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.

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Summer Trip: Backpacking through Europe

 

“I would definitely live out of a backpack, if it meant I could see the world.”

🎒 Backpacking was definitely one of my best traveling experiences. Even if it wasn’t an easy one, I learned so much throughout the whole process.

Starting out with not-so-simple steps as planning and booking all of our transportation, I found out it is not as easy as people would think. It gets even more complicated when you travel in a group. I traveled with 3 other people so since the beginning we had to agree on dates, countries, cities, and towns we would visit, which was nearly impossible. Everyone wanted to visit a certain specific place, so we had to do our best to design a plan in which everyone got to visit their dream countries, as well as the typical and most famous tourist attractions in a 25 day-span. Not to mention also getting in touch with our European friends and try to accomplish a plan in which we could visit their home cities and get them to accept to host 4 semi-strangers in their house.

When you manage to get this figured out you still have to pack and prepare for it. Find the right backpack, pack enough but not too much, fitting everything inside your bag, prepare for all types of weather and still consider some extra space for souvenirs is definitely not easy when you know you will have to carry everything you need literally on your back.

Even as it is difficult, I found this process exciting, not the planning part, but the packing one. Deciding which clothes to take, which shoes will make you more comfortable, what shirts you want to remain forever in your pictures and which ones are the easiest ones to coordinate with all your shorts/jeans/leggings, as well as preparing for any random situations gets you all shaky and excited for the unknown in the good way. I love the idea of traveling only with what you can carry, because this way you realize how much you can live without. You start in a simpler way, a free and carefree way. Also, afterwards, you realize you will not travel to the end of the world, so pretty much anything you forget, you can buy it wherever you are going.

Throughout our trip I learned how much all our planning was helpful to keep us from being stranded in only one country. Of course not everything went as planned. We ended up in random towns, and either extending or shortening our stays in different cities because of fully booked trains and hostels. Even so, we were lucky enough to visit Europe before the actual summer vacation days started, so even if a lot of our planned trains were already full, we managed to find similar ones and still get to the places we wanted, even if not in the actual hour or date planned. Traveling by the cheapest way we could find was crazy; we slept at train stations in the freezing cold, spent 16 hours in a boat without a seat, shared an all night-train cabin with two ladies and a crying baby in the hottest night of our lives, showered in bathrooms at stations or not showered at all for days at a time… Kebabs and Milka became my go to diet plan, which I don’t regret for a single moment, even if it cost me some extra kilos and hours at the gym on my way back. McDonalds turned into our second home, the free WIFI and cheap meals beat the hatred you may have for globalized food chains; it certainly did for me and my friends never had a problem with their euro burgers (plus they sell the cheapest and best macaroons in France).

Also, being the young and cool but also smart and cultivated people we decided we were, we took it as our mission to manage to visit all the cultural, important places, as well as the best recommended clubs, and pub-crawls, or even any pubs or clubs that we could find. We spent a whole night in the freezing streets of Amsterdam, pub-crawling because we couldn’t find a hostel to stay in, visited the biggest club in Prague and managing to walk back to our hostel in the middle of the night, even after one of my friends got lost in the way, tried the best pizza of our lives in one of the most expensive organized pub crawls in Rome, experienced the night beach life in Barcelona and found a club out of the blue, far far away of the city by taking a random bus filled with other crazy students in Florence; all of this at the same time as we were waking up at 9:00am in the morning to manage to have enough time to visit all the necessary museums, landmarks, castles, buildings, parks and statues we were told we just had to visit. Looking back I don’t even know how we managed to get it done, it was insane, but oh-so perfect.

After this trip the people I travelled with, we were family; we laughed, we cried, we fought, we fell apart and got together again, we drank, we danced, we ate like crazy, we took care of each other… Everything was so intense; I would not change it for the world.
For me backpacking was one of the best experiences of my life. This journey throughout Europe was the first time I travelled so far, to so many places, with people who weren’t my family, in the cheapest way possible, and I fell in love with it. I found that this is the right way to travel, to try to experience as much as you can out of a place is the best way to do it. I don’t care if I have never been as tired as I was after that trip, it was definitely the one that convinced me that this is the way that I want to live my life, backpacking, as far as I can, with whoever is willing to go with me. Because even if you go with people who are not so close to you, you end up sharing so much that you create closer ties with them than with anyone else before.

 

Spain

Spain was the last country we visited in our backpacking trip. We were first in Barcelona and then in Madrid.

I think Barcelona is an amazing city, it is true when they say it’s a city for the young. It has a lot of night life and places to go. I also really liked all the Gaudí designed places; for me it was really cool how culture and art mixed with modern life.

In an unfortunate way, Madrid, as our last city, was the one we experienced the least. By this time, after almost a month of traveling, we were so beaten up. We could barely manage to visit any of the touristic places and actually enjoy them. We were so absolutely tired that I don’t even remember clearly what we did there. I remember liking it, and thinking that Spain had so much museums and cultural places, but we didn’t get to visit them. I would have loved to spend a little more time there to be able to actually get to know this cities.

Italy

🇮🇹 Italy is a country full of beautiful and different cities. It’s so filled with art and history that you learn so much from any of the places you decide to visit. Weather wise I spent some of the hottest days of my life there, summer days are insane; I felt I was literally melting, but still it was so worthy.

Rome is so crazy, as capitals are known to be. There are so many places to visit and so much history inside of it. In my opinion its a beautiful city but too hectic to live in. There are people all day, locals and tourists alike, filling the streets. In my opinion its a little too “fast”, you get extra tired of trying to visit every place it has to offer. As a tourist it leaves you exhausted, even as it teaches you so much. Places like the coliseum, and the Fontana di Trevi are breathtaking, but I would prefer to spend more time in some other of its more peaceful cities.

Florence was my absolute favourite one. Since the fist time I visited it, I fell in love with the amount of art it contains. There are painters, artists, and artisans filling all of its streets, its amazing. Its an all over beautiful city, I loved the vibe of it, and every inch of it. Being there I wished I could live in it some day, and one of my backpacking friends actually did. She returned a year after to spend 6 months living there and she told me she fell even more in love with it.

What I loved about Italy is that we got to visit not so touristic places like Verona, which were enchanting in their own way. This little towns all over Italy all have their charm, so I think this is a country definitely worth visiting for a long period of time. I didn’t really get to spend any time with locals, which I regret, but overall its a beautiful artistic country.

Austria

Vienna is by far one of my favourite cities in Europe. Just walking in its streets you can notice how peaceful and beautiful it is. It has amazing buildings and it gave me an impression of being such a clean, educated place. The first time I went there I just had a chance to visit the Belvedere castle, and I was in love with it, I couldn’t believe any other place could be as beautiful, until I arrived the second time and had enough time to visit Schönbrunn. The european “schlosses” are definitely some of the most amazing buildings I’ve ever seen. They still transmit a grandeur vibe and pure beauty that I can never get enough of. I could stay in either of those castles, specially in their gardens, forever.

Vienna is definitely one of the cities I would love to get a chance to live in for a while, so I could get to enjoy all of its amazing places for a longer amount of time.

My First Exchange Experience in Sunshine Coast, Australia

“All glory comes from daring to begin.”

The first time I traveled by myself, I went 14,359 km away from home. I spent a semester as an exchange student in Sunshine Coast, Australia and I chose this country because I thought I’d never travel so far any other way. I was also very drawn to the whole relaxed surfing, first world-high quality of life vibe that this country was known for.

I was seventeen years old and decided to join the exchange program my high school, back in Mexico, offered me. I traveled with a group of 13 Mexicans whom I’d actually never met before (we were all from different states) and one teacher who was in charge of us during the whole trip. Our school arranged for all of us to arrive with local host families, and I was lucky enough to live in one of the nicest and better located homes. Besides my host parents, who were originally from New Zealand, I got to live with another exchange student, a 15-year old German girl who was also doing a six-month program, and who turned out to be one of the sweetest and nicest girls. She and I had a lot in common and we actually became really close friends. We still keep in touch even to this day.

This first traveling experience was definitely hard and challenging at first. I was so nervous about leaving my whole life behind, it seemed to me like the biggest deal. I was going to be missing so many family events, friend’s birthdays and important dates; trading it all for the complete unknown. I actually cried at the airport when I said goodbye to my parents and felt extremely nervous during the whole four-hour flight to Los Angeles, the 16-hour flight to Brisbane and the 45-minute drive to Sunshine Coast, where my new Australian home was. I didn’t know what would be expected of me, how I was going to get by, if I was going to get along with these new bunch of people I’d just met, it was all really overwhelming.

The first few weeks were definitely the toughest. Getting used to a whole new life can definitely be overwhelming. Also, I’ve always been kind of a shy, quiet person, so it represented a huge challenge for me to actually try and force myself to make new friends.  I had to convince myself a lot of times that it was all going to be fine, even if six months seemed like a lifetime, and even if I felt completely alone and lost at first. Fortunately, I eluded that dreaded homesick feeling most of the other foreign exchange students got in the first few days.

It would take ages for me to write everything I experienced, so here are some of the basics and highlights:

  • I attended the 12th grade in Mountain Creek State High School.
  • I rode a bike everyday (as best as I could, falling down only twice) from my home to my school and lived at walking distance to the beach.
  • I only took ONE surfing lesson in my whole exchange.
  • I gained approximately 5kg (11 pounds) in my six month stay. This seemed like the end of the world then but I consider myself lucky now that I deliberate on just how many Tim Tams, arroz con leche, cookies, muffins, nutella, brigadeiro and crazy amount of delicious cereal and muesli I ate. Also, most of my other exchange girl friends gained around twice as much as I did; turns out this is a very common inconvenience of going abroad.
  • I became a sweet chilli addict.
  • I tried vegemite and didn’t like it.
  • I learned to take off my shoes when I went into my house, and that it is strangely, country-wide permitted in Australia to be barefoot anytime, and anywhere you want. I thought this was really, really cool.
  • I got to see my favorite musician of all time, John Mayer, live for the first time, with 4th row tickets in his Brisbane gig of the Battle Studies tour. This almost brought me to tears and complete shock and disbelief and I still get excited just remembering it. Dream come true, bucket list item, best day of my life.
  • I got to travel to Fiji with some of my Mexican friends in a really peculiar, last minute unplanned trip. The type of trip where you just go to a travel agency and ask for the cheapest plane tickets/vacation deal you can get, and buy it right there and then. Even quirkier when we got to Fiji penniless because of all the money we had already spent on the plane and accommodations so we ended up eating noodle soup every day for dinner, in some totally luxurious hotel.
  • I realized how little you can do in Australia as a minor (under 17) and after celebrating my 18th birthday there, realized that being legal is not that much fun either if all of your friends are still minors.
  • Saw one too many bags of Goon and still managed to stay sober during my whole stay.
  • Realized that Latino people, we have so much in common and do have the party within us.
  • Within Australia, I got to visit the Great Barrier Reef (beyond beautiful), Sydney, Brisbane and Surfers Paradise.

Funnily enough, after living for a while in Australia I realized that the relaxed vibe I was searching so much for wasn’t exactly what I wanted out of my life. At least not at that time. People in Australia, at least in Sunshine Coast, are really and truly calm and chill people. Surf is what’s going on in most of those places and its so nice to see that everyone has a peaceful life. Still, I decided that I missed the hectic, crazy pace of my country.

By the last few months of my exchange I was already so happy there. I had everything I needed: best friends, a sister, a boyfriend, a family, a routine, a beautiful home by the beach. I had this whole new life, and I’d already grown so accustomed to it. Consequently, when it was time to leave I went crashing down. Unfortunately for me I was the one who got to say goodbye to every last one of the exchange students. My flight was one of the last ones to leave so I cried as hard as I hadn’t cried before in a very long time. I said goodbye to my best friend, to my sister, to my Mexican new family, to my boyfriend and to my host parents, not knowing if I was ever going to see them again. To this day, this is still one of the strangest and saddest feelings I’ve ever experienced. People you love still existing, but so far away from you that they stop seeming real. It’s really surreal and tragic.

I think I was lucky enough to stay behind in Australia long enough to realize that what had made my stay there wasn’t really the country, or the city itself, it was the people I had met. As I went around Sunshine Coast in my last few days, when I was already alone, I felt so ready to leave. Not one of the places I visited meant anything to me if I didn’t have my friends to share them with. The Australia I had so close to my heart was restricted to a time frame, and a people-frame. I was ready to go back home.

My exchange to Sunshine Coast definitely turned out to be one of the most wonderful experiences. It went far and beyond everything I had hoped for. While I was still living there, I actually thought that it was all too good to be true, that I didn’t deserve so much; looking back at it I kind of still do.

This first long trip of mine taught me so many things. It taught me to conquer my fears, to try my best to settle into a completely foreign space. To be open to meeting so many new and different types of people. To respect and love other countries and nationalities. It showed me my personality and gave me a whole new sense of nationalism. It gave me character and a new sense of independence. It brought me friends and people I love that, even though at the time we said goodbye it seemed like I’d never see again, I have actually met several times after, and its like we never were apart.

Coming back to Mexico after my exchange was also kind of disorienting and unreal. When I left I had the idea that so many things were going to change while I wasn’t home, and it actually turned out that everything stayed the same. It was as if I’d never left. This was both good and bad because it wasn’t hard for me to go back to my routine. I still had high school to attend to, I hung out with my same best friends and our friendship was still as great as before I left. Still, this all still felt kind of wrong. I was beginning to forget my life back in Australia and I hated that. I still tried to keep in touch with all of my friends but we were all back to our homes in every corner of Mexico, of the planet.

Little by little I just had to accept the fact that it was all over, that whenever I saw my friends from Sunshine Coast we’d all reminisce the time we spent there, but that our lives were now different. It all sounds so tragic and dramatic but for me it really was, still is. Now that I’m older I’ve learned to grow accustomed and accept this type of feelings, but at that time if was definitely very weird and hurtful to me. Still, it was because of this experience that I decided that I wanted to keep experiencing new places and meeting new people.

My exchanged in Australia definitely marked my life because after it, I fell in love with this new way of travel. In staying a longer period of time in a different place, in challenging yourself and discovering new cultures. Into getting closer with new cities and people, even if this meant that you’d miss it all deeply afterwards. This trip changed me because, even if after I’d gotten back home it all seemed like a dream, it definitely was the best one I had ever had.