Loose Ends

I can’t believe this is my last Buenos Aires post. I do plan on continuing with this blog; I’ve really enjoyed sharing my experiences and don’t want to stop. So, this isn’t goodbye, however I will miss writing about this beautiful city, country, and continent (not that it will be my last time here).

It’s been a little over a week since I got back from Chile – a very strange, melancholy week. I’ve pretty much spent this time eating my feelings with the excuse that it’s the last time I’ll be able to eat at these amazing places. Izzi and I started out by trying something new and visiting Don Julio. Don Julio is considered the best steak house in Buenos Aires, which is saying a lot. It’s an absolute MUST when visiting, and since neither of us had been yet and our time was running out (sob), it seemed like a good idea. It turned out to be a very good idea. Many people talk about Don Julio as a quite expensive restaurant but, while I wouldn’t go there every week, I didn’t think it was expensive at all for the experience we had. First of all, they treated us like royalty, which is an enormous plus for my shameless ego. The wait staff was funny and sociable while still letting us enjoy our meal in peace. When it came time to pick which cut of meat we wanted and it became clear to them that neither of us had the slightest idea what we were talking about, they actually brought us back to see all the different cuts raw and explain the difference to us. Izzi and I both ended up getting flank steaks which was an amazing decision, though I’m sure all the cuts would have been amazing. I’ve noticed that in Buenos Aires they really tend to overcook their meat, which is surprising to me since the meat is such high quality. Usually when I’m in a restaurant I have to emphasize three times to the waitress/waiter that I want it rare…bloody…still mooing please. Here, when I asked for rare it came rare – a juicy, tender rare that made me think I was eating an animal I had never eaten before. I couldn’t believe what I was tasting. At the end of the meal we were able to write on the label of our wine bottle and add it to the hundreds lining the walls of Don Julio – a little mark left by us at a Buenos Aires institution.

Izzi left Buenos Aires before me, just a couple days ago, and while her last day was very sad, it was also exceptionally lovely. We started by meeting up with Louis and Pierre, who had recently gotten back to Buenos Aires, for lunch and spent a long time chatting with them and hearing about the rest of their adventures in Bolivia before it was time to say goodbye. Although goodbyes are always rough, I was glad we got one last chance to see each other. Travel friendships are always so intense and wonderful, and the fact that you have to say goodbye so suddenly has always been rough for me. So, one extra meal all together seemed like such a gift. After we ate, though, the boys had to leave so we said goodbye for real and headed to Galería Patio del Liceo to make ourselves feel better. We had discovered this place through an Underart Tour, which brings you around the city to see underground art galleries and artist collectives. This had been our absolute favourite from the tour. Tucked away off Calle Santa Fe, this creative centre is filled with galleries and studios from all different types of designers and artists.

This gorgeous indoor/outdoor space couldn't be inhabited by anyone other than designers
Gorgeous indoor/outdoor space 

 

I gifted myself a napkin holder shaped like a sailboat (the napkins are the sail!) and we spent a lot of time gushing over all the beautiful prints, photos, and paintings in each shop.

Afterwards we decided to walk back to Palermo. It was a bit far but it was a beautiful day. As we were walking the sun was shining perfectly through the leaves and I remembered my first week here. I had been walking by myself, not having made any friends yet, and I had been smiling widely from ear to ear because I couldn’t believe how beautiful the trees were in this city. It had been a while since I had really noticed them, so Izzi and I walked in silence for a bit, just taking in the magic that they were brining to the streets. As we were walking, a bright blue bookstore caught our eye and we just had to go in.

La libreria Librosref
La libreria Librosref

The place had such a warm glow radiating out of it. As it turns out, that didn’t just have to do with the flawless lighting and interior design, but also the staff. The man who greeted us seemed absolutely delighted that we had entered his store. He asked us all about ourselves, and told us all about his store. He was truly passionate about the books that he had in stock. When I told him I study anthropology he was excited to show me his ethnography collection. He even gave Izzi a free book because it was her last day in the city. I am truly going to miss how open and cariñoso people here are. Librosref was amazing, but I’m not going to say that the way he treated us was rare. I find that people here really care about the other human beings they happen upon. When we left the shop it was time for Izzi and me to say goodbye. I knew it was going to be sad, but as she walked away I was truly heart broken. We had gotten to know each other so well so quickly, and I felt I had really found a friend that understood me. We had discovered so much that we had in common, it seemed unfair that we didn’t have more time to discover more.

Izzi and me featured in the worst selfie ever taken with our matching hats.
Izzi and me in “the worst selfie ever taken” featuring our matching hats.

I’ve also spent this week scouring the city for souvenirs and gifts to bring back with me. The best place to do that, of course, is Mercado San Telmo. Since I’m running a little low on friends still in the city I went alone. I was actually quite glad I did because it meant I could spend as much time as I wanted just wandering the streets doing what I do best – people watching. I watched old men drinking coffee in comfortable silence, I watched young Argentinian couples be very publicly in love, I watched amazing tango street shows, and of course, lots of dogs and babies. The little snapshot memories I tucked away for myself that day are worth a whole lot more than the nicknacks I picked up, though those are fun too.

However, the best souvenir I’ll be taking home with me from Buenos Aires is my new tattoo. I decided to get it done at Iris Tattoo because many of the artists there specialize in watercolour tattoos, which is the style I wanted. I made the appointment before leaving for my trip with Izzi and had decided on getting a crescent moon. While in Chile and Bolivia I fell in love with the idea even more as I watched the moon rise into the most beautiful night skies I’ve ever seen, linger into the sunrise, and smile at me from that upside-down type of angle it has down here. So, when I got back to Buenos Aires I was so in love that I knew I had made a very good decision as to what I wanted. It turned out perfectly, exactly as I had pictured it in my head, and I am thrilled that I will always have this reminder of the amazing things I have seen here.

My beautiful crescent moon
My beautiful crescent moon

Of course, I couldn’t leave Buenos Aires without giving myself one last art day. Unbelievably, I had yet to visit the MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires) and I just had to before I left. I am so glad I did. They have amazing pieces by Diego Rivera, Frida, and even Nora Borges, Jorge Louis’ little sister. It was also so much fun to see many of the pieces we had discussed in my Contemporary Argentinian Art class.

Alejandro Puentes
Alejandro Puentes

I was astounded when I saw a Berni piece in person. He’s an artist famous for the way he painted eyes, and they were just so much more powerful in person on that enormous canvas. Although he’s not quite as well known, I was excited to see an Alejandro Puentes, mostly because he’s inspired some of the ideas I have down in my sketchpad. It was really exciting to be able to recognize so many pieces and artist from memory and to really understand the value of what I was looking at and how much these physical objects in front of me had influenced Argentinian history.

My favourite, though, was an artist I had never heard of, since she is not Argentinian. Theresa Burga is a contemporary Peruvian artist who has two pieces in the MALBA I absolutely adored. The first one was called “Estructuras de Aire”(Structures of Aire). This was exactly the type of piece that I’m most into. I walked into a pitch black room… and I mean PITCH black. I couldn’t see a thing and spent the entire time walking around with my hands out in front of me so I wouldn’t run into any walls. At one point my eyes started playing tricks on me and I thought I would be walking towards a wall when in fact I wasn’t even close. The things I saw in the total dark could have been the piece itself, but there was another dimension. Out of nowhere bursts of air would shoot out of the ground or the walls or the ceiling at me. This was amazing because since I was so deprived of visual stimuli I felt the coolness of the air much more than I otherwise would have and it felt absolutely beautiful. I could have stayed in there forever except some genius came in with their cell phone flashlight on so I decided to leave.

Her second piece was called “obra que desaparece cuando el espectador trata de acercarse” (piece that disappears as the spectator tries to get closer) which is exactly what it sounds like.

Piece by Theresa Burga
Piece by Theresa Burga

I had to wait for the people who were in the room to leave before I was allowed to go in. When I did, I was confronted by a brilliant piece made of neon lights. I loved being in there by myself with the lights; it was quite surreal. As I walked towards it, censors in the walls made each ring of colour disappear one at a time until by the time I reached the line in front of the piece, there was no piece left. I had a lot of fun walking backwards watching the piece light up then forwards again watching it disappear. Honestly, though, just standing there looking at the glowing colours was beautiful as well.

And now, well, now it’s my last day. My bags are all packed and I’m sitting in a very empty room typing out my goodbye message. It’s actually quite a sad image. Tonight, though, I get the perfect Argentinian goodbye. River is playing so the friends still around are coming over to watch the fútbol game, and then we’re making a big Asado. I couldn’t ask for a better last Argentinian supper.

What will I miss the most about being here? I’ll miss the way the sunlight shines off of the church in Plaza Maya very early in the morning. I’ll miss being in a place where everyone is always willing to talk, to share their story and to hear yours. I’ll miss the lively Palermo bars and watching the sun come up as I walk home from them. I’ll miss this house, especially the cat. This time has gone by so fast. At least I know that I’ve filled it with amazing adventures, seen things I never imagined could be so wonderful, and met people who have changed the way I see the world, definitely for the better.

Ciao Buenos Aires, querido.

The Other Kind of Salt and Sand

I’m simply not going to be able to talk about everything I did in Atacama and Bolivia over the past week. I did and saw so much that giving you every detail would take forever. Also, while each and every sunset and lagoon I saw was breathtaking, writing about the beauty of each one might get a bit repetitive. So, I’m giving you the highlights of a trip too wonderful to even begin to describe properly. It was a stark contrast to the charming, artsy streets and restaurants of Santiago and Valparaiso. The Atacama Desert is the driest place in the entire world and we were surrounded by very extreme landscapes.

Similar to Salta, the only way to really visit the area surrounding our base, San Pedro de Atacama, is by tour. Izzi and I found a company with a good price on a four-day tour package, so they day after we arrived we went out to see Valle de la Muerte and Valle de la Luna. Valle de la Muerte, or Valley of Death, was given hat name because traders from various indigenous villages used to have to cross it on their way to other towns and often didn’t make it.

Who knew such beautiful landscapes could have no life at all?
Who knew such beautiful landscapes could have no life at all? That’s Licancabur in the background! 

There is absolutely no life in that part of the desert – no plants, no animals, just sand and rocks. From one point, called Roca del Cayote, we could look down on the oasis where there waslife and had an amazing view of the surrounding volcanos. It was the first time I really looked at Licancabur, a volcano I would see and recognize every day I was in Atacama and grow quite attached to. At the end of the day we went to Valle de la Luna. It got its name because people say it looks like the moon, but to me it looks much more like how I would picture Mars. When we got there we went on a little hike through the red and chocolate coloured dunes up to the crest of one of the peaks. From there we stared at the marvellous mountains above and below us and waited for the sun to set. Since the sun fell past view so quickly, the sky wasn’t the best part. What was amazing was turning around and seeing the light of the sunset reflect off of the mountains behind us. They turned such a brilliant pink before slipping into shadow.

Sunset reflected off the mountains in Valle de la Luna
Sunset reflected off the mountains in Valle de la Luna

The next day was the first of many very early mornings. At 4:45 we were up and ready to be taken to see the geysers at Parque Geyser del Tatio. The sun was just rising when we got there and the moon was still out. It was an absolutely perfect crescent that looked like the Cheshire Cat’s smile and was  even more special because I was looking at it through the steam of dozens of geysers. Tatio is the third largest geyser park in the world, behind Yosemite and another one in Russia, and all around me enormous towers of steam were shooting up into the sky.

Sunrise and geysers at El Tatio
Sunrise and geysers at El Tatio

I loved it when spurts of water would shoot out along with the steam. The drops evaporated in the freezing air and looked like the marks lift over in the sky by fireworks. Of course, we weren’t able to get too close since the water inside was so hot. One of the geysers was called “El Asisino” because it had killed three people. The geniuses had decided it would be a good idea to jump from one end to the other, but with all the steam they were unable to measure the distance and fell in, boiling to death. There was one that was safe to walk through, which was a lot of fun. Jumping through the steam I felt like a bird in the clouds. I was also very interested in the deposits of colour that surrounded some of the geysers. The guide told me they were bacteria colonies. To me the oranges and pinks looked like the sunrise. it was as if the bacteria had watched the sunrise there every morning and decided that was what they wanted to be.

That day I also saw the first of the many vicuña I would see on this trip. Vicuña are animals in the same family as llamas and alpacas but they’re much smaller, have longer necks, and run much faster.

One of the many vicuña I saw on my trip
One of the many vicuña I saw on my trip.

They’re also wild, while llamas and alpacas are farmed. Unfortunately, while they’re protected, vicuña are poached for their very soft hair. Unlike alpaca fur you have to skin vicuñas for their hair and a scarf made from it can sell for up to $8000 in Europe. They were adorable, and seeing them made me feel a little guilty about trying llama meat later in the day. It was good though; it’s flavour is hard to describe. It was a bit like beef but a little gamier and something about the taste was just… different. It simply tasted like llama.

The day after we climbed up and up and up in the mountains to get to Aguas Calientes. We were so high up that Agua Calientes was frozen (oh, the irony) and there was snow on the ground. Being in the snow in the desert was fascinating to me. I loved the way the powdery snow looked on the sand – like being on a New England beach in the middle of winter.

The colourful Piedras Rojas
The colourful Piedras Rojas
Snow on desert sand
Snow on desert sand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the way down we stopped at a place called Piedras Rojas and I realized what a difference altitude makes in terms of landscape. Down there the red clay ground and the little yellow plants the vicuña feed on were so colourful compared to the iciness of Aguas Calientes.

After that day, Izzi’s friends Louis and Pierre joined us. Although I had never met Pierre, and Louis only briefly, it was so much fun to add new people to our adventures. Our first tour all together was to Laguna Cejar. It was a beautiful, warm day and we were told the lagoon was swimmable, so we brought our bathing suites. It wasn’t nearly as warm when we got up to where the lagoon was, but it was too beautiful a place not to go in. It was surrounded by gorgeous mountains, including Lucancabur, and layers of salt encircled the water. The lagoon itself was quite cool. On the inside there was a ledge that made a sort of shallow end, then it dropped down into a deep, dark hole.

Floating in Laguna Cejar
Floating in Laguna Cejar
Smiling through my shivers
Smiling through my shivers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That water was damn cold and Pierre refused to go in. As soon as Izzi, Louie, and I jumped it knocked the wind right out of me. Izzi and Louie scrambled out immediately, but I stayed. I believe I have Canada to thank for that. A couple of years ago it would have just been too much for me. Eventually my body went numb and I was able to enjoy myself. It’s an extremely salty lagoon, similar to the Red Sea, and no matter what I did I floated, which was a lot of fun.

That night we experienced what was probably the highlight of Atacama for me – the star tour. We met up with a group at 11 pm and were taken out of town and away from any light pollution. As soon as I stepped out of the bus I was hit by the most astounding night sky I had ever seen. I knew they were going to be amazing, Atacama is home to the ALMA observatory and is famous for its night sky, but nothing could have prepared me for this. Stars covered the sky and we could see the entire milky way stretch all the way from the eastern horizon to the western horizon. When the tour started I just stood there craning my neck upwards as the astronomer pointed out stars, planets, and constellations. I got to see Virgo which, regardless of the astronomer’s distain for astrology, felt quite special to me. He also pointed out Saturn, which was cool at the moment but would mean so much more to me later in the night. While I was watching I saw so many shooting stars I lost count. I would have made wishes, but at that moment I felt so extremely lucky to be seeing what I was seeing that making any wish at all just seemed greedy. I never wanted to look anywhere but up again, but when the astronomer was done talking we moved on to look at the stars through these amazing telescopes. They were pointed at various points in the sky, and through one I saw a constellation that looked like a butterfly. I never thought I would describe stars as cute, but that’s exactly what it was as it appeared to sparkle and flutter through the sky. I was also lucky enough to look through the biggest telescope available for public viewing in South America. Through it I saw a star cluster that blew my mind. In the centre of it there were so many stars that it just looked like one enormous ball of white. Then, as the cluster got more sparse around the edge the stars seemed to spiral out of it in a dance. As amazing as that was, though, my favourite one was Saturn. The picture was incredible. The planet was so white and clear and seeing its rings, seeing that it’s really all up there unique and beautiful, made the planets so real to me. I will never forget how beautiful Saturn was – how beautiful Saturn is. Of course spending so much time looking at space made me feel small, but it didn’t at all make me feel insignificant. In a way it made me feel so special to be able to see the stars in this way. On this tour I felt like I was really a part of it all, and I suppose I am.

Soon it was time to leave Atacama and head to Bolivia. At the Bolivian border we were picked up by our guide and the Land Rover that would pretty much be our home as we traversed the Fauna Andina Eduardo Avoroa National Park. Our group consisted of our guide, a Bolivian named Vladamire, me, Izzi, Pierre, Louie and a Canadian named Kex.

Our awesome group and our home - the Land Rover.
Our awesome group and our home – the Land Rover.

As soon as we hit the road I was amazed how well Vladamire know where he was going. There were no signs, pretty much no roads, and the only landmarks the continuous, pretty much undistinguishable, mountains. Our first day was full of lagoons. First we stopped at the frozen Laguna Blanca, then Laguna Verde. This one was supposed to be bright green because of the minerals in the water, but since there was ice it was hard to see. My favourite, though, Laguna Colorada, wasn’t frozen and so we were able to see it in all its glory. The microorganisms in the water make it pink, and I felt like I was on another planet.

The other-worldly Laguna Colorada.
The other-worldly Laguna Colorada.

I loved watching the flamingos in the water because they matched so well with their pink surroundings and I could just tell they belonged there. There weren’t many this time, but Vladi (Vladamire) told us that in September there can be up to 15,000 at a time! He also told us that they lay their eggs in the middle of the lagoon to keep them safe from predators and that at night they sleep in groups, rotating who is at the edge and who is at the middle to keep warm, just like penguins.

That day we also saw El Desierto de Dali, named that because it’s reminiscent of his surrealism. I was really struck by the complete stillness of the place. Of course rocks are always still, but the ones here were especially.

The incredible stillness of Desierto de Dali
The incredible stillness of Desierto de Dali

It was as if they were waiting for something, or trapped completely out of time. There were patches of snow where the rocks cast shadows which looked like the little spirit of each rock was clinging to it. We saw a lot of rocks on this trip, all of them quite cool in their own way.

The majestic Arbol de Piedra
The majestic Arbol de Piedra

The next day we saw El Arbol de Piedra, a huge chunk of rock that over thousands of years has been warn away by the wind. Izzi taught me that this process is called attrition. The more you know. According to Vladi, the stone at the bottom of this particular rock was weaker than at the top, so it had worn away faster making the shape of a tree. The other rocks around it were quite fun to climb around on, and we all felt a little like kids in a playground.

On top of the world!
On top of the world!

After the Arbol de Piedra we went to Laguna Negra. After seeing Laguna Colorada I thought no lagoon would ever be able to impress me again, but I was wrong. Laguna Negra was tucked perfectly into a cliff face so part of it was covered, giving it a secret, hidden kind of feel. I don’t think we would have even been able to see it if we had been looking from the other end. We first looked over at it from the top of a hill covered in those vicuña plants and right away I noticed how full of life it felt. From where we were standing I could see a type of black bird swimming around which Vladi told me were called fulicas officially or, more commonly, socas. I made my way down the hill to the edge of the lagoon to get a better look. They looked like ducks while they were swimming around in the water, but as soon as they stood up I was pleasantly surprised by their legs. They were long and bright red with enormous three-toed feet that gripped the icy parts over the water. The socas also had really interesting faces. You couldn’t really see their faces, actually. Everything was jet black so you couldn’t even see their eyes, then this big, orange and yellow beak stuck out of the darkness in a way that was quite impressive. In a (failed) attempt to get a good picture, I got quite close to the birds and they seemed completely uninterested in me at all. Their confidence made the whole lagoon feel safe, like nothing bad could happen there, either to them or me. Vladi set a picnic out for us in the rocks above the lagoon looking out over the water which was lovely, despite the wind. It was nice spending quite a bit of time in one spot instead of getting right back into the car.

And then, all of a sudden, we came to the last day of our journey and the Salar de Uyuni. At five am the next morning we headed out to be able to see the sunrise at Incahausi, the magical cactus island. Incahausi means “house of the Inca” in Mapuche and was named that because the Inca used to visit the island for ceremonial sacrifices. As I climbed the island it became obvious to me why the Inca chose that spot. As the sun rose it gleamed off of every cactus giving them a very spiritual aura.

Probably an 800 year old Cactus
Probably an 800 year old Cactus
The glow of the sunrise on the cacti of Incahausi
The glow of the sunrise on the cacti of Incahausi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually I found a spot that satisfied me so I sat and watched as the sky turned a brilliant pink. I was even able to watch the exact moment the sun peeked above the horizon. It will be nice once I get back to Montreal and am in the middle of midterms and work and cleaning the bathroom to remember that in Bolivia on Incahausi cactus island, every single day starts like that. What was amazing was that once it was up I actually got a good look at where I was. I got up and left my spot to check the cacti out properly. Vladi had told us that some of them were over 800 years old, meaning that they were there long before the Inca were. They were so huge and seemed so wise as I walked among them. Even just standing in that one spot for 800 years they had seen so much. How many of us small humans had they watched marvel over the beauty of their home, from the Inca to me?

I could have walked around looking at each and every cactus forever, but I was also excited to drive out into the nothingness. The Uyuni Salt Flat is 12,000 square kilometres, but not really having any conception of what that really means I was astounded as we just kept driving and driving farther into the middle. At one point that seemed arbitrary to me, though I’m sure Vladi had his reasons, we stopped to get out of the car and take pictures. The photo possibilities in a place so strikingly flat are endless. Many people bring props to take funny photos, but that wasn’t really my group’s style and we only took a couple gimmicky ones, which were fun.

Fun with space and cameras.
Fun with space and cameras.

Really, though, I just wanted to enjoy the silence and the space around me. As a person who really enjoys my alone time, at one point I walked away from the group to take it all in. I lay down flat on the flat (ha) and just stared at what lay before me . From that angle it felt like I was on a tilt – as if I could see and feel the curve of the Earth. The honey-comb shape of the salt was even more clear from down there and it stretched on forever. Then, at the end of infinity, the mountains and the sky tilted with me. I’ve never been to a place where the ground seems to stretch farther than the wide open sky before.

This is what an infinity of salt looks like
This is what an infinity of salt looks like.

Uyuni is definitely a place I would go back to. Next time I would go in the summer time so I could see the 15,000 flamingos at Laguna Colorada. Also, in the summer time there is water on the salt flat. Since it is so still and flat and the ground under it is so white, it creates a perfect reflection of the sky. I would absolutely love to see the sky stretch forever above, below, and around me on all sides. However, I’m glad I went in the winter this time. When there’s water on the flat it’s too dangerous to drive out into it because it’s impossible to know where you are. You can look at it from near the edges, but I really liked driving out to the very centre. Also, not being able to drive out too far would mean that you wouldn’t be able to see Incahausi, which was probably my favourite part. I like when a place gives you reasons to go back.

Now I’ve returned to Buenos Aires, back to my house in Palermo and the business of this huge city, which is a bit of a shock after being in the desert for so long. It definitely felt good to take a hot shower and to sleep in a warm bed, though. I have exactly one week before I fly back home to Montreal. In that week I plan on soaking up every last drop this city can ofter me.

Just Chilein’

The semester is over (can you believe it?), which means now it’s time to do some exploring. Not that I haven’t done my fair share of exploring already, but now that I have more time I’m able to wander outside of Argentina. Originally I had planned on going to Peru and hike the glorious Machu Picchu, but life is complicated and plans change. I was disappointed not to go, but I’m hoping I can during my February break next year, which means it’ll be warmer and more enjoyable there. Silver linings. So, with Peru out of the picture I latched on to my friend Izzi’s trip to Chile and it is awesome. This is a country I had not planned on visiting, not just this trip but really ever. It just hadn’t really occurred to me, maybe because Argentinians and Chileans don’t have the most loving of relationships, and the Argentinians I know always spoke of Chile as if it was a totally insignificant place in the world. I didn’t know anything about it at all, but now here I am and I absolutely love it.

Izzi and I flew into Santiago on the 5th and after getting just a little turned around we arrived at the Dominica Hostal. It was way nicer than the hostels I’ve been staying in traveling alone (although I really liked most of those). It had perfectly clean bathrooms, surprisingly comfortable beds, and an amazing staff. One of the staff, Pablo, sat down with us for an hour to help us organize our trip to Atacama and give us suggestions on the tour companies with the best prices and all that. Once we were settled in to our bunks, we spent some time exploring the Bella Vista neighbourhood, where the hostel was, and stopped at a Peruvian restaurant where we shared an amazing Ceviche. At this point we weren’t completely sure what Chilean food entailed, so we were very happy with some Peruvian. Plus, like sushi, I don’t think I’ll ever turn down a good Ceviche. After eating we realized we were very close to the Pablo Neruda house, which was one of our main goals for Santiago. His house was filled with items he had collected over his extensive travels and every corner was fascinating. Photos weren’t allowed inside the house, which was a shame, because it was a very unique kind of beautiful. The house itself was a work of art. It was filled with secret tucked away rooms and spiral staircases. It moved seamlessly from inside space to outside space and integrated plants and trees in a way that made me drool. He built the house for his lover, Mathilde and named it after her. He named it La Chascona, after her curly hair. It was their secret love nest in the years before he left his wife for her and then they lived there together as well as in his houses in Isla Negra and Valparaiso. During the tour I learned that Mathilde was quite a cool figure. She, like Pablo, was a strong political activist and after he died she was committed to protecting his political poems, even though that was a dangerous thing to do during the dictatorship. Will all their friends gathered, she also turned Pablo’s funeral into the first ever protest against that same dictatorship. It was nice learning so much about her because now when I read her name in Neruda’s love poems I have a bit of an image of who she was in my head.

The next day we wandered outside Bella Vista and explored some other parts of Santiago. We had been told we should try a completo and a cab driver pointed out a place where we could find one. This place turned out to be a fast food restaurant called Doggies, the kind of place I usually avoid at all costs. But, hey, this was cultural. A completo turns out to be a hot dog with avocado and, depending on what kind you order, can also have onions, a spicy sauce, tomato, or really whatever else. The avocado is key, though. I liked it, mostly because of the avocado, but I don’t think I’ll ever seek one out specifically again.

Completely by accident we happened upon the Cerro Lucia, a hill in the middle of the city, and decided to climb it. The way up is lovely with wonderful gardens and towers all over.

View of Santiago from above. Hard to see through the clouds, but the Andes are just behind it.
View of Santiago from above. Hard to see through the clouds, but the Andes are just behind it. Photo credit: Izzi Macdonnell

I loved the way the plants all clung to the cliffs and the water dripped down through them. There was also a really nice view from the top and we could even see the Andes through the clouds. It was nice to get a more general view of the city to orient ourselves. After that we headed to El Palacio de la Moneda, a government building that is a must see on the tourist’s list of things to do in Santiago. We weren’t allowed to go in (which I thought was odd) but the basement had a very cool cultural centre. It was interesting because it exhibited classic folk art from all around the world but it was all made by contemporary artists and artisans.

That night we met up with my friend, Pipe. He had met Joanna while she was traveling and then had visited her in Buenos Aires which is when we met. Now that I was in Santiago, it was fun to see him in his own city. We asked him to bring us somewhere to try choripillo without really having any idea what it was, so he told us of a place pretty close to the hostel. When our order came I couldn’t help but think that it reminded me an awful lot of poutine. Of course there were differences – it wasn’t saucy and instead had strips of beef on it and it had crema agrodulce instead of cheese curds. It was good, but not nearly as good as the beer I had. It was just a plain old Corona, but done in the typical Chilean style – michelada. They put a spicy tabasco sauce along with something else in the beer and mix it up to make it spicy. Then they put salt along the rim so it’s like a spicy beer martini. I know, I know, that sounds disgusting but I thought the way the refreshing Corona snuck past the spicy and salty was delicious.

On Tuesday we had booked a tour with Tips-for-tours, a free tour company where you just tip the guide with whatever you can afford. It’s nice because the guides tend to be really passionate about their city. In this tour, we started off in el Mercado Central and I was completely blown away by the seafood. As we walked by I saw the most enormous squid I had ever seen. I don’t even understand how you can catch something like that. Even with all the eyeballs and teeth protruding from the fish, all I could think about was coming back and getting some to cook up for dinner. Then we made our way to the veggie part of the market. We walked through much too quickly for my taste since I usually like to absorb the colours and smells of every fruit and vegetable, but I scouted stands I wanted to revisit and buy from later. When we left the market, we stopped at a little stand and our guide introduced us to Sopapilla. This is pretty much fried dough, except they add a type of squash to the dough and you eat it with hot sauce or ketchup and mustard, so it’s not at all sweet. I was hungry after walking through the market and staring at so much food, and this was spectacular. I would have eaten a million if they weren’t well… fried dough. To end our tour our guide brought us to el Cemeterio de Santiago. I was interested to compare this one to el Cemeterio de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires, and it turned out to be very different but also very impressive. The guide told us that there are 2.5 million people buried in the cemetery which is a lot, especially if you compare that to the 6 million people that live in Santiago. The cemetery was separated between the classes. In the sections of the working class, families were buried together with three people fitting in each box. When one body decomposed fully they would gather the bones and put them at the end of the coffin to make room for the next body. This was a stark contrast to the upper class tombs that looked like everything from Greek temples, to pyramids, and even one which was a replica of the Alhambra, in Spain. I noticed that some tombs were covered in an extreme amount of flowers and plaques. The guide told us that these were the tombs of popular saints. Unlike religious saints, these were people who had been innocent or adored by their communities and then had died a tragic death. We passed one that was the tomb of Santa Carmencita. The guide told us that her family had moved to Santiago from the country when she was 14, but when they arrived she had been raped and murdered. Then, she moved us farther away from the tomb, out of respect, and told us the real story. Carmencita had been a prostitute, but very much adored by her community. When she was 30 she had gotten syphilis and died but her friends loved her so much that they created the myth of Carmencita so that she would be remembered in a good light. Now, when people have love problems, they make an offering of flowers or a plaque to her tomb so she will help them. This story delighted me, despite its sadness. That’s exactly why I love cemeteries. They remind you that history isn’t made up of dates and places, but of people.

When the tour was over Izzi and I went back to the market. It was lunch time so we stopped at a seafood restaurant our guide had pointed out to us. I had a soup filled to the brim with all sorts of seafood.

Seafood soup with muscles, squid, fish, shrimp, scallops, and more.
Seafood soup with muscles, squid, fish, shrimp, scallops, and more.

There was a muscle the size of my hand and every spoonful was overflowing with shrimp, clams, squid, scallops, and white fish. When we had finished, we pretty much rolled ourselves through the market on our full bellies and bought our ingredients for dinner. We decided on papalisa, this beautiful pink and yellow speckled potato-like root from Peru, salmon, onion, and zucchini. That night we cooked it all up with our new friend Morgan, from Maine, who had bought the wine. The fish was so fresh that Izzi only had to sear the outside for a few seconds and it was perfect. It was a great end to our time in wonderful Santiago.

Izzi and Morgan creating our feast.

Our next stop was Valparaiso, a coastal town about a two hour bus ride from Santiago. It was much bigger than I had expected. In my head I had been picturing a little fishing village but this was a real city, smaller than Santiago, but still with a lot going on. It’s filled with nooks and crannies and tiny little side streets and winding stairs that climb (and allow the citizens to climb) the forty plus hills of the city. I can see why Neruda liked the place. Walking through Valparaiso was like playing a game of hide-and-seek with the city. Neruda designed his houses just in that way, and his Valpo (Valparaiso) house was our first destination. We took the long way to get there, stopping every other block to marvel at the beauty. The hills were all covered with brightly coloured houses that looked as if they were reflecting the sunset. The fact that they were built on hills made the sight even prettier because it allowed us to see almost every house individually, above or below it’s neighbours. Many of the walls also had beautiful murals painted on them. I found it difficult to decide whether I wanted to concentrate on the details in the paintings or the wide, stretching landscape of the hills and the ocean. The city felt, right from the start, full of curiosities and the seagulls circling and calling made it hopelessly romantic.

 

Hidden corners of Valparaiso
Hidden corners of Valparaiso
The beautiful Valparaiso and the Pacific Ocean.
The beautiful Valparaiso and the Pacific Ocean.

 

 

We were very excited to get to Neruda’s Sebastiana, named after the man who had originally owned it. After my tour of the Santiago house, I felt like I knew him a little bit. I’ve also been reading his poetry throughout this trip and am falling in love with his words. I feel like the houses help me understand his poetry a little bit more, if only because I get to see his inspiration for myself. La Sebastiana was certainly beautiful, but after seeing the two I think I prefer La Chascona in Santiago. Neruda loved the sea, and this house had a lot of nautical decoration. I understand why it makes sense of his house in Valparaiso, but it wasn’t quite as colourful and playful as the Santiago house. But the views it had and the side of him that it showed me were amazing, and I would give anything to have a study like that to write in. Walking through I found myself feeling a little sad, though. He designed and decorated his houses to be lived in, played in, and loved in, and now they’re empty. Sure, tourists pass through, but no one is there to read in the chairs or drink from the brightly coloured glasses, or enjoy his intricate bar. Of course it’s amazing that all these things have been preserved, they might otherwise have been completely lost, but I think he would be sad to see his houses so empty. It’s conflicting, though, because I’m certainly glad I had the chance to see them.

The next day was tour day and we started in the morning with the Valpo Graffiti Tour. I learned so much right off the bat. The guide started off by explaining the different styles of written graffiti and showed us some examples. In American style every letter is designed individually and they often have features like googly eyes, Mickey Mouse hands, or arrows.

An example of American graffiti style
An example of American graffiti style

Bomb, on the other hand, integrates the letters much more in a very bubbly style. After giving us a little bit of an explanation, the guide took us to see some of the best murals in Valpo, which is a lot considering Valparaiso is one of the best cities for graffiti in the world, and the second best in South American, behind Sao Paulo. Some really amazing artists come out of there. We saw one piece by Inti, a really famous street artist who just painted the largest mural in the world in Paris a few months ago, and who just happens to be from Valparaiso.

This mural by Inti can actually only be seen from above, right where we were standing. If you try to find it on street level you'll be walking around in circles forever.
This mural by Inti can actually only be seen from above, right where we were standing. If you try to find it on street level you’ll be walking around in circles forever.

It was also cool because our guide knew a lot of these artists personally and she was able to tell us fun little anecdotes to go along with the murals. One crew/artist, El Odio, also owns the only paint shop in Valpo that sells a certain kind of paint. So, no one dares tag over his pieces because then he won’t sell them any paint.

Hostel Po from the outside. There were many other gorgeous murals by amazing crews inside, too.
Hostel Po from the outside. 

What was amazing was that on the tour we learned to identify the crews by the symbols they use to identify themselves. And once we got back to the hostel, Hostal Po, I realized that many of the murals inside were actually done by the artists we had seen.

Our second tour in the afternoon was another Tips-for-Tours. Our group was very small so it was fun being able to really talk and joke with the tour guide instead of it being more formal like a class field trip. He was really nice and showed us some of the best views in the city. As we looked out at the beautiful pacific coast, he told us that the city was thinking about expanding the port farther along the beach. This would completely ruin the ocean view of the whole city, especially the more touristy areas, which would really detract from the experience. He then mentioned that there’s a possible alternative to expanding it in the other direction and then making a sea-side park instead. I don’t know all the details of the debate, but this one seems like a no brainer to me. We also saw some more typical tourist sites such as the Navy building and the Justice building. The navy building used to be the site of the municipal government, but it was so beautiful that the federal navy decided that it should be theirs… typical. The Justice building also has a fun story. In front of it is a statue that is supposed to be of Lady Justice, but if you look closely you realize that she’s holding the scale under her arm, so it’s not at all balanced, and that her eyes are wide open, meaning justice is not blind. Apparently the statue isn’t really of Lady Justice but of the Greek Goddess of Justice and that it had been delivered to Valparaiso mysteriously.

The not-so-fair Lady Justice
The not-so-fair Lady Justice
The beautiful Naval building with a perfect view of the port
The beautiful Naval building 

No one knew where it came from or what to do with it, so someone decided to put it in front of the Justice building. It makes sense at first, until you really think about what the statue is implying. Personally, I think it’s a much more realistic portrayal or the justice system. We ended the tour at the port which was good to see because it is such an important part of Valparaiso’s history and economy. However, I much preferred being up in the hills surrounded by the street art and all the colours.

The port of Valparaiso
The port of Valparaiso

Valparaiso was amazing and I was a little sad to say goodbye. I could see myself staying in a place like that for a long time. Now, though, here I am in northern Chile, writing this to you all from the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the entire world. More on that to come!