Category: Chile

21 May

Pass the pepper: Crossing Bolivia’s Uyuni salt flat

Best of..., Bolivia, Chile No Comments by Christina Cooke

Our jeep barreled for an entire day across the infinite nothingness of the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. For six hours straight, we saw salt, we saw sky, and that’s about it.

The salar is 4,633 square miles of packed salt that measures an average of 23 feet thick. It’s what remains of the prehistoric Lago Minchin, which once covered the majority of southwest Bolivia. It’s an illusion-inducing landscape that plays tricks on the mind, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

We discovered people become really small on the Salar de Uyuni

And that doing ordinary things becomes much more fun

Our three-day jeep trip took us from the Chilean desert town of San Pedro de Atacama to the Bolivian valley village of Tupiza. We crossed from the border during the first ten minutes of the trip, then proceeded through the baked red Bolivian desert, where geysers boil and steam, and lakes take on colors other than blue.

The Bolivian desert

Lago Blanco, with waves frozen in place

Flamingos wade knee-deep in many of the lakes, filtering for microorganisms

The deserts’ elevation ranges between 12,000 and 15,000 feet above sea level. It’s extremity caused us to become short of breath every time we walked uphill and scramble for hats, gloves and extra layers every time got out of the jeep door to walk around outside.

The rock tree, one of many rock formations we saw along the way

Simione, our Spanish-speaking driver, was born in a village just a couple hours from the salar and normally spoke the Quechua language native to the region. He stared straight ahead and chewed coca leaves during most of the drive, but at each stop, jumped out to pop the hood, scoot underneath the vehicle or change a tire. At one point, he had to repair the front passenger door, which had been ripped off by the wind.

Simione and another driver operating on our jeep

Laura and me in a tiny town on the edge of the salar, waiting for our drivers to fill the vehicle with gas

We stayed the first night at a modest refuge in the desert and the second at the Salt Hotel, located two minutes from the edge of the salt flat. The hotel is constructed completely from blocks of salt; licking the walls, tables and stools would make you thirsty. Even the floor of the bedrooms and dining room was covered in grains of NaCl.

Two days before our trip, two jeeps traveling toward each other collided on the roadless, wide-open salt flat. The canisters of gas strapped to the roofs of both vehicles exploded, killing all passengers and one driver.

As we passed the accident remains from a distance, we could see the burnt hulls of two 4 x 4s standing out like dark skeletons against their snow-white surroundings. We all realized it could have been us, and the sight was truly sobering.

For more pictures of the trip, click here.

19 May

Put down the goggles and step away from the cap

Chile 3 Comments by Christina Cooke

After months of carrying my swim cap and goggles around South America, I have accepted reality: I am not going to need them.

I bought the two luxury items in Punta Arenas, Chile last November in preparation for free swim at the city’s public pool. That’s the only time during my eight months in the southern hemisphere I’ve actually been able to use them.
With this — and my backpack’s ungodly weight — in mind, I decided to take drastic action: I left my swimming apparel in the room of my hostel in Chile’s Atacama Desert, one of the driest places in the world.

My sister Laura bidding farewell to my prized possessions

I swam competitively through high school and have continued regular trips to the pool in all the places I’ve landed since then. Though my 100-meter freestyle is nowhere as fast as it used to be, swimming continues to be very important in my life. Thus, I did not give up on the dream without a fight. I searched out public pools in every place I visited, but found myself foiled every time.

Here’s the collection of excuses that finally defeated me:

  • Sorry, the pool’s empty for its holiday cleaning. Try back in January!
  • The pool is only open on weekends. Sucks for you it’s Tuesday.
  • You cannot pass this gate. You are not a member of the club. Go back to your home.
  • You must pay $17 to use this pool for an hour. We need exact change.
  • The pool’s easy to find. Take the red line to the third stop, then the green line to the fourth stop. Walk four blocks north, two blocks east, and you’ll find it in an unmarked building.
  • The pool is five feet long and full of kids on foam noodles. Probably won’t need those goggles.

Alas, I hope someone in the dry, dry Chilean desert has found a use for my cap and goggles. Given their location, it probably won’t be lap swimming.

As a sidenote: We spent a lot of time exploring the arid terrain around the desert oasis town of San Pedro. It’s hard to believe this dry landscape can be found in the same country that boasts the glacier-covered Torres del Paine National Park.

We rode the twisty trail through Quebrada del Diablo, or Devil’s Gorge, on mountain bikes on day. Such fun.

30 Apr

Pisco sweet: Three days in Chile’s Valle del Elqui

Best of..., Chile No Comments by Christina Cooke


The skies over Chile’s Valle del Elqui are clear more than 300 days a year, making it an ideal place to study the stars. During our two days in the valley, Laura and I did just that… sort of.

The guide of the astronomy talk we signed up for led us to a dusty field, set up his telescope and then declared that science, constellations, the cardinal directions and naming things are — and I quote — “stupid.” Needless to say, we didn’t learn much about astronomy. We did, however, manage to see Saturn and its rings and a couple bright stars, I’m not sure which ones.

Valle del Elqui stretches the width of Chile, from the northern beach town of La Serena to the Argentenian border. It’s punctuated by little villages that sustain themselves mostly by growing the super-sweet grapes used to make the alcohol pisco, Chile’s national drink.


Labels for the pisco bottles, still on the spool

More than 85 percent of the pisco produced in Chile comes from the valley. On the way in, we toured the family-run Fuegos distillery, where we tasted the grapes and sampled the pre-pisco alcohol, which has an alcohol content of 68.7 percent.

me-on-trailMe, descending

horse-in-desertA horse along the road

Laura and I fell in love with Valle del Elqui during our time there. On our second day, we rode mountain bikes down the dry dirt road from the far interior town of Alcohuaz to our home base in Pisco Elquis. Along the way, we passed lots of grape vines, a few men on horseback and many dogs too sleepy to bother chasing us. We stopped at the artists’ community outside the village of Horcón, where we wandered among artisans in hammocks and browsed booths filled with medicinal herbs, handmade jewelry and batiked clothing.

Laura and me during our bike ride, wearing protective head gear to prevent injury.

23 Apr

The REAL Santiago

Chile No Comments by Christina Cooke

During our two days in Santiago, my sister Laura and I didn’t visit the city’s main tourist attractions. No, we stood in line at the bank, visited a notary, mailed packages and took a series of buses to a mall in the suburbs to exchange a piece of merchandise at the only Patagonia store in the greater Santiago area. Who needs to visit the poet Pablo Neruda’s house or the fine arts museum when you can see a real, working office and learn to navigate a bus system?



Anyway, we got the errands run, and we’re off to Valparaiso.

09 Apr

Hiking a hidden valley

My friend Juliana and I meant to spend a day meandering through Valle Bader, the high-elevation valley that runs between the 7,200-foot slab of the easternmost Cuerno and the 8,700-foot glacier-capped Almirante Nieto. Instead, we ended up scrambling up and down one of the more precarious moraines in the area and almost summiting both peaks. Not bad for a dayhike.

Despite the wrong turn five minutes into the hike through the trail-less valley (the RIGHT side of the river, the RIGHT!), we saw some of the most amazing views ever. From the valley’s entrance, we could see numerous lakes, each a different shade of blue, and once inside, we could see the actual base of the cliffs we’re so used to seeing from afar. Rainbows arced overhead most of the day, and we saw wild parakeets on the return hike.


That’s me, squatting low to avoid blowing off the mountain, near the entrance to the valley.


That’s Juliana. She’s taking a photo.


Lago Nordenskjold and Lago Sarmiento, two of the lakes we could see from up high.


Nordenskjold again. Pretty.


During our hike, it rained, it snowed, the sun beat down on our backs, and the wind blew.


This is the Cuerno we almost summited, accidentally.

We traversed the top of this moraine — and ate ham sandwiches almost at the base of the Cuerno — before realizing we were probably very far from where we were supposed to be. We decided to walk out on the other side of the valley, where we could make out a faint trail through much safer territory.

Descending the moraine of loose rock was tough. We scooted backwards down the mountainside, placing our hands and feet on the rocks with great care to avoid starting avalanches. We crossed the pounding river at the base of the valley, and in the process of searching for the trail on the other side, almost summited Almirante Nieto.

While we didn’t see as much of the valley as we could have if we’d had more time and hadn’t climbed so far in the wrong direction, we were blown away by what we did see. Valle Bader is a magical place for sure.


For more photos of Valle Bader, click here.