We finish our last game of cards at the top of Cerro San Cristobal before commencing our last drive through Santiago back to Hotel Galerias and then onwards to the airport. What we hadn’t accounted for was Friday afternoon rush hour traffic.
After only one wrong turn, we find ourselves about two blocks away from the hotel at a complete stand still. Intersections are clogged, I literally put the car into Park and I exit the car to try to investigate the problem. Two of the group leave the car and head towards the hotel by foot to collect our luggage, and before anything has changed other than a decrease in patience and an increase in car horns, they are returning with a hotel dolly full of our bags. Putting luggage in the trunk is a not a trivial activity, and thus we begin the dance that is arranging our bags in a very particular way. We put in about three bags and then suddenly traffic starts to move. I jump back into the driver’s seat, the rest of our luggage is carted to the side of the road, and through the car window, we discuss a new rendezvous point slightly up ahead. We change this meeting point once or twice and eventually just pull up in front of the hotel to complete this luggage-filling process.
The car is now filled, but our adventure to the airport is only half-complete. It is still rush hour and the low setting sun in our eyes only adds to the adrenalized moment. I receive honks of discontent for video-game like maneuvers such as making right turns from non-right lanes, cutting the same car off more than once, changing lanes with such frequency that it almost seems unproductive, and squeezing through spaces that makes our luggage-packed trunk seem spacious. All that said, this video game ends at the airport’s rental car lot with full health bars and the car hasn’t even suffered a scratch in the process. We have barely enough time to blow a sigh of relief when the parking lot attendant points out some small scratches near the trunk of the car. Being able to talk my way out of these small nicks in Spanish gave me confidence that my language skills had advanced at least some over the last two weeks here in Chile.
We all make our flights on time and brace ourselves for the 80-degree (Fahrenheit) temperature swing we are about to experience upon touching ground in Boston.
We all pile back into the car, make a pit stop by Pablo Neruda’s cliff-top, ocean-view house, and continue onwards to Valparaiso. This colorful port city, which is oftentimes called Valpo brings out the photographer in two of us as we pass through its winding, hilly streets. We get to skip climbing up one hill by braving the Ascensor Concepcion, a short century-old funicular in an historic part of the city. We then weave our ways through countless cute shops and mini cafes stopping all the while to capture each scene via CMOS sensor. As the day is a bit overcast, our cameras are not overwhelmed with brightness, with shadows, or with intensity of any sort; however, the flatness of light gives some of the otherwise hidden parts of these colorful streets a little more attention than they would otherwise have received. We end our visit in Valpo at a cafe complete with live music from a local Chilean.
As our trip comes to a close, we appreciate some of Santiago’s nightlife by exploring Barrio Bellavista, a neighborhood chock full of restaurants, bars, cafes and clubs. On consecutive nights, we find dinner at a local spot and then venture out to find some dancing. Bar Constitucion, a club with very eclectic music from electroclash to house to hip hop to rock ‘n roll and more, provides us with an interesting cross-section of locals and foreigners who have all found themselves in Santiago. At Bar Constitucion, we chat up some locals and thus get chance to practice our Spanish, and we also dance among our selves on the smoke-filled dance floor.
We find a piece of home, and more specifically of Trader Joe’s, when we visit Viña Concha y Toro, the famous wine producer of Casillero del Diablo. After a couple tastes at this winery just southeast of Santiago, we continue southward to the Colchagua Valley where we enjoy wines, lunch, vineyard-filled hills, and walks among the grapes. In the center of the valley is Santa Cruz, a cute town filled with boutique hotels, small houses with flowered window sills, and restaurants, cafes a plenty.
We ask for a late check out because our flight that we had to change due to our previously non-existent tickets is scheduled for 11pm. Our late checkout is not granted, and given that our day began at 4am with the Tatio Geyser tour, we feel like resting at the lodge for the rest of the afternoon. Now we are confined to only public spaces and face a bit of a problem. So logically, we take over the pool area. And by “take over,” I mean we literally all move over our luggage, swim, shower in an outside accessible bathroom, play music, have our stuff draped over chairs, and try to make as much space as possible for the other guests wanting to use the Jacuzzi.
A 4am alarm is never pleasant, but alas, we want to see the Tatio Geysers at sunrise and doing so necessitates an early wake-up. We are picked up by Mauricio, the same guide from Cosmos Andinos, who toured us around yesterday, and the whole bus minus the driver proceeds to fall asleep until we arrive at the geysers two hours later. When we arrive, the temperature is well below freezing and thus a bit uncomfortable, but the excitement helps us warm up.
The scenery again is other-worldly, and we end up reflecting the landscape’s energy as we run around taking pictures of each other and of the geysers. For the rest of the bus, I feel that both the geysers and our group serve as two forms of morning entertainment. Whether it is one of my friend’s rabbit shaped beanie, all of us taking ridiculous silhouette photos in front of the geyser’s mist, or just the fact that we are constantly out of breath because we’re running around at 4000 plus meters, we are a bit of a spectacle.
Before returning home and stopping every couple minutes for a photo opportunity, we try the nearby hot springs as the outside temperature begins to warm up.
The landscapes today are inspiring. The rains of yesterday deposited snowcaps to the Andes Mountains that surround us, and the crispness of the air compels my trigger finger to keep taking pictures. From the day’s start with the flamingos at Laguna Chaxa in the Salar de Atacama to the Lagunas Miniques and Miscanti, each site rivals the last.
I hear that our first full in San Pedro is going to be a rest day, and although I’m fully on board with the idea, I feel that if I go on a nice morning bicycle ride, I will feel great about resting afterwards. The owner of our lodge tells me of a ride to Laguna Cejar, a nearby salt lake that is both beautiful and swimmable, and sketches me a hand-drawn, not-to-scale map detailing the 17km route.
I’m excited by the ride, by the destination, and by the challenge of not getting lost. I get an early start, have a quick breakfast at the lodge again seated next to the Irish honeymooners, and then I continue on my journey to the Laguna. Arriving without issue and feeling particularly good because the weather is overcast and cool, I find a little oasis in the middle of the desert. I don’t end up jumping in the water because the weather isn’t exactly swimming worthy, but I still get my fair share of pictures before returning to the lodge.
As it turns out, we end up experiencing a rare summer rain in the afternoon and are happily located within a café in the middle of town playing cards.
Our accommodations while in San Pedro de Atacama come complete with a “wellness center”, wood-stove-heated Jacuzzi, and small swimming pool for Hydrogym activites. Meals are served in a centrally located kitchen around a communal table that is shared by other guests at the Lodge. Our first dinner, as an example, is shared with a Brazilian family and an Irish couple on their honeymoon. The five of us are staying in a separate house with its own bathroom and slightly cramped quarters, but still a homey environment nonetheless.
Other than the owner of the lodge seeming to be slightly frustrated that we did not book any of our Atacama activities through her because she was adding a pretty premium to all prices, the staff, the room, and even the wood-stove-heated Jacuzzi made for a very pleasant stay while in San Pedro.
On the same afternoon that we arrive in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile’s high desert adobe-Disneyland, we venture to Valle de la Luna along the way taking some photographic pit-stops at Valle de la Muerte and Tres Marias. In my effort to try to compare foreign landscapes to something more familiar, I try to match some of the landscapes around San Pedro to something that might be found in New Mexico, but there are few spots that I feel look much like the Valle de la Luna.