Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Shaken Down by the Corrupt Mayor in Iguazu

A small airport in the middle of a jungle on the Brazilian/Argentinian border. I jump on a mini-bus with other tourists to bring me to the town of Puerto Iguazu. Just outside of the city a roadblock is set-up. We come to a halt, and a young, semi-attractive woman hops into the van and demands a 20 peso ($1.50) "tax" be collected to "improve the roads."
There is a grumbling on the bus, I think all of us intuitively knew we were merely being shaken down. I briefly consider refusing, but the idea of standing up for what was right versus the small amount of money saved, was outweighed by the strategically placed police officers lounging around outside. Drawing the ire of "law enforcement" in rural areas of the world just isn't a recipe for a fun travel experience. 
But there is no way this is legal, right? Certainly they made the amount per person small for strategic reasons, it's easier merely to go along with it. For sure if it had been $20 there would be far many more objections, me amongst them. 
I arrive at my AirBnb in this humid, tropical town and relate the events to my host, who merely laughs, assuring me that it was a recent invention by the mayor, completely illegal in the eyes of Argentinian law, and that almost all the money collected ends in the mayor's pockets, although some does trickle down; to his mistresses. 
The surest way to get wealthy in Argentina (and all of South America) get a political post with influence. The roads won't be any better next time I visit. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Carpe Diem in La Valle De La Luna (Atacama Desert, Chile)

Wake just before 8 AM makes after four hours of sleep. Stuff a few things in my small backpack, breakfast, rent a bike, pedaling around exploring the rugged area for two and a half hours. Cycle through a dark tunnel to the bright white light on the other side, go to the light, go to the light. 
go towards the light (second time I went through tunnel)

I sit, gazing at the arid, rugged scenery. One can taste the palpable silence, my body electrified as the mind stills. Suddenly I feel so present. I begin to meditate, awakened out of the silence by a thought of gratitude, I concentrate on how lucky I am to be able to be here, for all the people in my life I’ve served and who in turn have helped me. 
I hurry back to town for an afternoon appointment, riding my mountain bike down a steep, rocky trail which takes all my concentration to stay vertical, avoiding the large stones hurtling towards me, attempting to upend me.
I dine with my Brazilian friend, and soon after we take our bikes in the opposite direction, riding down the empty Chilean highway til we reach Valle De La Luna. The otherworldly landscapes are stunning, with the ability to paralyze thought, awakening a sense of awe which knows no words. 
Valle de La Luna- not snow, but rather salt
Valle de La Luna- not snow, but rather salt

Sitting there, absorbing the alien planet, moving slowly from site to site, thought becomes paralyzed. 
We slowly ride our bikes towards Coyote Rock to see the sunset. It’s not so much the steep climb as much as the narrow highway road with sharp curves ahead that deters us; it reminds me of a near fatal mistake I almost made on a bicycle in Vancouver. Best to trust the instinct. 
We return to the Old West like adobe town of San Pedro de Atacama. I head out to grab some dinner, and see a girl dining alone. We start talking about our adventures, and enjoy each other’s company for an hour. Not only is she smart with a kind heart, she’s also beautiful. The conversation sparkles, as has the fullness of the day. 

While the Space Tour where we would see the stars and constellations from some of the most powerful telescopes in the world was cancelled for the fourth straight night (unlucky considering clear skies over 300 days a year) it gives me a moment to reflect on the fullness of the day. Suck the marrow of life from the bones of the day, and do the same tomorrow. Carpe Diem

Friday, June 17, 2016

Stunning Piedras Rojas, High + Deep in the Atacama Desert of Chile

The day begins at 5 AM, it's a long way through the desert to Piedras Rojas. 
We begin an already lofty elevation of 2400 meters and the highest elevation we'll attain is in excess of 4,200 meters (which approaches 14,000 feet and is on par with the highest points in the continental United States.)
The scenery is spectacular, with 20,000 foot plus volcanoes sides laced with snow, tower above us in a foreboding manner. 
Mount Mordor on the Bolivian/ Chilean border
Mount Mordor? 
passing the Tropic of Capricorn, Chile
passing the Tropic of Capricorn
Our guide drives us in a Toyota 4x4 through the virtually uninhabited desert passing the Tropic of Capricorn; the temperature immediately dips. We continue to rise in elevation until we hit a series of mountain lakes, whose color changes depending on surface dispersement of the howling wind, which blows so strongly its virtually impossible to hear each other from more than a couple feet away. 
different colors of the desert
different colors of the desert

Lakes and volcanoes
Lakes and volcanoes- simply beautiful against that sky backdrop

the desert road- the only road
lakes of Atacama desert
several different lakes in the area
looks like a painting
a herd of wild vicuna
a herd of wild vicuna
oversize jacket, near Piedras Rojas
near Piedras Rojas
We leave lakes and drive two hours deeper to what might be the highlight of Atacama Desert, Piedras Rojas, which translates to "Red Rock." The desert here looks as though it has been painted. The wind screams, making the oversize humongous jacket a necessity, not a luxury. 
Yet, again, the wind blowing has an affect on the visual, as it churns the minerals in the water, sending, in this case, arsenic to the surface which accounts for the turquoise color of the lake. Yes, this is not exactly potable water, unless you're trying to get rid of Napoleon.
Piedras Rojas
Piedras Rojas- you can see why
note turquoise water color is created by arsenic (poison)
note turquoise water color is created by arsenic (poison) 
volcano- Piedras Rojas
volcano- Piedras Rojas
Piedras Rojas- just look at those colors!
just look at those colors!
Piedras Rojas- different angle
Piedras Rojas- just look at those colors!
Piedras Rojas- amazing no?
believe it or not with the wind blowing s strongly- it was a precarious moment to sit there

Jefferson hangs his legs over the edge- nice shot
Piedras Rojas
tough to overstate the beauty
last shot of Piedras Rojas

the one tiny town on the road to Piedras 
Eventually the wind blows us away, and we start heading back to San Pedro, stopping in a tiny town for a late lunch. It's very safe to cross the road here, heck, it would be safe to sleep in the road. 
tiny Chilean town in Atacama desert
tiny Chilean town in Atacama desert 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Flamingos, Salt Flats, and the Unique Beauty of the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert is not one of the driest place on earth rainfall wise, it is The driest place on earth, with some areas not having received a drop of rain in recorded history.
nothing but the bluest skies and miles and miles of empty space- Atacama desert
nothing but the bluest skies and miles and miles of empty space
But unlike parts of the Sahara, the desert is not completely arid as snowmelt from the nearby Andean peaks infuses some life into the otherwise un-inhabitable land.
evidence of water in the desert- often below ground
evidence of water in the desert- often below ground
Salar de Atacama (the desert's salt flat) is spread out over a vast 3,000 square km, making it the 3rd largest salt flat in the world, but still a distant bronze compared the gold earned by Bolivia whose nearby salt flat encompasses more than 10,000 square km.

The region contains most of the world's known supply of lithium, but political concerns and lack of infrastructure prevents 40km away Bolivia (whose reserves are far and away the world's largest) from reaping the economic benefits of mining this element at present time. Chile on the other-hand is the world's second leading producer of lithium, trailing slightly Australia despite having 5 times the known reserves.
white ground= salt
flamingos taking flight in the clear skies
flamingos taking flight in the clear skies
Surprisingly, flamingos are a mainstay of the desert, wading through the pools and salty lakes subsisting mainly on the brine shrimp.
The Chilean flamingo is generally more white than the pink normally depicted in most of my known sources (cartoons.) While other species of this omnivorous bird grow more pink in color as they age. This is due to the algae they consume being loaded with beta carotene, an organic chemical that contains a reddish-orange pigment (literally, you are what you eat,) but alas, virtually no algae grows in the salt laden bodies of water here, and witnessing the white flamingos makes me question whether my world view is truly enhanced by continuing to watch Saturday morning cartoons.
Chilean flamingo wading n the salt flats
Chilean flamingo wading n the salt flats

20,000 foot volcanos rising in the distance
salty lagoon in the Atacama
salty lagoon in the Atacama
The water of Salar de Atacama here has a salt concentration which ranges from 5 to 28% (where the flamingos feed the level is at the lower end) but at the higher end of the range produces an effect of floating like the Dead Sea. 
You can pay a ridiculous amount to the local indigenous peoples for access to a floating pool of water. With the high elevation (2500 meters) and the wind howling in the pre-winter atmosphere, combined with the massive amount of fresh water needed to clean oneself off of the salt covered 90% of one's pores once you emerge from the water, and the limited time one wishes to spend in the cold water.  
videothe "Dead Sea" of Atacama- floating on water

But beyond that, the desert is positively a uniquely beautiful place in color and landscape, and the sunset over the volcanoes will simply take your breath away.
video: highlights of Sala de Atacama 

Atacama sunset over the salt flats
Atacama sunset over the salt flats
Atacama sunset over the salt flats
salty salty
all that white on my shorts- salt residue from the Chilean "Dead Sea" flotation experiment
all that white on my shorts- salt residue from the Chilean "Dead Sea" flotation experiment

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Landing on Mars- The Landscapes of the Atacama Desert

Martian like landscape of the Atacama Desert
Martian like landscape of the Atacama Desert from above- source NASA 
My flight touches down in the middle of the Atacama Desert; I'm startled by the sign outside which states, "Welcome to Mars."
Of course, I made that up, but a few things I am not making up about the region-

  • it is the driest place on earth. The average rainfall is about 15 mm (0.6 in) per year. 
  • Some areas of the desert have seen ZERO rain in recorded history.
  • Because the region has clear skies more than 300 days a year, some of the world's largest and most advanced telescopes are positioned here to view the stars. 
  • Something like 75% of the known supply of lithium is located in the Atacama desert, mostly in Bolivia, which has the world's largest reserves, with Chile placing 2nd. 
  • Due to the landscape imitating Mars, it is here where NASA attempted to train the Mars Rover. 
  • The mission suffered a major setback when a government employee forgot to bring water, and the entire crew died of dehydration. 
From the airport in Calama, there is exactly one way to traverse the 100km to the small town of San Pedro de Atacama- via shared vans. There are several companies, but each charge exactly the same price; it reeks of collusion, but I'm unsuccessful in finding an alternate route so acquiesce. 
San Pedro de Atacama
 the main drag of San Pedro de Atacama

video: Old West streets of San Pedro

The town itself has an Old West feel to it, it's buildings made out of adobe mud, which probably is not the best choice of material in this earthquake prone region. There are 1800 permanent residents, 115% of whom work in the tourism industry, generally under the employment of the restaurants or tour operators which alternate doors as you walk down the streets.
Atacama DesertJefferson and I rent bicycles and head out with a map drawn on a napkin to explore the area, with a friendly perro (dog) who latches onto our plans, trailing us for a couple km until he's attacked by another canine and submits.  

Everyone in San Pedro owns a dog, there are so many in the streets that the joke is the town should be renamed to San Perro.
The landscape surrounding is spectacular, from the arid hills, choppy hills to the 22,000+ foot (almost 7,000 meters) volcanoes in the distance. We ride and ride, exploring as much as we possibly can before night falls. 
As hard as one might try, it's virtually impossible to get lost here, especially given the fact that there is but one road.
a few km from San Pedro
San Pedro de Atacama's Mount Rushmore
okay, it's not the Egyptian sphinx, but still pretty cool
San Pedro de Atacama's Mount Rushmore
the gateway- at the end of a steep road is a small cave

Video:  the Martian like landscape of the area
a herd of llamas 
clear skies of the Atacama
clear skies of the Atacama
We ascend a steep mountain path, which was a dangerous and speedy obstacle course of large stones on our way back down, a stupid thrill for us given the associated physical penalties of crashing.

At the top of the trail is a tunnel barreling its way through the mountain. It's fairly long, and too dark to ride through. We walk our bikes through this dim purgatory, until eventually a bright white light beckons us forward.
"Go towards the light!" I yell to Jefferson, "Go towards the light!!" In the below video you will experience and see, not only a NDE (Near Death Experience) but also what it is like to enter the other side of the great divide.
video: Near Death Experience and the entrance to heaven

Heaven, once entered (see video above) is a magnificently quiet place, one of utter solitude, and God's whisper the zephyrs blowing in our ears. Of course, tempting as it might be, we didn't stay, there's still too much of this world to explore. Plus we forgot to bring water.