Summer? Winter? Vacation! Part One – Christmas in the USA

Now that winter is summer and summer is winter, our school vacation schedule is upside down. For the last 15 years in Turkey, China, Laos, and India, we followed a North American calendar with a couple weeks off at Christmas and a longer summer break. In Chile, our “summer break” occurs now – from December to February.

To kick it off, we joined my sister Kate and her family at my parent’s house in Florida. Check out my last post about The Villages to get the scoop on this unusual place.

Christmas usually explodes all over my parents’ house, but my dad was under the weather and my mom couldn’t tackle the job alone. They put up a naked tree, and Kate’s three boys made cute decorations.

The first few days in Florida were cool but sunny. Kate, Tony, and the kids even went for a swim. I just dipped my legs in the hot tub.

On Christmas morning, we all opened our presents. Tony had just one gift left, marked “Open last!” He ripped off the paper to find a box of Cheez-Its, his favorite snack. Everyone leaned in to have a laugh, but it was a ruse. Even Tony didn’t know that I had wrapped up two Nerf guns and extra ammo. We pulled out our weapons and started pelting everyone. The kids shrieked and dove behind the furniture. The Christmas Nerf War is a Dickinson family tradition, so we were shocked that nobody else was armed. Kate quickly ran out to her van, where the boys had coincidentally left a couple Nerf archery sets. The kids holed up in the kitchen to load their bows. Eventually, Tony and I ran out of bullets, and we were too lazy to get off the couch, so we called a truce.

The boys wearing their silly knitted hats from Chile.

I also gave them each a little leather coin purse from Atacama, which Nico said was his favorite present. What a love bug.

The day after Christmas we ditched my parents and took off for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The entrance featured the word “Explore” in huge letters with a rocket garden towering in the background. “This really is a dream come true for me,” said my brother-in-law John.

Visiting the various “mission zones” was like stepping through time, from the early days of America’s space program to the space race and moon landing to the ongoing efforts to get man to Mars. Most attractions featured videos with footage from the time period, NASA personnel commenting on their work, and astronauts reflecting on their experiences.

I had just watched the movie “Hidden Figures” on the flight to the States, so it was fun to put the true-ish story in context at the place where it all happened. One of the most fascinating take-aways for me was those first rockets launched with less computing power than we have in our cell phones today.

Gearing up for a 3-D movie about NASA heroes and legends.

Perhaps because I have such vivid memories of the space shuttle program, my favorite mission zone was “Shuttle: A Ship Like No Other.” I remember the pride and awe I felt over the Hubble Space Telescope and International Space Station, both made possible by shuttle missions. I also remember gathering in a friend’s dorm room at the University of Kansas to watch the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger and its horrific explosion that killed everyone aboard. According to the Kennedy Space Center website, “A ship like no other, the space shuttle launched like a rocket and landed like a glider while transporting astronauts to space and back for thirty years.”

At the space shuttle mission zone, the shuttle Atlantis was suspended from the ceiling, and exhibits demonstrated life on board for the astronauts. Atlantis flew its last mission – and the last of the shuttle program – in July 2011.

Nico and Paul check out a Mars rover concept vehicle.

On the Kennedy Space Center bus tour, we saw the insanely enormous gas-guzzling crawler-transporter that moves spacecraft from NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building to the launchpads (which takes about five hours at a speed of 1 mph!). It is the largest self-powered land vehicle in the world. We also drove by the SpaceX building, where we glimpsed the Falcon Heavy rocket, the world’s most powerful operational rocket. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said he plans to die on Mars, “just not on impact.”

At the IMAX movie, “Journey to Space,” we got a 4-D overview of NASA’s accomplishments and future plans. Four-year-old Jack fell asleep, but the rest of us were absolutely blown away. Such an exciting reminder of how far we’ve come and space adventures that await! NASA’s research and development in preparation for a Mars mission was straight out of a sci-fi movie.

We had expected to spend a few hours at the visitor complex, but we got there shortly after it opened and we left at closing time. It was an incredible place!

A few days later, Kate and her family packed up the van and drove back to Michigan, and Tony took off for Kansas to meet up with his sisters. My other sister, Megan, joined me in Florida for a few days to hang out with Mom and Dad, and then she and I flew to her home at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas.

As soon as we pulled up to the house, these two cuties – Annesley and Will – ran out to greet me. So much love!

We went to the base library and checked out a bunch of books. I must have read Where the Wild Things Are 25 times. Stories and snuggles on the sofa? I could do that all day! We also played Headbanz, which was hilarious. At five years old, Will is surprisingly savvy at asking the right questions to guess the picture on his card. Annesley just tells you your picture, which essentially ends the game. I logged quite a bit of time pushing Annesley on the swing in their backyard, which was wonderful because she chattered the whole time.

Another highlight was Annesley’s tea party with her fancy china and stuffed animals. She fed them grapes and Scooby Snacks (dog bone-shaped graham cracker treats) and entertained them with ring-around-the-rosie and duck-duck-goose (tricky when your party guests can’t run).

Britt played ball tag with the kids in the backyard after work. They looked forward to it all day!

I got to visit each kid’s school. Here’s Will’s classroom.

One day, Megan took us for a hike in the Seminole Canyon State Park. The kids were good little trekkers, and Will genuinely listened to the tour guide, even asking a couple questions. (Maybe he’s the next generation Guide Hog?!) We walked to the Fate Bell rock shelter, where 4,000-year-old pictographs decorate the canyon walls. Our guide, Tanya, explained the ancient artists used minerals, plants, animal fat, and other natural resources to produce their paint. What do the pictographs mean? Nobody knows for sure, she said. According to the Texas State Historical Association:

The Pecos River style is a polychrome style that is considered a manifestation of the shamanic cult. The central characters of the pictographs are faceless anthropomorphic figures, elaborately dressed and often holding a variety of accessories such as atlatls, darts, and fending sticks. The figures are often depicted with their arms outstretched, and in later pictographs the anthropomorphs’ arms are increasingly stylized and seem to be more akin to wings than arms. At one end of the shelter there are also examples of Red Linear figures-a Late Archaic Period style characterized by very small stick figures engaged in various activities.

Tanya shares some details about the site while I marvel at the weathering and erosion that has sculpted the rock.

Looking out at the canyon from the rock shelter.

Some of the pictographs.

Megan checked out a Junior Park Ranger backback for the kids, which included binoculars, a sketchpad and crayons, a magnifying glass, and wildlife guides. So cool!

A prehistoric sea left fantastic fossils embedded in the rocks.

On another day, I got to combine two of my favorite things: my sister’s kids and horses! My brother-in-law, Britt, works with Ms. Jill, who recently broke her ankle and needed help keeping up with her five horses. Britt and I mucked out the stalls, which was much harder work than I expected. I actually only mucked out about half a stall before my body gave out on me.

The highlight, though, was this little guy. About four months old, he was 50% pony, 50% horse, and 100% loco.

One night, Megan took me to the Del Rio Civic Center, where the Lions Club offers bingo a few nights a week. I had no idea what I was in for. Bingo was serious business to this crowd. I’m guessing there were more than 100 people in the room, and many had their dauber collection on display. I bought a bright orange dauber and a bunch of bingo cards and then prepared to hit the jackpot. I was just two numbers away from winning $750, but alas, we both walked away broke but amused. And it was a great way to practice my numbers in Spanish! The bingo ball always appeared on the video screen before the announcer called the number in English and Spanish. I tried to say the number in Spanish in my head before she said it aloud.

Although my visit was too short, I felt grateful to experience a slice of life with my sister and her family.

Journey to the biggest pool in the world! Not.

Maybe you’ve heard that the world’s biggest pool is located in Chile. Way back in August, a colleague advertised that her beachfront condo was available to rent. Nancy and I sat on my sofa, looking at the photos of the apartment, and we realized it was located AT THE BIGGEST POOL IN THE WORLD! Although I cringed at the idea of building a humongous pool literally right next to the ocean, and I didn’t even want to speculate about the environmental impact, I also couldn’t help but admit it would be pretty dang cool to say I went to the biggest pool in the world. Nancy and I got all giddy and decided to book it for Tony’s birthday, a long weekend.

As I said, that was back in August. Once we booked the apartment, we didn’t even think about it again. We didn’t do any research. We just piled in the car after school on Thursday, Dec. 7, and headed toward Crystal Lagoon. After a slight misunderstanding with Google Maps, which had us drive on the beach for a bit, we arrived at the compound. We signed in at the gate and received our resort bracelets, pulled up to the parking area, and dashed around the building to see the pool and the beach beyond.

If this were a movie, the scene would freeze with a close-up on our perplexed expressions, and then pan out to a wide angle shot of the large-but-not-enormous pool, and then pan out further to show the construction site blocking the view of the ocean. The heavy overcast sky, the half-built concrete building, the swinging cranes, the churning sea – all colored gloomy gray – contributed to our sense of deflation.

For about a minute.

Then we had to face reality: We were not where we thought we were. And that sent Nancy and me into hysterics. Tony and I have lived in six countries and worked abroad for the last 17 years. Nancy has three passports and spent four years in India. We are not novice travelers. But this was a ridiculous, rookie travel-fail. And we couldn’t stop laughing. Seriously, for three days. Every time we passed the moderately-sized pool, we would crack up again. “How could we be so stupid?” we would titter.

The evening of our arrival, we drove around town looking for an open restaurant. No luck. We finally found a tiny take-away window (literally a hole in the wall), where we ordered chorillanas, a traditional Chilean dish of french fries, smothered in beef cubes and onions, with fried eggs on top. It was pretty greasy and delicious. However, we stressed a bit that we would have no other dining options during our visit.

Anyway, once we got over the realization that we had intended to go here (Alfonso del Mar) …

…but had actually gone here (Papudo),

we reminded ourselves that it’s about the journey, not the destination.

The next morning was Tony’s birthday. He opened his present from me first thing: un sobrero de huaso! This is the traditional hat worn by Chile’s huasos – cowboys – and even some city slickers. It’s not just a prop. You see it everywhere. Nancy gave him a bottle of Bailey’s and a special glass. He was pretty stoked.

After a leisurely breakfast, we looked out the window at the drizzly weather and gave up on playing at the beach. Instead, Nancy and I decided to find a supermarket. We drove about half an hour south till we reached the town of Zapallar, while Tony hunkered down to grade papers at the apartment.

Nancy and I parked at a strip mall that had a huge ferreteria. I have seen the name before but never stopped to find out what it was. Of course, I really wanted it to be a sprawling pet store devoted to ferrets. I pictured them scampering around on carpeted towers and rolling across the room in extra-large hamster balls. Alas, as my trusty SpanishDict app confirmed, “ferreteria” means “hardware store.” So that was disappointing. It was basically a Home Depot. The supermarket was right next door. We stocked up on wine and snacks, bought a few empanadas for lunch, and headed back to our home away from home.

Lounging around the apartment was nice, but we could do that anywhere. We finally dragged our lazy booties out to explore. We walked through the compound to a gate that opened to the beach. Who knew? (To be fair, the apartment’s owner had actually told us a few details about the place, but the information didn’t stick.) The sky remained gray and dreary, so we all felt sluggish. We walked along a nice waterfront path, found a few promising restaurants, enjoyed the view of massive pelicans floating just a few feet above the waves, and then wandered home to get some work done. Unfortunately, Tony’s birthday always falls right when we have to write our report card comments for the end of the semester.

Later, the clouds burned off and the sky turned cerulean blue, so we wandered out again, energized by the warm sun.

For dinner, we easily found a waterside table as the only other people eating at 7:30 p.m. were families with small children. Back at the casa, we sang “Happy Birthday” to Tony. Unbeknownst to me, the birthday candles I picked up at the supermarket were those “magic” ones that keep reigniting. That’s funny when you’re 10, but kind of annoying when you’re 52 and just want to eat your cake and ice cream.

The next day, we strolled along the sandy beach, waded in the chilly Pacific water, climbed on the rocks, and soaked up the seaside sounds and smells. There was no avoiding grading and writing report card comments, but we found it’s not so bad when you can reward yourself with occasional beachside breaks.

The rocks offered dramatic testimony to the forces of nature that sculpted this coastline.

I could poke around tide pools all day.

Warm sand between my toes, sitting with my sweetie on a weathered rock, watching waves blast into the boulders. I just wish I could bottle this feeling.

Huilo Huilo – a forest fairyland

After a Thanksgiving dinner with friends at a high-rise apartment rooftop, we left the big city behind for a weekend in the Patagonian Rainforest. We spent a few days frolicking in the forest like wood sprites or hobbits. And our hotel provided the perfect backdrop for this fantasy.

I traveled with Sam and Hillary (the Thanksgiving dinner hosts) and Nancy. We stayed in the Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve at the Nothofagus Hotel, named for the indigenous trees of the region (one of which soars up through the middle of the hotel itself). We stepped into the hotel and immediately felt transported to a fairy village, complete with confusing passageways and random staircases, a spiraling path from the ground-level restaurant to the rooftop viewing area with a waterfall at the center, rough-hewn beams and unfinished logs comprising the railings and other foundational structures, and views out every window revealing ponds, trees and other greenery, twisted man-made paths, and quirky sculptures and fountains.

It was really impossible to capture the weird wonderful whimsy of this place.

After wandering down long hallways, up and down stairs, and in and out of mysterious doorways, we stumbled upon the pool, which brought us great joy, especially because the lovely staff served us champagne while we soaked in the hot tub.

The only drawback was a lack of restaurants. The hotel’s buffet was pricey with no à la carte options, and the brewery across the road served only pizza. Still, we survived.

Walking to the brewery.

This made me giggle in the brewery bathroom.

The privately owned nature reserve spans about 300,000 acres. While Chile has a dearth of exciting wildlife, thanks to its isolation on the planet (mountains … ocean … you know how that goes), Huilo Huilo is home to the endangered Darwin’s frog (we saw one!) and other special species, such as the tiny pudu deer and the marsupial monito del monte (neither of which we were fortunate enough to spot). Huilo Huilo has put a great deal of effort into the conservation of the huemal deer. Researchers are raising the deer in captivity and gradually releasing them back into the wild. We visited a viewing area to see them.

The area around our hotel featured many trails that were clearly marked by this yellow bird.

I loved how this boardwalk was built around the trees.

Another hotel on the property is called Montaña Magica (Magic Mountain), a cone-shaped structure seemingly overgrown by the forest itself with a waterfall tumbling down between the windows.

These wacko webs looked like the spiders had been partying too hard the night before.

Later, the Cóndor Andino Cableway took us up the mountain to 3,829 feet above sea level for a spectacular view of the glacier-covered Mocho Choshuenco volcano. Back at the bottom, we visited the Museo de los Volcanes, an architecturally stunning museum housing a collection of indigenous items from the area.

The cableway station.

The museum had wonderful displays with English signage. I could have spent way more time there.

We also took a guided tour to a dormant volcano called Piedras Magneticas, named for the rocks that supposedly contain so much iron they confused the compasses of early explorers. Our guide, Rogelio, had a great eye and spotted the Darwin’s frog among the foliage. The most fascinating thing about this little frog is that the father scoops up the eggs and protects them in his vocal sac – that bubble you see under a frog’s chin – until the tadpoles develop. When the froglets are ready to survive on their own, daddy just spits them out. Crazy!

Darwin’s frog … so well camouflaged.

Rogelio also told us the names of many fascinating plants and birds, but of course I can’t remember anything, dang it! One highlight (nerd alert) was the Chilean hazelnut tree. I have been eating these yummy avellanas on my salads, but I had no idea what they were. It was cool to see the tree and to understand better where those nuts come from. We also saw a huge, beautiful tarantula, which Rogelio said was harmless. I wanted to pick it up, but he said we were scaring it.

We crossed this bridge to get to the island for our hike.

We climbed to the top of the volcanic island, and Rogelio showed us the route on a map.

The view from the top.

A baby hazlenut tree.

The friendly tarantula.

One night, we had a little dance party on the hotel roof at sunset.
Friends + nature + wine = happy intoxication.

Sam made this fun video:

Day trip: La Recova Winery

One of my favorite events of the year in Santiago is MOVInight. Not MOVIE night. MOVI without an E. It stands for Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes, or the Movement of Independent Vintners, in English. Small Chilean wineries showcase their wares in a festive setting with music, food trucks, and a hip lively crowd. I wrote about last year’s event here. This year’s MOVInight took place on Nov. 10 in a different but equally fabulous venue. Unfortunately, I didn’t snap any photos worthy of posting. I did, however, sample a delicious rosé from a boutique winery called La Recova, and I knew I would have to pay that place a visit.

A month later, on Dec. 2, I hired a driver and piled into a van with four girlfriends – Nancy, Clare, Hillary, and Lisa – for the 2-hour drive to Casablanca Valley, one of Chile’s premier wine regions. Several mass-producing wineries line the highway – called Ruta del Vino, but La Recova hides off the main path, outside the village of Las Dichas (which translates to “good fortunes”). The small-scale winery produces its wines from a single variety, Sauvignon Blanc.

We were woefully underdressed for the chilly temperatures (except for Clare, who kept pulling layers of clothing out of her bag like Mary Poppins). Nevertheless, we kicked off our tour outside with a glass of rosé, made from La Recova’s Sauvignon Blanc grapes mixed with Syrah skins. Overlooking hectares of vines that crawled down the hillside and back up surrounding slopes, we learned about the vineyard and its unique wine from a friendly and patient guide named George.

Fat fragrant roses framed the scene, perfectly matched to the wine (and my cardigan).

George led us into the rows of grape vines, where he showed us some Sauvignon Blanc baby grapes.

From there, we walked to the roof of a small building, where grapes are fed into tanks below. George lifted a cover so we could see the cloudy soup that would eventually become wine. On ground level, he let us each tap the tank to try a sample.

By then, we were all a bit tipsy and getting peckish. Fortunately, it was time for lunch! We climbed the steps to a hilltop terrace, where we were greeted by Chef Ivan Parra and his assistant, Fernanda. We sat at a table with more cutlery than I knew how to use, and George rustled up some blankets for us. I wish I had done a better job of recording what we ate and drank.

We started with bread and pebre, a typical Chilean salsa. Chef Ivan also brought out a pebre made with a popular kind of seaweed. I think we drank Sauvignon Blanc with that course. Next, we had this … I have no idea what they were, other than tasty chunks of meat. It’s possible we drank one of the two varieties of rosé at that time.

The next course was … hmmm, I think it was a twist on ceviche with a quinoa cake, plus a different rosé, if memory serves.

A gourmet version of the Chilean chorillana came next, paired with the winery’s Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend.

Finally, a lovely maracuya sherbet satisfied our sweet tooth … with more wine, of course.

La Recova was the perfect place to recharge our batteries. I look forward to another visit, and I’ll dress appropriately next time!

Score! Another great match with Trusted Housesitters

Ella’s companions for the Dieciocho holiday were Marca, Ashley, Evan, and Kieran, a family we found on the Trusted Housesitters website, which matches pet lovers looking for a free place to stay with pet owners looking for housesitters while they travel. Marca and Ashley were international teachers in Thailand and Saudi Arabia, but they’ve taken off for at least a year of travel and “world schooling” with their two boys. We gave them a tour of our school (in case they ever want to settle down again) and took them out to dinner before heading off to San Pedro de Atacama.

We knew we had found the right family when the younger boy showed up for dinner with a T-shirt reading “Purr-ito” and a picture of a cat face sticking out of a burrito. My kind of people.

I asked them to take a family photo with Ella. No small feat. She is terribly uncooperative.

I’m glad we told them about Ella’s secret hiding place! They sent this pic when she disappeared for awhile.

It seems Evan was Ella’s BFF.

When we got home, Ella was more interested in playing in the luggage than actually reconnecting with us.

Not only did this family treat our baby with love and kindness, they also left our home in perfect condition. Actually it was even better than we’d left it; Ashley fixed our broken kitchen faucet. Everyone said they enjoyed their stay in Santiago, so it sounds like a win-win!

Dieciocho 2017 – Day 5 – Termas de Puritama

For our last full day in San Pedro, I think we chose the absolutely most fantastic thing to do: soak in some natural hot springs.

Our driver, Oscar, picked us up at 2 p.m. for the 34-kilometer bone-rattling drive to Termas de Puritama. Once we arrived and paid the entrance fee, he tried to explain some of the bathing protocols, but most of it was lost in translation. Oscar waited with the van at the top of the ravine, and we walked down the steep path to the springs.

The name Puritama means “hot water” in the indigenous Kunza language. The water’s temperature ranges from 25°-33°C or 77-91°F, cooling off as it flows downhill.

The water spilled from pool to pool, creating entertaining waterfalls and occasionally strong currents. Raised boardwalks connected the eight pools and branched off to restrooms, changing rooms, and a covered picnic space. I later learned the site is maintained by the Explora company.

This place was a gajillion times better than I could have anticipated. Although quite busy, the pools never felt uncomfortably crowded, and everyone seemed thrilled to be there. Big smiles all around. The positive energy was infectious.

View from the top.

Tony and I reached the parking lot first at the end of our visit. I tried to chat in Spanish with Oscar, the driver. Turns out he was a big fan of Ray Charles, the Beatles, Elvis, the Four Seasons, and other stars of the oldies stations. He played some of his favorites during the ride, and we sang the whole way home.

Back in San Pedro, we went out for our last dinner in Atacama. Nancy and Jim ordered this giant pile of meat, and we shared a pitcher of terremotos, a traditional Dieciocho drink made from pipeño wine and pineapple ice cream.

Dieciocho 2017 – Day 4 – Geysers del Tatio

At 4:30 a.m., I drowsily sipped a cup of coffee and hoped today’s attraction – the world’s highest geyser field – would be worth the sleep deprivation. It did not disappoint.

When our group tumbled out of the bus at 4,300 meters (14,100 feet) above sea level, the sun remained tucked behind the surrounding mountains and we were grateful for our long underwear and wooly hats. Our guide, Felipe, warned us not to wander too close to the steamy plumes and hissing puddles, noting that two tourists had lost their lives in the scalding water.

He pointed out a nearby mountain, which resembled the profile of an old man looking up to the sky, and told us indigenous people named this area “grandfather who cries.”

The geysers and fumaroles form when cold water comes in contact with hot rocks deep below the earth’s crust. The pressure blasts hot water up through underground conduits to erupt at the surface, up to 10 meters (about 33 feet) high. Early morning chilly temperatures ensure the most dramatic billowy reactions as the 80+°F water bursts out to hit the icy air.

I had never seen a geyser in person before, so the ethereal landscape felt particularly special. As the sun rose, the sky turned from grey to cerulean. Bright sunlight illuminated the green and rust colors of the mineral formations and created silhouettes of the tourists against a backdrop of vertical clouds.

The gurgling, whistling, bubbling, whooshing sounds further contributed to a surreal, magical experience.

I asked whether anyone had ever tried to tap the geothermal energy here, and Felipe said that was a touchy issue. Many locals have been protesting the government’s quest for geothermal power since a 2009 blowout during the testing of an old geothermal power well, he said.

According to Wikipedia (and confirmed on several other websites),

In September 2009, a failed prospecting drill for geothermal exploitation in the (1960’s) Nº 10 well near the El Tatio area, by the Geotérmica del Norte consortium – formed by the Chilean state owned ENAP and Codelco Mining companies in association with Italian state owned ENEL – caused a 60-meter high artificial fumarole to develop, with the company unable to seal it for several weeks. The eruption of the fumarole was followed by strong subterranean noises, and a notable decrease of all but the most active geysers in the area.

A 2015 article by the Inter Press Service News Agency quotes indigenous people, who have mixed feelings about geothermal power exploration.

The Alto El Loa Indigenous Peoples Council got ENAP and ENEL to sign a series of agreements for the implementation of social development projects in the local communities in compensation for the impact of the geothermal project, and especially the power line.
For the inhabitants of Alto El Loa, scattered in remote areas in the Atacama desert, if the project is sustainable and benefits their communities, it will be a positive thing. But they say they are concerned that their way of life may not be respected.
“I would like to see more help, and if this is a good thing, then it’s welcome,” Luisa Terán, a member of the Atacameño indigenous group from the village of Caspana, told IPS. “Sometimes we feel a bit neglected and isolated.
“But it has to come with respect for our traditions, and it is our elders who are demanding that most strongly,” she added.
Others, however, reject the project as “anti-natural” and “violent” towards the local habitat.
“If you hurt the earth, she will in one way or another get back at you,” tourist guide Víctor Arque, of San Pedro de Atacama, a highlands village 290 km from Ollagüe, told IPS. “It can’t be possible to drill kilometres below ground without something happening.”

For now, the project is on hold, and more than 100,000 visitors each year can enjoy the sights and sounds of El Tatio geyers like we did.

On our way back down the mountain, we stopped at the tiny Andean village of Machuca. About 20 houses built of adobe and straw line a path leading to stairs up the hill to a small church. An LA Times article says the families of Machuca subsisted on terraced farming for generations, but the climate has become too dry. Today, residents raise llamas and barbecue them on skewers – a treat known as anticucho – to sell to the tourists traveling between the geysers and San Pedro.

We had booked an afternoon of salt lake swimming in Laguna Cejar, but Tony and I spent the afternoon reading on the hotel terrace instead. After traveling to Jordan in 2014 and swimming in the Dead Sea, we felt like, “been there, done that.”

Craig went but only waded. Nancy and Jim said they had a great time thrashing about in the lake.

Dieciocho 2017 – Day 3 – Red rocks, flamingos, high-altitude lakes, and lots of salt

Our Atacama adventure continued on Tuesday with a full-day of high-altitude happiness. Craig opted out, but the rest of us piled into a van with a few other tourists at the crack of dawn for the journey up to 4,400 meters (14,435 feet).

Our driver, whose name I have regrettably forgotten, was extremely enthusiastic and knowledgable, and he spoke clearly and slowly so I could understand quite a bit of his Spanish. Good thing because the guy who tagged along as our English interpreter was sweet and friendly but unfortunately didn’t actually speak English. For example, here’s the explanation of how the salt lagoons formed:

At one point, we pulled off the road for a photo shoot. I ate some Altiplana snow; couldn’t resist. God only knows how long it had been there.

The driver pointed out vicuñas as we bounced along the mountain roads. I can’t tell a llama from a guanaco; they are all adorable. Vicuñas are protected in Chile, but poachers herd them across the border to Bolivia, where it’s legal to kill them for their meat and wool.

At our first destination, Piedras Rojas – or Red Rocks, we strolled around the smooth-sculpted terracotta-colored rocks and marveled at the snow-capped Aguas Calientes volcano reflected in the glassy aquamarine lagoon.

From there, we drove to a small village and crowded into a tiny restaurant (or someone’s home?) patriotically decked out for Dieciocho.

Sitting in plastic chairs, we clasped our mugs of steaming instant coffee while smiling ladies served up toast and scrambled eggs. The driver sat next to me, and I used all my Spanish to have a good chat with him. He introduced me to rica rica, a thorny shrub that grows in high altitude. Considered a medicinal herb, it can help with altitude sickness, cure tummy aches, strengthen your circulatory system, and provide many other health benefits, the driver told me.

I tried the rica rica tea at breakfast and found it very soothing. Back in San Pedro, I sampled some refreshing rica rica ice cream and even bought a branch of rica rica at the market (although I ultimately gave up on packing it to take home).

After breakfast, we hit the road again. We visited two more lagoons: Miscanti and Meñiques. Each lagoon sits at the foot of its namesake volcano, and together they cover almost 11,000 hectares. They are fed by an underground water supply and serve as breeding and nesting sites for many highland birds.

Laguna Miscanti

Laguna Meñiques

One more quick roadside photo shoot before heading back to the village for lunch…
Jim’s awesome shot.

Lunch was soup, followed by a meat dish. When Nancy asked what the options were, our “interpreter” explained that she could have “meat or kitchen.”
Nancy: You mean chicken?
Interpreter: Yes, kitchen.
Nancy: You’re saying “kitchen,” but you mean “chicken,” right?
Interpreter: Yes, kitchen.

We were dying. And this placemat didn’t do much to stifle our hysteria.

After lunch, we walked outside, and I looked up at the mountains. “Is that salt or snow up there?” I asked.
Interpreter: (quizzical look)
Me: Esta sal o nieve?
Interpreter: Nieve.
Me: Snow? But it’s so dry here.
Interpreter: Invierno …
Me: Winter?
Interpreter: Si, winter… before, no … after, no … because, no … verano …
Me: Summer?
Interpreter: Si.
Me: Ohhhhh…

Although most of our day had been spent exploring areas encompassed by the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos, our next stop – the Laguna Chaxa Visitor Center in the Soncor Sector – put us face to face with those gorgeous pink birds.

The Convention on Wetlands, called the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. The Soncor Hydrological System is a Ramsar site that promotes the rational use of wetlands, primarily as a habitat for migratory aquatic birds. According to Ramsar, “Located in the catchment area of Salar de Atacama, this site is characteristic for presenting a crust of different types of salts, mainly chlorides and sulphates. There is also a hydrological system conformed by a series of superficial channels and lagoons, that together constitute a perfect habitat for waterfowl, many of which are endangered such as the three High Andean flamingo species …”

Here are the three flamingo species found at Laguna Chaxa (from the website BioExpedition). I’m newly obsessed. I started to post an obscene amount of information about flamingos, but you can click the links to read more about them.

Andean Flamingo

James’ Flamingo

Chilean Flamingo

The Visitor Center offers an interpretive trail through the bizarre crunchy crusty salt flat, which includes four lagoons full of life forms adapted to highly saline conditions. The micro-algae, brine shrimp, copepods, and daphnias serve as food for flamingos and other water birds. The pigmented algae is believed to be the source of flamingos’ rosy hue.

On our way back to San Pedro, we stopped at the village of Toconao, mostly so everyone could get some ice cream. The traditional Andean town is known for its houses constructed from a light-colored volcanic stone called liparita. The church, Iglesia de San Lucas, and its separate bell tower date from 1750.

Whew! That was a long, incredible day! Off to bed to dream about flamingos and salt.

Dieciocho 2017 – Day 2 – Valle de la Luna

On our second day in San Pedro, we took off for the moon … well, the Valley of the Moon. Named for its moon-esque landscape, the Valle de la Luna featured craters, cliffs, sand dunes, caves, and other stunning landforms composed of salt and rock, first created by the buckling of the earth’s crust and then carved by wind and floodwaters over thousands of years. The valley is located at the northern end of the Cordillera de la Sal, the Salt Mountains range of the Andes. Dried-up salt lakes appear to be dusted by frost, but up close you can see chunks of salt crusting the rocks.

The valley was designated a national nature sanctuary in 1982, so its massive dune (known as the Anfiteatro because it resembles an outdoor amphitheater) is now off-limits for hikers and sandboarders.

One of the driest places on earth, some parts of the valley haven’t received rain for hundreds of years. NASA even tested a prototype of the Mars Rover here.

Our guide, Mauricio, did a decent job explaining the sites in English. I was able to understand just enough of his Spanish to know he wasn’t giving us as much information as he was sharing with the Spanish speakers, but no biggie. We didn’t need many details to appreciate what we saw.

Tony caught me guide-hogging Mauricio.

First, Mauricio led us through the Cavernas del Sal (caverns of salt). Naturally, I encouraged everyone to lick the walls. Nobody listens to me. At least Nancy pretended

The trek included some tight spots and emerged at a hilltop with a spectacular view of the valley.

The bus took us to see a natural sculpture known as Las Tres Marias, which apparently once resembled Mary from the Bible in three poses. Thanks to erosion, they really should rename the sculpture, “Three Salty Blobs.”

We walked along the top of the valley, seeing some abandoned mining sites. Chile was once the world’s top exporter of nitrate, which was used in the production of fertilizer and explosives. During World War I, German scientists developed synthetic nitrogen, which ended demand for natural nitrates. Although nitrate ghost towns dot the desert, the mining industry in Chile got a reprieve with the discovery of copper.

A short stop gave us time to snap a few photos of the valley before heading to Mirador de Cari to watch the sunset.

Our sunset viewpoint was far from private. A gajillion tourists grinned and jumped for selfies dangerously close to the cliff’s edge. Still, if you could block out the throngs, you could find some zen in the crimson creeping across the valley and the transformation of the distant volcanoes from beige to golden to pink.

After this tour of Valle de la Luna, I can safely say that it might be nice to visit the moon, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Dieciocho 2017 – Day 1 – San Pedro de Atacama

Chile burst into celebration this week with Fiestas Patrias – commonly known as Dieciocho, a catch-all name for two important dates: Chile’s independence day on September 18, and Armed Forces Day on September 19. Chile’s actual independence from Spain occurred on Feb. 12, 1818, but Dieciocho recognizes the town meeting that led to Chile’s first governing body in 1810.

For the week-long Dieciocho holiday, we headed north to explore the Atacama Desert, a 600-mile-long stretch of land sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. The desert bleeds across Chile’s borders into Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. Tony and I flew to San Pedro de Atacama, along with our friends and fellow Nido teachers, Craig and Nancy, and Nancy’s fiancé Jim, who traveled to Chile from England.

San Pedro de Atacama, a small town comprising dirt roads lined with squat adobe buildings, served as our jumping off point. We joined a surprising number of tourists strolling through the warren of restaurants, souvenir shops, and travel agencies, pausing in the town square to snap a few photos of the church, and popping in to the crafts market.

The 5,916-meter Licancábur volcano watches over San Pedro.

Poking around the shops.

When we stepped off the plane in San Pedro, we had gone from an elevation of 520 meters in Santiago to 2,408 meters. The impact was subtle. We all reported feeling out of breath if we tried to walk too fast, and some of us experienced short bouts of nausea.

We stayed at Parina Atacama, a small hotel off the beaten path, in part because we thought it would be quieter than staying in the middle of town. It was not. San Pedro’s Dieciocho fonda was in a field right around the corner. A typical fonda features dancing the cueca, playing traditional games, eating asado (barbecue), drinking terremotos (pipeño wine with pineapple ice cream) and lots of loud music all night long. (One morning, we were waiting on the corner for our tour bus at 7 a.m., and several people came stumbling down the street from the fonda.)

Anyway, the hotel had comfy beds, hot showers, and a big terrace where we could all hang out, so no complaints.

In San Pedro de Atacama itself, I really only wanted to check out two sites: the renowned archaeological museum and the little church in the central plaza.

The Museo Gustavo le Paige was named for a Belgian priest who arrived in San Pedro in the 1950s and amassed a significant collection of ancient artifacts. Unfortunately, a walled-off construction site is all that remains of the museum. According to a notice posted by the Universidad Católica del Norte, the museum structure had deteriorated to the point that the collection was in danger. The items were moved to safer temporary storage, starting in 2014, and the museum was razed with plans to build a new, more modern facility. However, the project has been stalled for some reason.

At least we got to visit the church. According to Lonely Planet, the Iglesia San Pedro “was built with indigenous or artisanal materials – chunky adobe walls and roof, a ceiling made from cardón (cactus wood) resembling shriveled tire tracks and, in lieu of nails, hefty leather straps. The church dates from the 17th century, though its present walls were built in 1745, and the bell tower was added in 1890.”

We booked a four-day tour with Sol Atacama Expediciones to see the region’s highlights. Were we even still in Chile? It felt like another planet! Stay tuned …

Adventures in Teaching and Travel