Semester Exchange in Santiago, Chile

After coming back from my first abroad exchange experience in Australia I had two things clear: the first was that it had been the first of my, hopefully, many to come international experiences, and the second, that whenever my next exchange happened, it was going to be in a Latin American country.

After spending time with so many people from all over the world I discovered how like-minded and similar we Latin people are. I got to meet and love a lot of other people from other places of the globe, but I just noticed how we Mexicans mostly had the the same sense of humor, the same taste in music, same ideas and very similar behaviour as the other Central and South Americans.

This realisation, along with the fact that in Mexico it is very common for young people or students to look for and do exchanges mainly in European or “first world” countries, helped me decide to look in another direction. In my country, or at least in the schools I’ve attended, there seems to be a general belief that Europe or North America are the “best” places to live and travel to, that we will improve and learn more there than if we go anywhere else. But I already knew that an exchange was so much more than just achieving or getting an academic level or recognition, that your growth is way more personal. I wanted to try and prove myself, and anyone, that any country you choose is the correct one and this time I just knew I wanted to discover, experience and learn more about South America.

Four years since my first exchange passed and I was now in college and ready to travel abroad again. I mainly wanted to go to Brazil, because the 2014 world cup was happening there, and that was a really big Bucket List item of mine. Long story short I couldn’t do Brazil because my school demanded that I spoke fluent Portuguese and I didn’t. I needed to choose another country and it turned out that two of my college friends were also looking into doing an exchange, so we decided to travel together and look into the best available options. In the end we were torn between either Chile or Colombia. Personally I had no idea what I could find in either of those but they sounded cool, so I didn’t even really mind where I got sent off too as this was part of my decision to travel to a South American country; to force me to learn more about it in general. In the end our school decided we could go to Chile and it was set.

I didn’t really do a lot of research of the country before getting there, which was completely reckless of me, but I knew that whether I wanted or not, I was going to learn so much about this place, that it was going to be like a second home.

My whole planning experience this time was completely different from the first one because this time the school just managed our inscription in the Chilean university, but we were all on our own regarding pretty much everything else. I had to look into flights, currency, apartments, transportation and everything else you have to figure out before moving to another city. It was really helpful to have gone with my two other girlfriends, because this way we were all doing the research and making decisions together. We knew whatever happened we wouldn’t be completely alone in a totally unknown country, and would always have each other’s back.

We ended up renting an apartment in Providencia, which was one of the nicest living areas in Santiago. We closed the deal before arriving there in February so we actually had a place to stay since day one. We attended the Universidad del Pacifico in Las Condes and we had a smooth transition because we arrived several days before school started so we were able to figure almost everything out before our first day there.

The first months were basically getting used to everything; our new apartment, new surroundings, new school, people, places, transportation methods. We learned as fast as we could everything about Santiago and Chile in general. I also remember in this first few weeks, before school started, we were kind of lonely and bored most of the time because, even as much as we tried to visit the touristic places, we still ended up with a lot of free time in our hands.

Once school started it wasn’t that demanding either. We were advised not to take a full load of semester classes so we didn’t even have to go every day of the week. I think this amount of free time was the reason we were always so eager to meet new people, places and to go out and just explore the city in any or every opportunity we got.

We got a hang of things pretty quickly, and I think we were actually very lucky because by the second or third week of our stay there we got to meet two Mexican boys who were also doing an exchange in Santiago, in a different university but who were also from Guadalajara and with whom we had some friends in common back home. We ended up being like a family with them, and we planned and did the most amazing trips throughout our exchange. We stopped being bored alone and the five of us would just hang out practically everyday (when the boys didn’t have to study for their actually demanding classes) either in the city or actually traveling around the country in the most incredible journeys. First, we did a road trip to the south of Chile; we started out in Santiago and drove all the way to Pucon and back, which was as liberating and fun as road trips are assumed to be. Then we all flew to the Chilean Patagonia together and spent some crazy cold days couchsurfing with a local family who took us in, and finally I was actually able to fulfill my dream of going to the World Cup with both of them in the last few days of our exchange.

Needles to say, by around the second or third month of our six-month stay our lives were better than ever. It’s funny because I remember my girlfriends and me just casually riding our daily bus to school and suddenly, one of us would just randomly blurt out “I feel so happy right now”, and we knew that it was a collective feeling, we were genuinely joyful there. It seemed everything in our lives was right. We had amazing friends, a really cool routine, we loved each other as roomies, we adored the food, the people, all the traveling we were doing. It sounds too good to be true but it actually was. It was also around this time that the three of us travelled alone for the first time, without the boys, to San Pedro de Atacama. This trip was literally magical for me, and it brought us even closer. We experienced the most beautiful landscapes in the oddest, coolest journey that by the time we got back to Santiago, we were just in an ever state of bliss. By the fifth month we were starting to dread our comeback to Mexico. Our old lives seemed so far behind, I knew if we could have done it we would have traded everything to be able to extend our stay in Chile.

By the last days of our stay it was time for goodbyes, and I can’t say I didn’t already have experience in this type of things but it still hurt to the bottom of my soul. I cried so much, several times. It was like I knew it was bound to end and I accepted it, I actually sometimes tried not to get too attached to the people or my lifestyle there but I still failed terribly. Saying goodbye, and accepting experiences like this are over has such a bittersweet feeling to it. You know that no matter how hard you try or how much you want them to; they will never repeat themselves or come back. I was so glad I had had such an amazing stay that saying goodbye was so hard, but at the same time I just wanted to throw a fit to the universe and cry until it allowed me to stay longer. Of course this didn’t work and so, once again, this was the hardest part of the whole six months there.

Going back home was good and bad. I’ve always been pretty good at adapting to any kind of place or situation I’m in. I’m also very lucky to say I have really good friends and family always there for me, waiting for me, so it wasn’t like I was depressed all the time. But still, I always get that feeling that every amazing thing I experienced was not true. It’s very weird but you actually feel like you borrowed time from a different life. When I did my first exchange I said it had felt like I took a little glance of how my life would have been if I’d been born in Australia, and this time it was the same. It just feels like a window to a different reality, in a different lifetime, I don’t know, it’s very weird but once you go back home it’s literally like nothing changed. I know it obviously did, I mean at least I know it changed me, but the people and the places you left behind they all stayed the same. I think this is what I love most about leaving, you experience so much in so little time, that in a way it feels like you are stealing it.

Living in Chile was as wonderful as I thought and hoped it would be, even more. Again, ironically, I didn’t end up with a lot of local close friends, but by now I’ve figured out that when you are in an “exchange student” or “traveler” set of mind, life is different, so you mainly just make friends with that same mindset, which are usually not local, so I got to be close to a bunch of other Latin and European lovely and kind hearted people. Also, even if I didn’t get to be really close to its locals, I got to know Chile, mighty and astonishing. I got to know its culture, its food, its music, its magical places, its amazing wine, its parties, its traditions and its very distinctive (sometimes very incomprehensible!) Spanish. It welcomed me and my friends in the most incredible way and I cherish the time I got to spend there with my whole heart.

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San Pedro de Atacama: The Most Magical Place on Earth

Traveling to San Pedro de Atacama was one of the most surprising, astonishing and magical trips I’ve ever made. Before arriving to Chile, I had never really heard a lot of this place. Actually, 2 years before, when I visited Chile with my family for the first time nobody even mentioned it as a main touristic spot. People always told us about places like Valparaiso, Viña del Mar, Puerto Mont, Puerto Varas and the Chilean Patagonia but never about the northern part of this country. It was until I started planning my exchange that me and my friends started doing a little more thorough research with people who had spend a little more time in Chile or who had actually lived there that we started to hear of this place more frequently.

It was because of this reason that we left this trip to be the last one; we didn’t really consider it as a “must”. A group of other international girls had actually visited Atacama first and told us all sorts of amazing things about it. That it was beautiful and the most amazing place they had ever been, still, with all this comments and reviews I was still skeptical of how incredible it actually could be. Naively, I considered I had been to and seen a lot of remarkable places, and looking at some of their pictures I didn’t really think it was that special after all… boy was I wrong.

Me and my other 2 Mexican girlfriends started to plan our trip without really knowing much of the place. We booked the plane to Calama and we knew it was a little way from there to Atacama. We started talking to couchsurfing people and we actually contacted one guy who lived sort of in the outskirts of Atacama, but we thought it wouldn’t be that bad to walk for around 15-20 minutes to get there everyday if that meant we could save some money; again, we didn’t know how wrong we were.

We got there in the late afternoon, and for the first time it was just us girls traveling (we usually traveled with 2 other boys) but we were confident and weren’t really worried we were going to stay with some guy we had contacted on the web. When we got to Atacama, after taking a 2-hour bus from Calama, this actually really nice guy went to pick us up with his bike and we walked back to his home from the tiny bus station. It was around 20 – 30 minutes of walking, in an almost complete darkness because Atacama is a really, really small town; there aren’t any type of buildings or big houses or lots of people or really anything there, so the start of our trip wasn’t really surprising or exciting. The only thing we could really appreciate were the stars in the sky. Because there are almost no city lights or any lights for that matter, the sky is absolutely amazing. I had heard that one of the main space observatories, the ALMA, was placed in Atacama, and I could definitely see why.

Long story short, the guy we had contacted lived in a 2 room concrete square, in the middle of a practically deserted town. One room had his bed, a computer and what seemed to our paranoid minds as a portable mini drug lab and the other room, “our” room, a set of drums and a carton like bitten mattress, which was our accommodation for the night. Without getting into much detail we obviously tried to be as friendly as we could with this young man who had offered to share his tiny living quarters with us. We also pretended we were absolutely cool with him inviting some friends over to what we though would be a gathering to get either drunk or high but politely excused ourselves as being very tired and proceeded to lock ourselves in the tiny concrete room in complete silence; each one of us not wanting to say a single word about our fears of being surrounded by unknown, probably drunk, guys. We were completely sleepless, scared, and ready to attack anyone who even tried to enter our room. Of course nothing bad happened, but after managing to get 2, probably 3 hours of sleep we literally escaped running the next morning at around 6 am, leaving a note saying that we decided to start our tours early, which also gave us enough time to afterwards make up an excuse that wouldn’t sound too mean to explain why we never got back… So yeah our start in Atacama wasn’t really an ideal one.

That morning, after waking up at 6am we probably arrived to the center of town, or its main 3 blocks, at around 7am. We walked around for a little while until we found a hostel that seemed good enough and was still cheap. When the lady in the entrance told us we could actually access our room since that early hour we went in running. We paid around 15 dollars per night, which seemed like a great deal after the terrible experience we had just had. We decided to rest for a while, and then walk around town asking and comparing prices of the different tours we could take.

Basically all the touristic offices offer the same excursions, and they have either an early morning or a mid afternoon schedule. We realized it was too late to take a morning tour, since they all departed very early, but we could still take an afternoon tour to the Laguna Cejar, in which we were told to bring our bathing suits, even if it was winter there, because the main attraction was arriving to a lagoon that was so salty you floated, like in the dead sea.

We got back to the hostel and packed our things for the visit and from that moment on this trip turned out to be indescribably breathtaking. I couldn’t imagine that just by driving for around 20 minutes away from the cute-but-simple little town you could get to see these absolutely mind-blowing landscapes. I don’t know if it was because I was so not expecting it, but I seriously felt like I had never seen such wonderful and beautiful colors in my life. Everything seemed like a dream. Seriously I could not believe my eyes, the sky and the water mixed and reflected into one and created the most fairylike places ever.

This first tour was my favourite by far, we did go into the floating lagoon, even if it was totally freezing, but we just couldn’t go without getting to say we had swam, or rather floated in the saltiest of waters. This, by the way, is not refreshing or cool at all, I mean it is great to float without an effort, but because of the amount of salt you cannot actually swim or get your head wet unless you want to experience extreme discomfort and allover dryness in your skin and eyes. After that we went to another place nearby and waited for the most beautiful sunset ever, by dawn I knew I was completely in love with this place.

We were in Atacama for a total of 5 days (from Friday to Tuesday) so more like 3 if you leave out the traveling hours of the first and last days. Still, this was just enough time for us to do most of the must-do tours. After the Laguna Cejar we got to visit the Laguna Tebenquiche, the Lagunas Altiplanicas, the Piedras Rojas, el Salar del Talar, el Valle de la Muerte, the Valle de la Luna and the last day we went to the night tour to see the stars through telescopes (which by the way was one of the coldest nights of my life so if you come here in winter please be prepared to freeze).

The only thing we didn’t do which we later kind of regret was visit the Geiser del Tatio, still, instead of doing that one we decided to rent some bikes and sand boards and went on our own to the sand dunes and it was absolutely amazing. Riding my bike through the highway in the dessert, with the most beautiful landscape around me felt like the most liberating, peaceful and thrilling thing ever. I was as happy as I could be. I have always loved doing sportive activities so for me this was ideal. Being able to bike around town, at our own pace, and just enjoying everything was fantastic.

We turned out to be not so skilled in the actual sandboarding, but just the whole experience was worth everything to me. We ended up exhausted of course, we slept like babies every night but I was just so happy, I even considered coming back and staying there for a longer period of time. The guy who we rented the bikes and sandboards from actually invited us to work for him and I had never been so tempted to stay anywhere else in my life.

I could write a million words just to try to describe the beauty of San Pedro de Atacama, but as a personal experience I just know you have to be there to actually take it all in. You can also take infinite pictures, which we did, to try and share or remember the beauty, but these are not even half of the magnificence of being there. I had never been so astonished by any place in my life. Seriously I could go on forever on the splendor of this place, but I don’t want to set the highest of standards either, because after us, we convinced some of our friends to visit this place and they weren’t even half as amazed as we were, so I guess its a matter of perception.

For me, this trip is definitely one of the best ones of my life, through and through. Atacama is a place for nature lovers, people who enjoy a beautiful landscape or just a peaceful place. After being here I’m glad its actually not so known or popular, its part of its magic. If you want to enjoy the beauty of the earth, far from buildings, cities or crowds please come here, you won’t regret it, I know I never will.

Backpacking to The End of the World

Chilean Patagonia

Ever since we got to Chile one of our main longings was being able to travel to the Chilean Patagonia. We new we just had to go to the “End of the World” because we had heard wonders of Torres del Paine and it just seemed so cool to get to know the last piece of land all the way to the south of our continent. We figured out the available dates we had to be able to go with our 2 Mexican boyfriends who studied at a different university than us, and with whom we had already been traveling and got along super well, so the moment we knew we had a long weekend we started looking for flights. We probably bought our flight to Punta Arenas around a month before we left, so we had some time to plan our stay of about 5 days there. We decided we were going to do couchsurfing so I started to send requests to the approximately 30 people who lived there. I found a guy in Punta Arenas who was willing to accommodate the four of us for around 2 nights, and a family in Puerto Natales that worked as a tour agency and who just asked you to buy the tours from them as an exchange for letting you stay in their house. We had everything already set but it was a while later, right before we were supposed to leave when we figured out that it was better to arrive to Punta Arenas by plane and go directly to Puerto Natales by bus because that’s were all the touristic spots and tours left from, so we cancelled our stay in Punta Arenas.

The bus ride from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales turned out to be around 4 hours, when we got there we walked around for a bit but there is really not much to see. Puerto Natales is a very little and calm town so we just walked around and took some pictures and then went right to our couchsurfing home. The house were we stayed at was of a Chilean family, conformed by a couple, their 13 year old daughter and a son who we just saw once. They dedicated their life to hosting backpackers so they had a pretty different family dynamic. Each night they had dinner with whichever group of travelers was visiting the place. At the same time as this was interesting and different we noticed it was difficult for their children because it was so unstable. Their daughter was so used to people leaving that she told everything so straightforward, she was not shy at all and she could seem a little mean, but it was understandable since she had to get used to strangers all over her house and in her bathroom and sharing all the common areas. The house was one of the dirtiest places we’ve ever been to. It was insane. The lend us a room with 2 bunk beds and a sofa, that had probably never been cleaned, and the whole house had a carpet but they had a dog who did whatever she wanted and I’m not sure they even cleaned after her. Still, it was free, so we didn’t complain; we got so many funny stories out of that house that it ended up being kind of cool at the end. We just had to contribute by preparing and buying one dish at dinner and help cook and clean the dishes, but this was not a problem at all for us.

We ended up buying two tours, one to one of the main glaciers, the Balmaceda, and the other to Torres del Paine. The first day we took the Balmaceda one, it left early in the morning and we went by boat to see it. It was so beautiful, we just saw it by boat though, because there was no way to get out and walk around end. After the boat we went to visit another glacier, the Serrano one, in which we actually had to hike for around a half hour until we got to take a closer look to it. After this the tour included a Chilean meal at a local restaurant and we got to meet some of the people that were in our tour. The tour was just half a day long so we got back to Puerto Natales around 5. We showered and changed and walked for a while in the town. The next day we had to get ready for the Torres del Paine tour and we were so excited because this was so famous and it was the one we had heard the most about. We visited La Cueva del Milodón first and did some other stops along the way until we got to the park. Unfortunately the weather was so bad, we had chosen the last day for this tour on the hopes on having nicer weather, but it ended up being worse so when we got to the Torres del Paine park there was so much mist and clouds that we couldn’t actually take any of the trademark Torres del Paine pictures. Still, we had a lot of fun, and we walked around the park and saw some of the ice broken from the glaciers and it was such an amazing place. I decided that I would love to go back and actually stay and camp in the park like a lot of people did, it was so beautiful and so untouched by men, I thought it was amazing.

When we got back to the house we were so tired, we just showered and had dinner and spent some time with the host family and talked to them about our day. We went to bed early again that day because we wanted to have some time to visit Punta Arenas the next day, because our flight left at night so we had the whole day to walk around. We got there around 11 in the morning and it turned out there was not much to see. We asked for the main landmarks and places to visit and we just went to a cemetery that was supposed to be famous because of a statue of “El Indiecito” but it was nothing special. The weather was also terrible, we walked and carried our bags through the cold and the rain so by the afternoon we just asked for a mall were we could eat something and walked there and stayed there for the rest of the day. We then decided to leave for the airport where we had to wait also for around 3 or 4 hours until our flight left. The airport was so small we didn’t have a lot to do either, but we had Internet so it was enough for us. We got back to Santiago so tired and very late at night.

This trip was definitely an awesome experience because it was the first time we did couchsurfing and we got to visit amazing places, but our expectations were so high that I think we didn’t enjoy it as much as we should have. Definitely the bad weather was a big factor in not being able to appreciate it to the fullest, but still, we tried to make the best of it. Looking back I loved all the places we visited but I think we should have researched a little bit more about the best tours and places to go, because we had no idea of all the things we could do and we just went along with whatever was in the way.

Patagonia is such an incredible region, I’m sure the Argentinian side is just as amazing as the Chilean. I loved the fact that its still so isolated, life is so simple and peaceful there and the natural landscapes are astounding. We got incredible pictures and I can just imagine how it would look with the sun shining. I would love to be able to go back and get to spend more time in the Torres del Paine natural park. You can just get so in touch with nature that I’m sure it must be amazing.

Road Tripping Through South Chile

“No road is long, with good company” 🚘❤️ (en Laguna De Laja)

As an exchange student in Chile, me and my 2 girlfriends and roomies decided to go on a road trip with two Mexican boys who we had met barely a month before, and it was the best and most rewarding decision ever. We almost didn’t have any money, but we decided this was the cheapest way to travel because we could sleep in the car, take food, clothes and everything we needed to survive with us. We took advantage of a long weekend from school and took a 5, almost 4-day trip to the south of Chile.

We lived in Santiago, and I wanted to get all the way down to Puerto Mont and Puerto Varas because I had already been there and I knew how beautiful it was. Unfortunately we discussed it and decided not to get that far south because we would have spent more of our limited time driving than we would actually experiencing the places we wanted to go, so we decided to travel as far south as Valdivia, and Pucón. We each took it as our mission to investigate the coolest places to stop in the way and with the help of some Chilean friends we kind of created a route.

We decided we would drive almost for a complete day, with a few stops, all the way down to Valdivia and then make the required and touristic stops on the way back. We had everything planned except for the rental of the car. Long story short we almost didn’t do this trip because all the car rental agencies we had heard about were very expensive and nobody had the initiative to look for any other places. Luckily, one of my roommates, approximately 3 or 2 days before we were supposed to leave, decided to take it upon herself to google rental agencies in Santiago, blessed be her organized soul. After finding crazy cheap prices compared to the ones of the well-known agencies, we chose one and even doubted the credibility of it. When we got to the rental place nobody wanted to give their credit card as insurance so I decided it was my turn to step in and finally make this trip possible. We rented the cheapest car and just registered one driver cause they charged extra for every other person and we wanted to spare every penny that we could.

Packing for our trip we prepared ourselves to sleep, eat and live in the car. We took food, blankets, pillows and everything we thought we could need.
The day we finally left for our road trip we started driving as early as we could and our first stop was at a vineyard in Santa Cruz. This was one of my favorite places of our trip because we just drove inside, wandered around in this beautiful place and no one even bothered to ask us why or what were we doing there. We had lunch and took a ton of pictures and got to know the whole place without paying a single dime. After that, we decided to drive without stopping until we got to our destination, Valdivia. I’m not exactly sure how many hours we drove but we got there in the early hours of the AM, around 3 maybe, it was rainy and foggy and nothing was opened so we just slept and froze in the car until the sun came out.
We wandered around, took more pictures and followed our road. We arrived in Pucón in the afternoon and we walked through the little town, which was super pretty and touristic.

For the sleeping arrangements, again, my organized friend had requested a place to crash to different people in couchsurfing, but being that we were 5 people it wasn’t so easy to find any takers. Still, being as lucky as we always were, she contacted someone who rented a huge cabin in the woods, with 2 rooms, a fire, kitchen and hot showers for around $8 dollars per person, per night and we stayed there for two nights. When we got to the cabin we thought we had reached heaven because we were so cold, so dirty and so tired of no sleeping and driving the whole day.

The next day my guy friends went on an excursion to climb the volcano and me and the girls went to walk in the Huerquehue National Park, we walked about 14 km so when we got back to the cabin, all of us, we were exhausted.
The next day we started our driving back, stopping anywhere we wanted. We got to stop in the most beautiful little towns, they were so beautiful to see because, being autumn, all the leaves looked golden and filled the floor and the trees and the road and it just looked like a postcard. We also saw many lakes and even a rainbow. Our final most important stop was in Laguna de Laja, we had lunch there and took our time to walk around and enjoy the lake view. On the way back we even stopped in the middle of the road to take the most amazing road pictures, with the volcano behind us, it was all so cliché.

We arrived back in Santiago again in the early morning, around 5 am and we were so beaten but so happy. We took the car back later that day and everything went fine with the deposit.

Looking back now I know how crazy and rushed our trip sounds like, but in the moment it was perfect. This trip lasted only 5 days but those were 5 of the better-lived days of my life. We were so free to do absolutely whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted in the most carefree way, it was amazing. Everything that could have gotten wrong didn’t, actually everything was the best-case scenario. Even if we sometimes froze to death, slept in a car or didn’t sleep at all, we enjoyed all of the rides and the places so much. It is so true when they say that traveling is not the destination, but the journey itself. Doing my first road trip with this other 4 people who are now my family I learned so much. I realized that you literally just have to take the initiative and do it. Leave. Rent a car, buy a ticket, take a train. Just get up and trace a route and leave with whoever is willing to go with you.