We were looking forward to what was supposed to be one of the prettiest bus rides through the Andes when we boarded the bus from Santiago to Mendoza around 1 pm last Tuesday. The first three hours of the trip were incredibly scenic. We passed countless vineyards before beginning the slow ascent into the snow covered mountain landscape filled with waterfalls and charming ski chalets waiting for the season to begin. Then we made it to the border with Argentina. That’s where everything went downhill.
For some reason - even our bus driver didn’t know - we sat at the border for seven hours. SEVEN HOURS. This was only supposed to be a seven hour bus ride! Besides getting into Mendoza at 3 am, this also meant that we completely missed the scenery for the second half of the ride into Argentina since it was midnight and pitch black. But good news! We are going to be crossing the Andes twice more: we will return to Chile later in May for a workaway and then come back to Argentina in June before we head to Brazil! (Fingers crossed it won’t be the same border crossing as this trip…)
Thankfully our Airbnb host was amazing and woke up to greet us at 3 and even paid for our taxi since we didn’t have any Argentine pesos yet. After a good night’s sleep, we woke up to some coffee on the porch to plan our next few days - and then the rain began. Our next few days in Mendoza were unfortunately heavily rained out. We had wanted to rent bikes and visit some wineries outside of town (the city itself doesn’t seem to have anything to do but shopping), but we weren’t ambitious enough to do that in bad weather. Instead, we did our own Tour del Super Mercado where we sampled bottled wines from the grocery store while making our own delicious home cooked meals. It was actually a pretty awesome way to spend our few days here. We even lucked out and got a free night at our Airbnb since our host felt bad that he didn’t have time to show us around and give us recommendations since he was busy with other things. We stayed an extra night and even splurged on the most expensive bottle of wine at the grocery store! $18. #winning
After our weekend in Valparaiso, we took a bus back to Santiago to begin a week volunteering at a hostel. Our previous volunteer experience at Los Monos was found through a friend, but to find more opportunites we joined Workaway, a website that connects volunteers and hosts throuhgout the world. In exchange for working 5 or so hours a day, the host provides free room and board and usually a day or two off for each week you work. We had only heard good things from other travelers and were ready to take on a new opportunity in Chile. Not that we are bored of traveling, but it is tiring to constantly plan your next bus, city, things to do, etc., and this would be a nice change of pace.
Our work was pretty much what you would expect at a hostel: cleaning rooms, serving breakfast, painting, caulking, changing light bulbs, hanging things on the walls - basically helping wherever it was needed. We lived in a dorm for a week with two other Croatians who were also there on Workaway, a Venezuelan who had been working at the hostel for over a year, and a French journalist. A few other travelers came and went during the week, but it was nice to have a home base with four other people during our time there.
We usually worked 10 am to 3 pm so we had our evenings free to explore the city. We were still struck by how different Chile is from the rest of the countries we’ve been to in South America. Modern, clean, and expensive - it was basically like being at home or in Europe. Luckily we were saving money this week on room and board, otherwise it would have been a heftier price tag. Walking around the city we were able to enjoy the sights, parks, and, of course, the beers. We tried to get cheap seats for a symphony one night, but they were sold out by the time we got there so we wandered around and ended up finding a free concert in the central square instead!
Chile is the first country we have been to so far that has an extensive craft beer scene. We visited several microbreweries and beer bars. Our two favorite beers were Jester’s Luptopia and Caudillo’s Imperial Stout. I should also mention that we leveled up to Extraordinary on Untappd, so we’re pretty much a big deal. We had to search long and hard for our thousandth unique beer. Props to Carl and Derek for beating us to it.
One of the best parts of the week was meeting an Australian friend we met on the Inca Trail over two years ago! We both happened to be in Santiago for a day and got to meet up before her flight to Cuba. We can’t wait to cross paths again when we make it to Melbourne!
It wasn’t an eventful week, but it was nice to relax (even if we were working part of it) in one city for more than a couple days. We had a great time, met new friends, and we’re looking forward to our next Workaway adventure!
Our first major stop in Chile was in Valparaiso, a hilly city right along the Pacific. It’s steep hills are marked with funiculars to avoid the climb, but we spent our weekend getting some exercise in and sticking to the streets since the city is full of amazing street art. Almost every block we explored was covered in colorful words or pictures, an impressive and refreshing thing after some of the gloomier sites in Bolivia. And bonus points: they had a couple great beer bars too! Our welcome to Chile was off to a great start.
Side note: Valparaiso technically wasn’t our first stop in Chile. We actually crossed the border at the end of our salt flats tour into San Pedro de Atacama in the northeast corner of Chile. Located in the desert, this town is becoming a popular tourist destination for its national parks that boast geysers, interesting rock formations, and flamingo filled lagoons. The drastic difference in culture and price tags certainly distracted us from any tourist attractions. It is SO much more expensive than Peru or Bolivia! (We’re talking like 50% more for hotel rooms, food, etc.) It was also interesting to note how much cleaner and better kept things were, and the people seemed healthier too. Since we’d already seen geysers and a ton of flamingos on our salt flat tour, we spent our one day in town doing a bike ride to the Valle de la Luna, where the rock formations create a lunar landscape.
We decided to fly from northern Chile to Santiago to avoid a 24+ hour bus ride. Upon landing in Santiago we immediately took a bus to Valparaiso, which is 90 minutes west of the city on the coast. We arrived just in time for dinner and to explore the Saturday night beer scene! We visited two awesome microbreweries (take that, Bolivia!!), including Anfiteatro and Altamira.
Sunday we spent wandering around the steep hills and small streets that characterize Valparaiso. We saw some amazing street art, took in a free museum, bought some funky cheap shoes for Laura, and ended the lovely day with a few more cervezas.
Uyuni, Bolivia exists solely for tourists as a springboard to and from the salt flats that are adjacent to the city. Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world at over 11,000 feet above sea level. This tour was basically the reason we came to Bolivia since we had heard so many rave reviews about the trip, and at this point, we really hoped it would help us justify the $160 entry visa.
We arrived in Uyuni after an almost eight hour bus ride from Sucre, where we were immediately hassled at the bus station to book our tickets for the salt flats. We had done some research ahead of time to know what a good price was and had to stop ourselves from laughing out loud at a woman trying to charge us double the price we had researched! We walked the few blocks to our hostel, dropped off our bags, and went searching for a deal. The first two places we talked to promised the price were were thinking of, but only the second place had an English speaking guide so we were sold. Afterwards we enjoyed some delicious spicy llama pizza for dinner, then we were off to bed to get ready for our adventure!
The next morning we piled into a Landrover with four other travelers. Our excursion started with a quick stop at the “train cemetery” outside of Uyuni. It turns out our guide didn’t really speak a lot of English, so we didn’t entirely understand why these trains were there. From what we gathered, the trains became defunct because they were too much work to maintain and trucks were cheaper. Wikipedia blames it on the indigenous people, but regardless of the reason it was a fun stop before heading to the salt flats.
Before we reached the salt flats, we had another stop at a market offering a million touristy items made out of - you guessed it - salt. After the market, we finally drove out onto the salt flats. The flats are famous for their reflective surface after it rains and sometimes you can’t tell where the sky ends and the land begins. We didn’t have that perfect of a reflection, but it was still super awesome to see! We stopped several times throughout our first day to take various pictures, including some goofy ones to play with perspective. Our last stop on the salt flats was this “island” of vegetation in the middle of the white landscape. We think it was a (very, very) old coral reef, which is now covered in cacti.
The second and third days weren’t actually on the salt flats, but instead spent exploring the beautiful scenery of southern Bolivia. We saw many mountains, volcanoes, rock formations, geysers, lagoons of various colors, and flamingos. We didn’t really get any info from our guide, but it was all very pretty!
The last day of the trip we woke up at 4:30 am to see the geysers, which are only active around 6 am. It was cool to walk around them as the sun was rising, but it was freezing! We were at the highest point of the trek at around 5,000 m (over 16,000 ft) above sea level and without the sun to warm us, we could only get heat from the geysers’ steam. After the geysers, we stopped at a hot spring. We didn’t realize we were going to be at the hot springs before 7 am and in the freezing cold, so Vesper ended up being the only one in our group brave enough to strip down and enjoy them. After that brief stop, we crossed a bunch of desert scenery, including one called the Salvador Dali desert since it looks like one of the artist’s paintings.
Our trip ended at the Bolivia-Chile border, where we took a bus to San Pedro de Atacama, an up and coming tourist destination in northern Chile. Looking back on Bolivia and the expensive visa, was it worth the hassle? Yes. Touring the salt flats was very cool and made it worthwhile. Would we come back in the future? Probably not. We enjoyed Peru a lot more and thought it had more to offer: better infrastructure, less poverty, and more cool stuff (like Incan ruins and killer ceviche). Now - off to Chile!
While wrapping up our time in La Paz, Laura got food poisoning and the last thing we wanted to do was take a bus to Sucre, a Spanish colonial city in central Bolivia. Instead, for only $50 per person, we were able to take a fifty minute flight - much more efficient than the fourteen hour bus ride. We left La Paz around 4 pm and were at our hostel in Sucre by 5:30.
Sucre is technically the capital of Bolivia, but it is pretty much in name only as the seat of the government is now located in La Paz. Nevertheless, Sucre’s previous wealth is obvious in the town’s charming architecture and parks. It is a very pretty town, especially compared to La Paz or Uyuni, the only other two cities we visited in Bolivia.
One of the highlights in Sucre was visiting a park that was supposed to be a “mini Paris.” When we got there, we found out that the real highlight was the children’s section which was all dinosaur themed. Vesper wished he was a little kid again.
The other highlight was the cemetery, which is one of the biggest we’ve ever been in. Most of it was mausoleums stacked five niches high. The walls of the cemetery were surrounded by flower vendors, and it was impressive to see the number of people buying flowers and bringing various gifts to leave with the their deceased family members. It was fascinating to see what everyone left as memorials (in addition to flowers) in the small niches, ranging from favorite cereals and sodas to mini bottles of Johnny Walker Blue Label.
We didn’t know this at the time, but we found this blog that shed a new light on the cemetery:
Despite its size, space in the cemetery is at a premium; each niche is rented for 4 years with the option of a single extension by another 3 years (at a cost of around $10,000 for a 7 year lease), after which time the body must be removed by the deceased’s family. If the family does not claim the body, it is removed to a mass grave elsewhere. This has been a contentious issue, with families who accidentally miss the deadline finding that the body has been removed and can no longer be retrieved.
As always, the search for beer continues. The only notable place we found in Sucre was a small microbrewery called Goblin Cerveza Artesanal
. They only had two beers on tap, but they were both good and tall pours.