Saturday, August 31, 2013

New Orleans (May 2013)

After squeezing in a trip to Easter Island, it was time to head back to the States for a two week trip. Because of recent events, we have a lot to fit in. First we are flying to New Orleans for six days. Tom’s sister Jeanne is an OB/GYN doctor and has been elected president of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG). She will be inaugurated at their annual meeting which is being held in New Orleans. From there we fly home to Sacramento and will attend the memorial service and funeral for Tom’s mom and then we go to Los Angeles to see our niece Haley graduate from USC (University of Southern California) and to watch her swim at a meet in Santa Monica before flying back to Santiago. For regular readers of my blog, Haley won the silver medal in the 10K marathon swim at the Olympics in London last year. We will leave Winston with Isabel and her family and the motorhome in Algarrobo at Hans’ place. We are really excited about our trip to New Orleans. Tom has never been there and it is years, 20 or more, since I have. Danny will be joining us for 5 of the days and then travel with us to Sacramento. From Santiago, we will fly into Dallas and on to New Orleans. The flight was uneventful and we actually spend the flight catching up on new movies that we missed seeing while traveling. As the plane descends, we fly over swamp land and then follow the Mississippi River with Lake Pontchartrain in the distance before landing. The city is named after Orléans; a city located on the Loire River in France, and is always on the ten most visited cities in the USA list, every year. Well known for its distinct French Creole architecture as well as its cross-cultural and multilingual heritage, the city is also famous for its cuisine, music (particularly jazz), and its annual celebrations and festivals, most notably Mardi Gras and the Jazz Festival. And we are going to be able to enjoy it with most of the family. In addition to us and Danny, within the next couple of days, all of Toms other siblings will be here along with Jeanne’s two children, Ryan and Erin and Ryan’s fiancé, Sandra. We have booked a suite at the La Quinta in downtown since it has two bedrooms and large enough for us and Danny who arrives tomorrow night. The rest of the family is staying at the Hilton and it is already arranged that we will go there, meet up and have dinner together, this evening. Jeannie and Bruce’s corner penthouse suite at the Hilton also has two bedrooms but is three times the size of ours and is the largest we have seen. From the top floor windows, there are fabulous views of the Mississippi and it is luxurious by anyone’s standards. Over the next few days we spent many times enjoying all the amenities the suite offered as because she is “president elect” she has a lot of entertaining to do and a star feature was an extremely well stocked bar. Dinner is at Brennans in the French Quarter and there are only six of us. Jeannie, Bruce, Tom and I and Ryan and Sandra. Erin has been at the Jazz Festival all day and is exhausted, she lives in France and is battling jet lag, and Brian, Tom’s brother has a flight mix-up and is running late. As we walk to the French Quarter, we are enthralled by all the sights. The French Quarter (known locally as "the Quarter" or Vieux Carré), which dates from the French and Spanish eras, contains many popular hotels, bars, restaurants and nightclubs and the Brennan family own a few different restaurants in the Quarter. New Orleans is world-famous for its food. The indigenous cuisine is distinctive and is the result of centuries of amalgamation from French, Spanish, Italian, African, Native American, Cajun, Chinese, and a hint of Cuban traditions which combine to produce the truly unique and easily recognizable Louisiana flavor. This is the first of many restaurants we will try and we are looking forward to experience the different styles and tastes of the city. Brennans is upscale and impeccable. Food, service and ambiance, it had it all. As we all ate and caught up on one another’s news we make plans for the next few days. Jeanne and Bruce are busy with convention and ACOG business but Ryan and Sandra decide they will accompany us to the Jazz Festival tomorrow along with Brian, Tom’s brother and niece, Erin. It is the final day of the festival and we are fortunate to be able to go for at least one day. Both Tom and I love jazz so we are anticipating some good music, food and of course the company of our family.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Easter Island - Photographs

Here is the link for our photographs of Easter Island. Taken in May 2013.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Photos of Chile

This is link for all the photos Chile. Copy and paste into browser, click on slideshow and enjoy.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A big change in plans.

Leaving Pueblo de Mallku, we continued on Chile 11 towards Putre when we heard a slight problem with the RV. The road is very steep and after camping at over 10,200 feet (2,300 meters) we started another steady climb quickly. Then, we heard the transmission starting to slip again. As regular readers know, we have already been stranded for 5 days in the Andes in Argentina when our transmission went out and it took us almost 6 months to ship another from the States. So having experienced that adventure before, we do not want a repeat. We pull over at a small gravel area and Tom goes underneath to check the transmission system. The motorhome is on a Ford E350 chassis and it is a lot of weight for the V8 engine to pull, particularly on these steep grades. Although he finds nothing wrong, no leaks or smells or extreme heat as he gets back in, we chat. For 5 minutes and come to a decision. It isn’t worth risking a break-down to continue to Bolivia and we scrap the plan and come up with a new one. We will go back to Arica and cross the border into Peru. From there, we will figure out another route into Bolivia, which may involve leaving the motorhome somewhere and renting another vehicle. We do want to see Bolivia and we definitely want to stay on Lake Titicaca and also visit Regina and Mimi in Cochabamba. As we make the now steep descent into Arica, we talk over our new route and schedule. We have only glanced at the map of Peru for the southern section so right now don’t have any ideas as to what we will find but from experience something always shows up. Crossing the border turned into a slight ordeal because of Winston. Peru has recently changed its law regarding pets entering from Chile, only Chile. No-one at the Chilean border informed us and we were stamped and checked out no problem. The Peru building is a short drive away and we quickly clear immigration. Then declaring Winston to the Senesa officials they told us about the new law. They said we needed to go back to the Chilean building and obtain an exportation certificate from there. I asked to see the head of SENESA and after handing my passport over to a guard, was given a visitors tag and taken up to the second floor to his office. He studied all my paperwork which is considerable and said “No, this is our new law and you need to drive back to the Chilean building and get the permit”. We drive back and while Tom and Winston stay outside of Chilean territory, in what is termed “no-man’s land”, I walk back with our paperwork. Again I am told by Aduana that I need nothing more and to go. I argue and insist on seeing a SAG (agriculture control) official. Sure enough SAG told me that I did indeed need a certificate but they didn’t issue them. We should have had him inspected by a federal vet in Arica who would have issued a health certificate and an importation permit for Peru. I told them we had already been stamped out of Chile and gone through immigration in Peru. To which they responded that we would need to exit Peru and re-enter Chile and return to Arica unless we could somehow get the Peruvians to allow Winston to enter without it. I walked back and explained the problem to Tom and we drove back to the Peru side. I went back to the same area and after surrendering my passport to a guard again, who now knew me and led me back to the office and the head of SENESA. I told him the border did not issue the permit. I told him that we would need to leave Peru and re-enter Chile to go to Arica. I told him we have passed many borders and have not had a problem. I pleaded and all the time shuffled the paperwork in front of him. I sat, he sat. Another official came in and they chatted. Maybe they could make an exception since he was actually an American dog and not Chilean. We were only transiting through Peru. I could sense them starting to relent and pushed my case further. In the end, they agreed to let us in with Winston and put that ever-important stamp on our paperwork. Both Tom and I are always amazed at these laws about pets. I understand needing copies of all vaccinations and paperwork stating ownership and responsibility but in all these countries there are so many dogs, strays wandering around that are infected with God knows what, that to attempt to control the issue by not allowing animals which are obviously pets, especially in our case. We have had Winston travelling with us now for over three years, he is our pet and when we leave a country, he will accompany us. But now, all our paperwork is in order and no money changed hands. We offered to pay for the cost of the certificate, should we have had to return to Arica but they declined. They did however accept with much interest, San Jose Fire Dept. pins that we carry from Tom’s service with the dept and we were just grateful that we did not have to go through the hassle of going back to Chile. After a vehicle inspection, in which all of our fruits and veggies were confiscated, not much – a few carrots, one tomato and some garlic – we were on our way. Leaving the main road of Peru Route 1, we decided to go over to the coast and find a beach town to park for the night and where we can consider our route and options. What a day. From thinking we would go to Bolivia, we are now in Peru. When we started the trip, we knew that remaining flexible to changing situations was a big key and today is a prime example. We will figure something out and after that small problem in the morning; the motorhome ran like a champ. Go figure.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Arica to Putre – Chile 11

Heading north from Arica, we left the Pan American Highway to start the climb over the Andes on Chile’s Route 11. This really steep winding road is the main highway between Arica and La Paz, Bolivia and it is reckoned that more than 600 trucks every day drive this route. Given that and the fact that this is only a two lane road for most of the way, we knew it would be slow going but our schedule is providing for that. We know we need to acclimatize slowly. The first part of the route takes us by the Rio Lluta and through the Lluta valley and we start looking for the markers that indicate the Lluta geoglyphs. Also known as the Gigantes de Lluta, they are carved into the hillside along the way. The idea is at the markers, pull over and examine the mountain for the pre-Colombian figures that supposedly include birds, llamas and stick figures. Well, maybe the sun was in our eyes or maybe I have no imagination but I couldn’t make out much but some lines, maybe! We were tempted to stop at EcoTruly, a Hare Krishna ashram for lunch but it is getting late and there is a lot of traffic and we want to get to the posada before dark. The road is now in a steep incline and we are rapidly climbing through switchbacks and steep drop offs. We are concerned about the motorhome but all seems well and it is not getting too hot nor does the transmission appear to be slipping. We know we are pulling a lot of weight for our engine and the steepness of the grades is incredible. We are also counting the kilometer markers on the road as the posada we are intending to stay for the night is supposedly at km88. Online and in books, it says that this is a beautiful posada with great campsites and that the owners are welcoming with “freshly baked bread on your arrival.” Well, all that information needs a big updating! Because the posada is now called Pueblo de Mallku and as the name suggests it has been repossessed by an indigenous group. The main building is now little more than a shack and when we arrived there were only four children between say eight and fourteen running the place. They told us that their parents were in Arica and did not know when they would return. There was no electricity so we just pulled over onto a flat parking area for the night. We are now at 10, 233 feet (3,200 meters) elevation and taking Winston for his walk, I felt the breathlessness from the altitude. The disappointment at the posada was tempered with a feeling of relief that the motorhome seemed to be doing ok in spite of the grades and elevation but we know tomorrow will be a bigger test. Putre is at 14,000 feet elevation and the road to there is supposed to be an even steeper grade.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


The next morning we made our way along the beach road to find our camping site. Camping Sumaki is close to the north end of the playa about 200 meters down a dirt road so we were hoping it would be quiet and relaxing after our hair-raising drive from yesterday. But when we arrived the place was busy and overflowing with teens. It turns out that the campground is owned and managed by Christians and on Sundays they run youth revival meetings. We were assured that it ended at 5pm. Winston had a wonderful time introducing himself to all the kids and making new friends. He even sat and visited with them in the music hall, he was sorry to see them leave! We spent the next couple of days exploring the city and planning the next part of our trip into Bolivia. Arica is really not typical of a border city. In some ways the people whose families has lived in the area for years consider themselves as much Peruvian as they do Chilean. The city belonged to Peru until the Battle of the Pacific and did not become a territory of Chile until 1929. There is also a very strong pre-Colombian indigineous culture which is evident in the number of geoglyphs in the region and in the Azapa Valley which has some of the world’s oldest known mummies on display at the museum. But we spent our days roaming the beautiful and surprisingly clean beach. Nestled into a bay, the brown sand beach stretches for about 3 miles and the water was clear and very much suited for surfing with rolling waves. But it is still too cold without a wetsuit so Tom resisted the urge to go in with his boogie board. I mention clean beach because the biggest disappointment of the Chilean beaches is that they are not very clean. Apart from the beaches close to Santiago, the rest of them heading north are quite dirty with trash and debris from the tides which is not cleaned up regularly – if at all. After the sparklingly clean beaches of Brazil and Argentina, it is hard to get used to the trash and more disturbingly, the people don’t seem to care. Only in Antofagasta at the surf beach we stayed did we see people try to make a difference and pick up after themselves. We also checked our route into Bolivia. This will be the highest we will take the motorhome and at some of the passes including the one to the border we will be over 15,000 ft (2,800 meters). Also, the road is steep, winding and loaded with trucks, so it will make for an interesting journey to the border. We are also going to take it easy and slow. One reason is for us and Winston to acclimatize to the altitude and the other because of the motorhome. We plan on making the 100 mile to the border over a four day period with the first stop being before Putre at a posada (inn).

Monday, August 19, 2013

Route 5 to Arica.

Leaving Iquique we headed inland for the final stretch of route 5 to Arica, the most northern town in Chile. Driving east through the desert, there is an abundance of ghost towns; their deserted shells providing only glimpses of what were once homes and roads are eerie reminders of a time when this area was a booming nitrate mining region. The ghost town of Humberstone was designated an historical monument in 1970 and in 2005 a World Heritage Site and yet even this “town” is still only partially restored and is prone to vandalism and looting. Many of the buildings are decayed and crumbling and the small tourist center was closed when we were there although we could see the remains of the old narrow-gauge railway that used to take miners to another ghost town of Santa Laura about 2 mile away. From Pozo Almonte, we are on the Pan Americana Highway again – route 5 climbing the high antiplano areas of the Andes. The scenery is amazing as we climb steadily to about 6,000 feet before leveling off. And it does level off. The two lane road has a sheer drop into the ravine below. We did not know it but from this point until Arica the road fluctuates between 4,000 to 7,000 foot elevation with winding, hairpin turns, steep ascents and equally steep descents all with the road dropping off on our right. Just when we thought it could not get worse, we arrived in Cuya. This is another town which is a grim reminder of the defunct golden age of nitrate mining. For us it is memorable in that we were stuck here for four hours. Roadwork and from the booming we can here, dynamiting into the cliffs. We sit, we walk, we read, we eat, we are so bored! When the road finally opened, we found that they are not only repairing the road but completely rebuilding it. As a result for miles there is only one way dirt and gravel track which means we were still sitting for 15 minutes or more at a time waiting for the signalman to indicate it was our turn. This is the only road from north to south and the major truck route into both Peru and Bolivia so we have lots of company. We also pass over two cuestas (mountain passes) Cuesta de Camarones and Cuesta de Chaca which left our nerves jangling. An unpaved narrow access track not a real lane, high mountain elevations with death plunging steep drops to ravines 3,000 feet below and no guardrails. “If my mother were here she’d have her rosary out” Tom joked but even he admitted it was scary rounding the hairpin turns with only inches between us and a drop. “White-knuckle driving” comes to mind. To make matters worse, it is getting dark and we are still about 20 mile from Arica. We finally began to make our steep descent into the city, which is at sea level and breathe a sigh of relief. We pull in to the first large gas station we come to which has parking facilities. We know there is a campground somewhere towards the north edge of town but decide to wait to find it until morning. “We’ve done enough for today” Tom told me, “I need a beer!” Amen to that. What a day. This road may be finished sometime in the next 5 years or so, there is a lot of work to be done!

Saturday, August 17, 2013


Iquique’s history dates back to pre-Columbian times when native tribes lived by the sea and collected guano or settled in the interior regions where hot springs and Andean snow runoff provided water for agriculture. They left behind ruins and petroglyhs but not much is known of their way of life. When the Spanish explorers came through on their way south, this area belonged to Bolivia. It was through the port in Iquique that the silver mined in Bolivia was exported worldwide but primarily to Spain. Nitrate, a natural fertilizer changed the region. From the 1830’s foreign investors thronged to the area, and Iquique blossomed into a cultural and financial center. The city installed electric service to homes and businesses. The new Municipal Theater showed the best in music and plays. Englishman, John Thomas North, oversaw the building of the railway station and other civic and commercial buildings. After a series of earthquakes almost leveled the town in the latter part of the 1800’s the city was rebuilt. Great wealth brought amenities, lavish mansions, and the port became active and popular. So much so that when Bolivia began to clamp down on the mining and the wealth earned from the nitrate mines, called salitreras, demanding a rise in taxes, these investors and the government of Chile protested. These confrontations lead into the War of the Pacific in which Peru sided with Bolivia against Chile and culminated at the Battle of Iquique on May 21, 1879. With Chile winning the war, Peru and Bolivia ceded what are now the provinces of Tarapacá, Tacna, Arica, and Antofagasta. Bolivia has now been granted access to the sea through the port in Ilo, Peru. The days of great wealth from nitrate lasted until Germany developed a synthetic nitrate to free itself from Chile’s monopoly of natural nitrate. When nitrate exports declined, Iquique built up the port facilities to export the newly found copper. Today Iquique is one of Chile’s largest ports, and has the largest duty free zone in South America, called ZOFRI (Zona Franca de Iquique) where a shopping mall has hundreds of shops selling duty free goods. From our parking spot, we are able to make several incursions into the shopping areas and stock up on household and food items we have not seen a while. The town is clean and a pleasure to wander around. The old mansions and buildings have been converted into banks and government offices and the colonial architecture is still flawless. The three days we spent here, quite a few motorhomes came and went, all with Chilean license plates, so we suppose this is a popular destination for Chileans to shop in the duty free zone. Winston had a blast running on the beach but always under our supervision. It is a little warmer now and he even made a few ventures into the waves although did not stay in for very long. From Iquique, we head north for the border town of Arica before going east over the Andes to Putre and into Bolivia.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

To Iquique via Tocopilla

Leaving San Pedro de Atacama, the drive back to the coast was uneventful and after crossing the high passes through the Andes was again desert like until our descent into the coastal town of Tocapilla. From Tocapilla heading north, the white sand beaches are well known for superb surfing. We had intended to spend the night in Tocapilla but decide to try one of the more quiet beaches out of town. Just 15 kilometers north of Tocapilla, there is a small bay called Punta Guanillos but although the view from the side of the road looked out onto a rocky reef with hundreds of seabirds wheeling around, there was no access off road and we did not want to be parked right at the road’s edge. We are now on route 1 which is very similar to California’s Pacific Coast Highway and the coastline is a combination of small bays and rocky points. Just after we pass through a tunnel, we see a possibility for the night. A small playa called La Cuchara has an access road that looks easily navigable for the motorhome and we can see some fairly wide flat area for overnight parking. Perched on a rocky point on a low cliff above the water, it is ideal for us. Far enough away from the road to be quiet and isolated enough that Winston can run with no-one to bother him. Even though since the kidnapping, we keep quite a close eye on him. The area was surprisingly clean also which was an added bonus. It has been quite a long drive day for us and we are proud we have made it this far as we really want to get to Iquique. And it really did stay quiet overnight. The next day after letting Winston have lots of run time over the rocks and up the cliffs, we were off again. As we drive north, we pass a Caleta Paquita. This small beach is well known for its resort “Spoon”. A fabulous place with glistening white sand and a golf course. Of course it is a gated community and we doubt they would let us in with the motorhome. From there, we pass another luxurious resort spa at Playa Blanca which looked as though it had a plethora of seafood restaurants to eat at. We are now close to Iquique and decide if we find no where to park for a few days we will come back to Playa Blanca. However we have shopping to do and need an internet so we are hoping to be closer to town. Once in Iquique, we cruise the Costanera (coast road) and close to the center of town we find a parking lot just above the beach and there are about 5 motorhomes parked there. Popular place and perfect for our needs. We are close to town for shopping and have good beach access for letting Winston off leash to run. Iquique is supposed to be a nice town with interesting history so look forward to spending to some time here.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Aldea of Tulor

Located just ten kilometers outside of San Pedro de Atacama, the archaeological ruins of Tulor, a small pre-Columbian village gives a glimpse into the area’s past. The village was first discovered in 1956 by Gustavo le Paige but more was uncovered through excavations made in 1982 by archaeologist Ana Maria Barone. Since then it has had a tumultuous story. In 1998 the World Monuments Fund, an international non-profit organization, listed Tulor on its World Monuments Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. Unfortunately, the Chilean government did little to protect it and the site was re-listed in 2006. In 2009, the government, through the Corporación Nacional Forestal (CONAF) an environmental agency and in collaboration with the University of Antofagasta, initiated a project for the creation of a preservation plan for the ancient village. The project involved the installation of tourist facilities including signage and an information center and caps were installed to protect the ancient earthen walls against erosion. Unfortunately, in April 2010 the site was vandalized. According to Chile's Consejo de Monumentos Nacionales, this was the worst damage to the site in decades. A few months later, in November 2010 CONAF’s office at Tulor was set on fire. Now, under a new agreement, it is currently being administered jointly by the indigenous Community of Coyo, and CONAF and members of the Coyo community act as guides and historians for the village. We found our guide very knowledgeable and eager to help us understand this ancient culture. She told us that through radiocarbon and thermo-luminescence dating, the village is thought to have existed about 3,000 years ago with a population of between 150 and 200 inhabitants and is one of the oldest human settlements discovered on a salt bed. The people first came as hunters following animals down from the Andes. When the animals became scarce, they turned to gathering their food and basic farming. They spent their time weaving and making garments and producing ceramics while supporting themselves growing crops and raising livestock. They constructed their adobe buildings in a circular fashion joining one to the other with patios and passageways. The rooms were built with an arched ceiling that sometimes reached as high as two meters, finished off by a conical roof supported by wooden poles. The site, which had numerous circular adobe structures surrounded by a perimeter wall, was abandoned around 300 AD, when the river oasis dried up and the dunes advanced. The original village is long gone but they have reconstructed a few homes along the lines of the originals. When we entered one of the houses it was surprising how cool it is and how they were designed to capture as much daylight as possible. Fortunately via a footbridge, there is a viewpoint that allows visitors to view the ruins from above to see the formation of the walls, the layout of rooms for living, sleeping and cooking and the communal rooms for gatherings. Because the village was buried in sand for centuries, most of the village is miraculously conserved, yet since its discovery little has been done to preserve the area. As a result there is ongoing damage to the archaeological remains through erosion, sand encroachment and lack of maintenance. Unlike many of the more commercial ruins – like the many Inca and Mayan – these ruins have a sense of remoteness and vulnerability and unfortunately unless policy changes, the Aldea of Tulor will become as obsolete as the people who once inhabited it. The village is an open air museum and anyone who enjoys archaeological and cultural sites will definitely like this one.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Valle de la Luna

Located 13 kilometers (8 mi) west of town in the Cordillera de la Sal, Valle de La Luna is a part of the Reserva Nacional los Flamencos and was declared a Nature Sanctuary in 1982. This is a huge reserve managed jointly by the indigenous communities and CONAF and is the place to be for sunset. We are going into Sector 6 which is part of the Coyo community. At the entrance, there is a small visitor’s center and we are given a map of the reserve with the best vantage points for watching the sun set. The first view point we come to are some natural salt caves called Cari’s Broken. Set a little way back from the road, these caves go deep into the mountain and there was a tour bus visiting so we decide not to stop. We pass the dunes which we will come back to and watch the sun set but keep driving to the end of this sector as there is an interesting formation we want to see. As we drive we can’t help but notice the total isolation of this valley. One of the driest places on earth, it is barren, inhospitable and brimming with extraordinary rock formations, so it’s easy to see why this unique setting gets its name. Carved by wind and weather, the various stone and sand formations, which have an impressive range of color and texture, look somewhat similar to the surface of the moon. In fact a prototype for the Mars rover was tested here by scientists because of the valley's dry and forbidding terrains. There are dry lakes where the salt composition makes a white covering layer of the area. At the Tres Marias (Three Marys), the three rock formations which look like bent, broken fingers stretch high from the desert floor particularly the center one. The result of an intense erosion process, they are approximately one million years old and composed of clay, salt, gravel and quartz. With plenty of places to photograph and be photographed we spend quite a bit of time here. We then head back the way we came to an area called “the amphitheatre”. This huge formation in the Cordillera de la Sal was formed by layers of sand, clay and salt which were moved and shifted vertically by earthquakes and the tectonic plates moving. Then with wind erosion, a sequence of giant peaks grew. From here we can clearly see the Andes and more dramatic, a chain of volcanoes including a fabulous view of Volcan Licancabur which towers over the town of San Pedro. It is now late in the afternoon and we make our way back to the sand dunes to get the perfect view for the setting sun. Over thousands of years, strong winds have created this huge field of sand dunes. However, in this valley populated by withered pillars of salt and stone is an enormous sand dune called “The Great Sand Dune” and this is the one which we climb to see the sunset. I find myself scrambling, my feet sinking into the sand and my hands clutching at any jagged outcropping to get to the top. This narrow path is steep and I would have given up long before the top if it had not been encouragement and a helping hand from Tom every so often. At the top, the sand, the scrambling at times on both hands and feet, were well worth it. The view is quite simply, spectacular. This is Chile's “Valle de la Luna”, the legendary moon valley, crowned on all sides by volcanic peaks that cascade as far as the eye can see. It's these peaks that grab my attention now. One by one as the sun gets lower in the sky, they're painted in the pinks and reds of the setting sun, and the valley becomes a glowing kaleidoscope of new shapes and colors. Breath-taking. By the time the sun had set and we had scrambled back down the “Great Dune”, it was getting quite dark. Driving out of the reserve the dark looming shapes started to look more alien than in daylight. We are going to spend the night, parked just outside the park’s entrance by the visitor’s center. After all the visitors had left and the rangers had locked up for the night it was one of the quietest nights we have ever spent in our three years of traveling. Oh, and on this clear, cloudless night away from any city lights, the stars were almost as spectacular as the sun setting over the valley. Almost!

Friday, August 9, 2013

San Pedro de Atacama

Leaving Antofagasta, our next stop is San Pedro De Atacama. It is one of the top three travel destinations in Chile along with Torres Del Paine National Park and Easter Island. Our route takes us past the mining town of Calama and to the highest elevation we have been so far over, a pass at 11,500 ft. (3,593 meters). We are now deep in the Atacama Desert and the landscape reflects that, sand dunes and the occasional cactus are the only break – not a bird or animal in sight and very few people for that matter. Until we reach San Pedro. Long before the Incas conquered the area in the 1400's, there were other cultures that thrived around one of the rare sources of water in the Atacama Desert, the Rio San Pedro. The water ran from the Andes, forming an oasis before flowing into the desert where it evaporated. The people who first lived in the region at that time raised crops in small family style farms and developed a culture called Atacameño. Over the centuries they built settlements along the Rio San Pedro and fortresses for protection. The earliest Atacameño artifacts discovered date from 11,000 BC and native ruins from the Atacameño now attract increasing numbers of tourists interested in learning about pre-Columbian cultures. The rule of the Inca dissimilated this independent agrarian culture and then a century later came the Spanish. However no gold was found and with mining now centered on Calama, in 1870, government offices were transferred to that town and San Pedro de Atacama became unimportant. Now with the development of the natural resources of San Pedro and the Atacama into national parks and reserves, tourism is flourishing. Our camping is at Los Perales which turned out to be uninspiring, small and dusty but it is the only camping in town that has room for us to fit. Its saving grace is that the town center is close by and there is room to walk Winston. After settling in we walk to the town to explore before dinner. The streets of the town are unchanged from their early settlement days, narrow and lined with buildings built from adobe and trimmed with native woods from the carob, chañar and pepper trees. Because there is little rain and the desert air is so dry, there is no humidity to affect the adobe and it is in perfect condition. In the center of town is the plaza with benches under huge shady trees providing relief from the sun. To the left of the plaza, built in 1641 and named an historical monument in 1951, the church of San Pedro is one of those churches that is just rural; simple and pretty and picture postcard perfect. It is built with the same white adobe as the rest of the buildings in the village, with decorative wood from the cardón cactus and leather straps in lieu of nails. The artisan stores are abundant selling scarves, shawls and other articles of clothing made from alpaca and basketry and ceramic pottery crafts first developed by the Atacameños and now sold in the souvenir shops as typical products of the region. In fact, we were so seduced by the quality and prices that we purchased a gorgeous Alpaca shawl for me and a scarf for Tom. As we were examining the goods in one of the shops we met a couple vacationing from Peru. Carlos and his wife Jobita live close to Lima and are currently building a home in the south of Peru. When they heard of our journey, they promptly give us their contact information and told us that when we get to Peru to contact them and they will help us get acquainted with the area and cook us dinner. After a conversation about food, Jobita said with a twinkle in her eye “maybe I’ll cook cuy”. Hmm. Cuy is guinea pig and yes, the Peruvians eat it. It is a delicacy, so I am told. I am unconvinced but laughingly agree to try it, if that is what is served. As we walked back to Los Perales to collect Winston for an evening walk before dinner, we talked about Carlos and Jobita and again are amazed at the ease and friendliness that people exhibit towards us.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Tropic of Capricorn Monument.

One of the five major circles of latitude that mark maps of the Earth, The Tropic of Capricorn (or Southern tropic) is the circle that contains the sub solar point on December 21st, the winter or southern solstice. It is the southernmost latitude where the Sun can be directly overhead. The northern hemisphere equivalent of the Tropic of Capricorn is the Tropic of Cancer. Extraordinarily, the position of the Tropic of Capricorn is not fixed, but varies over time. The reasons for this are pretty complex but as of 2013, its latitude is 23° 26' 14.908" south of the Equator. However, it is very gradually moving northward, currently at the rate of 0.47 arc seconds or 15 meters, a remarkable 48 feet per year. Most places along the Tropic of Capricorn have arid or semi-arid climates, though in Australia and Southern Africa this climate is exacerbated by the fact that tectonic activity and glaciations have been for the most part absent for about 300 million years. Here the aridity is compounded by extremely infertile soils, which explains all the famine in Southern Africa. In South America, the presence of the geologically young and evolving Andes means that regions in Brazil are on the western side of the subtropical anticyclones and receives warm and humid air from the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, these areas adjacent to the Tropic are extremely important agricultural regions, producing large quantities of crops including coffee. However, here on the west side of the Andes, the Humboldt Current makes conditions extremely dry and where no glaciers exist, helping to create the Atacama Desert, one of the driest deserts in the world. Vegetation as I have mentioned in previous blogs, is almost non-existent. Fortunately, unlike some of the southern nations of Africa, there is active trade among countries so even people who live along this section of the Tropic of Cancer in South America have access to food and water. Here in Antofagasta, The Tropic of Capricorn passes through the region to the north of the city, and is marked by a quite elaborate monument. The monument which was opened on December 21st, 2000 in celebration of this circle of latitude is clearly visible from the main road. Consisting of two parts, it is a huge steel structure with a copper surface that has developed a beautiful patina. Separated by about 18 inches (1/2 meter), the first structure is a large square frame and the second has an arched top. Depending on the time of year and how close to noon it is, the sun shines through it at various angles culminating at the winter solstice when the sun would be directly overhead. Since it was a hot day the sun cast plenty of shade around the structure for which Winston was eminently grateful, as we spent a long time reading the science behind the monument and taking photos. Given what we know, we could not work out the exact time of day at the solstice that the sun would divide the two parts or what affect the movement of the Tropic of Capricorn has on the monument but it was fascinating.

Monday, August 5, 2013

About a kidnapping (actually a dognapping)!

Here is a story for you and anyone with a pet will completely understand my meltdown. Our sightseeing trip of the day was going to be the Tropic of Capricorn Monument and the day started out like most others. Get up, make coffee and let Winston out in the morning for his business. In the mornings he is usually quick because he knows he is allowed on the bed to play and maybe catch a few more zzzs with Tom. After about 15 minutes, he did not come back. There were some surfers on the beach and they said they had seen him close by but then he just disappeared. After scouring the beach and even driving to the next cove over and asking everyone we met if they had seen a Beagle including the police, the gendarmerie and the garbage collectors, we came to the conclusion that someone had kidnapped him! Pascale, one of the ladies with the surfers suggested making flyers, so in tears I downloaded a couple of photos onto a USB drive and she took them to her home to make up some copies. During the time she was gone, Tom and I continued walking the beach even crossed the busy street to go up into a housing development and calling for him. When Pascale returned, we started posting the flyers on lampposts and handing them out to people. We are offering a $1,000.00 dollar reward for his safe return. I am a basket case and can’t stop crying. Tom thinks we need to be more proactive and decides to go into town and speak with the bomberos and see if they had any ideas. He also decided to visit the local TV and radio stations and if necessary pay them to put Winston’s information and reward details on the air. In the meantime I would stay with the RV in case someone brought him back. As I waited, there were quite a few surfers and their friends who were driving around the neighborhoods to see if they could spot him. One of them came back; he thought they had seen Winston with a lady. I got in the truck and went to the housing area where they had seen the dog. His friend had an older lady by the arm and she was with a beagle on a leash. My heart sank, it wasn’t Winston. “His name is Roy” she told me. “He’s mine and I’ve had him for 5 years”. After I had assured the two guys that it wasn’t Winston and to let her go, I almost smiled. If we were in the States this lady would have been screaming for the police if someone held her against her will accusing her of dog stealing but here…the poor lady just looked at us all defiantly, muttered again “He’s mine and his name is Roy” and went on her way. Unbeknown to me, Tom was already at the TV station and they put out an alert on air, free of charge (can you believe it!) and so everyone listening knew about the North Americans and our lost Beagle and that there was a $1,000.00 reward. Then, in the afternoon I was walking the beach, again and as I turned to head back to the RV, a car pulled up, the door opened; they pushed Winston out and took off! It was crazy. The surfers and I couldn't believe it. I started to run and call his name, Winston looked a bit dazed. They could have got the reward. I would have gratefully parted with $1,000.00 just to get him back. I was so relieved. Winston was limping from a cut on his leg and was hungry but was otherwise ok. When Tom got back from town, he was totally amazed. We were going to do whatever it took to get him back even if it meant renting a house and bombarding the media with photos. We tried to come up with a plausible explanation as to why the people did not try to claim the reward but could not think of a reason. We were just so relieved to have him home. When I told Tom about the false alarm and the story of the older lady and her dog Roy, Tom said that it was just as well that he was back. He said he would have had visions of people coming with a parade of Beagles to see if any were Winston. By evening word had gotten out that he had been returned, and not only did the TV people drop by to check on him but many people from the town. After that we dared not let him out of our sight because now everyone in town (and this is a poor town) knew that Winston was worth a thousand dollars! I jokingly told Tom "Jeez, if they know you will pay that much for the dog, what's the wife worth!" "Nothing" he said "We were only going to pay that for Winston so my life would be worth living!!" We both laughed but agreed it was a close call. Joking aside, he was gone for about 7 hours and it must have taken 5 years off our lives.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Mano de Desierto (Hand of the Desert)

The Atacama Desert is one of several seemingly lifeless places that make Chile look like another world. The scorched lunar-like landscape stretches for hundreds of miles on both sides of the Pan-American Highway, with much of that distance undisturbed by any sign of human, animal or avian activity. About 75km south of the town of Antofagasta, the monotony is broken by a sight even more eerie then the desert itself. I guess there is nothing like a blank canvas if you want to create a massive sculpture even if that sculpture is an enormous hand protruding out of the sand. And that's just what Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrázabal has done here. Inaugurated in 1992 with funding from a local organization, Mano de Desierto (Hand of the Desert) is made from iron and cement and looms 11 meters (36 feet) tall. Since its inception, it has become a point of interest and a popular photo stop for tourists traveling this section of the Pan-American Highway, even bus companies tell their passengers to “just look to the west”. We do not want to just look; we want to get up close and personal with the sculpture, which means leaving the highway and driving down yet another dirt trail. As we get closer, the statue towers over us. On closer inspection, the detail is incredible. Palm, thumb, fingers, joints even the fingernails, it is remarkable. Sort of like looking at your hand under a microscope. But why a hand? Well, the notion of hands rising from the ground is an obsession of Mr. Irarrázabal's and his trademark of ideas. His other famous work includes another over-sized sculpture of a hand exploring the same idea: We had seen Monument to the Drowned at Playa Brava in Punta del Este, Uruguay, when we were there. (see blog from Punta del Este, Uruguay). According to Irarrázabal he uses the human hand to express emotions like injustice, loneliness, sorrow and torture and the exaggerated size is meant to emphasize human vulnerability and helplessness. Well! It is extraordinary, if a little strange. It is also unfortunately an easy victim of graffiti and although it is cleaned occasionally that must not have been done in a while as there were quite a few markings on it. We took photographs while Winston waited in the shade of the palm and thumb, like I said this thing is rather large. After walking around it a few more times, we left but marveled at the fact that first of all someone had thought of doing this, two; someone agreed to fund it and three; they had chosen this of all places which is, quite frankly in the middle of nowhere to build it. Oh, and four; if you are ever in the area, don’t miss it!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

La Portada ("The Gateway")

Located just off-shore, 18 km (11 mi) north of Antofagasta, La Portada is a natural arch and is considered to be one of the highlights of this dramatic coastline. Declared a national Monument in 1990, it is one of fifteen natural monuments included among the protected areas of Chile and covers an area of around 77 acres. It has since become an icon of the region and one of the most recognizable and photographed landmarks in Chile. Following a strong earthquake a couple of years ago, the whole area was redesigned and built with a new access road, several viewing platforms designed to optimize views of the arch from different angles and a restaurant. The arch itself is 43 m (140 ft) high, 23 m (75 ft) wide, and 70 m (230 ft) long and is clearly visible as we drive down the access road. Comprising of sedimentary rocks, yellow sandstone and layers of fossils that date back 35 to 2 million years ago, the sea has steadily eroded the cliffs to form this amazing natural structure. Unfortunately, it is surrounded by cliffs that are themselves the victim of erosion and after the earthquake left the cliffs more unstable, the beach and pathways at the base of the cliffs are now closed to the public. This monument is outstanding and despite the fairly strong breeze blowing from the ocean, we walked to all the viewing platforms to get photographs from different angles. The highest one and which also happens to be the closest to the restaurant is built out over the rocks and ocean, giving the sensation of being suspended but the views were incredible. After taking numerous photos, we headed into the restaurant which is actually a step above the regular café style places that is found at most park services. We found a window table and our waiter obliged us by taking our photo with the arch in the background. The beef empanadas we ordered were good and the pisco sours were excellent. We both agreed that this was a wonderful place to relax and enjoy this unique monument. As we were eating, a tour bus arrived and disgorged a couple of dozen people who proceeded to crowd the platforms and take photos so it seems as though we arrived at just the right time since it was around the time we were paying and leaving that they noisily descended on the restaurant. We left to check out the small ranger station and collected a couple of park stickers to go on our ever-growing collection of stickers on the rear window. We also visited the small museum just a short walk along the cliff, which highlights the erosion process that created the arch and the local sea life that inhabit the waters. Although we had been told that the visit to La Portada would only be a couple of hours at most, we enjoyed the site so much that the almost four hours we spent there went quickly and still as we drove along the access road, we pulled over for one more look at this unique natural monument.