Sunday, March 2, 2008

Still Standing...Somehow

I woke up in Arica with a cookie in my hand. It was 6:20 a.m. and my 11-hour bus ride from Calama had arrived an hour ahead of schedule. The bus attendant was ripping my blanket and pillow away from me before I had even opened my eyes.

A somewhat rude awakening (minus the cookie part) if you ask me, but I didn´t mind, seeing as ir was a bona-fide wake-up call rather than the usual polite interruption to my typical routine of tossing and turning restlessly on any form of public transportation. For once, I had slept through the whole ride, and for me that was a miracle.

Two days and nights in the San Pedro de Atacama Desert had done the trick I sometimes surprise myself with just how much abuse my body can withstand.
As our tour (which turned out to be excellent) departed from the Chilean port city of Antofagasta on Wednesday morning, our guide suggested we drink a lot of water--in addition to his warnings the night before not to eat a heave meal and to skip the drinking and carousing until 6 a.m. which had become protocol on the tour. We were going to go from sea level up to 3600 Meters in a single day, and all the suggested self-control was to avoid altitude sickness.
As it turned out, my good behavior paid off and I made it into the dusty, charming, swarming with tourists desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, feeling at the top of my game. After visiting the Flamingo reserve and watching the sunset over the lagoons there, we made it to our hostel and then went for dinner.
Over dinner, I talked a fellow American and an Irish couple from our tour, into doing a sandboarding trip with me early the following morning. Many beers later, plus one late-night. Chilean house party, followed by drinking around a campfire until the sun came up, I, the Sandboarding expedition instigator, slept through my big plans for the day. Oops.
The day was not lost though. So I let down the Irish couple, who ended up doing the trip alone, but after a much-needed post-noon brunch, I dragged my dehydrated, hungover self on a mountain-bike ride with two English girls and a South African guy from my tour. I rode for an eternity in the hot desert sun to see a breathtaking gorge and some ancient ruins.
Later that day, on 3 hours of sleep, I felt miraculously ok, and proceeded to do some adrenaline pumping rock climbing, followed by a short caving adventure through tiny dark spaces, and then finally to climb up some massive sand dunes to watch the sun go down in Valle de La Luna--where Pink Floyd once filmed a concert.

An Incredible day indeed followed by an equally incredible night--starting with dinner and a live native music band, typical from the Atacama region--which resulted in the group cheering me on to oblige the invite from the waiter to dance with him in front of everyone. I danced until my knees were shaking (which didn´t take long after my exhausting day) and thought about calling it an early night, but once again stayed up drinking Piscola (Pisco and Coke) from a communal bottle until 6 a.m. when the final embers of the campfire went out and the sun started to come up.

The next morning I left the tour, which was heading back down south towards Santiago, and once again I was traveling Chilean style. A friend of mine from Santiago, Juan Andres, met up with me in San Pedro and took me to his family´s house in what is arguably the worst city in all of Chile-- Calama-- which is famous for the three "P´s"

Polvo, Perros y Prostitutas

(Dust, Dogs and Prostitutes)

After "tomando once" (Chilean light dinner) in Calama, I caught an overnight bus to Arica, the northernmost city in Chile, and also a beach town, where I met up with a Juan Andres´s friend, Pablo.

Pablo and his friends and family showed me around town and made me feel completely at home--and of course I spent another late night, this time as an awkward Gringa trying to dance to latino music at the biggest club in Arica, where we went to celebrate Pablo´s friend´s birthday. Yet again I went to bed as the sun was coming up, and after 3 hours of sleep, I had lunch with Pablo and his family, and was then on my way to Peru, on what, I didn´t realize was going to be one of the most extremely uncomfortable bus rides I´ve had in a long time.

The early departure to the Peruvian city of Arequipa was already full, so I agreed to travel on the economy bus, which took two hours longer, made frequent stops, smelled of burning rubber, and was perhaps just one step above riding with chicken crates. So I exaggerate, but I was cramped as sin, since I had chosen to put my large backback in the seat row with me, forcing me to sit with my knees drawn up against my chest for the first hour of the ride until I found a way to extend my legs to the floor without bothering the guy next to me. Worth it? Most likely. I had heard a horror story from an Australian traveler I´d met in Santiago, that his entire pack had been stolen from the luggage storage beneath a bus in Bolivia, and he was traveling for the next 6 months with the clothes on his back.

Anyways, 7 hours later, smelly, sore and tired as hell, here I am in Arequipa, Peru-- and am hoping I don´t get sick to my stomach with the water here, especially since, along with my passport, all of my medicine was stolen too.

Tomorrow night I head to my final destination, Cusco, to see Machu Picchu.

Unfortunately my camera didnt survive the San Pedro de Atacama desert quite as successfully as I did, so hopefully I can get my hands on a disposable one!

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