Photo Chasing & Bad Timing in Northern Chile

Ryan and I ended up in Caldera, Chile because of a photo I saw online.  Considering that the trip back down to Santiago from San Pedro de Atacama is a 20-24 hour bus ride, we wanted to make some stops along the way to break up that journey.  I googled “beaches northern Chile” and saw a beautiful photo of Bahia Inglesa, just south of Caldera.  I said, “Ooh, let’s go here!” Thus began our 2-day “adventure” of photo chasing and bad timing.

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A Trip to Mars (or the Atacama… same thing)

After our short stay in Valparaiso, Ryan and I headed back to Santiago to fly up north to San Pedro de Atacama, the world’s driest (non-polar) desert.  Average rainfall in the Atacama region ranges from 1-15 mm per year, although some areas have reported up to four years without rain.  The aridity of the area, and therefore the lack of plant life, the orangish soil, the salt flats, and the mountains all contribute to an otherworldly appearance.  It truly does feel like being on Mars, and this landscape attracts thousands of visitors every year to the Atacama Desert despite its harsh weather conditions.

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Valparaíso: The Hills are Alive

Valparaíso, Chile can take your breath away, both literally and figuratively.  The city consists of 41 “cerros” or hills that rise up from the coast, one flowing into the other in a labyrinth of brightly colored, well-graffitied homes and buildings.  The roads, staircases, and alleys that connect the hills either climb up at a steep incline or snake their way lazily along the side of the hill.  Climbing the hills on foot is a workout even for the young and fit.  Fortunately for the elderly, the infirm, and the lazy, there are many cheap public transportation options, including ancient “ascensores” or funiculars, busses, colectivos, and taxis.

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Hooroo, ‘Straya

I’m in my final hours in Australia, feeling both nervous and excited about my next destination, but that’s another post altogether.

This post is more about saying “Hooroo!” (goodbye) to Australia.  It’s the first country I’ve been to on this journey that I’ve felt thoroughly ready to leave.  I definitely did not want to leave India, and I was heartbroken upon leaving Southeast Asia.  But Australia just didn’t affect me in the same way and I’ll be heading to the airport tomorrow with a smile on my face.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not writing off the entire country.  I’d love to return some day and see more than just Melbourne, Sydney, and the surrounding areas.  But Aus just did not fill my soul and challenge my mind the way that Asia did.  I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I’ve come up with a few reasons why I think Australia didn’t capture my heart in the same way as Asia.

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Sydney: Australia’s Commercial Capital

What can I say about Sydney?  My stay here has been a bit underwhelming.  It strikes me as being just a big, ol’ city with a famous building.  Aside from the coastline (which is admittedly beautiful), I find nothing very interesting about Sydney.  It has been kind of a let down after coming from Melbourne.  Also, it is more expensive than Melbourne in every way (lodging, public transportation, food).  It’s one of the few places I’ve been to that I was ready to leave after just a few days, and I have no desire to return. That said, I haven’t had a terrible time here; it just hasn’t been amazing.  Even though it seems like an extremely international city (it feels like almost everyone here is from another country), Sydney seems to lack a real culture.  And it definitely does not have that cool vibe that Melbourne has.

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One Night in KL

En route to Australia, I had to spend one night in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  One more stamp on the passport, although I don’t know that one night deserves it.  Fortunately, my friend from Elephant Nature Park/Vietnam, Vici, was also in KL at that time.  So we met up and did what most people do when they come to KL: We went shopping.

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On Leaving Vietnam

Viet Nam was never on my list of countries to visit on this trip to SE Asia.  I have other travelers to thank for strongly influencing me to go there, particularly Lauren and Natalie who invited me to travel with them there.  I stayed for the entirety of my 30-day VISA and feel like I really got to know the country as well as one can in only a month.  I don’t know if it was because I was there longer than the other countries I went to in SEA, or if it was the culture, the food, the people, the nature, the history… or most likely a combination of all those things… but Vietnam was definitely my favorite SE Asian country that I visited.  Followed closely (very closely) by Indonesia.  (If I had spent more than two weeks in Indonesia, it’s very possible that it would have been my favorite.)

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Vietnamese coffee is the shit

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While in Vietnam, you will frequently hear that Vietnam is the #1 coffee producer in the world.  This is a bit misleading.  Vietnam is actually the second largest coffee-producing country in the world after Brazil, but they export more Robusta beans than any other country.  Brazil exports more Arabica beans.  All of this came as a surprise to me, as I had never thought of Vietnam as a “coffee country.”  Being from North America, when I think “coffee”, I think of Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, etc.  But in Vietnam, the coffee industry employs more than two million people and has helped Vietnamese people rise out of poverty.  The central highlands, where I did my motorcycle tour, is the coffee capital of Vietnam because the majority of the plants are grown in this region.

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Easy Ridin’ in Viet Nam’s Central Highlands

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I just finished five days of motorbiking around the Central Highlands with an Easy Rider tour (meaning I was riding pillion, not driving).  They were five exhilarating, educational, and exhausting days. We started between 7-8:30am every day and rode anywhere from 165-240 kilometers a day.  The days were full of stops to explore the region and its people.  The nights were lazy and entailed big dinners, lots of rain, and going to bed early due to boredom and/or exhaustion.  Some days were better than others.  Some stops were more interesting than others.  Sometimes we got rained on.  Sometimes my butt hurt a lot and my legs went numb.  But the overall experience was really rewarding and I’m glad I did it.  I got to see parts of VietNam that most people never see.  “Real VietNam” my driver called it.  And it’s true… it was an authentic experience.  Nothing I saw or did on the tour seemed set up or imitation. So, read on to get a slice of my real VietNam experience.

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Da Nang: A Day at the Beach

After doing the motorcycle day trip in Da Lat, I knew that I wanted to see more of Viet Nam from the seat of a bike.  Touring Viet Nam by motorcycle is a “thing.”  Lots of people (mostly guys) come here, buy a cheap bike from another traveler who has just finished his trip, and head on up (or down) the country on two wheels with their packs tightly strapped on the back or in saddle bags.  One day, I will learn how to ride a motorcycle and do this trip myself.  But for now, if I wanted to see the country by bike, I needed to hire a driver.  Fortunately, this is easy to do, as there are dozens of companies (Easy Rider is the most well-known) that organize just this type of thing.

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