Monday, August 30, 2010

Getting out of the city

Getting off the plane

So here we are! Arriving in La Serena, about an hour's flight northwest of Santiago. We had a whole trip planned and mostly paid for by IES, which was great. All the students from our program went on the trip, along with one of the directors of IES and the student advisor. We got up early early and arrived at IES at 7:30 am, headed to the airport, and went through security to the gate. By the way, security consisted of throwing one's bag on the belt, walking through, and going to the gate, handing them one's ticket, no ID, and getting on the plane. We then flew to the smallest airport I've ever been to. As you can see, we exited right on to the tarmac. It was like being a movie star! The weather was fine, and we were ready for an adventure. We hopped on the bus, well we really crowded ourselves onto the bus and prepared for a bit of a drive. The scenery was absolutely beautiful, and as we drove the clouds cleared and we were able to see more and more of the countryside. This general area is famous for how beautiful it is. It's right between the Andes and the Pacific, but also pretty close to the desert to the north. This makes for a great mix of vegetation. Lots of green in some areas, more cactus-y in others, along with blue sky and mountains wherever you are. Even though we were all tired, the warm sea air was rejuvenating, and I think we all felt the change of scenery start working on us immediately. 

After a bit of a bus ride, we stopped in the municipality of Coquimbo and learned a little bit about the area from some people who work there. It was pretty interesting and it was cool to get a local perspective on education, healthcare, and what it's like to live in the Elqui province in general. After this we went to a lookout point on some dam. It was gorgeous! By this time the day was getting hot and we were all happy to be walking around outside. Although it was a man-made lake, it was still beautiful and the mountains were so peaceful. One of my friends and I were a little slow compared to the rest of the group. We walked around and chatted, taking pictures and taking in the scenery, while the others were waiting to get a group shot. Whoops! After we took the group photo, we headed back to the bus. There were a few cheesy souvenir shops along the way, and while I had no interest in buying stuff from them, I stumbled upon a beverage stand that had papaya nectar. I bought one since it was so dry out, and my throat was parched. I took a drink and the liquid truly reflected its name: Mágico del Sol (magic of the sun). It was delicious, refreshing, and sweet. It had aloe in it too which had a very slight cooling effect and made for a tasty treat on a hot day. 

Next we drove around for a bit longer, but stopped at a little shop on the side of the road that sold papaya products. They had papaya marmalade, syrup, nectar, juice, along with dried and cooked papaya. It was like stepping into heaven! I got some dried papaya, some marmalade, and another nectar for the road. We were all feeling pretty happy after trying the dried fruit, and some of my friends played outside on a playset. It was great seeing everyone act like kids again. Being able to let go of responsibilities and stress and just play is rare, but wonderful when it happens. There was a little field of beautiful flowers and some of us picked them to put in our hair. 

Even though some people made fun of us and called us hippies, we felt good about our new adornments. When we got back on the bus, one of my groupmates asked me, "Hattie, what are you going to give back to the earth?" reminding me that I can't just take from the land without returning something to it. I plan on planting many more times the flowers that I pick, and it was good to have that little reminder.

After we were satiated with papaya, we headed to our lunch destination. I believe it was at one of the Mistral vineyards, but wherever it was, it was delicious and beautiful. We had little rolls and salsa to start with, then a salad made of lettuce, carrot, tomato, and avocado. Our main course was either pork or steak with mashed potatoes. I went with the steak and it was great. Pink, juicy, and tender. For dessert we could choose between papaya or almond-crusted chocolate cake, and since I had my fill of papaya earlier I opted for the chocolate cake. It was cool and creamy, and the strawberry sauce was a perfect addition to the cake. Since we had some time to kill and it was such a beautiful day, we played outside around the restaurant for a while before getting back on the bus.

After the lunch, we made our way to the pisquera named Los Nichos. They make completely organic Pisco, the liquor that Chile is famous for. We took a tour and tried the piscos, which were great, and heard lots of stories from the tour guide. Supposedly, the guy who owned and revolutionized the pisco-making process around the turn of the century had a rule: if you came to drink with him, you had to enter standing up but leave on your back. Sounds like he was quite the rowdy guy! Needless to say, it was pretty cool to tour the only organic pisquera in Chile. 


In the process...
After the tour, we made our way to another town which I don't remember the name of, and had dinner at a quaint restaurant. We had a great salad, similar to the one at lunch but with ham in the avocado halves. The main course was a chicken thigh/leg with rice. Simple, but the service made the night. The people there were incredibly nice (I referred to them in my previous post), and were the definition of helpful. For dessert, we had a traditional Chilean dish which was two dried then soaked peaches in a peachy, cinnamon liquid with barley at the bottom. It was sweet and refreshing. After this, we drove to La Serena, picked up two guides and began our trip up to the observatory. The stargazing in this part of Chile is supposed to be some of the best in the world, and the drive alone proved this to be true. Looking out the bus window, I could see the Milky Way, which was a first for me. I've never seen so many stars. I wanted to cry it was so beautiful. The night was cool and dry, and the sky was breath-taking. After a short presentation, we went to the telescopes. Our guide pointed out different stars, planets, and novas and we all got a chance to look through two different telescopes. I preferred to lay down on the ground and just look at the sky rather than listen to a lecture about who discovered what, and did so. As the moon was rising I ran a little ways up the mountain and watched it finnish its ascent. It was an amazing night. We drove back to our hotel (this was our first arrival there....) and arrived at about 12:45am. Knowing full well that we had to get up early, my roomies for the weekend and I went to bed immediately.

Saturday we got up, well I got up early to shower and get ready for breakfast. We headed down to eat what ended up being a breakfast consisting of endless baskets of toast and plates of ham and cheese. Don't forget the instant coffee! It was a satisfying breakfast, and as usual the people were super nice. We all stocked up on fresh fruit and headed to the bus. We rode for about 2 hours to reach Punta de Choro, where the Humboldt Penguin preserve is. On the way we got to see LLAMAS! So awesome. Supposedly these kinds of llamas don't come down to that part of the land often. They are usually higher up. Either way, I'm glad I got to see them.

We arrived at Punta de Choro and the day was shaping up to be pretty gloomy, but we had fun exploring anyways. We had a little bit of a surprise, however. When we tried to drive into the town, there was an inordinate amount of policemen who stopped us to ask why we were entering the town. After explaining that we were visiting the preserve, they let us go through and explained that President Piñera (the president of Chile) was coming to the town in a few hours. For those of you who don't know (which is probably most since Chilean news doesn't seem to reach the rest of the world very fast), there has been a big debate about installing a thermal energy plant at Punta de Choro. The problem with this is that the plant would pump hot water into the ocean, which would essentially wipe out the wildlife there. The only reason why so much wildlife exists is because of the Humboldt current, which brings very cold water to this area. Obviously, a thermal energy plant would affect this. 

Anyways! We get to the town after hearing the news, and walk around on the beach, chat, find snacks, and wait for the President to arrive. One of my friends had a little accident...he was walking around on the rocks in the ocean and managed to fall in, completely soaking everything he was wearing. He and our program director went on an adventure to find him dry clothes. They walked about a mile outside of the town before they found anyone. A store that sold pretty much whatever you need, plus empanadas and beer, that also functioned as a restaurant was kind enough to help out my friend. The guy who owned it lent him dry clothes and offered to dry the wet ones. Funnily enough, the t-shirt my friend borrowed said what translates to "My first father's day," which we all thought was hilarious. He had a great sense of humor about it, and was pretty happy because the store told us to come back later for empanadas, which we all agreed sounded like a great idea. On top of that, the day turned out to be gorgeous and warm, once again. 

After waiting for a LONG time, the President finally arrived. We all waited as he approached the dock, and when he arrived with his group of people I (being the Hattie that I am) put myself right in the front and met Piñera. I hugged him and kissed his cheek in the traditional Chilean style, and he did the same for me. Although he is conservative, and I do not agree with a lot of his actions, I met him and listened to his speech. 

After his speech (full of lies), we had a little lunch and waited for our turn to go out to the reserve, which is on an island. The president was there for a while, so we weren't sure when we would be able to take boats out there. Then we got the worst news of the whole trip: we couldn't go see the penguins. The waves had gotten too big and since we had to wait until the president got back, we wouldn't be able to go. This was a pretty huge bummer since most of us went on the trip to see penguins in the first place, and I admit I threw a bit of a fit (and apologized for it later). Thankfully we had empanadas and beer to cheer us all up. And they did! I personally had shrimp and cheese, and tomato ham and cheese empanadas. They were homemade and tasted like it. We also met some nice policemen who agreed to take a picture with us ladies. After all the food and beer, we were very sleepy and enjoyed the opportunity to nap that the bus ride afforded us. 

Even though we were all extremely tired, we still managed to go out and hit the bars. We had Terremotos (which means earthquakes). These are made with white wine, sometimes pisco, and a couple scoops of pineapple ice cream. This bar put in different flavors to make them pretty colors too. We had a lot of fun turning one place into a dance club, even though it really wasn't supposed to be. We ended the night in my room with pizza and hung out watching TV for a while. I was the first to fall asleep, and did so feeling less bitter about the penguins than I expected. 

Sunday was a pretty easy day. We got up, had a similar breakfast and got ready to head to the beach. On the way we stopped at an artesian fair/fish market and browsed for about an hour. After that we went to the beach, played in the water for a bit, and then headed to the most gaudy casino/hotel for lunch. It was a tasty buffet with lots of options, but the atmosphere was pretty snobby. Even though we ended the weekend here, it was still a blast and I am so glad we had the opportunity to go to La Serena. I might even go back to see the penguins!  

We ended our sunday driving along the beach back to the airport, and it was a great view to top off a relaxing weekend. 

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