The Altiplano… 13,000+ Feet High
Can you believe I forgot two details from yesterday? Sigh. Vacation brain.
Well, we discovered we forgot to bring an adapter. We’ve been charging our phones at the front desk, on the public computers in the lobby, and asking reception if they have any adapters available “yet” like rabid dogs. We haven’t had the chance to drop into town to buy one, but we’ve been getting by. Today, however, we finally nabbed one! Woot woot!
Also, Jeff stuffed his face in some yellow, fragrant desert tree yesterday and discovered it was filled with bees. We’ve seen only pigeons and other similar, un-notable birds to date, but Jeff managed to find more “wildlife.” They left him unharmed, but I don’t think he’ll be stopping to smell the flowers again any time soon.
So, yes. Today was the day. The day we conquered the Altiplano. A recap in case you missed it—the Altiplano is a portion of the Chilean Andes with high-altitude lagoons and actual wildlife (considering we’ve seen none thus far). The lagoons sit just over 13,000 feet and the peaks are upwards of 16,000. I’ll be honest, my anxiety has been pretty intense. The last thing I’d want to do is be “that girl” who’s overcome by altitude sickness and has to be driven all the way back down the mountain. And who knows what everyone else on the tour does in the meantime. Do they have oxygen tanks up there? No idea. I guess the shame and embarrassment is better than dying. While I’m being dramatic. But I’ve been taking the necessary measures to prep (mostly). We gave ourselves two nights to adjust at 7,000 feet. I’ve been drinking water like crazy and limiting my alcohol consumption. So… here goes nothing.
Baby Stops in Toconao & Laguna Chaxa
Our first stop was the tiny town of Toconao. Our guide described the town as “modern” because it had [sort of] paved streets. A little church with a separate tower sat in the smallest square you’ve ever seen. In the church were two paintings from Cusco dating back to the 1800s. Originally, there were 17, but no one seems to know what happened to the other 15. …How did they know there were 17 to start, then? That’s a Google question, I suppose. We stopped at a small shop to stock up on water and get our fix of llama and alpaca tchotchkes.
Next up was Laguna Chaxa in Los Flamencos National Reserve. The reserve is home to three different types of flamingos and a smattering of other birdlife. The flamingos feed off brine in the salt flat and the more brine they consume, the pinker they become. The flat landscape was a variety of pastels, while the lagoon displayed several bright shades of algae.
Conquering the Atacama Altiplano
After that, we set out for the Altiplano. The ecosystem changes dramatically from the salt flats to the high plateaus. Pale pastels become deep yellows and pinks and purples and the earth fills with yellow, shrubby grass. My anxiety increased the moment the guide told us we’d be climbing 6,100 feet from our current elevation of 7,000. He checked on us at 11,000 feet and, truthfully, I felt fine. I just needed to keep my nerves under control since they were getting the better of me.
As it turned out, the last 2,100 feet were indeed a little rough. Jeff was fine, of course, experiencing only a shortness of breath, which is completely normal. I, on the other hand, started getting sweaty, shaky hands (which were ice cold) and my lips went completely numb. I yawned endlessly, an indication that the brain is trying to obtain more oxygen. You know those repeated yawns where you’re desperately trying to get “a good one” in? One that delivers relief? Yeah, those kind. Only I had difficulties getting the good ones in.
Things to Know About Altitude Sickness
To put this all into perspective, San Pedro air at 7,000 feet offers about 2/3rds the oxygen content that sea level does. The Altiplano air only offers HALF the oxygen content. Altitude sickness can strike even the healthiest individuals; there are no predictive factors as to who’s susceptible and who’s not. Once it strikes, it doesn’t pass; you don’t settle into it after an hour. You need to descend elevation and acclimate to work your way back up. In acute cases, it is fatal. This knowledge intensified my paranoia, so it was important to carefully focus on my breathing and to mentally discern between what my real symptoms were and what panic was. I also made certain to notify Jeff regularly of my symptoms, in case this turned out to be one of my last great “adventure ideas.”
I have a particularly bad habit of thinking certain activities sound really awesome (once in a lifetime!) and then getting super anxious when we’re actually about to embark on them. Specific examples include our shark cage excursion in Hawaii, 4-bying ourselves to a swimming hole in Aruba, road-tripping eastern Iceland in a snow storm, and bussing the Turkey-Bulgaria border. They make for great stories, but I’d be lying if I said they were all picnics. It’s only after you’ve survived that they’re all fun and games.
Laguna Miscanti & Laguna Miñiques
At any rate, every time we cleared a hill just to see another hill, I said a little prayer in my head. We finally arrived at Laguna Miscanti, where I immediately had my first bout of light-headedness. I felt significantly better once I got outside and got some fresh mountain air, though. Miscanti is a high altitude fresh water lagoon, lined with calcium. We saw several different types of birds and actually saw some vicuñas! Vicuñas are similar to llamas and alpaca, but smaller, and not as easy to find, so this was a special treat. Fifty “homes” (ruins) on the opposite side of the lake were discovered uninhabited, so evidently, people actually lived at this elevation at one point in time. I should note as well that there are actually cemeteries at the tops of some of the surrounding volcanoes, where they believe spiritual ceremonies had been conducted.
We did a half hour walk along the edge of the lagoon, where all I did most of the time was focus on my breathing and deliberately attempt to expend as little energy as humanly possible. Halfway though, I almost fell over again, but it passed thankfully.
Just to the side of Laguna Miscanti is Laguna Miñiques, a smaller lagoon where we saw wild llamas “bathing” in the sand. They basically bury themselves in it and then spastically flip around to shake it off. Entertaining at the very least.
The views were so spectacular, I almost pinched myself in disbelief. It was one of those truly joyful moments in life where all you can think is how amazing it is that you’re actually here and how thankful you are to be so fortunate. I’ll admit, however, I was extraordinarily relieved when we began our descent. I was looking forward to feeling somewhat human again.
We stopped at 11,000 feet to take some photographs. We traveled with only one other couple from Brazil, who took photograph after photograph of themselves laying and posing in the middle of the road. It was pretty funny when we warned them of oncoming “traffic” (one car). They jumped up and ran frantically off the road, only to find that the car turned off shortly before our stopping point. We laughed and laughed.
Stop-Off in Socaire
We also stopped in the small town of Socaire and had a traditional indigenous Atacamañean lunch. It was delicious—quinoa soup, pork and rice, and fruit with “crema” for dessert. Our tour guide was indigenous Atacamañean and he told us that the government issues specific benefits to the indigenous peoples of the country, including free boarding school in larger cities for children.
San Pedro Soccer
We got back to the hotel, only to immediately schedule a shuttle the single, dusty kilometer into town. We wanted to wander a little more, get some dinner, and have drinks while the Chile-Bolivia match was on. (Big rivalry!) We stopped by San Pedro church and strolled through the central plaza before dinner and drinks.
Our stargazing guide made a joke about “los perros de San Pedro de Atacama,” and it’s true—there are swarms of super friendly pups everywhere. There was even a gigantic German Shepard sleeping in the doorway of a mini-mart that we had to step over. He just laid there, completely unaffected.
The downside of going into town is we have to walk a couple blocks off Main Street in the dark to our shuttle stop. Not really in the bustling part of town. Turned out well enough. We saw some kids walking home with flashlights, a stray dog chasing the light beams back and forth.
Tomorrow, we head to Santiago for a couple of days. Our time in the Atacama has been just incredible and the people are so friendly. One thing I won’t be missing is sand and salt all over everything, but I’m sure I’ll be taking some of that with me whether I want to or not.
Santiago, Here We Come!
Not a whole lot to report today since it was a travel day to Santiago. We noticed confirmation of our transfer time written on the chalkboard of our hotel and spent the morning dawdling.
Abandoned Construction Sites & LLama Traffic Jams
When we hopped in the shuttle, the driver began taking a thousand phone calls (in Spanish, of course) and driving way out of town away from the main highway to the airport. He’d pulled into several open lots in the middle of nowhere, one an abandoned construction lot, stopped for a few minutes to take yet another call, and I started becoming alarmed. Really alarmed. I had Chile’s emergency number Googled in my phone and Maps open trying to figure out where we were and where we might be going.
For some reason, most transfers in our travels are very stressful for me. If we’re not getting ripped off, things like this seem to happen. I try to book directly through our hotels. Even though I know it’s more expensive, it beats having to haggle with con artist taxi drivers over turning on the meter (they always act like they don’t know what I’m saying) and at least I know it’s a reputable company. I try and try to research taxi customs and scams wherever we’re visiting and it never seems to help us much.
Turns out the driver just couldn’t find our next pick-up, a local woman with a baby out on a desert farm somewhere. And now I feel like a real douchebag because, if I could even somewhat understand Spanish, I’d’ve realized this and not have thought I was finally (after all my travels!) being sold into human trafficking, dropped off to gangsters at an old construction site who were about to steal everything I had, kidnap and torture me while demanding ransom from my family. I’d tested my luck one too many times! Poor driver guy. I’m such an asshole. In my defense, Jeff later admitted he was also pretty nervous. For the record, Chile is actually the safest country in South America.
After we picked up the woman and her baby, we actually had to pull to the side of the road for a herd of animals—horses, sheep, and of course, a bunch of llamas or alpacas. (I still don’t really know the difference, I just know there IS one.) This was fairly entertaining. There’s an action shot on my Facebook feed, if you’re really interested. Not something you tend to see in DC. We ended up picking up an entire van full of people and then heading out to Calama.
Santiago First Impressions
Airport security is pretty lax in Chile. You don’t show tickets or identification to get through security, you leave your shoes on, and can take drinks with you. Santiago was just a two-hour flight and we found our driver pretty easily. As we were walking to the car, the driver pointed out a large group of men. He told us they go work in the copper mines in Northern Chile for two weeks at a time and then come home for two weeks. And back and forth. Mining is a big industry up north.
We started on our way to the city and could immediately see a green cloud of smog hanging over it. Apparently, Santiago has a population of 7 million… with 4 million cars. Jeff read somewhere that Santiago has restrictions on days you can drive based on your license plate number. We also passed the outskirts of town. Super poor neighborhoods with shanties lining the river.
Santiago is an expansive city, sitting between rolling green mountains. Offsetting the smog is the fact that there are tons and tons of beautifully landscaped parks everywhere. I haven’t seen anything like it before. Very green. Also of note is the amount of graffiti downtown. You’ve got gorgeous colonial architecture, covered in tags. And it’s seemingly everywhere; they don’t discriminate. Nice neighborhoods, bad neighborhoods, even churches and cathedrals. (Who tags a church? You, my friend, are going to hell.)
We passed some Chilean police officers on horseback and our driver noted that the country takes great pride in its police force, there is zero tolerance for corruption. My husband’s response? “Dammit!” To which the driver began laughing hysterically.
Our hotel is a small boutique hotel in Old Town, walking distance to a number of standard tourist attractions. We had an early tour to Cajon del Maipo the next day, a canyon in the Andes just outside Santiago, and decided to take it easy for the night. Grabbed some dinner at the hotel, where I had a short-lived panic attack after realizing the canyon is just under 10,000 feet and we’d be spending the night at 1,700 right after acclimating at higher elevations. I was not looking forward to numb lips and sweaty hands again, and we’d be jumping some 8,000 feet in one day, more than we jumped from San Pedro to the Altiplano. (Enough already!) Fortunately, the concierge told us it’s completely fine and people even take their children out for the weekends there. Crisis averted. Until tomorrow, friends!
Cajon del Maipo: Glaciers, Chilean Wine & Piscolas
We woke up extra early to catch a tour of Cajon del Maipo and Embalse el Yeso, a glacial canyon and reservoir just outside of Santiago. Our guides, Filipe and Marcello (who sported a duck hat), seemed like quite the characters right from the start, so we knew it would be a good day. We were able to get a general idea of where everyone else on the tour was from as we headed into the mountains—Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and the US, of course.
San Jose de Maipo & Politics
Our first stop was the tiny mountain town of San Jose de Maipo, where we had breakfast at a local cafe (coffee and lemon pie!) before touring the main square. Not really much going on there, but we saw another old church and learned a little about Chilean history. The Chilean government is a dictatorship and always has been. At one point, Filipe compared Donald Trump to the infamous dictator Pinochet. Needless to say, the entire tour group laughed at us. Like… Venezuelans laughed at us for having Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. Venezuelans. They’ve got their own issues right now, I’d say. But, it was funny. And true, unfortunately. Jeff and I just hope when we’re traveling that we’re not poor representatives of America. I guess you’d say we even periodically try to make sure that others know that the crazy they see in the news is not ALL Americans; there are good people everywhere. This is only our second international trip this year, but people everywhere are curious about the election, and we’re happy to talk about it.
The Chilean Andes, Bolivia & Condors!
After being ridiculed by a bus full of South Americans, we continued our climb into the Andes. At this point, a fellow traveler, Muriel, jokingly took over the tour and sat in the front seat. Filipe formally announced her new role. When she began her narrative, Jeff yelled, “En Inglais, por favor!” to which everyone began laughing. But, apparently, Muriel did indeed know some English, which was even funnier.
We stopped at some old railway tracks by a rail museum and walked through an old, abandoned tunnel. Natural resources had been brought to Santiago down from the Andes by way of tiny rail cars for many years and this is what was left of it. The tunnel was dark and smelled pretty rank, but we were able to catch up with Filipe as we walked, who was concerned we may have felt left out because we were the only English-speakers on the tour (aside from him and Muriel). He emphasized that he wanted everyone to be friends and have a great time! We were enjoying ourselves just fine. No problemo. He mentioned something about Brazilians and Argentinians often not liking one another. We mentioned Bolivians and Chileans, and got the historical rundown on that whole situation.
At one point in history, Bolivia and Peru (who had a treaty with Bolivia) teamed up against Chile… They did not win. I guess it’s still a thing that Bolivia would like some of Chile’s coastline? Filipe mentioned how crazy it would be to have a country cut in two, though Jeff and I countered with Croatia, divided by Bosnia’s tiniest sliver of coastline known to man.
At the end of the tunnel, there was a memorial to a local gentleman, who’d committed suicide on the track. Apparently, he was an incredibly good person, beloved by the town, and no one could understand why he’d do such a thing. He was regarded as a saint to the locals and they left gifts in his memory when he granted them their prayers. Pinwheels were hung on a fence behind the memorial and it’s said, when the pinwheels are spinning, that his spirit is there with you.
We drove for some time, up, up, up. Made a pit stop at a gorgeous overlook and saw an Andean Condor! (The first of three I would see that day.) Andean Condors were on the endangered species list for almost twenty years and finally “upgraded” in 1988 or 89 to the “near threatened” category, where they still stay. That being said… pretty cool I got to see a few. Stopped at an abandoned work site afterwards, where local miners used to stay. Nothing spectacular, but I always dig a good, abandoned site for photographic purposes. And also just because I like weird, creepy things.
The Serenity of Embalse el Yeso
Finally, we reached Embalse el Yeso! And, so far, no altitude issues. Just shy of 10,000 feet. It only looked pseudo cool at a first glance, until we took a long walk with Filipe down the road and discovered that the canyon opened up into a ridiculously gorgeous view. It was nothing short of incredible. We got to eat our lunches there, too. Basking in the sun, taking in the view.
We were able to learn a little more about Filipe as well. At some point in the last several years, he just left Santiago and moved to southern Chile to find work. He stayed for seven or eight months before returning and hoped he’d be able to travel the world one day. He was an industrial designer by trade and education, but said he much preferred being a tour guide. He spoke of local politics and talked about young, Chilean ideals. We also learned that tomorrow would be his 28th birthday and he was throwing a huge party for himself. Each of these tidbits was emphasized with every imaginable English swear word known to man and, I must say, his breadth of vocabulary was quite impressive. He didn’t really use all of them correctly, but he damn sure tried. “A” for effort, Filipe.
We walked back to the bus stop overlooking a portion of the dam, where Marcello had set up a table of wine and crackers and peanuts and fruit. It was pretty awesome. Muriel, who’d had more than two glasses of wine, took up a conversation with us and told us she’d be traveling the next several months while waiting for her Chilean work visa to be approved. She was Venezuelan and things weren’t going very well at home right now. She’d be stopping in Chicago for a couple months to work on her English and said it would increase her “employability,” which I found a pretty impressive word to be familiar with. She recommended several other South American countries we should put on our list—Peru, Brazil, and Colombia. Overall, I think she was just having fun using her English skills, which was great, because our Spanish skills are pretty lackluster… to say the least.
We had a long drive home, but stopped at a really random store in the middle of nowhere for folks to have a bathroom break. We were asked if we wanted a “piscola,” defined to us as a pisco sour, but with Coke. We’d been told that this is what everyone drinks at local parties, but based on the fact that the one person sitting in the shop (not with the tour) bust out laughing, I had to wonder if this was just some joke they play on foreigners. Probably awful. No thanks.* Filipe asked if we wanted to try a Chilean treat. I said “sure” and was handed a bread roll of sorts. It was good, but it didn’t seem much different than a Thanksgiving roll. I couldn’t eat the whole thing, so I ended up stuffing the rest of it in my bag so no one would think I was rude. I’d just had a lot to eat that day.
We were pretty exhausted when we finally got dropped off. It was maybe around 5 and we got picked up at 7. Full day, but a great day. I was actually a little sad I didn’t get folks’ contact information to keep in touch. They definitely seemed like a fun bunch. Hung out in the hotel for the remainder of the night and ordered some pretty amazing room service—fries with cheese and onions and mushrooms and beef. Delicious. Tomorrow, we’ll be touring downtown Santiago for the day, prior to making the long haul home. Get to sleep in again and have an easy day at our own pace. Looking forward to it…
*The piscola is real! Just Googled it. Awe, now I feel bad again. But why was that random guy laughing hysterically? I’ll never know. Maybe there was just something wrong with him.
Downtown Santiago & the End of Another Adventure
Today was supposed to be way more productive than it was; I think we finally reached the point of power tourist exhaustion.. We had a 9:30 overnight flight, so we had the whole day to tour around Santiago before heading to the airport. Setting out with big plans of seeing everything the city had to offer in a single day, we really only ended up stopping by a few things.
Santa Lucia Hill & The Miracle of San Agustin
First up was Santa Lucia Hill, a huge hill in the middle of Santiago with a gorgeous landscaped park, a castle (of sorts), and a colonial monument with a fountain. The monument made for a terrific photo opp, though we were much too lazy to climb to the top of the hill to check out the castle. …It wasn’t small, I promise you.
We weaved down several busy streets to Iglesias San Agustin. The church, tagged all over the place in true Santiago fashion, has a statue of Jesus on the cross. During an earthquake, his crown of thorns fell down around his neck. “A miracle!” the worshippers believe. I walked in thinking this would not at all be impressive, but when I actually saw it, I understood why this event was so interesting—I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out how that crown shimmied over his head to get to the top of his shoulders all by itself. Worth a visit if anyone hits up Chile in their travels.
We continued our walk downtown and visited multiple city parks. Eventually, we tuckered out, figured we saw all the main sights we wanted to see, and made our way back to the hotel. Another amazing trip in the books and, as insane as it sounds, the day after I return home, I start a new job as a creative director. …The close of one adventure and the start of another.
Today’s featured photo: With peaks reaching 16,000 feet, the Altiplano is the most extensive high plateau in the world outside of Tibet. Make sure you’ve properly acclimated to the elevation before visiting its breathtaking high-altitude lagoons,
© 2018 Jordan Campbell. All rights reserved.