Cuernos (Horns) of Paine - as seen from our hotel room
These days, when we meet new people and tell them how long we’ve been traveling, their first question is usually something along the lines of “What’s your favorite place been so far?” That’s an impossible question for us to answer; we’ve seen so many incredible places that we can’t pick just one.  Even speaking in superlatives–the best, the worst, the prettiest, the most interesting–is generally impossible for us.  Our visit to Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park, however, made superlatives fairly easy for once.  Without question, Torres del Paine plays home to the most beautiful natural landscapes we’ve ever seen in our lives.

Surrounded by an eastern portion of the Andes that is known as the Paine mountain range, the 598,000-acre park is most famous for two sets of peaks–the Torres del Paine (“towers of blue”) and the Cuernos del Paine (“horns of blue”), neither of which actually look blue.  Both the towers and the horns were formed when subterranean flows of magma got trapped under the earth’s surface and subsequently hardened into granite underground.  Millions of years’ worth of erosion by snow, water and ice carved away the softer land that surrounded the hard stone and left the peaks standing alone in their majesty.  Surrounding these formations are countless turquoise lakes (it’s apparently their color that inspired the “blue” moniker), golden fields, frigid glacial streams and the icy blue glaciers that feed them, endangered species like the guanaco (like the vicunas we met earlier in Chile, these guys are also cousins of the llama) and the occasional puma.
Amaxing explora hotel
The park is nearly as hard to get to as it is gorgeous.  About 70 miles away from the nearest large town, it’s hard for a lot of short-term visitors to see too much of it.  Those with some time on their hands, however, can make the park their home for a few days, keeping in mind that they’ll need to either bring with them everything they’re going to need during their stay–there are no drug stores or snack shops to be found–or plan on partaking in the meals offered by the park’s small campgrounds and refugios.  Or they can choose to spend their children’s college funds on a stay at the all-inclusive Hotel Salto Chico, which is run by a luxury resort operator known as “explora.”  (The lowercase “e” should give you a clue as to how fancy its resorts are…)  With apologies to our future children, we, err, made this last choice.
Wildlife of Torres del Paine
This was not your father’s stuffy luxury resort, folks. It was apparently started by a wealthy man who loved exploring the outdoors but wanted to return from his time in the wilderness to find a gourmet meal and four-star accommodations waiting for him.  I’m sure it goes without saying that we enjoyed living his dream for four days.  Each night, we met with one of the many professional guides on staff and decided on the next day’s adventure.  And then, in the morning, we ate a fantastic breakfast and set off into the wild.  We never had to consult a map; our guide always knew the way.  We never had to pack a lunch; our guide had already done that for us.  We felt a little spoiled, but after more than seven months of planning our days on our own, it was nice to turn the job over to someone else for a few days!
Hike to the Grey Glacier
While the resort itself was incredible, the jaw-dropping mountain scenery we saw when we walked out the door blew it away.  One day, we hiked to the Grey Glacier.  The glacier is a frozen finger of the Southern Ice Cap, which is the largest body of ice in South America that’s still left over from the last Ice Age.  The glacier looked to us like an immense river that had been frozen in time and like an incredible field of light blue meringue. (What can I say?  I think we were pretty hungry by the time we reached the glacier…)  House-sized chunks of bright blue ice recently separately from the glacier floated in the water nearby, making for an incredibly mystical landscape.
Horseback riding in Torres del Paine National Park
A few days later, we rode horses through crystal clear rivers in the company of gauchos whose families had been tending livestock on those grounds for generations.  In another trip highlight, we hiked through rain, snow, wind and, ultimately, sunshine to the base of the Cuernos del Paine.  The weather in the park changes so quickly that it’s often possible to experience each of the four seasons over the course of an hour.  (“There’s no such thing as bad weather,” said our guide, “only bad clothing.”)
Wildlife of Torres del Paine
Another day, we wandered through the park’s vast plains or, as they’re called here, “pampas,” in search of wildlife.  We were secretly hoping to see a condor, the gigantic bird (up to a ten-foot wingspan!) that is considered a symbol of health and power by many Andean cultures.  We were told that such a sighting was fairly unlikely.  In keeping with the incredible luck that we’ve had for most of this trip, we saw not one, but fourteen condors. Sitting on top of a huge rock in the middle of what could very possibly be the most beautiful land on earth, watching condors soar just above our heads, we felt very lucky, indeed.

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The archipelago of Tierra del Fuego (“Land of Fire” in Spanish), so named by Ferdinand Magellan when he spotted fires on the shore ((These fires were lit by the Yamana Indians who lived in the area.  Unfortunately, these native Indians were quickly wiped out when the first Europeans arrived in the area, carrying with them diseases such as smallpox that the immune systems of the Yamanas were not equipped to fight.)) as he sailed through the area in the early 16th century, is located in the southernmost point of Patagonia. ((Patagonia–it’s not just a brand of clothing–is the name of the region of southern South America controlled by Argentina and Chile and renowned for its wild, harsh and gorgeous geography.)) The area is rich in history.  After Christopher Columbus and other explorers had discovered the Americas and determined that it was not part of Asia, the next task was to find a way to get around the Americas and gain quick access to the riches of the Spice Islands and the rest of Asia ((This was especially important to the Spanish after the Portuguese had gained exclusive rights to the sailing route from Europe to Asia around the tip of Africa.)).

Ferdinand Magellan signed up for the mission and set off in search of the elusive route, eventually finding a narrow waterway that became known as the Strait of Magellan.  The exploration did not end there.  Due to the difficulty of navigating the narrow Strait and the expensive tolls levied by the various owners of the passageway, sailors started looking for an alternative route around South America.  This was eventually achieved as sailors continued south and found the last piece of land at Cape Horn in 1616, enabling them to circle Cape Horn and avoid the Strait of Magellan.  This similarly dangerous route was used for years until the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, providing a much more direct route from Europe to Asia.
Intent on exploring this area, Shanna and I signed up for a 4 day cruise on the Mare Australis, a ship that departed from Ushuaia, Argentina, sailed south to Cape Horn and then back north through the Fjords of Fuegia until it reached the Strait of Magellan and the historic city of Punta Arenas, Chile.  Never having been on a cruise ship before, I must admit that I feared the ship would consist solely of senior citizens intent on spending their days playing shuffleboard or perhaps bridge, dining at 5 pm and having a toddy at 7 pm before calling it a night.  Our fears were quickly allayed when we received the cruise orientation in which the speaker referred to the cruise as an “expedition.”
The first port of call was the historic Cape Horn.  After boarding a “zodiac” boat and speeding ashore while wearing some very sexy lifejackets, we stepped on the small island and hiked to the only two points of interest.  First, there is a huge statue of an albatross (a very large bird native to the area) built to commemorate the thousands of sailors who’ve died while trying to round the Cape.  Second, there is a small lighthouse and home where a member of the Chilean Navy and his family resides ((We were told that each family spends one year at this remote location, before the next family moves in.  The family that is currently there greeted the visitors and explained that they would be leaving before their year was up because the wife was pregnant.  Suspicion arose that their family planning was accelerated as a brilliant way of getting early reprieve from this harsh land.)).  While the landscape was treeless and fairly barren, there was a mystical quality about walking on the southernmost point in our world.

Later that day, we alighted on a remote island and hiked to the top of a large hill to view a spectacular sunset.  Our kinship with nature was in full force the next two days as we sailed in the zodiacs to view a fjord with its gushing waterfalls and blue-iced glaciers, followed by a visit to Magdalena Island in the Strait of Magellan the next morning.
Magdalena Island is famous for its part-time inhabitants–penguins.  Each spring, thousands of penguins return to the island to mate, raise new baby penguins and molt before returning to the ocean for a six-month swim beginning in the Fall.  During the peak penguin season, the penguins cover virtually the entire island.  As our visit coincided with the end of the season, only a few thousand penguins remained, most of whom were still slumbering in their nests as we hiked around the island.

Overall, the cruise was a pleasant surprise.  The ship was fairly new with spacious cabins, comfortable common areas and very good food.  Each day, there were a couple of informative lectures about the area, its history and its wildlife.  And, yes, they had bingo one night…which of course we had to play.  Sometimes you just have to adapt to your environment.

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The Villarrica Volcano, the most active volcano in Chile, was known to the Mapuche Indians who inhabited the surrounding area as Rucapillán, or the Devil’s Lair.  As you’ll see below, this description was right on point.
A couple of days before we arrived in Pucón (a small town in the lake district of Chile), I read our guidebook and discovered that many of the visitors to the area attempt to climb the Villarrica Volcano, a smouldering peak located just a few miles from the town’s center.  The guidebook described the full-day climb as very steep and difficult, but not overly technical; it stated that a short, but important mountaineering course with a local guide would be required the day before the climb.  As we were arriving late Saturday afternoon and our only full day in Pucón would be Easter Sunday (we were signed up for half-day Spanish lessons on each of the remaining days), I had assumed that a summit of the volcano would be impossible during our visit.  While I was a little distraught by the fact the climb would not be available to us, I was relieved that we would have a valid excuse if asked why we didn’t attempt the summit.
On our way to dinner, we stopped at an adventure travel company, Aguaventura, and asked what activities were available the remainder of the week.  In addition to rafting and horseback riding, we were told by Vincente, the French owner, that we could climb the volcano the next day.  His description of the climb, as we later found out, was full of lies – we would ride a chair lift half-way up the volcano, have a rather simple three-hour climb to the top and casually walk down the mountain.  When I asked if there was any technical training we needed or if we needed to sign a liability waiver, he simply said no.  Shanna and I took his bait–hook, line and sinker.  We told Vincente that we would think about it and let him know within an hour.  Five minutes later, we were back in the office trying on our gear for the next day’s climb.
Shortly after 7am the next morning, we were in a van with 20 other poor souls headed to the volcano’s base. Once we arrived, one of the guides told us without emotion or regret that the chair lift was broken, so we would have to climb the entire length of the volcano (a total vertical ascent of around 5,000 feet) – adding a few hours (yep, a few HOURS) to the day’s climb.  I looked down at the ice axe that had been provided to me and then looked directly at the guide, impure thoughts filling my head.  A few seconds later, I calmed down and we were on our way.

The first 2.5 hours of the climb went directly up the peak, with the trail mostly composed of sand, dirt and rocks.  After a short break, the guides instructed us to retrieve our ice axes and put crampons on our hiking boots as we were about to start climbing up the glacier.  Expecting a lengthy tutorial on the proper way to use the ax and crampons and the safest way to climb the glacier, I was dumbfounded when we started the ice climb after a cursory safety overview in broken English.  The only tidbit I really understood was – “don’t use the ices ax and crampons the wrong way, since you’ll probably fall down the volcano and die.”  Thanks for that.
After about 45 minutes of climbing the glacier, we approached a large rocky area where groups from another travel company had rested.  I had spotted this little oasis several minutes before and was giving myself a pep-talk, knowing that if I just made it to that area I would be able to rest for awhile and catch my breath.  I cannot fully describe my heartbreak when our guide walked straight past the area, turned around to us and said – only 45 more minutes until the next break.  Once again, I became obsessed with the various macabre uses of the ice ax.

During the next 45 minutes, my attempts to divert my mind from the nightmare at hand by focusing on positive thoughts (the day my friend Scott and I went on a barbecue crawl, tasting beef brisket at four different restaurants in Lockhart, Texas; riding zip-lines in the jungles of Nicaragua with my friend Mike) were futile; my mind could not escape the hell that was Villarrica Volcano.  As we finally reached the end of the glacier area and our final resting place before we attempted the summit, I realized that we had somehow been placed in the fast group; the remainder of our group was about 30 minutes behind us.  What a cruel trick!  Why on earth would I be chosen for the fast group?  I looked at the slim and short members of this elite group, with their well-worn hiking boots, fancy waterproof jackets and cocky, this-is-easy smiles, wishing years of pain on them and their future children.

The last part of the climb was brutal, with the practically vertical “path” consisting of sharp, loose rocks.  As I slipped every few minutes and watched as I started mini-avalanches down the side of the volcano, our fast-group guide kept saying “only 10 more minutes.”  While I understood the motivational reasoning behind our guide’s lies, I wasn’t falling for his Jedi-mind tricks; I knew it was more like 30 more minutes.  I searched my brain for legal theories on which I could sue the guide and ensure that he never attempted to dupe another climber again.

By the grace of God, we made it to the top and practically collapsed on a rock near the smoking crater of the volcano.  Realizing that we had conquered the volcano after six hours of climbing, there was a period of great rejoicing and pride. Unfortunately, this feeling was short-lived as I realized we still had a three-hour climb down the volcano!  This prospect hadn’t even crossed my mind; I think I had assumed that a helicopter would magically appear and whisk us down the mountain to a cozy room with a fireplace, apple cider and a jacuzzi.  While I prepared myself mentally for the upcoming death march, I took a few minutes to take in the landscape.  It was spectacular – clear blue skies providing us an uninterrupted view of the surrounding valley and distant mountains.

I remember very little of our descent, other than the thirty minutes we spent sliding down the mountain using our rear-ends as a bobsled – a reckless, yet exhilarating way to descend the icy section of the volcano.  Nine hours after our departure, we arrived at the bottom exhausted and sore.  We later found out that several of the climbers didn’t make it to the top and at least a couple had to go to the hospital to treat injuries from the climb, a fact that should have produced sympathy for those involved but regrettably and maniacally provided me with deep satisfaction.  Derek and Shanna 1, Villarrica Volcano 0. [embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=FF_MuVAAOFA&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep3538″ /]

In the middle of Chile’s lake district, at the foot of the ever-smoldering Villarrica Volcano, lies Pucón, a little town whose primary purpose seems to be to cater to the every whim of the backpackers and other adventurous types who flock there.  They arrive in droves every summer and fall ((Chile is in the Southern Hemisphere, which means, of course, that its seasons are the opposite of ours.  So right now, summer is over and we’re well into fall.  I cannot get over the fact that, for Chileans, Christmas comes at the warmest time of year.  How does Santa operate his sleigh?)) to sample some of the many offerings of this extreme sports mecca.   Once they’ve fully exhausted themselves in Pucón’s outdoor playgrounds, they head to its many excellent bars and restaurants to rest up and refuel for the next day’s adventure.
We arrived in Pucón with two goals: to improve our Spanish and to spend as much time as possible in Pucón’s Great Outdoors.  Check and check.  We each signed up for two hours a day with a private Spanish tutor at Language Pucón, a wonderful little backpacker-oriented school.  I’m happy to report that, by our last day of class, Derek’s already-decent Spanish had greatly improved and my non-existent skills had sharpened to the point where basic communication was at least within reach.   (I can now spit out such marvels as “My backpack is black” and “I need to buy a bus ticket.”) 
When we weren’t in class or doing our homework (Shanna)/making fun of those who do their homework (Derek), we were busy rafting the class IV rapids of the Trancura River and riding horses through the nearby Cañi forest in the company of Rodolfo, a true Argentine cowboy who was brimming with excitement about the weekend’s upcoming rodeo.   Both rafting and riding felt like the best-possible versions of themselves.  The river was cold and clear, and its rapids were dangerous enough to be exciting but not so dangerous as to make us fear for our safety.  The forested hills were astounding, the horses beautiful and patient, and Rodolfo everything I could have pictured an Argentine cowboy to be (complete with a hat, chaps, spurs and a horse-loving dog named Stella). 

In the language of the Mapuche-Pehuenche Indians who dominated the region before the first European settlers arrived in 1883, Pucón means “entrance to the mountains.” Indeed, mountains seem to surround the little hamlet. Look out of pretty much any window in town and you’ll see an amazing landscape behind which the Andes tower.

Pucón has been described as “an Andean version of Aspen,” and, other than the fact that Pucón is more geared to backpackers than it is to the jet set, that’s pretty much what it feels like. Pucón’s streets, like Aspen’s, are lined with upscale restaurants and the occasional boutique. (The ones in Pucón, however, are interspersed with empañaderias and are considerably more affordable than their Colorado counterparts.) In the winter, its slopes are filled with skiers and its cafes packed with those in search of hot chocolate. While the flight to Pucón may be a little longer than the one to Aspen, we’d say that it’s definitely worth the trip!

San Pedro de Atacama is in the southeast corner of the area of Chile known as the “Norte Grande,” or the “Great North.”  The moniker seems an apt description for San Pedro, where everything is, indeed, great in size: the desert stretches on for miles, the sky is immense, even the prices are huge.  ((Having only recently left Asia, where almost everything costs considerably less than it does at home, San Pedro’s prices really jolted us back to reality.  It’d been a long time since we had paid $2 for a bottle of water.))  Only the town itself is tiny–just a few adobe buildings in the middle of the Atacama desert. This place is the most arid on earth.  It hasn’t seen any rain since January, when it rained for about 30 minutes, and the last big rain was–get this–in 2001, when it rained for five hours.
While San Pedro itself has plenty of bars and restaurants, it’s the stuff outside of “civilization” that has tourists arriving in droves.  Every night, just outside of town, the sun puts on the best show around.  As it sets in the Valle de la Luna (or “Valley of the Moon,” so named because of the lunar-like landforms there created by eons of wind and floods), it paints the sky in spectacular shades, each section a different color.  We were lucky enough to see it one night after an amazing hike among the valley’s sand dunes.  To the west were yellows and oranges; turning a bit, we saw pinks and reds; the east was awash in blues and purples. Derek has a habit of describing things by rank.  A truly amazing meal is “one of the top five meals” he’s ever had.  A great hotel might be “one of the ten best” he’s stayed in.  For one of the first times in my life, as we watched the sun setting over the valley’s rolling sand dunes, I heard him pronounce that the sunset was the BEST he’d ever seen.  No rank needed.
About 40 miles south of San Pedro are the salt flats of the Salar de Atacama.  Like something out of a Salvador Dali painting, weirdly shaped rocks fill the landscape and extend for as far as the eye can see.  In the middle of it all is Lake Chaxa, a lagoon that plays home to three of the five flamingo species.  Only a handful of the pink ((Did you know that flamingos get their color from all of the pink shrimp they eat?  This fact has made me think twice about my massive consumption of cherry red Twizzlers, lest I take on a rosy hue…)) creatures were on hand when we paid them a visit, but I really loved being able to see them outside of the confines of a zoo.
Nearby the salt flats stand Laguna Miscanti and its smaller cousin, Laguna Miniques.  One day, we hiked through the sandy terrain surrounding the lakes for a lunchtime picnic.  A few bites into my sandwich, I realized that we had a guest: a small but determined desert fox watched us from a safe distance, getting ever closer as he realized that we were both harmless and in possession of food to his liking.  And he wasn’t our only companion from the animal kingdom–from a nearby hillside, about eight vicunas (they looked just like llamas to me…) cast watchful eyes over the group.
Tourists willing to awake on time for a 4:00 am departure from San Pedro ((This group included me, though I would replace “willing” with “coerced by spouse.”)) can head to El Tatio, the world’s highest major geyser field.  For the price of a few hours of sleep (and a small admission fee), you get to walk through the steam bath created by the world-famous geysers, all of which are located in the collapsed center of a volcano.  ((Allegedly, the early-morning arrival is imperative because, as the morning wears on, winds arise and sweep away the picturesque steam from the geysers.  Given that the steam was still entirely visible by mid-morning, when we left, I find the whole thing a bit suspect.))  This is no American tourist attraction, replete with guardrails and large-print warning signs.  Tatio is a free-for-all where tourists stroll among the thin-crusted geysers at their own risk.  Four have fallen to their deaths in recent years.  Most of the accidents have taken place near a particular geyser, now aptly referred to as “killer.”  This probably was not the best venue for my still-groggy self, but I survived without incident.

This fact is particularly surprising given that Derek and I, in a “you only do this once”-induced moment of insanity, took a plunge in one of the geyser-created hot springs.  The water, though warm, did little to cut the chill of the 30-degree air.  While falling to our deaths wasn’t a real threat (we were there with a knowledgeable guide), catching pneumonia was.  Alas, we survived, and we headed out of San Pedro with little more than good memories and fantastic photographs.

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Having lived in cities all of my life, I’ve rarely been in areas remote enough to really view the stars.  Like many people, I’m fairly ignorant of space.  Other than a basic understanding of how the earth rotates and the ability to point out a couple of constellations on a clear night, I’ve generally chosen to ignore the world above because prolonged reflection on space tends to freak me out. 

The Atacama Desert, located in Northern Chile, is a world-class destination for astronomers due to its remote location and perpetually clear skies.  On the first night of our arrival in San Pedro de Atacama, the small town that plays home to the desert, we looked up into the sky in amazement as thousands of stars appeared before us.  The next day, we signed up for a star-gazing tour led by a French astronomer, Alain Maury, who came to the desert to view the stars and never left. 
Because the sun sets late in Chile at this time of year, the tour didn’t start until 11 p.m.  After a short ride out of the metropolis (population less than 2,000!) of San Pedro de Atacama, we arrived at the small country house owned by Alain and his wife.  After a quick introduction, Alain began a brief overview of the sky and fortunately answered many of my very stupid questions before I had the chance to ask them.

A few minutes later, we were outside in the cold desert staring in disbelief at the stars above.  With a slick, green laser pen, Alain was able to point out specific stars and constellations.  For the first time in my life, I was actually able to see the Milky Way, the galaxy in which the Earth resides.  The arc of clustered stars was so obvious in the desert sky that it seemed imposssible that I’ve gone my entire life without seeing them before.

A few feet from his house, Alain has six massive telescopes pointed to different areas of the sky.  We took our turns bending down, and in some cases climbing ladders, to peer through the eyepieces at the radiant sky.  As pointed out by Alain, the light from the stars we were viewing (traveling at 186,000 miles per second) had taken several years to reach the spot where we were.  A few seconds of contemplation of this fact was all I could handle at 12:30 in the morning. 
The oddest moment came when we approached the telescope pointed at the planet Saturn.  Expecting to see a blurry image of this distant planet, we were instead greeted with a picture of Saturn that had to have been a cut-out from a piece of paper.  The image was so clear (the picture to the right doesn’t do it justice) and Saturn-esque (?) that I truly believed it was part of a cruel joke played by the Frenchman.  After questioning him, he confirmed that we were not the first doubters, but the image was true. 

After some hot chocolate and a wrap-up from our teacher, we headed home around 1:30 am having a greater understanding of our planet’s surroundings but also a greater feeling of insignificance as only a minuscule piece of this massive universe.

The following is our first GUEST BLOG, written by Shane (Shanna’s brother) and Leyna (his girlfriend), who met us in Santiago, Chile for four days
Pablo Neruda, the unofficial poet of Chile, was reputed to only write with a green pen, as green was the color of Esperanza (which means “hope” in Spanish).  Once, presumably talking about one of his many wives or mistresses, he wrote, “I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride; so I love you because I know no other way.”  He could have just as easily been talking about Chile.  Chile is familiar and yet strange, frantic but peaceful.  It is a country where 70% of its inhabitants declare themselves Catholic, and yet entwined lovers can be seen on any available flat surface.  Remnants of Pinochet’s rule can be seen in the utilitarian architecture, devoid of any aesthetic value, but their vibrantly painted exteriors speak of renewed hope and a lust for life.
Our first dinner was in the Bellavista district, at Azul Profundo, home to excellent seafood, colorful buildings, sidewalk cafes, Pablo Neruda, and the only mountaintop zoo we’d ever seen.  During our first full day with Shanna and Derek, we rented a car to make the drive from Santiago to Valparaiso, a Pacific port city sometimes compared to San Francisco.  A wrong but fortunate turn took us through gorgeous winding mountain roads, and we arrived on the coast after a four-hour journey.  After exploring Valparaiso’s hills and extravagantly painted back alleys on foot, we ate lunch at a wonderful restaurant overlooking the ocean.  We soon noticed that our plates were being continuously speckled with pieces of ash.  Though people at the surrounding tables were smoking cigarettes, this ash was mysteriously thick.
After dinner, we made our way down to the coast of the neighboring town, Viña del Mar.   It was there that we noticed a huge plume of black smoke being belched from the mountains behind Valparaiso.  We had read that Chile had over 2000 volcanoes.  We had apparently found one!  The ashy cloud coated the sky and the setting sun, providing a beautiful walk on the beach and several excellent photos.  In fact, two Chilean “Golden Girls” temporarily commandeered Derek’s camera in order to take our picture in front of the ashy sun, screaming and laughing in Spanish, while Derek anxiously analyzed any potential exits they might suddenly take advantage of with his camera.

As darkness fell, we began our journey home.  Within 10 minutes we encountered a crash and had to detour.  In the US, detours generally take you along flat country roads.  On the Chilean coast, detours apparently take you through treacherously narrow and hilly urban roads that only consist of hairpin, 175˚ turns.  Thanks to the kindness of a Chilean cab driver, who allowed us to follow him through some alleys and down some hills, we made our way back to the highway and home to Santiago.
That night, while Shanna and Derek retired to their hotel, we decided to sample the Santiago night life.  Leyna discovered the citrus-veiled evils of Chile’s specialty drink, the pisco sour (“Vicious and delicious!”), and Shane found out that there is a reason Chile is known for its wine-production, rather than its beer exports (“Awful.”).  We awoke to find that, not only did our heads hurt, some cash had “disappeared” from our hotel room.  Though our money was stolen, our passports were thankfully left untouched. After spending a day at the Concha y Toro winery, located on a beautiful expanse of land in the countryside, we soon forgot about the unfortunate occurrence.
After our short stay, it was time to return home.  Upon arriving at the airport, we were informed that our nine-hour layover at the São Paulo was prohibited by the Brazilian government, which institutes an eight-hour limit on layovers for travelers without visas.  This was shocking, as our 13-hour stay on the way down was not a problem and this information is nowhere to be found on the internet.  The airline wouldn’t budge and calls to our online travel broker proved to be frivolous.

When all hope began to fade, Shanna and Derek arrived at the airport to catch an unrelated flight.  Upon hearing about our situation, they morphed into an efficient and relentless double-pronged lawyer machine.  Their ease of navigating such a stressful situation made our feeble attempts at handling the predicament look laughable.  It was like a major league ball player pinch hitting for the ninth batter on a 2nd grade tee-ball team.  Although we never made it onto our original flight, Derek’s Jedi-mind tricks allowed us to purchase two relatively inexpensive tickets back to the US, and we managed to make it home without any additional delays.
Like Neruda, we aren’t sure what is was that made us fall in love, but we did.  We fell in love with Chile during our short stay there.  It is not the most glamorous place we have traveled.  Not the cleanest.  Not the sexiest, nor the most worry-free.  But there is something about it that immediately feels like home.  It manages to excite in the most unassuming way.  The people are genuine, the food is fantastic, and the landscape can be surreal at times.  Chile makes no apologies, as our interactions with hotel staff and airlines can attest, but it is that same honesty that makes the journey worthwhile.

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