Our Next Chapter: Australia, New Zealand, and Minnesota

Whoever said, “Life’s what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans,” was really onto something.  After three days at home in Minnesota followed by just shy of thirty hours of travel, Chris and I made it to the land down under. We’re a big messy bowl of emotions — as well as jet lagged and sleep deprived.

When Your Plans Don’t Go As Planned

As many of you know, our trip to Australia was supposed to be the start of a new adventure for us. Chris and I made plans to relocate to Sydney and received notice of our permanent residency in Australia this past November. We quit our jobs in January and headed off to South America for nearly two months of travel. While exploring Chile, we received some very sad news. My Mom, who is a ten year breast cancer survivor, has been diagnosed with a new, more aggressive form of breast cancer.

Our family and our friends are our entire world. We’re blessed to have both on multiple continents. The outpouring of love and support Chris and I’ve received following my Mom’s diagnosis has been overwhelming. But, at least for now, we’re postponing our move to Australia. Where we need to be is in Minnesota while my Mom undergoes treatment.

The start of this trip has been a little weird. We’re happy to celebrate two good friends get married tomorrow. We’re grateful to have the means to spend a quarter of 2017 traveling. But, we’re also uncertain about what life will bring us next. The bottom line? Breast cancer really sucks and my Mom should not have to endure another battle with this horrendous disease. It’s bullshit.

Catching Up With Australia

In the short term, Chris and I are taking the next month to catch up with friends and visit some places I’ve been wanting to see in both Australia and New Zealand. We return to Minnesota in late April.

We’re spending our first week in Australia. Tomorrow, we get to celebrate the wedding of our friends James and Krissy in the stunning Royal Botanical Garden. These two wonderful people were Chris’s first friends when he picked up everything and moved to New Zealand in 2005. Ten years later, they became some of my first friends in this part of the world. How awesome is that?!? After the wedding, we have a few days in Sydney and might try to squeeze in a day trip to hike in the Blue Mountains. Then we’ll fly to Lennox Head to meet two of Chris’s good mates who he hasn’t seen since 2014 and who I haven’t yet met. Chris might get in a surf and I’ll get more of one of my favorite things – lazy beach time!

Exploring More Of New Zealand

Next, we’ll head to the South Island of New Zealand for three weeks. For those that know Chris, the South Island is where he got his start in New Zealand. Chris is excited to show me the sights and I’m pretty stoked to hit the hiking trails in this dramatic landscape. Our tentative plan has us landing in Christchurch, and then heading over to the West Coast. We plan to drive south to check out Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers.  From there, we will head southeast, and visit Queenstown and Wanaka in Central Otago. We’ll also make the trip to see the stunning Milford Sound. And we have to take in the Caitlins, before heading to Chris’s old stomping ground of Balclutha.  Then over to Dunedin, and up the East Coast, stopping in Timaru and back to Christchurch. 

We’re kind of winging it, so we might end up at Mount Cook. There is so much to do in this part of New Zealand, from penguins and seals, to petrified forest, waterfalls, and of course, meeting more of Chris’s friends.  New Zealand has such an important place in Chris’s heart and so I’m really looking forward to seeing more of this country that he loves so much.

Stay tuned for updates on our travels and some belated posts about our time in Peru and Ecuador. (I’m done with my meltdown about politics. Instead, I’m taking my mother’s advice to spread beauty and joy on this blog and on social media).

Thanks so much to everyone for your kind words and your support. If you’re interested in pitching in, consider making a tax deductible donation to the Susan G. Komen Foundation or the University of Minnesota’s Center for Breast Cancer Research. My Mom is one strong lady, but we’re still grateful for the outpouring of love we and she has received since her diagnosis.

Machu Picchu: A Recap and Planning Tips

I’ve wanted to visit Machu Picchu for more than a decade. Even though its a big cliche, it is one of those “bucket list places” for me. It also made Emily’s list of “top ten places” when we each made our lists when we were newly dating. Here’s a little bit more about what we learned as we planned our trip to the site and what our experience was like when we finally made it there.

Getting There Logistics

After talking with some friends, we made the decision to climb Huayna Picchu as part of our time at the ruins. Huayna Picchu is the tall mountain in the background of pretty much every Machu Picchu photo you see.

While we were staying in Cusco, we popped in to the ticket office run by the Ministry of Culture. After reading this post from Thrifty Nomads, we decided it would be easier to buy tickets in Cusco than online. But, keep that Thrifty Nomads post bookmarked, you’ll use it later…

Emily and I were lucky we planned three days in Aguas Calientes. When we asked to buy the tickets for Saturday, they were sold out. We inquired about Sunday, and thankfully lucked out. Word to the wise, even in the rainy season, it is a good idea to buy your Machu Picchu tickets at the same time you buy your train tickets. In the high season, both of these things need to be booked well in advance.

Finally, we also bought our bus tickets up to Machu Picchu the afternoon before, to avoid the long lines in the morning. I have to admit, we are some pretty clever people at times! It was an early night for us with our alarms set for 4:00 a.m. to shower, eat, and get into line for the busses. I was intent on seeing the sunrise from the ruins.

Machu Picchu DayFog in the morning at Machu Picchu

After eating an early breakfast, and picking up our bag lunches, we headed towards the bus line. We were amazed at the number of people in line so early. However, there weren’t many people in line to buy bus tickets.  So maybe, just maybe, we aren’t as clever as we originally thought!

We eventually got on a bus for the 30 minute ride up to the Machu Picchu entrance. The gravel road was winding, narrow, and didn’t leave much room for error. We were amazed two buses could pass one another and were both grateful we weren’t driving.

After waiting in line to enter the site, we decided to hike up to try and get that iconic Machu Picchu photo. Unfortunately, there were a lot of clouds and fog. For the first 45 minutes to an hour, we were lucky to be able to see more than 20 feet.  The clouds did eventually start to move out, and every so often, you would get a glimpse of the whole place. Of course, this lasted about 10 seconds, before more clouds rolled in.  While this was a little frustrating, we kept the faith, and soon enough, were rewarded with a spectacular view of Machu Picchu.

Climbing (Not Hiking) Huayna PicchuView of Machu Picchu from Huyana Picchu

After walking around a bit more, we ended up near the entrance to Huayna Picchu. We bought tickets for the second time slot, at 10:00 a.m., thanks to a tip from a friend. Based on the cloud coverage early in the morning, this was a solid tip. Each time slot allows up to 200 people to hike up this summit. We decided to wait until 10:30am to go through the entrance and start our hike, again based off a tip from a friend.

The trail up to the summit is definitely designed for those in shape and not afraid of heights. Why do I share this? Basically, you climb a series of stone steps for an hour to reach the summit, with some frighteningly steep sections near the top. As you make the climb, the entire site comes into view. Once at the top, the views are absolutely breathtaking. Once you arrive at the first of the high terraces, you have a choice. Turn around or climb higher. We chose to climb higher along a one-way route, which was frightening, but worth the view. It was a good way to see Machu Picchu from above and plot out plan for the afternoon.

After spending some time at the top, we decided to make our descent down. It was not the easiest trail on the knees for sure, but overall, well worth the hike.  We definitely recommend it for those seeking a little more adventure at Machu Picchu.

One-Way Routes and Waiting Out the RainEmily and Chris at Machu Picchu

After completing the Huayna Picchu hike, we re-entered the site, and decided to have a little lunch.  After lunch, it was time to see the rest of the ruins. However, we were stifled in our attempt to walk around at our leisure. Similar to the top of Huayna Picchu, the ruins at Machu Picchu are organized as a one-way path. So, we could not back track to the beginning of the site. We were forced to follow this one-way path all the way to the exit. Thankfully, your ticket allows up to two re-entries per day. So after a quick bathroom stop, we were ready to head back in.

We had some sun shining through as we re-entered, so we thought we would get that famous picture of Machu Picchu. However, as we were approaching that location, the rain started. It had been raining lightly on and off all day, but this wasn’t a light rain anymore. We threw on our ponchos, founds some cover, and waited out the rain. And with it being around 3pm by now, the rain assisted us in a dramatic way. It basically cleared out the site. So now, instead of exploring the ruins with 2000 other people, we were down to less than 150 people.

Persistence paid off for us and we were finally able to take some photos of the site. It was well worth the wait. After taking some pictures, it was time then to head down and admire the stone work of the dwellings and terraces. Using primitive tools, the Inca’s were able to carve rocks so perfectly that they fit together to form walls without the use of mortar or other binding agents. Being an engineer, this geeked me out.

Exploring the RuinsInca doorway at Machu Picchu

We walked over to the Temple of the Sun and marveled at the architecture. After that, it was time to get some good photos of the Temple of the Three Windows. This was another display of massive rocks chiseled so perfectly and constructed so well, there wasn’t a gap found in the temple. Off to Intihuatana, which looks like a big sun dial, and then down along side one end of the massive field of grass (about 1 acre in size).  We then passed the Sacred Rock, which is right next to the Huayna Picchu entrance, and then off to look around the various dwellings on site. The terraces used for agriculture were one of the more impressive structures. They also played a key role in keeping the site in tact.

We decided to watch a documentary about Machu Picchu, and learned how this place has survived for hundreds of years on basically the edge of the jungle. Though there is a lot of rain, and other mountains have mudslides, Machu Picchu still stands. Why? Well, simply, Inca Engineering.

When building the terraces, the Inca’s incorporated a complex drainage system. Each terrace is constructed by a layer of topsoil for growing food, then a layer of sand, and then a layer of discarded chunks of rock from construction of the walls.  This allows water to flow downward through the terraces without washing out the walls. And throughout the site, there is also an elaborate network of drainage channels underneath the structures to prevent washouts. This was very impressive to say the least.  And as you walk around the site, you could see evidence of these drainage channels. There were the more obvious rock channels above the topsoil, to gaps in the rock walls, which allow water to flow freely to lower elevations.

The Next Time List

While we were able to see and do a lot in our 10 hour day at Machu Picchu, there are still some places that we didn’t get to explore including:

  • The Sun Gate, which is the entrance to Machu Picchu for those that complete the Inca Trail,
  • Hiking to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain,
  • Walking out to the Inca bridge, and
  • While we had time to see it, we did miss the Temple of the Condor.

We were tired after a full day of walking. So, we decided to buy the one way bus ticket back down to Aguas Calientes.  The nice thing is that as of now, they do not offer a discount for a return ticket. So buying two different one way tickets, one in town and one at Machu Picchu, did not cost us more. I would recommend our approach, but also know that taking the bus down when your feet hurt is much more enjoyable than walking down the side of a mountain!

Have you visited Machu Picchu? What was your favorite part?

Aguas Calientes: You Can’t Get There From Here

We made it to Peru! We’ve done and seen a lot since we’ve been here. I wanted to start by sharing a bit about our time in Aguas Calientes before we write about the big day at Machu Picchu and the rest of our time in the Sacred Valley.

We departed Cusco on February 17th and headed towards Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. From Ollantaytambo, we took the train over to Aguas Calientes, otherwise known as Machu Picchu Pueblo. You can only get to Aguas Calientes by train, as there are no roads that reach this small town. Aguas Calientes is an interesting place. As you would imagine from being the base for touring Machu Picchu, it is a bit of a tourist trap. However, the town has been built right into the mountain, and thus it feels like you are constantly walking uphill. And as one would expect from a town with no roads into and out of the town, we didn’t see any cars at all. In fact, the only type of vehicle here are the busses that take folks up to Machu Picchu, and back down again.   

When planning our trip, we decide to spend three nights in Aguas Calientes. The main reason for this was we knew it was the rainy season. Thus, to avoid a potential disappointment in reaching Machu Picchu only to not really see it, we provided ourselves with some contingency time. Turns out, we didn’t need it. That didn’t mean all was not lost. When looking through our Frommer’s Guide, there were a couple other hikes listed. We decided to go ahead and try these out on the days we did not go to Machu Picchu.  

Hikes Around Aguas Calientesbutterfly in mandor gardens peru

The two hikes that we decided to try were the Mandor Gardens and Putucusi. The Mandor
Gardens were spectacular. For a mere 10 soles (~$3.20 USD), we walked through a well maintained botanical garden including orchids, banana trees, pineapple flowers, a diverse set of birds and butterflies, and even a small stream. After walking through the gardens we followed a well maintained trail to a waterfall. This was a nice way to spend the afternoon, and one of the highlights for us? The fact that in the two and a half hours we spent there, we only encountered six other souls.woman at waterfall in mandor gardens, peru

The other hike we attempted was Putucusi. We read that if you reach this summit, you can actually see Machu Picchu from the peak, so we were excited. However, we only got about 45 minutes up the path, and ran into a bit of a road block. The wooden ladders that would allow us to continue up the trail were no longer there. Only the remnants of the ladders, ropes, and various piles of wood remained. I guess if we had taken the time to look up the hike online ahead of time, we would have learned the hike was closed. Oops…

All About The Gringo’s

Not only does this heading reference the fact that we haven’t been around this many tourists since the Atacama Desert in Chile. It also references the place we stayed, Gringo Bill’s Hotel. I will admit that when looking at places to stay, I wanted to book this for the entertainment factor of the name. Turns out, Gringo Bill’s was pretty nice. Breakfast was good, the staff was quite friendly, and the rooms were pretty comfortable. Yes, you read that correctly, we had two rooms during our stay.

The second night we were there, I went down to go secure our lunches for Machu Picchu the next morning. I locked the door on my way out, and when I returned, I couldn’t get the door to open. Emily tried to help from the inside to no avail. The worst part?  We managed to get the key stuck in the door lock. After Emily called reception, we had not one, not two, but three gentlemen help us to get the door open, by eventually dismantling the handle and lock. Needless to say, it was an adventurous 30 minutes with Emily essentially locked in the room. In the end, we had to move rooms to one located two doors down. I can honestly say that I have never had this situation occur before in all my years traveling. It is something we both look back on and laugh about.

Final Thoughts

We have talked to quite a number of people that made a day trip to Machu Picchu from Cusco, as well as those that stayed at least one night in Aguas Calientes. I even spoke to a fine gentlemen from Guatemala who completed his second trip to Machu Picchu. Most people had the same recommendation. If you are going to visit Machu Picchu, you need to stay at least two nights in Aguas Calientes. It is much easier to base yourself there the night before you go up. And if you spend the whole day at Machu Picchu, it is a good idea to spend the night in Aguas Calientes.  

Though many of the articles found on the internet and travel guides tend to look down on Aguas Calientes, we would disagree.  It has its own charm to it, and if you are willing to take the initiative and explore, is quite rewarding.  Also don’t miss the opportunity to spend some time in the Sacred Valley, which we’ll write more about in a future blog post. It is truly an amazing place.  

Lima: A Love Story

Lima is a city sort of hits you in the face right out of the gate. We arranged a car to pick us up from the airport. It was a little on the pricey side, but we were warned before arriving that the taxi system in Lima is a little crazy. Pretty much anyone can be a taxi driver and the drivers aren’t regulated. So, you have to negotiate a fare and hope the driver brings you to the right place. Nine times out of ten, this is probably fine, but given our rickety Spanish we thought it was best to go with the arranged car.

Lima is a city of eleven million people. And there is no real transit infrastructure other than buses, mini-buses, combis, and taxis. So, as you might imagine, that equals a lot of traffic, pretty much all the time. Traffic lanes are suggestions. Honking is required. I often wondered if there were different honks for different things. Like, “Get out of my way,” “Do you need a ride?” “Hurry up!” I’ve been to many big cities, but Lima was something completely different.

So, what did I think of all of this chaos? I loved it. Here are my three favorite things from our two stints in Lima:

Mirabus Tour

Chris and I like to get off the beaten path and figure things out for ourselves when we’re traveling. But, it’s also our style to do the tourist thing from time to time. So, on our first day in the city we hopped on a bright red double decker bus for three hour tour of the city. We drove through Miraflores, San Isidrio and into Lima Centro.

The Plaza Mayor in central Lima is impressive and beautiful. The plaza surrounded by the Catedral de Lima and the Palacio de Gobierno. We were able to see the changing of the guard at the palace, which happens at 1:00 each day. A tour of the cathedral was arranged as part of the bus tour. Francisco Pizzaro’s remains are in an intricate mosaic covered chapel which you visit as part of the tour. Massive roundabouts, stuffed streets, stunningly beautiful and historic architecture, and a bilingual guide made for a great first morning in the city.

If you only have a short time in Lima, a bus tour is definitely worth your time.

Valentine’s Day Surprise

Many of you know I did not swoon over our time Chile. I was relieved to get to Peru. After more than two weeks of no sleep because of the cacophony of Chilean nightlife, I was exhausted. Thankfully, Chris could not have picked a more lovely hotel for our first two nights in Lima – Hotel Runcu in Miraflores. It was clean, quiet, and the hospitality was top notch. They brought us chocolate and cookies on Valentine’s Day. Sometimes it’s not the sweeping views or rich history (of which Lima has many), it’s a plate of sugar cookies when you’re recovering from weeks of sleep deprivation.

We wholeheartedly recommend this place if you’re traveling to Lima.

Parque del Amor

A post about my adoration of Lima wouldn’t be complete without the Parque del Amor, or Love Park. I read online later about the story of this park, which I think is awesome. One of Peru’s famous poets Antonio Cillóniz supposedly inspired the creation of this park after observing that cities do not build monuments to lovers, only warriors. (Most South American cities have statues of war heroes or other significant military figures in their main plazas or squares).

Chris and I were in Lima on Valentine’s Day and so he indulged my idea of walking from our hotel along the ocean to see the famous “El Beso” statue and the park. I wish it could say it was the most ultra romantic part of our trip, but it wasn’t. We understand now why our travel guidebook said, “Watch out!” if you venture over to this park on Valentine’s Day. There were couples holding hands, girls with bouquets of flowers and balloons, families, you name it. There were people everywhere!

We did catch a stunning sunset over the Pacific Ocean, but after that we fled the crowds to grab a bottle of wine and some snacks to enjoy from the comfort of our awesome hotel.

Atacama Desert: Lakes, Llamas, and Flamingos

I’m struggling a little bit to describe our time in the Atacama Desert. It’s breathtaking, beautiful, extreme, and vibrant. Our daylong excursion to visit high plain lakes and low lying salt flats did not disappoint. The Atacama Desert was far and away the best place we visited during our time in Chile.

It was another early morning for us in San Pedro de Atacama as we waited in the dark for our tour operator to pick us up. Ahead of us was a roughly 170 mile ride with stops at incredible sights along the way. The drive in and of itself was breathtaking. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen so many colors across such a diversity of landscapes.

Piedras Rojasred rocks and blue lagoon at piedras rojas chile

We stopped to eat breakfast and learn a bit about the geology at Piedras Rojas.  Altitude does such weird things to my body. I don’t have an appetite and I have to force myself to eat. Our travel doctor prescribed Acetazolamide, for me, which has made a huge difference. I can actually hike without searing headaches and fatigue. Woo!

At Piedras Rojas we had broad views of the surrounding volcanoes, a pale blue lagoon, and we spotted our first flamingos. A pair flew over the lagoon as we were walking by ourselves taking photographs and enjoying the landscape. It wasn’t even 10:00 a.m. and my day was made!

Lake Miscanti and Lake Meniquesflamingos in lake meniques chile

From Piedras Rojas we climbed higher to visit two altiplano lakes. Altiplano essentially means “high plain.” We also had our second flamingo sighting of the day at Lake Meniques, a deep blue lake ringed by yellow brush and towering volcanoes.

Lake Miscanti and Lake Meniques are fairly close together and were separated by a lava flow from nearby Miscanti Volcano. From the high plain, we could see at least five different volcanoes, one of which is still active. Chris and I’ve already talked about coming back to hike a dormant one someday.

Chaxa Lagoon (and Flamingoes)close up of flamingo in atacama salt flats chile

Viewing flamingoes in the salt flats was the number one thing I wanted to experience in the Atacama Desert. Three different species of flamingoes live in this totally bizarre climate and I had to see them for myself. According to our guide, flamingos can live more than 30 years. The birds we found at Chaxa are pretty used to being photographed. So, we were able to get up pretty close while they were feeding in the lagoon. It was a day filled with National Geographic moments.

Who Let the Llamas in?man pets llama on head

Finally, on our way back to San Pedro, we stopped in the small village of Toconao to stretch our legs and visit a church with a roof built out of cactus wood. (This is a big deal because the species of cactus used only grows one centimeter per year).

Anyways, while we were sitting outside the village square debating whether or not to buy some ice cream, we saw two llamas dash inside a local market.We both started laughing as the shopkeeper did his best to shoo them outside.

Our tour guide was completely unphased. He walked right up to them and gave them each a pat on the head. A few minutes later, the shopkeeper came outside with two large buckets of food. So, apparently they just popped their llama heads into the store to let everyone know it was time to eat. Does anyone else feel like they need a pet llama in their life?

It was sort of the perfect end to a brilliant day in the high desert. Have you visited the Atacama Desert? Where did you go? Where should we go when we go back?

Atacama Desert: Moon Valley and The Highest Geysers on Earth

We landed mid-afternoon in Calama and hopped on a shuttle for the 90 minute drive to San Pedro de Atacama. This is a small mainly tourist town located in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert on the planet. The Atacama only gets 1 millimeter of rain on average per year. In some places, rainfall has never been recorded.

We booked multiple excursions to various places in the desert, including Valle de La Luna and Geysers del Tatio.

Valle de La Luna

On our second day in San Pedro de Atacama, we took the Valle de La Luna tour. We signed up with Desert Adventure and wound up using them for all three tours we took in the Atacama Desert.

Our first stop the Valle de la Luna tour was Muerte Valley, which means “Death Valley”. This is not the correct name. The original name was Marte Valley, which is French for Mars Valley. The name given was based on its resemblance to Mars by a Belgian Priest that had settled in the area.  The locals mispronounced the name, and thus Death Valley stuck. The local parks group is trying to correct this mistake, even posting a “Marte Valley” sign right at the entrance.

From there, we went out to an area in the Salar de Atacama, or Atacama salt flats. We got to climb up right next to one of the biggest sand dunes, saw an example of what the old salt mines looked like, as well as the type of accommodation where the miners lived. All I can say is I am glad I never had to mine salt for work in such a harsh climate.

One of the more intriguing parts of this trip was that we noticed the desert looked a little wet. As it is an El Nino year, the Atacama had a little rain each day for 10 days straight. This is very rare, and had occurred only a few days before we arrived, which is why you could still see remnants of the rain.  

After seeing the old mines and workers accommodations, we went up to a look out over the Valley de la Luna to watch the sunset. It was a pretty nice sunset that we shared with a few hundred new friends.

Geysers del Tatiosteaming geysers in the atacama desert

The final tour with Desert Adventures required us to get up well before the sun. We were picked up at 4:30am for the 80 minute drive to the highest geyser field in the world, El Tatio.  Most folks slept on the way up, but I have never been one that does well sleeping sitting up. I tried to observe the surroundings as much as one can before sunrise.

We arrived at the Geyser fields and had a quick Chilean breakfast (white bread, ham, cheese, cookies), and then we were set to watch the sunrise. Unfortunately with the temperature being a bit cold, and Geysers containing water at ~86oC, which at that altitude is the boiling point of water, there was too much steam to really get to see the sunrise. The steam production was a pretty cool sight to behold.

We continued to explore the rest of the Geyser field, and for the more insane souls, there was an opportunity to take a dip in a thermal bath. We had heard the day before that the pool wasn’t that warm and that a lot of the tourists take advantage of this opportunity. Emily and I had much more fun walking around and checking out the other Geysers.

Llama Kebabsman eating llama kebab

On our way back to San Pedro, we stopped in a small village called Machuca. The town is supported via tourism alone, so they were ready for all the tourist busses. We had a chance to try a Llama kebab. One word: delicious. Of course, it didn’t make eating it easy for Emily when not 30 feet away from the BBQ, there was a baby Llama that you could pet and take photos with for a small fee!   

We ended up back at our hostel around noon and took a nap.  We proceeded to get our last lunch in San Pedro after we woke up. As we discussed the past few days, Em and I agreed that this location has been our favorite thus far. I think we would both come back here, and encourage you all to check it out if you can.

Stars, Pisco, and Biking in the Elqui Valley

After a relaxing few days on the beach in La Serena, Chris and I made our way to the village of Pisco Elqui in the stunning Elqui Valley. With Chris behind the wheel of our “micro machine” we wound our way up the Ruta de Las Estrellas into arid hills and bright green valleys.

I first read about this area of Chile in a post from the Globetrotter Girls. It’s worth reading the post for more detail about the valley and villages dotted throughout the region. I thought it would be a great place to do a little exploring, get outdoors, (and the photographs looked beautiful). Plus, it was a chance for us to taste pisco right from the source.

Producing Pisco

The Elqui Valley is the center of Chilean pisco production. So, what the heck is pisco, anyways? Pisco is produced from grapes and distilled into a brandy. We’ve had a few pisco sours (delicious) in Chile that have knocked our socks off. There are a few different ways this drink is made between Chile and Peru. It usually includes a combination of pisco, lime juice or lemon juice, egg white, and bitters. We really enjoyed our time in the valley. It was a great place for mountain biking, pisco tasting, and exploring the small villages throughout the area.

Finally, we participated in a stargazing tour, which was all in Spanish, and believe it or not, we’re able to pick up a decent amount. Does this mean our Spanish is improving? I hope so. One quick tip. If you plan to travel to the Elqui Valley, check out the lunar cycle. We were there right before a full moon, so the stars were a bit out shown. The stargazing would be out of this world during a new moon. Check out this feature from the New York Times travel section if you dig astronomy and want to learn more about all the Elqui Valley has to offer.

Up next we head to the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world. Keep your fingers crossed I spot at least one flamingo.

La Serena: A Seaside Escape (With All of Chile)

We’re a little bit behind on posting, but here’s a recap of our time in La Serena.

As we rode the bus back to Santiago, Emily and I discussed how much fun we had in Valparaiso. The vibrant colors and graffiti murals were amazing. The journey back to Santiago was quick as both of us were deep into our respective books. We changed buses at Terminal de la Alameda, and were off to the airport.

Spotting a Supertanker

We did have a small highlight waiting to board our flight. A large red and white plane with the tail number 944 landed. I noticed a lot of people getting up to take photos of this plane. Emily and I assumed the plane belonged to the Chilean President, as President Michelle Bachelet had been visiting the regions affected by wildfires. We were both wrong, it was in fact the 747 Supertanker airplane from the United States that was sent to help drop water onto the fires.

Exploring La Serenachurch in la serena

In La Serena, we hired a car and thus I got my first opportunity to drive. Observing the way people drive up to this point, I was slightly nervous. You definitely have to be aggressive and pay attention to your surroundings. Overall, it has been fun…and nerve wracking!

La Serena is the second oldest city in Chile (after Santiago), and is the Capital of Region IV or Norte Chico. The local population is roughly 200,000, but it is also one of the most popular beach vacation destinations in all of Chile. And since we are here in the middle of summer, we are vacationing just like the Chileans!

We had two different hotels in La Serena. This was because we had to make some changes to our original itinerary. The wildfires we wrote about in our Santiago post were starting to affect areas near the Colchagua Valley. We had planned to spend a couple of nights in wine country and decided to adjust our plans because of the fires. When we went to rebook our accommodation, we discovered there were hardly any rooms available in La Serena.

The first hotel was located right next to the Plaza de Armas in the center of town. The city center is home to a lot of small churches and a very quaint place. There were some local markets in the Plaza de Armas, and we strolled through these. We also discovered Chileans love their freshly made fruit juice, and for good reason as the temps hovered in the mid to high 80’s F. There were natural juice stands on pretty much every corner.

Beach Timesunset in la serena chile

Hotel number two, Cabanas Vegasur, was about a half block off the beach, and it was great. We were able to check in and then head down to the beach. The beach at La Serena is very long. Over the course of the next two days, we walked approximately 12 miles along the beach. Now this figure does cover the return journey, but if you cut that in half, that is 6 miles of sandy beach, and we didn’t walk all of it. On a whole, our stay here was nice and relaxing. Having lunch next to the Pacific Ocean, watching a little bit of the under-16 and under-18 National Surf competition, and of course enjoying our vacation with what seemed like 50,000 people on the beach. Emily and I enjoyed our first sunset together on this trip as well, and she took some great photos.

Tomorrow we head inland about 100km to the Elqui Valley, home of the famous Pisco grape growing region. I’ll also get a chance to see what this little Chevy Spark can do. (Emily has started referring to it as the ‘micro machine.’

Finding Color and Culture in Valparaiso

Okay, guys and gals. We escaped the heat of Santiago and made our way to the port city of Valparaiso. I have to admit something. I am not having a love affair with Chile. Chris wrote a little bit about our initiation by fire in Santiago. The city was hot, busy, and the Spanish here is very different. My Spanish isn’t great, so that’s my own fault. But in Chile, they speak very fast and there is slang for everything. Even basic questions like, “Where are you from?” are different here. I completely recommend getting your Spanish in order before coming. Google translate, to the rescue.

Chris is amazing and just rolls with it. I, on the other hand, have been dealing with some pretty major culture shock and anxiety. It’s loud, busy, and chaotic here. All the time. People are more animated than Minnesotans are at a Vikings game. There is construction everywhere. People shout on the street. The seagulls constantly cackle. Street dogs bark and fight. I’m sort of getting used to things, but I’m mostly wondering what we’ve gotten ourselves into. I’ve turned into a little bit of an anxiety-ridden coward in Chile. But, onward…

Tours in English: Muy Buenohouses in valparaiso

Valparaiso was a welcome transition from the insanity of Santiago. On our first full day, Chris and I did a walking tour with Tours 4 Tips. If you’re coming to Chile and nervous about anything, take one of these tours! I wish more than anything we had done one in Santiago. It probably would have made me feel more comfortable in the big city.

We had a fantastic bilingual guide named Camilo on the tour. He was awesome. One of the best things about the tour was that we took public transportation including a bus and streetcar with help from our guide. It was like “Public Transportation in Valparaiso 101.” It sounds stupid, but when your Spanish is already bad and the Chilean Spanish is harder to understand, the “how to take public transportation” training wheels was beyond helpful. Thanks to Camilo’s advice, we took a city bus to nearby Viña del Mar with zero problems.

American Influence in ChileEmily with street art in Valparaiso

Camilo is young, just twenty five years old. He has only known democracy in Chile, but his two parents lived through the dictatorship and hold very different viewpoints. His father served in the navy and for a short time worked closely with Augusto Pinochet. Camilo’s mother had a brother who was taken and tortured. The film “No” is one on our to watch list after hearing Camilo’s stories.

As much as this is a giant cliche, travel really is something which opens your eyes. I won’t get overly political here, but it’s a bit disconcerting when you learn how much your government has done to influence another sovereign nation. I learned about the Pinochet dictatorship, the American CIA’s role in overthrowing Salvador Allende, and “the disappeared” in high school. Watching a documentary is a completely different thing than meeting people who have been affected by things your government has done.

I’ll save the anecdotes about how often we’re seeing our current president splashed all over Chilean media…

Colorful Valparaisostreet art valparaiso

But, yay! Pretty houses! Camilo showed us another layer of richness to an already colorful city. Valparaiso experienced its golden age during the second half of the 19th century. Before the opening of the Panama Canal, people from all over Europe stopped in Valparaiso on their way to California during the gold rush. In just one of the city squares you could see French, German, British, and Italian architecture.

The city is well known for its colorful houses, antique elevators (acensores), and brilliant street art. I’ve never experienced anything quite like wandering the narrow streets and staircases on the hills of Valparaiso. Even after the tour, we spent a lot of time exploring the streets and taking in the artwork. We also checked out a craft brewery and had our first pisco sours. The city also has an abundance of stray dogs. I wanted to adopt all of them.stray dog in valparaiso

We really enjoyed our time in Valparaiso. It had a great vibe, was less intimidating than Santiago, and there was plenty to keep us busy. Next, we’re headed to La Serena for a few days on the beach before taking some time in the Elqui Valley. More to come!

Santiago: An Overwhelming Chilean Introduction

After a long flight, we touched down in Santiago on Thursday morning. Immigration was pretty straightforward, though we did have a little bit of a scare with customs. As we were walking to have our bags X-rayed, one of the customs dogs gave Emily’s day pack an extra long sniff. We clarified we had no food, but had to have the bag searched after the X-ray. The culprit? Vitamin C cough drops that smelled like oranges! I think the pooch had an ulterior motive; wanting to play fetch with me.

We had a shuttle arranged to take us to our apartment at Altura Suites. Our driver, Enrique, was very kind. We had a nice conversation (in broken Spanish) along the way. We talked a bit about the forest fires plaguing the Central region of Chile. You can read more about the devastating fires here. Altura Suites was located just a few blocks away from the Plaza de Armas, and Cerro Santa Lucia, two of the main attractions. It was nice being so central to the city and was a great base for exploring.

Heat and Hazeview from cerro san cristobal

The biggest hurdle for us to overcome (other than the language barrier) was the heat. Though Minnesota had been unseasonably warm for January, it was above 90F each day in Santiago. We didn’t have AC in our little apartment, so it felt like we couldn’t escape the heat the entire time we were there.

The heat and haze made us both feel a little jaded about Santiago. It’s the height of summer, so air quality in the city isn’t great. Most of the buses and trucks are diesel powered and not equipped with the latest pollution control technologies. So, we didn’t get to see the breathtaking views of the Andes mountains that you see all over Instagram. It would be better to visit Santiago during the spring or fall.

Cerro San Cristobalcable car cerro san cristobal

However, this did not deter us from a bit of an adventure at Cerro San Cristóbal. The largest urban park in all of South America is pretty amazing, even with the haze.

Instead of taking the funicular (cable car) up the hillside, we thought we would walk to the top. The path we chose wasn’t far from the funicular, but little did we know it was closed! So, what was supposed to be a 3 mile walk turned into an 11 mile adventure, complete with a stop at a local swimming pool near the top of the park. While the entrance fee was a little steep, it was nice to cool down in the pool.

Unfortunately the Cerro San Cristóbal experience wasn’t completely rosy. When we stopped at the base of the park, Emily sat on a bench with both of our bags. I was less than 20 feet away looking at an interactive map. An older man approached Emily, and pointed at pesos he had thrown on the ground. While he was attempting to distract her, his partner picked up my bag and got about three steps before Emily realized what was happening. She saw him with my bag and yelled at him. He dropped the backpack and they both took off. It was a big reminder that even in a very crowded area with families and lots of small kids, you have to pay attention to your surroundings. Lesson learned….

Making the Best of Santiagocerro santa lucia

Despite the heat and the bag snatching scare, we absolutely made the best of our time in the city. Santiago’s architecture is a unique blend of Spanish Colonial style and modern buildings. The Palacio de la Moneda (Presidential Palace) is not to be missed. This is where Salvador Allende vowed to stay instead of going quietly into exile during the 1973 Coup d’état. The Plaza de Armas is a great place to go and people watch, and if you are fortunate, take a peak inside Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago.

Santiago’s parks are also incredible. We loved walking through Cerro Santa Lucia and Cerro San Cristobal. The parks were clean, full of beautiful gardens, and lovely fountains.

Tomorrow we are heading west to the port city of Valparaiso, a unique city full of street art and colorful houses.