Categories
Colombia

Bogota and Street Food

The street food in Bogota and Colombia in general will have you drooling.

Munch on arepas and papa rellena as you admire Bogota’s fast paced life and impressive graffiti.

 

Bogota, Colombia’s capital, is by far the most commercial city that I have encountered in South America. I only stumbled through a few neighborhoods, but I could tell that I wouldn’t get to know even a sixteenth of the city in the three days I would be there. It reminded me of New York in that limitless way that can keep you constantly entertained if only you had the time, money or energy to stay put and explore. The second I left my hostel and took stock of where I was, I felt plugged in.

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The streets and the people on them are sort of bleak and direct, moving nonstop underneath a smoggy sky. The indifferent pedestrians make cars stop by simply walking into the street. Bogota is not a walking city by any means, and the public transit, the Transmilenio, was confusing, but well organized, similar to the New York Subway.

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The architecture doesn’t give away where in the world you are. Symmetrical modern high rises in some neighborhoods blend with Tudor style houses in others, while Spanish Colonial buildings down the street clash with whitewashed, Greek-style frameworks with tiled roofs. I felt like I could be in Europe somewhere, maybe Poland or Ireland.

apologies for the blurry image- taken from bus window
apologies for the blurry image- taken from bus window

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What’s to do in Bogota? There are plenty of tourist options, much of which involving parks and museums and churches. Or you could do what I did and take the bus down to La Candelaria (either stopping at Las Aguas or Museo del Oro stops on the bus) and walk around taking pictures of cool people and world famous graffiti.

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You could have a cup of delicious Juan Valdez coffee, Colombia’s Starbucks equivalent. The Museo del Oro, Gold Museum, was pretty cool and informative as far as museums go.

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Riding the cable car up to Montserrat was beautiful and something to do. You can also walk, but the stairs were closed at the hour we tried to go, and I wasn’t having it anyway, what with the altitude and all.

Montserrat from the ground level
Montserrat from the ground level

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But I’ll reiterate—the city was just too daunting to decide what to do. It felt wrong, almost insulting to the locals, simply going from tourist destination to tourist destination when Bogota has so much more to offer as a legitimate place of living and working, not just one of those cities like Cusco or Florence that functions off of tourism. So, I bought stuff to pass the time.

"la mola" style jewelry
“la mola” style jewelry
spent a fair amount of pesos here
spent a fair amount of pesos here

There is always something to spend your money on, whether that be cheap watches and wallets from tables that line the streets, scarves or jewelry laid out on blankets on the pavement, the latest fashions from boutique stores, adorable puppies framed in windows and cages, or food. My god, the food. For every pizza place in Manhattan is a rotisserie/fried chicken joint in Bogota. While New York is obviously the capital of delicious nourishment, serving up literally anything you could ever want to eat, Bogota has one thing on the big apple- street food.

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Street food. I say it in a suggestive whisper. Hey. You wanna go find some street food? Like any good big city, Bogota is constantly moving and the locals have to keep up. Which is why, I’ve decided, they are on point with their street food options. All the carbs and flavors possible in one concise, probably deep-fried package. For those of you solid New Yorkers who think hot dogs, pretzels, halal plates and Nuts4Nuts are the best things to shovel in your mouth while you’re strutting down the sidewalk, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. I’ll just regale you with some of the delicious creations that I ate standing up in Bogota/Colombia in general.

Meat: Street meat is delicious. That is a fact. The end.

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Arepa Con Queso: This is the classic, guys. The first arepa with cheese that I ever had was a bit sweeter and more corn-like than a classic arepa, which is basically a somewhat tasteless, ground corn dough pancake thing, for all you Gringos. The round yellow cake is savory with just a touch of sweet from the corn in the soft dough and was moist enough to eat without a drink in hand.

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Arepa Sandwich: Arepas have the durability and neutral flavor to be the perfect base for a sandwich. My first encounter with arepa sandwiches was at Metro Arepas in Bogota, a small, open storefront with a kindly older man taking orders and a quiet, methodic woman filling my arepa with chicharron (fried pork skin) and cheese, brushing melted butter over the tops before she flipped it on the grill, and sprinkling salt onto the hot, greasy dough. I drooled as I watched her prepare my snack, and ate with gusto, licking my salty fingers and taking sips of Coke out of a glass bottle. The next time I had an arepa sandwich was at a super cool fast food strip along the highway in Medellin. While the menu over the counter boasted many different deli-style arepa sandwiches, I was in the mood for a burger and only didn’t order a burger at the counter over because I felt guilty not eating something Colombian. My messy, mass-produced, reheated patty topped with lettuce, tomato and mayo was the perfect combo of American and Colombian disgusting cuisines. My only regret was that I didn’t order fries to go with it.

*drools*

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*drools*

 

Arepa Con Huevo: Ok, so I know I need to quit gushing over arepas. I know so many people who hate them, although I can’t imagine why. If you’ve read the last two descriptions, you should have a decent idea at how versatile this Colombian staple is, so I don’t need to keep talking about it. I will, however, explain to you my final favorite, the arepa with an egg. On the corner of this street near my hostel in Cartagena was an angel who never smiled and was always making fresh arepasempanadas and papas rellenas. While everything she fried in her makeshift street deep fryer was the most tasty, I kept coming back for those egg arepas. She stood every night behind a table, flattening and rounding out premade dough, filling it with ham and some other mystery ingredients, and frying it for a minute, then slicing it open a bit to drop in a raw egg and fry it again. The egg cooks fully in this time and once the masterpiece is handed to you, you join the crowd of Colombians standing around the table, alternating between spooning sauce onto their snack and taking bites.

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arepa con huevo in street skillet
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arepa con huevo

 

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the beautiful cartagena arepa stand and ALL the sauces

Papa Rellena: Stuffed potatoes. Papas rellenas differ in innards from shop to shop and city to city, and none has ever been as legit as the first one I had. From the lookout point on the sidewalk, these lumpy yellow balls are about the size of a softball. They sizzle in oil before an attentive Colombian pulls them out with a slotted spoon and offers one to you, hot and fresh because they go that fast. The first tentative bite offers the taste of fried egg batter and mashed potatoes underneath. The second bite uncovers meaty rice beyond the layer of mashed potatoes, and under the rice is a hardboiled egg. Genius. Not all of the ones I’ve had were as good as this one. If you want this exact papa rellena, you can find it at one of the stands outside that big white Gothic church in Bogota. K?

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papas rellenas being made
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here’s the church where you can find these arepas and much more

 

Hot Dog: After a night of drinking and salsa dancing in Medellin, I was quite famished. I asked the cabbie who was taking Laura and me back to our hostel if there was anywhere we could stop and eat. He pulled over on the side of a city road where a couple of men at a stand were serving up burgers and hot dogs. I ordered two dogs for myself and watched patiently as they completed what I thought was someone else’s order. Dogs were fit into warmed buns, and then topped with, if memory serves, melted cheese, cooked ham, bacon bits, beans, mayo, ketchup, pineapple sauce, potato stix, and more sauces. When the man handed them to me I laughed in his face, thinking it must be a joke. But I ended up taking them like a champ (aka giving one to my cab driver). It was the most serious hot dog that I ever put down.

stayin classy
stayin classy

Patacón con Todo: Patacón, fried green plantain, with everything, and they mean it. I was wandering around the streets of Cartagena when I stumbled upon the Plaza de Trinidad, an open, brightly-lit square in front of a church with impressive Christmas light fixtures. Among the few steaming street food stands, one in particular caught my eye. The two men working it had a good thing going. They worked together like a machine, bantering in between creating nine plates of food, one of which would go to me. One man cut up the fried plantains while the other dumped two kinds of shredded meat (I assumed pork and beef) onto the griddle, onto which the first man immediately squeezed a bunch of some brown sauce while he added some cut up hot dogs to the mix. The woman who accepted the money (at these stands, there were usually one or two people preparing the food and one getting paid) laid out the plates as best she could given the limited space, and one of the men immediately plopped a heaping portion of plantain on it. The second man sprinkled a healthy handful of shredded lettuce over it with one hand while he stirred around some white cheese that he dropped onto the grill to melt with the other. On top of the lettuce went the meat mixture, then the cheese, then all the sauces, then potato stix and quite probably some chicharron, and voila, Patacón con literally Todo.

this is what was left in the time it took me to walk from the plaza to the hostel
this is what was left in the time it took me to walk from the plaza to the hostel

Bogota was whatever, but here’s what I ate. Hope I made you hungry.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Categories
Chile

San Pedro de Atacama: Part 2

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile offers endless adventurous activities.

From Sandboarding in Death Valley to the Salt Marshes at the Salar de Atacama.

 

So, in my last post, San Pedro de Atacama: Part 1, we explored the Moon Valley, the Lagunas Cejas, and las Termas Puritamas. Here’s the rest. Enjoy.

Day 4- Sandboarding in Death Valley:

There are many speculations as to how Death Valley got it’s name. Some say that it’s because there is no life there, but that’s not true because we passed a few bushes, foxes and falcons on the way. Some say that the area was a sacred place where shamans came to die. Our guide from San Pedro Sandboard told us that the real name came from hippie guides who came out to San Pedro to work in tourism and named it Death Valley to make it more commercial and attractive to visitors. Whatever the reason, it’s still pretty badass to say that you went sandboarding in Death Valley.

As our van rocked and swayed through the high rock walls and dodged giant pot holes, our guide explained that La Valle de la Muerte is similar to La Valle de la Luna in that it is a salt mountain range, which more or less means that it was molded by desert rain, wind and sun overtime to raise vertically, giving the region a unique natural sculpture with different colors due to a variety of minerals. (Shout out to my high school science teacher, Doc Rachell. If you’re reading, Doc, how’d that sound?) I tried to grasp the science behind the scenery while I kept an eye out for Tusken Raiders.

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Our guide, a sun-and-wind wrinkled dreadlocked chainsmoker, turned up the deep-bass electro music as we pulled up to the bottom of the valley. We all stood sweating in the sand as he passed around ancient snowboarding boots that fit no one and pushed people who didn’t already know if they were goofy or regular to see which foot they instinctively landed on.

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Once we all had a board, we trekked diagonally up the sand mountain, taking small steps to conserve energy. About fifteen of us lined the tip of the ridge and strapped ourselves into our boards as the guide dragged on a cigarette and explained how to ride. The thumping bass at the bottom of the hill was amping me up, and I tuned in and out of the guide’s speech. This was the same as snowboarding, I assumed, and I kind of knew how to do that. An eager German who was the first one to strap himself into his board went down the hill first. Everyone waited hesitantly when he made it to the bottom, reluctant to attempt the feat in front of everyone else. A cool Aussie with a wicked beard named Blake was the next one down.

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At the top of the sand mountain looking down.

I looked around again at the nervous tourists and decided I’d be the first girl to go. I jumped a bit to get some sand off my board and slid down.

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The first turn I tried to make, lifting my toes and leaning a bit on my heels, had me on my ass. The sand is much thicker and more resistant than snow, and the only way I could make it down fast and with any adrenaline rush was to point my board straight down and lean on my back leg, something I’d be terrified to do on a snowboard.

It was over as quickly as it began, and I stared up at the hill, reluctant to carry my board up it again. I made it up and down again three more times before I was too exhausted to continue. Walking in the sand is hard enough without the added stress of wearing heavy, uncomfortable board boots and carrying the board up. The people of San Pedro truly needed to invest in sand lifts.

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Day 5- Salar de Atacama:

As you might have gathered thus far, it is nearly impossible to see any of the desert sights in San Pedro de Atacama without booking a tour. Or maybe I just didn’t try. Anyway, you catch yourself conversing with other tourists in your hostel or in a restaurant or just on the street because, let’s face it, San Pedro is literally made up of tourists and the people who serve them, saying things like, “We’re doing the Moon Valley tonight and the geysers tomorrow,” or “Nah, we’re not doing the salt marshes or the geysers because we just came from Uyuni and did all that in Bolivia,” or “Yeah, I have to book my Uyuni tour and buy a few rolls of toilet paper for it.” It almost makes you not want to participate. Almost. But I didn’t take an overnight bus all the way out to this uninhabitable desert to kick it at my hostel. I had already done the Moon Valley sunset tour, the bike ride to the Lagunas Cejas, the day at the hot springs, and sandboarding at Death Valley. The two big leftovers were the geyser field called El Tatio, which would have me up and at it in below freezing temperatures at 4 am, and the Salar de Atacama, at 7 am. The geysers, bursts of hot air and water shooting out of the ground, were obviously the cooler choice, but silly me I forgot my winter coat and I definitely forgot my will to wake up before the sun rose. So, salt marshes it was.

I have this annoying habit of booking tours without doing proper research about said tour. Maybe I should put a stop to this. My tour group of about thirteen people piled sleepily into a minivan. We stopped in the peaceful village of Toconao, known for some church of San Lucas, which is made of volcanic stone and adobe, causing it to be warm when the sun is out and cold at night, like a cold-blooded snake. The wood that makes up the ceiling is made of dried cactus, an aesthetically cool, light-colored wood. On the outside of the church are carvings of a llama and a donkey to signify the unification of Chile and Spain. Our tour guide, who conducted the tour in Spanish making me strain to listen before my first cup of Nescafe, talked about the four characteristic trees of the region and their respective uses, like making flour for bread or something.

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Church of San Lucas

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staircase in church made of dried cactus wood

 

The town of Toconao boasts their hand made crafts. We stopped in one shop that sold Alpaca wool weavings, among other things. Their ancient loom sat in the back with the llamas, and as our guide fed the spunky animals hay, he explained that the people here don’t eat llamas, but they do eat llamos, the males. I thought that was OK.

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old school loom

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Toconao, meaning, “place of stones” in Kunza, the language of the Atacameno people, is made up of about 1000 inhabitants who mostly work in agriculture, cultivating potatoes and corn or making sweet wine and pisco.

After our short, but informative tour of the village, we settled back into the car and drove next to views of limitless desert. The air around the looming sand mountains was wispy in the distance. I would have thought it was fog if I didn’t know how arid this desert is, so I deduced that it must be a combination of sand in the wind and wisps of smoke from the active Lascar volcano.

Our first breathtaking stop in the Salar de Atacama was the Los Flamencos National Reserve, which is managed by the Atacameno community of Socaire, along with the National Forest Corporation. Not that this place was a forest, in any common sense of the word. The reserve itself covers 180,000 acres of desert. We stopped in the Soncor Sector and watched pink and black flamingos create a mirror image in the Chaxa lagoon, dipping their heads in the water and wriggling their long necks like snakes as they searched for tiny shrimps to eat. The three rather graceful species of flamingo that live here (James, Andino, and Chilean) spend twelve hours a day with their heads in the water, devouring 800 grams of shrimp a day.

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The salty pathways through the garden of white volcanic rock and salt crusts crunched and sparkled beneath my hiking boots. I didn’t know flamingos could fly, and was in awe to see their pink bellies soaring above my head and against the background of the valley of San Pedro and the five principal volcanoes surrounding the 100 kilometers of salt marshes, each one marking the border with Bolivia or Argentina. Dragonflies whizzed by my head and mated over the crusts of sulfur along the shores of the lake, giving them a yellow color and making the air smell like how I imagine Munchkinland smelled after the Wicked Witch threatened Glinda and then left in a huff.

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flying flamingo

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While at the reserve, our guide prepared us a lovely breakfast, complete with rolls, mashed avocado, scrambled eggs, cookies, coffee, tea and more.

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What would a tour in South America be without more churches? The purely tourist church of Bartolomeo de Socaire is made of adobe and stone and topped with a hay roof. It was whatever. The building was surrounded by crops of corn, alfalfa, green beans, sunflowers, potatoes, quinoa…yada yada. The town Socaire is the last town before Argentina and it is made up of a whopping 150 residents. Moving on…

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We drove on smooth, paved roads that wound rhythmically around the mountains and volcanoes and through fields of rocks and sturdy, yellow tufts of sun-stained grass called paja brava. If you squinted as you sped by the plains, you could trick yourself into looking at a field of poppies or sunflowers.

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When we arrived at the Miscanti and Miniques lakes, spreading out before us like a couple of large sapphires, you could feel in your bones how fresh the air was at a 4000 meter altitude. The lakes aren’t fresh water, and bits of salt crusted along the perimeter of that royal blue lagoon. According to the guide, the lakes were formed thousands of years ago when the Miniques Volcano erupted and blocked the waters that ran freely from the high system of mountain ranges, damming the rivers and streams. The area around the lakes was empty of tourists. In their place were vicuñas munching on the yellow grass, a type of camelid that are so climatized to the cold, high weather that they can run up to 40 kilometers an hour.

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All in all, it was a very pretty tour. But like I said earlier, I wish someone had told me that it would just be pretty before I woke up at 6:30 in the morning.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Categories
Chile

San Pedro de Atacama: Part 1

San Pedro de Atacama offers endless activities for adventurous backpackers.

Watch the sun set at the Valley of the moon or ride through the desert to float in the salty Laguna Cejar.

 

The sun seems to touch every inch of the plateau of San Pedro de Atacama, 2,400 meters above sea level, and definitely quite far from the sea. The gridded tourist town is made up of perfectly white, sun-bleached adobe huts that aesthetically match the uniform exterior of brown, wooden lettering on all the buildings and the light tan dirt streets. While the center is filled with great cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, hostels and tour agencies, the surrounding areas of the city are made up of cement shanty towns where the locals who serve the tourists reside, satellites studding the tin roofs and stray animals finding shade under dusty pickup trucks.

The town itself is merely a watering hole for the surrounding sites and activities, nearly all of which you end up booking a tour for. While I didn’t get around to all of them, due to a lack of funds and will, I saw my fair share, and thoroughly enjoyed my time in the desert.

Day 1- Town and Valley of the Moon:

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the main plaza
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typical street
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very long artisan market

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Laura and I checked took an overnight bus from Arica to Calama, and then a two hour bus to San Pedro from there. (There are direct buses from Arica to San Pedro, we missed ours.) We checked into Hostal La Florida, a newer hostel in the middle of town that I HIGHLY recommend. I loved the laid back feel, the cheap tours offered, the fully stocked kitchen, the warm beds, and the hammocks. The showers weren’t bad either, if you went one at a time. After a quick jaunt around the plaza and in the markets, buying yet more Inca-inspired gifts for friends and family back home, we went on a sunset tour of the Valley of the Moon, Valle de la Luna.

Through the driest desert in the world we went, the expansive scenery around us looking as if it were painted on. Literally, as far as the eye could see, the orange, red and brown sand dunes rolled like waves against the cloudless blue sky. It looked like a choppy sea had frozen in time and turned to sandstone. Some parts were jagged and treacherous, and others were soft and curved, as if a river were running through the canyons. I wondered if thousands of years ago, it was possible that this desert was once an ocean, but seeing as how it may be the oldest desert on earth, experiencing extreme hyper aridity for over three million years, I began to doubt it.

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Our first stop on the tour has us walking for about fifteen minutes to the edge of Valle de la Muerte, Death Valley, where we stood at the edge of a gorge, staring at the surrounding volcanos. The wind was strong and made it impossible to hear our guide as he pointed out some ancient route that the native Atacameña people would take to Calama. All I could hear, besides the whooshing in my ears, was the clinking sounds of million year old, light tan igneous rocks under my feet. I found it interesting that volcanic magma could turn into such a light colored rock, after spending a few months in Sicily last year, where the evidence of Mount Etna’s eruptions was evident in large black rocks studded throughout Catania.

Check out what the wind did to my ponytail
Check out what the wind did to my ponytail
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Laura and me over Death Valley

 

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light as air igneous rocks
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the old route

Our next stop was the Rock of the Coyote, as in the coyote from the roadrunner cartoons. We all took our pictures on the jutting ledge before moving on to some caves.

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Las cuevas were a cool retreat from the endless sun and wind. The high walls were formed from wind erosion, and you could taste the sand in your mouth as you bent low and stood up when necessary. A few young New Zealanders that Laura and I walked with made us laugh by making Lord of the Ring jokes as we crawled through the tight spaces.

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Back on the bus for our last stop, the pièce de rèsistance, the Puerto del Sol of the Valle de la Luna, the gate of the sun in Moon Valley. As we walked the length of a road (unnecessarily in my opinion- we had a van) to the slow climb up the valley, the wind picked up, and sand hit the back of our calves and neck like hundreds of tiny needles. Tourists lined up along the top of the valley’s ridge to await the setting sun. Before it sank, it filled the untouched sand of the valley, making the land below us look like a golden carpet for the gods. The sunset itself, I thought, was a bit overrated. At our high elevation, we were very close to that star, and even with sunglasses on, I couldn’t watch the sunset without being blinded by light. When it finally settled out of our field of vision, the cold was immediate. We huddled in our sweatshirts as we made the steep ascent down back to the minivan.

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the path to the puerto

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Day 2- -Bike ride to Laguna Cejar:

In an attempt to save money on tours and to beat the late afternoon rush of tourists, Laura and I decided to rent bikes from the hostel and head over to the Laguna Cejar, in the morning. We were told that the salty lake has an effect like the Dead Sea in Israel, causing you to float, and that it was 18 km from town. It took us an hour and fifteen minutes to make it there. We seemed to be the only ones on the long, bumpy desert road, so there was no one to ask directions from when we wanted reassurance that we weren’t just trailing aimlessly through the desert only to get lost and die of dehydration and be eaten by buzzards or vultures or whatever carnivorous desert bird is common in Chile. Despite my hard pedaliing, I noticed that I barely broke a sweat, as if the thirsty desert air was drinking up my persperation before I got a chance to let it cool me down.

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Finally we made it, exhausted and hungry and kicking ourselves for not packing a lunch or eating breakfast. There were two lakes, one for show and one for swimming. They sat like two turquoise eyes on the desert’s face, a proper oasis if the water wasn’t too salty to drink. There were only a few others there enjoying the views. We basically had the place to ourselves, and we realized later on that in this part of the world, the hottest part of the day isn’t actually noon, when we were there. The temperatures usually peaked around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, hence why the tours to the lakes happened later in the day.

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The “for show” lake

 

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Sunbathing by the “for swim” lake

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Unlike the Dead Sea, the water was absolutely frigid. We waded out slowly, our feet numbing with each step across the shallow plane before we reached the edge of a sort of underwater cliff. The water was so clear. I held my breath as I let my toes curl over the top of the shelf. I turned to face Laura, posed for some pics, and sat into the freezing water, trusting the salt concentration to keep my head above water. I forgot the cold as I buoyed in the water, giggling at the wonders of the world and hovering over the deep, blue sink hole.

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dried salt on my skin

 

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Day 3- Puritama Hot Springs

Laura and I were feeling a bit exhausted after biking it to and from the lagunas the day before on empty stomachs in the hot, hot heat, so we decided to treat ourselves to a chill day at the hot springs.

Las Termas Puritamas are located about 40 minutes outside of San Pedro. The babbling creek spreads out in a curving line below you as you walk along a cliff from the parking lot. A red boardwalk lies parallel to the little brook, with the regular platform before each small pool. We picked one and laid out our towels before dipping into our chosen pond. The water was not hot. It was warm, but still pleasant. The rocks along the sides and bottom were slippery with pond scum that also gravitated in furry green clumps to tickle the sides of your body. The water from each pool spilled over the sides of mossy rocks and fell into the next pool, and when we weren’t sitting lazily in a pool, we used the boardwalk to follow the waterfalls, each little paradise more beautiful than the next.

"Hi, I'm Elle Woods."
“Hi, I’m Elle Woods.”

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the walk to the hot springs
the walk to the hot springs

I think you’ve all read enough. Check out my next post to read about the rest of my adventures in San Pedro.

 

by Rebecca Bellan