OK, I admit it: I played hooky from the Baptist World Alliance meetings on Wednesday. I skipped the half-hour 8:00 a.m. worship time, bypassed a Theological Education and Leadership Commission meeting (I'll be at the others), and didn't get back in time for a Peace and Justice discussion that I'd hoped to attend.
But I'd do it again. How can one sit just a few miles from the amazing Andes mountains and not venture into their snowy peaks? What's not soul-stirring about that? I felt it was my bound obligation to "get thee unto those hills," so I celebrated July 4 by signing up for an "Andes Panoramico" bus tour, joining a few other BWA session-skippers and a whole bunch of Brazilians (Chile's biggest source of tourists) on an excursion into the mountains.
Santiago is located in a bowl between parts of three mountain ranges: we were headed into the Andes, which run south-to-north along South America's spine, reaching heights of up to 21,000 feet. (Note: any of the pictures will expand if clicked).
After a frustrating hour-and-a-half of riding one bus to catch another bus in a mall parking lot, and then stopping for unprepared folks to rent cold weather gear, we headed northeast of the city, then due east into the mountains along a narrow, winding road. Our guide kept reminding us (kindly translating for the three English speakers on board) that the road had "61 curves."
That doesn't sound so bad, but the road has at least a thousand curves: the notable part was 61 hairpin turns with few guardrails in evidence, all so memorable that they're numbered on roadside signs. The road isn't wide enough for two vehicles to make the switchback turns at the same time, so standard procedure is for the descending vehicle to stop and give right-of-way to cars, trucks, or buses that are on their way up.
All of those turns allowed us to climb from Santiago's 1500-1700 ft. altitude to almost 10,000 feet by the time we reached Valle Nevado. In between we stopped at a turnout for pictures and a not-so-comfortable cliff-hanging port-a-potty, then made our way to the scenic village of Farellones (pronounced Fair-eh-YOness), where we had a chance to walk around a bit, shake off motion sickness from the 40 hairpin turns behind us, and warm up with some thick chocolate caliente and papas fritas in a rustic restaurant heated by three wood stoves (a lot more heat than we had on the bus, where I kept my gloves on).
From Farellones upward for the last thousand feet in elevation, the ground was mainly covered with snow and ice, and the bus stopped once near an accessible slope so passengers could get out and play in it. Several of our fellow passengers had never seen snow, and it was fun watching them try to make snowballs from the icy crust and take pictures of each other holding chunks of the frozen stuff.
By the time we reached Valle Nevado (Spanish for "Snow Valley"), the snow was not just on the ground, but pouring down: we simply drove into a snow cloud, and the mountains around us disappeared completely. From a parking lot three turns below the lodge, we transferred to another bus for the last kilometer or so (we had to ride an open truck on the way back to the parking lot -- speaking of cold). At the top, we found a large hotel surrounded by a collection of crowded and pricey restaurants, a big ski-equipment shop, and a store selling souvenir gear.
I was really glad I had not signed up to ski or rented any equipment, because I couldn't see any of the lifts, much less the mountain or the ski trails -- not even the very bottom. If I'd gotten to the top of the mountain, I might never have found my way back.
The itinerary gave us a good two hours at the lodge, but with nothing to look at beyond a white fog of snow, I was happy I'd brought my laptop along just in case, betting Wifi would be available to keep me company and to get started on this blog during a leisurely lunch. It wasn't fireworks, but I won't forget being able to touch base with a few friends and family members by e-mail in the middle of a snowstorm at 10,000 feet on the fourth of July.
Though I suppose blogging counts as Wednesday work, on Thursday my nose comes out of the snow and back to the grindstone with a number of sessions to attend, including the North American Baptist Fellowship, happily meeting in South America. I'm sure, however, that I won't be the only one going back to work...