Lauca National Park
August 3, 2010, 5:33 pm
Filed under: chile, environment, nature, south america, travel, video

Lauca National Park

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

What Lauca National Park lacked in oxygen it made up for in wildlife.

The first llama I saw in South America looked dejected despite its bright little hat and Aymaran drapery. It reminded me of a sad clown. It was being led around by an old man selling photos with it, in Parque Quinta Normal in Santiago. My sympathy for this undignified creature made me all the more eager to see proud llamas in their natural environment.

In Lauca wildlife clearly have an edge. While our lungs struggled to extract oxygen from the thin climate, baby vicuñas galloped comically alongside their more gracious parents.

Vizcacha among the rocks groomed nonchalantly as we took photos, pulling their bunny-like ears over their eyes.

Alpacas and llamas intermingled amicably in the bofedales, as the highland swamps are called. They nibbled at tender vegetation emerging from the shallow water, distancing themselves if we got too close, but otherwise unperterbed.

There were some exceptions, such as a llama which spends most of its time with the Carabineros, the police, who have a strong presence near the borders of Bolivia and Peru.

Her name is Loli. You can meet her in this video.


The Altiplano – don’t forget to breathe
July 12, 2010, 7:25 pm
Filed under: chile, culture, health, mountains, south america, travel, weather


Originally uploaded by cobismith.

For us, a big attraction of the north of Chile was the Altiplano. Santiago is interesting as a city, but it wasn’t what I expected from South America. I wanted llamas, mountains and colourful garb reminiscent of the Incas. Patagonia is freezing at the moment, but up north it’s warm enough to go surfing (with a wetsuit) on the endless beach at the frontier of Chile and Peru.

So up we came, with one adventure firm in mind – visiting the Altiplano. I was apprehensive, however, because the majority of my travel woes and general maladies result from pressure and balance challenges. Flying offends my sinuses, while rocking boats or winding roads distress my inner ear to the point of nausea. Thus I anticipated altitude sickness.

I Googled the altitude of past sickness-free mountainous trips with self-deceptive optimism, but French glaciers and Canada’s high lakes were more than a thousand metres lower than the Altiplano would be.

I prepared with natural and mildly pharmaceutical remedies. Plenty of garlic meals and clove tea to thin the blood the week before our journey up, plus aspirin on the morning. In the wisdom of my late twenties I’ve finally found a cure for my motion sickness: fresh ginger. When my powdered ginger tablets last ran out I realised I was paying more for a less potent form, which is harder to come by in foreign-language pharmacies as well. But I’ve found ginger itself universally available and unmistakeable, so I need only point or pick it up at the market. So on the bus ride up I had ginger in my pocket, an edible talisman to fend off the spirits of sickness.

This worked a charm for nausea, but not for the thinning air. As the bus ascended by hundreds of metres our drink bottles swelled, popping indignantly upon opening. We began yawning; I drank more of the expanding water in attempts to fend off headache.

The bus, destined for the dizzying heights of La Paz, reached Putre, our point of departure. We tumbled out with our bags into the sunshine and crisp rarefied climate, which seemed more translucent than at sea level. I felt I could touch mountains far in the distance if I reached out enough, my arm perhaps becoming more translucent and lengthening as it stretched. I stretched some more, boldly defying advice to move as little as necessary after ascent. But after being cramped in the bus my muscles demanded release. I slowly, cautiously, stretched my head down to my knees, breathing deeply, as yoga taught me. I felt triumphant. I was well! My body hadn’t betrayed me!

I sat on the bus stop bench, and I realised it was good that I had. Things were not quite right. My body was fine, but my head was light. I realised I was shaking a little, the stretching had exerted me more than it should have, at least in the air it was used to. I took another gulp of water and looked out again, my head swimming.

We waited some minutes before our guide arrived, in a car full of young blonde women. I’ve grown used to what’s normal here, so I felt startled and curious by the foreigners, forgetting that I too am foreign in the same way. Three Dutch girls jumped out onto the highway, nonchalant, tanned in that northern European way from the UV-rich mountain sunshine. The driver of the car looked anxious and ushered them to the side of the road.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” he asked. They laughed and assured him, confident in their trinity of youth and blondness. As a freight truck destined for Bolivia approached they stuck out their thumbs; the Andean driver put on his breaks, slowing in wonder. The three Dutch girls danced up to the driver and chattered in Spanish. It was the stuff of dreams – who needs cocaine to keep you awake when three exotic young women appear, as if stepping from a magazine cover, to keep you company on the journey? They departed.

My triumphant feeling of adventure had already vanished with my light-headedness and now was further muted; our adventure, a conventional bus trip and a conventional B&B, outdone by the hitch-hiking Dutchwomen. However with my system muted I felt recovered. It was true; exertion brings on altitude sickness.

Later in the day I discovered just the exertion of digesting lunch brought it back with a fierce thumping in my head. Our host suggested perhaps I go to the clinic to take some oxygen; stubbornly and proudly I insisted that I sleep on it and hope for acclimatisation by the morning.

I took some more aspirin, but the headache remained. As I lay on our comfy bed (where did the hitch-hikers sleep?) I thought about how we take for granted the oxygen at sea level, except when we dive below it and then come up for air. This was the same air, but too refined. Like watery powdered milk for starving babies without mothers, it lacked the nutrients to keep my system glowing.

I realised I was breathing shallowly. It occurred to me that perhaps it was little coincidence that yoga flourished in the kindred heights of the Himalayas. I practiced breathing deeply, fully, using my diaphragm. The bed covers rose higher and crumpled deeper with me. I resisted the urge to breathe in again immediately after exhaling, willing myself to lengthen the moments between whole breaths. After fifteen minutes my headache dissipated, and my mind sparkled with the feeling of learning something for oneself; the glow of understanding what had before been just words of wisdom. There was enough oxygen in this air, if you know how to use it.

I fell asleep content already with my trip to where the Inca shadow is long and Spanish is a thin veneer over proud, ancient cultures.

Ayamara winter solstice festival
June 26, 2010, 1:03 am
Filed under: chile, culture, dance, events, festivals, south america, travel

On Saturday evening we happened to be on the main street of Arica, 21 de Mayo, when we saw a suspicious number of people wandering around in intricately sequinned outfits or with feathered hats. I was compelled to ask a lady about half my height, but with a feathered hat that made us equal, at what time they were parading.

I knew there would be a parade because there are parades almost every day in Arica, as you might have seen if you keep an eye on my photostream. Sometimes it’s hard to discern what they’re for, though of late they’re mostly related to the World Cup.

The tiny lady with the large feathered hat confirmed that they would be parading in “about ten minutes” this can mean anything from in fifteen minutes to in a couple of hours, in reality. So we strolled along the main street anticipating a parade at some point.

We were not disappointed. Rather than a half hour flash in the pan as happens most days, this festival involved people dancing for four hours down the main street, and then dancing for late into the madrugada (Spanish for 1-5am). I’ve never seen so many astounding costumes or so many colours.

On Monday I discovered it had been an Aymara winter solstice festival. However it wasn’t just Ayamaran dancing (the Ayamara are one of the indigenous communities in the Andes near here). We also saw Tinkus, Marinera and even some African dancing. But these words will mean little to those outside of the region – here are some photos that will give an idea of the different styles.

My favourite was the Tinkus. It reminded me a little of Maori hakas but much more colourful and a bit less scary. But if I’d been a conquistador coming across some of these guys it would have been pretty intimidating.

This experience was my biggest South American cultural education so far, and it was completely free as well as hugely entertaining. South Americans know how to party and celebrate their heritage better than anywhere I’ve been so far.

My favourite places in Santiago
June 1, 2010, 2:43 am
Filed under: chile, cities, coffee, pollution, santiago, south america, tea, travel

I’ve just moved to Arica for a couple of months. A big factor in our decision to move was the smog in Santiago. It’s a pity, because Santiago is such a clean, safe, fun place. I bet it could make the top 20 world’s most liveable cities list, with it’s great parks and public transport system – if it weren’t for the traffic and pollution. We’ll be back there later in the year most likely, but we couldn’t bear the prospect of the smog getting worse as winter descended, so we got away to the clear skies, sweeping beaches and national parks in the north of the country.

So thumbs down to Santiago for being so polluted. Thumbs up, however, to these awesome places that made my month in Santiago lots of fun, despite the smog. I intend to visit all of these places again next time I’m in Santiago, and if you happen to be in town I recommend you do the same. I’ll start with my local neighbourhood and fan out from there.

Providencia is a great suburb (‘barrio’ in Spanish) for strolling through parks and enjoying some of the best food Santiago has to offer. I took this video in Providencia one morning, in the park next to Baquedano station. This park stretches from one end of Providencia to the main art gallery in Bellas Artes.

There’s a cute little literary cafe in Parque Baquedano. It took us a while to get the courage to go in, because they have a membership system and we didn’t know if we were allowed. However the draw of sipping expresso in their leafy cafe area with its scholarly ambiance was strong enough that we braved potential humiliation at being turned away to venture inside. W got an espresso for about a dollar, and were able to sit and peoplewatch as long as we liked. They didn’t ask us for membership cards or look at us strangely. In my imperfect Spanish I translated from their site that you can donate a book instead of paying for yearly membership, which appeals to me.

At the other end of Providencia, near Pedro de Valdivia station, are some great restaurants and shops. One of my favourites is El Huerto – a must visit even if you’re not vegetarian. It’s worth seeing its great sunken dining room with a mural of Patagonia and wooden beams overhead, and if you’re craving Indian they have a few things on the menu to sate your appetite before another few weeks of guacamole and quinoa. We had our farewell dinner in Santiago with a group of friends in their sunken dining room. For something more casual I really liked Shot Cafe on Avenida Providencia. They make great coffee, which is organic and biodynamic. I enjoyed the cheap daily specials and they had excellent salads and sandwiches, which they happily modified for the vegan. You could probably make do just with English there, too. Maybe. Another reason I like Shot Cafe is they had a great sound system which could have been playing from my iPod, with a bass-rich mix of Massive Attack and some peppier Beck as a backgound for our peoplewatching.

Lastarria is probably my favourite suburb of Santiago though, with a cool mix of cafes and local designer shops and the must-see Cerro Santa Lucia, my photos from which are locked on my camera. The cord to connect said camera to my computer is on the way in a package from Australia as we speak, so they should be up soon, Australian and Chilean postal systems permitting. A friend told us that medieval sword fighting goes on beneath the castle atop Cerro Santa Lucia on Saturday mornings, which we weren’t organised enough to verify but is tempting enough to be worth a morning visit next time we’re i town.

Barrio Lastarria is organised enough to have its own deservedly funky website, which is worth checking for the latest goings-on if you’re in town. There’s a super-cool clothes and accessories shop called Hecha in Chile – Made in Chile. Despite having a “don’t buy anything for the first few months” policy I couldn’t help but buy two dresses, and a hoodie for Tim there. In fact, the only shopping indiscretions I allowed myself in Santiago were all in Lastarria. If you prefer local designers to chains then this is your stomping ground.

On the other side of Providencia from Lastarria, Bellavista is also worth a visit, but I put it further down my list because it’s in every guidebook and on all the tours and so is a bit hackneyed. At night the main street, Pio Nono, is pretty feral with its crass bars and drunkards. But if you go to the end of that street during the day you can get the cheap furnicular to the top of Parque Metropolitano de Santiago – South America’s loftier answer to New York’s Central Park. If you head up several hours after rainfall you’re treated to a view like this. On your way to or from the park, diverge from the main street a little to visit La Chascona, one of Pablo Neruda’s homes. There are tours in English or Spanish, or you can just sit, relax and enjoy the cool architecture and vibe over a coffee in their upstairs cafe.

A couple of my favourite places in the centre of town are the La Vega fruit market, behind El Mercado Central, which is really just a fish market, unlike my home town’s Adelaide Central Market which has everything. I found the central market here to be too cramped and sleazy; lots of men trying to coerce me to dine at their establishments. Not cool at all. La Vega, however, it great fun. I’m going to write a separate entry about it when I can download my photos from there, which will give you more of an idea. The centre also has another favourite of my cafes on Calle Esmerelda, La Boa Torio. The name is a play on laboratory, thanks to their alchemy-inspired looseleaf tea mixes and presentation of spices in test tubes. What really rocks about this place though is the upstairs sanctuary. Climb a tiny ladder and you find possibly the cosiest place to sip tea in South America.

Sweeping: a Spanish thing?
May 23, 2010, 4:03 am
Filed under: chile, culture, mountains, south america, travel

Santuario de la Naturaleza del Arrayán

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

I’ve noticed that Chileans have a thing for sweeping. I have vague recollections of the same thing when I was in Seville, so my feeling is it’s more a Spanish culture thing than Chilean per se.

Everywhere there are people sweeping. When I look out from our balcony, maybe once in every three times I can see someone on another balcony, sweeping. Yet to where do they sweep? The balconies are contained. You can’t sweep stuff off the sides. And why? We’re on the 22nd floor, there are no leaves. No mud should be trekked in from the doorway as balconies are on the other side of the apartment.

In the parks people are sweeping. It’s autumn, there are gorgeous brown leaves everywhere. Except on the paths. The leaves are swept off to the side of the path, so they no longer crunch beneath our boots, rather they sit in sad, damp piles, decomposing. Sometimes they’re swept into Hessian sacks, which sit on the sides of paths all the same. Swept, but left lingering.

On the footpaths people sweep. Council workers with brooms, sweeping the same five square metres of pavement for half an hour. Perhaps it’s Zen, like raked rockeries in Japan. Perhaps it just keeps unemployment down.

When we were in the mountains I saw a woman sweeping outside the perimeter of her rickety house. You can see a photo on the right. How futile, sweeping an ocean of red dust! Why does she sweep?

I don’t want to conclude that people are just passing time; surely they sweep for a reason. Surely?

Arriba! (up!)
May 23, 2010, 3:50 am
Filed under: chile, environment, mountains, nature, south america, travel, video, water

On our first weekend in South America we departed Santiago to head into the foothills (footmountains?) of the Andes. It was a stunningly clear blue-sky day, as if the continent had washed its natural wonders in preparation for our visit.

This might horrify some readers who enjoy building a romantic picture of my travels in your mind, but rather than give you a detailed account of the day in writing I’m going to share a couple of videos.

I ate some fresh ginger before we departed upwards; my remedy of choice for motion sickness. Why pay money for a dried, powdered form of something you can get fresher and more potent from the market?

I find it easier going upwards than downwards for some reason, but for me the killer is going side to side.

Thankfully perhaps, my friend Emma who preserved some of my ABC broadcasts in Port Lincoln didn’t preserve the one in which I did a live cross from a tuna boat. It was all I could manage not to throw up on the microphone.

Either thanks to the ginger or the lack of sideways motion, or both, I was fine on the bus ride into the Andes. So fine in fact that I filmed some of it. Thanks to Sony’s image stabilisation technology it doesn’t actually look as horrific as it was, so if you’re game you can watch here:

Once we arrived Tim and I departed the group for a bit of a hike in the fresh morning air. It was such a relief to get some fresh air after a week in smoggy Santiago. Pine-scented air accompanied by the sound of cascading water was even better.

We had a fantastic lunch with some Chilean red wine organised by Expats in Chile, who even managed to cater for the vegan despite no prior notice. Then we ventured off again, the two of us, up a different trail.

The trails were divided by a river, so you needed to choose early on which side of the river you wanted to spend your trekking time. We tried both sides, but after starting our afternoon trek on the opposite side to the morning we realised the trail was now entirely in shadows.

The Andes looming over us meant that although it was 3 in the afternoon our walk of choice would have no more sunshine. So we decided to turn back and return to the river crossing, where we could opt instead to trek on a higher path that caught the afternoon sun.

On our way back we came across a smaller point in the river were a group of Chileans were crossing with children:

It was an impressive operation, but one I wasn’t game to try.

South Americans give brazen Aussies a run for their money.

Right under my nose
May 3, 2010, 3:16 pm
Filed under: chile, culture, food, santiago, south america, travel

Parque Balmaceda

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

We’ve spent the week exploring our local neighbourhoods, Providencia and Bellavista. It’s a ten minute walk half through park and half along highway (what a contrast) to the hubs of both neighbourhoods, in either direction.

On our first morning in Providencia we stumbled unexpectedly upon the local market, where they sold all the fruit and vegetables I could imagine, along with several I’ve never imagined before. We’ve become fond of a fruit that sits alongside the apples in supermarkets but is more like a small melon. It’s mottled white and green on the outside but on the inside is like a small, but sweeter, honeydew melon.

I love the way they handle pumpkins here. Rather than sell pre-wrapped portions, or opt for some dwarf variety, most market stalls and even supermarkets have one giant pumpkin. A customer asks for however much pumpkin’s desired and the grocer lops a chunk off with a giant knife there and then.

There’s also a bewildering array of grains and pulses. I was thrilled to get a bag of quinoa for about a dollar at the market, given that it’s typically several times that at health food stores in Australia. They also have puffed and honeyed amaranth as a breakfast option.

South America is lucky to have these excellent, whole-protein grains to call their own. So it could be a health food paradise – except fast food chains probably have more of a grip on the local population than traditional staples. As well as the typical Macdonalds and KFC there’s a fast-food chain called Schopdog, which sells hotdogs and revels in United States kitsch. Here in Chile guacamole comes with everything; hotdogs are no exception.

Guacamole or avocado salsa comes with everything because avocados are abundant. Tim was thrilled to discover you can buy them for a dollar fifty a kilo at the supermarket. Given we use avocado instead of butter (especially with vegemite on toast – try it!), having this staple so readily available is a one of those little things that make living in Chile worthwhile.

They eat late here, with breakfast nearly non-existant and lunch the main meal after 2pm. This took a few days to get used to, and one day we were hungry at 1:30pm after wandering since 11. We were in the heart of Providencia’s restaurant area but everywhere we asked said they didn’t start serving until 2. We resigned ourselves to eating at home, so walked back to our apartment with growling stomachs, imagining what we’d concoct with what remained in the fridge.

We reached the base of our apartment building and, still in the spirit of wandering, peered down the lane alongside. It was filled with upmarket cafes! Somehow we’d missed this every time we’d left and returned from the apartment thus far, as from the street the lane looks like it could be just a service entrance. I blame the jetlag on our lack of attention to detail.

Fortuitously it had just passed 2, so there was food and service galore. We sat down at a table where we could bask in the afternoon sun, where I had a vegetarian pizza (which was average, but I was hungry enough not to care) and Tim had a tofu and betroot salad, which was excellent. We also had fresh mint and pear juices served in beer glasses, which was a delightful combination I intend to repeat at home.

The best value vegetarian food we’ve found so far turned out to be right under our noses.