Feeling Putrid in Putre

We woke at 5:55am on (Good) Friday in order to begin our journey to the town of Putre. It is on the outskirts of Lauca National Park, and we were hoping to take a guided tour. After a few weeks of indolence in cities and the absence of anything remotely resembling the great outdoors, we were ready for some wilderness!

Three hours after our bus left Arica (at sea-level), and more hairpin turns than I could count, we arrived at Putre, which lies in a shallow valley at an elevation of 11,060 ft. Thankfully, we slept most of the way (which seems to help with carsickness), but I awoke in time to see this glorious sight several miles before our destination:

Above a valley of fog. There are few things I enjoy more than being above clouds.

Because Putre was at such high elevation, I worried about soroche, or high altitude sickness. I had been prescribed acetazolamide before we left the States, so I was at least prepared to self-medicate (having a large supply of drugs on hand always gives me a sense of comfort). Our extremely knowledgable (and Kiwi!) hostel owner in Arica told me not to take the medication before we left (which was the way it was prescribed), but to wait and see how we felt once we arrived.

“Why take drugs when you don’t have to?” he said.

Despite my motto having always been, “Why suffer when you can take drugs?”, I decided to heed his advice. After all, he seemed to know what he was talking about. This turned out to be a mistake. I should always trust my gut reaction! After all, an ounce of prevention…

We disembarked in Putre with only slight feelings of light-headedness, but unfortunately for Craig, these quickly devolved into a headache. After obtaining suitable lodging, we inquired at a tour office about the National Park.

The tour included a guide and jeep ride out to some lakes to see wildlife and a soak in some thermal springs, but did not include any provisions or water. The grand total ran to 60 pesos.

That’s $120 US! Holy cow. We were under the impression it would be half that price, but once again we were foiled by the “per person” stipulation (see Torres del Paine entry). After mulling it over, we decided that, having already skipped several costly activities on this trip due to one reason or another, we could afford to splurge. We were already in Putre anyway, we might as well do something!

The adorable daughter of the woman at the tourist office. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that she looks Asian, since native ancestors came across the Bering Strait, but it’s still interesting.

Tour booked, we headed to a very cheap lunch (but expensive glass of natural mango juice–$4!). The tour lady had told us to have tea made with mate de coca leaves, which would supposedly help with soroche, but unfortunately, Craig’s symptoms quickly devolved to full-on Acute Mountain Sickness, which his First Aid Kit Book describes as similar to an “alcohol hangover”.

Poor Craig suffering from “the worst hangover of my life”, but without the smug knowledge of a very good previous night. Bucket on hand, which turned out to be a good precaution.

Luckily, I was feeling only slightly under-the-weather at that point, and I was able to stroke Craig’s back as he puked up the contents of his stomach, take his pulse and respirations to make sure he wasn’t getting High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, and tuck him in. I felt like I was back at work! Nothing like some good ol’ vomit to make you reminisce about taking care of cancer patients.

We decided to cancel the tour and get a refund, since the National Park would have added another 3,000 ft in elevation gain, which would probably have made us feel even worse. I was able to communicate the situation to the tour agency, and even though I probably made about 10 grammatical errors per sentence, I felt pretty good about at least being able to have the necessary conversation. We got a full refund back, and then there was nothing left to do but wait until the next day, when the only bus back to Arica left at 2:00pm.

Hostel cats always make a stay more pleasant. Until they capture and cruelly tease a mouse to the point of death right in front of you.

The night was cold, but I think we slept as well as can be expected. When we woke, Craig was feeling better, but then it felt as if I had been chugging beers all night (which I wasn’t…). I haven’t felt that sick in a very long time. I began to have a severe headache, muscle aches, and rigorous chills, despite taking lots of ibuprofen and acetazolamide. Our nursing roles reversed, Craig piled blankets on me in the hostel owner’s living room (since we had to check out of our room), and attempted to sing songs at my request. He failed miserably at the last part, but performed the first part well.

A Sheena blanket burrito. What I wouldn’t have given for a warm blanket or a hot water bottle!

The bus finally came to take us away, and by the time we reached Arica, my headache had gone, and I was only feeling extremely tired and achy. Luckily, we had a great hostel to stay at (Sunny Days), and were made to feel comfortable and not as pathetic, since Ross, the owner, had seen many a person come back from Putre cowed by the elevation gain. Still, we felt a little disappointed in ourselves. As Craig put it, “We just paid a bunch of money ($50 US) to feel really terrible for 24 hours.”

Today, we took a walk around town, stopping at the extremely smelly fisherman’s wharf, where loads of sea lions and pelicans frolicked about. The walk was only a little more than 2 miles total, but I felt so very tired afterwards! We’ve decided to stay another couple of nights here to recuperate, before we head off to Arequipa, Peru. At an elevation of 7,660 ft, hopefully it will not destroy us quite as much as Putre did. Gearing up for another country… I’m excited but a little nervous as well! Chile and Argentina have been so great, and Peru, although fairly developed, is not quite at the same level. I’m pretty sick of Chilean food now, though, so perhaps there will be more palatable options across the border (ceviche!). Peru–The Cheap Hat Capital of the World–here we come!

Pelicans and sea lions at the Pase de Lancha. I hope the beach smells better than this when we go tomorrow!

Humberstone

We’re up in Iquique now, the site of the 8.2 magnitude earthquake a few weeks ago.  Mostly, everything looks pretty good.  Our taxi driver (who definitely overcharged us… damn we need to start avoiding that!) pointed out where the tsunami reached.  I’m sure there was more damage on the outskirts of town, places we haven’t really seen much of.

Today we took a day trip to Humberstone, a former saltpeter works and company town located an hour outside of Iquique.  It was the site of the largest saltpeter deposit in the world, which was used to produce sodium nitrate fertilizer for export to the USA and Europe (oof, I remember reading about the nitrate fertilizer in The Worst Hard Time, playing a big hand in the Dust Bowl).  Today it is a ghost town and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Humberstone ghost town

Humberstone power plant

A swimming pool made from an old ship.

Bus Story #2

I’ll be honest–buses here are probably loads better than Greyhound in the States. Not that I’ve ever ridden a Greyhound and can actually comment on them confidently, but just the name Greyhound evokes long, dirty bus rides through endless deserts with only criminals and hooligans as your fellow passengers. This is probably totally wrong, but I’ve never ridden Greyhound, Craig’s never ridden Greyhound, and nobody I know has ever ridden Greyhound. I think that, and the fact that it’s the only widely known long-distance bus company throughout the country, illustrates why I have the opinion I do.

Now, check out this sleek example of modernity and comfort:

Oh yeah, totally badass.

Buses down in South America are usually like the photo above and have more leg room and seats that recline back way more than airplane seats. They will almost always give you one snack per every 6 hours, their bathrooms are no worse than airplane bathrooms, and they also play movies (invariably starring one of these three actors: Vin Diesel, the Rock, and Sylvester Stallone).

In short, I like riding the buses down here. Now, this is why our 18-hour bus ride from La Serena to Iquique was not indicative of typical South American bus travel…

Our bus was supposed to leave at 7:35pm, but it arrived 10 minutes late at La Serena station. As we lined up to put our luggage into the cargo bay, we were told that the bus was broken and we would have to wait for another one to arrive. This next bus didn’t come for one hour, but since they couldn’t give us an exact time, we had to just sit and wait outside in the cold.

Finally, we get on the bus and get going. I enjoy a showing of dubbed “We Bought a Zoo”. Scarlett Johansson in Spanish is kinda funny (but still extremely attractive). At around 3:00 in the morning, the bus stops on the side of the road. It is the middle of nowhere and pitch black. We wait… and wait… Nobody was sure what was going on, but it’s South America, the middle of the night, and most everybody is sleeping. At 4:00am, we are suddenly told that we need to change buses (this is why we were stopped for so long) because the second bus that was supposed to replace the first broken bus, ALSO broke. We stumble around to our new seats on this third bus, bleary-eyed and exhausted. The bus driver and attendant move our backpacks from one cargo bay to another for us.

Third bus’ speedometer warning (they all beep loudly when exceeding 100km/hr) was either broken or circumvented, because at one point we passed a checkpoint and I saw we were going 107. This gave both Craig and I some serious carsickness.

Finally we get to in Iquique 3 hours later than the time we were supposed to arrive, having subsisted on the free snacks of crackers, wafer cookies, and juice. Craig and I were feeling way too sick to try and eat our warm and soggy sandwiches. When we get off the bus and get our backpacks, I notice that our tent poles, that survived 10 weeks strapped to the outside of my pack, have vanished (along with a pair of socks). Bus company attendant is rude and unhelpful when we point this out to him.

We trudge into the bus station to talk to somebody at the ticket window, but she is also unhelpful. “I’m just the ticket office person, I can’t help you.” Well, what, are we supposed to just personally inspect every single one of your buses?! Can’t you just CALL somebody?? No, no… apparently WE have to do the calling, even though they don’t give us a number or any advice on how to go about it.

And so, the morals of the story are:

  1. Don’t ride on any buses that are associated with Pullman Bus, especially Atacama VIP.
  2. Pay the extra $6 per fare to get on a slightly better bus company.
  3. Make sure you check your luggage when others are moving your backpacks for you, especially when you’re half-asleep and you’re in the middle of nowhere.
  4. Don’t strap anything important to the outside of your pack (doh!).

The upside to all of this is that it makes the decision of whether or not to keep lugging our tent around totally irrelevant. There is still the tiniest, remotest possibility that we’ll recover the poles, but I think the chances of that happening are very small. Considering how unhelpful the people we’ve encountered so far were, I can’t imagine anybody mustering up any energy on our behalf in trying to find our lost poles.

There are lots more bus rides in our future, so hopefully this will go down as our worst experience… I hear some gnarly things about buses in Bolivia, though, so we shall see…!

hostel living

I’m reclining on a couch in the living room of our hostel in La Serena, Chile, killing time before we embark on an 18-hour bus ride to Iquique, the city that was recently hit by the 8.2 magnitude earthquake and small tsunami in the very north of the country. We’ve heard that water and electricity have been restored to the city, so we’re hoping that when we arrive, our hostel will actually still be there.

Craig and I have had some conversations lately about the “groove” of traveling and whether or not we’ve gotten more used to the routine. I think the obvious answer is, of course, yes. But there are definitely times when I stop and think about what I’m doing and am struck again by how strange it is to not have a home, to live out of a suitcase, to always share a bathroom…

We’ve met several people who have been traveling for over six months, and it is encouraging to see that they don’t look like shells of their former selves. For the most part, they look healthy, clean, and free of bedbugs. Hopefully we will maintain our present state of equilibrium as well! I do think that our clothes have garnered a type of mustiness, though, from spending most of their time stuffed into our packs.

And this, in turn, leads me to the things I get really excited about in a hostel, from most exciting to… well, all of these things are exciting to have, really.

  1. Private bathroom – Such a rarity! A very costly rarity!
  2. Free breakfast – Usually just includes bread, jam, coffee and tea, but if it’s really good they’ll have things like yogurt, eggs, juice. It’s very sad when we arrive at a hostel and learn that they don’t have free breakfast.
  3. Closet – These are also extremely rare, hence the mustiness.
  4. Table or surface area – It’s nice to be able to spread your stuff out somewhere that’s not your bed.
  5. Clothes hooks – It is beyond my understanding as to why there aren’t just a million hooks everywhere in hostels. They’re easy to put up, extremely useful, and cheap, but for some reason, there are almost never any hooks–we end up hanging our towels on curtain rods, etc.
  6. Heater – Despite constantly trying to head for warmer weather, we are sometimes cold and a heater is a nice way to have flexibility over our comfort. It’s also nice to help dry our underwear, which we have to wash at least every other day (since I only have 3 pairs…).
  7. Comfortable, large living space – If we don’t have a private room (e.g. we’re staying in a 6-bed dorm room–bunk beds!), then it’s nice to be able to go somewhere and hang out without ten other people breathing down your neck in the same space.

Of course there are other amenities that are nice to have, such as a pool, a view, hammocks… But life isn’t really much more difficult if you don’t have them. The list above really makes the whole “living out of a suitcase” thing much easier.

Every hostel has a kitchen, and we can usually whip up a decent meal despite the differences in the cleanliness and utility of the kitchens we’ve used. Bathrooms can sometimes be frustrating if the shower is about 4 square feet in size, but usually they all function the same (or at least you hope they do).

Often, we arrive at a hostel to find that the owner and family share the same living spaces and kitchen as all the guests. It’s a bit weird sometimes… we feel like we’re invading their space or trespassing on their hospitality, and it must be so annoying for them sometimes to not be able to get away from their work.

Our original plan was to try and sublet an apartment in Valparaiso for a month and have a break from this hostel-life. It would have been nice to walk around in my underwear, leave dishes in the sink without worrying about cleaning them right away for whoever wants to use them next, and just sit down to dinner without having to worry about socializing with whoever happens to be at the same table. That didn’t happen, which was probably fortunate, since Valparaiso is still engulfed in flames (Please donate to the Chilean Red Cross to help those affected–we loved this city so much and are incredibly sad that much of its beauty is being destroyed), but perhaps we’ll be able to take a hostel break at some point in our travels.

But it’s time to get up and get ready for our longest bus ride to date (we’re not complaining–the longest ride we’ve heard of was 54 hours!). This is one night that we won’t be spending in a hostel and where all we’ll have to worry about is whether we get blankets, a pillow, and a snack. Fingers crossed for a good ride… thank goodness I got that Ativan prescription!