Horcon, La Serena, and San Pedro de Atacama
4/6/06 27 °C
Yet another high tech image for your enjoyment....
I left the hubbub of the fish markets of Valparaiso and took a 2 hour colectivo to the town of Horcon, an isolated fishing village on the coast of Northern Chile. When we arrived, I was the only person left on the bus. I said "Horcon?", the bus driver nodded, and for the first time in two months, I had taken the right bus. I walked down the one hill, got settled into Juan Pancho Cabanas, where I had a whole beach cabana to myself, and walked around “town”. Horcon is a 3 street gig. There is one paved hill leading down to the beach and two dirt roads parallel to the beach. That’s it, Juan! I had a tasty fried fish lunch at Victoria Restaurant, four wooden planks on a dusty floor, as the spanish telenovelas playing on the old tv sucked me in. There was a Chilean version of The Nanny playing where the main actress was amazingly more annoying than Fran Drescher. Then I sat on the warm beach, watching the sun set on the fishermen pulling their small boats in after a hard day’s work. Whenever a boat would come in, the stray dogs would start barking as warning, and everyone, including the clams vendor and the girl selling seashell jewelry, would run down and help pull it in. After my evening nap, I went in search for hot soup. I was battling a cold and a recent bout of 100 FLEA BITES (gotta love those hostel beds) so I needed something homey. I finally ended at Rey pub where there was no soup, so owner Alejandro went HOME to get me some of his mom’s chicken and rice soup. I love small towns! He then made me promise to come back tomorrow. The next day, I ended up at the beach again. I mean, really, what else are you supposed to do...it’s a tough schedule, you have no idea! This time around, I got to see what Horcon is famous for. When the afternoon fishing boats come in at noon, 2 horses pull them onto shore in one big swoop. This is how they’ve done it for over 100 years I believe. I watched this process for about 2 hours while napping under the early afternoon sun and then went to Rey’s for some sopa de mariscos (seafood soup), where for the first time in my life, I ate a lot of things, squirmy and squishy things, that I could not identify. It was delicious.
Then it was time to leave little cute Horcon. Except I didn’t know how to leave, or where to go, because I had no guide book or a map. I have been mooching off people up to this point. So what to do, what to do. I resorted to asking some town people about what is in “the north of your beautiful country” which of course left me with 15 opinions, 5 different exit strategies and 1 big headache. I finally picked one version, which ordered to wait me in an unmarked empty field for a bus headed for Carola that never came. Two hours later, grandma Eli took pity on me and escorted to the other station (read: another unmarked empty field) where the bus came pronto. Eli got off in some bright green farm before Carola and I got off in Carola. I immediately walked into the bus station and attacked the poor 14 year old bus boy...”Chico, digame, donde estoy?” (tell me kiddo, where am I?). Don’t I sound so tough and demanding! I eventually got put on another bus, a 4 hour voyage, that dropped me off in La Serena, which happens to be a tourist hot spot. Not that I would know it, I guess. It’s hard being me.
La Serena is one of the greatest places in the world to go for astronomy. This is because it has a vast clear sky most nights of the year, where you can see thousands upon thousands of twinkling stars and some non-twinkling planets (I just learned that). I guess everyone in the world is suddenly interested in astronomy because I could not, for the life of me, find a place to stay. Taxista Luis drove me around for an hour until we could find a place I could afford, Residencia Central, where I got a small room with a TV (haven’t had one of those in 2 months!) and where they lock you in everytime you come in, so you have to ask permission every time you want to leave. That’s soooooo a fire hazard.
The next day, I walked around the impressive town center, with all its colonial style churches and museos still intact. La Serena was attacked by PIRATES in the 1700’s so that automatically makes it much, much cooler. That night, I took a trip out to Mamayuka (Mother Earth) Observatory where we fumbled around in the dark up the hill until we reached a small observatory with big telescopes. For the next three hours, we learned about nebulas and far off galaxies and how insignificant all of life is and how nothing we do really matters in the end in the big scheme of things. Oh, you didn’t know that?? I`m kidding, it was really interesting and so beautiful when you get to see the stars up close, some of them soft blues and reds, all twinkling in their twinkly little way. Luis fed us some hot tea and we drank it and munched on some chocolate chip cookies in the soft moonlight. Very tranquilo.
The next day, we headed off to Valle del Elqui. 50 year old prankster Jorge picked me up first, making me side passenger and partner-in-crime, and from then on, it was practical jokes the whole way through. He did a whole comedy routine all the way to our destination, would try to leave people from our group behind in random places along the country road, etc, etc. We drove through the gorgeous Valle del Elqui, where they grow grapes, olives, and various fruits, the rectangular green farms broken up by wavy blue streams from the mountains. All along, Jorge played Chilean folk music, which seems to be mostly communist, and every once a while, in between jokes to the rest of the van, his eyes would tear up as he would tell me about his life under the Pinochet era. Sad.
In the afternoon, Jorge took us to a pisco distillery, where I learned that pisco is actually 4 parts acetone, not 3. Sorry. At the end, we all had to take various shots of pisco-flavored pisco. I think this was done as a way of preparing us to buy more pisco at the end of the tour. I didn’t fall for it. After that, we went to another old pisco distillery that was owned by some guy who had 3 names that all started with the letter R (Roberto Rigonaldo Rivera?? Who knows...) so he named his distillery Triple R and put human bones all around the cellar to discourage stupid drunk people from breaking in. Jorge made us go down to the dark cellar and then started making scary ghost noises from a secret door. I fell for it and got the hell out of there, I don’t mess with alcoholic ghosts. After that, we had a lunch of roasted chicken and choclo (corn paste cooked in corn husk), headed to Montegrande, noble poet Gabriela Mistral’s hometown, and drove home as Jorge pretended to fall asleep at the wheel as we drove around dangerous mountain curves. Crazy Chilenos. To see the Valle, visit http://www.valledeelqui.cl/
The next day, I took the 12 hour bus to San Pedro de Atacama. I know I said Valparaiso was the most beautiful place, but now it has to be San Pedro. Picture this, you get off a bus, you’re in the middle of a brown plaza, brown adobe houses line the narrow dirt streets, all against the backdrop of 5 huge volcanoes, 2 bizarre looking valleys, 5 lagunas, and a vast plain made of pure white salt. Oh yeah, and you`re in the middle of the Atacama Desert, the dryest desert in the whole world. There are many areas of the desert that have never, ever seen a drop of rain. Wow is the only way to put it. I settled into Sanchek Hostel, a beautiful, beautiful rustic open air courtyard with wooden cabins with straw roofs and 2 shady hammocks in the back. I got a room all to myself. Me, me, me! That night, it was a homecooked meal at the hostel, spaghetti with fresh tomatoes and some white wine, while I chatted with Roxanna and played with her 5 year daughter Isidora. We broke her princess wand but finally (!) someone with my level of spanish. Maybe...
The next morning, I immediately rented a bike and rode my couch potato ass out 5 km to the Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death). The valley was actually called Valle de la Marte (as in martyr) but the priest dude that named it had a really bad lisp so it got translated to death. There, I rode along la Cordillera del Sal, a path through bizarre looking rock formations (vertical with holes in them) and fields of cracked dirt covered with salt. So cool. San Pedro is the archeological center of Chile. Being that I am smart and know this fact, I then rode my couch potato ass another 10 km through the desert to Tulor, an archaelogical site that is 10,000 years old where the Atacamenos lived in small round huts before the Spanish conquistadores came and reduced the population by two thirds. Eduardo took me out to the site, explained everything, and talked about his Coyo community, which runs and preserves the place. San Pedro is one of the few places I’ve seen down here where the indigenous communities actually own the rights to exhibit and share their own history. On the way back through the village of Coyo, campesino (farmer) Pedro Adolfo Luis de los Reyes stopped me in front of his farm and made me promise to remember his name. I just made that name up, because it was very long and I don’t remember it, even though he made me say it 5 times before he let me speed off on my bike. I should have written it down. In the afternoon, I took the official tour of Valle de la Muerte with Paulo (Brazil) and Naomi (Japan) among others. We walked along the dramatically high slopes of sand, crawled around a cave made of salt, and finally climbed the Mirador of the Valle to watch the sun set against salt covered mountains and white sand dunes. It was absolutely beautiful...as the sunset turned everything around into red and yellows, the terrain looked like the surface of Mars. To see some pics, visit http://www.sanpedroatacama.com/galeria.htm. That night, I visited Chez Michel’s French restaurant that serves only Italian food while Chez Michel danced around and sang me songs about the USA and 19 year old waiter Eduardo, inspired by Michel’s performance, told me wide eyed that one day he “shall visit the great place of New Jersey”.
On Wednesday, I visited the museum which is probably the best museum I've ever seen. They have over 380,000 pieces of artifacts from the region and I learned a lot more about the Atacamenos that lived a quite advanced existence before being vanquished by the Incas (who treated them well) and then the Spanish (who did not). Roxanna from the hostel who is Coyo told me that they still find so many artifacts all around town, they don't know what to do with them. There were mummies, and beautiful pottery and spears, instructions on how to start a fire, everything you can imagine. In the afternoon, I decided to walk across the Atacama desert to Pozo 3, a natural pool by one of the great volcanoes. Walking across the desert... I don't know how that great idea came about...I think it was the heat. I got to the pool well enough but on the way back, I decided to take a shortcut and ended up getting lost in the middle of the desert with the sun setting, no water left, and no town in sight. After an initial panic attack, I petted some friendly cactus and finally decided to follow the stars (and also some trucks that were going toward town) and finally found my way back to San Pedro an hour later. One of my prouder moments, yes. That night, Paulo and I dined with a strange Aussie named Robert who wore a red plaid shirt with 3 bright yellow pockets: two in the front, and one big one that covered his whole back. Robert has been in South America for three months and refuses to learn Spanish so he resorts to yelling at the poor waiters in English and huffing loudly when they don't do what he wants. He also shot dirty looks toward the cute little kids running around. We made an effort to dodge Robert for the rest of the week.
On Thursday morning, we woke up at 3:30 AM and took a 2 hour jeep ride to the Tatio Geysers. As we climbed slowly up the mountains to 4500 meters (some people got sick), we could see dozens of funnels of smoke coming out of the ground, which were the geysers of course, formed from underground volcanic activity. The geysers are most active before 7 am. We spent some time staring in awe, jumped in the smoke some, tried to avoid the sporadic blowing up of two big geysers, and then had hot tea with some bread. Then we visited a pool of thermal water heated up by the 250 degree Francisco geyser where 4 people have died by simply falling in. Naomi and I crept into the pool with a little too much drama while Paulo disappeared rather conveniently because it was too damn cold to swim in thermal waters. The water was hot but once you got out...woowee.
On Thursday night, Paulo and I visited the local restaurant where we dined on mojitos (cuban drinks) and listened to the Atacameno band play their drums and flutes festively. We got offered some peyote (the hallucinogenic cactus drug that all the young hippie travellers come to try) and got invited to a cocaine party, both of which we refused. San Pedro is the main entry point for the coca drug trade from Bolivia. Mojitos are enough for me, thank you Jose! The next day, we rented bikes again and rode out to the desert to watch the sun set against the volcanos. Ahh...Atacama Desert. Because I could now follow the stars, I thought I could show off to Paulo that I could also start a fire, based upon the museum instructions, but after twenty minutes of cursing and kicking, with Paulo silently shaking his head, I gave up and we rode our bikes home to eat some chicken and french fries. Then Paulo headed off to Peru (he missed his bus and we had to throw him into a makeshift taxi that chased the runaway bus down for 10 km) and I ate the last remains of my homemade chicken and potato soup, hugged Roxanna goodbye, played with Isidora one last time, and went to sleep early on my last night in Chile. The next day? A 3 day jeep tour into the wonderous salt plains of Bolivia.