<< markandrupa

Argentina & Chile

december 2006

Soon after booking an Antarctica cruise for early 2007 we began planning a pre-cruise extension in South America.  Keeping her optimization skills sharp, Rupa started us off in Buenos Aires on November 30th and moved us south through Argentina and Chile until we linked up with our cruise mates in Ushuaia on December 28th.  Along the way we admired the mighty Iguazu Falls and the parched Atacama Desert, we were enchanted by the moai on Easter Island, and we kicked back in the beautiful Chilean Lakes District.


We put some of our favorite photos together in a slideshow - check it out.

Trip log

  1. Seattle to Buenos Aires- november 29

    Our trip got off to a nervous start as we were unable to secure a taxi for our 4am ride to the airport.  The poor weather conditions had put a strain on the system, so after calling a dozen or so taxi and towncar providers we opted to park our car at the airport and rely on Jean and Malinda to pick it up before the nightly rate bankrupted us.  Jean was quite entertained when Rupa called him with the pickup information, but ultimately was hoping to make good use of the Audi as his car was presently imprisioned in his garage.

    Other than that, our flights to Argentina went off without a hitch.  We made it out of Chicago mere hours ahead of a fierce winter storm and, after another stopover in Miami, arrived in Buenos Aires twenty hours later and decently rested.

    LAN flight #4521

  2. Buenos Aires - november 30

    We arrived early in the morning, and after collecting our luggage we grabbed a taxi to our hotel.  When it came time to pay, the driver indicated a $47.55 fare and mentioned something about US Dollars.  $50 seemed a bit steep for what we were told would be a $20 ride, but it was rush hour and the transfer had taken nearly an hour, so we dutifully paid the tab.  Well, as we found out later in the day, the currency symbol for the Peso is also the $ sign, at which point we reasoned that our driver had meant for us to pay the equivalent of 47.55 Pesos, or about 16 US Dollars.  Either he had specifically duped us, or he thought we were mighty generous with the tip.  Oh well, live and learn.  Mai Pen Rai, as we learned in Thailand.

    We arrived at the hotel before our room was ready and elected to do some local exploring.  We quickly shed our rain jackets, which, while quite reasonable back in Seattle's 20°F freeze, were worthless in BAs 80°F spring, and hit the streets.  Our hotel was located in the trendy Palermo Soho neighborhood, which, much like it's New York namesake, is an outlet for the city's artistic community.  Large trees lined the wide sidewalks while cafes, restaurants and designer shops occupied an eclectic mix of two and three story buildings.  Most of the shops wouldn't open until ten or eleven, but the cafes were thriving and we stopped in to have a quick bite to eat.  After a bit more browsing we headed back to the hotel to claim our room and shower off the airplane grime.

    At 2pm our Buenos Aires travel agent, Isabel, dropped by our hotel.  Isabel had arranged all of our local tours and day trips and wanted to run through our itinerary one more time as well as collect a few more reservation fees that she had already paid on our behalf.  Isabel was everything you want in a travel agent - prompt (responded to emails at all hours of the day), practical (refused to give our credit card to any third parties), detail-oriented (copious documentation) and opinionated (willing to made recommendations).

    After meeting with Isabel, Rupa and I indulged in a long afternoon nap.  Around 7pm our alarm clock reminded us that we had evening plans - the Carlos Gardel Dinner and Tango Show.  Anyone who knows us will attest that we are habitually five minutes late, but tonight was a rare exceptions - perhaps our five hour nap had something to do with it.  We arrived for dinner ten minutes early and were the first of 500 guests through the door.  We took our time ordering, hoping to stall a bit, but once we had made our choices the first course was out in under a minute!  We worked through dinner slowly, taking frequent breaks to catch scenes from a projected slideshow inanely detailing the history of Tango.  By the time our main course had arrived the theater was quite full, and by 10pm we had wrapped up our dinner (and wine) and were ready for the show.

    The Tango show itself was very impressive.  Professional dancers, singers and a live band kept us entertained for two hours.  All fifteen or so of the dance acts were fabulous, but the most impressive was a young couple who executed daring lifts and spins at fantastic speed.  After the show we called it a night and taxied back to the hotel.

    1555 Malabia House, Buenos Aires

  3. Buenos Aires - december 1

    We woke up to a nice breakfast spread of eggs, fruit salad and deliciously fresh oj, and by 9am we had met our guide for the day, Fernando.  Over the next seven hours Fernando showed us around the major sites and neighborhoods of BA including the Plaza de Mayo, San Telmo, La Boca, Caminito, Puerto Madero, Palermo Chico and Recoleta.  We also drove by a number of statues and monuments presented to Argentina in honor of their 1910 centential.  Most countries gifted monuments depicting some aspect of Argentinian history, but in a glorious act of American arrogance the United States offered a statue of George Washington?!  Throughout the day Fernando continued to elaborate on the city's history as well as current events, and by the end of the tour we were well prepared to explore the city on our own.  The tour ended at the Recoleta Cemetary, were we strolled the densely packed mausoleums, paying a brief visit to Eva Peron's.

    Near the Cemetary we spotted a Freddos and stopped in for our first taste of BA ice cream - the Dulce de Leche with Brownie was delectable.  We went back to the Cemetary for a few more photos and then hiked off toward the luxurious Alvear Hotel to have a peak inside.  The lobby was quite underwhealming and not what we expected, so we journeyed on to the Plaza San Martin through a field of large ornamented hearts, similar to the life-sized cow statues you may have seen in towns across America.  We eventually ended up on the pedestrian friendly Florida Street, where I devoured my second ice cream of the day at Munchis, and window shopped our way to dinner at La Cuartetas, a typical BA style deep-dish pizza joint.  After dinner we went looking for a nearby milonga (ameteaur tango hall) that Fernando had recommended, but after nearly missing the plain, un-marked doorway, we were told that the dancing wouldn't begin until midnight.  We were a bit exhausted and in no mood to while away an hour and a half, so we hailed a taxi back to our hotel.

    1555 Malabia House, Buenos Aires

  4. Estancia El Ombu de Areco- december 2

    Today's main event was a visit to Estancia El Ombu - an active ranch sporting an historic homestead (from 1890) that now operates as a B&B.  The drive out was a bit of a surprise for me - had I not just flown a good twenty hours to get here, I might have mistaken my locale as the American midwest.  The landscape before us - the Argentine Pamapas - presented a boundless patchwork of corn, wheat and soybean fields enlivened only by the occasional cattle farm.  The decidedly flat terrain reached in all directions, and were it not for the thick pockets of trees lining the horizon we might well have spotted the Andes Mountains, some 2000 miles distant.

    Before the Estancia we stopped briefly in the town of San Antonio de Areco to visit a traditional silversmith workshop.  Argentine gauchos relied on silversmiths for knives, coins and decorative gear, and it was wonderful to see that the artistic skill of the silversmith still survives in this small town.

    We arrived at the Estancia around noon, greated by host of avian friends including parrots, chimango caracaras, southern lapwings and this long-tailed fellow.  Soon after arriving we ventured forth on an hour long horseback ride, led around by a traditional looking gaucho.  The horses were well-trained and required little prodding to follow along, which was quite fortunate, as it took us the better part of the hour to discover how to motivate and direct our mounts.  By the end of the ride we were both a bit sore from the incessant bouncing and gladly retired to the shade for an empenada snack.

    The second highlight of the day took place a little later in the afternoon when we were treated to a traditional gaucho lunch - a carnivore lovers delight that consisted primarily of sausage (pork and blood) and all-you-could-eat carne asada (grilled Argentine beef ribs and tenderloin).  The meat was moist and tasty, and though we each devoured a healthy portion, our hostess was clearly chagrined with our languishing appetite.  Once our desert plates were empty we transferred back to BA - a drive of which I have little recollection due to a severe food-induced coma.

    I remained comatose back at the hotel and awoke three hours later to find Rupa merrily organizing our travel gear.  It was 11pm, and, amazingly, we were both hungry.  Given the abundance of small, welcoming restaurants in the Palermo area we headed off on foot in search of a nearby dinner, but the crush of the weekend dinner hour was still strong and it took us a dozen restaurants (all within three square blocks of the hotel) to find one that met both our seating and culinary needs - an Italian restaurant named La Baita.  The restaurant was popular enough that patrons were still wandering in around midnight, when we were finishing our desert and heading for home.

    1555 Malabia House, Buenos Aires

  5. Buenos Aires - december 3

    This morning we walked around the San Telmo neighborhood with Isabel.  We had stopped by on our all day tour two days earlier, but it was the weekend now and the carless streets were alive with artists, vendors, musicians, shoppers and browsers.  We ended our morning walk across the Plaza de Mayo at Argentina's oldest cafe, the 148 year old Cafe Tortoni.  The historic cafe looks every bit the part, including two rooms in the back that once served as barbershop and private theatre.

    For the afternoon we treated ourselves to an Argentinian soccer match.  Argentines are soccer fanatics and it's not uncommon for opposing fans to clash after a match.  As a small comfort we had arranged our tickets through a specialized tour agency, including a shuttle to and from the game.  Our guide arrived a bit late and quite hungover, but he got us to the game in time to witness the pregame antics of the crowd.  The truly spirted characters were seated in the upper deck and behind the goal.  After unfurling a truly enormous flag atop the crowd, they broke out a whole host of red and white props including drums, balloons, streamers, sun umbrellas and flags of various sorts, including a Japanese flag.  Most impressive, though, was their coordinated chanting, which began long before we arrived and continued until the final whistle.

    As the stadium filled to about two-thirds capacity it became readily apparent that the security squad was not going to tolerate any shenanigans today.  Directly opposite the raucous home team fans, behind the other goal, the opposing fans filed into a cordoned off section of stands.  Imprisoned by 10ft tall fences to the sides, a 20ft tall fence to the front, and a few dozen security guards, the opposing fans quickly decorated their enclosure and began their own series of chants and taunts.

    The match itself moved along nicely, with both teams having numerous scoring opportunities.  The home team made the intial strike early in the game, but the visiting team came up with two goals in the second half to take the win.  The hero of the match, though, was the visiting keeper, who made four glorious saves to secure the win.

    The end of the match brought to light one final security measure - the home team fans were required to remain in their seats until the visiting fans had left the stadium.  While the home team fans sat in abject silence, the visiting fans prolonged their cheering and taunting for a good thirty minutes as security guards slowly funneled them out.  By the time we left the stadium the visiting fans were nowhere to be seen and our ride home, though slowed considerably by weekend traffic, was uneventful.

    Once back at our hotel we immediately set out again for dinner.  It was only 8:30 - a couple hours early for a proper BA dinner - but we had missed both breakfast and lunch and were sustaining ourselves on the meager hotdogs we had grabbed at the game.  We found a sidewalk table at La Cabrerra Norte - a justifiably popular restaurant a few blocks away - and devoured a wonderful steak meal.  Our sidewalk table turned out to be quite fortuitous, as just when we were beginning desert, Rebecca and Pascal, a fun NYC couple we had met at the soccer match, happend by and we invited them to join us for dulce de leche crepes (large desert burritos) and a night at a nearby milonga.  The four of us spent the next couple hours swapping travel stories and drinking beer while watching local BA couples of various skill tango the night away.  By the time all was said and done it was 2am before we made it back to our hotel.

    1555 Malabia House, Buenos Aires

  6. Iguazu Falls - december 4

    We woke up late today - just in time to shower, pack and head to the airport.  We grabbed a quick lunch at the airport and slept most of the two hour flight to Puerto Iguazu.  Once on the ground in Iguazu we remembered why we had packed warm weather gear - the temperature was hovering around 95°F and the air was infused with 90% humidity.  Our pre-arranged ground transfer failed to show, so we just grabbed a taxi to the Sheraton.  Although a bit pricy, the Sheraton was the only hotel located in the national park and within walking distance of the falls.  We also understood that hotel guests would be allowed early entrance to the falls each morning, but apparently this was no longer the case as the paths were roped off each night.

    After checking in we headed off to preview the falls, which stretch for nearly seven miles along the canyon wall.  Argentina has done an exceptional job preserving the natural scenery of the falls, protecting them within a large national park and stringing the forested landscape with numerous trails and elevated boardwalks.  Our first excursion was out to the Devil's Throat - a violent cauldron of falling water viewed from a platform on the cusp.  A bit far to reach on foot, a narrow-gauge train covered much of the distance, dropping us off for a short hike across the broad delta of the upper falls.  We had arrived a bit late in the day and weren't allowed to stay long, but we had booked a full moon tour for later in the evening and would soon return.  On the train ride back we were delighted to spot a large capybara (dog-sized rodent) rolling in the mud and shaking himself off.  This was the second time we'd glimpsed the elusive creatures (they made a showing a year earlier in Peru), and the second time I was unable to get off a shot.

    Back at the hotel we relaxed a bit before heading off again for our moon-lit tour.  After some difficulty hiring a taxi and finding the station in the dark, we boarded the train again for our second visit to the Devil's Throat.  By the time we arrived the moon was in full view, hanging around to illuminate the falls for most of our forty-five minute visit.  The wind had picked up considerably since the late afternoon and a heavy mist drenched the viewing platform.  Despite the conditions I was determined to get some photos, and with Rupa's help we set up the tripod and shutter release for ninety-second exposures.  In between shots we kept the lens cap on, but mist still dotted the lens during the exposures and I was a little surprised that any of them came out.  With my tripod I was pretty much the only one getting decent photos, and before long I had a small cluster of groupies watching the exposures as they flashed across the screen.  On the walk back to the train we passed a later tour on the boardwalk and debated whether to join them for second visit, but the moon had passed behind some clouds so we continued on to the hotel for a late night dinner in the lobby bar.

    Sheraton Iguazu, Puerto Iguazu

  7. Iguazu Falls - december 5

    After a lame hotel breakfast we set off to walk the upper trail of the falls.  A couple of hours later we had passed by the crests of some impressive falls and taken in a number of nice panoramas.  We took the tripod again and I spent much of the time taking extended exposures (¼ to 1 second) to soften the water and double exposures to extend the dynamic range of the scene.  Along the way we also passed a troop of curious (hungry, actually) coatis.  We had seen coatis in Costa Rica, but the ones here were smaller and tan colored, quite unlike their brown, racoon-like cousins from the north.

    In the early afternoon we set off on a group tour called the Gran Aventura.  The one hour tour began with a short ride through the forest in a large, open air truck.  There wasn't much to see in heat of the day, but the truck's starter failed after a nature stop, at which point we waited ten minutes for the following truck to give us a push-start.  At the end of the drive we all donned life jackets and boarded a large speed boat for a ride up to the base of the falls.  After powering through some small rapids our driver angled us into the spray of a couple small falls, dousing us with cold water and taking our breath away.  Around the corner the driver got even more ambitious, muscling the boat into the downpour of one of the larger falls (not the Devil's Throat, mind you, which looked as if it could swallow the Titanic).  Needless to say, we all came away thoroughly drenched (Rupa had the foresight to wear her swim suit).

    It was quite a hike back to the hotel from the end of the tour, but we hurried back to grab the camera gear and set off along the lower trail.  We hung around snapping photos until six, when a park ranger came by to close the trails.  He accompanied us on our way out (to close the gate behind us), but near the end he spotted toucans high up in the trees and allowed us to hang around as they skipped along the tree tops.  He also told us to come back around seven the next morning to find them headed the other direction.

    We had dinner in the lobby bar again, as we had heard bad things about the Sheraton's restaurant.  The food choices at the bar were limited - cheeseburgers, paninis, pizzas - but tasty none-the-less.  We were also hoping to get another shot at the moon-lit tour, now that I was comfortable with long exposures, but the clouds rolled in early and the tours were all cancelled.  Instead, we stayed in and I spent the evening working on the travel log.

    Sheraton Iguazu, Puerto Iguazu

  8. San Ignacio Mini - december 6

    Today we embarked on a day trip to San Ignacio Mini to tour the ruins of a 17th century Jesuit mission.  We left the hotel around 8am and joined a small shuttle bus full of fellow site-seers for the 2½ hour drive to the mission.  Our first stop, though, came only thirty minutes into the drive at the small mining community of Wanda.  The Wanda mine primarily yields amethyst and agate, and it soon became clear that this stop was largely a shopping opportunity.  After a brief tour of the mine's open-pit entrance we were led into a large souvenier shop, where we dutifully browsed but failed to find anything of interest.

    The rest of the drive to San Ignacio was quite pleasant.  Rupa slept, as is her want in moving vehicles, but I was actually quite taken by the scenery.  Just as the Argentine Pampas had reminded me of northern Ohio, the scenery here reminded me of southern Ohio - gently rolling, forested hills, occasionally laid bare for a small pasture or corn field.  As we approached San Ignacio we paused briefly beside a 20ft road-side crucifix before continuing on to a local restaurant for lunch.

    We had a beautiful sunny day, and the ruins were an enjoyable walk.  Built in 1632 and abandoned in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, the mission consisted of some 200 residences for up to 4000 native Guarani, a large courtyard, a cemetary, priests' quarters, and an immpressively large church.  At over 70 yards long and 24 yards wide the church dominated the mission, and while many of the remaining walls now required the support of modern scaffolding, fine details such as the sculpted entries and the tiled floor were still visible.  It was also clear that the two resident priests lived like kings - in addition to large, private living quarters built of finely hewn stone and volcanic rock (most other buildings were built of red sandstone) they had an enormous private garden.

    After an hour and a half at the ruins we started the long drive home.  Unfortunately, Rupa and I were crammed into the back of the bus with the sun beating down and with no access to the poorly distributed air conditioning.  By the time we reached the Sheraton the weather had turned cloudy and rainy, eventually turning to thundershowers during the night.  We were both quite knackered, so we grabbed a quick dinner at the lobby bar and headed for bed.

    Sheraton Iguazu, Puerto Iguazu

  9. Iguazu Falls - december 7

    I woke up early this morning and headed out for some wildlife photography while Rupa hung back at the hotel to organize and pack.  Once outside I was pleasantly surprised to find that the previous night's thundershowers had crafted a cool and comfortable morning, and I quickly set off down a quiet dirt road near the hotel.  I wasn't finding much of anything when the trees around me began sprinkling small pockets of rain water.  After a moment of wonder I connected the behavior with a similar experience we'd had in Ecuador and scanned the tree tops for activity.  Sure enough, all around me, twenty or thirty small monkeys were steathily bounding from tree to tree to cross the dirt road.  The monkeys were moving quickly, many with little ones clung to their backs, making photography difficult.  After a couple quick shots I decided to just stand and watch as they'd climb a trunk, take a brief moment to consider me, and then leap into a heap of branches, hoping to gain a foothold:  It was quite a touching experience.  After the monkeys had departed I continued my hunt, finding a few adorably small agoutis (a shy, guinea-pig like rodent) breakfasting on the lawn, a couple beautiful jungle birds flitting through the trees and, as the ranger had promised, toucans.

    Once the park opened at eight Rupa joined me for a walk along the lower falls trail.  We covered a new section of trail this morning, happenning across two beautiful waterfalls and their accompanying Great Dusky Swifts, as well as this lovely butterfly that chose to alight on Rupa's hat.  After a couple of hours we backtracked to the hotel to shower and check-out, and once our account was settled we hiked back to the falls one last time to collect a rock for Marcia and take a self-portrait.

    Our flight to Buenos Aires was a little late but otherwise uneventful.  We checked back into the Malabia House, which was beginning to feel like home-away-from-home, and found a local restaurant, Lo de Jesus, for a lovely sidewalk dinner.

    1555 Malabia House, Buenos Aires

  10. Tigre and the Paraná Delta - december 8

    BA is situated on the bank of a wide estuary fed by the sprawling waters of the Paraná Delta, and today we embarked on a day trip up the estuary to visit the city of Tigre, located in the Delta.  A short one hour drive from the city, Tigre is experiencing a revival as a weekend getaway for Portenos (urbanites from BA).  As you might expect, we had arranged for a private tour and were pleased to find Fernando, who guided our BA city tour, waiting for us outside the hotel.

    Our tour started with a stop in San Isidro, just north of the city proper.  A summer retreat in colonial times, San Isidro boasts a beautifully restored church as well as a number of original colonial manors.  Many of the manors have been converted into small museums, but it was a national holiday today (The Virgin Conception), and none of them were open.

    From San Isidro we finished the drive up to Tigre and caught a one hour cruise of the canals and waterways.  Soon after leaving port we turned into a major waterway and crossed over a stripe of water where the silt laden water of the upper Delta merged with the darker, polluted water of the port.  From here we passed through an older portion of the port, where vacant, decaying docks and large, rotting ships lined the banks.  Gradually the old port gave way to a more natural setting of reeds, shrubs and trees, as the oft-flooded Delta was still largely undeveloped.  The highlights of the tour, though, were the hundreds of small cottages that we soon found lining the channels.  These were the quaint weekend retreats of the upper middle-class, and given the long holiday weekend most were presently occupied.  Each was equipped with a private pier and sometimes a small beach, and almost universally they were erected on stilts to prevent flood damage.  Inaccessible by car, cottage dwellers without a private boat would rely on bus-boats for transport and grocery-boats for supplies.

    After a satisfying lunch at a riverside restaurant, Fernando took us to the Puerto de Frutos.  Historically a fruit market, Puerto de Frutos has become a weekend shopping extravaganza for Portenos, with wicker furniture and colorful, dried reeds being especially abundant.  We stayed just long enough to browse a representative collection of shops, and then headed directly back to BA, where we said goodbye to Fernando and thanked him for another laudable tour.

    It was too early for dinner and we realized it had been a week or so since we'd had a good BA ice cream.  To rectify this we stopped by an adorable ice cream shop just down the street.  Scannapieco Ice Cream Shop has been in business since 1938, and the lively old men dishing up the ice cream looked as if they'd working the counter the entire time.  We used the rest of the afternoon to catch up on email and travel logs (none of the cute neighborhood shops were open due to the holiday), eventually making it over to nearby Cluny for a wonderful French dinner of risotto, duck and wine.

    1555 Malabia House, Buenos Aires

  11. Colonia, Uruguay - december 9

    When you travel with Rupa you rarely get a free day, and today was no exception, as a day trip to Colonia, Uruguay awaited us.  Just across the 30 mile wide estuary from BA, Colonia boasts an historic old town center dating from Portugese and Spanish colonial rule.  To get there we grabbed a speedy one hour ferry from Buquebus' airport-like terminal (up to and including the jetway).  The ferry itself was quite comfortable, with plenty of space to move around and a thoroughly mobbed duty-free shop.

    Upon arrival in Colonia we met up with our guided tour group.  Unfortunately, this was one tour we should have passed on.  All told we only had about four hours in town before catching our scheduled ferry back to BA, and the first hour and half of the tour was scheduled for (a rather dissappointing) lunch.  We ate quickly and spent thirty of our lunch minutes perusing the cobbled streets, quaint public square and blinding white church before rejoining the tour group.  The tour continued with a forty-five minute bus ride out to an abandoned bullring dating from the early twentieth century and a brief stop at a picturesque beach.  By the time we made it back to town we had little over an hour remaining, the majority of which was taken up by the only redeeming aspect of the tour - a guided walk around town.  After the tour we spent our remaining thirty minutes walking the side streets and snapping a few more photos.

    The ferry ride back was without incident, and we arrived in BA a couple of hours early for our dinner reservation at the famous Las Lillas.  After a brief consult with our guide book we opted to hike twenty blocks to a professional camera store to hopefully replace a lens hood I'd lost earlier on the trip.  Unfortunately, the shop was closed and we ended up hiking another twenty blocks back to dinner.  By the time we arrived at Las Lillas our feet were dragging and our bellies, deprived of a decent meal all day, were grumbling.

    Luckily, Las Lillas didn't dissappoint.  We were offered an outside table abutting the boardwalk and readily accepted the opportunity to people watch while we ate.  We started dinner by sharing a proveleta - grilled provalone cheese, crispy on the oustide, gooey on the inside.  For entrees I opted for a flavorful rib-eye and Rupa sprang for a tender filet, and by the end of the meal we were in agreement that this was likely the best steak dinner we'd ever had.  We also finished another bottle of delightful Argentine Malbec, which ultimately necessitated an end to the evening.

    1555 Malabia House, Buenos Aires

  12. Buenos Aires to San Pedro de Atacama - december 10

    Sadly, we said goodbye to the Malabia House and spent the day transferring to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.  We definitely want to return to BA in the near future and spend more time exploring its distinctive neighborhoods.  It's nearly as quaint and lovely as Paris but at one third the cost.  Perhaps we can even convince some of our friends to join us (hint, hint).

    The BA airport was a breeze, especially with our preferred check-in and boarding.  While waiting around we loaded up on Snickers and Mars bars to deploy as mid-afternoon snacks on hikes and tours.  In contrast, our Santiago transfer was quite complicated, involving reciprocity payment, a painfully slow customs check and a confusing baggage re-check.

    By mid-afternoon we had arrived in Calama, and with a little help from two locals we found the hotel shuttle waiting to drive us the hour and a half to San Pedro de Atacama.  Though a dusty haze lingered in the valley, the shuttle ride gave us our first glimpse of the driest desert in the world.  Not surprisingly, it reminded us the Namib desert in Namibia, with tall, orange mountains encircling the valley and rocky outcroppings dotting the baren landscape.  The town of San Pedro de Atacama itself looked like a set from the movie Desperado - three or four packed dirt roads lined with single story adobe buildings occupied by restaurants, hotels, shops and bars, and a brilliant white church located off the town square.  The city itself claimed 5000 residents, but most lived outside the town center in compact, less-kept residential neighborhoods.

    We were plesantly surprised when we checked into the Terrantai Lodge.  An adobe and stone construction, the 20 room Terrantai gracefully blended modern styling with local materials and artistry, and boasted a charming courtyard with a firepit and small plunge pool, a restaurant and a library with speedy WiFi access (which we didn't discover until the third day).  Our room itself was also nicely appointed and included all of the amenities you'd expect from a mid-range hotel.

    The Terranti is an all-inclusive lodge, meaning two tours and three meals are included each day.  However, upon reading the Lonely Planet, we elected to add an additional tour - a star-gazing "tour" led by a local French astronomer.  His office was prematurely closed for the day, so we found an internet cafe and sent him an email (not knowing about the hotel's free WiFi, we were relegated to 1990 era computers running 56K connections).  After a nice dinner at the hotel we took an evening walk around town, enjoying the clear night sky and stopping to admire the well-lit church.

    Terrantai Lodge, San Pedro de Atacama

  13. Laguna Chaxa & the Valley of the Moon, Atacama Desert - december 11

    We set out on our first tour this morning to Laguna Chaxa, a brackish lake in the Salar de Atacama salt flat.  Actually, the Salar was not your typical salt flat, but rather a muddle of salt and volcanic ash that had formed a mantle of gritty rock.  During a brief tour of the Salar we passed a small pool filled with brine shrimp - the tiny crustaceans that flamingoes dine on.  We also spotted a number of small gecko-sized lizards, and for a brief moment I watched an endemic Olive Mouse scramble under a rock.  The highlight, though, was definitely the flamingos feeding in the lake.  Both the Andean and Chilean species were present, about 50 in all, as were a few other water birds including the Andean Avocet, Andean Gull and Pectoral Sandpiper.  Unfortunately, I'd left my long zoom lens (400mm) at the hotel and had to settle for shots with my shorter 200mm lens.  On the way back to San Pedro we stopped by the small town of Toconao to visit the church and its 300 year old bell tower.

    After a nice lunch at the hotel we ran a few errands, dropping off laundry ($1.30/pound), checking email at the internet cafe and booking our astronomy tour for this evening (the office was open today).

    Our afternoon adventure was a sunset visit to the Valley of the Moon.  Our first stop, though, was Mars Valley, where we learned a bit about the desert's geology and flora and later climbed a heart-throbbing 150 foot sand drift.  Ordinarily such a drift wouldn't have posed a threat, but we'd been three months without a serious workout and it was our first day at elevation.  Our second stop of the afternoon was an interesting rock formation known as the Three Marys, around which the red surface clay became noticably laced with threads of snowy white salt.  Behind the rock formation we entered an abandoned salt mine (in actuality just a small cave) and scratched off a small crystal of salt to enjoy enroute to our final stop, the Valley of Moon.  Rather than join up with the hundred other tourists waiting for sunset, our guide found us a nice secluded mount from which to watch the setting sun paint the Valley a beautiful shade of lavender.

    While waiting for sunset, a couple on our tour introduced themselves as Bill and Pam Bryan, founders of Off the Beaten Path, a well-regarded outdoor tour company based out of Montana.  We had a lovely time talking travel with them, and as it so happened they knew the founders of Cheeseman's Ecology Safaris, our Antarctic tour provider.  In fact, Gail Cheeseman, one of the founders, babysat for Bill many years ago!

    We were back at the hotel by 9pm, and after a rather disappointing dinner we bundled up and set out for our 11pm astronomy lesson.  Ten minutes outside of town our shuttle pulled up to a small house where we met Alain, our astronomy guide for the night.  Alain spent the first hour energetically walking us through the "movement" of the stars, daily and seasonal rotations, the southern constellations (including the nearly upside-down Southern Cross) and other peculiarities of the night sky.  We then spent the balance of the lesson gazing at stars, star clusters, nebulae, galaxies and, finally, Saturn, through Alain's five large telescopes (up to 17.5" lens).  The tour finished with a cup of hot chocolate and a ride back to our hotel.

    Terrantai Lodge, San Pedro de Atacama

  14. Petrogylphs, Atacama Desert - december 12

    After a short night's sleep we were up and ready to go by nine this morning.  On our way out the door we noticed our Lodge serving a free breakfast to dozens of local retirees, a community service that they offer every Tuesday.  Back on tour, we passed two small herds of guanacos - a wild llama-like camelid - enroute to our first stop - a large rocky outcropping sprinkled with ancient petroglyphs.  The shallow carvings, worn by erosion and randomly defaced with more recent grafiti, primarily depicted religious ceremonies or local wildlife such as llamas, foxes, jaguars and birds.

    Departing the petroglyphs, we drove out to a canyon oasis fed by a small stream.  The chlorophyl-laden canyon even supported an area of grassland perfect for grazing camelids.  Around the bend we hopped out of the truck and hiked a mile or so up a startlingly colorful valley where the enclosing hillsides were covered in heaps of red, gray, white and glittering green rock.  On the way out, as we backtracked a bit, Pam happened across a pair of sunglasses amid the vast and rocky terrain.  The sunglasses, as it turned out, were mine, and had slipped unnoticed from my pocket on the way up.  Once back at the oasis we concluded our morning with a delicious picnic lunch.

    We spent the early afternoon napping before starting our second tour - a guided walk around town.  Having been in town for two days already, and the town being the sum total of four streets, we weren't sure we really needed a tour.  For the most part we were right, but our guide did a nice job of walking us through the local archeological museum, pointing out important artifacts and supplementing the museum's notes with his own details.  On our way back to the hotel we stopped by a local tour operator and booked a half-day tour to Boliva's Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanco for the morning of the 14th.  Our Lodge didn't offer that excursion, and we had that morning free.  After a lite dinner we hopped straight into bed to catch some sleep before our 5am departure to the geysers.

    Terrantai Lodge, San Pedro de Atacama

  15. El Tatio Geysers, Atacama Desert - december 13

    The alarm clock jolted us out of bed at four thirty, and by five we were bundled up and on our way to El Tatio.  The road was quite rough, and two bone rattling hours later we rolled up to the 17°F geyser field and stepped out into the thin, 14,000 foot air.  The view was breathtaking, with more than sixty geysers and a hundred fumaroles spewing pillars of steam into the blue morning sky.  We spent a couple of hours tip-toeing amid the gurgling pools and colorful mineral deposits before trekking across the valley to the thermal pool.  By this time the geysers had dissappated for the day (they're only active early in the morning) so most of the tourists had left and we had the thermal pool to ourselves.  We used the back of the bus to change into our swimming costumes, dashed across the freezing terrain and leapt into the steaming hot pool.  Twenty minutes later we sprinted back to the bus to don our cold weather gear again for the long drive back to the Lodge.

    Actually, we followed an indirect route back, stopping by a lush, swampy oasis filled with birdlife, including coots, geese, blue-billed ducks and nearly a hundred flamingos.  Unfortunately, we only lingered long enough for a few quick photos before continuing on; if I'd had my way the oasis would have been an excursion all its own.  Our final sight of the morning was a cactus "forest" - a hillside strewn with hundreds of enormous two-story tall cacti.

    Back at the Lodge, during a pleasant outdoor lunch, we met an affable couple from Brazil.  As luck would have it, Andre and Akhila own the Araras Eco Lodge in Brazil's wildlife rich Pantanal.  Six months earlier I'd done some Pantanal research and the Araras Lodge ended up high on my list.  In addition to rare hyacynth macaws and giant river otters, Andre and Alika run the Lodge in an truly eco-friendly manner, hoping to inspire other Brazilian ranchers to follow suit.  It was a real pleasure meeting them, and we hope to visit them in Brazil during the coming year.

    We spent the afternoon moving at a slower pace, visiting the nearby ruins of Quitor.  Built in the 12th century atop a promontory overlooking the Rio San Pedro, this crumbling stone fort was one of the last indigenous stongholds against the Spanish invasion of northern Chile.  We spent an hour or so taking in the views and then walked two miles back to town, had dinner and went to bed.

    Terrantai Lodge, San Pedro de Atacama

  16. Laguna Blanco & Laguna Verde, Atacama Desert, Bolivia- december 14

    This morning we crossed into Bolivia for a half day trip to Laguna Blanco and Laguna Verde.  Although San Pedro is thirty miles from the border, passport control is just outside of town:  Other than heading cross-country through the desert, San Pedro is the only route into Chile around here.  We diligently packed our passports, but once in line we realized that we'd left our Chilean departure slips back at the hotel.  Fortunately, our shuttle driver brokered a deal in which we "lost" our slips and simply filled out new ones.  Once we'd secured our exit stamps, our shuttle finished the drive to the border, stopping once for llama pics before hauling us over the 14,000 foot pass.

    The Bolivian border post was a dumpy little building along a nearly invisible dirt road at the foot of the omnipresent Mount Licancabur.  The Bolivian side of the border was a national park, so our shuttle driver stayed behind while a park guide drove us around the two lakes.  Laguna Blanco, the larger of the two lakes, was sprinkled with hundreds of flamingos, and we were able to get close enough for some nice photos.  On the short ride over to Laguna Verde, we drove right up to a stressed out looking vicuna before noticing a small fox hanging out by the side of the road.  The fox was rather indifferent to our approach and allowed us to get within a dozen feet, but not before his breakfast ran off.

    At first view it wasn't clear how Laguna Verde had aquired it's name.  It was pretty, and did a nice job reflecting the distant mountain, but it wasn't until a slight breeze broke the reflection that the lake's emerald hue revealed itself as a picture perfect postcard.  We spent a half hour admiring the lake and picking out a rock for Marcia before heading back to the hotel for lunch and our 3:00 airport transfer.

    Our flight to Santiago was uneventful, but not unmemorable:  As a snack we were served a surprisingly tasty green been and ham sandwich.  The Santiago airport was also quite memorable - after collecting our luggage we amassed with dozens of other travelers to squeeze into a single file line that wound its way though a hundred transfer and taxi drivers all holding up named signs.  Fortunately, we had booked with a shuttle service and were able to move through the mess without pausing to scan for our names.  Our shuttle ride was short, as we had arranged to stay at an airport hotel to more easily meet our early morning flight, and our hotel was basic but nice, with a passable restaurant and free WiFi.

    Diego de Almagro Hoteles Aeropuerto, Santiago

  17. Easter Island - december 15

    Our ticket agent had checked us into our Easter Island flight yesterday, but ten minutes before boarding the gate agent called us up and issued us new boarding passes in separate rows.  We complained, as we were very likely the first to check in for the five hour flight, but he promised to fix it once we were on board.  Upon boarding we quickly found out why our seats had been reassigned - our previously assigned row 39 was beyond the aircraft's 37 row capacity.  We sat around for a while, waiting on the agent to reseat us, while dozens of other passengers exchanged seats to rectify their own seating predicaments.  It was a bit of a mess, but in the end the agent made good on his promise.

    Flying into Easter Island was a unique experience.  The airport was a one-strip affair with no taxiways, so after bringing the plane to a halt the pilot turned the giant 767 on a dime and taxied back down the 11,000 foot runway (extended by NASA in the 80s to serve as an emergency landing strip for the shuttle) and up to the small terminal building, where we deplaned from the back and down a portable stairway.  Baggage claim was also an adventure, as most of the passengers were returning Islanders hauling vast quantities of baggage, much of it in the form of coolers packed with fruit and other perishable foods.  As an added bonus, the airline had somehow managed to load everyone's final piece of luggage into the last bin, keeping the entire plane load of passengers, and the bulk of their baggage, at bay until the single moment when we all claimed our final bags and wrestled our way through the narrow exit.

    Just outside the terminal we met Edith, the friendly owner of our B&B, waiting for us with fresh flower leis, and within five minutes we were pulling up to the hotel.  Conveniently located along the town's main street (Hanga Roa is the only town on the Island), the hotel's ten rooms were split between two cottages set amid a delightfully landscaped yard.  I couldn't wait to get my first glimpse of the moai - the enigmatic stone statues Easter Island is famous for - so once we had the room key we headed off to nearby Ahu Tahai (the ahu are the raised platforms the moai were stood on).  Restored in the late 60s - meaning the crumbling ahu was rebuilt and the moai restood - Ahu Tahai was part of a larger restoration effort involving three ahu and seven moai all within walking distance of town.  Even though we didn't know any of the history yet, just standing in front of the enormous moai was every bit as grand as I had imagined it since reading a World Book article about the Island as a child.

    On the way back to the hotel we picked up water and snacks and I devoured a Mega bar (similar to a Dove ice cream bar or, if you have read my other logs, a Chinese Magnum).  After freshening up a bit we set off for dinner at the Ariki Nui restaurant, where we were excited to find them serving a traditional polynesian umu tahu - an earthen-oven meal of meat and vegetables cooked by heating porous stones and burying them with the food for a few hours.  The highlight of the evening, though, was the traditional song and dance show.  Two local troupes (Kari Kari Cultural Ballet and Matato's Group) each performed for over an hour, combining up-tempo music with highly energized choreography and elaborate costume changes.  While the male dancers jumped about in agressive, antagonistic moves the female dancers kept to more traditional hula dancing, shaking their hips with incredible pace.  Bill, Edith's husband, later informed us that these troups virtually demolish their opponents at international polynesian dance competitions.

    Taura'a Hotel, Easter Island

  18. Easter Island - december 16

    We awoke this morning to the sound of rain pouring down in brief, one minute surges.  By the time we had finished a delightful breakfast the rain had pushed off and pockets of blue sky were fast approaching.  Rupa had originally booked a tour for today, but to optimize her schedule Edith had postponed our tour until the following day, allowing us a day at leisure.  We took advantage of this rare opportunity to catch up on reading and travel logs while waiting for the sky to clear.  Around eleven o'clock we set off once again for Ahu Tahai to catch the photogenic moai in morning light (they face east).  I spent over three hours with the moai, waiting for the perfect combination of sunlight and background clouds to snap some photos.  Meanwhile, Rupa had made friends with a wandering dog, which, depending upon his mood, spent the next hour either following us around or leading us along.  As a final stop we hiked a further ten minutes outside town to Ahu Akapu for a look a something new before picking up some snacks (including a Mega bar) and heading back to the hotel.

    We spent the balance of the afternoon out on our porch, reading and working on photos.  For dinner we found a cute restaurant (Te Moana) just down the street and sat out on their front deck, watching the evening traffic pass by.  Dinner was quite a bit more expensive than on the mainland, and was comparable to what we would pay for dinner in Seattle - $7 drinks and $20 entrees.  To end the day we hiked back out to Ahu Tahai for sunset.  Sunsets on the Island are often quite spectacular, and the previous night's sunset (we were at the dance show) was no exception.  Unforunately, tonight's sunset wasn't near as impressive, but dark clouds on the horizon made for some nice photos.

    Taura'a Hotel, Easter Island

  19. Easter Island - december 17

    We spent most of today on a guided tour of the Island's west coast.  Our first stop was the quarry site of the red stone topknots worn by many of the moai.  The topknots, weighing up to eleven tons, were carved out of iron rich scoria stone and rolled to their destination before being balanced on the moai's head (a recessed notch, matched to the moai's head, made the balancing a little easier).  The purpose of the topknots is not fully known, but a common theory is that they represent a hairstyle once popular with the natives.  After all, each moai was carved to represent a specific individual, so adding "hair" to the moai only seems logical.

    Our second stop was Ahu Akivi and its seven restored moai.  Smaller than the moai at Ahu Tahai, the moai here are more representative of the average moai, standing thirteen feet tall and weighing fourteen tons.  Ahu Akivi is also the only inland ahu - all other ahus are located along the coast and face inland towards a tribal village.  Unfortunately, the significance of this location remains a mystery.

    We spent the next few hours exploring some of the many caves on the Island.  Large lava tubes, formed twelve thousand years ago as magma solidified into rock around a molten inner core, served as ceremonial sites and gardens for the indigenous people.  Where the cave ceilings had collapsed to form open pits, the natives planted local favorites such as bananas and sweet potatoes.  Protected from the wind and harsh sun, crops planted here produced more than those planted in the open field.  In fact, the natives would eventually learn to create artifical pits by constructing short stone circles in which to plant their crops.  Of all the caves, the most exciting was the Two Windows Cave, which opened out onto the seaside cliff wall for spectacular views of the coastline.

    After a brief stop at Ahu Tahai, where I captured some nice surf shots, we headed up to the lush Rano Kau volcanic crater on the southern end of the Island.  After taking in the vista, we continued up to the Orongo ceremonial village, site of the so-called birdman cult that came to prominence in the eighteenth century.  Perched between the rim of the crater and a twelve hundred foot drop to the ocean surf, Orongo consisted of a small stone village and an outcropping of petroglyph-laden boulders.  Each year young men would depart Orongo to participate in a grueling competition that required them to descend the ocean-side cliff face, swim one and a half miles to a small coastal islet (with the aid of a small raft), collect the egg of a sooty tern and return with it undamaged.  The first to return was declared birdman for the year, a position of great honor and priveledge.

    Back at the hotel we hung out with the other guests for an hour before heading off to enjoy the sunset at Ahu Tahai.  The cloud cover was disappointing again, but the sun managed to peak through just before setting.  It was Sunday night, and very few restaurants were open, but back near the hotel we ran into some of the other guests and joined them for dinner.

    Taura'a Hotel, Easter Island

  20. Easter Island - december 18

    We had another day off today, as our second Island tour was scheduled for tomorrow.  We woke up late, dropped off laundry and proceeded to rent a car for some extended touring of our own.  The rental agency dropped off a litte four wheel drive Suzuki for us and we drove out to Ahu Tahai to once again catch the moais in morning light.  Unfortunately, our generous night's sleep caused us to miss the best light, but the cloud-dappled sky still made for a nice backdrop.  From there we traveled up the south coast, stopping at a few of the dozen or so crumbling ahus spread along the shoreline.  Like all the Island's moai, the ones that once topped these ahus were toppled long ago when the natives erupted into tribal warfare.  In fact, by the time westerners had arrived in the eighteenth century virtually all of the moai had already been brought down.

    We continued up the coast and stopped briefly at Ahu Tongariki, the most impressive of the restored ahus with fifteen standing moai.  However, because the moai face west, the early afternoon sun wasn't very flattering and we moved on, promising to return later in the day.  Instead, we spent the afternoon up at Rano Raraku, an ancient volcanic crater that served as the moai quarry.  Even from a distance the quarry was enchanting, with dozens of standing moai randomly spread across the manicured hillside.  Gazing in all directions and partially buried, some of them up to their chin, these moai were in the final stages of construction when they were abandoned, never making it to an ahu.  Even buried, the moais soared up to fifteen feet tall, many of them leaning impossibly off to the side.  Walking among them was a bit surreal, as as if we were traipsing through a Salvidor Dali painting.

    Further up the hill the grassy field gave way to a wall of hardened volcanic ash - the birthplace of the moai.  Here, spread along a 200 foot stretch, the natives carved and extracted nearly all the moai on the island.  Still, the Islanders hadn't completed their work, and 400 moai remained attached to the rock.  Some were nearly finished, while others were mere outlines, barely visible amid the layered stone.  The largest moai, El Gigante, still lies in place, but if erected would have stood seventy feet tall and weighed in at 150 tons.

    It was a beautiful day, so we elected to climb to the edge of the crater and peer in.  On the way up we happened upon what looked like the mating ritual of the red-tailed tropicbird.  Five or six birds (presumably male) repeatedly approached a resting one (presumably female) from the air, diving in to get a closer a look and then backing off.  After ten minutes of this one of the males succeeded in winning the favor of the female and was permitted to alight and cuddle.

    Just over the rim, the crater opened into a colorful panorama and, much to our surprise, another dozen moai stood within the crater valley, scattered among the thistles and low growing brush.  While other visiters climbed higher up the crater rim, Rupa and I elected to head down into the valley to wander among the moai.  The trails were a bit slippery and overgrown, and I ended up covered in thistles, but the simulated feeling of discovery was exhilarating.  Rather than hike back out the way we came in, Rupa thought we should scramble our way up the rock wall to the top up the crater.  The path was much steeper than the standard route up, but the volcanic rock provided substantial grip and we eventually made the summit.  The view from the top was especially grand to the east, where we looked down upon Ahu Tongariki, a mile away.  By the time we left we'd spent four hours hiking the quarry, and with the afternoon sun shining bright we both came away a bit sunburned.

    Our final two stops of the afternoon were Ahu Tongariki and Ahu Akivi, and both looked gorgeous in afternoon light.  Ahu Tongariki is the largest and most impressive ahu on the Island, with fifteen giant moai standing at attention.  The ahu looked like it could support a couple more, so Rupa and I lined up as numbers sixteen and seventeen.  A few horses had also begun to graze and made for nice foreground subjects.  Finally, we stopped at Ahu Akivi, which we had visited the day before, just long enough to get some nicely lit photos.

    We returned to the hotel a bit late to catch the subpar sunset, but we trekked out to Ahu Tahai anyway just for kicks.  On the way back we stopped in at a nice French restaurant for dinner, and then called it a night.

    Taura'a Hotel, Easter Island

  21. Easter Island - december 19

    Rupa woke up tired and drained today after spending half the night dashing to the bathroom.  Apparently, last night's dinner didn't agree with her and swiftly let her know it.  We had a south coast tour scheduled for today but she wasn't feeling up for it, so she stayed behind to recover.

    Our tour leader for the day was Edith's Aussie husband, Bill.  Bill had come to Easter Island in 1992 as construction manager for Kevin Costner's film Rapa Nui and became so enchanted that he decided to stay.  He was your stereotypical Australian - charming, witty, helpful, energetic and decidedly relaxed.  Our first stop was the remains of a typical village and ahu, and Bill took this opportunity to share his knowledge, and personal theory, of the Island's history, from the arrival of the first polynesians to the demise of the local culture due to famine, civil war, slaving and disease.  Our second stop was another village and ahu complex, where, much to our surprise, Rupa joined us by hiring a taxi to find our van.  She was feeling much better now and didn't want to waste an entire day sitting around the hotel.

    Next up was Rano Raraku.  We had spent plenty of time here yesterday, so today we listened to Bill as he described the various stages of moai construction.  The tropicbirds were also at it again, and we found a quiet moment to whisper sweet nothings to a moai.  After a brief stop at Ahu Tongariki, we continued north to Ahu Te Pito Kura, site of the largest moai to ever grace an ahu.  Although unrestored at the time of our visit, Bill speculated that this thirty-foot moai would likely be the next to stand, assumming they find someone to foot the projected half million dollar cost.  Nearby we also posed with the so-called "navel of the world" - a large, water-worn stone with magnetic properties that, according to legend, was brought to the Island by the original settlers.

    Our final tour stop of the day was the idyllic Anakena Beach.  We had over an hour here, so I grabbed a snack of french fries and ran out to photograph the two restored ahus near the beach:  Ahu Nau Nau with its seven svelte moai and Ahu Ature Huki with its older, more robust moai.  I also took a moment to climb a brush strewn hill for a nice view of Ahu Nau Nau fronting the white sand beach.

    On the way back to the hotel Bill found out that we had somehow missed Ahu Vinapu during our west coast tour.  He wouldn't let us leave until we'd seen it, so he drove us down there after dropping off the other passengers.  Although unrestored, Ahu Vinapu is the only one built entirely of Incan quality stonework.  Although the story of its unique construction is still a mystery, Bill suggested that perhaps the construction technique was too time-consuming and was abandoned in favor of the faster, loose stack approach.

    As you might expect, Rupa and I trekked out to Ahu Tahai for a final sunset, and this time we were nicely rewarded.  For dinner we went back to Te Moana, although this time we weren't nearly as impressed with the food or the service.

    Taura'a Hotel, Easter Island

  22. Easter Island - december 20

    This morning we made our seventh, and final, trek out to Ahu Tahai.  We made it out there by ten - just in time to catch the large moai in perfect light (otherwise, his topknot casts a strong shadow across his face).  We also stopped by the nearby one-room museum for an hour, using the typewritten english notes to follow along.  If you are intersted in learning a little more about the Island's history, there is a good online article here.

    Given the seating confusion on our flight out to Island, Rupa and I were a bit anxious about the return flight.  We checked in early and were assigned adjoining seats in the middle of the plane, so all appeared to be in order.  Five minutes before boarding, though, and much to our displeasure, Rupa's name was announced.  I remained restlessly in line while she approached the gate agent, but she returned with a smile on her face, bearing new, business class boarding cards.  Our preferred status proved valuable yet again, and we enjoyed a relaxing five hour flight to Santiago.

    Our private transfer was waiting for us at the airport and we spent the next hour winding our way through the bus-choked streets of downtown Santiago.  A complicated network of over six thousand busses, combined with ongoing construction and holiday traffic, had slowed traffic to a crawl.  When we finally did arrive at our hotel, though, we were pleasantly surprised.  The lobby and inner atrium were classy, the room was spacious and adorable, the staff was friendly and they offered free Wi-Fi.  We'd had a nice business-class dinner on the plane, so we spent the balance of the evening in our room catching up on email and relaxing.

    Hotel Galerias, Santiago

  23. Valparaiso & Veña del Mar- december 21

    We had a nice hotel breakfast this morning before day-tripping out to the coastal port of Valparaiso.  We met our guide at 9:30 and proceeded to fight traffic all the way out of town.  Along the way, though, it was exciting to see the city in holiday form - a number of street markets had spontaneously appeared during the previous weeks and every home and business displayed a Christmas tree.

    The one hour drive to Valparaiso was relatively mundane as we cruised along the lumpy foothills of the Andes Mountains.  To break up the drive we stopped at a large winery in the Casablanca Valley - a Napa Valley look-a-like where seventeen wineries grow their grapes.  Veramonte was a fairly typical tourist winery, with a grand main building, views into the cellar and a large tasting room.  After a very brief tour we tasted a few of their unimpressive wines and quickly resumed our journey to the coast.

    Our first stop in Valparaiso was La Sebastiana, one of Pablo Neruda's three houses.  Although he didn't spent much time here, it was an entertaining glimpse into the mind of a poet.  Labelling this house as "left-brained" would be an understatement - everything about the house breathed eccentricity - the chaotic but somehow fluid layout (including a stairway to nowhere), the erratic decor (including porthole windows and a see-through bathroom door) and the impulsive furnishings (such as the stuffed baby penguin).

    We continued our tour of the city by car, our guide pointing out important and interesting buildings, and I was all set to be disappointed when he finally parked the car and started us on a leisurely walk.  Down a small street and around a corner, he led us to an operating ascensor - a kind of lateral lift - which we rode a hundred feet up to the steepy raked residential neighborhoods of Cerro Alegre, Cerro Concepcion and Cerro Panteon.  The city has 15 of these ascensores, built during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to ferry passengers between the low-lying industrial and commercial zones of the city and the residential neighborhoods perched among the city's 42 hills.  We spent the next three hours roaming the winding streets and pathways of a few of these hills, traipsing down ancient, cobbled streets, admiring the colorful, historic homes and taking in panoramic views of the city and bay below.

    For a complete change of scenery we drove along the waterfront to the opposite side of the bay to visit the relatively modern city of Veña del Mar.  A popular weekend retreat for Chileans, Viña's lovely waterfront is piled high with condos and wealthy summer homes line the major avenues, which, unlike Valparaiso's, are automobile friendly.  We stopped for photos along the waterfront before grabbing a pleasant seafood lunch at a family-owned restaurant along the shore.

    The drive back to Santiago was swift and uneventful, and we spent the rest of the evening relaxing in our room.  I also called home to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, as they were celebrating a few days early so Keith and Sarah could spend Christmas Day in New Hampshire.

    Hotel Galerias, Santiago

  24. Santiago - december 22

    Today we'd scheduled a short city tour followed by a trip to the popular Concha y Tora winery just outside the city.  Our tour started a bit late, due to the hectic holiday traffic, but once our guide arrived we were off on a brief driving tour of the city's more popular buildings.  Our first actual stop was Cerro Santa Lucia, the three hundred foot rocky hill-turned-park in the center of town.  Graced with beautiful fountains and banks of unruly aloe vera, the view from the top was nice, but not priceless like it suppossedly can be on a clear day.  Our next stop was the Palacio de la Moneda, Chile's understated presidential palace.  We took a quick tour of the interior courtyards and then walked a few blocks to the Plaza de Armas, bedecked with an enormous Christmas tree.

    We had an outdoor lunch at an agreeable restaurant out near the winery, where we enjoyed a traditional parrilla (grilled meat platter) and yummy lucoma (a local fruit) flavored ice cream.  We then headed over to the winery for a well integrated tour and tasting.  We tasted two wines:  A young, fruit-forward Carmenere (a Chilean grape very similar to Merlot) that I wasn't too fond of and a three year old blend called Don Melchor, which was surprisingly smooth and refined.

    We had a leisurely drive back into town as we passed through some of Santiago's middle-class neighborhoods.  It was particularly enjoyable to drive through neighborhoods that could have passed for small town USA - tree-lined streets with curb-side parking, single family homes with children playing in the yard and street performers entertaining drivers paused at a light.  Not long after, we passed through a modern commercial center with a couple of dozen 30 story buildings, and that concluded our tour.  Back at the hotel we perused the nearby shops, but most were junky affairs mobbed by holiday shoppers, so we retired to our room for the evening.

    Hotel Galerias, Santiago

  25. Puerto Varas - december 23

    We beat the holiday traffic with a 7am airport transfer this morning, and although we checked in more than an hour early, LAN was unable to seat us together.  Otherwise, the two hour flight to Puerto Montt was unexciting, and once through baggage claim we met our guide for a brief tour of the area.  The weather here was much cooler than Santiago - 60°F and overcast with a spitting rain - and reminded us of the even colder weather we would encounter on our fast-approaching Antarctic cruise.

    Our guide first drove us down to the waterfront where we spent an hour walking around the Angelmo Fish Market.  More than just a fish market, Angelmo reminded us of an ad-hoc Pike Place market, with open air stalls offering a varied selection of fresh fish and shellfish, colorful veggies, blocks of cheese, wildflowers and an assortment of local handicrafts.  From there we drove through downtown Puerto Montt, first passing the older, individualized storefronts and later the more recent, block-spanning malls and apartment buildings.

    From Puerto Montt we drove ten minutes to Puerto Varas, a much smaller town situated on picturesque Lake Llanquihue.  Although no longer a port, Puerto Varas avoided demise by focusing on tourism, and the bulk of the town's six block business district was filled with privately owned hotels, small restaurants and quaint bars.  We found our hotel wedged between the town square and the Lake, at which point we said goodbye to our guide and checked in.  The hotel was larger than a B&B but small enough to feel like one, with a friendly staff, comfortable common areas and charming rooms.

    We were both a bit hungry so we strolled around town comparing menus and opted for the Bavarian themed Dane's Cafe.  Rupa ordered a Chilean hotdog, Italiano style (stuffed with avacado, tomato and mayo), and I devoured a wonderful beef empanada, which was essentially a beef pot pie stuffed into a turnover.  Just as we finished our dinner the sky unleashed a torrent of rain, so we returned to the hotel and enjoyed an evening in.

    Hotel Licarayen, Puerto Varas

  26. Chiloe Island - december 24

    Neither of us are big on breakfast, so we were pleased when our hotel served up a simple but delicious snack of ham and cheese, rolls and yogurt.  Also, as you might expect, we had another day trip today, this time out to nearby Chiloe Island.  We had the same guide as yesterday, and with our prior approval he brought along his fifteen year old daughter.  After a thirty minute drive along the Pan-American highway we pulled onto a small, open-air car ferry for a half hour ride to the Island.  While crossing the channel it struck me how similar this area was to the Pacific Northwest - ferry rides to quaint islands, rolling, forrested hills, distant, snow-capped peaks and clear glacial lakes all combined to complete the illusion of home.

    Chiloe is a large island steeped in history and mythology, and a day trip really wasn't sufficient to see it.  Instead, we got a brief glimpse by visiting two of its northern coastal towns.  At the first town, tiny Chacao, we stopped by the flowery town square to visit one of the Island's 150 small churches.  Constructed of local lumber, the church was sided with corrugated metal instead of the traditional wooden shingles to prevent deterioration.

    Moving on to Ancud, our second town, we stopped in at a local market housed in a brand new, natural timber building.  Inside, a hundred small shops lined the two-story atrium and hawked the same wares as those in Puerto Montt - fresh fish, veggies, cheese and local handicrafts.  After a short visit to the local history and archeological museum we walked over to the town square where we found small stone statues representing Chiloe's many mythological creatures, including Trauco, a fertility gnome that was chained to his post to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

    For lunch, we walked through town to a hilltop restaurant with a nice view of the bay.  Along the way we passed an inebriated man who, while straining to remain bipedal, somehow managed to pick a small bouquet of flowers and present them to our guide's daughter.  After lunch we stopped briefly at a colonial gun emplacement before beginning the return trip to Puerto Varas.

    By the time we arrived home the sky had cleared enough to reveal nearby Mount Osorno at the far end of the Lake.  We took advantage of the break in weather to explore the town a little more before heading back to the hotel for another relaxing evening.

    Hotel Licarayen, Puerto Varas

  27. Puerto Varas - december 25

    If you have been following along, you will be astonished to find out that we had today to ourselves.  No tours, no transfers, no itinerary of any sort.  Instead, we spent a relaxing day in the room watching tv, reading and working on travel logs.  For our big meal of the day we strolled half a mile along the waterfront to a cozy seafood restaurant named La Olla.  Only a small, fifteen-table room was open for seating, but a constant stream of tourists kept the staff busy.  We both ordered local white fish specialties - Rupa opting for the Chilean Sea Bass and I the parmesan-draped Conger fish.  Both dishes were expertly prepared, delicious and overwhelmingly large, sending us both into food-induced stupors.  Back at the hotel we took turns calling home to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and update them on our progress before settling in for the evening.

    Hotel Licarayen, Puerto Varas

  28. Puerto Varas - december 26

    We were back touring again today as we set out on a guided drive to Petrohue to view some of the area's natural beauty.  Unfortunately, the weather gods did not to cooperate, bestowing a gray, overcast sky with bouts of spitting rain.  Despite the weather, the countryside was still quite charming, with modest farms and ranches separated by small wooded thickets and fields of wildflowers (especially white daisies).  Much of the drive ran along the shore of Lake Llanquihue, where pockets of contemporary American-style homes would occasionally make an appearance.  Apparently, the Chilean Lakes District was popular with weathly foreigners, who built large winter homes here for pennies on the dollar - a typical three thousand square foot lake-view house with an acre of land only ran fifty to a hundred thousand dollars, or around twenty-five dollars a square foot.

    Our first visit of the day was Petrohue Falls, where heavy rapids cascaded over dark, water-worn basalt outcrooppings.  A catwalk delivered us into the heart of the falls, where a heavy mist and an overcast sky made for challenging photography.  Although I didnt have my tripod with me, I had some recent experience photographing falls in similar conditions up at Igazzu, and I came out with some decent photos.  We also stopped further upriver for some scenic viewing, but as we continued on to Petrohue we ran into a line of large tour buses thwarted by the washed out road ahead.  Crews were working busily to repair the damage, but it looked as if it might be a few hours before the road would be passable.  The rest of our tour was up in Petrohue, but rather than wait out the road repair we left early and enjoyed a long lunch at an adorable rural restaurant.

    We were back at the hotel by two (having just left at ten), but the weather had cleared so we took a short walk along the lake, after which we rested a bit before heading out again for dinner.  We chose a small restaurant named Fogon, as it had been recommended by two of our guides.  We weren't particularly hungry so Rupa just ordered a bowl of soup, but I tried the Conger fish once again while it was still on the menu.  The fish was even better than the night before (no cheese this time), and after finishing a bottle of wine we stumbled home and into bed.

    Hotel Licarayen, Puerto Varas

  29. Ushuaia - december 27

    Our last travel day for nearly a month went off without a hitch.  The sky was clear as we flew over southern Patagonia and the scenery was spectacular - cascading, snow-capped mountains, glacier plugged valleys and emerald green lakes filled our tiny window.  All three of our bags arrived safely in Ushuaia, which was a giant relief given all the cold-weather gear we had stuffed into them.  After a brief shuttle ride we checked into our hotel and spent a couple of hours wandering around Ushuaia.  Our last stop of the evening was the adorable restaurant Kaupe, rated one of the best in Argentina, where we had a fabulous dinner overlooking the Beagle Channel.

    Hotel Albatross, Ushuaia

Souvenir List

  1. Llama finger puppet
  2. Moai magnets (3)
  3. Moai stuffed animal
  4. Stuffed yarn doll
  5. Stuffed yarn penguin