Adios South America

matt 120pxToday we’re leaving South America after four months traveling the continent. Looking back, I’d say we had five really spectacular experiences. Here they are in chronological order:


Although not like the other experiences mentioned, I enjoyed seeing the penguin colony at Punta Tombo, Argentina.



I enjoyed seeing the Perito Moreno Glacier and hiking for 4 days, both at Parque Nacional de los Glaciares in Argentine Patagonia


The drive up the Carretera Austral in Southern Chile was spectacular, especially the part than circumnavigates Lago General Carrera.

Salar de Uyuni at Sunrise

I cannot imagine a better way to spend four days in a jeep than touring Bolivia’s “Southwest Circuit” which culminates at the Salar de Uyuni.

Rainbow in the Sacred Valley

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is the most famous tourist attraction in South America for a reason.


matt 120pxBesides surviving bad food, I’d say our biggest accomplishment over the past few months is not having anything stolen. Although I haven’t witnessed any theft or violent crime while in South America, the amount of precautions that people take is witness to the fact that crime is a big problem. In the cities, there’s walls and fences everywhere. You must ring a doorbell at many places to get past locked gates and doors. I’ve been told in countless cities that its unsafe to go out at night. In Bolivia, there’s fake police with fake police cars and fake police stations! There’s fake police in Peru as well, but getting kidnapped or mugged by fake taxis is a bigger problem.The US State Department does not allow its employees to travel at night in Peru. We were wanded, searched, and video-taped while boarding buses numerous times in Peru. Now on a bus in Ecuador, we’ve already been stopped twice by police who pat down all the males and search everyone’s bags. The somewhat frequent bus-jackings in Peru and Ecuador are one of the many reasons that these two countries are considered the most dangerous in South America. But even in developed nations like Argentina and Chile, all baggage going under the bus is tagged and you’re given a baggage-claim-ticket. In Peru, you must check your bag with the bus company rather than putting it under yourself. Its great that so many precautions are taken, but its disconcerting to know the reasons that they’re taken. Tons of theft, armed robbery, and even kidnapping. Even though we’ve been extremely lucky and fortunate, I hate worrying about our belongings and not being sure of our safety. Like the food down here, I hate the prevalence of crime and am thankful that we’ve survived it.

Santiago to Salta

matt 120pxDefinition of misery: Leaving Santiago on a bus at 10:30 pm. Getting woken up at 1:30am to go through Chilean Immigration, then Argentina Immigration, then wait for Argentine Customs to inspect all the bag on the bus. Go back to sleep at 2:30am, only to be woken at 5am when the bus pulls into Mendoza. Try to kill 7.5 hours in Mendoza (read: sleep on bus station benches, buy bus tickets, walk to supermarket to buy food, wait, wait, wait). Depart Mendoza at 12:30pm and try not to go insane while driving through hot unchanging desert for the next 20 hours.

Definition of Happiness: Arriving in Salta after 36 hours on buses.

Chilean Economy


matt 120pxI haven’t written a market or economic-related post is awhile. It’s definitely not because nothing has been happening. Since my last post about the Vietnamese economy, we’ve visited China, the US, Korea, and Japan while the oil/commodities bubble has popped, the credit crisis has intensified, the currency markets have crashed, stock markets have been taken down substantially, and governments and the IMF have been rolling out aid/bailout packages daily. As a student of economics and finance, its been an unbelievably interesting past few months (of course, that’s ignoring the extreme pain I’m experiencing in my portfolio). Perhaps, at some point, I’ll have to write a post chronicling our journey during the credit crisis (this trip and the credit crisis began in July 2007) and the impact its had/having in the places we’ve visited. I’m not sure if anyone even reads these posts, but at least it would be interesting for me to record.

            For now, I’ll just refresh my financial writing with a little tidbit on the Chilean economy. Developmentally speaking, Chile is the most developed South American country. It’s a small country, measured both by area and population (only 18 million), which was ruled by a dictator for 20 of the last 30 years (I feel that they know how to get things done). It has enjoyed a huge economic boom for the past few years, with both the Chilean peso and the IPSA (Chilean benchmark index) outperforming. This is due to the fact that 70% of Chile’s GDP is commodities-related (mostly mining, agriculture, and fishing). Chile’s mineral exports have supplied the rapidly growing economies of Asia and, thus, helped fuel the huge bull market of the past few years. Everything was good until the commodities bubble popped in July 2008. Everything from oil to wheat has crashed from their historic highs, while the current deleveraging of all assets around the world has added increased pressure. The Chilean peso has crashed in the past few months, which has made traveling here substantially cheaper for us (locals say this is the first time in years that Chile is cheaper than Argentina).

            So things are bad in Chile. But things are bad around the world right now, so what’s the outlook for Chile? Well, the good news is that the country is not strung out on credit like Iceland, the Ukraine, or Pakistan (or any of the other countries that need massive IMF loans to function) and probably won’t default. The bad news is, of course, that Chile is dependent of commodities. And with a worldwide slowdown/recession/depression looming, demand for Chile’s (and all commodity exporters) commodities have fallen off a cliff. From the copper mines in the north to hydrocarbon reserves in the south, the whole of Chile is entering a tough period. The problem with commodities is that their value is determined solely by supply and demand. Thus, Chile is dependent upon world growth for its own growth. It doesn’t have enough domestic industry to pull it out of this global downturn. The bottom line? Chile is better prepared than most other commodity-centric economies in SA, but it still is reliant on global demand/growth. Chile is not in control of its fate: Chilean GDP growth is directly correlated to global GDP growth and that does not bode well for Chile, for the foreseeable future.


Plaza in Santiago

matt 120pxExpectations have an exaggerated influence on our experiences  in all areas of our lives and travel is no exception. I try my best to travel with a completely open-mind, no expectations or biases. Of course, this is nearly impossible to do; how can you read about or talk to people about a place and not have those facts/ideas influence you? And so we arrived in Santiago with thoroughly low expectations. Several travelers had told us to avoid it if possible, while our guidebook even said that it can take awhile to appreciate the city.

            Perhaps it was only due to my über-low expectations, but I actually liked Santiago. It’s a pretty modern city with (and very key) a good availability of snacks and street food. Like BA, the only other SA capitol we’ve been to so far, Santiago has a third of the country’s population. Luckily, Chile only has a third of Argentina’s population, so Santiago is not too crowded. Unlike BA, Santiago is relatively clean, has good public transportation (good metro, no black-exhaust-spewing buses), and lacks the incessant littering of the Argentine capitol. On our first day, we explored the city center with the highlight being Santa Lucia. Santa Lucia is a hill in the middle of the otherwise flat city (although it is surrounded by snow-capped mountains), with numerous gardens, a cathedral, and the ruins of an old fortress and its ramparts. It was a cool place because old architecture was either built into or cut out of the rock. From the peak were awesome views of the sprawling city, although heavy smog/haze rendered the surrounding mountains nearly invisible.


            We spent much of today scouring the city for an English-language bookstore to buy a Bolivia guidebook, but our search turned up empty. At least we got to see a lot more of the city though. Santiago doesn’t have a whole lot of appealing sights to see, but we did check out the uninteresting National History Museum as well as the equally uninteresting (and now-electronic) trading floor of the Bolsa de Comercio (Santiago’s stock exchange). To kill the rest of the time until our bus tonight, we caught an afternoon showing of “Quantum de Solace,” the newest 007 flick. Luckily it was in English, although the Spanish dialogue wasn’t subtitled. It was interesting though, as much of the movie was filmed in Chile’s Atacama Desert. In fact, I read that there was big fiasco and filming was interrupted because some Chilean politicians objected to Chilean land being depicted in the film as Bolivia (Chile invaded and acquired the disputed land in the 1830’s, although Bolivia still does not recognize it and has some holiday regarding the stolen land). Despite the bad reviews, I thought it was a good film. Sure there’s not as much plot as the first Daniel Craig one, but it had good action and fight scenes. Plus, I like that there’s not all the gadgets and stuff from the old Bond movies. Anyways, I was entertained and it was more interesting given that we were in Chile and headed to Bolivia (although the desert scenes were shot in Chile and the La Paz scenes were shot in Panama City, the plot focused on the water shortage in Bolivia and the battle against privatization of water utilities, which is grounded in recent history; if you’re interested, Google some combo of Bolivia, water wars, and Bechtel).


            We didn’t do too much- hung out at some parks/plazas, people-watched, and visited a few sights- but it doesn’t seem like there is a lot to do in Santiago. In total, we were only in Santiago for two full days. Just long enough to acquire a good first impression and probably just short enough to not have it spoiled.

Santiago by Accident


Easter Island statue in Santiago

a little bit of Rapa Nui

joylani 130pxWe ended up going to Santiago sort of by accident.  Originally we had wanted to return to Argentina from Coyhaique, but to get to our destination, El Bolson, required taking two buses.  We had two options for this: take a bus to Sarmiento and transfer to another bus to El Bolson, or, we could take a bus headed to Puerto Montt (via Argentina as either there is no direct road heading north from Coyhaique or else the road in Argentina is much better, I’m not quite sure how it works) and then, because we would not be allowed to get off in Argentina for some unknown and stupid reason (probably involving someone potentially being able to make money off us) hop on another bus heading back in the direction we came for 4-6 hours, and then yet another bus for the final couple hours. 
this is what i am talking about

Joylani's proposed itinerary for Lake District

Well, we decided to take the second option because it was a little bit cheaper, and I think they both would end up taking about the same amount of time.  Plus we’d liked Chile so far, so if we had to go through Puerto Montt ( and the towns north) anyways, maybe one of the places would seem nice and since we were there anyways we could stay for a day or two before heading back to Argentina.  Well, our first bus crossed through El Bolson at about 5am.  Not much was happening that early, but we could see that it looked very much like a tourist-oriented place with street lined with souvenier shops and the like.  It was very beautiful, but we’d just spent the last couple weeks in very nice scenery.  We decided that it wasn’t worth it to us to come back 6+ hours to this destination as we wanted to move on and see something else.  So we continued on to Puerto Montt, and there, after weighing our options for where to cross back into Argentina, decided to head up to Santiago for a couple days, then head east and cross over into Argentina arriving in Mendoza, the heart of Argentine wine country, from where we would head north.  Santiago was not originally on our to-see list because it conflicted geographically with our plan to go to El Bolson, but also because we were tired of being in a city, specifically Buenos Aires, but we’d heard Santiago was worse.  Ironically, by the time we reached Santiago, we had been in rural and small town areas for so long that we were quite ready to be in a city somewhere.  And we found Santiago to actually be quite nice.  In contrast to Buenos Aires, the sidewalks are very wide, and there just seems to be overall more space in the downtown area.  In addition to the spacious sidewalks, there are just less people in Santiago than Buenos Aires, which also contributed to the un-crowded feeling.  Buildings seemed fresher, and overall Santiago had a cheery feel.  The park areas have nice grass and a lush assortment of trees, and plazas with plenty of benches.  I can’t really put my finger on why it was so nice, but it just was.  We walked around the city a lot, enjoyed a few parks and plazas, went to a museum, and, of course, saw the stock market.  There was a lot more that we could have seen and done, and tonight as we leave I feel satisfied that we had a good time and also knowing that there is a lot more Santiago has to offer which we could have done.


Puerto Montt


matt 120pxI’m not sure if improvisation is an aspect of travel or a synonym of it, but we’ve been doing a lot of improvising lately. After countless changes of plans and a 20-hour bus ride (that for lack-of-infrastructure reasons) took us into Argentina and then back into Chile, we arrived in Puerto Montt. The plan was to head back into Argentina, but having passed through our destination (no passengers are allowed off in Argentina for some reason) and not being too impressed, we decided to head north next. The only question was: should we stay in Puerto Montt or just hop on the next night bus to Santiago?

            It was raining steadily when our bus pulled into Puerto Montt. Despite the grey dampness that pervaded the city, we decided to stay at least a night and have a look around. For the first time since arriving in South America, we followed a tout. He seemed nice and showed us cards and photos from a few hotels. We agreed to have a look at one of them and followed him a couple blocks. When we stopped in front of an industrial building on a deserted street and rang the bell, we asked where the hotel was. He told us that this was an alternate location, to which we said we’ll look for our own and walked away. Walking through the downpour towards the closest recommendation in our guidebook, we decided to never follow another tout in South America.

            We did find the place in our book, a nice family-run hospedaje close to everything in town. Besides checking our email and buying some food from the market, we stayed inside all afternoon due to the rain. I was beginning to doubt our decision to stay in Puerto Montt, because it was pouring so hard, it was impossible to do or see anything.  After dinner, we contented ourselves with a movie night of sorts, since our room had a TV with some English movie channels.

            It was overcast all day today, but it only rained a little bit in the midday. We started our day by walking down to the water (Pacific Ocean for the first time in awhile) and along the waterfront for a couple kilometers to the fishing port of Angelmo. There were a lot of colorful fishing boats docked and a few smaller vessels which transported people to the various islands in the bay. We saw some sea lions swimming around, waiting for some scraps of food from the market. The seafood market was interesting, but not terribly appetizing. There were plenty of shellfish, prepared in every which way- raw in bins, cooked and strung together on strings, or packaged. Unfortunately, most of the fresh ones looked dead already and there didn’t seem to be nearly enough water or ice. The fish (mostly salmon) was cheap (around 2.5 USD per kilo of filet), but didn’t look so good either. I’m not sure if any seafood with ever live up to what we ate in Japan though. We did sit down for lunch at a nearby restaurant though. Joylani ordered clams and I got a huge salmon filet. Mine was good, Joylani’s wasn’t. I told her I didn’t think it would be that great and she scolded me for not saying anything when she was deciding what to order. But I pointed out that I’d advised her against ordering barnacle, so I felt that I had helped her avoid even worse food.



            After lunch, we walked along the waterfront back towards town. Several times we passed groups of teenager, who would ask where we were from. Upon telling them as we passed, they’d ask for a dollar for talking to us. We tried to avoid teenagers the rest of the day. We checked out the surprisingly modern mall, before walking back to our hospedaje. Later, we sat near the waterfront and talked while we waited for our night bus. Puerto Montt was not exciting, or even interesting really. But it is a typical Chilean town and gave us a better feel for the country.

Life in the Hospedaje

joylani 130pxHospedajes, or residencials, are a type of boarding-house/hostel. They are generally the most economical form of lodging (besides camping), have shared bathrooms and thin walls. Guests may be foreign or domestic tourists, short-term borders (like teachers), or locals in town for business. The rooms are part of a family home, and, unlike other family-run places we have stayed, the home and rooms share the main entrance, kitchen facilities, etc. Each hospedaje we’ve stayed at in Chile has had a different feel and each has been an interesting experience as we stay in someone’s home. The first few we have stayed at have been very welcoming, and though facilities were shared, we at least had a bit of privacy and were left to ourselves when in our rooms. After this last one though, we are ready for a change. First of all, we were a bit turned off by the fact that guests must pay for the use for the kitchen (apparently standard in Coyhaique, though we have not seen this anywhere else). More than one shower a day will cost you extra, as will sitting in the living room.
The spirited abuela who is the owner, while friendly and helpful, is also loud and we can always hear her squawking away in the kitchen or hallway. On the second night we were in our room and she knocked on the door to see if another guest could use our tv. It was an odd request, however I didn’t mind giving up the tv, but having this lady knock on our door like we were relatives rather than paying guests was a bit annoying. Much later that night I had trouble falling asleep due to the two guys upstairs. Through the thin walls I could clearly hear them pop open beer cans and yap away at their jolly conversation. I contemplated going upstairs to ask them to be quite, but really didn’t want to get out of bed, and didn’t want to upset them. Finally I could take it no longer (it was one or two in the morning already) and when I heard the voices stop and footsteps coming downstairs to the bathroom, which was next door to our room, I got out of bed and waited in our doorway for the beer-pisser to emerge. He was a bit startled to see me standing there when he opened the door. I smiled and asked if he was in the room above mine. No, he shook his head. Sure you’re not, mr beer breath, I thought to myself. I innocently said, in Spanish, “Oh, sorry. You know, there are two guys up there talking so loudly I can hear every word they are saying.” He gave me a guilty look and I said goodnight as he headed upstairs. The chatting ceased. Then, it started again, but this time it was just one man on the phone. But thankfully that soon ended as well and I was finally able to fall back asleep.

Noisy people aside, Coyhaique is mildly interesting. This town is the center of activity for the region and is thus home to several banks, pharmacies, a hospital, and the central plaza even has Wi-Fi, though I don’t think many residents actually own laptops. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of “big townness” is the two big grocery stores. These supply everything from produce, canned goods, lots of beverages, bakeries, sundries, Christmas decorations, meat, cheese, and huge sacks of flour. The man I sat next to on the bus ride here told me that every few months he and his wife come to Coyhaique to restock on their food supplies. (This particular time he was coming to town for a minor operation at the hospital, which unfortunately had to be rescheduled due to the public service workers’ strike.) I saw many other people pushing around completely loaded carts who must have been doing the same. Matt and I didn’t buy nearly as much as these people, though we did enjoy the selection after the last couple of days in the middle of nowhere. Plus Coyhaique is set admist beautiful scenery, so despite a noisy guesthouse, it wasn´t too bad.




matt 120pxCoyhaique is the largest town in Chile’s Region XI and contains half of its population. That’s not saying much, since Region XI only has 100,000 inhabitants. It is surprising that so few people live in such a large area, but we haven’t seen very many people during our past few days of driving. The terrain is rugged and since arriving in Patagonia, everywhere has been pretty desolate. We’ve often driven for hours without passing a village or people. As Joylani commented after our four drive from Chile Chico to Guadal, “We drove for four hours and saw three cars, one tractor, and three horses.” With that in mind, Coyhaique’s importance is probably derived from the lack of anything (except scenery) in the surrounding region. It is a relatively scenic town, hemmed in by mountains alongside the Rio Simpson, but it’s things like the internet, the bakery, the supermarket, and ATMs that we’re enjoying here. The past week hasn’t been rough really, but its nice to arrive in a place with things. As ridiculous as it sounds, I’m almost tired to just looking at nice scenery. So, while here, we’ll stock up on pesos and catch-up on our cyber lives. With not much else to do in Coyhaique, we’ll head to Puerto Montt tomorrow.

Carretera Austral: Puerto Tranquilo to Coyhaique


matt 120pxAlthough Puerto Tranquilo was nice, it was a bit too tranquilo and one day was enough for us. At 10:15am, exactly 24 hours after we arrived, we set off for Coyhaique. After my posts on the scenery the past few days, this blog will seem like a broken record, but today’s scenery was again spectacular. The most unusual thing about the drive though was that our van hit and killed a pudu. We read that the pudu is in danger of extinction and even the guy sitting next to Joylani said he’d only seen one in the seven years he’s lived in the region (well, now he’s seen two). He was actually an interesting, if not a bit eccentric, character to talk to. He and his wife moved to Chile from Germany seven years ago. They live in a little far-flung place called Puerto Grasse, although he said its smaller than a village. He has a guesthouse, but doesn’t get many guests: just ice-climbers and scientists who study glaciers. But he gets by without any business, as he mentioned he can buy goats from his neighbors for about $40. I think he talked so much and gave us a tour of the drive because he never talks to people, living such an isolated existence. He only goes to Coyhaique every three months to stock up on essential supplies. In a way, we were like him- heading to Coyhaique to get out of the woods.