Posts Tagged With: San Pedro de Atacama

Salta, Argentina: Adventure, Fun And Empanadas

Gaucho from Northern Argentina in Plaza 9 de Julio square

As my hulking double-decked bus crossed the border from Chile into Argentina – the arid landscape changing gradually from taupe to green and the immense sky from bright blue to charcoal gray – my thoughts shifted from the sharp accidental elbow to the ribs I had just received from the Brazilian bruiser sitting next to me to the impending rain.

San Bernardo Convent, the oldest building in Salta, dates back to 16th Century

It was with mixed emotion that I welcomed the raindrops beginning to pelt the bus windshield. I had not seen rain since July. Not a drop. The Atacama Desert had certainly lived up to its reputation as the driest place on Earth. But now, I was across the border in another land, another time, another place, another weather pattern. And while I appreciated finally seeing rain, at once I also wished it away. I simply didn’t want it to ruin my plans for this highly anticipated long weekend. Let the raindrops fall some other time.

Argentine blues band Electrohope, performing in Salta. Great concert!

South America blows my mind. Let’s stay with the usually humdrum topic of weather for a moment. I had left the always sunny Atacama Desert to spend a few days in Salta, Argentina. I first heard about Salta from a friend in Calama, Chile, where I am wrapping up a six-month teaching gig. On more than one occasion, he said Salta was a beautiful place worth the 12-hour bus ride from Calama. The road to Salta from Calama winds through canyons, across high desert, and over mountain peaks so high, lungs themselves shift into overdrive.

With my CouchSurfing hosts Lucas and Emi at La Casona del Molino restaurant.

Many travelers unaccustomed to altitudes reaching close to 20,000 feet above sea level, have trouble breathing accompanied with headaches. These are the first signs of altitude sickness, which in a worst case scenario can kill you. Getting to lower altitude as quickly as possible usually takes care of the problem. Drinking coca tea also helps. As a preventive step, your friendly neighborhood pharmacist can also help in the way of medication.

Needless to say, getting to Salta is no Sunday stroll. Some of the roads cut through canyons so narrow and overlook embankments so steep that from the upper level of a double-decked bus it can stimulate a quickened heart and sweaty palms. I admit I’ve had such a fear of going over the edge, but seldom and only when it was warranted: the bus driver takes a curve so fast and so close to the edge of a steep cliff, it seemed that indeed we were about to go over the edge.  That happened once in Ecuador, where sections of the PanAmerican Highway cuts through some of the highest and most treacherous mountain passes I’ve ever seen. But alas, back to the weather. 🙂

Along the way,  the driest place on Earth – that would be the Atacama Desert – was left far behind and progressively replaced with tiny green shrubs I watched llama feed on. Then the brown desert soil stared to vanish under swaths of green grass and canopies of a variety of trees in full bloom.

A night with friends making vegetarian empanadas

The closer we got to Salta, the greener the landscape grew. Then, as a reminder that all this green doesn’t happen without rain, rain clouds stealthily moved in from the east, creating shadows over the mountains. The menacing clouds released their liquid stuff on the valley where dozens of  unburdened wild donkeys grazed and high above tall pines two falcons danced with the wind.  Patches of blue skies returned, but only to give way to fog so thick, it concealed the natural beauty I knew was all around me. The skies remained gray for two of the four days I spent in Salta. On my way back to Calama, about an hour outside of San Pedro de Atacama, the crazy weather got crazier.  In the middle of summer,  in the middle of the desert, on the high plains, a snow blizzard! I just could not believe my eyes. Snow? In summer? In the desert? In the driest place on Earth? Mother Nature having a bit of fun, eh? 

With the falling snow, a nearby volcano belching vapors, and high winds, the bus was forced to slow to a painful crawl. I say painful because 10 hours on a bus with two more hours to go, I was simply dying to be on terra firma.I don’t mind bus travel. It’s the guy who elbows me without so much as an apology that I mind.

Traditional dance on Balcarce street

It’s the guy with a nasty cold who sneezes at will without covering up. Spray your germs, why don’t you? It’s inconsiderate people who think communal space is theirs and theirs alone. They make travel more challenging. You roll with the punches, however. What else can you do?

This was going to be a great weekend. I felt it in my bones. I had heard much about Salta being a beautiful city with plenty going for it. I was ready to see for myself.

Getting transportation to Salta from Calama was a breeze. At least three bus companies – Geminis, Pullman and AndesMar – offer bus service via San Pedro de Atacama. I chose Pullman because AndesMar’s website was not accessible for days – I have no idea why – and Geminis had a string of complaints about its fleet of buses. I had a total of six days for this trip – two for travel to and from Salta. Pullman travels from Calama (and San Pedro) on Wednesdays and returns to both places on Sundays. It’s fleet of buses are not the best I’ve experienced in South America, but it’s fairly comfortable and the nearly $100 round trip cost does include snacks. Two movies in English with Spanish subtitles are shown during the 12-hour journey.

The bus left the Calama bus terminal about a half hour late but made up the time on the road. Processing through customs in Chile and Argentina was a breeze. I had gone through customs in Chile before (traveling from Peru and after to Bolivia) but customs in Argentina was a new experience. Salta would also be the first  place I visited in Argentina. And after experiencing the place, it won’t be my last.

Immediately after arriving at the bus terminal, I was whisked to a blues concert. I landed there with my couchsurfing host Lucas. Dropped off my backpack with security and off we went. It was fantastic! Next day was spent walking around the city.

In Balcarce area with Meike of Hamburg, Germany

I immediately loved the place. Salta has a mix of modern and colonial architecture with some of the coolest bars and restaurants. The main party zone is on Balcarce street. If you don’t like crowds – think New Orleans at Mardi Gras – don’t come down to Balcarce. It is quite the wild party scene.

There are, of course, quieter venues to be found. Plaza 9 de Julio is the hub in the center of town. The square is lined with dozens of restaurants and shops that cater to tourists and for that,  a bit pricey side. Try places just outside of the center, such as La Casona, where locals – as well as well-informed visitors – flock. The ambiance – a huge house converted into a restaurant, with an outdoor patio area – is relaxed.

At the top of Cerro San Bernardo

Locals bring their musical instruments for impromptu jam sessions – mostly folkloric music. And the food is excellent. I had a nice piece of steak – this is meat-loving Argentina after all – but you won’t have trouble finding vegetarian fare.

On my second day in town, I ate meat, chicken and cheese empanadas – a traditional food in this region – but on my third night my host Lucas and girlfriend Emi took me to a hostel owned by a friend, where every Friday night they cook up batches of homemade vegetarian empanadas. They were amazingly good! And of course, the company was great. Spent that evening eating lots of empanadas and washing them down with a $6 bottle of Malbec – Los Morros – I had purchased earlier that week in a fantastic hideaway in the center called Casa Moderna. Casa Moderna has old-country charm and feels family-owned. By the way, just up the street, back at the main square, the colonial cathedral – painted pink – is worth a visit. It’s filled with history and the gold altar is beautiful.

Only 1,070 of these steps to get to the top of Cerro San Bernardo

Salta and the surrounding area offer many activities, including horseback riding, canoeing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. But you shouldn’t leave Salta without going to the top of the hill – closer to a mountain – by cable car or walking up. Some people choose to go up by cable car – about a 10-minute ride up – and walk back down. I walked up and walked down – twice! You get a panoramic view of the city at the top, and it’s a very relaxing environment, almost park-like. Those in need of adventure can rent a mountain bike at the top and ride down. The downside, in my opinion, is it’s a guided tour down. I wanted to come down the trail alone, but that’s not the kind of business they operate. Also, they need at least two people to sign up to take the tour. Next time, I take a bike up and fly down! 🙂



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Bolivia: Natural Wonders, Mystical Forces

The Red Lagoon in Bolivia. Yes, it's actually red

Out of breath, we reached the top of Incahuasi. It wasn’t a very steep climb to the island’s peak, but the light-on-oxygen altitude made flatland lungs work harder.

Like a darkly dressed sentinel standing conspicuously in a seemingly endless expanse of snow, Incahuasi  juts toward the sky, watching over one of Earth’s most breathtaking beauties – the mystical Salar de Uyuni. At more than 11,000 feet above sea level, Incahuasi – which in the Quechua language of the ancient Incas means “Inca House”  – is but one of several islands in the middle of the Uyuni salt flats, the largest salt lake in the world. Not many outside of Bolivia realize that the Uyuni salt flats is actually a lake, because it’s dry for much of the year. Under that sea of salt, however, rivers run year-round and in places bubble to the surface, creating circular patterns in the otherwise smooth terrain. 

Bolivia's beautiful mountains

 But come summer in the Southern Hemisphere, the Uyuni salt flats is under water, rendering Incahuasi unreachable by the fleet of four-wheel drive vehicles that otherwise normally speed along the blindingly white-as-snow salt bed. Even submerged – perhaps more so because of the mirror-like effect the water creates – Uyuni takes your breath away. Any air I had left from that climb up Incahuasi was knocked right out of me by the stunning landscape before me. At the top of the island, I found a spot away from the other mesmerized tourists and sat to catch my breath. But instead, if only for a brief moment, I unwittingly held my breath as I caught my first glimpse of Uyuni from this amazing vantage point on Incahuasi.

Happy to have made it to the Uyuni salt flats, Bolivia

 Dear reader, I don’t care what your religious views are, and I certainly don’t try to impose whatever views I have on you, but let’s talk spirituality for a brief moment. This piece of Bolivia that encompasses Uyuni has been touched by the hand of a God – but if you prefer – some powerful – and perhaps playful – force. This salt lake, nearby lagoons, mountains, volcanic geysers, rock formations and deserts were not formed by accident. Someone or some thing more powerful than man did this. I sat on a rock contemplating the thought that force that created the Earth, stuck around this area of Bolivia for a nice stretch molding and creating what we see today in this part of Bolivia: a lagoon with waters so richly red it looks like the blood of thousands has been drained in it; other vivid-colored lagoons with three species of countless pink flamingos; mountains and volcanoes that humble us mere humans; mind-boggling layers and formations of ice and snow on high plain desert sands; liquefied lava-gurgling volcanic geysers belching big puffs of steam across a vast expanse; exotic and whimsical wildlife found nowhere else on Earth or in few other places. If you are not transported to some spiritual place in your brain while contemplating all that is Uyuni, you can’t possibly be alive.

yeah....really happy 🙂

Before I sat on that rocky island covered with coral and cacti some more than 900 years old, I had the privilege to stand in the middle of the salt flats and absorb its wonders from its very midst. The skies were overcast, unusual for this time of year I was told, but it gave Uyuni an even more wondrous ambiance.
With fellow English teachers – American Zac and Chilean Angello – and Spanish couple Alonso and Maria Alba, we set out to discover Uyuni with our Bolivian guide David. We signed up in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, with a tour agency, Atacama Mistica – also operating as Tierra Mistica – after consulting with several other tour agencies. Mistica seemed the most knowledgeable and trustworthy. With the exception of a couple of glitches – a mix up with the return bus to San Pedro at the border, and a previously undisclosed $10 charge for hot showers at the hostel – we were extremely pleased with Mistica. But we were especially pleased with our guide, David, who kept things running smoothly and yet didn’t make the tour feel as if it were some sort of marathon and that we were on a time schedule.

One view from Incahuasi

We opted for the 4-day tour, departing on Friday morning and returning to San Pedro on Monday. The total cost of the tour was $160. That included three meals a day, lodging, and transportation. It did not include fees to Bolivia’s national parks, about $20. We had considered the option of traveling to the city of Uyuni on our own – by bus – then perhaps hiring someone in that city to take us to points of interest. But in the end, the tour emerged as the better, more sensible option.
At 8 a.m., we were met at Mistica’s office and were driven in a van to the Chilean customs and border control office in San Pedro. Then another 40-minutes later we reached the Chile-Bolivia border. As I expected, things ran much smoother on the Chilean side of the border. On the Bolivian side, confusion and corruption reigned. All largely because the Bolivian border control officers are corrupt and looking to shake down tourists for cash with bogus demands for random fees.

Inside the salt hostel. Yes, it's made of salt and salt covers every inch of the floor

When we tried to re-enter Chile from Bolivia, for instance, one of the Bolivian guards tried to get Angello and the Spanish couple to pay an extra $15,000 Chilean pesos ($30) each when it was clear that they did not need to pay anything. He then pulled the two Americans in the group aside – Zac and I – and led us to a backroom – a kitchen – where he stated that all our documents were in order and there was no problem. One thing was missing, as he plainly put it: money for his own pockets. Without batting an eye, he asked if we had any money for him. He wanted us to give him money – out of sight of the others in line waiting to be processed out of Bolivia. I told him we had paid all the necessary fees and we weren’t going to pay any more money. When he again asked, in a much firmer tone I refused. He got the message. He said okay, hurriedly returned our passports – he was so nervous that he mistakenly handed me Zac’s passport after looking at the pictures in the two passports. I took it and simply handed it to Zac. The Bolivian border cop the sent Zac and I on our way. He, however, returned to the growing line of people and  continued to insist that the Spaniards and Angello pay some inexplicably obscure fee. That demand was resolved after they, too, held firm against paying anything beyond what Bolivian laws state and our tour company intervened. Lesson learned: Hold firm, just say no to corruption!

El Arbol de Piedra - The Stone Tree - in Bolivia's Altiplano - high desert

Despite the corrupt Bolivian border cop; a two-day bout with food poisoning or some other virus; a bit of trouble breathing at almost 16,000 feet above sea level (5,000 meters); freezing temperatures; hardly a good night’s sleep; four days without a hot shower and two with no shower at all; and punishing wind and desert conditions, Bolivia was incredibly magical and even worth enduring the hoops to get there. (By the way, my fellow Americans, instead of paying $135 for a 5-year visa to enter Bolivia, opt for the cheaper 3-day visa worth $40 – unless, of course, you plan multiple exits and entries or longer stays in Bolivia).

For nature lovers, I highly recommend Bolivia. It’s the most inexpensive country in South America and certainly one of the cheapest in the world. The overwhelmingly indigenous population isn’t exactly warm and friendly to outsiders, and they even look upon strangers with a wary eye, but once engaged they are friendly enough.

The air temperature was at least at the freezing point but the water felt like summer!

SENSE OF DANGER: Bolivia's boiling and steaming volcanic geysers

UYUNI CAMERA TRICKS: I appear shrunken and on top of the Coca Cola bottle by just placing the bottle closer to the camera and me stepping back and posing

DESERT FOX: Snapped photos of this desert dweller near the Chile-Bolivia border

ICE ON SAND: What's left of a snowstorm in the high desert of Bolivia. I'm at nearly 16,000 feet above sea level here. Bad idea running up this slope.

The Andes Mountains in Bolivia

One way to go across Uyuni salt flats

Uyuni plays optical tricks. Now I look bigger than the mountains

Flags from several countries near the first salt hotel in Uyuni, now a museum. But where's the Stars & Stripes?


Zac and Angello doing a great job of keeping a low profile at the Bolivian border crossing

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No Quitting The Cueca In Oasis Called Quitor

Folkloric Ballet of Chile. Photos, slide show below

What a week last week!

Chile celebrated its Independence Day in grand style, with cookouts, a wide variety of events that involved food, music and dance, and a healthy amount of patriotic flag-waving.

I had been so busy balancing work and enjoying what Chile served up during the celebrations that stretched over a month that little time was left to share with you – in a timely manner – all that I’ve been up to. In a nutshell, unabashed fun – even at work. That’s just how Chileans roll.

Team Blue at Gaby Mining Company ready for competition

For me, the long Independence Day weekend started  in earnest at the copper mine where I teach English to corporate executives and their support staff. Company employees took to the parking lot for friendly relay races that drew laughter and then to the dining hall to watch and take part in a cueca competition. The cueca is Chile’s typical dance. It consists of some foot-stomping and fancy footwork all while the dance partners wave white handkerchiefs. I started dancing the cueca about two weeks ago and I swear I haven’t stopped. If you come to Chile during Independence Day festivities, you can bet your bottom peso that someone will drag you out on the dance floor to watch you make a fool of yourself. No matter. After a few pisco soursyou won’t give a damn.

Careful laying that egg!

After much diversion at work, that very evening I went home, took a long nap, and headed over to the office for an office party that consisted of a barbecue, Chilean food and the unavoidable shop talk. It was at the office party that I learned that the following evening there would be a free performance of the Folkloric Ballet of Chile. I jumped at the chance to attend this rare cultural treat in Calama. If this dance company ever comes to your town, don’t miss it! The troupe has toured the world with an entertaining repertoire  of traditional and modern dance, highlighting Chilean folk music and dance. I thoroughly enjoyed.

Early the next morning I headed for the bus terminal with two of my housemates – Zack and Chris – where we  met others with whom we would spend the weekend in  Quitor and San Pedro de Atacama, high in the Chilean desert. That was some weekend, spent touring, eating, dancing, swimming and having an amazing time on an estate – an oasis of pleasure and relaxation in the middle of the desert – owned by the aunt of one of my colleagues. About 20 of us ate, sang and danced there all weekend long.

Monday afternoon we headed back to Calama content and a few pounds heavier from all that good eating. I believe the word “diet” was tossed about several times. What a week it was.

The Deja Vu Wrecking Crew: (left to right) Me; Christina, (New York, USA); Angello, (Calama, Chile); Zack, (Florida, USA); Chris, (Saint Jacobs, Canada); and Maureen (Chicago, USA), all English teachers at the International Center in Chile

Stone mermaid in Quitor, Chile, on estate where weekend was spent

Pre-Inca site in Quitor, Chile. What a find!

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