Welcome to part two of three!
Hopefully you’ve gotten a chance to read part one already, if not click here. To recap, I am summarizing every month of my exchange in an attempt to a) give future Santiago BIB-ers some ideas of what life on exchange is like, and b) provide all my friends and family back home with a detailed description of the last year of my life. In part one, I covered the months of February to June. The second half of exchange was jam-packed with travel, so there’s a lot more to write about! Let’s pick up where I left off, on Canada Day 2017…
I got back from La Serena exactly on July 1st, the first time I had ever spent Canada Day outside the country. To celebrate, the Santiago BIBers pretended that the party we attended that night was in honour of Canada’s 150th.
My family came down on July 8th, and I spent almost the entire month travelling with them through Peru and Bolivia. Our journey started in Lima, the capital of Peru. We visited beautiful post-colonial churches and squares, ate delicious ceviche and ají de gallina, and admired the coastline in trendy neighbourhoods like Miraflores and Barranco.
We then hopped on a plane and headed to the Sacred Valley area of Peru, formerly the centre of the Inca Empire. Basing ourselves in Cuzco, the ancient seat of Inca power, we spent two days exploring archeological sites and immersing ourselves in the valley’s rich history and culture. Unfortunately, we also arrived in the midst of a massive teacher’s strike throughout the province, which forced us to do some last minute scrambling in order to reach the biggest draw of the area: Machu Picchu. Translating to “Old Peak” in the Andean language of Quechua, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, and was breathtaking to see in real life. Hidden away high up in the Andes, it was difficult to get to (busses and trains galore) but well worth the early morning wakeup (and for those who know my sleeping habits, that’s saying something).
After spending a full day at Machu Picchu, we slowly made our way back to Cuzco, from where we caught an overnight bus to the Peru-Bolivia border. On the way, we briefly stopped a few times on Lago Titicaca, the biggest lake in South America. There, we saw the floating islands of Puno in Peru and the Isla del Sol in Bolivia, before switching busses and strapping in for a long ride to the Bolivian metropolis of La Paz. People say a lot of different things about La Paz, but I’ll say that my experience there was fascinating. The altitude is a killer (3,640 meters above sea level on average), and many areas are not particularly safe. However, it was a city like no other I had ever visited. First off, in place of a metro system, gondola lifts are used as a form of public transport (there are too many peaks and valleys to allow for subterranean transport). Humongous outdoor markets, where you can find anything from lettuce to love potions, occupy the majority of the city centre and the colours and clothing bring you back to an older time. The two days I spent there were an adventure that I really enjoyed, though if you’re expecting a trendy, clean and neatly manicured city you may be taken by surprise.
The final leg of our trip through Peru and Bolivia was the Bolivian altiplano (highlands), known for the famous Uyuni Salt Flats. After three days of driving around in a 4×4, I felt as if we had visited seven different planets. There were endless seas of white salt, flamingo lagoons, obscurely shaped rock formations, and red lakes. I’ll let the pictures do the talking for this one, though one thing they won’t capture are the below-freezing temperatures (we got up to 5000 meters in some spots, which is not warm). We returned to Santiago afterwards, made two day-trips to Valparaíso and the Santa Rita vineyard, and my family returned to Canada. And second semester began!
Unlike the first month of my first semester (March), August passed without the struggles of culture shock. The relative ease of the month, especially when combined with an easier workload at the beginning of the semester, led to four weeks of almost non-stop travel. It started with a five-day long weekend, where I combined two things that don’t normally go hand-in-hand: wine tasting and surfing. Florian, myself and two of our friends started off four hours south of Santiago in one of Chile’s renowned wine regions, the Colchagua Valley. Like our Mendoza trip way back in February, this was also a great (grape) time. A highlight was visiting Viña Santa Cruz, one of Chile’s most famous vineyards, which also housed the owner’s amazing vintage car collection.
After two days of wine and food, I solo-bussed it out to the the seaside town of Pichilemu, where I met up with another exchange student friend of ours. I’m not a great surfer (and Pichilemu is known as a surfer’s paradise), but I made tremendous strides over the two days I spent there, and by that I mean I managed to stand up twice…over several hours in the water. Look, life’s a marathon, not a race. The long weekend ended with a delicious asado (South American BBQ), and I caught a bus back to Santiago the next morning.
The following weekend, my physical fitness was put to the test. Florian and I travelled down to the Región de los Lagos, in south-central Chile, to visit the town of Pucón; more specifically a nearby volcano, Volcán Villarica. Hiking a semi-active volcano was not something I always thought I would do on exchange, and seven plus hours of uphill trekking through snow and ice (with a strained hip flexor) wasn’t all fun and games, but reaching the summit was a moment of incredible accomplishment, with a stunning view of the nearby volcanoes and lakes to match. We also got to toboggan down parts of the volcano, which is never a bad time. Needless to say, that evening was spent stretching and watching Game of Thrones next to the hostel’s fireplace, moving as little as possible.
We did miss our flight back to Santiago the next morning however; Chilean bus drivers do not always appreciate the urgency of time. The next weekend, we had our second BIB reunion on the coast with Antonino dropping in again from Buenos Aires to join us in Viña del Mar. We spent some time lazing on the beach and took a one-day road trip north of Viña to visit the picturesque coastal towns of Maintencillo, Zapallar, and Cachagua, where many affluent Chileans construct their beachside mansions. It was a lovely weekend spent with great friends, capping off a month that took me from vineyards to coastlines to snow-capped mountains; a great taste of central Chile.
September started off with what I liked to call “intense budget recovery operations.” After a travel-fuelled August and with a big trip to Brazil coming up soon, it was time to tune down the expenses for a few weeks. Studying and cooking-in ensued and nothing too crazy happened for a little while, but midway through September, U de Chile had their second semester midterm break. That meant it was time for one of my all-time favourite trips I’ve ever taken: 11 days in Brazil.
Florian and I started with a flight into Sao Paulo, South America’s largest city. We spent two days in Sao Paulo, at city that grew on me very quickly. Many perceive Sao Paulo as nothing more than a huge urban sprawl, but I found it was incredibly fun and lively. The amazing street art, the strange architecture and the large green spaces like Parque Ibirapuera gave the city a hip, metropolitan vibe. There are some incredible museums to visit, from the Museu do Futebol to the modern art collection of MASP. We discovered that the largest Japanese population outside of Japan is in the neighbourhood of Liberdade, which was fascinating to visit and Brazilians are not afraid to feed you more than you may need, which is something I don’t complain about!
After Sao Paulo, we headed up to Belo Horizonte, a large city in south-central Brazil. We used it as a base to make two great day trips: Inhotim and the town of Ouro Preto. Inhotim could be described as a Disneyland of modern art. Not very well known to tourists, it is essentially a massive ex-farm in the hills of rural Brazil filled with art galleries and botanical gardens. Visitors spend the day travelling from one installation to another, often riding small “golf carts” that the museum provides to accommodate for it’s huge size. The art pieces range from photography collections and interactive exhibits to massive outdoor sculptures. It was a place like no other I had visited before and I would definitely recommend a visit (though it’s slightly off the beaten path in Brazil).
The day after Inhotim, we hopped on a bus and travelled south, in the direction of Rio, to the town of Ouro Preto. While Inhotim was an exploration of modernity, Ouro Preto made me feel as if I had stepped into a time machine. It was the former gold mining capital of Brazil during the Portuguese colonial period and it was brimming with relics from that era. From the narrow and winding cobblestone streets to churches filled with gold decorations, it was one of the prettiest places I visited over the course of the year. We spent one day wandering and exploring the town, and then caught an overnight bus to Brazil’s most famous destination: Rio de Janeiro.
While one of the most interesting parts of our time in Rio was living in a favela for three of our five days there, I already wrote about that in a previous blog (read about it here). To quickly summarize: we accidentally booked a room in one of Rio’s famous hillside slums, which ended up being an incredibly fortunate mistake as we got a very unique insight into the lifestyle of many poorer Brazilians. We spent our first day in Rio relaxing after a long overnight bus ride, lounging on the world-famous Copacabana Beach.
Day two was spent checking off some pretty big Rio attractions: morning at the Christ the Redeemer statue, afternoon on Praia Vermalha (red beach), and evening enjoying the view from the Sugarloaf Mountain. We got back to the favela that night and enjoyed a delicious Brazilian BBQ prepared by our hosts and shared with other members of the community, capping off one of my favourite days of the trip. The next day, we went to the world famous Ipanema Beach in the morning before getting a tour of the favela and the hill it was built on courtesy of our host in the afternoon, an eye-opening experience.
We switched hostels to a more central area of Rio after the tour (the room we had been staying in was sadly booked for the next night), and grabbed dinner that evening with a family friend of mine who currently is working in Rio for the Globe and Mail. The following day, we summited yet another peak in Rio (the city is full of them). This time we climbed Morro Dois Irmaos, or Hill of Two Brothers, a trail that started in the Vidigal Favela and ended high above the Ipanema Beach. It was a sweltering day, so we grabbed lunch and tried to cool down afterwards with a refreshing Guarana (best soft drink ever). That night, we returned to our old hostel in the favela to eat at our hosts’ delicious restaurant before heading to a samba bar for drinks. We spent the next day in the Santa Theresa/Lapa neighbourhood around our new hostel, visiting the famous Escadaria Selarón (Rio’s colourful stairways) and the historic sites in the area. We ate our last dinner in Rio “rodizio-style;” the Brazilian all-you-can-eat artery killer, and the next day we bussed back to Sao Paulo. We spent one last day exploring Sao Paulo, and then flew back to Santiago, ending a trip I’ll look back on fondly for a long time.
That was part two of three. My next blog will cover the end of September, and the last few months of my exchange. Hopefully this miniature novel hasn’t put you all to sleep yet, since reflecting on this exchange has been nothing but fun for me!
¡Hasta la proxima!
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