Faces

Situated in the South Pacific, over 3000 kilometers from Chile, is a small island that is home to a number of statues carved out of rock.  It’s one of the most isolated places on the planet to visit.  The allure of traveling to Easter Island comes from trying to understand where the stone statues came from, and how they were moved to their current locations.  Since childhood, I have wanted to visit Easter Island.  There was something spooky and mysterious about an island full of face statues, and I wanted to be there.

When I first started planning this trip, I knew that I wanted to incorporate Easter Island into it somehow.  This has been a dream in the making for over 30 years.  Logistically, it’s a more difficult destination to get to.  One must travel either from Santiago, Chile or Papeete, Tahiti.  Only one airline services the island and that is LAN Airlines.  Ticket prices are not cheap, and the fact that I was going during their Tapati festival makes it even that much more expensive.  But hey – you only live once, and I didn’t want to go though my life not having visited one of the more interesting places on the planet.

When I finally arrived in Easter Island, I handed over the 60 US dollar park entrance fee and then was picked up by my hotel.  Tekena Inn is a nice little Inn situated on the main road that cuts right through the center of Hanga Roa, the only town on the island.  It’s quiet and the breakfast is solid.  The internet is basically non-existent, but then again, you’re on the most remote place on the planet.  There’s really no good internet anywhere.  I dropped my gear and got my bearings by walking down to the area where most of the Scuba Dive shops are located.  I was pleasantly surprised to find Peace Boat docked right off shore behind the Moai Te Ata Hero.  A friend of mine had spent a number of months the prior year on Peace Boat.  I stopped into Orca Dive Center and scheduled two dives for the upcoming Monday and Tuesday.  That would give me 2 – 3 days prior to that to explore the archeological sites on the island.  I later wandered around and ate dinner at Te Moana and later walked to Tahai, right outside of town where a couple of Moai stand with their backs to the ocean.

The next day, wanting to see more Moai, I rented a bike for 10,000 Chilean pesos and set out to explore the west side of the island.  I first stopped in and visited the museum.  Next, I made my way to Te Peu and slightly beyond.  The road to Te Peu is a rocky dirt road, and as you go farther, it becomes a bit treacherous.  It’s best to have a 4 wheeler or jeep to traverse this road, although at some point, visitors are not allowed to continue on in any vehicle as it must be done by foot.  I returned to Tekena Inn later in the day sore and tired from my bike ride.

Not having seen many Moai the prior day, I set out the next day again on a bicycle with a plan to see as many Moai as possible.  The guy at the bike rental advised me to take the paved road up through the center of the island and then come back along the coast.  Honestly, I’m not sure why I decided to rent a bike again, as I was still a bit sore from the day before.  With the bike seat reminding my ass that I obviously hate it, I set out on my adventure.  After stumbling upon a small unlisted statue on my map, I accidentally arrived at another unlisted gem – Jardin Tau Kiani, a beautiful botanical garden.  The garden reminded me a bit of a Japanese garden where oriental statues were replaced by small Moai replica’s surrounded by exotic plants indigenous to the island.  A groundskeeper started offering me advice about the location of archeological sites of interest on the island and how to get there.  I was struggling with my Spanish and unsure if I was understanding him much.  The conversation quickly deteriorated into Spanglish intermixed with vague hand gestures and confused looks.  I clumsily got back on my bicycle and headed out.

I finally arrived at A Kivi, confused and realizing that I had been going in the wrong direction.  Thinking that I had botched my plans for the day, I continued onward and miraculously located the main highway again and finally arrived at the other end of the island, tired and sore.  I started to curse myself for this fools errand.  Having traveled close to 20 kilometers, I was not sure if I’d be able to walk properly the next day.  But, that’s how I roll – unprepared and uncomfortable.  I reminded myself that it was an adventure and that it would make a great story to tell my friends when I arrive back home.

I quickly located the beach at Anakena and dismounted my bike for awhile.  I walked across the entrance and visited the two platforms supporting Moai overlooking the beach.  What a spectacular view with palm trees, statue, sand, and ocean.  I decided to get into my swim trunks and take in some relaxation on the beach.  After an hour of some swimming and sun, it was time to continue my quest.  Following the road to the east and south, I made my way around Maunga Puakatike to Tongariki and Rano Raraku (the Moai quarry).  Many of the pictures you see in books are of the stone statues from Rano Raraku.  It is one of the those places that leaves you in awe and feeling blessed to experience this place in the flesh.  It was here that I met James Grant-Peterkin, a British native living on Easter Island and founder of Easter Island Spirit.  He was at Rano Raraku helping a cameraman get pictures for a new documentary on Easter Island that was being produced.  James was very personable and I enjoyed talking with him a bit.  Before heading out, I found myself hungry and I knew that I would need some energy to make it back to Hanga Roa.  So, I went to the cafeteria and ordered what became the best banana bread I had ever eaten.  I spent the next hour riding back to Hanga Roa, alternating between a sitting and standing position as I was exhausted and sore.  In fact, I was so sore that I spent the next day recovering from my 40km bike ride the previous day.

Monday, I awoke early for my dive.  The dive site that day would be Hanga Roa (also named after the town) where there is a fake Moai placed at the bottom at about 15 – 20 meters deep.  Arriving upon the site, everyone had their underwater camera’s, including me, ready for the photo-op.  The water in Easter Island is really clear due to the low plankton levels and lack of pollution.  You can sometimes see up to 200 feet underwater.  But while the visibility is crystal clear, the sea life is not that exciting.  I was fortunate enough to capture a sea turtle swimming not far from our group.  At the surface, I was able to meet one of my dive partners that day, Vanessa, who comes from Chile.  I would bump into her many times during the course of my trip.  I spent the rest of the day relaxing and checking out the artisinal markets.  The next day, my dive was at Motu Nui, a giant wall of coral.  Our group went to 30 meters before returning to the surface.  All around, I had a great time diving.

The next couple of days, I spent my time relaxing.  I eventually rented a scooter and checked out the volcano at Rano Kau, the stone village at Orongo and Ahu Vinapu.  During this time, I got a ride up to Cerro Pui where participants in the Tapati festivals, Haka Pei competition slide down the hill on sleds made from the trunk of banana trees.

Back in Hanga Roa, I often ate at a dive bar a block from the dive shops.  It was here that I ran into Vanessa again.  Between my bad Spanish and her bad English I came to learn that her Easter Island trip was a gift to herself because her Cancer had recently gone into remission.  Again, I had the privilege to meet someone that was conquering life’s challenges and living their life to the fullest.  If there was anything to take away from this trip, it would be the number of people with truly inspiring stories that I had continued to run into.  Later, I was fortunate enough to watch Vanessa join other tourists alongside the community for a parade in which everyone paints their bodies and wears traditional celebratory garb to celebrate the heritage of Easter Island.  And then, before returning back to the mainland, I would take my scooter up to Anakena for one last visit to the beach for some ocean and sun.

I spent my last night on Easter Island, again at Te Moana, outside, dining on grilled fish with coconut and pineapple sauce served with mashed potatoes.  With a glass of Chilean Merlot in my hand, I gazed out at the ocean and enjoyed another spectacular sunset.  I had done this.  A journey that I had envisioned for years, it took a lot of sacrifices and changes on my part.  But I was here and incredibly grateful for the fortitude, strength, and support of my friends to make it all happen.  Topping off this gorgeous sunset, I ordered up a serving of their coconut helado.  Taking a bite, I realized that I had reached my goal and was ready to head back to the mainland.  To be honest, 9 days was a bit much and I was ready to go.  I had mixed feelings.  This was the start of the end of my trip, and I’d be making my way back to the United States in the next couple of days after returning to Chile.  It’s been an incredible journey and I’m having trouble processing everything that I’ve experienced and understanding all the new feelings I’m having.  The journey’s not over, but I think it will change a bit from here on out.  Stay tuned for more posts where I hope to illuminate the fog a bit more.

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Of Art and Soul

Santiago

Sometime before leaving on my grand adventure, I had contacted Tona, a friend of mine who grew in Chile to see if she might be around to meet up while I was in Santiago.  Unfortunately, she’s currently studying in San Francisco.  I guess that’s what I get for letting my friendships go idle.  However, she did put me in contact with a friend of hers that lives in Santiago, Esteban, whom agreed to host me and show me around a bit.  After arriving, I hopped a taxi into town and soon after, met up with my host.  We were both hungry, so he took me to the Harvard Bar, a bar right outside the campus area for a beer and some Chorillana, a Chilean bar food consisting of fries topped with meat, egg, onion, and sausage.  We discussed my plans which included heading to Valparaiso in a couple of days.  Luckily for me, Esteban would be heading there the next evening to be with his girlfriend and offered to meet up with me on Sunday to show me around.  Valparaiso is Esteban’s favorite city in the world which not surprisingly is the place that he grew up.

The next day, I first got my bearings by locating the tourist office in Providencia, and then I was able to track down a dealer of EBook readers in town and replace my stolen Nook.  I’ve felt so lonely the last month not being able to go someplace and read the many books I had selected for my trip.  Afterwards, I decided to seek out the Japanese garden located at the Santiago Metropolitan Park.  After walking all day, I was exhausted.  I stopped by a small food store and picked up some Empanada’s and a Danky.  It would be dinner at the apartment and then off to bed.  Esteban arrived later, collected his things, and then was off to Valparaiso.

The next day was spent checking out Santiago where I took in most of the tourist sites.  I started by checking out Barrio Brasil and the Concha y Toro neighborhood.  It’s a street with late 18th century / early 19th century buildings.  It’s a peaceful neighborhood with park benches, water fountains, cafes, etc.  While looking for a cafe, I stumbled upon Hostel Tales, where Scott, the  attendant greeted me at the door and invited me in for a cup of tea.  Scott, originally from the US, looks to be in his early 50’s.  We talk about Chilean culture.  He moved there, because, as he describes it, the people are much more welcoming and “dating” after your 30 is a joy, rather than the chore he perceives it in the US.  I also make the acquaintance of Kherfia, a French traveler of Arabic descent.  I’m overjoyed to be able to practice my french with her.  Scott invites me to join a group that he’s taking down to the Lakes region in Mid-February.  I take down his information but do not make any promises.

I spend the rest of the day checking out La Moneda, a site of historical significance in Santiago.  It’s a building that was originally built for producing and distributing Chile’s currency but later became the site for politicians.  It’s not much of a tour, and I found it mostly uninteresting.  Afterwards, while searching for a place to sit down and have some tea, I stumbled into Cafe Bombay, a coffee shop that Chileans commonly refer to as “Cafe con Piernas” or “Cafe with Legs”.  It’s a new thing popping up in coffee shops around Santiago where the waitresses are dressed very provocatively.  Coffee and Tea never looked this good.

I finished off the day by eating lunch at Mercado Centro and later having dinner at the MosaiCafe in the Patio Bellavista.  I went home soon after, ready to take a bus to Valparaiso in the morning.

Valparaiso

The bus ride to Valparaiso from Santiago is roughly 2 hours straight through Chilean wine country.  If you have the time, you can stop off and tour some wines in the Casablanca valley.   I arrived in Valparaiso and after locating my hostel, La Casa Volante, I met up with Esteban for a quick tour of the historical part of the city.  Valparaiso seemed in many ways similar to Naples, Italy for me.  It’s a bit dirty but there’s culture and art all around you.  The city is filled with brightly-painted staircases leading up to all the cerros.  Walls throughout the city are painted with amazing murals.  This isn’t graffiti.  It’s art where many creations are of the caliber found in many post 20th-century, contemporary art museums.  And of course there are the walkways and balconies that cover the city, overlooking the harbor filled with all kinds of shipping and naval vessel imaginable.  After walking for an hour or two, taking photos of every kind of art or vista imaginable, Esteban takes me to Los Portenos in Plaza Sotomayor for lunch.  It’s completely packed and we arrive just in time to get the last seat before a line starts to form outside the door.  It’s popular for a reason.  The seafood here is amazing.  Esteban and I order the seafood chowder and talk over some wine.  After lunch, Esteban and I say farewell and we go off about our own adventures.

The next day, I start off my day attending a tour of Valparaiso run by Tours 4 Tips.  It’s an organization that does tours around Santiago and Valparaiso for only tip money.  It was highly recommended to me by people that had been to Santiago and Valparaiso before me.  Afterwards, I enjoyed lunch at La Belle Epoque Cafe, an art gallery and cafe overlooking the harbor.  In the evening, I sought out Empanadas las Famosas, a restaurant famous for, you guessed it, making amazing (and cheap) Empanadas.  For 600 pesos, it was the best and least expensive option I’d encountered in Valparaiso so far.

My last day in Valparaiso was spent visiting the Maritime Museum and lazing around taking in La Belle Epoque Cafe one more time, as well as trying some pasta at Pasta y Vino.  Pasta y Vino changes up their menu most every day.  I was fortunate enough to have some of their spinach gnocchi with 2 glasses of Chilean Carmenere wine.  It was a fantastic way to end my trip in Valparaiso.  In the morning, I’d be off to accomplish a dream of mine that I’ve had since I was a young child.

Patagonia: Part 2

Puerto Natales

Puerto Natales is a small town that is essentially the gateway for getting to Torres del Paine.  Everyone I knew that had been to Torres del Paine told me that I really needed to go.  So, I arrived in Puerto Natales after a 5 hour bus ride from El Calafate, not really sure if I’d be able to give Torres del Paine the time that it really deserved.  I booked 3 nights at small hostel, hoping that I could do some type of day trek and see at least some of the greatness that Torres del Paine has to offer….. at least from afar.

I first located the tourism office down near the water and was informed that there were day trips up to Torres del Paine, but that a real excursion through the park would require anywhere from 2 to 7 days of trekking.  I wasn’t equipped for camping, nor did I have reservations for one of the hostels that were already booked.  I easily found a tour company in the center of town that assured me that I’d see the sights that I wanted to see.  I signed up not realizing that instead of a day of hiking, I instead would be driven around in a van with other people, making 14 stops along the way for some light hiking, photo-ops, and an occasional snack.  I’ll admit that initially, I was frustrated and a bit disappointed at myself for the lack of planning on my part and the limited exposure I would have with Torres del Paine.  But dealing with cold weather and extremely strong winds all day long left me exhausted and somewhat happy that everything worked out the way that it did.

It also gave me the time to relax and enjoy myself in the sleepy town of Puerto Natales.  Some of the highlights of my stay in Puerto Natales included having a beer at Baguales, a local brewpub in town.  I also came across a small vegetarian soup and sandwich shop called El Living.  While I’m not a vegetarian by nature, I was happy with the healthy food served and the availability of mate.  And with a small bookcase filled with old magazines (both in English and Spanish), I did not lack for any reading material, which was nice considering I haven’t read much since my Nook got stolen in Buenos Aires.

Punta Arenas

If you’re looking to visit the southern most, accessible city in South America so that you can brag about being at “The End of the World”, then you’d likely visit Ushuaia.  But, if you want to visit the southernmost city in South America of respectable size, then you’d visit Punta Arenas.  I was disappointed that my planning had left me unable to visit Ushuaia, but was still happy to be far enough south to be in the Magallanes region of South America.  I needed to go through Punta Arenas so that I could catch a flight to Santiago, Chile.  Initially, I didn’t have much interest in Punta Arenas and was only planning a night or two.  Instead, I recognized the need for some down time and scheduled 3 nights there.  Punta Arenas turned out to be a much more pleasant experience than I had expected.

I first checked into my hostel, Patagonia House, a house that has been re-configured to be a hostel.  A family lives there while guests from all over the world stay in the other available rooms.  While relaxing in your room upstairs, it’s not uncommon to hear some the kids playing Gears of War or Grand Theft Auto on their video game system right outside your door.  It’s never too loud and the place has a comfy, feeling like staying with your family.  I quickly made friends with two of my room-mates from Portland, Oregon (two of the few travelers I’d come across from the US), Brian and Blake, and decided to head out for some dinner.

The next morning, having nothing on my agenda, I hopped a ferry to Isla Magdelena to see a colony of Penguins.  Upon arrival, you walk off the ferry and are surrounded by a multitude of penguins running around, burrowing in their holes, procreating, or taking a dump right in front of you.  It’s an episode of National Geographic right in your face.  I was having the time of my life.  But the bonus for me was the lighthouse that was located there.  After returning to town, I met up with Brian and Blake to explore the cemetery which very closely resembled the Recoleta Museum found in Buenos Aires (but much smaller).

I spent my last day in Punta Arenas checking out the town and relaxing in coffee shops.  The next day, I’d be off to Santiago, Chile.