Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Third Time's a Charm

Here we are again, or here I am again, back in Antofagasta for a third year. This year I will be working at the same school, teaching language arts to middle schoolers (6th-8th) and a high school English workshop. After I published the last post in September I didn't do anything too exciting until the school year ended in December. In December, after nearly two years away, I finally visited Ohio. Keep in mind I had no intention to stay in Chile past one year, so it was quite an experience visiting after that length of time! I wasn't sure what to expect, but it was wonderful because I felt like the relationships with my family and friends had stayed the same. I took pictures of the most mundane things I miss from the states... my house, snow, Chipotle burritos, Cold Stone ice cream, my room, etc.
My visit was short-lived, and a month ago I flew back to Santiago.

Santiago and the Near- Death Experience

Felipe and I spent three days in Santiago visiting his family, and we also went to Chile's (only?) amusement park: Fantasilandia. Word of warning, one of my greatest fears happened there. The very first ride we went on was a (small) rollercoaster, with car seat belts as what keeps you inside the car. Well, thank god the rollercoaster was small because on the way up the hill the seatbelt fell off of me! I mean, completely fell apart and we tied it into a knot before it went down the hill. Felipe held onto it as I cursed the park and forecasted my impending doom. After I got off the ride in one piece we complained to the ride attendant who informed us "the seat belts are cheap and break all the time." How reassuring- this happens on a regular basis! The two people in the front part of the car were kids. What if they had been in my place instead?

Parade we saw in Santiago. They were fighting for the Mapuche people (I think...)

Mocking the police. 

After three days in Santiago we flew to a place I had wanted to visit for years:

Patagonia 

Patagonia is a region shared between Chile and Argentina known as "the end of the world." It's the land closest to Antartica, and you can find the southernmost cities of the world there. We flew to Punta Arenas and took an organized tour for a week.

Patagonia, especially Punta Arenas/Puerto Natales, is extremely windy in summer. "Summer" is about 60°F/15°C with winds up to 60Mph/100Km. It's pretty intense! They even have ropes in the city center to hold onto- no joke! There are forests in certain parts, but a lot of what they have is called "pampa" and it is basically a grassland landscape for miles and miles. Despite that, there are some magical places between the two cities- my favorites included penguins, glaciers, and Torres del Paine. 

Strange lagoon view from the plane

Best thing ever: an island full of thousands of penguins! You weren't supposed to touch them because they could attack you.


During breeding season the island can get up to 160,000 of the little guys.


Punta Arenas overview with Felipe and I

Notice how the hood is tied super tight around my face? The wind kept blowing dust into my face. These were the ropes you could hold onto when the wind blew hard.

The cemetery with the cool bushes

A cave nearby Torres del Paine we toured


Torres del Paine, at last!




Chunks of the iceberg floating in Lago Grey



"Chilling out"


El Calafate, Argentina 

El Calafate is a city about 6 hours north of Puerto Natales. Argentina is my favorite country to visit in South America, and I always get the buena onda over there. Not so much in this city. It is extremely touristy and OVERPRICED. For example, in Bariloche (scroll down), you could find the exchange rate between 5:1- 7:1 (Argentina pesos:USD). In El Calafate, it was impossible to find it above 5, and restaurants, excursions, etc, were super pricey. The people were buena onda, but I found it ridiculous how much everything costed. Anyway, people go there to visit Perrito Moreno, a huge glacier several kilometers long. It was worth the price.

Main bulk of Perrito Moreno

Chunks fall into the water and make a thunderous noise



We trekked on top of the glacier

The guide showed us this view and told us each to look over very slowly and carefully

... and this was why!


It reminds me of a fairytale castle.

We visited a "glaciar bar" made out of ice. It was inside a museum and you were only allowed to stay for 20 minutes.


There is another place nearby called "El Chalten"; it is considered the trekking capitol of Argentina and it is free to hike in. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to make it over there. Onto my new favorite city in Argentina:

Bariloche

To get from El Calafate to Bariloche, we took a 29 hour bus ride. It wasn't as horrible as I thought it would be, but I wouldn't have minded flying if I had the money!

Since I now live in the driest desert of the world, it is wonderful to see greenery of any sort. And Bariloche has lots of it- forests and lakes everywhere you go. The city is known for chocolate, beer, fondue, and the beautiful landscapes. Perfect, right? Everything here is reasonably priced, and Felipe and I even won a huge discount on a hotel if we go back within the next year. The only thing I didn't enjoy about this place was the "Colonia Suiza." Apparently Swiss settlers have historic homes there. The homes were nothing special, and they had turned the place into a giant tourist trap. Ironically enough we met Swiss people who told us it was lame, but I guess we had to see for ourselves (sigh).

Everything else was magical. Unlike Antofagasta, which smells like industrial waste and dog poop with a touch of sea algae, this place smells like chocolate and vanilla. (Alright- that is a bit exaggerated, but it was still much better!) We did a lot in the 5 days we were here- hiking, eating chocolate, El Bolsón (a nearby town), Cerro Campanario, the stupid "Swiss" colony, eating chocolate, a chocolate museum, Isla Victoria/Bosque de Arrayanes, and we ate chocolate. I would come back here in a heartbeat.

View from Cerro Campanario. This is a fraction of the view and my camera doesn't really capture it correctly- especially the seemingly washed out mountains. This view was voted one of the top 10 best views on the planet by National Geographic. From this picture it doesn't look like it, but in person it's true!


At The Chocolate Museum they had displays of animals made from chocolate. This is a condor, typical from the Andes. 



Bosque de Arrayanes - Forest of Arrayanes. This tree grows in different places, but the only forest of them in the world is on this island. 



Isla Victoria. The trees are planted this way to compete for sunlight. The sunlight doesn't reach the bottom layers as much, so branches don't grow out, and when they cut it down the wood is nicer to build with. 




What I found most shocking about Bariloche is that all the pine trees are FROM NORTH AMERICA. Not a single one is native to S. America. Granted, there are lot of trees that appear to be "pine" to the average person but aren't. Still, the pine trees grew like wildfire when they were planted, and now they are trying to slowly get rid of them. Crazy.

We decided to stay an extra day in Bariloche, which meant we had to take several buses in a row back to Antofagasta. Here is the crazy bus schedule we took:

Monday morning, 6:30am-12:30pm, Bariloche, Argentina- Osorno, Chile
Monday night, 10:45pm-9:30am, Osorno- Santiago
Tuesday night, 9pm- 3:30pm- Santiago- Antofagasta

Here are some interesting pictures from the bus rides and stops along the way:
This is not sand- it's volcanic ash from 2011 between Osorno and Bariloche.

Stopover in Osorno and the ugliest (yet still cool) church I have ever seen in my life. 

The inside wasn't bad.

I love this picture.

The stray dog that just wanted a little love.

And after nearly 18 hours on the bus... the famous "mano del desierto" that lets you know Antofagasta is near.

By the end of the bus rides my ankles were super swollen and I was so relieved to get off that bus. That night in Antofagasta was the city's anniversary celebration, so I was treated to a great fireworks display and a concert by DJ Mendez. Then some weon stole my phone at the concert and I was almost attacked by a dog coming home. 

All is well now- I bought a new phone and have one more day of vacation until the teachers start school. Tomorrow I am going to do a little bit of work for the language institute where I work part-time. By "work", they are paying me to have a conversational class with the CEO of S. America's Caterpillar over a paid lunch. If only every day of work paid me to have free lunch! After that it's off to the beach for the official end of summer vacation.

I did a lot of work for the school over break, but I also got to travel a lot. Patagonia has been a dream of mine ever since I saw a picture of Torres del Paine, and I am so glad I got to see it.

Here are the rest of my Patagonia pictures: Patagonia = Penguinos, Parrillas, y Paisajes Preciosos

This was probably the most productive summer I've ever had, and I am (almost) ready to go back to school. The rest of my travel wish is as follows:

Must- sees
1. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
2. Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls
3. Carnival in Rio
4. Floating islands of Lake Titicaca in Peru/Bolivia

We'll see how much my budget and time allow for.

It's a Small World After All


One last interesting random thing about my trip is that I realized how small the Chilean world really is.

Two examples:
- On our day tour of Torres del Paine, we were sitting next to a lady whose grandchildren live in Antofagasta. Turns out her granddaughter will be in my class this year.
- We chatted up the hostel owner in Punta Arenas, not thinking we'd have a connection to him. Turns out he is from the same city Felipe's dad is from (Vallenar), and they went to school together. Not only that, but the hostel owner's father married a cousin of Felipe's father.
I also met a guy in El Calafate from Cleveland (Aurora) who had taken buses and trains (no flying) from Chicago to Ushuaia- the southernmost city on earth.