It was a smooth late-night landing in Quito, after leaving Calama and bouncing through Santiago. After using some B-grade online booking engines we finally found a hotel room in the city which was otherwise full with attendees for a political symposium.
A planned sleep-in was disrupted early in the morning by the noise of a crowd. Peering through the window sheers across the street, we could see the athletic track and school yard full with rows of blue and grey camouflaged military soldiers exercising and responding when called to attention. Now that we were up it was ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Feliz Cumpleanos’ for Dave and our second birthday celebration on the road.
Waffles at a small Swiss-operated cafe culturally mixed us up, but by the evening we were celebrating with the flavours of traditional Ecuadorian soups, Peruvian inspired ceviches and sipping Pisco sours.
We took taxis around the city, passing alongside urban greenspaces with skateboard / BMX parks, craft fairs and playgrounds - the city’s people shared the public space, laying picnic blankets out one next to the other. Kids formed transient bike and scooter gangs before an ad-hoc football (soccer) game would spring up from the turf-like blades of grass. It made us happy to walk through the parks and see them being loved, explored and appreciated.
The Galapagosian iguana gargoyles perched high above the checkerboard marble and stone monochrome of the colonial churches watched as visitors celebrated Palm Sunday. Andean costumed worshippers wore semi-translucent masks, decorative feather headdresses and long robes. A ‘Superman’ dressed character had a group gathered around a tree and was whirling and twirling a thick caramel like substance around like a pottery wheel. As the rain started to fall we hustled to a nearby restaurant past street vendors selling watermelon and a frothy coloured meringue dessert.
We drove by the plain-looking facade of Jeff’s ‘factory’. Inside a small office / reception area he introduced himself and taught us the basics of chocolate more properly referred to as cacao when talking about the local Ecuadorian, high quality bars and bonbons that he produces for top restaurants, hotels, some client families and the export market. Jeff’s small operation focuses on the downstream production of end consumer product but he is very conscious and aware of his upstream suppliers. We learned how the large cacao beans are harvested, dried, and processed and how higher cacao content does not necessarily mean higher quality. Ecuador exports some of the highest quality cacao in the world. A close friend of Jeff’s owns a farm and produces a specialty crop of cacao which is pre-sold years in advance to discerning customers around the world. We purchased a small box of chocolate treats and did our best not to let them melt as we ran a few preparatory errands in advance of our departure to Isabela Island (Galapagos) the following day.
Swim goggles, peanut butter, trailrunning shoes, coffee and cheese - and we were set with some basics for our trip to the archipelago. An early morning drive from Quito to the airport, special Galapagos National Park screening, a three-hour commercial flight to Baltra (via Guayaquil) and then a 30-minute eight-seater Emetebe flight (complete with our Rasta co-pilot) to Isabela and we deplaned into the humidity and sea air. A pick-up truck transfer to our palm tree ensconced rental apartment and then we were back out on foot walking the beach, meeting the local iguanas and shopping the central market for nuts, rice, eggs, canned beans, corn, and a few fresh coconuts. Hil made fresh almond milk while Dave wrestled, sweat and hacked at the coconuts to open them for the water and pulp.
The humid night was abuzz with critters, birds and the ocean waves rolling in just a few meters away. After caramelized bananas and french toast for breakfast we walked along the wooden path to Concha Perla. Snorkelling around the protected bay we got familiar with the tides and the various volcanic features and creatures in the bay. Seals lounged on the raft platform while others looped and spun around us in the water. The colourful schools of fish darted around, shimmering in the sun to avoid the hungry seals while the rhythmic and calm sweeps of the sea turtle fins offered a peaceful guide to follow around the rocky basin as they ate sea weed and occasionally surfaced to breathe.
With fins and gills, whiskers and shells we were excited to get to know our new neighbours over the coming week.
Since travel days are always better when starting out with a full tummy, we filled our plates from the elegant and diverse offering at the hotel buffet, ate, and went back to fill-up again. With a selection of exotic fruit, locally made honey, 3 kinds of yogurt, waffles, muffins, and eggs a la carte, how could we resist?
Leaving Santiago, we discussed what an easy, friendly and Toronto-like city it had been to experience as travellers. Reflecting the current economic stability and growth of Chile and vibrancy of its people and culture. Landing in Calama, it was immediately clear to us that Santiago was benefitting from the mining projects in the north, though Calama itself, with casino hotels and rows of identical quickly-built housing was, perhaps, not.
We whisked through the small airport and into a truck, where we headed down the road, away from the city and began to take our first glimpses of the Atacama landscape.
First down a valley and then up over the Domeyko Mountain range, where our ears popped, alerting us to a significant change in elevation. Down through the next valley, and up a second pass, the Salt Mountain range. Finally as we descended into the third valley the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama appeared and the looming volcanos of the Andean range, bordering Bolivia, came into view.
There is no comparison on the planet (at least not that we’ve experienced) to the dry air, red earth, rugged and rocky landscape and vastness of the Atacama desert that surrounds San Pedro. The craggy contours of sand, eroded from rain and wind, jut out violently from the ground like hot coals and ash of a recently burned fire. Our timing also followed closely behind a flashflood to the area, bringing over 40mm of rain in one day, to an region that sees less than 1 mm annually. The result, dust and surface dirt were washed away leaving rings of white salt, resembling (at least to two Canadians) and overnight dusting of snow.
Paved highway turned to dirt roads, and the adobe wall-lined streets of San Pedro sheltered us from the winds sweeping across the open lands. A traditional-style hut with local wood fencing and roof coverage kept us cool during the hot days and warm during the cold nights. The following morning we checked out the nearby Cejar ponds where we floated effortlessly in the saline waters, while taking in views of the surrounding volcanos. The micro-organisms in the water were the only other living things around as the high salt content makes the waters otherwise inhospitable. Nearby the ponds, we met a French family who are spending a year traveling around South America in an RV. The father was admittedly not a ‘car guy’ but has learned on the road everything there is to maintaining a motorhome across the challenging terrain of the desert, the Andes and long stretches of rippio in southern Argentina and Chile.
From the salt ponds we drove southeast past Toconao for a quick lunch in Socaire before climbing in elevation up to 4,300 meters (14,100 feet) to the altiplano lakes of Miscanti and Miniques. The two bright blue sky mirrors set at the base of the volcanos are the meeting point for flamingos, nesting horned coots, and swift-footed vicuna. Winding back down the mountainside the vegetation changed as the vicunas stayed up above 3,500 meters just as the distant lithium mining ponds on the valley floor came into view. We rested in the afternoon after the heat and short un-acclimatized altitude exposure took its toll. Plus we had a stargazing appointment and astronomy lesson scheduled for a fews hours after nightfall.
We traveled with Jorge 15 minutes outside of San Pedro into the desert darkness. Sitting in fold-up lawn chairs with blankets we listened to his animated presentation about the stars, the Andean culture’s relationship with the sky and our place in it all. For us, the southern hemisphere’s sky was a all new. We learned that there are 88 recognized constellations in the sky and how to find the (real) southern cross. Jorge setup his telescope and quizzed us on where to find various bright stars and constellations in the sky. Supernovas, planets, nebulas, and moons - through a car-adapter powered telescope we gazed out into the dark until it became light again hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of light years away. He would focus on a feature in the sky and we would all quickly take a turn looking through the lens to see it before our rotation and its orbit would put it, again out of view. Staring into Orion’s nebula we got lost in the cloud of dust, gas, new stars and cosmic energy. Saturn and its rings were clear and brightly coloured through the telescope - and with that somewhere for a moment it all was put in perspective, we were so small, made of the same stuff, all inhabiting the same place - no exceptions.
After some fresh rica-rica lemonade Dave left with Santiago for a walk among the giant cardon cacti. One of the freshwater springs that feeds the oasis of San Pedro continues to carve a valley from the high mountains down to the town. Hiking through the valley we sought out the cool water breeze and shade from the high rock walls from the mid-day sun. Back in time for a fresh lunch with Hil before packing up for an overnight in the desert. We rendezvoued with Javier and crossed the Salt Mountain range en route toward Mantacilla where we unpacked the truck and set camp in the depth of a U-shaped rock feature, protected from the wind. Wandering the wind-blown canyons as the sun began to set the colours changed from dusty beige to brown to yellow to orange to red as the ferocity of the sun’s blaze focused it fading rays on the tallest outcropping in the landscape. While we waited for the stars to shine, Javier spoiled us with some top-notch gas stove cooking, and a good Chilean red wine. Dave made use of his new tripod and recent astronomy learnings to capture some night photography scenes as the 180 degree sky lit up covering us in pinhole pierced darkness.
Returning to San Pedro we took the long route through some historical petroglyphs carved into amphitheatre desert walls over one thousand years ago. Images of shamans, llamas, and large cats show the history of a people that passed by caravan through this area along ancient trade routes.
From our overnight tent under the stars we moved to the Corrales, the site of an old cattle corral and our rusted modern glass cube. Dave met Yasu and and biked the up the valley, across rivers, through eroded arches, and under rainbow rock overhangs. Carrying the bikes over tough terrain and up hill Dave learned about Yasu’s young family and their passion for the mountains. With no electricity in his home he loves to make the most of daylight hours, climbing, mountain biking and guiding across the Atacama. Hil joined for a windswept hike across the top of Valle de la Muerte and then the joyful descent into the giant dunes. The sands, warm from the day’s sun puffed and clouded as we ran down the ridge, our feet landing on either side of the shadow line puckering the smoothed perfection of the shifting sands. Bounding down hill we ran and jumped into soft landings filling our shoes, socks, mouths and ears with grains of the desert dunes. As the sun set we shared a meal of fresh garden greens and a glass of Carmenere.
At 8:30 in the morning Dave and a guide were rolling towards the Andean range and the tri-border of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. After nearly a week of taunting in the Atacama it was time to not just gaze out at the volcanos and mountains on the hazy horizon but also to look back at town from the summit of one of them. Our hourlong drive to the base of Toco doubled our elevation from 2,500 meters to almost 5,000 meters leaving just a short 600 meter ascent for us to slowly climb past the snow line to the summit. Loose rock, frosted snow shapes, cold temperatures and brilliant sun challenged our steps. Walking in a slow single file we chewed coca leaves which is chewed by Andean alpinists and high-altitude truckers alike. The views from the summit introduced us to other mountains, in other countries deeper in the Andean range. We looked down on multiple satellite and astronomical projects watching and listening for the ancient creators of all these peaks. We descended without incident, rehydrated and returned to San Pedro listening to dance music as the diver’s enthusiastic head-bopping only added to the exhilaration of the climb. Wind, sun and altitude soaked Dave rested in the afternoon which suited Hil, who was already enjoying a slower pace poolside.
With the new day’s light crawling down the side of Licancabur’s perfect conical shape we walked out together along a wooden foot path to meet Marti for another morning of yoga. Hil and Marti had bonded immediately, as Marti is also pregnant. We embraced her practice, introducing new movements and sequences to us in beautifully calm spanish-accented english. The crisp temperature had not yet been overpowered by the sun’s heat and our bodies warmed as we breathed, folded and stretched. With open vastness all around us, Marti shifted our focus inward, and to our baby. As we floated into a deep shavasana she guided us with a final thought: “The mind is like a pendulum, swaying from the past to the future, to still the pendulum is to be in the present.” Words to keep and repeat.
Another change in the weather indicated it was, again, our time to move on. A detour and dirt road and we arrived at the small Puerto Natales airport. A seasonal short haul gateway to TDP and a welcome alternative to the extra driving time down to Punta Arenas.
He rolled in totally exasperated and dismounted his road bike at the Sky Airlines checkin desk. The click-clack of his clip-in shoes broke the murmur silence in the airport. A short discussion ensued between the Japanese cyclist and the checkin attendant, then in less than two minutes and in a well-practiced flash he removed the four panniers from the wheel frames, threw his small backpack on the floors, emptied his jersey pockets, wrapped the pedals in plastic and with boarding pass in hand and still sweating, balanced all of his possessions to the security metal detector. His cycling shorts were loose around his fit but skinny thighs and he did not stand much taller than Hil. He had begun his ride months earlier in Arica, in the vey north of Chile and having ridden the 5,000 km length of the country he was now making his way back up to Santiago. The road detour en route to the airport was an unexpected delay for him and needing to make this flight to keep a later connection, he literally rode into the airport to save time.
A few nights in Puerto Natales to plan some up upcoming segments was needed to alter course from Chiloe and Puerto Varas up to Santiago, as we had a date to keep with a Brazilian.
A stunning flight over Torres Del Paine and the glacier massifs and a beautiful warm sunset welcomed us into Santiago.
We settled for a night in Lastarria and enjoyed some sushi in a courtyard restaurant adjacent to an art gallery before an evening stroll around the neighbourhood. The next morning, a coffee and passports in hand and we were nearly running to get to the Brazilian embassy a few blocks away. With only five foreign visas processed per day and no buffer days to work with we had to be there well before the doors opened at 10 AM. Mis-understanding a queue for the elevators as a delay in their operation we opted for the 15 flights of stairs. Always good to stretch the legs in the morning. We arrived fourth in line, in time to get the last seats, and the first visa position as the elevator doors opened with faces from the queue at the ground floor. Paperwork complete and some negotiating on turnaround time and we left our passports for a trip to the coast.
A colourful town, built into the hills, Valparaiso not only used to be a center of power but remains Chile’s largest port. With funiculars to move people and goods up and down the steep hillsides the town is also a UNESCO world heritage site.
We walked around the weaving streets of Cerro Alegre where alleyways and corridors are connected by staircases and underpasses. The street art images and indigenous characters was different from what we had seen elsewhere.
Exploring and enjoying every day of our adventure has made it easy to loose track of days, dates and calendar events but we were sure to remember March 10 and were happily hosted by Palacio Astoreca for a special one-year anniversary weekend.
We spoke with family and many friends and thought back to the snow, sun tans (burns) and celebrations, at the Stagecoach under cowboy hats and outdoors under perfect sunset skies.
A young couple who we met in the lobby were also celebrating. Despite loose plans to have dinner together the following night, we opted for a different restaurant and Gabriel could not have been happier as he had been planning menus, music and magic for his proposal to Larissa. Seeing them the next day, beaming and vibrant we laughed about Gabriel’s typically friendly and warm demeanour turning quiet and reluctant as Larissa had (unknowingly) invited us to her engagement dinner. They had rented a car so we traveled together with them to visit La Sebastiana - the seaside home of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
Much like Dave’s grandmother’s home, Neruda’s has something from everywhere and something for everyone. Lush gardens, wood flooring, mosaic tile work in the stairwells, art in places and oddities throughout. ‘The Cloud’ thinking chair a short few steps from the eclectic bar featuring curiosities from around the globe and its ‘don’t be bashful’ bathroom door. Nautical and seafaring maps, charts, portholes, hardware and headwear decorated the walls of his bedroom and study.
A glimpse into an important figure in Chile’s recent history - from his life as a politician, ambassador, poet and protester during the Pinochet military takeover in 1973 and his death later that year. For some there is intrigue in people’s life event after their death and with the April 2013 exhumation of Neruda’s remains to re-examine his cause of death, it seems to be the case.
Full of sea air and with a new and fresh devotion to year-two we travelled back to Santiago and settled in Providencia. An afternoon meeting with Ivan, one of Cari’s friends, and we were deep in a planning session for some exciting upcoming adventures. Ivan’s personal relationships with really interesting people in amazing places helped to further root our authentic travel experiences.
Santiago’s clean streets, modern infrastructure, cafes, new construction, bustling shopping areas, financial center, hip hotels, fresh brands and street art made us feel like we were in a global city. We subwayed, walked and cabbed through the old city to find a replacement camera lens before a late lunch in Bellavista, some curation collecting in Vitacura and a warm afternoon reception with friends at their park-perfect restaurant. We talked about our adventures, eating in Italy, and Chile’s growing role in South America and beyond.
On our last day in Santiago, Hil took some down time while Dave collected our passports with Brazilian visas and visited the new Human Rights Museum documenting the September 1973 military coup in Chile and the atrocities of the following 17 years when people disappeared, prisoners were held and many lives were lost - until 1990 when democracy returned to Chile. The modern green, semi-translucent design of the building is stark in the old neighbourhood of churches and schools but a new fixture among other cultural centers in the area. The exhibit is thorough, the images, articles, audio segments and video accompanied by the audio-guide presented a detailed explanation of what happened and how the country’s various groups and classes reacted and came together to change. The upcoming film “No” takes another look at this time and place in Chile’s history.
Back across town for a StartUp Chile meetup to talk about SXSW. Dave met some founders involved in the program and learned more about Chile’s focus on tech entrepreneurship and how LATAM investors are turning their attention to ‘made-in-Chile’. From there we carried on to a delicious dinner at Liguria Bar in Providencia where a gentlemen seated at the bar next to us sorted us out nicely with a recommendation of a steak and local beer pairing - chin chin!
Following on the theme of local, Dave had a private wine tasting with a sommelier and was introduced to some nearby regions like the Leyda and Maipo valleys and a few new favourites like: Domus Aurea (Cabernet Sauvignon), Carmin de Peumo (Carmenere), Antiyal (Carmenere). A comfort food, room service dinner hit the spot before an early wakeup back to the airport for a trip to the desert.