The reason we came back to South America – The “W” Circuit, Torres del Paine, Chile

Farima and I reunited again at Erratic Rock, our hostel, in Puerto Natales to take on the “W” Circuit in Torres del Paine, a national park in the Chilean Patagonian region encompassing mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers. The W Circuit – named after its shape in the letter “W” when examined on a map – is considered one of the most popular paths amongst the many trekkers, travelers and nature lovers that the National Park attracts, due to the picturesque and what is known and quoted as the best views of the entire circuit it offers throughout its course.

Conveniently, the hostel we stayed at had informational sessions every day in preparation for the treks, as far as what to expect, pack, eat, weather conditions, etc. We attended the 3 o’clock session the same day next door at Base Camp (a bar adjoined to the hostel next door and owned by the brother of the hostel owner) and soaked up as much information as we could while getting lost in the gray, foreign eyes of our speaker – a beautiful Dutch Mountain man both Fi and I had come to know and love… from a distance. After the information sessions, we headed out to get the necessary things needed for the next five days including camping equipment, gear and easy to prepare and carry, food items. That night we packed our bags and prepared, physically and mentally, to embark on an adventure of a lifetime the morning that would follow.

We left Puerto Natales at 7:50 am the next day and decided to take the catamaran (the 2nd stop on the bus) to the Paine Grande Lodge, the start of our adventure hiking the “W” from the direction West to East, which is the first stop for many other trekkers that are hiking the same route.  With roughly 18KG’s on our backs (or at least the feel of it) we trekked the 3 hours and 45 minutes to our home for the night at Refugio Grey (another common name for a camp site with facilities, i.e. bathrooms, showers, kitchenette area) admiring the valleys, Lago Grey, and the stunning Glacier Grey at a distance. After setting up our tents and giving our backs, hips and shoulders a break from the backpacks, we headed to another short trail to catch a glimpse of Glacier Grey a little closer. As the winds were strong and fierce at the Glacier viewpoint, we didn’t venture too close to the edge and only stayed a short while to admire the glacier’s beauty, snaps some photos and hold a strong stance to avoid being blown away! After our short trek for some glacier sighting, we headed back to our camp site, cooked dinner at the kitchenette, proud of our first pasta meal that surprisingly tasted delicious (thanks to the added avocado and tomato we stubbornly decided last-minute to bring along without regards to its added weight on our backs) and headed to bed after a successful and memorable first day.

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We later realized, as we continued to see people hiking back and forth carrying close to nothing, we could have alternatively set up camp at the first Refugio Paine Grande and hiked to and back from Refugio Grey the same day. Although this would have taken us a bit longer time wise, the advantage of it would have been not having to carry our backpacks there and back on day one and the following morning on day two (day two consisted of us going back the same way we came to Refugio Paine Grande to do the rest of the “W” – imagine Refugio Grey being at the top tip of the very first slant of a “W” and Refugio Paine Grande being the bottom tip of it).  Regardless, it was part of the experience and I actually believe that it made us that much more prepared and stronger for the next 4 days that followed.

On Day 2, we hiked back down to Refugio Paine Grande Lodge and stopped there to take a break and enjoy our lunch. After our rest and lunch break, we had another 2 ½ hours to Campamento Italiano (campsite that was not a Refugio) as we began our hike after lunch. To our weather misfortune (THANKFULLY, the one and only during our entire 5 days!) the rain started to make its way down upon us shortly into our second leg of our hike. Although a little windy and rainy, we were still surrounded by stunning views of the mountains and lakes surrounding us and it did not stop us from making a few short stops to admire the sights, and snap some photos to enjoy after the fact. After all, we were in Patagonia, we weren’t going to let a little rain have much of an effect on our overall experience!

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We arrived to the next campsite a little cold and a little wet, and tried to get dry as soon as possible. We still managed to enjoy some risotto and warm ourselves up next to our rented burner stove. That night ended up being the coldest throughout our trek, mainly because my sleeping bag had gotten wet in the process. Although we contemplated sharing one sleeping bag, we decided it wouldn’t have been the best solution given the amount of space we would have had to share. I ended up sticking it out like a champ and writing it off as all part of the adventure!

We survived the night and woke up to the sun gracing us with its presence the following morning. Leaving all of our gear at camp, we trekked up to Mirador Britanico (imagine the middle top point of a W, that was where the viewpoint was). The moment we reached the top, the clouds were in our favor as they began to clear up and we decided to sit, eat our sandwiches, while admiring the peaks, the snow-capped mountains, and the ever changing clouds above, below and all around us. It was truly a sight you have to see to believe.

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After the viewpoint, we made our way back down to pack up our gear and head to our next destination and our 3rd campsite, Refugio Los Cuernos. The 2 ½ hour hike to Los Cuernos was striking with views of the blue waters of Lago Nordenskjol and the mountains surrounding it. We lost count of how many times we stopped to admire its significance and take pictures to remember it for after; although as hard as it is to admit, pictures don’t do much of Torres del Paine any justice. After reaching camp and grabbing one of the few camp sites left, we set up our tent and headed to the common area (another warm kitchenette for all campers at the Refugio) to cook dinner and even got to sip on some delicious whiskey spiked coffee… of course, only to get some good sleep that night!

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The fourth and hardest of the entire 5 days was a 5 hour hike to Refugio Chileno the next morning, followed by another hour hike to our campsite, Las Torres. Despite its difficulty, the sights surrounding us were awe-inspiring; everywhere we turned we were faced with a unique, different, and magnificent view of the park; a true representation of everything the trek and the region offered.  When we arrived at the campsite, the ranger checked us in and advised us to hike up to see the Torres that same night as the sky was clear with limited clouds in view and we may not have been blessed with the same circumstances the next morning. Although we had planned on hiking up for sunrise the next morning, it didn’t take more than a mere advice for the ranger to convince us to hike up it the same night, despite our already long day. After we had come all that way, we couldn’t risk possibly missing the Torres in a clear light.

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We made our way up the fairly steep climb reaching our final destination in about 45 or so minutes. When we arrived, it was hard to stop staring at the well deserving famous towers of the National Park and main attraction of the W Trek. The lighting couldn’t have been more perfect as the sun was setting behind its peaks. It was truly a spectacular sight that I am grateful we got to experience.  After taking some time to soak up and further admire the magnificence of the towers, we headed back to our campsite, cooked our last camping dinner, and headed to bed in an early fashion and in preparation of our 4:00 am wake-up call.

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The following morning while it was still dark out, we hiked the hill back up to the Torres once more in hopes of catching a different yet as equally attractive view of the towers, as the sun reflected off the Torres after it rose over the lake on its adjacent direction. Needless to say as it is hard to put into words, try to justify through pictures, or attempt to provide a verbal description, the splendor of all that is Torres del Paine, the top of the hill offered remarkable views of the sunrise in both directions, over the lake and across towards the Torres. Although there were a bit too many clouds for the sunlight to reflect off the Torres, nothing can take away from the pure glory of it all.

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After saying our good-byes to Torres del Paine, we headed back on a roughly 3 hour journey into town to catch our bus back to Puerto Natales. It was definitely a bitter-sweet ending to our five-day adventure. As much as we wanted to continue on living and hiking through the National Park, our feet, hips, knees and shoulders, had an agenda of their own!

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The following day, Farima and I took a rest, relax and catch up day in Puerto Natales and enjoyed each other’s company one last time before we had to split off again to head our separate ways. I was headed south and she was headed back up north. It was our potential last day on a continent we had mainly experienced together over the past 7 months and had come to love.  It was a tease to be traveling with my friend again for only a short while, but we have exciting plans together for the future ahead, so it is not necessarily a goodbye, just a See-You-On-Another-Continent later!

Those 5 days spent in the Torres del Paine National Park, trekking, camping, sometimes walking through puddles of mud and rain, embracing the cold, the wet clothes, sleeping bags, shoes, eating nothing but carbs but having a good excuse to indulge in as much chocolate as our bags and stomachs could handle, playing nonstop 21 questions, exchanging stories, smiles, forgetting without minding any attention to personal space in a cramped 2 person tent, and last but certainly not least, getting the chance to take in, breathe, and remember Torres del Paine, for all its beauty, grandeur, and justified glory… I must admit, the experience was absolutely unforgettable and one for the books. I am glad we got to experience that together.

Co-Written and Edited By: Farima Mn.

Bad Luck Charm – Pucon, Chile

I arrived in Pucon on a beautiful sunny day full of clear skies. I came to Pucon primarily to climb Volcan Villarrica and was hoping I could climb the day I arrived since the weather was perfect, but unfortunately the climb had begin at 6:30 am and I had missed my chance.

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The city of Pucon is filled with backpackers all eager for adventure ranging from hiking up mountains to climbing, to white water rafting in the rivers. I love coming to towns like Pucon because it gives me a chance to meet so many liked-minded travelers with a love for the outdoors! Since I couldn’t climb the volcano the day of my arrival, I opted for an adventure sport called hydrospeed. Hydrospeed is an activity where you lay on what is essentially a body board and go down class II and III rapids. At certain times you just had to let yourself be taken by the rapid and not fight the current. It was extremely fun, but at the same time scary and exhilarating.

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After an adrenaline filled afternoon, a bunch of us cooked dinner at the hostel and hung out around the firepit. The hostel I stayed at, ChiliKiwi, was extremely welcoming (and they had a puppy black lab) and felt like a nice home away from home. The people working as well as those staying at the hostel were all incredible and everyone seemed to get along really well.

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The following morning, a group of us woke around 6:30 am in hopes of climbing the volcano, but as my luck would have it the weather made a turn for the worse and the climb was canceled. I don’t know why I am surprised anymore when weather ruins something I have been looking forward to since it seems to happen so frequently lately. Either Pachamama (mother nature) hates me or I just have really bad luck with weather. Rain enjoys following me to many destinations and this was no different, the forecast for the next few days consisted of it. Mark, Debra, Yoni, and I decided to head to the Termas Geometricas, 20 hot springs beautifully built into the surrounding mountainside which turned out to not be a bad second option! It was very relaxing and perfect for the cold weather outside.

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We had a misfortune on our way back to the hostel as our van got a flat tire. The driver thought he had a spare, but the spare wasn’t the same size as the car therefore making it useless. He ended up having another tour bus driver take him to repair the tire. All in all it took about two hours but it wasn’t all bad as luckily the thermal springs had an inside restaurant with a fire so we didn’t have to wait outside in the cold.  After making it back to the hostel, Sophie (a girl I met at the hostel) and I ate our leftovers from the night before.

Since climbing Volcano Villarrica was no longer a plausible option due to the weather, Sophie and I decided to head to the Parque Nacional Huerquehue the following day. Although it wasn’t perfect weather out, we decided to take advantage of being in Pucon and go out exploring! We hiked 14 kilometers round trip (and up to 1300 m) to the picturesque three Lakes (Chico, Toro, and Verde). Although it rained throughout the hike and the trail was pretty muddy, we stuck it out like champs! I almost made it down without falling, until right at the end when I slid and my entire right leg was full of mud. Regardless, the hike was beautiful and it was great to spend a day out in nature.

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On the ride back to Pucon I couldn’t wait to jump in a hot shower and strip of all my wet clothes. After Sophie and I defrosted a bit, we headed to the supermarket to gather essentials for dinner and cooked delicious chicken burgers! The following morning Sophie and I were headed on an all day bus ride to Bariloche.  It was nice to meet someone going the same direction who shared common interests!

Pucon is a place I could have easily stayed for weeks, relaxing by the lakes, taking in the views of the volcanoes. Unfortunately, since my time in Chile is very limited I couldn’t stay and wait for the weather to clear up in order to hike the volcano. I was though lucky enough to see the volcano on a clear day as many travelers who come to Pucon aren’t even given that luxury. Now if only I could find a man in one of these mountainous towns to take home!

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Edited by: Farima M.

Full of Color – Valparaiso

The day after Farima arrived we headed to Valparaiso, a port town just outside of Santiago. We arrived around 2 pm just in time for the free walking tour that began at 3 (you know how much I love my free walking tours)! During the walking tour, they explained how Valparaiso became a major port city during the California Gold Rush when ships crossing between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would use the city as a resting stop. Although Valparaiso continues to operate as a major port city today, it lost much of its economic growth when the Panama Canal was built. The city is essentially split in half between the hills (cerros) and the area near the port referred to as the flat. There are about 28 funiculars that were built around this town to better connect the residents of the hills to the stores in the flat, however only 18 remain today with not many of them still functioning as a result of private investors in these funiculars that failed to see any major revenue generating from the use of such technology.

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We also learned that Valparaiso is a city of many firsts in Latin America. Among them being that Valparaiso was the first city in Latin America to have a fire department, a bank, a foreign exchange center, a Presbyterian church and many other things that continue to play a significant role in its history as well as the pride of its residents. An interesting fact we learned about the firefighters in Valparaiso is that they are all normal citizens that volunteers in their spare time and outside of their normal day to day jobs. These volunteers all have other careers in various industries ranging from doctors, to teachers, to cashiers and do not get any additional income for their role as firefighters and occasional lifesavers, which is pretty astonishing to say the least.

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Having spent a few days exploring the city, one of the main draws of Valparaiso is the immense amount of color that adorns the city. Between its brightly colored homes to its mural stained walls, the city is alive with energy and character. The art that splatters the walls originally began because of an art professor’s vision. He wanted to create a place where you didn’t need to go to a museum to see beautiful and unique works of art and he hoped to create an outdoor art exhibit for the people of the city. With this vision in mind, he instructed his students to demonstrate their artistic abilities by painting of buildings within the city rather than a canvas.

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Today, the tradition of open art is still very popular in Valparaiso and remains a significant part of its culture. Although graffiti is considered illegal in Chile – similar to many parts of the world – it is rather difficult to contain by the city officials and to many people’s dismay, most walls and/or many beautifully painted murals, have been tagged and/or painted over. So much so that one of the reasons behind the painting of some murals around the city is to avoid having the walls/buildings be covered instead in graffiti and/or tagging. What is interesting about this city is that in hopes of keeping one’s home just as beautiful on the outside, homeowner’s legally hire artists to paint murals on their buildings. It is undoubtedly better to have a beautiful mural you designed rather than the random artwork of strangers, which is why you can find graffiti alongside murals all throughout the city of Valparaiso.

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During the end of our tour, our tour guides pointed out an ice cream shop (Emporio La Rosa) that was voted one of the world’s top 25 ice cream parlors. After the 3 hour walking tour, Farima and I headed to Emporio La Rosa for a well-deserved ice cream and to judge for ourselves the popularity of the ice cream shop.

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The following morning, Farima and I took a boat tour of the city coast which turned out to be a merely 45 minute boat ride around the bay. We rode by a buoy where some really hefty sea lions were laying as well as part of the port where the cargo is stored. The best part about the boat tour was the views of Valparaiso from the ocean, which really gave you a sense of the perspective people encountered en route to California. After the boat ride, we headed to the Open Air Museum (Museo a Cielo Abierto) on Cerro Bellavista. The Open Air Museum consists of twenty murals painted by artists in the nineties on random buildings and walls. Essentially, you are walking through the streets following one mural to the next. One would assume finding these murals would be fairly easy, but because most of the murals have either faded and/or been painted over by vandalism, we found it quite puzzling and difficult. The majority of the artwork and murals have been tagged so horribly that it is no longer possible to read information related to the artwork and the artist (see pictures below). I am sure that at a point in time and pre-graffiti and tagging of the murals, such works of art were spectacular and unique. Unfortunately, this does not hold true today and the museum which once contributed to the city’s unique character, is quite an unpleasant and unfortunate sight to visit. Although it was a good experience to learn what has become the open art museum today, it was definitely disheartening to see the works of various artists be forgotten and disrespected in a city where art is so prominent and influential. After we finished walking by all twenty murals, secretly hoping we would find one still intact (however, to no avail), we headed back to the hostel to catch up with the rest of our hostel crew.

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The following day was a day full of “miradors” or translated to English as viewpoints. For the first viewpoint of the day, we headed to the only vertical lift/elevator in the city known as the Ascensor Polanco. The view from the top of this building gave you a view of the hills of Valparaiso and how far the hills extended. On our way to the second viewpoint of the day (Paseo 21 de Mayo), we walked along a big open air market. One of my favorite things about South America is you can always find a market no matter the city. The funicular for our second viewpoint was under construction, so we walked up one of the many staircases that are commonly found in Valparaiso in order to reach the top. From this view point, you get a great view of the bay and the coast to the west of the city. I considered both viewpoints to be beautiful in their own way.

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After seeing all that Valparaiso had to offer, Farima and I stopped at a bar known for their artisanal beer and ordered a sample of 4 different types. The first three tasted good to me, although I have tasted better, but the last one we both thought unbearable that it was more difficult to enjoy. The hostess told us the last one had flavors such as honey, coffee, and chocolate, all of which I love individually but did not enjoy a mixture served as a beer. After our beer tasting experience, we headed back to the hostel. I was headed to Pucon that night and once back at the hostel, grabbed my bags and got ready for one of the many over-night buses that await me within the upcoming months.

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Edited by: Farima M.

South America Part 2 – Santiago, Chile

After 14 hours of transit, the second leg of my South American adventure has begun. Don’t worry, I know I’m behind about a month on the past adventures, but I’ll have to come back to that at a later time! As I sit here in my hostel common area with no one around, I am overcome with loneliness, a feeling I am not accustomed to both while traveling and at home. For the first time in a very long time I am homesick. It could very well be because I’m exhausted from traveling and haven’t really had a conversation with anyone since I said goodbye to my mom and dad 24 hours earlier. Or it could be the fact that since going home 2 months earlier, I never really had a chance to get bored. I was either visiting with family or friends and didn’t really have a chance to get tiresome, therefore also making me not entirely ready to say goodbye again. I’ve always thought I could be a solo traveler, but after tonight I don’t think it’s something I’m cut out for.

The following morning I decided to join a free walking tour of Santiago in hopes of meeting fellow travelers. Santiago is home to almost half of Chile’s population, a testament to the pollution that surrounds the city. This particular tour wasn’t the usual major sights kind of tour, but more about the local markets. Our first stop was to the Mercado Central also known as Estacion Mapocho, a market strictly for selling seafood. The center of the market is lined with restaurants that draw crowds around lunchtime. Since none of us could stand the smell of fish anymore, we headed to La Vega Central Market, a massive roofed market selling all kinds of fresh produce. La Vega is where the locals near and far come to purchase their produce. On the way to our last stop of the tour, the cemetery, our guide bought us Sopaipillas, a Chilean fried pastry made of pumpkin, flour, and salt. I am typically sold on anything containing pumpkin so I was more than happy to try this delicious treat. The cemetery is big enough to fit 1,117 football fields and is where presidents and poets alike are buried. We stopped at one particular grave that our guide told us was home to that of a saint. In Chilean culture one becomes a saint if they are young and have died tragically. Once one is deemed a saint locals come to pray for miracles at the grave and when or if the miracle is granted that same person must return with a marble plaque of gratitude. The grave our tour guide brought us to was the burial site of a 9 year old little girl who was brutally raped and murdered. After walking a few hundred yards away from the grave we were told the real story. The girl was in fact 37 years old and had been a prostitute. She was loved by many that her friends spread a rumor about her grave to immortalize her. Although the grave does not belong to a 9 year old girl, locals still believe in the story and the powers of her saint. To end the tour, our guide bought us all a terremoto, which is a local drink commemorating the many earthquakes Chile has endured (including 5 of the largest in history). It is a mixture of white wine, grenadine, and pineapple ice cream…delicious but dangerous!

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After the tour, two other solo travelers, our tour guide and myself decided to grab some lunch back at La Vega market. Having not yet experienced Chilean wine, Ali and I headed to a wine bar (recommended by our tour guide) after lunch. I ordered the ocean to mountain flight of tastings, which included one white wine from the coast and two red wines from the mountains. I don’t normally enjoy red wines, but I liked both of these tastings very much, now if only I could remember the names! It was nice to have someone to share travel stories with and relax over a glass of wine (Ali has been traveling Latin America for 10 months).

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My hostel was hosting a free hotdog night, therefore I headed back to shower and clean up. I received a message from a friend I met in Peru and ran into again in Bolivia that he would be arriving in Santiago for the second leg of his adventures as well. You can imagine my excitement as I haven’t been feeling quite like myself and I was thrilled at the thought of seeing a familiar face… and he was just in time for hotdog night 😉

I don’t normally do much research on a place before I arrive, which can be both a blessing and a curse. A curse because I go into a new city completely blinded, but a blessing in the fact I have no preconceived notions or judgments. This is why I love the free walking tours, they are immensely beneficial for me and why in particular I decided to participate in two walking of Santiago. JC joined me on my 2nd walking tour of the city. It was approximately 4 hours and let’s just say this time around I lost interest rather quickly. One of the key highlights I do remember is the Palacio de la Moneda, where President Salvador Allende was killed (or committed suicide depending on who you speak with), which brought Pinochet to power on September 11, 1973, the start of the dictatorship. While on the tour, we witnessed an equal rights protest for gays/lesbians going on in the street, there had to have been at least 10,000 people marching. We ended the tour at the foot of the Cerro San Cristobal, where myself and a few others from the walking tour decided to head up the funicular. The tour happened to end around sunset and we were rewarded with spectacular views from the top, where the Virgin Mary statue stands. As we made our descent down the hill we quickly realized we were not on the correct path. By the time we made it all the way down it was time to go out, so we continued walking to Bellavista, an area full of bars and restaurants. We ended the night at a Spanish Karaoke bar, a perfect end to this already surprising day!

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The following day, none of us were feeling particularly adventurous so we headed to the biggest (and nicest) shopping mall in Santiago. After waking around for a few hours, we headed back to the hostel to cook dinner and have a relaxing night in. A few of us got to talking on the rooftop terrace about hiking in La Campana, a national park just outside of Santiago. We convinced a few people to change their plans and ended up with a group of 6 people on board for some outdoor adventure. Around 11 am the next day we were on our way to La Campana. We didn’t have enough time to hike to the summit, but it was nice to get away from the city for a bit and into nature.

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My hiking crew all left the next day to Valparaiso while I anxiously awaited the arrival of my travel partner, Farima! I enjoyed a relaxing day writing and wandering. Later on in the day I met up with a friend from my sorority for coffee who currently lives in Santiago and then enjoyed a BBQ back at the hostel. I finally started to feel comfortable traveling alone without the comfort of someone from home. I feel a little more confident in my ability to be a solo traveler after these 5 days, but I´m excited to have someone to travel with again!

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Stargazing in the desert – San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

The four of us (Jaap, Farima, Alaina, and I) arrived in San Pedro de Atacama around 1 pm, checked into a hostel and went to grab lunch. San Pedro de Atacama is most widely known for stargazing so we booked a tour that night to learn about them. After watching a short clip about the universe and history of stars, we were taken up to a rooftop where a couple of telescopes were set up for us to observe them more closely. First we saw the moon and its craters, then our guide, Jared, showed us the Southern Cross and how to differentiate it from other similar looking ones. Starting from the bottom, then left, top, and right the brightness of the stars decrease in the Southern Cross and the bottom star is near a black hole. Two other cool things we got to see was a cluster of 300,000 stars and Saturn. It was a pretty cool experience overall, but would have been nice if we got to observe more planets as well.

The next day Farima and I decided to go sandboarding since we missed out on it in Peru. Though it was a little difficult at first, once you got the feel of the sand it turned out to be a lot of fun! I presumed knowing how to snowboard would have made it easier, but I think it was actually the opposite. The technique in sandboarding is very different than snowboarding and it took me a little while to get used to the sand since sand is less dense and when you try to carve, it’s easy to get stuck in it. Walking back up the sand dune after each ride was exhausting since it took about 15 minutes to walk up but only 15 seconds to ride down. So we boarded for a couple hours max and afterwards headed to the Valle de Luna (Moon Valley) to enjoy our free-when-you-book-the-tour Pisco sours while watching the sunset. The sunset turned the surrounding mountain peaks various shades of pink, orange, and yellow and it was beautiful. I don’t think I will ever tire of watching the sunset anywhere in the world. We headed back to town afterwards and made plans to meet everyone on our sandboarding tour for dinner the same night.

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Our time in Chile was very short lived, but we are excited to return and explore the rest of the country in September. After a couple nights in San Pedro, we were off to Argentina! Alaina, Farima, Jaap, and I boarded a bus the following morning and headed to Salta. Since there was no night bus due to the Argentinian border closing at 4 pm, our 12 hour bus journey resulted in a full day of traveling, something I try to avoid.