Friday, August 15, 2008

Cusco and Machu Picchu

As I sit in the Bogota International terminal I realize that I have come full circle. February 1st I was laying on the floor across the hall for 9 hours as I anticipated the throngs of Rio, stumbling and mumbling as I tried to comunicate with airport workers over the location of an ATM. Now, over seven months later this terminal still sucks. No restaurant, no bar, two fuzzy T.V.s.

The past week was spent trying to pack Peru into a week. Impossible. Peru was excited and incredibly different from Chile. The strong influence of the ancient Quechua or Inka culture shares little resemblence to the westernized streets of Santiago. Small indigenous women, who only speek Quechua stumble up the hilly, narrow cobblestone streetes of Cusco carrying giant handwoven bags on their backs laden with crafts or food or babies. Often they are followed by their llama or alpaca, with whom they pose for pictures from tourists for a small price.

I could never have imagined the tourism in Cusco. Walking down the street I was excstatic to find a Vermont quarter on the ground, the first U.S. coin I had seen in months. Tour buses and taxis full of Gringos scream through the Plaza de Armas as they race to archeological attractions in an around the city. It is impossible to walk one block without having someone offering tours, massages, food, crafts, or just plain begging.

The history found in Cusco and the culture outweighs the annoyances of a high tourism destination. Molly and I went to many of the sights in city, which was the holy city of the Inkas before the Spanish knocked it down and built incredible churches. Outside the city lie the ruins of Saqsaywaman and other small fortresses, holy sites, and agricultural terraces. About an hour outside is the town and ruins of Pisac. On Sunday there is an impressive market in the square which is dominated by tourists but displays the incredible artisanal skills of the rural people. I was wholly impressed by these ruins, built way up on cliffs above the river and the city. We wandered and explored through the ruins for a few hours and glanced at the great views.

After exploring Cusco for several days we took a colectivo out to Ollantaytambo to catch the train, the only way to get to Aguas Calientes, or Machu Picchu Village. The train website, like most South American attempts isn't worth a damn so we ended up getting a confusing schedule and accidentally paid for one of the more expensive coaches to get there known as the Vistadome. There were six other people in our coach and we watched as the scenery changed from barren highlands into lush jungle forests.

Aguas Calientes is a testament to the awful things that tourism can do when unregulated. Its the Cancun of archeology. Sitting at the base of mountains in a small valley carved by the Urubamba river, the city has sprung up in response to the massive amounts of tourists that come through to see Machu Picchu. A multidude of restaurants line one of the two roads in town as locals call out in English, "Free Drink", "You like nacho?...Free nacho", etc. The buildings are all falling apart except for the facade on the street. The restaurants will do anything to get someone into the restaurant and then revoke the offer. We were lured by two free beers, free nachos, and a twenty percent discount which in the end they denied. I was able to bargain two free beers and two dollars off my pizza as the waiter literaly sweated at my offers. Everything is expensive and disgusting, including our hostal where we found a tarantula sitting on the steps outside the bathroom.

It's really sad because the city has such potential. The lushus green mountains are lined with dramatic cliffs that shoot upward into a canopy of clouds. The day we went up to Machu Picchu we woke up at 4 a.m. to catch the first bus up at 5:30. The line was incredible still but and as we drove up the steep switchbacks the excitement of the passangers was tangible. Unfortunately, something had taken up residence in my G.I. tract the night before and was unleashing its formidable claws upon my insides, thus rendering me sleepless and miserable. Although the pain continued for the most of the day, I was able to push it aside as the sun came up over the ruins and we were given tickets to climb Wayna Picchu, the mountain recognizably in the background of every Machu Picchu photo ever.

The ruins were otherworldly. The detail and care of every rock was astounding and the surrounding scenery breathtaking. It was easy to lay on the grassy terraces or in the giant quarry and imagine the glory of the city in its peak or the moment when Hiram Bingham first discovered the overgrown hidden ruins in the early 20th century. The hike up Wayna Picchu was steep but rewarding with ruins atop and new views of Machu Picchu that don't grace the postcards.

We stayed until the whistling guards kicked us out around 5:30 p.m., taking the last bus down to the town. In all it was a day to remember. The massive size of the sanctuary was hypnotic and a perfect way to end my traveling.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Rapa Nui

I just arrived at Sergio's house in Santiago after an incredible week on Easter Island, one of the most isolated places in the world. Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is a Polynesian island owned by Chile, 3,600 km from the South American continent. The island is famous for its moais, the giant stone statues that mysteriously dot the island. I was always awed by these massives stone heads but was surprised to find that there are about 900 on the island. Everywhere you go on the island you find stone platforms, or ahus, with fallen or re-erected moais. The only town, Hanga Roa, is small and pleasant with a very laid back vibe. We camped at the only legal camping site at the island in town and fell asleep to the waves crashing right next to our campsite every night at Camping Mihinoa. A week on the island was the perfect amount of time to relax and explore the island.

We flew in on LAN Chile, the only airline that services the one strip airport on the island. A local told us (not necesarily true) that LAN's contract with the airstrip was just up and as of recently they were sending in a flight everyday, which would account for our dope discount. The sudden increase in flights to the island is to prevent other airlines from sending in flights, thus robbing LAN of its monopoly on the island. It seems to me that this "undiscovered" place will soon be flooded with tourists and with five star hotels, but for now it is a sleepy island in the south Pacific balancing a Polynesian and Chilean lifestyle/culture/language.

The week started off simple and from there became more 'baller.' The first day Molly and I rented bicycles and took the northeast route out to Rano Raraku, the moais quarry. On the way we saw a handfull of fallen moais, their giant noses in the dirt along the coast and sometimes a restored platform with standing moais, their backs to the ocean facing the interior of the island. Most of the moais on the island were carved from the volcanic crater at Rano Raruko and hundreds are still buried in the slopes of the volcano.

The next day we hiked up to Orongo, the old village on the other side of the island on the crater of Rano Kau, the volcano at the opposite side of the island. The village is parcially restored and views three small islets seen from over giant cliffs. We went up on a rainy day and say a ton of rainbows coming out the water and the volcanic crater.

On Sunday we took a tour and went back to some of the sites we had already gone to on our own and got a great history lesson from a local. The barren landscape of the island is startling and even more so when we learned that all the trees were cut down in order to transport the giant moais to their resting places. The Rapa Nui people had become so preocupied with the moais that they ignored the obvious damage they were doing to their home. Without trees they could not build houses nor boats. The land became eroded, the rivers disapeared, and the animals began to die. A once prosperous civilization had fallen to its knees because of their preocupation with building bigger and better statues. The largest moais, still partially carved into the stone mountain face at Rano Raraku is 21 meters tall (69 ft). Without trees they could not transport the moais from the quarry and work stopped suddenly when sustaining life became an immenent preocupation.

Renting a car is a great way to explore the island. We explored some sweet caves with out Suziki Grand Vitara. In the middle of the island are a few giant lava tube caves and on the coast, Dos Ventanas, has a small entrance but once inside there are two windows overlooking the sea from large cliffs.

The last day on the island we went self contained breather appartus (SCUBA) diving. I had never gone before and it was amazing. Molly is certified and apparantly was not impressed by the safety regulations of the company, afterwards she told me that she was instructed never to dive with a company that takes first-timers underwater...However, despite being dragged, literally, by a guide through coral and schools of tropical fish, I survived and definately can see myself getting licensed in the future.

Easter Island is an incredible place that I see changing very quickly. Just recently a 5 star hotel, Explora, was built on the island and construction is under way for more giant hotels. I can easily see the place turn into a top destination spot quickly for the beautifully clear waters, tropical climate, beaches, seafood, surfing, and archiological significance. We were still able to go some of the archeological sites without any other people around. To be alone with seven 4 meter moais standing over your head is an incredible feeling and one that may not last much longer. Just this May the first signs were put up warning visitors not to climb on the ahu and moais. I expect that in few years time the restrictions will be more stringent and the atmosphere changed. We met a guy at our campsite who arrived in December of last year and decided to stay when he learned that a solar eclipse would be visible in 2010 from the island. Trying to find a bed on the island for the event is nearly impossible but I would highly recommend it. He told me he would send me a picture for the extra food we gave him but frankly, I'm not holding my breath.

Up next, Cuzco, Peru and Machu Picchu.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Bluebird with a Side of Freshies

Powder days are every skier's unicorn, metaphorically speaking. Powder days come and go, usually when the skier has some unavoidable compromise or is somehow physically unable to get to the mountain, i.e. broken legs, decapitation, wrecked car, or natural disaster. Seeing that I missed an incredible snowy Vermont season last winter due to extreme distance so the powder itch was still in full force.

When we arrived in the small town of Farrellones to cloudy skies and very little snow on the ground. We stayed at La Cornisa, a small family run hotel with about 10 rooms, a nice fireplace, and delicious meals. The owners told us that it had not snowed in quite a while and that the slopes were pretty skied off; they were not too happy with the season so far. As we sat by the fire after dinner enjoying a delicious whiskey ( I hadn't seen Jameson in months) we joked about how awesome it would be to have fresh snow, as we do every night before skiing.

The next morning I woke up to perfect bluebird skies and 23 centimeters of fresh. The chances of travelling half-way around the world and getting a powder day are approximately 10239:1, but we lucked out.

Faceshots and virgin slopes where on the days menu and we skied until we couldn't walk anymore. Valle Nevado's impressive wide open geography made finding untracked powder too easy and I can easily say that I didn't ski a groomed trail all day. Luckily for me, about 75% of the people skiing Valle Nevado are Brazilians who have never seen snow before so the idea of skiing steep powder is extremely foreign to them.

My father and I shredding the gnar

The next day at Valle Nevado the snow had gotten a bit heavier due to the previous sunny day but there was still powder to be had, although the skies had gone back to the overcast that has defined this Chilean winter.

The third day my father and I tried El Colorado and I was surprised by the completely different feel of the mountain. El Colorado and La Parva have a local vibe to them while Valle Nevado is the international destination with the luxury hotels and getaway packages. Given this, 95% of the skiers were Chilean and the majority were beginners.

A word to the wise. Skiing Chile is an incredible experience, however, BRING YOUR OWN GEAR! I told my family to bring there gear and they did not listen. I would say that the gear to rent in Santiago is from the 70's and 80's while the gear at Valle Nevado is from the 90's. If you are a serious skier and you travel half-way across the world to ski, even for a few days, do not expect to have the same choices of gear as you would find at other worldclass ski destinations like Aspen and Whistler. This is Chile afterall and like the hairstyles, the gear is straight out of the 80's.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


The Atacama desert is like nothing I have ever seen before. I had no idea the extent of the variety in the desert. At sunset the colors of the mountains turn from orange to red to purple to blue. At different elevations the small plants turn from yellow to brown to red to nonexistant. The towering cactus that line the gorges are hundreds of years old, one meter is the equivalent to 100 years of growth. The little water that comes down from the Andes carves giant gorges and brings to life few oasis where life continues simply and slowly despite the swarms of tourists that flock the streets. The incredible rock formations made me jealous of my geology major friends. Just trying to comprehend the forces that went behind creating the Atacama is mind-boggling. When we went to see the Flamingos in the salt flats there must have been a thousand other tourists watching the sunset with us. I swear that there must have been four bus loads of Germans. I haven't seen so many blond-haired, blue-eyed people in months.

The first day here we went to the Valle de la Luna, an incredible spot just outside of San Pedro de Atacama where the salt formations and sand dunes give the impression of a lunar landscape. Other highlights included seeing the highland salt flats just 5km from the Bolivian border, seeing geisers go off as the sunrose, exploring Inca ruins at sunset, seeing the oldest excavated village in Chile, and drinking wine in a hot spring as my parents watched, bundled in their winter clothing bearing huge sandswept winds. Going to the all-inclusive resort with the parents was quite an experience, nah, a once-in-a-lifetime-experience. The service and accomadations were otherworldly, nothing like the hostalling that I am used to. As fun as the private guide and service was I am ready to start making my own adventures again. However, in San Pedro that seemed to be very difficult as everything was done by a guide service with 25 other tourists sharing the windy bus ride to the locals.

The desert was beautiful and unforgettable. So are the 400-plus photos that I took. Here are a few and the rest can be found on my Picasa Page.

More Updates to come on Valle Nevado.

Friday, July 18, 2008

An End and a Beginning

Sitting on a plane while the sun comes up over the Andes out the window is the only way to fly. I spent the last week saying my goodbyes and living life to the fullest in Valpo. It’s strange to leave a place that you have called home, especially one as special as Valparaiso. All the crap that I had to go through in the colegio, the university, and daily life really made me appreciate the city in the end. The last few days the buildings seemed brighter, the people warmer, and even the rain was more enjoyable. My family arrived yesterday and we have spent the last few days eating and drinking the best Chile has to offer. Traveling with the parents is a completely different world. It was nice to do all the touristy things in the city that I had yet to do. Taking a boat tour of the harbor, riding up the Ascensor Artilleria to the Plaza 21 de Mayo, and visiting La Sebastiana were a few firsts for me. When you are living in a place and have a routine sometimes the opportunity to go see tourist attractions slips the mind. I rode past the ascensor Artilleria every day but never got out of the bus to see the famous mirador or lookout of the city at the top.

My Chilean family greeted my American family in true Chilean form: red wine and empanadas. Although few coherent conversation was had, it was incredible for me to see two very distinct parts of my life come together under the same roof. When it was time to say goodbye I saw a few tears in Katy's eyes and they watched, waving, as the van drive away . The lights from the cerros dipping into the water was our last glimpse. I will miss the colorful city but it is time to move on before heading back home.

My Chilean Family: (from left to right) Alfonso, Paul (otro gringo), Ivan, Me, Katy

The nanny, Rosy, and Me

Thus commences another stretch of traveling before heading home in a month. Right now we are heading north to San Pedro de Atacama. The Atacama is the driest desert in the world and, so I have been told, one of the most incredible. I've never been to a desert before so I am really looking forward to seeing the new landscapes and unlike Valpo, there is a slim chance of rain.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

South American Gaper Gap

Finally the cold and miserable weather has paid off.

Last weekend I went to Santiago and on Sunday Sergio and I climbed the unbelievable road to the Cordillera and into the Andes. Although the mountains are lacking in fresh snow I was astounded by the shear size of the ski resort. We skied at Valle Nevado, the most modern and largest ski resort in South America. Given the fact that the mountain is higher up and mostly west facing, the conditions are better than the other two mountains, La Parva and El Colorado. The higher altitude gave us colder weather and the fact that it is west facing hides it from the incredible strong South American sun. Even with the clouds and minimal sun screen that a cute liftie gave us my lips are still burning from the killer UV's reflecting off the snow.
I rented some gear down in Santiago and my fears (maybe delights) of South American rentals came true. At first the guy tried to rent me 150cm skis, which I haven't put on my feet since I was about 8 years old. I just told him to give me the biggest skis they had, which happened to be 170cm Saloman dirty. Finally the boots scared the crap out of me: Rear entry, red Solomans circa 1979. If my toenail doesn't fall off in the next few days I will be pleased. The gear, complete with my beautiful green windpants and broken sunglasses, made me the sickest looking gaper on the mountain.

Given that the base of the mountain is at 2880 meters or 9449 feet and the peak at 3669 meters or 12037 feet there is not a tree in sight, only even bigger snow capped peaks of the Andes and huge rock cliffs that would surely make Shane McConkey a very happy boy.

Sergio and I stopped on the way back down from the mountains so he could try to sell some used snowboard boots at a roadside stand. As I stepped out of the pickup truck my eyes lit up in wonder. It seems that every amazing one-piece ski suit from 1970-1990, that Haik Kavookjian has been looking for on eBay, has ended up in the Southern Cone. The rows of dayglo colors were unbelievable and I was so tempted to make a few purchases. However, having to travel halfway across the world with one of those suits in my bag ultimately dissuaded me and I left the suits for some happy Chilean.

The thoughts of this place on a powder day is a fantasy that I can only hope will come true in my final few weeks in Chile. I will most definately be returning to the mountains in late July with my family and hopefully I can get a few more days in.

Friday, July 4, 2008

El Profe y Los Estudiantes

Happy Fourth of July!

While my parents gear up for BBQ ribs and baked beans in Connecticut I faced the reality that I only have 13 days left in Valparaiso.

I never thought the time would come when I would start to reflect on all of this. I feel like my life has been a rollercoaster since January and I have been constantly adjusting to the dips and curves. However, these last few weeks I have found myself content and comfortable in my surroundings, despite the inevitable frustration that living in Chile can sometimes deliver.

As I sit in front of my computor trying to write a Latin American Philosophy paper I am reminded of our constant discussions in my Filosofia Latinoamericana class in La Universidad de La Playa Ancha. The class is taught by an incredible human being, by many accounts the most reveared profesor at La UPLA, Sergio Vuskovic Rojo. Recently I found out that Profe Vuskovic was the mayor of Valparaiso from 1970 to 1973. When the dictatorship came to power he was arrested and tortured on the Esmeralda, an incredible four masted ship that was actually moored in the harbor earlier this year. Vuskovic lived in exile after his imprisonment and returned to teach in the public university. Although he usually can't hear what the students are saying and his lectures aren't what we would call "coherent" or "organized," his presence has been extremely dear to my experience in la UPLA.

Vuskovic was a strong supporter of Allende and the socialist movement in Chile before the military coup. The discussion of politics here in Chile is rare and everytime it has come up I have felt unnervingly uncomfortable. The other day I was asking my Chilean father, Ivan, about the Chilean currency. I was asking about the old system and I used the word "dictadura" (dictatorship) instead of the "el gobierno de Pinochet." His eyes got narrow and said, "Dictadura, no habia una dictadura...fue una dicta-blanda." Etomologically speaking, dura, means strong while blanda means soft. It has been pretty evident throughout my stay here that Ivan was a supporter of Pinochet. He obviously did well under the dictatorship as he works in the city government, was never exiled, and is extremely well off. The divide between politics here is scary. He always calls la UPLA communist, which wouldn't be too far from the truth. The student body is radical to say the least.

I recently read an article in the New York Times about a new trend towards the political moderation of professors on college campuses as professors from the 60's retire. I guess going to college now isn't about radical ideas but rather about making a ton of money. In Chile, the majority of the student body is radical but I am unconvinced that it is a trend that can last. There are some students who come to both philosophy classes ever week (imagine that!) and give passionate speaches about socialism and the repression of the masses. There are other students who come in for the rare test and are otherwise absent class. There are the students that love the strikes because it allows them to sit in bed all day and watch telenovelas and finally there are the students that love to throw rocks at the cops.

The president of Chile is a member of the socialist party, not too mention the first Latin American woman president. Is this a sign of moving left-ward? Are the students' voices being heard? That completely depends on the electorate and there is no way the current electorate is going to change the direction of this country. Futhermore, I have never met anyone happy with Michelle Bachelet, it seems to me that she is not socialist enough for the socialists and the fact that she is socialist makes everyone else hate her. If the students of this generation can sustain their revolutionary attitudes until they start running for Congress they might have a chance. For now, they can take it too the streets.