We traveled to the driest desert in the world not because we wanted to see it, but because we needed to leave Argentina and didn’t want to go to Bolivia.  Even though we knew nothing about San Pedro de Atacama or the surrounding area, I am glad we opted for the Chilean desert experience.

We arrived in San Pedro (de Atacama) after an 8 ½ hour bus ride from Salta, Argentina.  Once we were settled in our hostel we headed in to town to see what options were available for getting out into the desert.  We knew that we would need to book a tour and had heard good things about Cactus Tour, so we found their office in town and arranged to see the flamingos in the salt flats and then head up to about 12,000 feet to see some Andean Lakes.

We weren’t disappointed.  We arrived at the salt flats just as the sun was peeking out over the mountains.

Desert Sunrise

Morning light shining on the salt flats

We were the first group to arrive at Laguna Chaxa, and the flamingos were in close proximity to the pathways.

Chilean Flamingo at Lago Chaxa

Chilean Flamingos at Lago Chaxa

I felt bad for the group coming after us, because the flamingos had all flown to a much more distant lake by the time we had finished our alfresco breakfast and piled back in the van.

Flamingos in flight

For the next leg of our journey our van chugged its way up to 12,000 feet and several mountain lakes.

Miscanti Lagoon

There was a small herd of vicuñas grazing nearby.

It was all incredibly beautiful, but between the high altitude and persistent wind it was very cold.

Pat and Amy in Atacama

That evening back in town we saw a beautiful sunset.

Sunset in San Pedro de Atacama

The evening light on the mountains turned the drab brown vistas into something quite dramatic.

Sunset in San Pedro de Atacama

Later that night we climbed back on a bus and headed for the Peruvian border and then on to Arequipa, which entailed 30 hours on buses, petty theft in Arica, Chile, and a very bizarre border crossing.  We were wrecked by the end of the journey, but glad to be in Arequipa.


We flew from Mexico City to Buenos Aires, Argentina, last weekend and one of the reasons we haven’t posted anything since then is that it’s been a rough transition.  The total travel time was over 12 hours, with almost 11 hours on planes, and we gained two hours and six months.  Well, we didn’t gain six months, but by crossing the equator we went from late spring in Mexico City, with temperatures in the nineties and over 13 hours of sunlight per day, to late fall in Buenos Aires, with temperatures yo-yoing between the high fifties to low seventies, and only 10 hours of sunlight per day.  Add in a terrible landlady, pressure from Amy applying for and interviewing for a job in Oregon, and it’s been a tiring time.

Things are getting better, though.  By Thursday, Amy got the job, we had a great (but not the best ever) steak in celebration, and it turns out this is a huge holiday weekend here.  All the signs here proclaim that it’s the bicentennial that’s being celebrated, and the events began last night and culminate on May 25, so you’d think that means it’s their Independence Day, but it isn’t.  This marks the events of “May Week” when in 1810 the local viceroy in Buenos Aires was booted out of office and a local government formed (according to Wikipedia).  It wasn’t until July 8, 1816, that national independence was actually declared, so that’s the official Independence Day.  So, this is the bicentennial celebration of  . . . something.  Although this seems to be a national holiday, it might be celebrated more here than elsewhere in the country, in that it commemorates the first local government in Buenos Aires.  Get it?  Yeah, me neither.

We saw part of a military parade, and many of the participants had on old-style uniforms that made it look like a live-action Stratego game.  Celebrations will continue for days, but in our wandering today we never came across food vendors.  I’m sure they’re out there somewhere but I can’t imagine a regular Independence Day celebration in the States, let alone a really big one, that didn’t include more food options than a person could go through in a month.

Some of you may think we recently experienced Mexican Independence Day on May 5 but Cinco de Mayo is a relatively minor holiday in Mexico.  In fact, it’s not a national holiday at all but just a state holiday in Puebla, and which is partially observed elsewhere.  The day commemorates the Battle of Puebla, an impressive victory of the outnumbered Mexican army over the invading French in 1862.  The problem is the French went on to win the war and control Mexico for 3 years, so the Battle of Puebla ended up not making much of a difference in the arc of history, though the battle became a source of justifiable pride for Mexico.  The real Mexican Independence Day will come this September 16, and will mark Mexico’s bicentennial, too.  Several other Latin American countries also declared their independence in 1810, though it took years of fighting in each case to actually break free from the crumbling Spanish Empire.  1810 was not a good year for Spain.

This year, Pat and I celebrated Easter in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico.  Although I don’t know much about the Catholic religion, I am certain that they incorporate more ceremony and pageantry around the Easter season than what I grew up with as a Southern Baptist in Texas.

Although we were traveling with our friend during the first few days of Semana Santa, there were still many processions and events to experience.  As a matter of fact, there were so many events that there was a formal talk with flow charts and maps to help the everyday gringo navigate all the celebrations.  There were events and processions every day.  In addition to the large processions through centro, many of the neighborhood churches had their own processions.

Here are some images of this past week’s events.

A procession on Tuesday in our neighborhood, Colonia Guadalupe.

This procession is known as the Sacred Encounter.  On Good Friday, this 18th Century statue was taken to the Parroquia, a very ornate church in the main square, and when facing a statue of the Virgin Mary he lifts his head and acknowledges her.

The Holy Burial procession on Good Friday had around 2,000 participants.  The young girls in all of the processions wore white dresses with purple sashes, and are supposed to represent angels.  It was a very solemn occasion.  There were crowds and crowds of people, and everyone was very serious and respectful.  No cheering, no laughing, no talking on cell phones.

After a sombre week of processions, on Easter Sunday everyone gathers in the Jardín to blow up a bunch of paper maché Judases.  There were 24 mannequins for the occasion.  According to a friend of mine, they are supposed to represent various villains and unliked politicians.  Last year they blew up George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein.  I think pyrotechnics and explosions trump plastic Easter eggs.  What do you think?

After our time in Zipolite, we headed for the city of Oaxaca.  To get there, we took a 20 minute taxi ride to Pochutla where we caught a bus north.  Unfortunately, the information at the Lyoban Hostel in Zipolite was not accurate, so we got to the bus station about an hour earlier than necessary, and the only buses available until that night were second class buses.  First class buses in Mexico are pretty plush, sometimes with only three seat across (two on one side, one on the other), with drinks, snacks, and a bathroom.  Second class buses, while generally okay (though far less comfortable overall), don’t have a bathroom.  The bus stopped only once, after about 2.5 hours, so we had nearly 6 hours on the bus without a break or a bathroom.  Bring your Depends.

This was our first trip to Oaxaca, and with only a couple of days to see it, we know we’ll be back.  Oaxaca is known for its food, especially its mole (pronounced MOE-lay), so we decided to take a cooking class at Casa Crespo.  There we were joined by another cooking student, Zack, from New Mexico, and our teacher, Oscar.  Oscar listed our choices and we settled on Mango agua fresca, salsa roja, salsa verde, guacamole, quesadillas con flor de calabaza, sopa azteca, rajas con queso y crema, fruit mole on chicken, and chocolate ice cream.  Oscar walked us to a nearby market where we bought many of the ingredients, and even tried the dried grasshoppers (very salty).

Market vendor - Oaxaca

Back at his cooking school, Oscar took us through the steps of preparing everything from our tortillas to the ice cream.  Oscar was a fantastic teacher, and the food was incredibly good, especially the fruit mole and chocolate ice cream (which was also surprisingly easy).

Making guacamole at Casa Crespo

We stayed in a hostel in Oaxaca, and there we met Jan and Elsie, two Englishwomen, both retired pub owners.  They are on a 7 month trip through the Americas and the Caribbean and have some amazing stories about their adventures.  To give you just a hint about them, just last year Elsie did a pole dance in a club in Thailand in front of an ever-growing crowd on the street outside.  This is particularly remarkable when you realize Elsie is 75, and Jan 60.  They’ve been taking these long trips abroad for 14 years.  We’re thinking of starting a fan club.

Mexico City was next on our schedule, and Amy and I had been there before, though it was Ciara’s first time (aside from arriving in Mexico City late Sunday and flying out to Zipolite early the next morning).  We saw Frida Kahlo’s former house, now a museum called Casa Azul, and well worth a visit.  We also went to the National Museum of Anthropology and the Zocalo, or main square in Mexico City.  The highlight of the trip was when Ciara took a picture of a clown performing for kids, and we ended up as part of the show.

Ciara and the clown

First I was offered two Mexican women for Amy and Ciara, and then the clown invited Ciara to join the kids.  The clown had the kids dance to either Michael Jackson or Shania Twain, and he found a dance partner for Ciara.  More than an hour later we were still there, watching Ciara and the others.  Not exactly what we expected but a memorable experience, to say the least.

Zipolite at sunset - photo by Ciara Baxter

Last week was spring break for OSU, so we took a little vacation to see some places we hadn’t made it to yet.  We met our friend Ciara in Mexico City Sunday night and flew to Huatulco the next morning.  Huatulco is the site of a small airport near the Pacific, in the Southern state of Oaxaca, and this was the first time any of us had been to an airport with thatched roofs.

The plan was to head to Zipolite, a small beachfront town about an hour away from the airport, and we’d seen on other blogs and websites that a taxi was probably the best way to get there.  One website said the taxi should cost 250 pesos but at the official taxi stand the actual cost was around 750 pesos.  Zipolite has a reputation for being cheap, but already we were paying three times the expected price even before arriving.

After a wild taxi ride (the expected hour travel time was cut to 45 minutes), the driver stopped us at the east end of the town, and we took a room at the Lyoban hostel.  At least the room was cheap, but the cost of everything in Zipolite was more than we’d been reading about.  A can of coke at the hostel cost 14 pesos (as compared to 8 pesos for a bottle almost twice as big in most stores in San Miguel), and all of the meals we had cost at least 60 pesos each.  That’s only around 5 U.S. dollars, so it’s not expensive, but it’s also no cheaper than many meals we can find in San Miguel, which is not known as an inexpensive locale, and the food in San Miguel is much, much better.

Had the food been good, it would have been fine, but we didn’t have a single good Mexican meal in our three days there.  We had an okay pizza one night, and our final meal in town was excellent, at La Alquimista, on the west side of the beach.  It wasn’t, however, Mexican.

Zipolite is a beach town that caters to a laid back, slightly hippy crowd (the beach is a nude beach, though the majority of people wore suits), so you’d think there would be at least some concessions to tourists.  Not really.  We had to go to five stores before finding sunscreen, for example, and there are no bank machines in town.  If you want something in Zipolite, you better bring it yourself.

We knew the beach had a reputation for dangerous currents and riptides (the name apparently means Beach of the Dead), but it also sounded like there would at least be days when it was safe to get into the water and swim.  Unfortunately the entire time we were there the red flags stayed up – no swimming.  It was relatively safe to splash around a bit in the swash (Ciara explained the swash is the area of the beach between the highest point the waves reach and the lowest point when they roll out, the area with all that sea foam), but we never swam near our hostel.  Ciara pointed out the irony of taking a cab to the next town, then hiking up and down a hill to a more secluded beach just so we could swim, when the ocean was ten yards in front of our hostel room.

The Lyoban ended up being a bit of a mixed bag, but we don’t recommend it.  The mattresses were poor and the linens threadbare and torn.  The hammocks were nice and the view was great, but almost everywhere had hammocks and equally good views.  The hostel’s showers were only open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., which would normally not be a problem except that on our last day we needed to catch a cab at 7:30, which didn’t leave us much time to get ready.  Worse, the man with the key strolled in at 7:10, though the management of the hostel had arranged our 7:30 taxi and knew we were on a tight schedule.  We just made it in time.

So it may sound like it wasn’t that great a time (bad food, more expensive than we thought, so-so rooms, and no swimming) but it was quite relaxing and not a bad way to start our trip.

On 17 December 2007, Pat and I boarded a plane and flew to Ireland. Prior to this my international travel experience consisted of 3 days in Canada and a week in Cancun. This Monday, 14 December 2009, will mark the first time Pat and I have been back home since then. I’ve been thinking (maybe perseverating?) lately on what I am looking forward to and what I am going to miss. Some of them are pretty obvious, and some would never have occurred to me two years ago.

Looking forward to:

Seeing family and friends

Sitting on a comfortable couch while watching television

1% Milk

Listening to NPR while in the car

French Vanilla creamer in my coffee

A long HOT shower.  They have been rather infrequent for the past two months.

Drinking a Mike’s Hard Lime while playing Boggle/Scrabble/Quiddler with Pat and my sister-in-law Nora

Buying new clothes and binning the nasty stinky hiking boots I’ve been wearing since June

Artery clogging buttered popcorn at the cinema

Going for a hike in McDonald Forest

Going to miss:

Crossing the street regardless of what the crosswalk signal says

Mom and Pop stores on every corner

Colorful houses

Tiny cars

Driving on the left side of the road.  I finally retrained my brain for driving in Ireland, and now I will have to reprogram it . . . while driving someone else’s car.  Hmmmmm, is this wise?

Street food and agua fresca

Opportunities to speak Spanish

Swearing.  Ireland taught me well.  I really must try to clean up my language before I see my nieces and nephews.

The pleasure of meeting other travellers and sharing common experiences

The overwhelming friendliness and kindness we have encountered in San Miguel.  It is like no other place in the world in that regard.

Many Americans tend to think of the U.S. as the place for small business people, but I suspect there are more small business people per capita in many of the countries we’ve visited than back home. Amy and I recently walked around our neighbourhood counting small family stores (think of a 7-11, but about 1/3 to ½ the size) selling pop, chips, and a few other things. Within a three block radius we counted 19 of these businesses. We may have missed one or two, and we weren’t counting all the other small businesses, like papelerias (paper and school supply stores), auto shops, small clothing stores, and many others. And this is a residential neighbourhood, as much as that means anything in a country where there isn’t any zoning, as far as I can tell.

There is the Mercado de Artesanias (three blocks long) where artisans sell jewellery, small crafts, tinwork, and so on. The shops vary in size, from about 8 foot square, to maybe twice that size. There are quite a few more carts on the streets here, too, selling ice cream, tacos, chips, you name it. Vendors may walk through neighbourhoods pushing a bike with a grinder on it for sharpening knives or carrying foods like jicama, corn, or tortillas to sell. They call out what they’re selling or, depending on their craft, they may have a particular whistle, horn, or recorded jingle that announces their presence.

People often don’t have many employment options even in places like San Miguel, which is fairly prosperous. In a city like Corvallis there are still large employers like Oregon State University and Hewlett-Packard, a few mid-size employers, and lots of small businesses that employ at least a few people. Most people in the States will never work for themselves or start a business, although with the recession I know more Americans have had to get creative in finding ways to support themselves and their families. Because the costs of starting and running a business are so much greater in America, though, a person normally has to really want to be an entrepreneur; here a person needs to be an entrepreneur just to survive.

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