As our families were approaching Thanksgiving and solidifying plans for travel and turkey, I was growing homesick. Sure, we'd just seen my entire family just six weeks prior, but Thanksgiving might be my favorite holiday, and this is the first time I was missing it. That's the tough part about traveling long term - we're going to miss fun things! But while I was anxious about missing the holidays at home, I was enjoying our South American Adventure! Up next, exploring "The White City" of Arequipa, Peru, and the dusty, desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
Arequipa, Peru is famous for the nearby Colca Canyon - another popular hiking destination where trekkers have a pretty good chance of spotting the giant condors that live there. We had intended to do at least a day trip out to the canyon, if not an overnight trek, but based on how tired we were from our Machu Picchu trek just two days before, we decided against it. The last thing we wanted to do was hurt ourselves and limit our future activities. So we relaxed instead, and took the extra time to head to the movies - The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay (the final movie in the series) was out and I was dying to see it! And since it was the same movie theater company as the one we went to in Lima where we had the killer popcorn, we got the biggest size available. It was probably the biggest bowl of popcorn I've ever seen, and unfortunately it wasn't as good as we had hoped (which is probably a good thing since we ended up not finishing it!).
We explored The White City, so named for the white stone used to make all of the buildings, on another free walking tour. One person commented on all of the construction around town, specifically referring to the many unfinished buildings with rebar sticking up out of the brick. "That must mean the economy is picking up, if there is so much construction, right?" he asked. Not exactly. Our guide explained that, when the city historic center of Arequipa was designated a historical site, all buildings must remain as they were at the time of the designation. So buildings that were unfinished were to remain unfinished forever. This makes absolutely no sense to us.
We really enjoyed the main square, complete with a beautiful fountain, tons of pigeons eating seed from people's hands (ew!), palm trees, and a gorgeous white church. It was right next to the pedestrian street where we found another Manolo location - remember that incredible, life changing Torta de Tres Leches that we had on Jake's birthday in Lima? We couldn't pass up the opportunity to get some more! Later that same day we were told to try another tres leches at a little café next door to Manolo, so we threw any idea of healthy eating to the wind and sat down for another piece of cake (at least we shared it!). It was over this delicious piece of tres leches that I got an email from my brother Russell - I had asked him what he and his wife Sarah wanted for Christmas. His response - "Lessons on how to use our new camera so we can take good pictures of our BABY!". AHHHH!!!! Sarah is pregnant and we're going to be Aunt Nono and Uncle Jake!! I screamed with joy in the café and immediately burst into tears. I can't wait to meet the newest member of the family in May!
We had one task that we had to complete before leaving Peru and heading to Chile - we had to find a way to get US $100 bills from the Peruvian banks so we could use them to exchange at the Blue Rate in Argentina. At our time of travel, Argentina's "black market" currency exchange, the Blue Dollar Rate, was still operating. Yes, it's unofficial and technically illegal, but the police don't do anything about it, and the rate is about a third better than the official rate (more on this when we post about our time in Buenos Aires). The best way to take advantage of the Blue Rate is to trade $100 bills to Argentine pesos, so we were on a mission to stock up on them. We discovered that, while Chile doesn't have US dollars available, Peru does, in both their ATMs and banks. And if we wanted to take advantage of the Blue Dollar, we needed to bring in US dollars from outside Argentina.
Now that you understand why we were trying to do this, let me tell you what a pain it was! The first challenge was trying to explain to the teller, in broken Spanish, that we wanted to use our debit card to take out $1500 and receive it in hundreds. Once the teller understood what we needed, she directed us to use the ATM to get US twenties (the largest denomination available), and then bring the twenties in to her to exchange them. Perfect! We hit up the ATM and made several withdrawals since we could only withdraw $200 in a single transaction (thanks Schwab checking for reimbursing all ATM fees - that would have been at least $50 in fees!). We handed the thick stack of twenties to the teller and waited for the exchange. "Oh, I'm sorry, I can only give you one hundred dollar bill," she told us in Spanish. Apparently there was a shortage of US hundreds at that bank, and they could only give out one or two per customer! Great, now we had an unwieldy stack of twenties to carry around! Stashing the thick stack of remaining bills in my purse, we wandered around town looking for a bank that could exchange for hundreds. Not ideal. An hour later we finally found a large bank that could make the transaction for us. We were able to trade in all of our twenties for a much smaller stack of bills. We had doubled our US cash on hand, and let me tell you, $3000 in cash feels like an insanely large amount, especially when you're a foreigner wandering around in a country where you clearly stick out! We quickly got over the feeling of unease, though. The money was carefully stowed away and there was nothing to bring us extra attention, so we were just as safe as we always were. Just slightly more liquid.
Lastly, I wish that I could say we loved the food in Arequipa. Unfortunately the food was much like most other places in South America we'd been thus far - fried and flavorless. The exception was Lima and the delicious ceviche. The food in Arequipa was unimpressive, even the local specialties of Rocoto Relleno, (a stuffed pepper filled with beef, cheese, black olives, ground peanuts, various Peruvian spices, sometimes raisins, then baked) and Adobo (a pork stew). The restaurant we visited to taste these typical dishes didn’t really excite us either. La Nueva Palomino was recommended to us by people who worked at our hostel, our walking tour guide, and Trip Advisor, so we figured it had to be pretty good. I think the walk there turned me off to the place before we even got there - Google maps took us down a strange walkway in between a hill leading down to the freeway and the backsides of buildings. It smelled like pee, and while it was sunny out and no one was around, just didn’t make me feel very good about being there. When we emerged from the path on the other side, I was already feeling like I wasn't going to like the restaurant experience. When we walked in and discovered we were the only ones there on what was supposed to be a very popular Sunday morning spot, my displeasure grew. We tried to make the best of it, but when we tasted the boring food, my disappointment was solidified. I was ready to get to a new country and try something delicious! Culinary bummer!
So off we went to northern Chile! We were rested and ready for more adventure, and what better place to take advantage of adventurous excursions than the remote desert town of San Pedro de Atacama (often referred to as just San Pedro, or SPdA for short). We traveled for 24 hours by bus from Arequipa to SPdA on a road that looks like a never ending set for Mad Max - dirt roads surrounded by nothing but dunes, rocks, sand, and space. For as far as we could see out the bus windows, the landscape didn't change.
The least fun part of the was the baggage checkpoint at 3am. Had we not read about this process, we would have been wildly suspicious of our belongings and curious about our safety, but since we knew that the baggage check was official and required, we got our groggy butts off the bus and into the freezing cold breeze to have our bags scanned and checked for fruit that could potentially destroy the crops in Western Peru and Northern Chile. After several more hours on the bus, passing by nothing of note except a giant solar panel field that we thought was a lake from far off, we finally arrived in SPdA. The tiny town seemed to pop up out of nowhere, and was totally different from what we've seen so far- the buildings are all one story high with low ceilings, and the walls are made of mud, sticks, and glass bottles in place of bricks!
As we wandered off the bus and into town, we stumbled into a celebration in the main square - booths were set up with face painters and local venders selling their wares, the school dance team performed as did the school drum line, a giant stage was being constructed in the dirt parking lot, and banners advertising a big fireworks show were on display. It just so happened to be the 33rd anniversary of the founding of San Pedro de Atacama! Great timing!
Since most of our activities had early (and I mean EARLY, like 4am) pick up times, we did not partake in the nighttime activities. But I did catch the fireworks at midnight from our bedroom in the guest house we stayed at. They started right at midnight and went on for about 20 minutes. And I gotta say, watching the beautiful fireworks (they were really good!) from the comfort of my warm, cozy bed in the middle of the desert with my husband snoozing next to me on this great adventure - it's a memory I'll keep forever.
On the food front, there wasn't much to report. The best thing we had there was really good ice cream at a local spot called Babalu. All of the ice cream is made in store and the flavors are all seasonal. During our three days there, we went three times, and tried the mint chocolate, snickers, chanar, manjar (dulce de leche), and selva negra (vanilla, cherry, and brownie). Yum!
Ok, so why go to San Pedro de Atacama? For the incredible activities! Because there are so many different excursions to take, we had originally planned to stay for six days. After seeing how remarkably expensive the town is though, especially compared to Peru, and how many of the excursions really interested us, we changed our plans and cut our stay in half. Three days would be plenty. The day we arrived we wandered around (in the unrelenting heat and sun) to a few different tour agencies and ended up picking two main tours to complete in two days. This way we could see what we wanted and get on down to wine country a bit faster (yipee!).
First up, a day at Piedras Rojas and Altiplanicas. We weren't sure the bus would pick us up as we were waiting outside in the freezing cold at 4:30am for about 30 minutes, but it pulled up just as we were about to give up and crawl back in our warm bed. With low expectations we boarded the bus. Over a simple breakfast of fresh rolls, avocado, tomato, cheese, and coffee in a town of 500 people not far from SPdA, we made friends with our fellow busmates and listened to our guide, Jefferson (originally born in Detroit, then moved to Venezuela as a boy, and then Chile), tell us about the small village that provided our breakfast. Socaire is such a small village that its economy relies solely on agricultural trade and sales, and the occasional tourist breakfast. Even though we are in the driest desert in the world (not just a dramatic exaggeration, it really is), the towns get plenty of water from the snow melt in the nearby Andes Mountain and the rich volcanic soil is great for produce.
We reached the Lagunas Altiplanicas, lakes formed by a giant volcanic eruption thousands of years ago, and maintained and refilled by the nightly fog that settles in the mountains. On the way we got to see a large pack of wild, endangered vicuñas, the animal with the finest wool in the world. After about an hour walking around the two dark blue, shining lakes surrounded by old inactive volcanoes (48 dot the area!), we headed off to the next spot: Piedras Rojas, a flat made not of lava, but of hardened ash. Clear water just inches deep blows across the ash, giving off a light green hue in the sunshine. Even though the wind blows something fierce, the clouds do not roll through quickly. Instead, they center directly over mountain peaks and form upside down bowls. The ash is super crunchy and crystallized where it's dry, and absorbent and squishy, but not like mud, where it's wet. This place is one of the most interesting and most beautiful that I've seen. This is what, I think, our South American adventure is all about!
We ended the tour with a visit to the Salt Flats to see the native flamingoes and the Mars-like salty terrain. Instead of a smooth white surface that I had expected, the salt flat was covered in craggly salt rocks that made the whole area look like something not of this world. Throw a red filter on the landscape and it could be used as a backdrop for Mars. The sun was so hot by this late afternoon that we didn't stay for too long. With a quick visit to the town square of Toconao, where the door to the bell tower is still made of traditional cactus wood and llama tendons, we headed back to SPdA.
After a quick empanada (a vegan one, how'd we get tricked into that??) and some ice cream (to make up for our moment of veganism), we went to bed- we had a 4am wake up call for a visit to the Geysers of Taito and wanted to be as rested as possible.
Dark and early at 4:30 am we were ready to go and waiting for our bus outside. "They'll pick you up between 4:30 and 5am," we were told. So we waited patiently. And 5am came and went. Just when we were starting to lose faith in our transport, the bus arrived at 5:20. Being the last to get picked up, we didn’t get seats together. No bother, I was going to sleep for the drive anyway!
An hour an a half later, as the sun was starting to crest the hills, we arrived at the geysers, 4200 meters above sea level. Dozens and dozens of steam columns rose out of the ground. All bundled up (it was -2*C), we explored the gurgling geysers and thermal vents for about 40 minutes before enjoying a camping style breakfast of egg sandwiches and coca tea in metal mugs. Afterwards we had time to take a dip in the hot springs. We opted out because it was still cold out and I wasn't keen on the idea of having to change back into my long johns in the cold, and the water smelled like sulfur and I definitely didn't want to smell like rotten eggs all day long. Instead, Jake and I checked out some of the larger geysers until it was time to go.
We went back to our hostel to plan more of the trip before our second tour of the day, a trip to La Valle de la Luna, so name because the terrain resembles that of the surface of the moon! At 5:15pm,under the blazing hot sun, our tour bus arrived at the first viewpoint, a giant sand dune. I have actually never really seen one before, so the huge, smooth pile of sand was very interesting looking to me. On either side of it were giant, scraggly rocks that really did look like they could have staged the moon landing nearby.
Viewpoint # 2: Las Tres Maria's. A long time ago, a priest was traveling through the valley and found three natural rock figures, carved by wind, that looked like three women praying, and thus called the structure The Three Mary's. Unfortunately we could only see two of the Mary's because the third was broken by a Brazilian tourist a few years ago who decided to climb it and take a picture with it. We were just happy to hear it wasn't an American who broke it! Funnily enough, the Brazilian on our tour kept getting yelled at by our tour guide to stop climbing the walls! Just stay on the trail, people!
The third stop was a more of a walk on the valley floor to see a giant rock, known as The Amphitheater, that was created during earthquakes over 20 million years ago. It stands quite high in the valley, and is a beautiful golden color with tons of thin strips. Showing its age.
The final stop of the evening tour was Coyote Rock where we watched the sunset. According to our guide, the spot was named that because it looks like all the cliffs that Wiley Coyote always ran off in the cartoons. The sunset was beautiful, though rather boring as there were no good clouds to spread color around. But we did enjoy watching the shadows come up on the rocks and hills below.
I think I forgot to mention that it was also Thanksgiving Day! It sure was weird not being at home with family on one of my favorite days of the year, not playing football with my cousins, not helping Mom in the kitchen, not starting the day off with a pound of bacon so we could use the bacon fat on the turkey later, and ithaving cocktails with my family. I'd be lying if o said I wasn't emotional, especially when I thought about how it'll all be happening again in one month for Christmas and we won't be there. Yes, I had a breakdown. And we talked through it. I would love to celebrate all of these things with my family, but I'm also so grateful that Jake and I are lucky enough to be able to be on this trip. We are so thankful for all of the love and support that we've received from our family and friends that have made it possible for us to do this. Never in a million years did I ever think that I would get to do something like this, that I would be on a trip of a lifetime with my husband, that we would be able to have this unique experience. I'm so thankful for my amazing husband for helping to make this dream a reality, and for listening to me when I'm homesick, and for going on this wild adventure with me. We have so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, and I can't wait to see where our adventure takes us next, when we get home, and long into the future. Oh, and no, we didn't eat turkey, so we made do with a dinner of ice cream at Babalu. Delicious!
This region of the world is fascinating - the landscape of Northern Chile is so wildly different from anything else we'd seen. Next up, we'll see how it compares with Northern Argentina, the land of giant cacti and immense waterfalls!