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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

France

I’ve been to Paris twice in my life. It’s the only city in France i know and the first european city I ever visited.

As cliched as it may sound I was in love with Paris since my first visit. It was so different from any other city I had ever been to. Everything was so classy, so artistic, so pretty. The first time I went there I didn’t have time to take all the Eiffel Tower/Louvre Museum/Pont des Artes pictures I wanted because I visited it in a guided tour trip with my whole family. Even so, I was so in awe by all its beauty I knew I had to go back.

The second time I didn’t make the same mistake and I planned for my trip to paris to be as long as it could, within the limits of my month-long backpacking Europe trip. I was there for around 5 or 6 days in which I woke up at 9 and slept at around 11 at a far away and kind of dangerous hostal. I got to visit so many beautiful places I hadn’t before. The Orsay museum was by far one of my favourites, I never did like the Louvre that much. I got to take a million pictures of the Eiffel tower in every possible angle. I even had some spare time to visit not so touristic places like Beautes Chaumont park and I got to spend the most wonderful afternoon just looking at people pass by at the Luxembourg park. I loved feeling like I wasn’t that much of a tourist by being able to travel by subway, every day, and getting to know not so popular places in a carefree way. Paris is filled with so many beautiful spots, you can never get tired of it.

The only place we visited that was not technically inside of Paris, but a must in every guide, was the Versailles Castle. This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. Its so amazing you can cry, literally. I don’t know if its just for me but every inch of this palace screamed beauty. I don’t think im exaggerating because even now, as I remember it, I cannot think of enough words to describe how amazed i was by it. I loved it. Maybe because I was so young the first time I went there, and it didn’t resemble anything I had ever seen, or because of its immense gardens and my love for nature, i don’t know, i just know since the first moment I saw it, it became officially one of my favourite places in France, in Europe, in the world.

These 6 days were some of the most tiring of my trip, but at the same time they were some of the best. I got to show my friends around a city I had already visited, but that I already loved, and visit whole new beautiful and new places for me in a different light. I would love to visit other cities in France, just to make sure I am not missing out on anything as magical as Paris is.