La Quinta Región

I love the beach. I always have. I always will. I think in a past life I was a famous surfer in California or a scuba diver in Australia- that is how much I love being around the ocean. Needless to say, spending a semester a country with almost 3000 miles of coastline on the Pacific Ocean was not something I was particularly upset about. Although Santiago is not actually on the ocean, it is about an hour away (only a $5 bus ride!) from one of the most popular beach cities in Chile, Viña del Mar. Up until this weekend, I had not headed out to the ocean, partially due to lack of time, and partially due to the fact that it was winter here and I really had no desire to spend a miserable day getting splashed by freezing waves. But this weekend, the CIEE program took all the American exchange students on our first weekend ‘excursion’, as they call them. Not only did we hit up the beach in Viña del Mar, we also toured the neighboring port city Valparaíso, a tiny little town called Pomaire, and Los Andes, a small neighborhood in the middle of the mountains (someone extremely creative obviously named that town!). Here are some highlights:

Pomaire was probably one of the cutest/ quirkiest places I have ever seen. Literally the entire economy of Pomaire depends on pottery. Everywhere you look, there are little run-down stores selling everything imaginable made from clay. Glasses, vases, bowls, candle holders, little animal figurines- you name it, they sell it… and dirt cheap, too. We watched a demo of a potter making a candle holder, and it was obvious how they had so much pottery to sell- he literally took a lump of clay and within 2 minutes had morphed it into a beautiful piece of art. So it looked pretty easy, but as soon as I sat down at the pottery wheel to make a bowl, I realized this guy must have been some type of pottery master… it was definitely not as easy as it looked! Every time my clay started to approach some type of bowl shape, I accidently would either rip if off the wheel or press my hand down too hard and make a huge dent in the center. Fail. Eventually I managed to create a sort of heavy-duty army bowl whose sides were literally an inch thick- not the most attractive thing I have ever made. The guy obviously realized I had no idea what I was doing because he came over, pressed my hands on my bowl gently while I was spinning (you have to spin the wheels manually with your feet), and voila! My bowl magically began to form into a normal-looking piece of pottery! It still was not one of the best looking clay creations I have ever seen, but I could probably work my entire life and never produce something as impressive as the 2-minute candle holder of our instructor, so I was pretty happy. Plus, as an extra bonus, the guy never actually touched my bowl when I was working, just my hands, so I can still technically say that I made the masterpiece completely on my own!

Trust me, it requires way more concentration that you would think!

We also tried out the technique of making pottery from clay by hand, which you would think would be easy after years of training with Play-Doh when I was young, but it was still remarkably difficult (of course). We had a different instructor who either didn’t like to talk, or just didn’t think we understood Spanish, because he gave us about 10 seconds of verbal explanation before communicating completely with gestures for the rest of the lesson. So pretty much his method of teaching consisted of making a shape, shoving it about 3 inches in front of our face, and staring at us expectantly, waiting for us to make it. He made this vase like a hollow Christmas ornament, and we were all trying to mimic him and make the same thing, but obviously our objects did not look quite as good as his. The ridiculous thing was, every time he decided he was not satisfied with someone’s work, or thought we weren’t doing it right, he would go over to them and shove the clay object in their face again. He wouldn’t say a single word, just point to the person, then point to the clay object, then point back to the person. I guess maybe he thought that seeing it up-close and personal would help us understand what we were supposed to be doing? More likely, he just didn’t realize that anyone could be so incompetent at making pottery that they could not make something as simple as a hollow sphere! Turns out, my ornament/ vase/ mystery object was apparently so bad that the instructor gave me his to keep instead! At least now I know that if med school doesn’t work out for me, I probably will not be offered any pottery jobs in Pomaire in the near future…

Clay-covered hands in Pomaire after trying out my pottery-making skills.

Valparaíso (or Valpo, as the Chileans affectionately call the city) was about as different from Pomaire as you can get. Pomaire is a tiny little town with about 10 houses and a restaurant, whereas Valparaíso is one of the most important port cities in Chile, filled with local residents and tourists alike. I am 100% serious when I say that Valpo looks like something straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. The city is located right at the base of a bunch of cerros (hills), and literally everywhere you look, there are tons and tons of brightly colored houses clinging to the side of the hills, looking like they could topple over at any second! Who-Ville come to life! Valparaíso is famous in Chile for being a city with unique Bohemian charm, and it is definitely true. Following the moto of our tour guide, “Follow the less obvious path”, we spent a good part of an afternoon simply walking around this crazy city, trying to figure out what makes it so special to Chileans. It is hard to describe, but I think a big part of the city’s appeal is that is so spontaneous, so filled with surprises. You seriously never know exactly what you are going to find around the next corner: it could be a turquoise house precariously placed on a cliff, a huge jumble of electrical wires, a random street vendor selling homemade crafts, a controversial political mural, a dead end, a staircase painted with elaborate details, or even a funicular (a sort of train/ elevator that takes you up and down the hills in something that resembles a train car). We were actually going to ride a funicular up one of the hills, but it turns out the machine was closed that day. Which was probably a good thing, because it looked like the thing had been around for a good 100 years or so, and could probably use a few repairs!

Colored houses in Valparaíso
The little yellow train car at the bottom of this picture is a funicular, driving up the tracks on the hill.
our seafood lunch was fresh! These are all the different fishermen selling fresh fish right on the beach.
One piece of the ‘Open air Museum’. Literally everywhere you looked, there were random murals like this popping up, on walls, on stairs, on the sides of houses, etc.

Traveling around with the giant CIEE group of 35 students definitely has its pros and cons:

Pro: We get a ridiculous amount of delicious food that we have apparently already paid for. Apparently CIEE has the same food budget for exchange programs in every country, so the students that study in countries with relatively cheap food receive huge quantities of high-quality meals! Aka every day we would go to a really fancy restaurant, sit at a table that seats 40 people, and eat a 3 or 4 course lunch (with dessert, too, of course!). Through the course of the weekend, I tried fresh seafood, avocado and shrimp salad, pasta, cazuela (Chilean soup), fruit salads, empanadas, and much, much more. One day we even had a huge barbeque that had way more than enough meat to make up for the last barbeque I went to without food!

Check out all that meat!

Pro: No planning required. We had two great Chilean tour guides for our trip that literally knew exactly where we were going at every moment. I know from experience that traveling with groups of this size can be extremely frustrating and difficult, but I was shocked at how smoothly everything went. Barely any waiting around, tons of fun activities, and a perfect mixture of free time/ scheduled events.

Pro: Fancy lodging. Guess where we stayed for our 4 day adventure? None other than the BEST WESTERN! Yes, that’s right—I guess I did travel halfway across the world just to stay at a hotel that is about a 10 minute drive from my house. I must say, though, that this was no ordinary Best Western. Picture your normal North American Best Western and then imagine it three times as nice- that is where we stayed for the weekend. Huge, fancy rooms, with the largest beds I have ever seen! My two roommates and I could literally have all shared one of them!

Check out those beds! Trust me, it looks even bigger in person.


The hotel also provided one of the best continental breakfast buffets I have ever seen. Sausages like hot dogs, fruit, pastries, toast, eggs, coffee, and bacon (all the Americans were really excited to see bacon!) were just the start. Of course, I made the mistake the first morning of causally strolling down to breakfast in my pajamas, assuming that hotel etiquette is the same worldwide. It took me about 2 seconds to look around, observe all the Chileans dressed up in their fancy work clothes, realize how wrong I was, and run back up to my room to change before returning to the feast! Just when I think I am starting to figure out this Chilean culture, I realize how many more things there are to learn… Although maybe my mistake wasn’t so bad—about a half hour later, our Chilean tour guide showed up in the most ridiculous pink and blue striped sweat pants/ pajama pants—but he wore his for the entire day!

Con: No matter how hard you try, sometimes it is just impossible to speak Spanish when you are surrounded by a mob of native English-speakers. Normally my American friends and I start our conversations speaking only Spanish, but eventually we have something we only know how to say in English and little by little, everyone starts speaking in English again. I don’t know how it happens, but inevitably if people are talking for more than a half hour, they will always switch back to English. Most of the time we aren’t even conscious of the change, and once we notice, we try to go back to Spanish, but it is tricky. Everyone is so much more comfortable with English and it is so much easier to say exactly what you are thinking, that I think our minds just naturally trick us back into speaking our native language. I was a little worried that I would not be able to understand my host family when I got back because I hadn’t heard people talking really fast Chilean Spanish in a while, but never fear—my skills look like they are here to stay!

Pro/Con: The busing situation on the trip made me laugh. Every time we went to a new activity, the guides would do a head count to make sure every one was on the bus. The thing was, however, they were really only doing this for show, and not for safety reasons! One time they counted up everyone on the bus and we headed off. A minute later someone came out from the bus bathroom, and the directors were like ‘Oh, you are here too!’ They had no idea he was in the bathroom, but were apparently happy enough to have only lost one student they had gotten that they decided to leave anyways…? Bizarre. Good thing the breakfast buffet encouraged me to wake up early- looks like this is not the time to arrive late to the bus!

We also had a sporadic treat one day when the bus stopped at a toll booth and the tour guide invited a traditional Chilean street vendor aboard the bus. He walked up and down the aisle and we all got to pick one of the homemade candies from his big basket of sweets. I felt like it was a combination of the Candy Man handing out goodies and Trick or Treating! I am pretty sure it was our tour guide’s way of waking everyone up before we got to our next destination, and it sure worked!

I am pretty sure I did more in those four days than I could have ever done in a week on my own. I went on a boat ride in the bay off the coast of Valpo, hung out by the Pacific Ocean, toured two of Pablo Neruda’s houses (a famous Chilean poet), saw a huge theater in Viña del Mar, saw a traditional Chilean rodeo, toured a vineyard, and saw how chicha (a Chilean alcoholic beverage similar to wine) is made. I made a modified version of dirt cake, encountered a creepy man in a head-to-toe suit who was playing the recorder in the street, and watched two little kids perform the cueca (the national dance of Chile). (Side note: Dad—the little 8 year-old boy was wearing a poncho!! I guess there is actually one time when tourists are not the only ones who wear them!) I went on a ridiculously difficult hike up the mountain, led by the same 8 year-old boy who is apparently also the Chilean equivalent of a boy scout—talk about a Jack of many trades!I took a horse-drawn carriage ride through the streets of Viña, saw tons of sea lions extremely close, visited a little fishing village, and saw all the pelicans begging for fish at the market where it was being sold. I went to a huge arts fair on the beach, went running along the beach, had a picnic on the beach, and (just because I wasn’t quite sick of the beach), hung out on the beach some more! All in all, a pretty good weekend if I do say so myself. Let’s just say I will definitely be coming back to Viña del Mar to get in some quality beach time before heading back to the frigid Wisconsin winter!

Just some sea lions casually chilling out on a barge.
Being in a tsunami hazard zone was a first for me- I have definitely never seen a Best Western with tsunami evacuation protocol posted on the door!
The cueca dancers- poncho and all!


The Chilean rodeo.

In the rodeo, a team of cowboys tries to chase down the bull and peg him against the side of the ring. I am not exactly how the scoring system works, but they can either gain or lose points depending on where/ how they hit the bull. The cowboys we saw were not extremely good, I am guessing, because the winning team had a score of 0 points- the only team that didn’t lose points!


Last but definitely not least- EL MAR! Hanging out by the Pacific Ocean.

P.S. Shout out to all my Badger friends who are starting classes this week- I miss you guys and wish I could be there- minus the hard science classes part of course!!!!