Tuesday, February 26, 2013


The scenery: this picture was taken at sunset, not altered at all!

How low can you go?  This last week I was down in Southern Patagonia hiking and exploring some towns near the beautiful National Park Torres del Paine.  I went with a Chilean guy, who's a friend of a friend.  The other two in the group were his friends: another Chilean guy from Santiago and a Swiss girl.  We didn't all know each other before the trip, but it worked out great!  We spoke Spanish the whole time, the two Chileans being sure to correct us most of the time.  

We spent most of the 9 day trip in Torres del Paine, a large park near the Argentinian border, north of Tierra del Fuego.  Torres del Paine is a gem in the otherwise chilly and bare Pampa of Patagonia.  It has 17 different ecosystems, glaciers, clear and clean lakes, snow-capped mountains, misty valleys, and the famous "torres" - 3 rock towers that hover over the park.  As Chile's top hiking destination, it is quite busy with tourists - national and international.  Entrance and camping is highly regulated since there were some serious fires a few years ago.  There are well-maintained and marked paths, and you have to camp and cook at the designated camp sites.  Also, no campfires at all.

On the trail with Felipe and Tin

Yierba mate breaks

We did the "W" hike, a 5 night trek that looks like a "W" from a bird's eye view.  The first day, we hiked to a glacier called Glaciar Grey!  To get there, we hiked along the lake that the glacier feeds into, so I could see the large blocks of blue glacial ice that had fallen off and floated down.  It was SO WINDY that day with winds at 86 km/hr.  For a little person on a small mountain path, it was tough to stay upright.  If the hike didn't physically tire me out, the wind definitely did.  

The Windy Day

At Glacier Grey! (the actual glacial mass is in the background.)

The rest of the days we went east, completing the curves of the "W."  We passed by lots of lakes - the water was my favorite!  In some places it was minty-green and looked like clear Caribbean waters in the sunlight.  In other places it was a striking navy blue, splattered with spotless white foamy waves made by the strong breezes.  In other places, it was a light turquoise creek running down the lowest point of the valley, or a thin waterfall off the steep cliff of a mountain glacier.  The best part about the water was that we could drink it straight from the steams and springs.  It was the sweetest, most refreshing water I've ever had - straight from the glaciers above us. 

The variety of the natural scenery was one of the most impressive and amazing parts of the hike.  In a day, we would walk through several environments - swampy areas with lily pads lining the trails, thinly wooded groves of trees, the pebbly beaches of the lakes, sprawling grassland full of shrubs, or the rocky face of a slope above choppy water.  

More of the scenery:

Glacier looming...

The last day: We made it the Torres!

I met lots of people on the trail!  On the way into the park, our group met a Chilean/French couple from Santiago, Oscar and Carole.  We did most of our hike with them - playing cards and word games, or drinking Swiss Rum in the evenings.  Like our group, the population of the trail was very international.  I met people from Germany, Israel, Argentina, Switzerland, France, The Netherlands, Middlebury College in Vermont, Hungary, Brazil, and California. 

My hiking buddies!
Felipe (Chilean), Carole (French), Oscar (Chilean), Nicole (Swiss), Agustin (Chilean)

Getting to Torres del Paine is a bit of an effort!  We flew from Santiago to a city called Punta Arenas (near Tierra del Fuego).  We stayed there a night, then took a 3 hour bus ride north to Puerto Natales, a small town that is little more than the tourist entrance to the park and other Patagonia activities.  From Puerto Natales, it was a 2 hour bus ride to the park, then we took a catamaran to the trail head! Since we had to spend some time at each of the stops, I got to know a bit more about Patagonian history and culture.  

On the catamaran with Nicole, from Switzerland, and Felipe, from Santiago

In Puerto Natales, we went to a peña called La Chingana one night.  It was a traditional peña with folk music - on guitar and harp!  The Chileans I was with didn't know what Chingana meant, but when we looked it up we found that a Chingana is one of the traditional rural bars where Cueca, the Chilean national dance, and other signature parts of Chilean culture were formed around the time of independence. 

After the hike, we had an extra day in Puerto Natales and decided to go to La Cueva del Milodón - The Cave of the Mylodon.  This Natural Monument has several prehistoric caves, in which archaeologists have found a myriad of clues about human and animal life 10,000 years ago.  In 1896, a German explorer found the cave and recovered a thick, hairy pelt.  These were the remains of the Mylodon, an ancestor of the sloth that lived up until about 5,000 years ago.  There were also patagonian panthers, ancestors of the horse, and an ancestor of the guanaco (like a llama).  It is believed that climate change and human hunters lead to their extinction.  We learned about how the massive cave was formed by the movement of glaciers throughout the last ice age.  There was a paleolake that lapped up at the rock, eroding away the sediment, but leaving the rock on the hill above the water.  As the water receded and more of Patagonia's land mass emerged, the gap in the rock was above water and is now a cave.  Nomadic tribes lived there as well, sheltered from the elements. 

El Milodón

Lastly, I had to post this picture of the Alfajor I ate after the hike in Punta Arenas.  It was from a bakery and surpassed any prior baked-good experience that I can remember.  This is the traditional Argentinian version: the cookies are made of a corn flour, the manjar, or dulce de leche, is minimal but delicious, and the whole thing is coated in a hard chocolate shell! I have to go back!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Off to Patagonia and Chiloé

Tomorrow, I am heading off to do a 5 day hike in Patagonia!   I'll be down there for about a week, then I'll be on an island off the Southern Coast called Chiloé. More updates upon my return in early March!!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Daily life

My homestay is almost over after these three weeks.  It was very comfortable and convenient.  I had just a host mom, who is retired with grandchildren.  Sometimes I didn't see much of her in the mornings and evenings, but it was nice to be on my own and have a quiet house amidst all the busy stuff I was doing.
Things in her house are very representative of Chile's Catholic majority (I wonder how she felt about the pope's resignation? I didn't bring it up).

The 3-week intensive language program is also coming to an end!  I learned SO MCUH about Chilean culture in a relaxed, somewhat academic setting.  That was great.  There was also a ton of grammar and vocabulary.  I hope that my mind absorbs it as the semester proceeds, because it was a lot at once.  Intensive classes aren't exactly my style.

Each day I got to walk 12 minutes to school in my quaint neighborhood of Nuñoa.  It was hot hot hot this last month, since it is the middle of summer.  The streets are not too busy, but the buses and metro are still full of sweltering crowds.  On many bus rides, I got to listen to the transit musicians - people that play guitar, flutes, etc for the entertainment of the ridership!

The plaza near my house - in one of the fancier neighborhoods of Santiago

I also got a Chilean cell phone a few days after being here. Something really different about that is that it is pay-as-you-go (common in a lot of other parts of the world, I think).  To recharge your phone credit, you have to find a designated person at one of the metro stations.  Among the bustling crowds, there are a few people at each metro station with a little sign that says "Recarga Aqui" - Recharge Here.  You give them the cash and they charge the money onto your phone straight from their phone.  You get an instant verification via text message on your phone with the amount of the charge.

Food at my host mom's place:

Sometimes she made me wonderful dishes like salmon cooked with veggies and rice:

Sometimes she got lazy and made me frozen hot dogs on a bed of rice:

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Valparaiso Adventure

This weekend I went to Valparaiso! Valparaiso is a city on the coast, about 2 hours away from Santiago.  It is a party town: very eclectic, colorful, at times grungy, and full of tourists - mostly Chileans on vacation.  Viña del Mar, Valparaiso's up-scale neighbor, has nice beaches about 15 minutes up the coast.

For our intensive Spanish class, we had to visit a place in or near Santiago and do a project on it.  i went with 4 other  UC girls.  We stayed in a fun funky hostel with people from France, Belgium, Finland, and Boston.  Very colorful, and very loud all night.

Katie and Ginger at the hostal

Doggy nap time

The streets of Valparaíaso - colorful and eclectic

The beach at Viña del Mar

Friday, February 8, 2013

Border Politics

I've learned that Chileans have a lot of political tension with the subject of national borders.  Chile is in constant discussion with Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina about this!

The case of the Chilean Patagonia is an interesting one.  Chile used to be the owner of almost all of the Patagonia region.  Little by little, Argentina gained control of more of la pampa.  One of the most tense times was the almost-war or quasi-war in 1978 between the two countries under dictatorships.  Wikipedia refers to it as the Beagle Conflict (although I haven't heard anyone say that here).  Argentina claimed ownership of three small islands called Picton, Lennox, and Nueva, which had always been under Chilean control.  War itself never broke out, but troops were guarding the line on either side in the cold southern desert.  In the end, Chile kept control of the islands.  In my intensive language/cultural class, we watched an exquisitely-done movie about this conflict called Mi Mejor Enemigo (My Best Enemy).  I really recommend it if you have the chance to see it!

Border disputes between Chile and Argentina have continued through the end of the 20th century.  A few Chileans here have disgustedly mentioned to me that Chile handed over a big chunk of Patagonia to Argentina in the 1990s.  This is because of a treaty made between the two countries about the waters.  The treaty says that any land touching Pacific waters belongs to Chile and any land with Atlantic waters is Argentine.  This sets the boundary.  Apparently there was a mistaken Atlantic area that the Chilean government had to peacefully give up in the 90s.  Even still, Chileans are bitter about this.

Bolivian-Chilean border issues are another story.  The War of the Pacific in 1879-1883 was a fight for the area that is now Northern Chile.  Read the full details in the link if you'd like!  In the end, Chile won.  Treaties were signed, and Bolivia lost its access to the sea.  Peru lost some of its southern territory, including the cities of Iquique and Arica.  Here is a map of the territories before the war:

Since 1883, the area that Chile gained has been Chilean land, full of people with Chilean identity that developed for more than a century.  However, the current Bolivian government is asking for negotiations about getting the land and their coast back.

All the Chileans that I've talked to about this (3 or 4), laugh it off as a ridiculous request.  They say that since the land has been Chilean for so long, there is no going back.  And on top of that, they have the treaties with the Bolivian signatures!  Chile's president, Piñera, has declared that Northern Chile is absolutely not under negotiation.  People are glad about this (in fact, this is the only positive thing I've heard about Piñera).  However, my host mom thinks that eventually we will give the territory back to Bolivia because the matter will never be dropped - just hopefully not in her lifetime.

Of course, I am getting a solely Chilean view.  I'm sure its horrible for Bolivia to not have ports and sea access.  I'm sure there are many arguments on their side for the fairness of returning the land.  I'll have to go to Bolivia and find out.