Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Atacama

From Jujuy it was another overnight bus to San Pedro de Atacama, the most touristic and popular town in the north of Chile. We were woken up at the pass over the mountains where they have the border control at ~14000 feet. That gave us the opportunity to observe the salt flats, flamingos and beautiful desert scenery during our descent to San Pedro where we settled for the next 3 nights.

High altitude salt lagoons near the border

I'd have to say that overall I was disappointed with San Pedro and preferred the area around Tilcara much more. I thought they would be similar but the reality was quite shocking. Both lie around the same altitude but being on opposite sides of the Andes means San Pedro is much more dry and lifeless. Outside of town even cacti were scarce. Tilcara had a more laid-back and easy-going village vibe and was focused more on restaurants and hostels. San Pedro was all about tour agencies and business. Not that the people in San Pedro were pushy or rude, but San Pedro is considered a must-see in Chile and the go-to for the north of Chile, while the Humahuaca valley is more spread out and more doable on your own. Consequently, San Pedro is known as one of the more expensive spots in Chile (though the whole country is way more expensive in general anyway) while Tilcara was the opposite.
I have no doubt that the landscape and area around San Pedro is beautiful in that remote desert kind of way.  I love that stuff. But when a tour agency starts out by asking you where else you are traveling to and tells you that if you are planning to go to Bolivia or elsewhere in the area extensively then there is no real point in going on a tour in San Pedro, the phrase "tourist trap" starts to creep into your mind. It is now very much the high season for tourism here too so the town was packed with people. There is enough accommodation and space in town but when most of the tours go to the same "remote" location at the same time it will be disappointing. We were walking to the store in town just before the 4pm tour departure rush and the streets were so crowded we had to stop and wait for everyone to leave before we could continue. I think in that moment we all looked at each other and knew we weren't going anywhere. Renting a car and doing it on your own would probably be a great option though. Another very popular activity is biking with many rental options and a couple sites within riding distance if you are fit and prepared.
As mentioned above, we were lucky enough to see some of the incredible scenery on our ride in over the Andes so instead of heading back up that way we spent an afternoon walking to the nearby ruins of the pukara. It is pre-Incan and similar to the one Tilcara, also climbing the side of a little hill for defense. Continuing up a larger hill behind the ruins afforded us some excellent views over the valley, the volcanic mountains and nearby rock formations.

The Pukara ruins.

San Pedro 
Overlooking the valley of death

From San Pedro we caught a bus 6 hours north to Iquique, bizarrely a coastal city and one of the driest places on earth. The city often suffers from fog and yet a whole year can pass without a single drop of rain. I'm still trying to wrap my head around how that is possible. Even without seeing the fog you could taste a dry fog in the air. I wasn't expecting anything from Iquique but actually thought it was pretty nice in the end. The beach is big and the water might be cold but didn't seem to stop anyone from enjoying it. The city itself has an interesting layout being long and thin because of a lack of space. Right behind town is a steep mountain/cliff and between the two is a huge sand dune, towering above even the tallest apartment buildings. Paragliding seems to be very popular too. Iquique started out as a historical port for the transport of saltpeter from all the nearby mines so there is at least one street of historical buildings (Baquedano st) but in our day and a half in town we didn't discover much else of note.

The descent into Iquique. The dune is as big as it looks

Baquedano street

Plaza Arturo Prat

Busy but cold beach.

Our one full day in the area was spent on a day trip to the nearby ghost town of Humberstone, a former saltpeter mining town that was abandoned in 1960. Saltpeter is mineral nitrates, which after mining and processing were historically used in both fertilizer and gunpowder. In the late 1800's commercial saltpeter mining in the Atacama desert started to take off and by the early 1900's there were dozens of mines scattered about the desert and Chile was supplying up to 80% of the world's nitrates. So valuable were the deposits that in 1879 Chile, Peru and Bolivia fought a 4-year war over the area, with Chile the victor, gaining vast amounts of territory from the other two. The glory days were short lived however as German chemists eventually developed a synthetic way of producing nitrates and with the recession of the 1920's, production steadily declined until most of the mines were shut down.
Today the former town of Humberstone is disintegrating away in the desert and easy to visit as an open museum site. It is really interesting because while a couple of former buildings have been restored and set up with museum objects from the era, most of the buildings by far are still abandoned and falling apart and open to wander through. One section of the town was the residential area, complete with a public square with fountains and gardens, a theatre, hotel, hospital, school, market and huge swimming pool. All this in the middle of a dry, lifeless desert clearly illustrating how profitable and important the industry was at the time. Housing was generally tiny and differed by rank and whether or not you had a family there with you. There were several streets to wander but the total population at its peak couldn't have been much more than a couple thousand.

What's left of residential Humberstone

The restored entrance part
 Most sections look more like this

Huge outdoor pool, with area for viewers

What's left of the main plaza

The fancier part of town

On the other side of town was the industrial processing area. Here the workers processed the saltpeter that was mined nearby before sending it off to the coast for export. Nothing in that area was restored but you could still wander through and see workshops and processing buildings, old furnaces and trains. We were there longer than most visitors and covered everything pretty thoroughly in about 4 hours. A couple km away is the sister sight of Santa Laura but we started too late in the day and ran out of time to visit it as well :(

View of the industrial part of Humberstone


Distant Santa Laura that we didn't have time for


Thursday, January 17, 2019

Jujuy Province, Argentina

After an exhausting sprint to barely catch our overnight bus to Jujuy from Buenos Aires, we had a relatively easy 23 hour ride to Jujuy. It left in the morning and by sunset we were still driving through a flat farming landscape but woke the following morning to dry mountains. With a quick change in Jujuy, a couple hours further along we finally settled down in the little tourist hub of Tilcara. Northern Argentina is a world away from Buenos Aires and really doesn't feel like the same country at all. Cactus covered mountains and dry riverbeds replaced fertile farmland and gone were the tall, predominantly white-skinned latinos, replaced by Andeans that could make the average Filipino look tall. Despite being up at nearly 8000 feet it was hot, skin sizzling hot in the sun and we tanned there faster than on the beaches of Brazil.
The road north of Jujuy city heading to the Bolivia border follows the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a narrow valley with at least 10,000 years of human history, including more recently as a major travel route for the Inca and was the site of several battles in local independence wars from Spain. Today it is a pretty valley, poor and underdeveloped but a popular stop for those traveling between Argentina and Bolivia. There are multiple villages to choose from to base yourself along the valley and day trips to the others are easy enough with lots of bus traffic to and fro. Hiking is popular and there are a few little pre-hispanic ruins to see but the most famous feature of the valley is its beautiful scenery. Just driving along the highway is enough to be awed by the colour and for the most part we contented ourselves with such.
We stayed in Tilcara for 5 nights, the longest we've stayed anywhere this trip, more because we couldn't get out because of Christmas bus schedules than for a need to be there that long. We enjoyed it though and weren't overly ambitious. Tilcara itself is a tiny town of only a few thousand people and very dusty streets. Every other store is either a simple hostel or a restaurant catering to the tourists that seem to make up half the population on any given day. And yet somehow the people seem pretty relaxed, friendly and easy going so it made a very pleasant base and wasn't hassley at all.

Looking south out over the valley near Tilcara

Overlooking Tilcara
Our go-to for lunch

We were feeling the effects of altitude (me the most) so didn't want to push things too much. We hiked to the top of a nearby hill for some views and visited the nearby ruins on another day. The ruins were pre-Incan but reached their maximum under the control of the Incas and were essentially abandoned or destroyed by the Spanish. The partial reconstruction gives you an idea of the old layout, but for the most part the hill is mostly rubble dotted with cacti and the circular holes in which people were buried.

Wandering through the ruins

We also visited the even smaller village of Purmamarca, best known for its 7-coloured hill. It is also very popular with tourists and we found it to be more expensive and touristic than Tilcara. It is supposed to be quainter and is often considered the favoured place to stay but we were glad to be based in Tilcara instead. We ended up doing a nice little loop hike around town before heading home.

Purmamarca. Note the colours behind town.

Purmamarca plaza shopping options.

Hiking around behind Purmamarca

Purmamarca cemetery

It was Christmas time but we didn't feel much of the "Christmas spirit" that is now confused with the commercialization of the holiday. Yes there was the decorated Christmas tree in the main plazas but generally very little other hype or build up. It was also Sasha's first non-winter one and for the most part we kept forgetting what month we were in. Then we got to Jujuy and learned we wouldn't be able to get anywhere by bus until after Christmas.  We spent the big day checking out of our hostel, killing time there then killing more time with a long lunch, transiting back to Jujuy and waiting there until a 2:45am bus came along to take us to Chile.

A Monopoly Deal Christmas


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Buenos Aires

Over and over again I have heard of Buenos Aires (BA) as one of the best cities in the world and easily everyone's favourite capital in Latin America so I had high expectations without really understanding why. Our approach by ferry from Uruguay didn't tell us much and it was shocking to be unceremoniously dumped out on the side of the road after getting off the ferry without any terminal to speak of. Not a great start.
We caught an uber and settled into our Airbnb in the Palermo neighbourhood, a nice area of tall apartment blocks and treelined streets. We were looking for somewhere safe, fairly central and reasonable clean and found it. It felt very livable wandering around going about our daily activities. BA is often mentioned as more European and classy than any other city in South America and that is probably true in the sense that in the centre you have that grand architectural look with majestic government and public buildings, and large well-used plazas and parks. What differs from Europe is the number of modern buildings mixed in and the scale of roadworks. There are streets that are 10 lanes wide right in the centre. A brief look at things wouldn't clue you in that the country is continually falling on hard financial times. It still looks like there is a lot of money and influence here.
Unfortunately for us we didn't allocate as much time as is truly needed to appreciate the city with only two and a half days. It didn't help also that aside from the first day we arrived, it was often wet and relatively cold or threatening to be. We still wandered in the centre, admiring the monuments and facades and parks as best we could. We hid in coffee shops for warmth and even found a delicious cheap steak at a simple grill house restaurant.

Just a typical building in the centre. 

Colon Theatre on the left

Love the contrast between old and new
That is a lot of lanes....
Sasha's favourite way to hide from the rain.

A must see and an interesting outing in BA is the Recoleta Cemetery, a large walled off block of ornate tombstones of the historical rich and famous residents of Argentina. It is big enough that it is laid out with pedestrian streets. The only name I recognized there was Eva Peron but I'll admit I know nothing of Argentina's historical personalities. It was still very interesting to see and in many places the tombs are not well maintained and we could peer into the depths and see the coffins stacked below. Not creepy at all...

Recoleta Cemetery

For Bre and I though, the biggest highlight in BA had nothing to do with the city itself but with a person. After ~14 years we met up with Edgar, a former exchange student who was one of the last to live with us before we shut all that down. He's Venezuelan and only a few months ago finally left his country with his family to settle in BA and try to start over. He was still in a state of rebuilding his life and the stress that entails but took the time one evening to come over and reminisce with us. With Venezuela being the only country we won't visit in South America on this trip, talking to Edgar really brought the issues to a personal level for us.

Monday, January 07, 2019


Looking at a map the road south from Posadas follows the western border of Uruguay with multiple border crossings to choose from. As we were on a night bus it made some sense to stop at the furthest south crossing (more sleeping time) and make our way from there. Border crossings must have cross border traffic right?
So just after sunrise (because our bus was an hour late), we were unceremoniously dumped on the side of the highway outside the town of Gualaguaychu. We'd hoped they'd at least stop at the bus station but instead we found ourselves in the rain at a 24hr truck stop and in need of a saviour. And behold! One appeared before us in the form of a Portuguese lady that had resettled there after getting married to a local. What are the odds that we would find a foreign, English-speaking, helpful person working at a truck stop in a town that can't possibly have any foreign tourists passing through ever? And to add to the miracle, she was just getting off work and a city bus happened to pass by and pick us up to take us into the city, with her as guide, so we could find the bus station. It took 2 buses and almost an hour but it was glorious. We were saved. We were down to our last pesos too so taking a taxi probably wasn't really an option for us. Such are the quirks of travel where you really don't know what is going to happen but you have to carry on believing that you will get where you need to go in the end.
We were in for a few more surprises at the bus station. Despite being the closest road link to Uruguay from Buenos Aires, there was only 1 bus a day going across the border and we would have to wait about 4 hours to catch it. The bus station is quite small with a sitting area for maybe 40 people and a single small cafe but it was more appealing than running around lost in the rain so we sat and waited. It was also a shock to find a small tourist office in the station that was not only open (somehow a rarity everywhere we go) but was staffed by someone that spoke English! This might not seem that unusual to you but it was mind-blowing. This just has not been happening to us. I started to rethink the importance to Gualaguaychu... Maybe they have ambitions. Maybe they are the secret English-speaking hub of Argentina. Unfortunately she couldn't make buses magically appear sooner.  So we waited...
With another bridge over another river doubling as a border (all the borders so far have been rivers), we entered Uruguay without issue. It was a quick and quiet crossing and we quickly found ourselves in the small town of Fray Bentos. We'd hoped to enter a lot earlier in the day and get things moving along but our arrival at 2pm put a stop to our progress.
All 0 of my British readers might recognize the name Fray Bentos as the brand name of a meat pie still sold in the UK. In 1863 a meat processing plant was opened there and for the next 116 it became the dominant industry in the region, essentially turning Fray Bentos into a wealthy industrial town. The meat processing company morphed a few times over the years but was at its peak during the "Anglo" years in the first half of the 1900's with over 5000 workers, exporting its products around the world from its own port on the Uruguay River, including being a major supplier to the armies of both world wars. The town within a town that grew up beside the industrial area included it's own hospital, recreation areas, school etc, and was also abandoned when the factories shut down for good in 1979. Now a world heritage site, it is possible to visit some of the old buildings to see them in their current state of decay. This is what we did but we arrived too late for the guided English tour which was only available that morning. It was still really interesting and incredibly atmospheric to walk through some abandoned engine rooms in pools of water listening to the drip drip drip of the last of the rainwater falling through the holes in the roof or peering through cracked and dirty windows trying to figure out which part of the processing that building was used for.
This place is not a well known tourist attraction yet and we were the only ones there but we really enjoyed it and the small attached museum. There wasn't much English so I can imagine it would have been even better with the guide, but there were lots of old photos (some quite graphic) and materials (old equipment, product cans, and the old admin offices) to give enough of an idea. In a way we felt a little too rushed to enjoy it as much as we probably would have if we'd gotten there earlier. We ended up staying the night in Fray Bentos, which is otherwise a pretty small and sleepy town now with a couple of small plazas and the odd nice building like the theatre still standing from its glory days.

Fray Bentos old offices
Anyone recognize any of these?

Engine room

The old port

Fray Bentos theatre is still in use

One of two nice plazas

The following morning we caught a bus to Colonia del Sacramento, originally a Portuguese settlement and one of the oldest in Uruguay. It sits across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires and was a site of contention for its first 150 years, being involved in a couple sieges and changing hands between the Spanish and Portuguese a few times in that period. Today it is a small but very touristy town, popular with day trippers from Argentina as well as for those transiting between Buenos Aires and Montevideo as Colonia has a busy ferry terminal between Uruguay and Argentina.
We arrived late after our bus had to reroute because of flooding on the roads but still had enough time in the afternoon and evening to wander around the small historic centre of Colonia. It has a few tiny streets and a church or two, a plaza, the remains of some city walls and coastal fortifications and a lighthouse you can climb for a view over the area. The Rio de la Plata is quite wide here and looks much more like the sea, but is technically the wide river mouth still at this point. On a clear day you can see Buenos Aires in the distance.

Flooding on the way to Colonia

One of the oldest streets in Colonia

The lighthouse built on church ruins

View from the top. It's a very green town.

While Colonia was pleasant enough, in comparison to the Portuguese colonial towns in Brazil, it is smaller, far less interesting and much more expensive. In the interest of keeping things moving and saving time for elsewhere, we decided to not head any further east to Montevideo, spent the night in Colonia and caught the ferry to Buenos Aires the next morning. Our experience in Uruguay led us to believe that the country is mostly flat and dotted with small farming communities. I had no idea that its population was so small relative to its neighbours and by land area is actually smaller than Guyana. It felt quite developed and peaceful too though I'm sure Montevideo is a different beast altogether with more than half the population.