The Driest Place on Earth & an Impromptu Ski Trip

I finished my semester in late June at La Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso, but still had two weeks left in Chile. It was the perfect opportunity to make the trip up to the driest place on the planet, the Atacama Desert, situated in Northern Chile. It was also the perfect time for my mom to take a little vacation and join me for the trip.

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Day trip hike, El Morado, Cajon Del Maipo with my mom

After showing her around what has been my home for the past five months, Valparaiso, and taking a necessary day trip from Santiago to Cajon del Maipo, we took a flight up the northern part of the country.  The landscape and culture of the Atacama are completely distinct of what I have found in the central and southern regions, which are covered in forests and fertile soil. Bordering Peru and Bolivia, this area has a completely different feel. The music and textiles are highly influenced by Bolivian styles, and the local cuisine is filled with flavors such as the rica rica plant that you won’t find anywhere else in Chile.

The town we stayed in, San Pedro de Atacama, is the main tourist hub of the region but is quaint and strongly holds on to the traditional Atacamanian architecture. The whole town is essentially composed of one story buildings made of a dark red clay. Tons of local artists have shops for scarves and blankets made from llama and vicuna, but many textiles and souvenir goods are brought in from neighboring countries. It was in one of these shops where I purchased one of the only souvenirs from my time aborad- a charango. The charango is a small ukulele type instrument that is native to Bolivia. I found one made from good wood and with a beautiful sound with the help of a music instructor who happened to work at our hotel, and haven’t been able to put it down since! The sound of the charango is the feel of desert, the Andes, the Inca Trail, the culture of the Atacama and Altiplano. Without having very much previous guitar experience, the charango is definitely not the most intuitive instrument, but it’s really fun and I am determined to learn!

Playing my new charango after hiking on the Inca Trail

Playing my new charango after hiking on the Inca Trail

Usually I never have issues adjusting to different climates and altitudes, but I think it was as drastic of a change as I could get from the sea level and usually humid Valparaiso, to 8,000 feet and super dry San Pedro. I didn’t let the nose bleeds and mild headaches stop me from enjoying our time there though.

I couldn’t have been happier that after more than six months of not seeing my mom in person, we were able to share our desert vacation together. During our stay in San Pedro, we were able to explore some amazing places. We crawled through caves in Valle de la Luna, hiked a 16km section of the Inca Trail, felt and saw the volcanic activity at the Geyser de Tatio, and soaked in some natural hot springs.  I’d say that the coolest part was spending a day walking along the Inca Trail and seeing the ruins of houses built three thousand years ago. There are shepherds that still inhabit some small homes along the trail today. It’s pretty amazing to see that there still are some animals in the world who get to live their life outside of a cage and live with shepherds just like they would have thousands of years ago!

Geyser de Tatio

Geyser de Tatio

Upon my return to Valparaiso, I found out that some snow had finally arrived in the mountains and some of the ski resorts in Chile were starting to open up. When my friend Tara said she wanted to ski before leaving Chile, she didn’t have to ask me twice! I was more than anxious to get back on my board. Also, Evan brought all my gear to me during his visit in May, so I pretty much had to go! Without very much thought, we bought tickets for the next bus to Chillan, packed our stuff, and hit the road. The bus unfortunately took over 8 hours instead of 6, due to many stops picking up random people along the way (travel by bus in South America is generally very economical, but not always the most comfortable or efficient).  We arrived to Chillan in just enough time for a rushed raid of the supermarket. Example number 4359 of you never know what will happen in Chile- classic event of the bus arriving late and having no time to get food. Oh and the supermarket had zero produce! Not a single fruit or vegetable in sight, awesome. But it was fine, we were able to find pre made pesto quinoa (this is still beyond me how the supermarket had pesto quinoa but no fruit or veggies). With just a few minutes to spare, we hopped on the last bus of the night out of town and toward the mountain area where we’d booked a hostel for the night.

Tara and I knew based on directions we found online to get off of the bus at km 71 on this route up the mountain. Seems easy enough, right? Not really. This bus (more of a micro for those who have been to Chile), was packed with people and the humidity of the drizzling rain outside caused the windows to fog up. It was dark and there were hardly any street lights, or kilometer markers for that matter, so we were definitely wondering if our word to the bus driver alone would ensure getting off the bus at the right place. Luckily for us, a stranger in the row next to us sensed our concern and told us he was also getting off at the same place. My gut reaction gave me no reason to be suspicious of this person who also happened to need to get off of the bus and such a seemingly random and remote location.  We all got off at km 71, and after telling him where we were trying to go, he gave us detailed directions on how to walk there and we went our separate ways. Sweet! I thought, we are in more or less the right place. Now time to walk down an unlit dirt road in the pouring rain at night in rural southern Chile with my snowboard. Tara and I definitely struggled trying to find the hostel; we went up to several cabin looking houses and asked if we were in the right place. We wrong about 3 times, but eventually found the cabin that resembled the pictures we had seen online.  All of the worry faded away as soon as we stepped into the hostel, which was really more like a decked out cabin. We whipped up the pesto quinoa and hung out at the dinner table with a friendly group of skiers before passing out for bed, it had been a long day!

Onai Hostal Las Trancas

Onai Hostal Las Trancas

When we arrived to Nevados de Chillan the next day, conditions were less than ideal. With less than ten cars in the parking lot, an icy drizzle falling from the sky, and low visibility, it was not the ideal ski day. BUT we didn’t care. We had made so much effort (yes, sitting on a bus is effort) to make it all the way there. We were going to make the most of it. And that, we definitely did. Maybe the conditions weren’t pristine, but we spent the day racing around the slopes with two Brazilians and another gringo from the States, all people we just happened to make friends with there.

Back on the mountain, couldn't be happier!

Back on the mountain!

We took the bus leaving the mountain down to town in the late afternoon since it was our last opportunity to get down, and our return bus ticket to Valpo for midnight was already purchased.  We made it back to Chillan with five hours to kill. Fortunately, the AirBnB host of one of our new friends gladly opened her home to us. She welcomed us with open arms, offered us tea and bread, and helped us dry out our soaking wet outerwear. Super buena onda as we’d say in Chile- good people and good vibes. We all hung out together sharing stories and laughing about what a day it had been. Sometimes you don’t even need a bluebird sky or fresh powder to have an epic day of skiing- sharing the stoke for skiing and snowboarding in good company can be pretty awesome too.  I will always remember that day because of how much fun we had in what I would call some of the worst conditions I have ever snowboarded in my life.

After the Chillan trip, my time in Chile was pretty much over. I had to start packing ALL of my stuff up, not just what would fit in my pack for the next little adventure. I started to feel really emotional, and totally not prepared to say goodbye to my Chilean family who had been so kind, so welcoming, and such a big part of my life over the last five months. It’s weird because saying goodbye is the part no one tells you how hard it will be. I spent so much time before coming to Chile wondering how everything would be and what the family would be like, and I had nothing to worry about! I am going to miss all of them so much! Especially the little things will always stick with me, like taking the time to just chill out and converse with each other over afternoon tea each day.

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This is not a goodbye to Chile forever. It’s much more like a see you later kind of thing. Since going all the way back to the States right now would be too much reverse culture shock to deal with, I’m embarking on a new era of this abroad adventure- Argentina! Looking forward to some real coffee in Buenos Aires and some snowy days in Bariloche.

P.S. Shout out to my dear family and friends that I haven’t seen in seven months, I miss you and I will back soon. Especially my Grandparents, I know you are reading this and I am sending all my love!

Carlita

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