The Atacama Desert

Family at Salt Flats

Family at Salt Flats

Instead of Trick-or-Treating this Halloween we took a family vacation to the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile.  It is said to be the driest place in the world.  Our hotel, Explora Atacama,  offered many different hikes, horseback rides, bike rides, etc.

When we arrived at the Calama domestic airport, instead of going out through the jetway, the opened the stairs off the plane.  We had truly just landed in the middle of the desert.  The Santiago airport is rather impressive compared to the one in Calama.  I can’t imagine having the job to advertise for the Calama airport, “Welcome to the Calama not-so-international-airport, where you can fly to places like Santiago, Santiago, and Santiago.”  Really.  I looked at the departure board and there were no flights to anywhere but Santiago.

We got in a van with a Brazilian couple speaking Portugese and drove to our hotel which took about an hour. My dad tried to do a call on the trip to the hotel and got disconnected twelve times in seven minutes. There was obviously no cell reception in the desert.  Looking out the window, my mom said, “those mountains look like a bunch of volcanoes.”  We later found out that those mountains were a chain of volcanoes, and a few of them were active.(yikes!)

Once we got to the hotel, we departed on our first excursion.  The van took us to a small town.  We noticed that the roofs were only sticks and dried grass.  I guess it is because they don’t get any rain there so they don’t need a roof to keep the rain out.  Our guide said he wanted to show us some llamas.  He led us to a small door in the wall.  We opened the door and there were a few people standing with three llamas.  The baby one liked me.:)


Llamas in the small town on the way to the Salt Flats

Rocks? Sand? Nope! Actually, these rock-ish things are clumps of salt.

We got back in the van and the guide took us to the Salt Flats.  At first I thought it was a bunch of rocks.  I asked the guide why they were so weirdly shaped.  He explained that because the salt flats were so old the salt had formed itself in big shapes.  The salt flats, the largest in Chile, are home to the Las Flamencos National Reserve and hundreds of Flamingos.

The Gray Flamingo (a la izquierda) is a Baby.(if you don’t know what “a la izquierda” means, look it up.)

Our Guide Showing us the Salt Formations

The Sunset’s reflection on the mountains Was Beautiful

The next morning we set off on our second excursion to the Valle de Muerte.  Our guide said they called it the Valley of Death by accident.  The Frenchman who named it had meant to call it “Mars” after the planet but his accent on the Spanish was misunderstood and therefore “Muerte.”  This was my favorite excursion.  First we hiked up for about an hour.  My mom kept telling us to stay to the right of her because on the left was a giant cliff.

We got up to the top and the guide informed us that we were going to go down.  I wasn’t sure if he meant we were going to walk down the sand dune or if he meant that we had to hike all the way back.  Then he took off running down the sand dune.



Our guide and me.

Running in the sand dunes was hard because of the elevation.  Atacama is at 7500 feet high which is even higher than Lake Tahoe where my grandparents live.

Start of the Hike

In the afternoon, we did the Cactus hike. It was a very different hike from any of the other hikes.  There were multiple times where we had to cross the river.  We also climbed over many rocks.

We found a lizard!  I like Lizards!

He is Blurry Here, But Isn’t He Cute!

We walked into a canyon and followed the river for about two hours.

Then we began to climb up out of the canyon.  Jack got ahead of most of the group on this hike.  He did really well.

Hiking Out of the Canyon

Jack  and our guide leading the pack on the hike

The next day was the official “Madie day” of the trip even though it was my dad’s birthday. In the morning we went horseback riding.

Getting Fit for my Helmet

Jack and Me on horses

Mom and Jack had gone back to the stables because Jack could barely breathe (he is allergic to horses). After a while of walking our guide explained to Dad and I how we could get our horses to trot. All we had to do is bounce up and down on our horses, giving it a little bit of a beat to trot to. It was really fun.

The next excursion we did was a mountain bike ride to a salty lake similar to the Dead Sea.  We could float in the water when we got there.  When we were deciding which excursion to do, and they suggested this one, we actually said that Jack wasn’t the strongest bike rider but they said he’d have no problem with it.  When we were getting ready to start biking the guide admitted that he didn’t have a bike small enough to fit Jack.  Jack ended up having to ride in the van.  When we began to ride, mom asked the guide how many kids did this excursion.  “Not very many” he replied.  We had a feeling this was not going to be an easy bike ride.  Biking in Atacama

The ride was 18 kilometers. We had no idea it would be that long.  It was really, really hard.  By the time we got to the salt lake, I was absolutely ready to pass out pooped.  But the swimming was fun, even though the salt really burned our sunburns.

The last excursion we did was probably the prettiest.  First we walked across a field of salt – very different from our first experience with salt flats.  

Valley Of the Moon

Valley of Moon

salt formations

When we reached the bottom of the canyon, the salt began to look less like salt and more like frosting on a cake or snow.  Our guide said we had to be very careful not to damage any of the salt so that the next people who came and did the hike could experience it like we did.

Okay, so sure I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t get to celebrate halloween, but the desert was even better!


One of the great benefits to moving to Santiago was the opportunity to explore a different part of the world.  Now that John is part of the “Latam” office he had a conference in Rio de Janeiro that happened to coincide with my birthday.  My mom came to stay with the kids and John and I headed to Rio for 4 days.

Rio was amazing.  I was expecting a very dirty city with lots of crime but instead found an amazing exotic place.  We were fortunate to stay in a fabulous hotel, the Fasano Hotel was located right on Ipanema Beach.  The spot was great.  Each morning you could take a run along the beach and join the most eclectic array of people and watch as all the vendors set up for a busy day at the beach.

View from the rooftop of our Hotel

While in Rio we got the chance to go to a samba school where they work all year in anticipation of Carnival.  We visited the famous Mangueira Samba School.  Two of the dancers gave us lessons in the dance and then we got to decorate a headdress and watch a performance.  I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

John, our instructor and Henry and Liz learning how to Samba

I took a tour of downtown Rio.  While the tour was interesting, I’d probably stick to the beach if I came to visit again.  Some of the architecture was really stunning and it was fascinating to hear the history of how this city came to be.  Unfortunately time has seen many great buildings fade and new “modern” architecture replace the old.

Downtown Rio

We did have some fabulous meals in Rio.  One night we had dinner at Roberta Sudbrack.  The chef (for whom the restaurant is named) was the former private chef of the Brazilian President.  She has been named the best chef in Rio many times and her restaurant is included in the list of the top fifty restaurants in the world.  It was one of the best meals I have ever had.  The dessert was amazing (and I don’t even like dessert!).  With such great meals, my one regret is not being able to find the hole-in-the-wall place with great beans and rice.  Next time.

The highlight of the trip without a doubt was a trip to Christ the Redeemer.  I was nervous that it might be one of those iconic tourist destinations that can be incredibly disappointing.  It was the opposite.  One of the amazing things they do is make every visitor (even if you are in a tour group) take a sponsored bus to the top where the statue is located.  This prevents all the cheap souvenir salesman from overwhelming the place.  Instead, it is this stoic, peaceful place at the top of the largest urban rainforest in the world.  It was truly spectacular.

Under the statue is this area to walk out with 180 degree views of Rio.

Before we left Rio, we spent the morning on the beach.  There is an entire industry surrounding the beach in Rio.  Vendors of all kinds, bathing suits, food, suntan oil, etc create this background noise and a constant hum to the experience.

Oh, and it is not a stereotype that Brazilian beaches are filled with scantally-clad people.  If you were 99 or 19 you were wearing a string bikini and most suits didn’t appropriately over all the right spots. Even the men revealed as much as possible.  It made me smile when I think of how older women in the states move on to a swim suit with a skirt 🙂  Brazilians must look at Americans and think we have serious issues.

I am anxious to go back to Rio.  It is really a magical place.  That said, in talking with people, they have done a ton very recently to clean up the city and decrease crime.  The very poor areas of Rio, the favelas, can been seen from anywhere.  According to Wikipedia, nearly 12 million people live in favelas in Brazil.  With Brazil hosting the 2012 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, more work is being done by the government to improve these areas.  I’m sure you could hear different perspectives on how successful the efforts have been, but the majority of residents told me things have improved dramatically.  I found a very interesting article about this in National Geographic Magazine.  A complicated issue for sure.

Dieciocho 2012

We have neglected the blog a bit.  I didn’t want to miss posting about the Dieciocho Holidays.  It was such a different experience for us.  Here is our much overdue post:

September brings two big holidays to Chile:  September 18 or “Dieciohco,” which is the Chilean Independence Day and September 19 which celebrates the Army.  The two holidays together create a celebration that lasts for a whole week with schools closed and everyone off work.  All over Chile, people celebrate with fiestas patrias or “national parties”, reenactments, traditional dancing, music and games.  (some additional background with this link from

It is hard to properly convey how big this holiday is in Chile.  I’m not sure there is an American equivalent.  A bit of fourth of July – in that there are so many outdoor activities in parks across the country.  A bit like New Years Eve –  in how hard people party.  You are even expected to give gifts to everyone from your nana or maid, trash folks, newspaper delivery people, etc.  It might be bigger than Christmas, and for a country that is 85% Catholic, that is a big deal.

Dieciocho at Nido de Aguilas

In anticipation of Dieciocho, Madie and Jack spent weeks learning traditional Chilean folk dances in PE and traditional songs in music class.  The cueca is considered the national dance of chile, many traditional dances are on display during Fiestas Patrias.  Each class at Nido learned a different dance.

Madie and Jack  had to dress in traditional outfits for the performance.

Madie’s class waiting to perform at Dieciocho Celebration at Nido.

Jack’s class waiting to perform at Dieciocho Celebration.

Jack’s class dance had the girls and boys dancing as couples.  You can imagine what a bunch of second graders thought of that! But the dances were quite elaborate.  I was very impressed with what the teachers took on.

In addition to the performances, the kids also had parties organized individually by classroom with traditional Chilean food, crafts and games.

A bit of a sidebar here:  The idea at TCS (our old school) where parents were expected to bring in healthy food options would never be a thought here.  “Fruit Break” in the states translates to “Candy break” here in Chile.  Most kids bring in Starbursts for snack.  You can imagine what comes into the classroom for a party.  Even Minute Maid fruit juice has extra sugar here.

Madie trying to get the coin in the frog’s mouth.

Madie and her teacher Ms. Maca putting together the pinwheel with the colors of the Chilean flag

Another mom teaches the kids how to spin a top by wrapping a rope around it and releasing it.

Jack in his classroom for Dieciocho party

Students listen to Ms. Sandi as she explains how to make a Chilean flag.

Traditional game of “Duck, Duck, Goose” but in Spanish.

Dieciocho in Santiago

Throughout Santiago different groups, Municipalidads, etc. host Dieciocho parties.  We had heard the that most kid-friendly was the Partido in Parque Hurtado.  In fact, we understand that the Parque Hurtado option was created because many of the other parties are insane.  Lots and lots of drinking for days on end.  Check out this link for “Fondas 2012” and you can get a sense for just the many options there are.  You can choose from hundreds of Fondas for every taste.  Santiago Magazine provided a good overview of the choices for this year…. if we were 10 years younger.

Choosing the family-friendly Parque Hurtado option, there were so many great activities.  It reminded me a bit of a state fair but many more horses.  The Chileans love the Rodeo.  There were two different rodeos going on at the park along with many craftsman making cowboy hats and other gear for the rodeo.

Animal exhibit at Parque Hurtado

Vaca, por supuesto.

One thing that was very similar to a state fair was the lack of fine food.  The meal of choice was anticucho which is basically meat-on-a-stick.

Slow cooking meat over an open fire.

They had tents filled with traditional craftsman. Here Madie is watching someone make the brim of a cowboy hat.

With all the copper mines in Chile, there was an exhibit that showed all the uses of copper. Here they were fitting a horse with horseshoes.

With September 19 the celebration of the army, the military had a HUGE display.  They also have parades throughout the city.

Madie and Jack in an army helicopter

Many families also take advantage of the week off from work and school to travel.  The downside for non-planners is that when the entire country is off at the same time, you need to book any vacation a year out.  Next year we will be much more on top of everything.

Given that all of our stuff had just arrived from the states, it was good to stay in Santiago and just get our house settled.  We hung pictures, organized rooms.  It really made a big difference to getting our house to feel more like home.

An Amazing Weekend

We had an interesting weekend.  It started with Fiesta Huasa which is a party that happens in September every year that celebrates Chilean history and culture.  My mom said it is part of Fiestas Patrias which is part of the Chilean Independence Celebration.  It is kind of like one of the festivals in Piedmont Park except different.

There were games that you might find at a festival in the United States such as sack races or games where you try and get the ring on the bottle.

Jack and I doing Sack Races

There were also games that were not common in the United States.  One game had a circle of what looked like bunny houses with numbers on them.  In the middle of the circle was something that looked like a cage.  A man in a festive colored poncho sold tickets with all the numbers of the bunny houses.  After he sold all the numbers, he would open the cage and a scared little guinea pig would come out, look around, and skitter into one of the little bunny houses.  We didn’t win, but I didn’t really care.  The prizes were barbies and dinosaur figurines. (You have to watch the video below.  It is Hilarious!)

Guinea Pig Game

Selling Tickets for Guinea Pig Game

Next we ate some food for lunch.  They had a booth for hotdogs, a booth for anticucho, a booth for empanadas.  Jack said he was in the hotdog line and they asked if he wanted avocado (palta) on his hotdog.  I had no idea that hotdog toppings would be any different in Chile.

Food Menu at Fiesta Huasa

Horses are a big part of Fiesta Huasa,. The Vice Principal of Nido was riding a horse as part of a parade, he fell off his horse and his horse fell on his leg.  I saw him a day later with a cast. (Don’t worry, he is okay.)  He and his family also just moved here from Oregon.  His wife is Jack’s teacher.

The Horses at Fiesta Huasa

During Fiesta Huasa, I noticed that I was one of the only people wearing jeans and a t-shirt.  Many girls were wearing flouncy dresses that didn’t think even existed anymore.  There were also women and men in equally elaborate outfits doing traditional Chilean dances on a stage.

Girls in their traditional Chilean party dresses.

A tradition in Chile around this time of year is to fly kites.  It looked like there were thousands of kites in the air during the fiesta.

Kites for sale at Fiesta Huasa

On Sunday, my mom found this little church with a Mass in english.  She suggested that we go on a short hike after church.  The church happens to be located next to the largest park in Chile and one of the largest in the world.  Parque Metropolitano de Santiago is also where the zoo and the madonna are located.

Directional Sign in Parque Metropolitano

We began the hike thinking we were only going to go to a lookout post we could see on the horizon.  We ended up just taking a break there because we realized we could walk all the way to the zoo.  We were not sure how long it would take but it looked like it was about seven kilometers.  We knew we couldn’t walk 14 kilometers (7 there, 7 back) so we decided we would take a taxi back to our car after the hike.

Map of Parque Metropolitano

A park ranger on his caballo

Top of San Cristobol

Our plan was to walk to the Madonna at San Cristobal  and take the funicular down the mountain.  After three hours of hiking we arrived at the top of the mountain only to find the funicular was closed.

Sign posted saying that the funicular is closed

So, after three hours of hiking, we found out we had another hour and a half hike to go – this time down the mountain that we had just climbed.

At first it seemed okay.  The path was really steep so I was glad we were going down instead of up. We kept saying to each other that our legs felt like jello but there was really nothing we could do about it since we had to get down the mountain. Eventually we got to the bottom.

Once out of the hiking trail area, we landed in Barrio Bellavista and we found a great pizza place in Patio Bellavista called Pizzeria Constitution and sat outside.  We celebrated the end of our weekend (and our incredibly long hike) with the best pizza in Santiago.

Hiking in our Backyard

This week we realized one of the only benefits to the school bus arriving at 6:50 a.m.:   John and I headed out on a hike at 7 a.m.  Knowing we didn’t want to get stuck in morning traffic, we decide to try a hike right in our “gated community” (hate writing that term).  We thought it might not be a great hike but would be good to check out.

Turns out the hike was amazing.  Most of hike was off trail but at the top of the mountain were beautiful meadows.  We saw many birds, some bunnies and a few lizards.  It will be interesting to see how the terrain changes as we progress into Spring soon.

Santiago is a hotbed of outdoor adventure sports.  And, hiking is taken very seriously around here.  At Nido de Aguilas Madie is taking an after-school activity called climbing and trekking.  And, I just learned that there is a parent hiking group that selects a new trail every other week and meets for a two to four hour hike.

The resources for hiking are amazing too.  You can find great Web sites that map out hundreds of trail options such as and Fundacion Sendero de Chile.  The project Sendero de Chile is attempting to connect and create a major trail system all across the Chilean territory stretching from North to South.  

And, all of this is just hiking in Santiago.  Also popular are mountain biking, skiing (see skiing in August), and more extreme adventures across the country.  Obviously trekking in Patagonia should be amazing.

I came across a great blog post from Madador Trips which talks about Reserva Ecológica Contrafuertes Cordillerano in Santiago.  I really want to check this one out. It says there is an incredible waterfall at the end.

John and I enjoyed out trip so much we took the kids back this morning.  We decided it would make for a great weekend activity.  We can try and see how many hikes we can do before we head home.  This one was literally in our backyard.  In fact, we took this picture that shows our house just to the left off the golf course.

View of Av. Golf Los Lomas 9956

We ended up hiking for two hours and the kids did great.

We tried to keep on the lookout for animals.  Madie and Jack made up signs we could use to alert each other to any animal sighting as we stayed quiet looking for rabbits.

After about an hour we made it to the top and had a little snack.

You could see all around Santiago, including the city.  We tried to see if we could find the W hotel in El Golf downtown, the hotel we stayed at when we came to visit our first time.

Looking out with the City of Santiago in the distance.

After two hours, we made it back to the bottom.  Kids were proud of the long hike they accomplished.  What a great way to spend a Sunday morning.

Soccer in South America

They call soccer “futbol” in South America.  In South America futbol is very big because they have some of the best teams in the world like Brazil.

Universidad CatolicaUniversidad de Chile and Colo-Colo are the main teams in Santiago.  We are going to support Universidad de Chile.  I have not been to a game yet but I really want to go to a game.

On Tuesday and Thursday I have Futbol at Nido de Aguilas.  Most days after school I play soccer with one of my friends and some people I don’t know.  Everyone is very good.

Pick up futbol game at Nido

Sick in Santiago (part two)

Even with our success at Clinica Alemana, we still needed a new nebulizer for Jack.  The following day I head out in search of the medical supply store. Now, even the most basic interactions are challenging in a country where no one speaks English. Add driving and a medical supply store and you know things are not going to go smoothly. As I make it to the highway, a bit panicky about the aggressive driving approach of Chileans, I realize that the gas light is on in our rental car. Not only am I the one stuck roaming Santiago for a medical supply store, John left me a car with no gas. He could have at least mentioned the car needed gas 🙂

In chile, you can’t fill up your own tank of gas (not that I would be able to do it, nor would I know if our rental is diseal or gasoline -both are options here). You must pull up, communicate with the attendant, understand what the amount is he says to you (most purchases I simply hand over the largest denomination I have in my wallet and trust in honesty) and then tip him appropriately.

As I get off the highway and contemplate the task ahead, I give myself a pep talk and scroll through my small phrase book for an “automobile” section and find how to say, “fill it up.” I manage to make my way through the whole awkward interaction, and leaving I’m incredibly proud of myself for such a relatively easy task.  I find I’m often congratulating myself for relatively easy tasks.

My success at the gas tank ushers in a series of successes.  I find the medical supply store and get the nebulizer. I had left nothing to chance.  I had brought our old nebulizer that we burned to be sure I could show what I needed.  I find my way back to Lo Barnechea, the area we live in Santiago. I stop at the Papa John’s Pizza shop and successfully order a pizza ( thanks to big pictures on the menu board and knowing the words “solamente” and “queso”) and I even manage to get to the pharmacy and find the cold medicine Jack needed.   Feeling like a rock star, I head home.



Redding Made it!

Our dog Redding, who is 13 years old, arrived this morning to our house in Santiago.  We debated and debated about whether to bring him or leave him with my mom in Florida.  We decided to bring him but I was incredibly nervous about him making the trip.  He was picked up in Cocoa Beach Florida yesterday, driven in a car to Miami and then put on an overnight LAN flight to Santiago.

We are so happy to have him here.  He is a bit confused, but otherwise doing fine.

Sick in Santiago (part one)

It is flu season in Santiago and the entire family got hit.  Monday afternoon, Jack’s nebulizer came out because his asthma always flares up when he is sick. We plugged it in to give him a treatment, started a movie and next thing you know, the machine is ON FIRE, billowing smoke across the living room. We absent-mindedly plugged it in with only an adaptor and not a converter! Good news: we didn’t burn the house down. Bad news: we had to find a way to get Jack his medicine and buy a new nebulizer in Santiago Chile.

We had the name of an asthma specialist John had visited at Clinica Alemana as we were contemplating the decision of moving to Santiago. John called her office and they explained they had medical equipment at the clinic and he should come down to the clinic. What luck!  Relieved, John headed to the clinic to purchase a new nebulizer.

John returned a short time later empty-handed. Turns out, they literally meant the equipment was at the clinic – they said to bring Jack in and they could give him his treatment at the clinic. So we all loaded into the car and headed out.

No one in the clinic spoke English (no surprise). I muddled my way through with the receptionist saying “Mi Hermoso,” “Daniella,” (the name of the nurse we were supposed to ask for) and pointed to Jack and sat down.  We were basically in a fancy ER that looked more like a high-end doctor’s office than an emergency room. They had a woman selling espresso, football on the television and we sat among all the beautiful Chilean mothers decked out in the right boots and fashionable dark winter layers. After more than an hour,  the nurse came into the waiting room and we were ushered back into an exam room.

The kind nurse greeted us with no English. She took Jack’s temperature and shared the reading in Celsius  in Spanish. We all stared at one another with polite smiles but no ability to credibly exchange information and she left the room.

Next came in our lovely English-speaking nurse the doctor had suggested we visit. She  asked us for the vial of medicine to give Jack his treatment. We never thought to actually BRING the medicine to a hospital. A hospital has medicine. But, they literally intended for John to bring Jack AND his medicine. So the doctor explained they don’t have the same medicine in Chile and they could use “the equivalent.”

What exactly do you do with that information as a parent? Do you say, “Yes, please do give my sick seven-year old (who is allergic to everything) a random steroid that I have never heard of.” And, as you are making that insane statement, do so in a new language where miscommunication is inevitable. But, there was no better option, so we tried it, and thankfully, all was fine.

Next, the nurse came back in and said that Jack should go ahead and start taking his “stronger steroid” given his medical history. This “stronger steroid” is a medicine I try to avoid at all costs, but I also know that when he is very sick, he should take it. We nod and agree to do it. Once again, they don’t have the exact “stronger steroid” but they have one that is given in only two doses, equivalent of ten doses in the States. Do we say, “sure, give my sick seven-year old this even stronger version of the “stronger steroid?” Assuming of course that it was not a mistranslation. But, there was no better option, so we tried it, and thankfully, all was fine.

As we were ready to leave, I claimed the visit a success and Jack stopped me to say, “not quite yet mom, we still need to figure out how to pay.”  It cracked me up.  Truly every step has its challenges.  And, he was right, American Express has put a hold on my card because they believe our purchases in Chile might be fraud. I have called three times to get it resolved, they have even sent me a new card, insisting my card does not have a hold. But once again, I can tell by the expression of the cashier, that it is not approved.  Thankfully my ATM card worked and we head home.

Three great things.

First, it rained all last week which translates to snow in the mountains.  The snow-capped mountains that surround us in every direction are now incredibly beautiful.

Snow-capped mountains around Santiago.

Second great thing.  We found Maple Syrup (which unfortunately cost us the equivalent of $30) and baking soda which allowed for us to make pancakes this morning.  They were delicious.

Baking Soda + Maple Syrup = Happy Kids

Third great thing:  We finally bought our cars and returned our rental car.  While the cost of cars in Chile was hard to digest, we are pleased to be done with this painful task.  We found two used cars – a Hyundai Sonata and a Subaru Tribeca (which has four-wheel drive for ski adventures).  Of course,  if we were back in Atlanta, we could have bought this car instead of the Tribeca.

John buying the Subaru

Our New Cars in the Garage