Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bolivia - uh, not so fun stuff

Chili was a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, Bolivia would prove to be the exact opposite. We had debated whether we should go to Bolivia at all for days and in the end I convinced Katie that it would be a good idea to see it. Turns out I was sort of wrong as I had a slight stroke of bad luck. As they say, if you travel as long as we had to this point you are bound to run in to some sort of bad luck sooner or later. It's not a matter of if but a matter of when. True statement. Actually, all things being considered we were quite lucky to have nothing at all happen to us up to this point. I mean, we had been traveling already for over 8 months with not one stroke of bad luck other than a very manageable mild health issue in Indonesia and a minor issue in Africa where they tried to extort us for money. Aside from these two small events, it had been pretty much smooth sailing up to this point. I remember sitting in some of the internet cafe's in Africa listening to person after person skype with their friends and family back home telling them horrifying stories of how they got robbed or taken advantage of in some shape or form while crying their eyes out right there in front of everyone. There were multiple of these episodes that I saw all the way through Africa. Funny thing is I was not concerned at all about our wellbeing or safety while we were in Africa. Even in Nairobi which is a very violent and scary place to be wandering around day or night. I had the best time there and was totally relaxed the whole time.

Bolivia was the only place on the entire trip that I felt concerned about our safety. Turns out my spider sense was spot on. I did some preliminary reading on what to expect while in Bolivia, the do's and don't list, and there were many cases where it became clear that this was a place that you should put your safety radar on and keep it on at all times. The reason it is such a risky place to visit is because it is such a poor country which means there are twice as many bad people lurking around street corners waiting for you to make a mistake because they have nothing to lose and everything you own to gain. Add to this the lack of any proper police force and you have a country where there is hardly any risk to being caught or punished for pillaging tourists. Makes for a perfect place for high ridden crime to occur. All that being said, we ran into multiple fellow backpackers who said that Bolivia was the most beautiful and wonderful place they visited on their entire journeys. Of course it was, it has some of the most lush forests, rivers, lakes and valleys on the planet. But the question remained, do you want to risk seeing this place where the odds of you being singled out as a target are higher than most other places on this earth? Hmmm? So after summing it all up we decided to roll the dice and go see this majestic place and hope for the best.

Since we were very near the Bolivian salt flats on the Chilean side in San Pedro de Atacama, this turned out to be our best method of entry into this curious place. So we boarded a jeep that took us on a three day ride through the salt flats. These are not just any salt flats mind you. Two things that distinguish them from any other flats in the world are 1) They are the largest than any other and 2) They are the highest ones in the world as well. The second point would prove to get the best of me. We had already been in some very high places on our journey but for whatever reason these salt flats would punish me for daring to cross them. I developed altitude sickness early on. The rules of altitude sickness are that you should descend to a lower elevation if you do get sick, acclimate a bit, and then ascend again at a slower pace. Problem was there was no place to descend to! We were on a plateau of salt 15,000 feet above sea level. Where the hell am I going to descend to? Should I dig a 5,000 foot hole in the salt? How long would that take? WTF!!! The only counter measures known in this part of the world for altitude sickness were coca leaves that were supposedly good at preventing further deterioration in symptoms. There is no scientific proof to this only local mythology. Lucky for me, cocaine is a major export for this country so coca leaves were easily accessible. In fact, our driver was chewing on them the whole way across the flats as we drove over them. I guess the phrase "when in doubt do as the locals do" should have been followed to a tee here but as fate would have it, I decided not to. For those who have experienced altitude sickness it is one of the worse things ever to go through if you are exposed to it for a long period of time. There are varying levels of it. First, you get dizzy and lightheaded, then you feel a bit dehydrated. At the next level you start to experience shortness of breath and later you feel like you are going to suffocate. At the highest level, you have all these symptoms and to make things worse you start to throw up and dry heath. This is where it gets really dangerous and some people have died because they choke themselves to death. I got to level B. Because we were stuck at this altitude for so long I started to develop shortness of breath. The worse time for me when all these symptoms were in full swing was bed time. Your body slows down and the feeling of altitude sickness is far more pronounced that when you are bouncing around doing stuff all day. I did not sleep more than 2 hours each night we were on the salt flats and it showed. I looked like and felt like a zombie! I thought I was going to suffocate every night. Such a weird and uncomfortable feeling. Needless to say I was so happy when we finally made it across those damn flats and started to descend back to civilization.

All was not lost while on the salt flats. I did get to see some of the most amazing salt flats the world has to offer. It kind of feels like you are on a distant cold planet with no signs of life on the planet. We took a lot of pictures and made some new friends along the way as well.

We finally arrived in a town called Oruro around midday after our long escapades on the salt. As if getting altitude sickness was not enough for me things took a turn for the worse. This little town had nothing to offer. It was basically a crossing point for backpackers going further into Bolivia. So we had to decide where to go from here as well as how to get there. We decided that we would go to La Paz which is the capital city of the country and the only way to get there from where we were was on a bus from hell. So we headed to the bus stand with a couple of our new friends that came across the salt flats with us and booked a couple of seats on the next available bus which was scheduled to leave at around 11:00pm. If memory serves me right it was around a 10 or 11 hr bus ride to La Paz from Oruro. We had a half day to burn so we went into town and had some food and a couple of beers to kill some time. After what seemed an eternity it was finally time to board. This is where things take a turn for the worse. As we boarded I made the grave mistake of assuming that my belongings were safe because I was on the bus and out of harms way or so I thought. Word to the wise when traveling in Bolivia: Never, ever take your eyes off your belongings or remove your belongings from your person no matter how safe you think you are. I decided to put my bag down for a few minutes so I could situate myself in my seat for the long ride. After all, everyone else around you is doing the same thing only with their bags attached to them. I placed my bag above my seat in one of those overhanging baggage storage areas so I could situate myself. It was no more than 3 minutes max, I looked up to get my bag and place it under my seat and to my amazement it was gone! Just like that! Turns out a local scumbag somehow got on the bus without a ticket and sat right behind me looking for someone to make a mistake. I was the first person to do so. He managed to take my backpack as well as another woman's bag. The woman started to scream and yell in Spanish that her bag was stolen. The husband decided to run after the guy as he darted around the corner. In all of my magnificent wisdom I decided to pursue as well. Imagine this, streets that have no lights at all, pitch dark and in a town that has no police force whatsoever. These are things you don't think of when your blood is on fire and all these irrational thoughts are going through your mind. My passport and camera and camcorder were all in my backpack! All I could think of is how I was going to pound this guy to death if I got so lucky as to catch him and get belongings back. After running around some dark, scary streets for around 20 minutes or so looking in any kind of area that might look like a hiding place I finally relented and headed back to the bus terminal. The woman's husband was talking to a security guard of some sort trying to explain what had happened in Spanish. I heard him say that he actually caught up to the thief and cornered him somewhere. The wife them asked him, well why didn't you take my purse away from him? And the man said something that made me so happy that I did not catch him. He said: Because he pulled a knife on me and said that he would kill me if I tried to take it away from him. I realized at that moment that nothing in my backpack was worth getting killed over even though this bottom dweller put me in a very bad situation. So after I recomposed myself as best I could I filled out a stolen item report with the bus company and got back on the bus and tried my best not to fall apart over what had just happened. The bus company said that they would put a reward out for the bag and that sometimes the bags get returned for the cash. I took her phone number and told her I would call her the next day to see if I might get lucky. We boarded the bus and headed to La Paz where I could only hope to get my situation rectified. As you might expect my mood the whole ride down was quite subdued but I managed to put the whole thing behind me and compose myself at least for a little while.

As I said earlier, Bolivia is a very poor country. That means there are only a few paved roads that actually go through the country. The bus ride could very well be described as 4 wheeling through the backwoods on on oversized dune buggy. Mad Max comes to mind. Seriously! Bolivia has some of the most dangerous main roads in the world. You have to remember that we are high in the Andes mountains with hardly any infrastructure in this country. In fact, there is a very famous trail called Dead Man's Road or something like that high in the mountains right outside of La Paz that some people come here just to experience on a mountain bike. Death defying sharp and narrow turns that have a 200 to 300 foot drop if you miss them? Uh, no thanks I'll pass. Must sound like a rush to some people but try doing a road like this on an 11 hour bus ride that is oversized and overloaded! That is exactly what we did in the wee hours of the morning. Crazy stuff!

La Paz was a very interesting city. It is nestled high in the Andes mountain range. The interesting thing is that it is situated in a huge crevasse between two mountain peaks and parts of the town actually ascend up the sides of the mountains to the top. One of the only places in the world where if you live on the hillside you have to descend a few thousand feet if you want to pick up a loaf of bread downtown or just meet a few friends in the city for a cup of Jo. La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. It's lowest elevation is just over 10,000 feet above sea level. The highest elevation is just over 13, 300 feet above sea level. The geography of La Paz in particular the altitude is not only unique but also reflects their society as well. The lower areas of the city are the most affluent parts of the city. Most middle-class residents live in the middle elevations near the city center. Lastly, the very lower class people all live in the projects type of communities that are spread out all along the very high elevations. Very interesting place to see in real life for sure. The people are even more interesting. You see a bunch of chubby little women walking around with little round hats and rainbow-like dresses buying veggies along the street markets or running errands. The main area in the city is called "El Prado" . This place is lined with all kinds of restaurants, clubs, stores, street markets, etc. all pretty much centralized for efficiency purposes. We hung out in this area during most of our stay. We visited one museum just out of sheer curiosity. Give you one guess which one it was. That's correct, we went to the Coca museum to learn the history of the coca industry and how it got to where it is today. It was $2 very well spent and I got some free coca leaves to chew on my way out. The rest of the time was spent roaming the various market streets and eating some food Bolivian-style. We were fortunate to be there during a national parade day. I forgot what it was. Maybe Katie will remember when she writes her account out. We got a good glimpse of Bolivian culture and style on parade day.

As luck would have it there is a U.S. Embassy right smack in the middle of La Paz. This was a very fortunate break for me since I was in need of a new passport now and would not be able to exit the country without one. So I made an appointment as quickly as possibly. I will just spare you all the details which are very interesting by the way and tell you that after a fair amount of red tape I was able to get a temporary replacement for my stolen passport. I can't emphasize to you enough just how lucky I was to have been headed to La Paz after getting my backpack lifted on that bus. I heard stories from other people traveling with us who said they knew people that had gotten their passports stolen and had to travel for days just to get to a town where there was an embassy for them and how some of them were trapped for months because it took that long to get a new one. All things being considered, I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time for something as unfortunate as my passport being stolen in a very unstable and quite frankly scary country. I am very grateful to the gods that they were watching over me during this whole ordeal. The only downer to getting my passport renewed was that the Bolivian government decided that the only way I would get it back was to leave the country immediately when by international law I really had 30 days to stay if I so chose to. This as I soon learned(as I was given a 30 minute lecture from the US representative at the embassy who herself was of Bolivian decent) was due to some bad blood between the U.S. Embassy and Bolivian government that had been brewing for some time.

No worries, the positives out of all of this was that I could continue my journeys relatively uninterrupted as opposed to the alternative worse case scenario of being stuck in a scary place for an uncertain amount of time or worse being forced to go home and that I learned "firsthand" about how an undeveloped country like Bolivia with no real legal system to speak of and a complete lack of property rights operates in comparison to the developed world. Very interesting stuff, indeed.

The only other thing we wanted to do while in Bolivia was to visit the very fabled and historic Lake Titikaka which is the birthplace of the Inca Gods and one of the most sacred places on earth. But we never got this opportunity because they kicked us out of the country. Not to worry. Again because luck was on our side in all this unfortunate experience we were still able to see Lake Titikaka because it happens to be a part of the dividing line between Bolivia and Peru. In fact, the line cuts the lake right smack in the middle. So instead of seeing the Bolivian side of the sacred lake we would just visit the Peruvian side instead. So in the end it all worked out. Truth be told we could have taken a boat from Peru to the other side of the lake and seen it all and gone unnoticed. But we decided to take the safe side and not take any unnecessary risks. Just being able to take a boat ride on the holy lake and be a part of the lake passages that the ancient Inca's made was all I needed.

























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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Chile

On our descent from the Andes into Santiago we saw one of the more popular ski resorts that was still operating in full swing, Portillo. The ski season in Chile goes from June to the end of August or early September as these are the peak winter months below the equator. We already knew this as we had already anticipated all the way back in Africa that we stood a good chance of getting to ski while in Chile. Why Chile? Chile has some of the best ski hills in the world. Dude, it’s the friggin’ Andes, hello? So as we passed Portillo a big huge grin came to my face and as I looked out of the bus window at the white powder the only thought that came to my mind was, “I’ll be back”. So as I dreamed of carving the foreign slopes of Chile time seemed to pass quickly and about 1 ½ hours later we pulled into the bus station in Santiago.

Santiago de Chile as it is formally called is the capital and economic center of Chile. Like Buenos Aires, it is a place that has everything. The only difference between the two is that Buenos Aires is a much more sheik and art nouveau type of city. It’s like this if I may: Buenos Aires could be considered the sexy, sophisticated rich girl while Santiago would be the ugly stepsister. One is decorated with all that life has to offer and all the latest stilettos while the other has the same pair of high heels she wore back in high school with the soles having been redone about 15 times. In other words, Buenos Aires is a city with lots of class while Santiago is a bit on the blue-collar side. That’s probably the best way to describe it. And it is not because they want to be blue collar or don’t want to be a white-collar town. Argentina has had way more time to develop than Chile or maybe I should say they got a huge head start. Chile is just now coming into its own. It has taken them longer to do so for one main reason: Political dictatorships, military coups’, corruption, strife and indecisiveness coupled with widespread poverty at a much grander scale than Argentina during their colonizing days has taken its toll on the country. Translation: They didn’t get there shit together until much later. In fact, they are still way behind most other South American countries but the good news is that they are now on the right road going in the right direction. It’s just going to take them a long time to catch up provided they don’t take any steps backwards from here on out.

Santiago happens to be right smack in the middle of the country. One of the most interesting things about Santiago’s location is that it is possible to get up early in the morning head due east about an hour and hit the best slopes on the Andes all day. Then after you have had your fill of the white stuff pack it up head due west about 2 hours and watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean in shorts and t-shirts. It’s one of the very few places on earth where you can ski and surf in style all on the same day. Chile is an interesting country geographically speaking. It has over 5000 kilometers of Pacific Ocean coastline and spans almost the entire length of the western coast of South America. Yet it is at best only 250 kilometers wide at any given point of the country. One of the main reasons for most of this unique geo-formatting is because the Andes (the longest mountain chain in the world) set a natural dividing line back in the day when Chile fought for and gained their independence. Santiago’s history is very fascinating as is the history of the entire country of Chile and is so worth knowing if you ever visit. I will post the historical overviews just as I have done for all the other countries we have visited on our journey around the world, eventually, should you be interested. Until then, I strongly suggest everyone read up on them on your own if you get a chance. You might be pleasantly surprised.

We planned to only spend a couple of days in Santiago. There was really only a couple of things to do there. Eat as much of the local traditional food as we could and walk it off in the plaza areas, let your food digest and do it again. So with that in mind we set off on our mission. But before we did I decided to do a little research. For those of you who know who Anthony Bordain is, I remember seeing an episode of “No Reservations” in Chile on the Travel Channel before we started our trip and drooling over the food he was eating. So off I went to the nearest Internet cafĂ© to find out just exactly what he had when he visited.

Before I start I will issue you a warning: the next few paragraphs could cause extreme hunger pains. After creating a list we set out to find and devour all the good food that was to be had in Santiago. We set out first to find the famous Lomito sandwich. This is an iconic mountain of pork Chilean gastronomy courtesy of the German immigrants who came to Chile many moons ago. Picture this: Pork that has been marinated in the sweetest pork sauce to the point where it basically would melt in your mouth. Grab a bun, put a mountain of juicy dripping pork on top, add tomatoes and a ton of mashed avocados and melted cheese and then smother with mayo. Cap it with another bun and voila, the much sought after Lomito. Devour and then chase with the best German beer of your choice. So good! I could have eaten 12 of these in a row.

Next stop would be El Hoyo restaurant (translation: the hole in the wall, appropriately so as the place was a little shoddy inside) better known as pork heaven. In case you haven’t already noticed, Chileans love their pork. The place was in the estacion central neighborhood, which was kind of a sketchy area to be in. But as long as you taxi to and from the area and don’t walk around at night there you’re fine. We arrived around 7’ish with a huge appetite for what was in store for us. We purposely made sure we were hungry before we got there and it was a good thing we did. As soon as we got in we realized that it would be a while before we got seated. The place was packed like a sardine can. After we signed in we went up to the bar to find some seats to wait. There were none so we just stood next to the bar like everybody else that was waiting. I decided to order a drink that Bordain had while he was there. The Teremoto (translation: the earthquake. Basically pineapple ice cream with white wine, very tasty). After drowning one the wait was still the same as it was when we entered the place so I decided to order a pitcher of the stuff to pass the time. Immediately, a local at the bar decides to be friendly with me. He was an older gentleman and appeared to be highly inebriated. He noticed that I was speaking in Spanish with the bartender and asked where I was from. Before we knew it we had a crowd of people wanting to yak with us. By now we had drowned a few teremoto’s and the hunger pains were starting to set in. A very nice couple that was in front of us that we were having drinks with and chatting it up with invited us to their table so we graciously accepted. Finally, it was time to eat. In true Bordain fashion we ordered the pernil, arrollado, blood sausage and mashed potatoes. The pernil is the pork leg cooked to perfection in a baste and simmered until it falls off the bone. The arrollado is a tube of cured pork wrapped in pork skin that sits in a broth for an undisclosed amount of time so that it melts in your mouth. Add this medley of meat in your mouth with an occasional bite of blood sausage and smother with mashed potatoes and your mind, body and soul become transformed to visions of flying pernils and arrollados around your head. Sublime! So we gorged ourselves while getting to know our new friends. They did not speak any English so it was a very eventful night. After another pitcher of earthquakes we decided to call it a night. So we said goodbye to our new friends, exchanged contact info and wobbled to the taxi. To my surprise the guy decided to give me a parting gift to remember him by. I had mentioned to him that we were headed to Peru and was looking forward to buying a beanie like the one he had on. He takes his hat off his head and said: I just got back a few days ago from Peru and bought this while I was there. I would like to give it to you as a gift if you will accept it. I have only worn it once before. Please take it with you. What do you say to something like that? Touched by the gesture I graciously accepted it. We all hugged it out and we promised that if we were ever in Santiago again that we would meet them for another teremoto and pernil. It was a great night!

The next stop on our oversized Chilean gastro quest was a market called La Vega Central. It is a market that is over 100 years old and has every imaginable food item you can think of. We were in search of some very specific ones. Santiago is a very centralized city so it is fairly easy to get around by walking or taking public transportation. La Vega was close enough to walk so we decided to do exactly that since we were by now carrying a few extra pounds on us. We stopped to see some monuments and churches along the way that were tourist spots to check out to take some pictures. After working up an appetite we headed to food town, again. This time we would start off with a Mote con Huesillo (translation: cooked barley with peaches in a cup with peach juice) a local favorite. That did nothing but make us hungrier for more so we headed to La Vega Chica which is a smaller centralized area of La Vega Central. You have to understand this is a huge market. You could probably fit around 10 Costco’s in this market area. Huge! After finally locating our destination we searched out our next delight: Caldo de Pata (translation: Pork hoof soup, that’s right pig’s feet with veggies, yum!) After taking a look at it we both decided that the feet were not that appetizing after all and went with the pork, chicken and beef stew mixed with corn and veggies. Equally as delicious. I was planning on eating the Pastel de Choclo or Chilean corn pie (Chile’s version of Sheppard’s pie) but I had too much of the Beef Caldo so I took a break from eating for a while. Perhaps tomorrow I can finish my food tour of Chile with the Chilean corn pie, as it was the last one on the list. For now, it was time to walk the plazas again. There was still one more item on the Bordain list to experience but that item was not in Santiago, it was in Valparaiso which is where we were headed next. Our food tour of Santiago had finally come to an end and boy was I glad. One more jumbo-sized meal and I might have to buy more travel clothes. Whew! Now you might ask why we never made it back to Portillo to do some skiing/boarding or to one of the closer resorts? Portillo ended up having only some of the runs open and did not have any decent powder and I found out that the other resorts were all already slushy because it was near the end of the ski season. So even though I had been hopeful for months before we even got to South America that I would be able to ski the Andes I would have to come to terms with the fact that I arrived just a little too late or so it would seem. Little did I know that a pleasant surprise would be awaiting me much later down south.

After careful review we decided that the best way to see Valparaiso and Vina del Mar was to rent a car. Both are sister cities and lie side by side. There is no clear dividing line between the two. Basically the way you know you are on the other side is because the signs change. You are now in Valpo. You are now in Vina. That is until you become acquainted with them both. The most telling tale that you are in Valpo vs Vina is the architecture. Valpo is much older that Vina and is built on hilly slopes right by the ocean. Valpo is Chile’s version of San Francisco. There are lots of historical buildings to see and up and down streets to negotiate in the process. What does all this equal? Fun, I tell you, fun. Vina is basically an expansion of Valpo. It was founded much later and for one sole reason: as a playground for the rich folk of yesteryear of Chile and other nearby countries. Today it is a playground for everyone and gets extremely packed in the summer. Lucky for us we were there during the dead of winter so no crowds to deal with. Yippee!

After renting a car at the Santiago airport we headed toward the ocean. About an hour and a half later we arrived in Valpo. Since we had our own car the opportunities to do stuff were endless. We decided to have a warm lunch and a hot latte since it was wintery cold and plan out some strategies. So as I navigated, Katie drove us to the beachfront of Vina del Mar. After a quick brainstorm session we decided that it was best to make Vina our base and do day trips to Valpo for some fantastic sightseeing. So off we went in search of a place to stay. We figured finding a place to stay would be rather easy since we had our own car but as it turned out we spent the whole day looking for a place to crash. To our surprise, all of the hostels that we went to were fully booked for the next 4 to 5 days. It was a good thing that we did have a car because we end up doing a lot of driving. I have to commend Katie’s driving skills here because she did such a great job taking us around Valpo and Vina and getting us acquainted. And she did it with so much patience and ease. I would have surely ended up rolling the car into the boat docks in Valpo going up and down those steep hills. After five or six near misses we finally found a place to stay in Vina, where we had originally planned to stay. The area was perfect. It was very centrally located and within walking distance of all the cool restaurants and bars. The only downside was that it was one of those places where seniors gather for the annual reunions for whatever reason which meant that we were surrounded by Lyons club bingo player-type seniors partying it up in the convention hall almost every night. But who are we kidding, that is why the room was available for us. No one else under the age of 45 would take it. It was a small price to pay for the premium location.

Once settled in we ventured out to get acquainted with our new temporary home. Vina del Mar means “Vinyard by the sea”. Vina is the most heavily visited tourist destination in all of Chile including Patagonia. Why? Simple, because it is a party beach town destination in the summer where pristine white sandy beaches await the many minions of locals and foreigners alike looking to bask in the sun and have some fun and because it is the place where most of the festivals take place most notably the International Song Festival in February and the Vina del Mar Film Festival in November which served as the first gathering sight for Latin American filmmakers in 1967. There aren’t any historical sights to see in Vina but there are a bunch of posh areas to hang out at and soak it all in. Vina is what I would call the Santa Barbara of Chile. Even though it was wintertime the beach was nice. Weather in Vina is similar to CA in the winter. After all, they also have the luxury of having the Pacific Ocean coastline at their footsteps. So we soaked in a few rays and got a little more acquainted with the main beach drag. The real reason we were here was to see Valpo. Vina was just a bonus.

The next day we set out to see the sights in Valparaiso. Valpo is largely known for its bohemian culture, colorful houses and buildings and its beautiful seaside panoramic views. Visiting Valpo is all about roaming the chaotic hilly street sides and mingling with the locals and taking in the breathtaking views in the various hilltops. There are multiple hillside neighborhoods and they are all called Cerros. Each has their own unique colorful buildings some of them with murals on a wall. The idea is to just walk around and try and see them all. This is a hard task to accomplish because it seems like almost every building has a rainbow of colors to offer along with a painted figure. I think it would honestly take 3 days to see them all. Some people have actually done it. We managed to see and experience maybe half of Valpo’s bohemian culture during our stay. Such a cool ass place.

After getting our fill of Vina and Valpo we headed back to the airport in Santiago where we would catch a bus going south. Destination: The Chilean Lake District or more specifically, Pucon. We still had lots of time to kill before we had to be in Peru so I did some poking around in the Lonely Planet to see what else we could do in Chile at this time of year and boy did I come up with a gem. The Lake District is the last area before you get to Patagonia. We thought about going to Patagonia but it just cost too much to get there. It is so far down south that it only makes sense to fly there to be able to have any time to see anything and that was just out of our acceptable price range. It didn’t really matter in the end because the Lake District proved to be one of the most eye-catching places we would see on the entire journey. It was like Lake Tahoe on crack. So many beautiful mountainous areas with fields of green and lush forestation and about a 1000 lakes that surround you. As if that wasn’t enough to stir up your wild side they also had a live smoking fire breathing volcano right smack in the middle that you could ski on or climb to the top and maybe get a glimpse of some of the red stuff.

After about an eight-hour bus ride we pulled into the bus station in Pucon. We were immediately greeted by what would eventually be our new resident landlord, German. He was cleverly waiting at the bus stop for unsuspecting tourists offering rides to go and see his gorgeous hostel and for a very good reason. Once you saw it you would never want to leave. As it turned out I decided that I wanted to see a few other places before I went to see his. That’s kinda what my motto is. I like to always know what I am getting for my money even if it means that I have to spend an hour or two figuring out if I am being corn-holed or not. Call it peace of mind if you will. So I took his biz card and hailed a taxicab. After making the rounds and getting a better idea of what the place had to offer I was not impressed so I decided to go check out German’s place. Upon arrival I knew that this was the place I wanted to stay at especially after seeing an hour or so worth of lackluster hostels for way too much money. It was nestled in a beautiful area near a stream with a bird’s eye view of the volcano and the room was on the second floor and had a window with a panoramic view of the stream and the volcano. Now I guess you are going to say that I should have listened to German all along, right? Wrong! We were greeted by German’s mother-in-law because German was still out hustling up more customers at the bus stop.

After sizing me up a bit she gave me the five-cent tour. The room she showed me was on the second floor in the main building and had a panoramic window view of the volcano. In hostel terms, it was the equivalent of maybe a presidential suite. It was the best room in the house. I asked her what the damage would be and she gave me a number that was way outside the range I expected. I think she took one look at me and decided that I was a good candidate to make an example of for her son-in-law. Shocked by the price tag I told her it was way too much and asked if we could see something a little cheaper. Dejected, she takes me to a room in another building off the beaten path. The room is dark, freezing cold and has two single beds instead of a double. I asked how much and she gives me a stupid number again. At this point I am frustrated because I really like this place but have decided that it is just too expensive for us to stay here. So I thank her for showing me the rooms and tell her that we just cannot afford to stay there for that much so I ask her if she can give me a discount if we stay for a long time. She says, what is a long time? I say, about seven maybe nine nights. She says, hmmm? How much will you pay? Now I know I have an outside snowballs chance of staying here. I say, I’ll give you half of what you asked for. She says, let me call German. After a conversation of what sounded like half Spanish and half Portuguese she comes back and says can you pay a little bit more? I say, no, I can’t afford more. So she says, I’m sorry I can’t give it to you for that much. Right about this time German shows up with no new potential customers in the car. He remembers me from the bus stop and greets me with a warm hello. He asked if I am going to stay and I tell him I can’t afford the room at what his mother-in-law quoted me. He asked her how much she quoted me and then gave her a funny look. At this point German and I both realize that I have been taken for a ride by the little old lady. He asked how much I would be willing to pay and I told him that I would give him half of what I was quoted for the room with a view. He says, how long will you stay? I say, a long time. He says, ok. Welcome. And that my friends is how it is done. I got the room for a lot less than I was even prepared to pay for it. The moral of this story is: When renting a hostel, if you are greeted by an old lady always ask if she is the mother-in-law and if the son-in-law owns the place before making any deals.

We ended up spending almost two weeks in Pucon because we loved the place so much and were having so much fun we just couldn’t leave! It was so peaceful and beautiful and had such an element of tranquility that just penetrated all the way to inner core of your bones. We hiked and biked the most glorious mountain trails, skied and snowboarded down a live volcano, soaked for hours in various steaming hot natural mineral water baths, celebrated Chile’s independence day with German and the rest of the people staying at the hostel and made some amazing new friends in the process. It was one of those places that are just one in a million. The volcano was my pleasant surprise that I mentioned earlier. I did not expect that there would still be lots of snow on the volcano let alone that they actually had a few ski runs on the damn thing. Really? I could not believe it when they told me at the ski shop that the season was still alive and well. Yippee! I would get to ski some after all. I am so glad we decided to go there because the whole trip would just not have been the same without it. It added so much to our overall journey. Without it there would have been a big hole in our travels not just because of the great times that we had but also because of the lifelong friends that we walked away with. Shout out to all my Brazilian friends Oswaldo & Co.: Guys, thanks for eating all of our food in the fridge and not telling us and making up for it by inviting us to play games with you and letting me eat all of your food. Awesome! Also a shout out to Raed: You are simply the best, brother. I hope we can get together soon and climb more volcanoes and eat more fish together.

So after getting our fill in Pucon we packed it up and headed north again. This time our destination was the desert north of Chile and a place called San Pedro de Atacama. After a fairly uneventful bus ride we settled in to one of the local hostels. San Pedro was the antithesis of Pucon. You have to understand that Chile spans almost the entire length of South Amerca (over 5000 friggin’ kilometers long). The northern tip is completely the reverse of the southern tip. Crazy, huh. The best way to describe San Pedro de Atacama is that it looks like the Sahara desert and Mars all rolled into one. It was a very interesting place. We wanted to stop here because we were told it was one of the best places on earth to do some stargazing and because it would be our launching pad into Bolivia. It ended up being much more than that. The best part of San Pedro for me was definitely the stargazing. There were many outfits in the middle of town that had a tour every night so it was pretty easy to set something up. After packing us all up on a bus, they drove us out to an observatory that had lots of big telescopes to check out the sky with. We were greeted by a French guy who happened to be the PHD professor who had been given all this money to come out here and study the stars. I’m still not sure what was more fun, listening to him crack jokes while he taught us tons us stuff about stars and planets or actually being able to see Jupiter and the Milky Way(the actually stars in this galaxy) as if they were as close as the moon. He was one very funny guy. Wicked stuff I tell you that made our minds spin out of control. It is mesmerizing to see up front and center just what a tiny little speck in the universe we really are. We spent about 3 or 4 days in San Pedro. We also took a tour to see some of the world’s highest geysers elevation-wise and some super high elevation salt lakes that were without a doubt out of the world. This was one of those places that looked something like Mars only with geysers and beautiful crystal blue salt lakes. It was a crazy, wicked terrain with freezing temperatures. We had to get up early as hell to see them blow but it was worth it in the end just to walk around this strange place. We also did a day trip to see some of the neighboring towns and villages which was kinda cool. They also had sand dunes that you could board on but we passed on that since we got our fill in Africa and Pucon. Part of this day trip we did was to a riverbed/stream area that had these wicked, what the hell are they called, thorny bush things? Oh yea, cactus. Some of them were like two stories tall. Huge, I tell you, huge cacti. There were some cool areas along the stream that had caves and stuff that we hiked as well which was a lot of fun. All in all, San Pedro ended up being a perfect ending to a wonderful time in Chile. We spent about a month there and had a blast. I will most definitely be back in Chile some day before I die.

So after hanging out in the desert for a while we packed it up again and headed for Bolivia. This time it would not be on a bus though. The only way to get to Bolivia from San Pedro is through the famous Bolivian Salt Flats (the highest salt flats in the world at around 4000 kilometers high! Geez!). So that would mean crossing over on a jeep all the way through. Oh what a journey this would be.


















































































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