October 2015

Day 0

My Dad got invited to review a University department at a University in Santiago, Chile. Because he agreed to go, they flew him and me down to Chile for a couple of days. We rendezvoused in Toronto for our flight down to Santiago, Chile, and chowed down on a bunch of home-made sandwiches, veggies, and cookies that my Mom sent.


We took the red-eye from Toronto to Santiago and arrived around 10am in Santiago, local time. We took a taxi to our hotel, the Hotel Plaza San Francisco.

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We walked around downtown Santiago. Our final destination was the Cerro San Cristobal (a hill/park in the middle of the city). It was a Sunday, and very empty. It was incredible comparing the emptiness on Sunday to the extreme crowdedness/liveliness downtown on any other day of the week. It was packed every other day.



We stopped for lunch in a French-style restaurant.

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I quickly began to realize that there is relatively little English-speaking in Chile, compared to other places I’ve been before where English is not the first language. I was extremely impressed with Dad’s Spanish. Also, it was a surprise at first looking at the menu because the prices are all in pesos.

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Here is Cerro San Cristobal from a distance.


We took the funicular up to the top.


We got some candied popcorn and peanuts from a street vendor. The peanuts are very popular throughout Santiago, and smell like waffles. There was music playing in the plaza, and the atmosphere was very festive.


There are stray dogs everywhere in Chile!


A few views of Santiago:




We went home for a nap and ended up grabbing a late dinner.

Day 2

My Dad had work all day. I went on a tour up to the Andes! It was only me and one other guy, from Brazil. The tour drove through the moutains and stopped at a couple of ski resorts to let us walk around.



I walked around with the other guy on the tour. He was very excited to see snow, which was funny for me. Then we saw a lady taking a break from skiing, sitting on the side of the trail. She had her skis off. The guy went and asked her if it would be ok for him to pose for a photo with her skis, so it would look like he was skiing. But he didn’t realize that skis have a front and a back end, so when he was lining them up he put them “on” backwards :p We told him before I took the photo for him.


We were very lucky with the timing of the tour, because soon after we left the first stop it started fogging over, and you couldn’t see more than 20ft. The mountains were completely obscured. On our way down, we stopped in one spot to see the view. There was much less snow lower down.


When I got back to the hotel, I was freezing cold and it was rainy and grey, so I spent the remainder of the afternoon relaxing, having a small nap, reading a bit, and waiting for my Dad to come back.

When my Dad finished work, we headed out to the Bellavista neighbourhood for dinner, which is Santiago’s bohemian quarter. En route, my Dad saw a small hot dog restaurant and we stopped so he could get dinner #1.


Then we went on to where we where actually planning to eat. It was about a full block that was like a courtyard filled with restaurants and small trinket shops. We had a delicious dinner.


Then we walked around and found a new place for dessert, which ended up being next door. In particular, my Dad discovered “Frambuesa” drinks, which is a drink that is pretty much blended up raspberries.


Day 3

On day 3 my Dad was working again. I mostly walked around downtown, popped into a few shops. I got lunch, and was very proud of myself for ordering lunch in Spanish. I ordered a quesadilla, and I got a flakey pastry with sweet cheese stuff, which was totally not what I was expecting.

Later we went for a fancy dinner organized by the University. It was at a Polynesian themed restaurant.


After dinner there was singing and dancing. It was very extravagant.

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Day 4

The wife of one of the other professors doing the review invited me to go with her and her son to the crafts market in the morning. It was super fun! There were lots of odd little trinkets that were fun to look at, and I got a few souvenirs and a poncho for my Dad for his birthday. Then we had lunch. When we got back to the hotel, Dad was done work for the day. We frantically ran around trying to find him a bathing suit for when we would go to the Atacama, and then we ran back to the crafts market because I thought he would enjoy it. (for the pools). It was very rushed and very fun. I got a sweet sweater with Ilamas on it!

Then we got on a plane and flew to the Atacama desert. Sunset was very vibrant. We got in late at night to Calama and then had an hour long drive to San Pedro. Calama is mostly a mining city, fuelled by the company/workers running the Chuquicamata copper mine. This is the largest open pit copper mine in the world (~5km x 3km), and the second-deepest open pit mine in the world (~1km).

Day 5

We got up early (at 7:30) for breakfast. Our hotel was the Hotel Jireh, and it was very nice. Here are some pictures of the outside and inside. There was a long hallway that our rooms were off. And a pool!  San Pedro itself is built around a small desert oasis, as there is a small river that flows through. There isn’t enough water in that river to support the whole town, so much of the water is trucked in from other places like Calama. There is a lot of water usage controversy – the copper mine uses a huge amount of water, and it is causing problems for people who actually live there. Additionally, there are many extra workers and tourist coming into the area. Hotels and restaurants all have to pay extra for water.

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Here is the hotel from the outside. All the houses/hotels were behind big walls made of mud. They can make the walls out of mud because it essentially never rains. The Atacama desert is the driest place in the world, and in some places it hasn’t rained in over 700 years (which is as far back as we have rain records, so its likely actually longer).


We went to the ALMA observatory, which stands for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. The observatory is a partnership between Europe, North America, East Asia, and Chile.  The idea for ALMA was conceived in 1995 and the inauguration was in 2013. The antenna are located on the Chajnantor plateau, which is at an altitude of 5,000m. The North American and European agencies each contributed 25 antenna, and the East Asians donated 16. Each agency had their satellites constructed in their respective continents, for political and economic reasons. This means there are small differences between the different satellites. By having 66 antennas, they can stick them togther to act as a single huge antenna.

The Atacama desert was selected as the location for ALMA for several reasons. The high elevation of the Chajnantor plateau means there is less oxygen in the air that can absorb various electromagnetic wavelengths, and the dryness means there is less water vapour to absorb various electromagnetic wavelengths.  Additionally, Chile was receptive to the idea, and agreed to build the necessary infrastructure to support the operation (e.g. roads, water pipelines, etc). In return, 10% of research time available on ALMA antennas is allocated to Chilean researchers. Time is very competitive. They invite proposals for each new cycle of observations.

For each cycle of observations, there is a lot of work that goes into preparing the antenna array. For example, they have to decide how to space the antennas. Each antenna can receive only one band of electromagentic radiation, since the incoming radiation is too weak to be able to receive across all bands. This means that you can either cluster antennas very tightly, and set each antenna to pick up a different band, or you can space them far apart all on the same band but use them to get a wider picture.

Unfortunately we could not go up to the Chajnator plateau to see all the antenna – since it is at such high altitude, you have to pass a bunch of physicals to be cleared for access. We did get a tour of the facilities though. My favourite part was seeing the cryostat, which is what the antenna focuses and directs EM radiation into. They keep it at 4 degrees Celsius inside



We also popped by the control room, where they monitor the state of the antenna and makes plans for how to set them up and such.

Afterwards we went for lunch in San Pedro. After lunch, my Dad and I went for a quick bike ride around San Pedro. Then we met up with the rest of our group and drove to the Pukara de Quitor, which was a fortress originally built by the Atacamenos and later taken over by the Incas.




This is the view from the fortress. Archeologists have found human remains at the top of the big mountain on the left hand side of the photo. It is actually a volcano, and the Atacamenos used to perform human sacrifice rituals to appease the sun gods.


Valle de la Luna. It was my favourite part of the trip. It closes at 6, and while we technically got there a bit too late the guards still let us in. Right as we got there, it was super windy.







All the white stuff is salt. I licked a tiny bit and it was gross.











Right before sunset we saw this big hill that was a perfect place from which to watch the sunset. A subset of our group decided to try to make it up to the top for sunset. I ran, and the altitude and dryness hit me way harder than I thought it would. By the time I got to the top, I missed sunset (by only ~5min) but it was still beautiful. Due to the dryness of the air, I started coughing like crazy. Also, I was seriously worried I might start vomiting because I pushed too hard running, given the altitude. Since I’m in pretty good shape, I didn’t see that coming. Doing the equivalent at home would be no problem. It really surprised me.


Colours were amazing!








Later we went out for dinner. Dogs EVERYWHERE! Sometimes having a nice nap in the middle of the street.

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Then we went stargazing. Originally we were worried about whether it was safe, as in if we would get mugged wandering out in the dark. We were reassured by the hotel staff that there was nothing to worry about for humans… but to watch out for packs of wild dogs, since at night they all group together and get into hunting mode, and occasionally kill somebody. We set out, and it felt very weird purposely wandering off into dark streets. After a bit, one of the guys in our group joined us, and he knows San Pedro very well and he took us way far out to somewhere for really good stargazing. We saw the Magellanic clouds, which are the two blurry things. Each cloud is actually a galaxy. There are relatively few places on Earth where you can see these with your naked eyes. My dad took some really nice night photos.


We could also see the Milky Way.


Day 6

The next morning we were going to go to the Geysers de Tatio, but there was an accident the day before where a lady fell into a newly-made subsurface geyser that wasn’t supposed to be there …  so the police shut down the whole area for a few days until somebody could reassess where there is subsurface water. Instead we went to the Salt Flats. On our way we some some wild donkeys. They are descended from donkeys that were once used in the copper mine for hauling copper out. When the mine built a railroad to do so instead, they just let the donkeys go.



Here is a close up of the salt at the salt flats.







Bird footprints







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After that we flew back to Santiago.

Day 7

We had until about 5pm to wander around Santiago. We started by going to the PreColombian museum. Here are a couple of my favourites things we saw.

There were these old hats, and each tribe would make one style of hat and everybody in the tribe would wear it. So if you saw a stranger on the road or something, you instantly knew what tribe they were from.



These are wooden grave markers.


This is an Incan system for keeping track of who bought/owns what. Each string coming off the main one represent a certain family / individual. The number and types of knots tied along that string indicates how much they bought and what kind of stuff they bought, and therefore how much they owe.


This is a carving of Cai Cai and Tren Tren. According to the Mapuche people, Tren Tren was the ruler of  Earth, and Cai Cai the ruler of the sea. Cai Cai was angry at people, because he felt they did not appreciate the seas enough, so he hit the water with his tail and caused massive flooding of the land. In response, Tren Tren ordered the mountains to rise up to protect people against the flooding. The two went back and forth fighting, causing tidal waves and earthquakes, and shaping the native land as it is today. Both are reptiles (Cai Cai is a sea serpent, I don’t know what Tren Tren is).


This is a sculpture of an Incan ruler. I loved it! His face seems so dopey.


After that we went for a very nice lunch on an outdoor patio, and then wandered around the city. We passed through a few markets, and generally just wandered around. It was packed. Below is a bridge. Under the umbrellas are women selling ceviche (a raw fish dish).


Downtown Santiago.


A market photo.


I was feeling tired and thirsty, so we stopped for some DELICIOUS pineapple juice. The sun was so warm and it was great.


My dad took a beautiful photo of some artichokes.


Then we ran by the Moneda very quickly, which is the Chilean parliament building. It was a nice building, but we couldn’t really see much. Panorama by my Dad (I’m on the left in blue).


On the way back to the hotel, we got this local drink from a street vendor. It was water that had this weird fruity thing sitting in it, and then they put in these little pellet things in the bottom. It tasted kind of like water with figs in it.


Then we heading back to the hotel and got a cab to the airport. After security they had boxes where you could see all the confiscated items. Some were funny, and some were like “how on earth did they think they would get that through?”