Wednesday, May 29, 2013

La Serena and its surroundings (May 19th - 23rd, 2013)

La Serena was our next stop after our language course in Valparaíso.

We did not sleep much during our six hour bus drive from Valparaíso, but we immediately felt awake as we started carrying our bags from the bus station to our hostel very early in the morning. A nice German receptionist let us have a nap at the hostel's terrace. After resting and having a good breakfast we started exploring the city. The weather treated us very well and we enjoyed the town a lot. We got a map at the friendly information center and walked to the local lighthouse.

Lighthouse in La Serena

In the evening we did some planning, so on Monday we could depart to Humboldt Penguin National Reserve. The bus ride was super cool. The privately operated microbus serves as the main connection of people in distant villages with the rest of civilization and is also responsible for bringing newspapers and essential supplies.

It was quite cold and windy at the reserve and I got a bit sea sick. But all these troubles were compensated by all the animals we saw: dolphins, penguins, sea lions, ....

Humboldt Penguins believe that you can not see them when they turn their backs to you

After the boat ride we stopped for one hour at Isla Dama, where we enjoyed a beautiful walk.

Beach at Isla Dama

The next morning we took a bus to Vicuña. Vicuña is a small village in the Elqui valley. It is an ideal place for astronomy as it has only 60 cloudy days a year and of course we enjoyed the beautiful sunny day there. After booking our trip to the Mamalluca observatory, we climbed a small hill next to Vicuña.

Mountains around Vicuña

In the evening we had a wonderful tour to the observatory. Our guide was very knowledgable and enthusiastic, and was happy to answer all our questions. We saw many stars using telescopes, but Saturn was especially wonderful to see. We then moved outside and our guide showed us some constellations using a laser pointer. I quickly learned about the Southern Cross, which is still somehow fascinating for me. Close to the end of the tour, the guide even took a picture of the moon for us using the telescope.

Laura looking at Saturn

Moon via telescope

On Wednesday we searched for some hiking/trekking possibilities in the Elqui valley. Realizing that we were in a desert and water is not easily available, we decided to pass on hiking. Instead we visited the Gabriela Mistral museum (another famous poet from Chile) and took a bus to La Serena. The tickets to San Pedro for that night were sold out, so we bought tickets for next day and stayed one more day in La Serena. On the next day we visited Coquimbo, but unfortunately had only two hours to visit this town.

Small fortress at Coquimbo

Sea lions in Coquimbo

In the afternoon we took a bus to San Pedro de Atacama. We hope to tell you about it soon, but before that you can take a look on more pictures.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Valparaíso - week two (May 12th - 18th, 2013)

Our second week in Valparaíso began with an attempt to cook a pizza together with Stefan and Iris, whom we´d met at the language school. However, the lady running their hostel told us that the oven tends to explode from time to time, and strongly discouraged us from using it. We therefore decided to make pancakes instead using the same ingredients, and the result was nice and spicy.

During weekdays, we continued our lessons. I was amazed by the expressiveness of the Spanish language. For example, there is a special way (using the simple future tense) to ask questions to which you don´t expect an answer. How often do I ask these kind of questions? I wonder if it would improve communication if I could indicate that I am just mumbling to myself and would not appreciate the typical ¨how the heck should I know?¨ response...

Together with the other students and one of the teachers (Sebastián), we went on a boat trip at the harbor. Valparaíso was historically and is also nowadays one of Chile´s most important ports. The port is so important to the city´s inhabitants that they even call themselves porteños.
Boat trip in Valparaíso
Sea lions enjoying the sun

We also visited the Naval and Maritime Museum, one of Valparaíso´s cemeteries, and a former prison that has been turned into a cultural park. Here we experienced ¨seeing with eyes shut": we were told to keep our eyes shut while a bright white light was flashed before our eyes at different frequencies. It was amazing - I could see rivers, flowers, stars and many other shapes in various colors - but it gave me a slight head-ache.

Inner courtyard of Naval Museum

Radek and I also went to the nearby town of Viña del Mar, which is a popular vacation destination for Chileans (Valparaíso is more visited by foreigners). In the archeological museum Fonck, we learned how to shrink the heads of our enemies, and saw a Moai from Easter Island.

Moai in front of Fonck museum in Viña del Mar

We had a really nice time in Valparaíso and the surroundings, but were also somewhat happy to leave. The reason for this was that the dog and cat at our hostel, who were actually quite cute (see below), were not well trained and kept leaving small ¨presents¨ around the building.



This reminded me of a joke I had read the previous week in Celia Riverbank´s ¨You Can´t Drink All Day If You Don´t Start in the Morning¨:

A group of kindergarten children were told not to use baby talk anymore.
Teacher: ¨From now on, you just use big-people words. Now tell me what y´all did this weekend.¨
Little boy: ¨I went to visit my nana!¨
Teacher: ¨You mean to say your grandmother.¨
Another boy: ¨I rode a choo-choo.¨
Teacher: ¨You mean you rode the train.¨
Then a third little boy says he read a book and the teacher smiles and asks, ¨What book did you read?¨
The little boy thinks for a minute, then puffs his chest out really big, all proud of his answer, and says, ¨Winnie the Shit

Photos of our second week in Valparaíso and Viña del Mar are here.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

La Campana National Park (May 11th, 2013)

We really wanted to go to the nature and therefore decided to visit the closest national park: Parque Nacional La Campana. This park includes one of the last Chilean palm forests, but unfortunately, this forest is located at the entrance which is not easily accessible with public transportation. Thus, we were in another nice area of the park and surprise-surprise, we hiked up a mountain. We took the same route that Darwin did in 1834.

Our day started at 06:30, so we could take an early bus to Limache. There is a good train connection between Valparaiso and Limache, but on Saturday it starts operating at 08:30, which we considered a bit too late. Well, the bus in the end was really slow and we arrived in Limache ca 15 minutes before the train. But it was totally worth it. We met one climber who was very nice and showed us which bus to take to get into the National Park. We also discussed climbing possibilities in Chile with him.

The bus he recommended to us was just great. The woman driving the bus was very talkative and super super nice. She even allowed us to sit next to her. She gave us some tips, but compared to the climber, she was so difficult to understand.
Park entrance
After paying approx. 4 EUR for entrance, we were given a simple map and started to ascend towards the top of the La Campana summit. The first 500 altitude meters were not similar to any hikes we have done before, because of lots of green trees and forests and completely unfamiliar flora.
Plants close to the entrance of the National Park.
The second 500 altitude meters reminded me mainly of hiking in Majorca. Lots of greenery, but quite dry.
Laura in the middle of the hike
And as we were getting closer and closer to the top, it started looking like autumn in Central Europe.
Laura at Placa Darwin - ca 1 hour away from the top
After four hours of hiking with short brakes we reached the top. The view was unfortunately a bit hazy. Not like in Austria, where you always meet somebody knowledgeable telling you which mountain is which, nobody was able to tell us which mountain in the distance is Aconcagua, the highest mountain in all of the Americas.
Radek and Laura on the top with Aconcagua probably somewhere behind us
We enjoyed the view for a half an hour, ate something and started our descent. On the way down we even managed to gather some GPS data to improve openstreetmaps, which turned out to be the most accurate maps of the area we had access to.

At the entrance Laura asked an elderly couple if they could give us a lift. They were again super friendly and could drive us to Olmue, from where we took a bus to Limache. There we met the fourth super nice person of the day, a girl who gave us a card needed for travelling with local trains. So we took the train back and tired but happy fell asleep in our hostel.

And as usually here is the link for more pictures.

Valparaíso - week one (May 5th - 10th, 2013)

We planned to start our stay in South America by refreshing our Spanish know-how. As we were worried about smog in Santiago, we decided to take our Spanish course at Valparaíso.

On Sunday afternoon we took our first bus in South America. The buses in Chile are very comfortable and well organized. The security of the baggage is assured by a very simple approach. You are allowed to load your baggage into the bottom of the bus at the first station and unload it only at the last station. If you are getting on/off in the middle of the ride, you have to take your baggage into the cabin. In addition, you will get a ticket, which you need to present to get your bag back.

The Valparaíso micro-bus system immediately reminded me of the system in Tomsk. The buses run along defined lines that are nowhere described. Only some bus stops are marked, but the bus can stop anywhere. You just ask the fellow passenger who happily advises you how to go and where to get off. Using the Russian know-how, we easily got to the Plaza Sotomayor and found our hostel, where we were warmly welcomed by Tereza, the lady who runs it.

On Monday we found out that it actually takes us only 3 minutes door to door from our hostel to the language school, but the first day it took us bit longer. Based on the tests that we took on-line, we were assigned to classes. Laura is studying together with one girl from the UK and I got an individual lessons as there was nobody else studying at my level. In addition to us, there are Iris and Stefan from Germany who are starting with Spanish from the beginning.

On Monday school was shorter, because light did not work in the whole building. After the classes there was a tour organized by the language school to Ascensor Polanco. Ascensor Polanco is one of the nine working ascensors in Valparaíso. Compared to the other ones, Polanco is the only one that is like a lift (completely vertical). Other ascensors are more like a funicular (such as the one which goes to Petřín in Prague).
Ascensor Polanco.
The same day we also managed to join tour for tips and it was so far the best tour we took. It took us to many interesting places and described why there is a German flag and a big sign "Feuerwehr" on some of the fires trucks.

During the rest of the week we spent more time studying and organizing our trip, but we also managed to visit Palacio Baburizza with a nice collection of Chilean art and also Pablo Neruda's house La Sebastiana.
Laura in front of Pablo Neruda's house La Sebastiana
For more pictures see our picasa album.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Santiago de Chile (May 3th - 5th, 2013)

We finally managed to settle all our things in Vienna and prepare for our first trip to the Southern hemisphere. It seemed that we'd started off on the wrong foot, since we contracted a stomach bug even before beginning our travels. Nevertheless, by the time of our approx. 25 hour flight to Santiago (Vienna-Madrid-Miami-Santiago), we were feeling quite all right. The flights were nice, but exhausting, which may have contributed to what happened next. Namely, within the first hour of arriving in Chile, we were "relieved" of one of our phones in the much too crowded Santiago metro. Since then, things have fortunately gone smoother. We've gone on a couple of walking tours in downtown Santiago, walked some more on our own, relaxed and have by now gotten used to the six-hour time difference.

Santiago is a city of about six million inhabitants that is surrounded by mountains, some of which exceed 6000 meters in altitude. It suffers from a major earthquake once in about every five years, and the buildings seem to be relatively well protected against potential damage. We ventured mainly in downtown Santiago, which contains the old colonial buildings, but currently houses primarily the less well-to-do inhabitants of the city. The more affluent population lives in the eastern part, and apparently, this division is so strong that some people living in Santiago never cross this imaginary east-west border.

We visited the numerous market, including one where families have had their small fresh produce stalls for over a hundred years. Talk about a family business! We had lunch at one of the markets, and were served by a lady speaking in a manner that we could not identify as Spanish. It has been much easier to understand some other people on the street, so I suppose that like Vienna, there are several dialects spoken in Santiago. 

Central market of Santiago
Our walking tour also took us to the central cemetery. Apparently, the cheapest way to get a spot in the graveyard is to rent it for four years. If wanted, this contract can be prolonged on a yearly basis, if not, the coffin will be removed, the body ends up in a mass grave, and the spot is freed for someone new. We also heard about animitas - people who lived an innocent life, but experienced a violent death, and thereby became direct channels to the Almighty. People go to the graves of the animitas and ask for favors, and once these are granted, a thank-you plaque is added to the wall of the grave.

Rented spots at central cemetery
Animita Romualdo

We really liked to walk up and around the San Cristobal hill, which used to be a quarry (all of Santiago's cobblestones are from here), but is now the Santiago Metropolitan Park. This is one of the largest urban parks in the world: it's about twice the size of Central Park in NYC, but only slightly larger that the Prater of Vienna.

More pictures of Santiago can be seen at our picasa.

Last evening, after spending three days in the capital city, we took a bus to Valparaiso, where our two-week language course will begin in about 90 minutes. More on that later.