Nazarbayev University and my first week in Astana

This post is about 3 months late, but better late than never.

I arrived in Astana from Frankfurt just before midnight on August 10.  After dealing with the long lines at the immigration counter, I officially entered Kazakhstan as a student.  I was greeted at the arrivals hall by a local friend and her family – who brought me some wonderful snacks – and the director of my MA program, who took me to the university campus by taxi.  The drive to the university was surprisingly short, as the campus is not too far from the airport, a good distance outside of the city center.  Once I arrived, I was shown my dorm room on the top floor and left to try and catch some sleep (surprise, I didn’t get any – thanks, jet-lag).

The following morning I was introduced to one of the student advisors from my college who took me on a tour of the campus.  The primary building on the campus is made up of nine blocks, each holding a separate academic college, with a large atrium connecting them which is full of fountains and palm trees.  There is a library block, a few small cafes, a bookstore, and a cafeteria in this building as well.  Beyond this building, there are a number of dormitory blocks for students and additional housing for faculty and staff.  In between these dormitories is the Sports Centre, and scattered around the various blocks there are a few minimarkets and a doctor’s office.  At some point there will be skywalks between the buildings which will make it a lot less miserable to get to classes in the winter when it’s -30º+ outside.

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The main entrance to campus
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Inside the atrium

After walking around the campus, I was taken into the city to exchange some money, buy a SIM card, and get a feel for the city.  We took a bus to Asia Park mall and then walked to the famous Khan Shatyr shopping mall, where I changed some money and admired the insane architectural design of the building – which is shaped like a giant tent.  From here we walked along the central park of the Left Bank, the new part of the city which was designed in large part by President Nazarbayev.  The park is quite beautiful, and there was an art festival exhibiting artwork all along the walkways toward the Presidential Palace.  My favorite piece of art in the park is the Expo 2017 figures, each holding a globe painted with representations of their respective countries.

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Khan Shatyr Mall
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Looking into the main park of Astana from Khan Shatyr

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Halfway through the park is the ubiquitous landmark of Astana – Bayterek Tower.  This tower, which was inspired by a design drawn by President Nazarbayev himself, is an observation platform and symbol for modern Astana.  The sidewalks and benches around the monument are full of people selling ice cream and rides for kids, as well as the occasional performer.  Walking further toward the river are a series of dancing fountains, which lead you toward Ak Orda (Ақ Орда in Kazakh), the Presidential Palace.

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Once we walked the length of the park, we turned around and headed back toward Keruen mall (notice that this city has a ton of malls?) for lunch.  Most food is incredibly cheap here compared to the US, so even in an expensive mall food court I had a full set meal lunch for $4.  After lunch we went back to the university and I crashed – 10 hour time changes do a number on the body.

The next few days were fairly uneventful as I didn’t have an ID card to get in and out of campus.  I had graduate orientation on Friday, where I met some of the faculty from my college and most of my cohort, but most of my time was spent in a jet-lag induced state of exhaustion.

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Sunset over campus from my window

One afternoon I managed get off the campus with the help of a friend, whose ID card I used to get through the entrance gates so I could walk around the city to fight jet-lag.  I, along with another international student in my cohort, went to the giant central park in the new city centre of Astana.  It was a nice sunny day, so we leisurely strolled through the Expo figures, taking time to admire the depictions of each country participating in next year’s event.  Many of these figures are from countries which I have previously visited, so I made sure to photograph each of them individually – especially those of countries I studied in like Bolivia and Romania.  Just beyond where these figures end, walking toward Bayterek tower, were performers dressed in “traditional” armor and held weapons while painted like statues.  There were tons of local families posing with each of these statue people, each of whom would quickly switch positions right as the photo was being taken so that it looked as though they were attacking the people posing.  There were some other pieces from the art festival that had been installed since my last visit as well, so as we walked we continued to admire these pieces as well.

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Who would’ve thought…
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Street performer

We met another friend from our cohort at the mall off of this park, and from there we went to the right bank of Astana, which is the older part of the city where a majority of people actually live.  We took the bus to Respublika Avenue, which is main thoroughfare through the old city and the centre of life in Astana.  From here we cut across to the riverbank, which we walked along for an hour or so as the sun began to set.  There were lots of people strolling along the riverbank, which has nice brick walking paths, park benches, and fishing access.

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Monument of Kenesary Khan
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Walking along the river
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Boat going down the Ishim

We made our way across one of the many bridges across the Ishim River and into Astana Park.  This park has a giant clock tower that looks like the Eye of Sauron that surrounded by a bunch of painted life-sized horse statues.  There were also fountains which came out of the ground around the clock tower that were full of children running, splashing, and even biking through.  We continued walking toward a mall, where we got dinner, before continuing on toward the park where we first met.  We made a final stop at the Astana Opera House – a giant Greek style theatre with imposing columns and statues of Kazakh musicians guarding it’s entrance.  It lies in stark contrast to the bizarre architecture of the rest of the city centre.

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Little kid on a horse
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The clocktower
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Kids playing in the park fountains
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Khan Shatyr at night
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Astana Opera House

The next day, after finally acquiring my student ID card (one of many technical difficulties I’ve experienced here so far), I was able to come and go freely on campus.  Thanks to this, I was able to meet up with my friend Galiya who met me at the airport when I arrived.  We met by the Presidential Palace and after a brief food stop in an old cafeteria, we walked across a bridge to the right bank to visit the rest of the famous sites in Astana.  First was the Presidential Park, a giant park across the river from the Palace and surrounding the Pyramid, formally called the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.  This park has a huge fountain system that looks like an eagle when viewed on a satellite map.  Just up the hill from the fountains is the Pyramid, in front of which are a few Instagram shaped boards that you can pose inside to promote tourism in Astana.

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View of Ak Orda from the bridge
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Ferry going along the river
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The Pyramid through a standing Instagram board

On the other side of the pyramid is Independence Square, which holds a giant pillar, some modern buildings, and a brand new mosque.  We walked up to the monument in the centre of the square before turning toward Hazret Sultan mosque.  This building is probably the most beautiful in Astana with its imposing yet delicate white marble exterior.  The main entrance to the mosque is styled in a way similar to the entrance gates of the most famous Central Asian Islamic buildings from Turkestan and Samarkand.  After I wandered about admiring the architecture, we continued walking down the street toward a mall where we grabbed dinner in a restaurant styled after a Soviet era kitchen, which was really interesting.  I tried my first Russian dumplings (vareniki, apparently the same as pierogi according to Wikipedia) after having fun trying to read the Russian menu.  After eating and hanging out in the mall for a little while longer, we parted ways and I went back to the university – ending my last day of freedom before classes began.

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Independence Square
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Hazret Sultan Mosque
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Side entrance
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Main entrance
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Vareniki
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Bonus: Colorful Kazakh tenge bills

Frankfurt and Mainz – 24 hours in Germany

On August 8, 2016, I left the United States for a two year MA program in Astana, Kazakhstan.  This obviously isn’t the most common international grad school destination, so I’ll be writing a lot of later posts about life in the steppe.  However, right now I’d like to focus on what happened between that flight out of Chicago to when I landed in Astana.

I flew out of Chicago just before midnight on an overnight flight to Frankfurt, Germany on Lufthansa.  This was both my first flight on Lufthansa and my first visit to Germany.  I have to take a moment to mention that I managed to snag both the bulkhead seat AND and empty row for this flight, which is pretty much what everyone dreams of on an overnight transatlantic flight.  I managed to get some decent sleep with this arrangement, and I arrived in Frankfurt more refreshed than one normally is after such a flight.  Thus began my 24 hour layover in Germany.

When I originally booked my flight, I had intended to just book a hostel and wander around the city.  However, in a wonderful twist of fate, one of my best friends from my exchange program in Singapore over two years ago was living in the nearby city of Mainz for university.  Thanks to this, I got to visit a good friend acted like my personal German tour guide and gave me a free place to stay overnight.

My friend met me at the airport arrivals hall, and after a brief time finding the luggage storage desk, we took the train to central Frankfurt from the airport.  The train to the city is incredibly fast and easy to take, and I’d recommend it for anyone spending more than a few hours on a layover in the airport.  The train station itself was really cool, at least for someone who has only visited Europe once prior.  The industrial look in the inside is just something I really love.  The outside is also nice, though not the most beautiful building on the planet by any means.  It’s a relatively short walk from the train station to the city centre – literally just straight out the front door on the pedestrian street and then a few blocks.  The pedestrian street had food stalls, little shops, and hundreds of bicycles parked everywhere.

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Frankfurt train station

After about a 15 minute walk, we encountered the giant Euro statue in the park near the European Central Bank.  This thing is incredibly gaudy and I honestly don’t understand why it’s even necessary, but it did make for some striking photos.  The park marks the beginning of the financial district, where the shorter stereotypically European buildings shoot up into massive skyscrapers.

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We left the park after a few minutes and made our way toward Frankfurt Maintower, one of the city’s tallest buildings and home to an observation tower.  The ticket to the top was €6.50 and well worth it for the view.  You can see the entire urban sprawl and the surrounding landscape.  The juxtaposition of older style buildings with modern glass and metal skyscrapers is especially visible from this vantage point.  After a 15-20 minute visit we made our way back to the ground and toward the old city centre of Frankfurt.

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The old city from Maintower

After walking through a large plaza with a statue of Gutenberg, we turned into the curvy streets of the old centre.  This area is quite different from the rest of the city, with little sidewalk cafes, old style architecture, and even a painted chunk of the Berlin Wall from an art gallery.  The Goethe house museum, located in the famous author’s birthplace, is right on the edge of this district of the city, which we walked by but didn’t enter.  Just around the corner was entered St. Paul’s Church, which while no longer an active church, was the historic site where the German constitution was written.  There isn’t much original stuff left in the building as it was gutted during World War II, leaving only part of the outer structure intact.

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St. Paul’s Church and nearby monument

Just around the corner from the church is the centre of the old city, a square called Römerplatz.  This square is lined with German style buildings which were rebuilt, like the church, after being destroyed in WWII.  Along with the beautiful architecture, there’s also 17th century fountain and a 13th century church.  It would be very easy to sit in one of the cafes along this square and enjoy the views for quite a while.  It reminded me vaguely of a small scale version of Prague’s Old City, though nowhere near as grand.

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Römerplatz

There are many interesting streets and alleys which lead out of the square, one of which we took that led us to the riverbank and the Iron Footbridge, a pedestrian walkway across the Main River.  Rather than crossing the river, we ended up turning around and heading back into the old city to continue seeing the sites.  Our next stop was the Frankfurt Cathedral, another of the many post-WWII reconstructed buildings.  The inside looked very new and quite plain, though there were some hints of the deep history of the church in the traces of old murals along the walls.  After visiting the church, we took a short break at a nearby cafe to rest for a few minutes before trekking through the rest of the city.

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From the church plaza, we made our way toward Zeil Street, a well known shopping street in Frankfurt.  Along the way I was able to try my first German bratwurst, which was delicious with the brown bread and mustard.  The shopping street was packed with people, a stark contrast to the previous streets we had walked in the old centre.  While I had no interest in shopping, we did stop to admire the insane architecture of one of the My Ziel mall which had a huge wormhole built into it.  A short distance from this mall was the Main Guard Square, which is the main center of the city.  From this square you can again see the contrast of old and new architecture in the city.

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German bratwurst
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My Zeil mall
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Main Guard Square

Our last stop in Frankfurt was Eschenheim Tower, a building I noticed on my travel guide app that looked really interesting.  This tower was an old city gate that looks like it was transported out of a Disney movie castle.  It now sits in a small little park and apparently has a restaurant inside of it.  Once we stopped by the tower, we started heading back to the train station.  Along the way, we stumbled by the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, in front of which was a cute interpretation of the bull and bear statues.  We managed to make our way toward the opera house, which was a really beautiful building surrounded by a huge square with stunning architecture.

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Eschenheim Tower
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Frankfurt Opera House

As we walked along one of the main streets in the city, we wandered past the Deutsche Bank Twin Towers, which were strikingly beautiful as they reflected the deep blue sky and fluffy white clouds.  Since neither of us were entirely sure of how to get back to the train station in the best way, we ended up stumbling through Frankfurt’s red light district, which was incredibly bizarre for someone who has never lived somewhere where this was a normal thing.  Though there were few people there as it was early afternoon, the signage and hotel names were hilariously sexual, as if teenage boys came up with names that sounded erotic.  Thankfully the district is quite small and very near the train station, so we just made our way through quickly and hopped on a train to Mainz.

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Deutsche Bank Towers

Mainz is a quaint little university town not too far away from Frankfurt, and conveniently close to the airport.  This city is where Gutenberg invented the printing press, and as such it holds the Gutenberg Museum in the city centre.  The town is very walkable, and so we made our way along the beautiful old streets and I admired all the architecture.  We walked through this square with a crazy statue for Carnival in which everything is doing the opposite of what it should, like cats being in the water and fish flying in the air.

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Mainz city centre

In the centre of the city stands the most stunning piece of architecture in the city, Mainz Cathedral.  This church was founded in 975 CE, which is mind-blowing.  Interestingly, the church is constructed in different styles, including Romanesque, Baroque, and Gothic, due to various stages of construction over history.  The inside of the church is incredibly beautiful and holds an impressive collection of art.  Beneath the church are some ossuaries which hold the remains of archbishops and other significant figures from history.  There’s also a small courtyard inside of the church with gardens, around which are arched walkways with old statuary.

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Mainz Cathedral
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Inside the cathedral

As we continued walking in the city, we made our way to the Rhine River and walked along its bank for a while.  There is a very nice walking path along the river which makes for a pleasant stroll by the water, and there were many people taking advantage of it.  After a short walk along the river, we headed into another part of the old city.  There was this very interesting building which had been painted to look quite old, and the sign on it said that the town had been there since 500 CE.  I though the church was already old, so this part of the city just blew my mind.  My friend didn’t even think about how old everything was, while I was pointing out all of the years on the signs we walked by.

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Sunset over the Rhine
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The town has been here since 500 CE

Not far from this building was the shopping district and primarily pedestrian part of the city.  The buildings in this area look very similar to the Römerplatz in Frankfurt but a lot less touristy.  They hold shops and restaurants which were not really aimed at tourists like those in Frankfurt, which was a nice change.  As we walked through here at sunset, the colors on the buildings were wonderful and the atmosphere was perfect.  Because we walked so much in the city so I could see everything in the daylight, we missed our opportunity to get dinner at a lot of places in the city.  Since there were few options, I ended up eating a sampler platter of local cheeses and pretzels — something I can’t really complain about, as it was pretty good.  The first was called Spundekäse, which was like a whipped and creamy cheese, while the second was called Mainzer Handkäse, which was a local specialty cheese that was marinated in vinegar with onions.  I was given a sampler platter with half portions of each cheese and it was entirely too much cheese for one person to consume, though I did my best to do it anyway.

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Old city architecture
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Cheese dinner

The following morning, after eating a wonderful breakfast of fresh local rolls and butterkäse, we set out to walk around the city for an hour or so before I had to return to the airport.  It was then that we visited the church, as it had been closed before our arrival the prior evening.  This took up most of our time as the building is huge and there is a lot to see.  After that, however, we walked back toward the train station where we took the 20 minute ride back to the airport.  After I grabbed my bag from the luggage storage desk, my friend helped me get to the proper gate and terminal for my flight before we parted ways (and I encountered the most frustrating security line ever).

Though I was only in Germany for 24 hours, I feel like I had a really good visit and saw quite a bit of the Frankfurt area.  I hope to be able to visit Germany again soon, but this trip was a great teaser of what a future trip could hold.

Brno – home to skeletons, mummified monks, and the birthplace of genetics

Brno is the second largest city in the Czech Republic and the largest in Moravia.  There is evidence of human occupation in the area since the Neolithic, and documented evidence of the city existing since about 1000 CE.  Because of its rich history and culture, the city is a must see for anyone visiting the Czech Republic.

We arrived in Brno at around sunset.  Walking out of the train station was a very sketchy feeling experience, as it looked like a place one shouldn’t be at dark here in the U.S.  We walked toward where we were staying, Hostel Jacob, which was located in the main square near the church.  Once we made it there and checked in (I used my Michigan driver’s license and confused the guy at the desk), we found food at this small fast food place that had pizza and kebabs, both of which were wonderful after not eating since breakfast.  It was a weekend night, and Brno is a college town, so of course the streets were full of students heading to nightclubs and grabbing food before going out.  We were definitely not interested in joining, as cross-country travel does not exactly promote high energy or desire to go clubbing.  We crashed at our hostel pretty quickly to get ready for the long day of ossuary and crypt exploring the next day.

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Breakfast room at the hostel

After enjoying the free breakfast in the breakfast nook of the hostel (fresh bread and Nutella!), we made our way to the square and entered St. Jacob’s Church, a stunning gothic church right in the center of the main plaza.  The outside of the church is white, and the flying buttresses have been mostly obscured from view, making it look less gothic on the outside.  The inside, however, is extremely gothic in style.  The giant pillars and ornate ceiling gave it an imposing feeling, but the large windows brought in much needed light to contrast the darkness.  The most impressive part of the church though, is located below ground.

The Brno Ossuary is located directly below St. Jacob’s Church, accessible by a small staircase to the right of the church.  There’s a small museum at the entrance by the ticket booth which includes examples of skeletal trauma and pathologies, as well as a bit of art.  The main ossuary is located behind a large iron door that leads into a dark brick corridor.

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Tiffany entering the vault

Soon after entering, the walls are made entirely of long bones and skulls.  Floor to ceiling there are thousands and thousands of human skeletons placed in various piles.  The skeletons came from an old ossuary that was rediscovered in 2001 when construction workers were renovating the cobblestones of the main square around the church.  It is the second largest ossuary in Europe, only behind the catacombs of Paris.  The bones were collected and moved to an area accessible to the public and the museum opened in 2012.

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Inside the ossuary

As you walk further into the ossuary, you will find a large stack of skulls, many of which show symptoms of disease like tuberculosis and syphilis.  Evidence of disease continues into the main corridor, which houses hundreds of skulls carefully placed in the piles of femora, tibiae, and humeri. It was fascinating to examine the crania and find evidence of diseases, trauma, and genetic traits.  Interestingly, many of the skulls in the ossuary had metopic sutures, which normally fuse together in childhood but occasionally stay unfused into adulthood.  One of the most interesting crania has obvious signs of trauma that had completely healed, though it left a giant gash in the frontal.  Also in the main corridor were old gravestones and coffins that were found in the excavations.  The coffins were painted with scenes of the crucifixion, which were remarkably preserved for their age.

According to the time stamps on my photos, we spent almost two hours in the ossuary looking at the remains.  Countless tour groups came and went while we were down there (including a middle aged man carrying a balloon).  Eventually, though, we had to leave to get lunch and continue exploring the city.  We got a suggestion from the hostel and made our way to a well known Czech restaurant a few blocks away, where we had an amazing Czech lunch of food I can’t pronounce.

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Delicious Czech lunch

After lunch, we made our way through the shopping streets along the main corridor, which had seemed so unsettling the night before, but were actually full of high end shops and restaurants.  On our walk, we stumbled across the location where Gregor Mendel lectured on his discovery of inheritance in pea plants in 1865. Not far from this location was the next part of our morbid tour of Brno, the Capuchin Crypt.

The Capuchin Crypt is a crypt attached to a monastery where the monks are buried.  The bodies remain preserved as natural mummies due to the conditions of the crypt.  In the museum section of the crypt, there are many examples of coffins from different time periods, as well as the bodies of some nobles from the mid-1700s.  One of the noblewomen was actually buried alive, as her body was not placed in the usual burial positions and there were scratch marks inside the coffin.  One floor down from these mummies were the mummies of the monks.  The bodies lay in various states of decay along the edges of the room, their heads supported by bricks.  There is one coffin in the room, located below a cross.  The most recent decedent is placed in the coffin, and the remains that were in the coffin are placed on the floor with the rest of the bodies.  Since there are so few monks, there is long enough of a time for the bodies to decay and preserve before the coffin is needed again.  The entire crypt was fascinating, but had much less to see than the ossuary so we only spent about a half hour exploring.

From the crypt, we walked toward the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul.  This church is also in the gothic style (see a trend?) and is located on top of a hill, giving it a prominent position on the skyline.  We couldn’t enter the church due to a wedding, but I was able to climb the tower and see the entire city below.  Tiffany was all towered out after Prague and stayed on the ground to look around the church.  It was interesting to see the divide between the old city and the industrial districts just on the other side of the train station where we came into the city.

From the cathedral, we continued walking around the city, eventually ending up at Špilberk Castle, a 13th century castle turned Hapsburg prison.  We didn’t have time to explore much and see the rest of what we wanted to see, so we walked around the publicly accessible grounds and kept walking toward the Gregor Mendel museum nearby.

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Špilberk Castle

The Gregor Mendel museum is located right next to the Abbey where he lived and worked.  The foundation of the original greenhouse in which he grew his pea plants is uncovered near the entrance of the museum.  Even cooler are the pea plants growing next to the foundation which are descendants of the original experiment.  The museum exhibits were very well made, explaining the history of Mendel and other scientists in the region before discussing genetics and how Mendel shaped the scientific community.  The most fun part was the kids area, which had X and Y foam benches and a game where you put the green/yellow/smooth/wrinkly peas in the correct petri dish.

We left the museum in late afternoon and slowly made our way back to the hostel.  At some point we stopped at a small shop to buy a couple of things we needed.  Tiffany needed a small bottle of shampoo, and at this shop all the merchandise was behind the counter, so you had to ask for the item to see it.  The lady at the store didn’t speak English, and neither of us spoke Czech, so we spent some time pointing and miming and trying to find words in my Central Europe Lonely Planet Phrasebook.  Eventually we got what we wanted and went on our way, but it was a very memorable experience.   We went back to the kebab place for supper and hung out in the hostel for the rest of the night.  That was our last night in the Czech Republic, as the following morning we left for Krakow, Poland.

Kutna Hora – a day in the infamous Sedlec Ossuary

Kutna Hora is a small town located about 70 km outside of Prague.  The town itself isn’t especially beautiful or unique, but it does hold one of the most impressive and macabre sites in Europe, Sedlec Ossuary.  The ossuary is affiliated with the cemetery of a nearby church and is located in a small gothic style building in the center of the graveyard.

 

The sidewalk at the entrance to Sedlec Ossuary

Tiffany and I headed from our hostel to the train station in the late morning, still a bit jet lagged and tired from the previous day trekking around the entire city.  As we made our way to the train, we stopped in Wenceslas Square for a small breakfast of berries and a cheese sandwich which we carried to the station.  After purchasing our tickets, we spent an hour sitting on the floor eating berries and waiting for the noon train.

After an hour ride, we arrived in the rainy town of Kutna Hora and began our quest to find the ossuary.  Our first stop in town was the church which owns the ossuary.  This imposing structure, built in gothic style, was surprisingly bright and cheerful inside, as it had a soft yellow paint which covered all the walls.  The domes of the ceiling had ornate murals and patterns of white trim.  However, there were traces of the macabre inside, such as a section of wall carved out and holding four human skulls and some long bones.  There was also a section on the second floor that allowed you to see the original stonework of the walls and arches.  Overall, it was a beautiful and quaint church that one would never expect to be home to a site as macabre as Sedlec.

 

Inside the church

 

Who needs bricks when you can have skulls?

We carried on walking in search of the ossuary, and with the help of the information desk of the church, we got a map and arrived at the entrance shortly after.  We came in through the back entrance of the cemetery, so we had to walk through the paths which criss-crossed the yard to find the doors to the ossuary.  Walking in was a shock, instantly the infamous chalice of bones and skeleton chandelier were right in front of us.  We bought our tickets (and a couple of skull souvenirs) at the small desk at the entrance and proceeded to spend an hour walking through the tiny building.

 

The ossuary and surrounding cemetery

From the entrance, you descend down a staircase flanked on both sides by the bone chalices, and below a cross of bones.  From here you are standing below the chandelier, which is surrounded on two sides by rooms stacked to the ceiling with human remains.  Below the chandelier are displays with human skulls covered with wax from the candles lit above them.  Each of these is topped with a cherub figure, topping off the creepy/cool factor of the place.

 

Entering the ossuary



 In one of the side rooms hangs a huge coat of arms made of almost every bone of the body cut and broken into place.  My favorite part of this is the bird, whose beak is made of a broken humerus, pecking at the orbit of a skull.  In between this area and the opposing room is a small shrine where people throw coins and light candles.  We spent so much time analyzing the hundreds of skulls in the ossuary, a foreshadowing of what we would be doing a few weeks later in Romania.


 When we finished fangirling over the ossuary, we took a bus across town to St. Barbara’s Cathedral, a stunning example of gothic architecture located on the other side of the city.  This building has enormous flying buttresses and exquisite stained glass windows depicting various stories from the Bible.  The ceiling is adorned with ornate trim and paintings of the coat of arms’ from families in the region.  The church was so much more impressive than the first one we visited that day, but unfortunately we had to rush back to the bus less than 15 minutes later in order to catch the bus back to our train to Brno.  I’d love to return to visit the town for more time, especially St. Barbara’s, but that day we continued our journey southeast to the city of Brno.

 

Inside St. Barbara’s Church

 

St. Barbara’s Church

 

Prague – the beginning of a whirlwind trip through Central Europe

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, so I’ve decided to start chronicling past travels again.  So far, I’ve covered my most recent adventures in South America, but those are only a few of the experiences I’ve had abroad in the past few years.  This will be the first of many posts about my 7-month study abroad turned Round The World trip that spanned 17 countries on 4 continents.

It all started with Prague.

A little background: Following my return from a field school in Bolivia in the summer of 2013 (which I’m sure I’ll cover eventually), I began searching for field schools in bioarchaeology to attend the next summer.  Well, talking with a grad student from UNC introduced me to Archaeotek, which had a bioarchaeology field school and osteology program that was affordable!  After applying and getting accepted, as well as my friend Tiffany from uni (who I’m sure will see this, hi!), we began planning a short backpacking trip across Central Europe —because the flight is the most expensive part, you might as well enjoy Europe once you’re there!

Prague was chosen as the entry point into Europe.  There was one reason that we chose this city, Sedlec Ossuary, otherwise known as the Bone Church (though the cheap flights didn’t hurt).  On Memorial Day, we left Chicago O’Hare on separate flights, mine being on LOT Polish Airlines, and arrived in Prague at roughly the same time the following afternoon.  I had the exit row window seat on my flight from Chicago to Warsaw, which was great not only for sleeping, but also listening to Of Monsters and Men while flying over Iceland and Scandinavia and feeling like I was in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  Anyway, after barely catching my connecting flight to Prague (thanks LOT for the unnecessary delays!), I arrived and met Tiffany at the airport in the early afternoon.

 

Flying over the motherland and blasting OMAM

 

Warsaw->Prague

 

Getting to the city from the airport is not an easy task when you don’t speak Czech and haven’t slept well in 24 hours.  After questioning all the information agents, we made it to our hostel after taking the bus to the metro — where we couldn’t find the ticket machine — and then wandering around in circles at the entrance to Muztek metro station to figure out with of the roads went the right direction.

Our hostel, Hostel HOMEr, was located in an old Renaissance era building right around the corner from the Old Town Square and Astronomical Clock.  I don’t think I could have asked for a better first hostel experience than this; our room was on the top floor of the building and had a small window that overlooked an enclosed courtyard and the wonderful Italian restaurant on the first floor.  Once we checked in and dropped off our bags, we began our two days of adventuring in Prague.

 

Hostel porch nook

Walking into Prague’s Old Town Square for the first time is probably one of the most memorable travel experiences.  The light from the late afternoon sun illuminated the old and colorful buildings with a warm yellow light, which really accentuated the beautiful architecture around the plaza.  I can’t think of a better place to first step foot in Europe, I don’t think there’s a more beautiful city on the continent.

 

Astronomical Clock

 

First glimpse of Prague

Once we were finished admiring the square, we started wandering aimlessly through the convoluted streets of the Old City.  We walked by marionette shops, old synagogues, and even a creepy Prada ad which had eyes that seemed to follow you wherever you walked.  Eventually we stumbled across the Charles Bridge around sunset, on which walked about halfway across before turning around and visiting a nearby church on our way back to the hostel to find food.  There were some fire dancers in the square by our hostel, which we watched briefly but were too hungry to stay for long.  After a delicious homemade Italian meal at the restaurant under the hostel, we crashed for the night in what was probably one of the best sleeps ever (food coma + jet lag = bliss).

 

Aforementioned Prada ad

  
Believing we were sufficiently rested from travel and the previous day’s exploring, we had a semi-late start for our only full day in the city (in hindsight, this was terrible planning on my part — prospective visitors, you need at least 3 days unless you hate yourself and like climbing stairs all day).  It was a cloudy and wet day, which seemed to be a theme for the entire week.  Our first stop was the Astronomical Clock tower, since it was literally a 2 minute walk from our hostel.  The views from the tower are some of the best in Prague.  You can see the red roofs of the old city in all directions, as well as the numerous church steeples that are found across the city.  The rain caused the roof tiles to look especially red that day, which made the scene that much more impressive.

View from the clocktower

We headed to Wenceslas Square next, which took about 5 times longer than it should have because I had yet to understand navigating old European cities at that point.  We only stayed for a few minutes before leaving to do other things, like the super fun Museum of Torture, which is such a tourist trap but oh so entertaining to visit (who doesn’t like medieval torture instruments?!).

 

Wenceslas Square

By lunchtime, we made it to the famous Old Jewish Cemetery, which has gravestones stacked on gravestones in all directions in this small patch of land in the center of the Jewish Quarter.  The graves were in various states of decay, with green mosses and lichens slowly enveloping the Hebrew etched stones which lay along the ground.  This was the first of many Jewish memorials which we visited in Central Europe.  We spent a great deal of time here and the accompanying museum admiring the different types of memorials and the sheer number of graves in the small cemetery.

 

Closely placed gravestones in the Jewish Cemetery

Continuing on the quest of seeing all the major sites of Prague in the least efficient way possible, we visited the Lennon Wall near the Charles Bridge.  The wall has been covered with graffiti for decades, most often quotes or images of John Lennon.  There were tons of symbols and writings from exchange students, couples, and backpackers who wanted to leave their mark on the ever changing wall (a few months after we left, someone came in and painted the entire thing white as a modern art piece — it didn’t last long like that).


Thanks to Atlas Obscura, I had one last memorial I needed to visit to complete my list of must sees in Prague — the Memorial to the Victims of Communism.  This memorial is located in a park not too far from the Lennon Wall, but isn’t often visited by tourists.  It is composed of a haunting series of statues that appear to be slowly melting away the further back it goes.  The memorial reads “The Memorial to the Victims of Communism is dedicated to all victims, not only those who were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism.”


At this point in the day, about mid-afternoon, we had yet to eat lunch and Tiffany was about to kill me since we hadn’t seen a restaurant that wasn’t really overpriced in quite a while.  Personally, I can go an entire day without eating when I’m traveling because I’m so interested in doing stuff I just forget to eat.  This is not the case for Tiffany, and I learned this fact that day after receiving death glares for hours.  We stopped at the first restaurant we saw across from the park and had three courses, including these wonderful Nutella crepes which we still discuss to this day.

Having settled the hunger issue, we continued onward toward Prague Castle.  Along the way, we encountered another tower viewpoint, which I could never resist climbing, much to the dismay of Tiffany.  This particular viewpoint had artists’ depictions of Czech horror stories along the rooms going up the tower, which were unfortunately entirely in Czech and therefore completely useless to me.  The view from the top, however, made up for the disappointing displays.  It gave a spectacular panorama of the city on the side of the river opposite the Old Square, as well as the Charles Bridge.


After descending the tower, we climbed back up the seemingly endless stairs to the top of Prague Castle.  We got lost a couple times on the way up and ended up by some embassies and consulates before finding the correct road to the top.  Unfortunately, the castle was already closed for visitors by the time we made it to the top, so we wandered the castle grounds and around the nearby St. Vitus cathedral for an hour or so before heading back down to Charles Bridge to walk across the entire bridge to take photos and head back to the Old Town Square.  After walking for miles and climbing innumerable towers, we stopped back at the hostel to rest for a bit and ended up passing out until late the following day, when we left Prague for Brno, via Kutna Hora, home of the infamous Sedlec Ossuary.

 

St. Vitus Cathedral

 

Charles Bridge

 

Buenos Aires – one week in the spectacular Argentine capital

Buenos Aires is an amazing city with a great energy and culture about it. Founded in the early 1500s, the city has a deep Spanish history and long tradition of immigrants from all over Europe, making it the “melting pot” of South America.  
I arrived in BA from Ushuaia in the early afternoon on a Friday and spent an entire week in that great city. The districts are so varied and each have their own little culture and style. It’s a very walkable city, though the metro and bus systems are so cheap and easy to navigate it’s hard not to use them! Since I spent a while here I’ll split it into chunks to make it easier to read (and write!). 

  • Buenos Aires has a number of free walking tours that are excellent. I did two with the same company and had a great time on both. The morning tour went through the Recoleta district, while the second focused on the centre and the classic sites.    
    National Congress Building
      
    The obelisk from near Plaza de Mayo
      
  • The Recoleta Cemetery is a large and gorgeous cemetery in the fancy Recoleta district. The mausoleums are all for the rich and famous, including the former president’s wife Eva Peron. This is probably the #1 thing to see in BA. I spent a good amount of time looking at the large graves (and inside the ones that were cracked open!).   
    Recoleta cemetery
      
    Grave of Eva Peron
       
  • Buenos Aires has the largest number of bookstores per capita in the world.  It’s easy o spend a day popping into the many used bookstores around the city.  My favorite was El Ateno Grand Splendid, which is housed in an old theatre!   
    El Ateno Grand Splendid
  • Plaza de Mayo and the nearby area has a lot of the main attractions of the city, such as the Jesuit church and the cathedral. I managed to accidentally attend the beginning of a mass in the church when trying to see the inside (but the Pope used to live here, so that’s cool).    
    The Pink House
      
    Buenos Aires Cathedral
      
    Jesuit Church in Plaza de Mayo
     
  • The La Boca neighborhood is the colorful part of the city always shown in postcards. What they don’t show, however, is how disgustingly touristy the whole area is. I didn’t particularly care for it, but unfortunately the surrounding area is so dangerous it’s not possibly to explore the less traveled parts to get a true feel for the district.   
    The famous Caminito
        
    Tourist centre of La Boca
     
  • If you need to change US Dollars to Pesos, Florida Street is the place to go. Just talk to the least sketchy person yelling “cambio, cambio” and they’ll take you into a little kiosk to change money. At the time of writing the Dolar Blue rate was 15.86 to $1, which is way better than the official 9.33 to $1.    
    Florida street
     
  • The hipster Palermo district is the place to be if you’re looking for good food and bars in Buenos Aires. The old part of the city is really nice with its quirky cafes and cobblestone streets. I spent an afternoon walking around the district and it was a nice way to spend a relaxing day. There are a large series of parks that connect Palermo and Recoleta that are great to wander about for an afternoon. The Japanese Garden is especially nice. There’s also a park with a metal sculpture shaped as a flower which supposedly opens/closes during day/night. 
    Palermo street art
       
  • The National History Museum in San Telmo (in Spanish only) was nice for killing a bit of time in the neighborhood. I went on a Wednesday and it was free, though the 20 peso entry fee isn’t too bad for the days it isn’t.   
    National History Museum
     
  • The San Telmo district, like Palermo, is also really nice to wander around. There are lots of antique shops around, and every Sunday there is a huge weekend market where you can buy anything old and vintage.  
    Shops in San Telmo
      
    San Telmo Market
     
  • For a piece of BA history, spend some time in Cafe Tortoni, the oldest cafe in Buenos Aires. The submarino there was excellent, and they have free wifi! I wouldn’t recommend having lunch there, but it’s great for a hot drink and a dessert.     
    Cafe Tortoni
     
  • If you want a cheap and excellent Argentine steakhouse, you must go to Las Cabras in Palermo. I went twice, first alone and then with friends. The first time I had the “Gran Bife Las Cabras” which was a steak with all sorts of sides like pumpkin, rice, and fries. The second time, I came with a friend I met in Puerto Varas, the German guys I saw everywhere, and an American girl from my hostel. Three of us split the parrillada completo, which had a number of steaks, chicken, sausages, blood sausage, intestines, liver, and a side of fries. While I wasn’t a fan of the innards, the rest was amazing and totally worth ordering.   
    Gran Bife Las Cabras
      
    Full Parrillada
     
  • Burger Joint in Palermo has amazing burgers for a really great price (60 pesos for a burger or 90 for a meal). The goat cheese and arugula burger was amazing, as was the Jamaican. 
    Burger Joint
       

I didn’t do anything particularly touristy in Buenos Aires, and visited almost none of the famous museums, buildings, or theatres, but I had an amazing time. I could very easily see myself living in this city at some point. Unfortunately I’m at the end of my trip, so I have to say goodbye and head to my 25th country, Uruguay!

El Calafate and Ushuaia – five days in Argentine Patagonia 

El Calafate is a town in Argentina known for one thing – Perito Moreno glacier. This is the world’s only glacier which is not shrinking, but rather at a state of equilibrium. At the far south of the country lies the city of Ushuaia, the southernmost city on earth. In contrast to the rest of Patagonia, Ushuaia was covered in a thick layer of snow and slush. Because of this, during the winter months the town is alive with skiers and snowboarders from around the world.  
My first sight in Argentina was the Perito Moreno Glacier. I had to take a tour to the glacier from Puerto Natales, Chile, in order to see it at all, as I had to change my plans due to lack of buses. This involved a 7 AM bus, a very easy border crossing in the middle of nowhere, and a very long and convoluted route to El Calafate before continuing to the glacier.  

 

Chilean border office
  
Crossing into Argentina
 We got to the glacier at about 3 PM and had two hours to wander around the many boardwalks and viewpoints. Since I brought lunch with me, I went straight for the boardwalks instead of eating in the very overpriced cafeteria attached to the visitor centre, and it was perfect. Just as I made it to the first viewpoint, I heard a large crash and saw a huge chunk of ice calving off the glacier and fall into the lake below. It was impressive, especially since the snow was falling so hard I could barely see the glacier in the first place, but this part was crystal clear. The snow cleared up after about 40 minutes, showing much of the 14 kilometers of ice behind the front cliffs. In warmer and clearer weather, I think that 2 hours would not be enough to enjoy the entire area, but with cold and snow it was plenty.  

 

The barely visible glacier
  
Perito Moreno glacier once the snow let up
  
The boardwalks
  
The ice is extremely blue
 The bus left for El Calafate at about 5, and we made it back a little after 6. I was the only one who was staying in the city, so I got dropped off at the gas station and walked to my hostel. I stayed at America del Sur and it was incredible. They have heated floors. HEATED FLOORS. After freezing in Bolivia and then again in Patagonia, heated flooring was pretty much the greatest thing. The staff was great, breakfast was included, and it was so warm. When I got here, I also ran into my French friend from the previous two towns and the Brazilian guy from my hostel in Puerto Natales.  

 

Shops in El Calafate
 
I spent the last hour of daylight walking around the downtown area of El Calafate. It’s super touristy, but unlike Puerto Natales, it was actually open! There were lots of crazy overpriced tourist shops and restaurants, but the area was nice enough to make up for it. I went back to the hostel after dark and then went to dinner with my Brazilian friend at a nearby restaurant which was recommended by the hostel. I hadn’t eaten in a restaurant in a few weeks so I was ready so spend a bit more than normal. The place we went was the #1 in town and quite upscale, and the food was incredible. I had a huge portion of Patagonian lamb in a calafate sauce (it’s a local berry). By the time it was all said and done I spent 300 pesos ($20 at the blue dollar rate) but it was worth it!

 

Patagonian lamb dinner
 
The next afternoon, after dealing with the hassle of cancelled flights and talking with customer service in Spanish, I flew to Ushuaia. The flight was short, though it was almost prolonged due to a snowstorm at the airport when we were about to land. We ended up landing 20 minutes early somehow and I made it to my hostel by 4. I just walked around the centre for a bit and saw the city for the first day, which was quite nice. The “Fin Del Mundo” sign was only 2 blocks from the hostel, so it was very conveniently located for walking about. The park along the waterfront was really nice, though my photos kept getting bombed by ski teams from random countries (especially the Polish team) who were in the city for a competition.  

 

Lago Argentino from Above
  
Ticket vendors along the Ushuaia streets
  
It’s the End of the World!
 
The next day I decided to go winter hiking in Tierra del Fuego National Park. On the way to the bus station, I had my passport stamped with an “End of the World” stamp at the information centre near the port. The bus to the park was an outrageous 300 pesos ($20 at the blue rate) though it was only 15 km. However, the park was worth the cost. When I arrived, it was snowing quite hard but it quickly let up, with only random heavy downbursts of snow throughout the trek. I spent most of the walk with an older Argentine couple who both had studied some English and wanted to practice, so we had an interesting talk in basic English with Spanish to fill in the blanks. The hiking circuit took about 3 hours, at the end of which was an overpriced cafe for the cold and wet hikers who spent the day in the park. I caught the next bus and made it to the hostel by 4, where I spent the rest of the day keeping warm in the lounge area. I also met a group of Filipino travelers at the hostel and spent most of the night hanging out with them.  

 

Tierra del Fuego National Park
  
   
The following morning, I slept in way longer than anticipated, but when I finally made it to the lobby, my German friends I had run into so many times were checking into the hostel. Since they showed up, we ended up all trying to hike to the Glaciar Martial but had to turn around near the top due to the weather and the sun going down. The walk wasn’t bad though, just a bit slushy in the streets. We made it back by nightfall and I went to bed early, as I had an early flight to Buenos Aires the following morning.  

 

Shopping streets
  
Stranded ship in the port
  
Mountainous landscape surrounding the city
  
So close to Antarctica!
 

Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales – five days exploring Chilean Patagonia 

Punta Arenas is the gateway city to Chilean Patagonia.  The city is the southernmost in Chile, and is the capital of the Magellanes district.  It has the only airport in the region, making it the first stop for anyone flying into Chilean Patagonia. Puerto Natales is a much smaller town located just north of Punta Arenas, and is the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park and the rest of the trekking opportunities in Chilean Patagonia.

I arrived in Punta Arenas  after a three hour flight from Puerto Montt.  Getting to my hostel, Hostal 53 Sur, was easy with the cheap transfer bus at the airport.  The staff was really friendly and the hostel was wonderfully warm – much unlike the cold and windy weather outside.  Since it was late, I cooked dinner and went to bed early, as I planned to see the city the following morning before heading to Puerto Natales.
I was pleasantly surprised by a pancake breakfast in the morning, apparently included in the hostel fee for the night.  I also met up with a French girl who was also staying in the hostel and we ended up touring the city together.  After we bought our bus tickets to Puerto Natales, we first headed toward the viewpoint of the city.  We ended up missing the main viewpoint, but found a different one that was still really nice.  From here we walked toward the cemetery, stopping in a cathedral along the way (where we accidentally let some stray dogs inside).
Downtown Punta Arenas
Punta Arenas is known for its interesting cemetery, which has a wide variety of families located inside.  Interestingly, the main gate is closed permanently at the request of the woman who financed the cemetery – she wanted to be the last one to enter it when she died, so there is a side entrance now.  Since the city was heavily populated with people from all over Europe, the names on the gravestones are extremely varied.

Colorful gravestones in the cemetery
After the cemetery we went toward the seashore to walk along the coastal sidewalk.  The wind was really intense there and was almost strong enough to hold you up if you fell into it.  We walked along the water toward the city centre, where we went to escape the crazy wind and to see the last part of the city.  The centre is a really nice area, with many statues and memorials scattered throughout its many plazas.  The centerpiece of the Plaza de Armas is a large statue of Ferdinand Magellan, who the region was named after.  I walked back to the hostel from here to make lunch, splitting from my friend who went to buy some food, and ended up finding the actual mirador along the way.  The view was really nice as it was aligned with the streets, giving a better view of the buildings and the ocean.  In the late afternoon, I caught the bus to Puerto Natales, located 3 hours to the north.

Monument along the seashore

Monument of Magellan in the Plaza de Armas

Punta Arenas from the mirador
I made it to Puerto Natales fairly late in the evening and walked to my hostel, The Singing Lamb.  The place was pretty empty the entire time I was there, which was kinda weird but the hostel was really nice so it was fine.  The next day I set out to explore the town.  There really isn’t much to it, other than the main plaza and the seaside walk.  Most of the stores and hostels were closed for the off season, making it seem very dead during my entire visit.  The waterfront, however, was absolutely stunning and worth spending a day there just to see.  The wind was really strong (as in all of Patagonia) so the waves were quite large.  The water is overshadowed by large snow-capped mountains and the ever changing sky.  I spent hours along the water listening to music and relaxing, at least until I froze from the wind.  Later in the afternoon, I managed to run into the German guys who were on my Salar de Uyuni tour in Bolivia a few weeks earlier – they were staying in the same hostel as the French girl from Punta Arenas, which was crazy. I ended up spending the evening having dinner at their hostel and chatting until fairly late.

Ship docked in the waters off Puerto Natales

Broken ship on shore outside of town

The old dock in Puerto Natales

Gorgeous sunset along the ocean
Early the next morning I took a day tour to Torres del Paine National Park, one of the most famous places in Patagonia. Unfortunately, just before my hostel pickup came, I had a catastrophic incident with my camera which left it unusable (in case you didn’t already know: DSLR + water = bad time for everyone).   It wasn’t a very great weather day to visit TdP, so while the tour was incredible and the landscape gorgeous, I was only able to see the famous towers for about 5 minutes of the whole day we were there.  The waterfalls and glacial ice were really great though, and the place we stopped to eat lunch had a  spectacular view of a lake and the mountains.  On the way out of the park we went to Mylodon Cave, which is a giant cave where they found remnants of the Mylodon (a giant sloth like creature that lived in Patagonia until about 10,000 years ago), as well as evidence of prehistoric human occupation in the region.  The stop wasn’t too long but it was quite interesting nonetheless.  As soon as we arrived back in Puerto Natales, I made supper and then had an intense conversation about archaeology, anthropology, and everything else with a girl from Germany – which is exactly one of the reasons I love traveling so much.

Waterfall on Rio Paine

Torres del Paine

Suspension bridge on the trail to Lago Grey

Ice from Glacier Grey in Lago Grey

Mylodon cave

Mylodon statue in the cave
The following day I had planned on leaving to Argentina, but due to bus scheduling problems (i.e. there are no Sunday buses), I ended up doing nothing but rest and catching up on things like blog posts for the entire day.  I had to book a tour to Perito Moreno glacier from Puerto Natales rather than taking the normal bus due to this problem, leaving me with an extra day and nothing to do (especially since literally everything else was closed since it was Sunday).  It all worked out though, and the next morning I was on the bus to El Calafate, Argentina!

Puerto Varas and the Lakes District – tranquil German villages and snow capped volcanoes 

Puerto Varas is a charming little town on Lake Llanquique in the Lakes Region of Chile.  This area is the beginning of Patagonia, and it’s a perfect place to begin a trip through the region.
I arrived in Puerto Varas after an overnight bus from Santiago.  The weather was miserable when I arrived, and the walk to the hostel from the bus station was a very wet ordeal – which was made longer by the marathon taking place on the road I needed to use to get to the hostel. I made it eventually, cold and wet, and the Margouya Patagonia hostel was a welcome relief with its warm sitting area and log cabin atmosphere.  After warming up a bit and waiting for the rain to subside, I took a walk around the thoroughly drenched town and along the lakeshore.  The town was quaint, with a blend of authentic and touristy shops and restaurants.  I didn’t get too much of a chance to walk around though as the rain came back with a fierce vengeance after about an hour so I made my way back to the hostel.

Large metal statue along the waterfront

Puerto Varas

The church in Puerto Varas

Colorful houses on a rainy day
The following morning was a completely different story.  The sun was shining and the sky was clear and blue.  After breakfast I walked toward the bus stop to visit Vincente Rosales Perez National Park in nearby Petrohue. When I got the to bus stop, I ran into two Brazilian guys who were also at my hostel so we all went to the park together.  When we arrived after the hour-long bus ride, we grabbed a quick lunch by Lake Todos Los Santos and went to the trail.  The first few kilometers of trail was mostly forest walking, but after that it suddenly opened up to stunning views of Osorno Volcano, which is located at the edge of the park.  Continuing further up the trail and toward the volcano, there was a magnificent viewpoint of Lake Todos Los Santos and the mountains surrounding it.  We headed back down the trail and toward another mirador, with equally impressive views, before taking the trail down a dried alluvial river bed toward the lake.  While the views from the first two miradors were impressive, the scene at the lake was outstanding. The blue water was crystal clear and waveless, causing the mountainous landscape surrounding it to reflect off the surface.  It was very hard to leave the beauty of that place.  However, we were running dangerously close to the time of the last bus back to Puerto Varas, and still had 4 kilometers to get back.  We had so little time we had to run most of the final 2 kilometers in order to make it back by the time (we were told) the last bus left.  We made it just in time, just to find out the bus didn’t arrive for another half an hour.  It was nice to have time to crash after the run through the sandy trails, but it would’ve been nicer to avoid the entire run altogether.  In any case, we got on the bus and made it back to Puerto Varas for a stunning sunset from the lakeshore.

Lago Todos Los Santos

Volcan Osorno from Vincente Perez Rosales National Park

Lago Todos Los Santos in Vincente Perez Rosales NP

A man fishing at sunset in Puerto Varas
The next day, I decided to visit the neighboring town of Frutillar.  Frutillar is a little German inspired village located a short distance north of Puerto Varas, still along the lakeshore. The local bus cost $1 each way, so it was a nice place to take a cheap trip.  The village is famous for its decidedly German architecture, as well as Teatro del Lago, a stunning theatre situated over Lago Llanquique.  I spent some time wandering the streets and around the theatre; however, the town was mostly closed down as it was the off season so I didn’t find it especially interesting to visit.  After about an hour and a half I headed back to Puerto Varas, where I had lunch before heading south to Puerto Montt.

Theatre on the Lake in Frutillar

Dock and Volcan Osorno in Frutillar
Puerto Montt was also a $1 bus ride away, this time to the south and the Pacific Coast.  The local bus arrived right to the bus terminal, which was very conveniently located along the shore in the downtown area.  The city is much larger and industrial than Puerto Varas, and had a much more touristy atmosphere.  There were tons of shopping malls and tourist shops in the downtown core, especially around the main plaza.  There wasn’t anything especially appealing about the city, so I didn’t stay too long here either.  I made my way back to Puerto Varas for dinner and ended up having a great conversation at my hostel with people from the UK, Germany, Austria, Peru, and Brazil until after 3 AM!

Since I was flying out in the afternoon, I didn’t have time to do anything else on my last day in Puerto Varas.  I took the bus to Puerto Montt around noon and from there the bus to the airport for my flight to Punta Arenas – my first stop in Patagonia!

Puerto Montt coastline

          Puerto Montt

Santiago – The highly underrated capital of Chile

Santiago, Chile, is generally not at the top of any list of best cities, but I loved it. The city doesn’t really have any amazing sites nor is it very pretty, but it has some intangible spirit that makes it fantastic. The atmosphere of the city is addictive and draws you in. I regret only spending three days in the city, as it doesn’t do it justice.

Santiago from Cerro San Cristobal

I made it to Santiago after the short bus ride back from Valparaiso. I stayed in a hostel only a few metro stops from the bus station so it was really easy to get to. After I checked in and dropped off my stuff, I rushed to the centre for the 3 PM Tours4Tips walking tour, where I met up with another friend who I met in Bolivia that lives in Santiago. This tour went to all the traditional locations in central Santiago, such as La Moneda, the Ministry of Justice, the Plaza de Armas, and various central neighborhoods. When we reached La Moneda, the guide gave us a history of Chile and its coup d’état which occurred in the 1973. The country is still recovering from the decades of military rule under Pinochet, whose regime killed and tortured thousands. The tour ended soon after this talk, and my friend and I headed to her apartment to play Dutch Blitz and eat. Along the way we stopped at a sopaipilla stand, which is a disk of dough that’s deep fried and covered in sauces (spicy salsa and garlic sauce are the best). After playing cards we went to a sushi bar to have dinner which was a fantastic surprise after not having sushi in months.

La Moneda
New York Street
Sopaipilla with spicy salsa and garlic sauce
Salmon tempura and shrimp sushi

The following morning I went to the 10 AM Tours4Tips walking tour, which went to the non-touristy parts of the city. This included visiting the various markets of the city, such as the Mercado Central seafood market, La Vega, and Little La Vega. After the markets we headed to the cemetery to hear the history of the city, see the grave of a local “animita,” and visit the grave of Salvador Allende, the president who was overthrown in the coup d’état in 73. Here again we had a history lesson about the past few decades. The tour ended here and I went with another person from the tour to have lunch at Mercado Central. The food here was spectacular – fresh seafood for reasonable prices. I had Machas a la Parmigiana, which was razor clams covered in parmesan cheese and baked. When we finished lunch we returned to the centre and parted ways, as I needed to return to my hostel. I attempted to go to Cerro San Cristobal a few hours later, but missed the last tram by 5 minutes. I had my second Chilean food staple on the way back though, the completo. This is a hot dog covered in generally obscene amounts of mayonnaise, avocado, and tomatoes. Thankfully the place I ate had a reasonable amount of all of the toppings so it was actually not too bad. Later I met up with my two friends again for cards that night and had more sopaipillas, before having to take the metro back to my hostel.

Seafood for sale in Mercado Central
Fruit vendor posing for a photo in La Vega Market
Ornate masoleums in the cemetery
Machas a la Parmiagana
My first “completo”

My last day in Santiago was the busiest. In the morning I walked from my hostel to the Plaza de Armas to visit the history museum, which described the early history of the country until 1970. After visiting the museum I walked across the river to Little La Vega to buy a fresh cherimoya-mango juice in the market and then walked to Cerro San Cristobal. This hill is the largest in Santiago and has the best viewpoint of the city. Since it was the weekend, the tram to the top was double the price and extremely crowded, so I chose to walk to the top. It took about an hour but the view along the way wasn’t too bad. The views of the city and the mountains from the top, however, were spectacular. The city was weirdly smogless that day, so the whole skyline was visible under the clear sunny skies. After climbing back down I walked to another hill, Cerro Saint Lucia. This hill is much shorter but has a great viewpoint from the castle-like building located on the top. From here I walked back to my hostel, stopping in the parks and interesting places along the way. I went to the bus station a little early to meet up with my friend one last time and have a churrasco, which is the third popular Chilean food. This is a beef sandwich with tomato, avocado, and mayo (very popular on everything here). We parted ways just before my bus left and I got on my overnight bus to Puerto Varas, located in the south of Chile in the Lakes District.

Plaza de Armas
Cherimoya-Mango smoothie from Little La Vega
Cerro San Cristobal
Cerro Santa Lucia
Churrasco