Into the Andes

“I grew up in this town, my poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests.”

-Pablo Neruda

I blinked a few times as I stepped down from a dimly lit bus onto a street in Santiago, Chile. My eyes struggled to adjust to a dazzling sunny day and to take in my surroundings at the same time. Our group of twenty had arrived on an overnight flight from Atlanta that morning, and changed into summer clothes in the airport bathrooms since we wouldn’t have time to stop at our hotel before our scheduled walking tour. As a result, I was feeling a bit groggy and very much in need of a shower, but I was nonetheless happy to be enjoying the warm air and sunshine. Back home in Michigan, we had been experiencing an exceptionally cloudy winter, so the sunny weather was deeply appreciated.

Following behind our guide, Pablo, I continued my perusal of the area. We were at Plaza de Armas, which is the main square of the city. Towering buildings reached towards the sky, but one in particular caught my eye. The Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral with its baroque styling was bay far the most attractive building around the square.

Plaza de Armas contains several notable sculptures as well, and Pablo began to share an overview of Santiago’s history with us as we appreciated the artwork and the beautiful architecture that filled the plaza. We followed Pablo throughout the city to various government buildings and local markets as he told us dramatic stories that were said to have occurred near landmarks he pointed out. The tour was so jam-packed with information that I found it hard to take it all in and put it to memory, which was partially due to how tired I was from our overnight flight. Because of this I am left with more general impressions than I have specific information, but overall I thought the city was very nice, and I had a great time getting oriented and taking in my first impressions.

Possibly my favorite part of the tour was sampling mote con huesillos, a traditional Chilean drink made of peach juice, with wheat and dehydrated peaches floating in it. Mote con huesillos is especially popular as a refreshing treat during the hot summer months, so we had arrived during the perfect season to enjoy it as the sun beat down on us. I didn’t drink much of it since it was very heavy, and felt more like drinking a meal than a beverage, so it was a good thing that Vince and I had ordered one to share.

Our walking tour ended several hours (and miles) later in El Barrio Bellavista, a neighborhood known for its artists and performers. The buildings in this neighborhood were painted with beautiful murals, and we made a note that we’d like to return there for dinner at some point while we were still in Santiago.

After the tour was over, our bus driver dropped us off at our hotel where we tried to get somewhat settled in while unpacking as little as humanly possible. Santiago was far from our final destination on this trip. In fact we would only stay at this hotel for two nights before moving on to our next destination. We had more luggage with us than we’ve ever brought anywhere, so it was no easy task to locate only the items we’d need for the next two days and leave everything else in tact. As I fished my trekking poles from the very bottom of my bag, upsetting three weeks worth of clothing in the process, I forced myself into the mindset of focusing on the present. Santiago was far from the main attraction of the month-long journey we’d begun the previous day, but that didn’t mean I should enjoy it any less than I would if we weren’t just passing through. At any other time, this would be the focal point of the trip, and I was determined to appreciate that we were in the Capital city of Chile, nestled between a towering wall of mountains in the Andes range.

As I shoved rolled up sweaters back into my bag, I also shoved away thoughts of where we would be in a week’s time. We were in Santiago now, and I was going to make the most of it. That started with joining back up with some of our travel companions for more sightseeing with the daylight we had remaining.

Nine members of our group (me and Vince included) were still willing to get outside and do some more exploring despite running on little sleep and having just walked over three miles in the blistering sun. This group of nine would end up being the people we spent most of our time with over the next few weeks. Our destination was the top of Cerro San Cristóbal, an 860 meter tall hill in the center of the city. We took a few Ubers to the base of the hill where we purchased tickets to ride a cable car up to its summit-it was too late in the day to start hiking it.

As the cable car gained altitude, the view of the city and surrounding mountains became more and more astounding. I don’t think I’ve ever been to such a large city with a view of so many staggering mountains before. I’m more used to being able to see mountains on maybe one side of a city, or in the far off distance, but in Santiago, the mountains feel imminent. The skyscrapers seem as much a part of the landscape as the peaks and the peaks feel as though they are a part of the city.

When we reached the top of Cerro San Cristóbal, we found a large statue of the Virgin Mary. She was gleaming white, and almost seemed as though she was emitting her own light even though she was just reflecting light from the nearly setting sun.

Surrounding the statue were viewpoints where we could see for miles over the entire city and mountain range.

I felt a sense of peace gazing out over the hazy landscape. Everything was very quiet and still on the hilltop, although I knew that the city below us was bustling with activity. It felt like I was removed from time for a brief moment, as though time doesn’t progress at the summit of Cerro San Cristóbal, and maybe we would get back down to its base to find that days or weeks had passed instead of just an hour.

Of course this wasn’t the case. It was just as much dinner time at the base of the hill as it was the top. After some more wandering, we returned to our hotel for dinner, and finally went to bed to get some much needed rest.

The next morning, Vince and I left the hotel early and walked several blocks to pick up a car we’d reserved for the day. We were the first ones at Chilean Rent-A-Car when they opened, and a half hour later, we pulled out onto the streets of Santiago in an electric teal SUV, and navigated towards the mountains. It’s a good thing Vince is a reliable driver, because nothing will make me fall asleep faster than being in a car on winding mountain roads (even if I’m at the wheel unfortunately). Within minutes, I was fast asleep and missing any nice scenery that might be flying by outside of my window. This is a handy trick for making long drives feel like teleporting, so from my perspective we were in Santiago one second and pulling up to the entrance of Parque Yerba Loca the next. Vince may remember things a little differently, however.

There was a very helpful ranger working at the park entrance station, and he provided us with a lot of information about where to park our car and what to expect on the trail we’d chosen. After taking photos of a trail map and emergency numbers, we got back in the car and set off down the unpaved park road, but we didn’t get far before Vince slammed on the brakes and opened his door, offering a hasty explanation of, “I think I just saw a tarantula!”

I jumped out after him, and we backtracked down the road a little ways where, sure enough, a tarantula was crawling through the dirt. Neither of us had seen a wild tarantula before this, so we were a bit overly excited. The way it moved was fascinating to watch, and I couldn’t believe that Vince had spotted it while driving.

Once the tarantula had disappeared from sight, we got back in the car and continued on our way to the trailhead of el sendero Refugio Alemán, the hike I’d chosen for the day. The trail was well-marked and easy to find and soon we were trekking uphill. As the park’s name would suggest, the trail was lined with interesting plants and cheerful, yellow wildflowers. Brilliant sunshine sparkled off of distant snow peaks, and it felt amazing to be outside enjoying the warm weather for the first time in months. Michigan had a particularly cloudy winter this year, and it was great to take a break from dark, gray skies for a bit.

The Refugio Alemán is an old shelter that was used by mountaineers and is nestled on a ridge 513 meters above the trailhead. A couple of stretches of the trail were quite steep, and during these times, I took a lot of extra breaks to look at interesting plants, insects, and even a set of what appeared to be mountain lion tracks in an area that had recently been washed out. I may have been biding my time to catch my breath and drink water, but it was nice to see so many beautiful details that I would have missed if I’d powered on passed them.

As we gained more elevation, we got better views of Glacier La Paloma, and other snowy mountaintops, and we looked down below us where we could see the trail we’d already covered, now just a thin wiggly line through the grass far below us. There was a group of hikers moving along the trail, looking no bigger than specks from our vantage point. These were the first other hikers we’d seen all day.

We reached the Refugio Alemán around lunch time, and stopped for a snack as we took in the incredible landscape sprawling in front of us.

We lingered at the refuge for so long that the other hikers who had looked so small and far away ended up catching up with us. When we finally did start our trek back downhill, I was feeling refreshed, and hydrated. The hike back to the car felt like it went by too quickly, and soon we could see our aggressively green SUV waiting for us in the parking lot.

Vince drove us back to Santiago where we returned the car and then did some more sightseeing on our walk back to the hotel. We stopped to buy some souvenirs for our families, and then climbed Santa Lucia hill, which had a beautiful, multi-tiered fountain.

Later, we met up with our group for dinner back at Barrio Bellavista, but soon it was already time to get back to the hotel and pack. We’d be heading to our next destination the following morning!

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