newness, the beauty of a new experience to wash over you and nestle into the pores of your skin, your being, yourself. I not only felt content, I felt whole, as though through this trip (and travelling in general) I was discovering a new part of myself which always existed but was finally being actualized.
After my (slightly long winded?) epiphany, we arrived in Pisco Elqui and explored a pisco vineyard (pisco is a type of hard alcohol made from grapes so it's a bit of a mix between liquor and wine. The drink of choice here is pisco sour, a mix of, you guessed it, pisco and lemon, strong but delightful and a good warming device in the winter). We lunched in a pizzeria which I found to be hilarious, although the pizza tasted more like flat bread since it was mostly sans-sauce. To accompany our food, we indulged in jugos naturales (natural juices) which were made fresh for us from all natural ingredients, shocker. I went for a mix of pineapple and coconut at first and for dessert tried carrot juice for the first time, surprisingly sweet.
After lunch we walked over to a ranch (yes, you read correctly, the population of this town was 1000 people and probably less than a square mile) and paid about $10 to ride horses for an hour. It should be noted that the last time I rode a horse was more than 10 years ago, during which I cried. So clearly, I was a bit nervous. One of the huasos (cowboys) adjusted my stirrups and remarked "Tu eres gringa grande" (You are a big American girl; disclaimer: it should be noted that although in some latinamerican countries, gringa is a derrogatory term, in Chile this is not the case, it is simply the word for people who are not Chilean). After bringing my tamano (size) to my attention (something I've clearly never thought about before, especially not during my years as a giant in elementary school) he gave me a thirty second lesson on how to ride a horse and off we went. UP THE HILL. Unfortunately my horse seemed to be more interested in eating, so I brought up the rear of the group, with the guide as my company. Let's just say I hice un amigo (made a friend, our code for getting hit on) and within a few minutes he asked me if we would be staying in Pisco Elqui for the night and if any of us had pololos (boyfriends). I quickly changed the topic to the weather (much warmer than Santiago) and hoped the hour would pass quickly. Yet over all, our horseback riding adventure vale la pena (was worthwhile) because we were privy to a view of the entire valley, hills and the Andes Mountains, gorgeously dusted with snow. After taking conservatively 10,000 photos, we descended and hopped back on the bus to Vicuna, leaving my "new friend" behind.
There are quite a few observatories in Valle de Elqui and that night we took a van about fifteen minutes outside Vicuna to Observatorio Mamalluca to take a look at the nightsky. After a short presentation (that of which I understood about 95%, success!) we ventured outdoors where we were greeted by a sky bursting with stars. Fun Fact: since I am currently in the Southern Hemisphere, different constellations are visible. For the first time, I saw the Milky Way, the Southern Cross and my own astrological constellation, Libra (it is supposed to be shaped like a scale or balance; in actuality, it's a triangle).
After this delightful outing, we returned to Vicuna and boarded a bus back to La Serena, where we stayed the night in a charming guest house. The next morning we were served a traditional Chilean breakfast which includes LOTS of bread, palta (avocado), tea, coffee, cheese and jam, which was homemade and a jar of which we received as a memento.
In all honesty, La Serena is a bit fome (boring); it's a beach town but in the winter when it's cold and there's no sun, there is absolutely NOTHING to do. We walked to the beach, played a bit of frisbee and returned to make lunch and head to the bus station. Since the bus ride back was during the day, we were privy to the gorgeous landscape that is Chile. One of our host mothers said that when God created the world, there were leftovers of every landform and he generously decided to place it all inside the borders of Chile. While this sentiment teeters on Creationism, tiene razon (it's reasonable). As we drove down Highway 5, to the left were rolling hills ,(which varied between lucious greenery and dry sandy earth speckled with cactus) and stoic mountains and to the right, the ocean. To my surprise, as we wove through this natural wonder, people snoozed away on the bus. In my humble opinion, you sleep on a bus cruising through the middle of Illinois, not the middle of Chile.
Now I'm back in my host house in Santiago and classes start Monday. I wish there was more time to travel but I'm thankful for the time we had, I not only feel enriched but my Spanish improved quite a bit over the last two weeks from (too) many conversations with strangers, asking for directions and having long talks with the other girls on the program. While I'm a bit anxious about taking classes taught completely in Spanish, I feel prepared and know it will improve with time.
Shout-out goes to Lauren Ayers for being my inspiration to study abroad in the first place. Hearing about all of your trips made me realize my own desire to explore another part of the world and being immersed in a different culture for even a month has allowed me to learn so much about not only this country but my own person as well. All I can say is thank you and I hope one day we can discover another part of the world together.